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And Then There Were ThreeBy Jim Amato
The passing of Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams a few years ago ended the final chapter in a story about three gifted heavyweights from the 1950s and '60s. Williams now joins Eddie Machen and Zora Folley to form a trio of hard-luck boxers who met tragic deaths after a career of frustration. Machen, who lost a decision to Ernie Terrell in a 1965 WBA title bout, committed suicide. Folley, who was stopped in seven by Muhammad Ali in 1967, died of injuries suffered in a poolside accident. Machen and Folley died several years ago. Williams lived to be 66, before being struck down by a moving vehicle. All three received title shots long after their prime. One wonders how they would have made out if they'd gotten their chance five years earlier, against Floyd Patterson. To Patterson's credit, he did win a 12-round decision over Machen in 1964, two years after he'd lost his crown to Sonny Liston.
Williams began his career in 1951 and won his first 27 fights, 23 by knockout. In 1954, he suffered a knockout loss to Bob Satterfield. Cleveland did not box in 1955, because he was in the Army. When he resumed his career, he ran off 12 straight wins, leading him to a match with the feared Sonny Liston. The two traded bombs until Sonny put over the sleeper in round two. Eleven months later, they met again in another war with Sonny winning in round three.
In Williams' next 22 fights, he went 20-1-1 with 13 KO's. He lost a decision to Terrell and drew with Machen. He scored victories over Terrell, Wayne Bethea, Alex Miteff, Billy Daniels, and Tod Herring. This led to a title bout with Muhammad Ali in November 1966. In 1965 Williams was badly injured when he was shot by a patrolman during a traffic argument. The bullet entered his stomach and did severe damage. That he was even able to fight again is a testimony to his will and courage. The Williams that entered the ring against Ali was just a shell of his former self. In what many feel was Ali's best career performance, the champion dominated his aging rival. The bout was mercifully stopped in the third round. Williams would never again be a major factor in the division. He lost to Bob Cleroux and Mac Foster, and he served as an opponent for upcoming fighters looking for a name on their record.
I had the opportunity to see Williams box a decent heavyweight named Ted Gullick at the old Cleveland Arena. Gullick would meet George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, and Duane Bobick during his career, and he was no match for Williams on that night. Using a ramrod jab and a solid body attack, Cleveland out-boxed his upstart foe to win a 10 rounder.
The consummate professional at work: That is how I'll remember Cleveland Williams.
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