Boxing Across the Nation: Georgia – The Tragic Story of Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams
Boxing has been apart of the American sports scene since the 1700s by way of England. It started by infiltrating the larger port towns before eventually working its way into the lexicon of America. Now it showcases some of the most talented combat sports athletes in the world. We will embark on a 50 part saga exploring the best boxers representing the United States. Some states will have more athletes to choose from than others but the journey will be quite the ride. Let’s embark on the journey looking at an interesting fighter or bout from each state.
Check out the nine states we have covered by clicking below:
State ten in our Boxing Across the Nation journey brings us to Georgia. As with many southern states, Georgia is home to many of the sport’s greatest. Arguably the greatest boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson, was born in Georgia. It’s also home to greats like Ezzard Charles and the last holder of the World Colored Light Heavyweight Championship, Lee Anderson. The point of the series is to look at the fighters and events fans may not be as familiar with. Every boxing fan knows about Sugar Ray Robinson. Only so much can be written on these older, well-known legends. A fighter who was extremely dangerous both in and out of the ring, fight fans may not be aware of, is Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams.
Early Life and Finding Boxing
On June 30, 1933, Cleveland Williams was born in Griffin, Georgia. Griffin is a part of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Williams dropped out of school in the seventh grade and began working in the paper mill at age 12. “I came out of a town where there were no boxing gyms,” Williams told Boxing & Wrestling. “What fighting there was, it was all rough-and-tumble in a clearing in the woods. Between cutting the trees and loading the pulp, we would get a fifteen-minute break. Instead of resting, we would slambang each other around.” In need of a gym, Williams moved to Florida. He contacted Lou Viscusi from a Tampa bus station. Viscusi was the great Willie Pep’s manager. Viscusi directed Williams to Ybor City where Tony Cancela was waiting.
Though Williams’ official debut is listed as taking place at the age of 18 on December 11, 1951, Williams is said to have had a fake identification card made at the age of 14, allowing him to compete under a false name. He was eventually busted and had to wait until he was 18 to compete. However, Williams did not let that detour him from become a professional boxer.
Williams was able to get his career in gear under Cancela, running rampant on the southeast circuit, spanning from Miami Beach to New Orleans. In 30 months, Williams built his record to 33-1. That lone loss came to the hands of Sylvester Jones. Williams would later avenge that loss by knockout the following year. Viscusi was now in charge of running shows in Houston, clearing the way for Williams to continue his westward march. After running his record up to 33-1, Williams ran into Bob Satterfield in June 1954. It would end up being 26 months until Williams entered a ring again. The Big Cat served a stint in the Army, pushing his next bout until August 1956. Williams was AWOL so many times in the Army, he was labeled a deserter.
First Signs Of Trouble
Williams had a troubled personal life, which spilled over into his professional career. In March 1958, Williams traveled to London, England to box Dick Richardson. Williams ended up winning the bout by disqualification after repeated headbutts by Richardson. Just prior to their rematch, Williams pulled out of the bout at the very last moment stating voices told him not to take the fight.
Big Cat was scheduled soon thereafter to battle Floyd Patterson, but Patterson was paired with Ingemar Johansson and lost the belt. Williams was paired with Liston after Patterson lost the title. Williams ended up losing to Liston twice, losing his chance to battle for the world championship.
Timeframe Around Liston Bouts
His time in the military did not slow down Williams. This was probably because he fought under a fake name, Eugene Mack, which was his father’s name. Williams was recognized by an opponent, which and led to his arrest by the military. He would earn an 11-0 record and earned a shot to face one of the most notorious boxers in history, Sonny Liston. Though Williams only lasted three rounds with the former champion, he impressed many with his talent and power.
Liston has been quoted by many writers of the time saying Williams is the hardest hitter he has ever faced. Eddie Machen, who Williams would face two years later, also stated Williams was the hardest hitter he’s faced and that he actually seemed quicker in the ring than Liston. Williams rebounded well, knocking out Ernie Cab in May 1959. In July 1959, Williams would enter a battle he probably should not have.
Meat Cleaver Incident
In July 1959, Cleveland Williams was involved in a domestic incident with his girlfriend, Gwendolyn Scott, where he attacked her with a meat cleaver in Houston. His girlfriend sustained damage to her head and shoulder, but she refused to press charges, though she was hospitalized. The police did confiscate the meat cleaver, bringing it down to the police station. Sidetracking from his road work training, Williams called the police department, asking for his meat cleaver back. He told them she attacked him and after wrestling it away, just attacked her with her own weapon. After going on about how special the meat cleaver was to him, the police returned it to Williams.
Williams’ Horrible Luck Strikes Again
Over four years from the Liston losses, Williams looked to finally get his world title shot, which was scheduled for December 1964. The WBA (World Boxing Association) had stripped Muhammad Ali of his title and wanted Williams to face off with Ernie Terrell for the title. Terrell and Williams had faced off the previous year in April with Terrell taking a close split decision. Just 14 days before the scheduled WBA championship bout, Williams’ bad luck would strike yet again, and in the worst possible way.
Williams was pulled over by Texas State Police for an alleged DWI on November 29, 1964. Officer Dale Witten and Williams got into a scuffle where the officer’s 357 Magnum discharged. The bullet ripped through Williams’ intestines and right kidney and settled around his right hip. Over the next seven months, Williams required four surgeries for an injured right kidney and intestines. Unfortunately, he ended up losing his kidney and keeping the bullet lodged inside his body. The bruising heavyweight contender dropped to nearly 155 pounds throughout the ordeal.
Miraculous Return and Eventual Title Shot
15 months after he near-death incident with the Texas State Police, Williams returned to the ring to take on Ben Black on February 08, 1966, inside the Sam Houston Coliseum. Williams made quick work in his return, knocking out Black in the first round. Big Cat would go on to win three more bouts to earn his shot at the champion, Muhammad Ali.
On November 14, 1966, Williams would enter the ring for the biggest moment of his boxing career, a shot at the WBC and WBA heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. 35,460 fans packed the Astrodome to set an indoor attendance record for a boxing match. The Ali Shuffle debuted at this bout.Many consider this Ali’s greatest performance, but many pro-Williams fans will bring up the fact of Williams’ health issues from his past shooting. Who knows how a 100% Williams with all of his organs would fair against Ali. Unfortunately for Cleveland Williams, he was defeated in the third round by TKO.
Post-Ali Bout Career
Williams continued to box for six more years to little overall success. His record over that time frame was 13-7. Seven of those wins would come by KO/TKO. He would go on to earn a regional championship. On July 10, 1972, Williams defeated Bob Mashburn for the Texas Heavyweight Title. His retirement bout came next on October 28, 1972. In the bout, he defeated Roberto Davila by unanimous decision in Denver, Colorado.
Bad Luck Even to the Grave
From one life event to another, it always seemed like Williams got the short end of the stick. His unfortunate and untimely death would be his final short straw. On September 03, 1999, Williams was struck by a hit and run driver while walking the streets of Houston. The 66-year-old was rushed to Ben Taub Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries. Williams was actually walking home from the dialysis center, still receiving treatment from the shooting that nearly took his career away over 33 years earlier.
Boxing stories do not always end with a fairy tale ending and unfortunately Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams lived one of those stories. The Ring would later recognize Williams as one of the sport’s most powerful punchers. His dynamic punching power will live forever but the question of “what could have been” will always loom had that fateful night in 1964 never have happened.
I am a life-long MMA fan who has been a fan since UFC 1. I was born in Illinois but raised in South Louisiana, home of many great mixed martial artists. I started martial arts at the age of 4 and continued into my adult years where I served nearly 10 years in law enforcement. I feel my job is to convey the stories of the MMA fighters we enjoy to watch and share their stories with the world.
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