Who Shot Cleveland Williams?

The name Dale Witten may not be familiar to a fight fan, yet Witten, in November of 1964, may well have changed heavyweight boxing history. Witten certainly forever changed the life of one helluva fine boxer.

Cleveland Williams was, in the 1950s and early 1960s, one of the toughest, most powerful, and most athletically gifted big men of the sport. Going pro in December of 1951, the 18-year-old Williams would go on to have 94 fights – 67 of them before his highway meeting with Witten, 27 of them after the painful event that, as Williams said himself, sent him “to hell.”

Standing 6’3” and looking as though he was carved from bronze, his rock-solid physique, a reflection of the grind Williams put in in the gym, Williams soon became known as a serious puncher. Williams suffered a setback in the form of a third-round KO at the hands of Bob Satterfield (a fighter who, like Williams, would later become rated by Ring Magazine as one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history), but it would then be 13 more fights before Williams lost again.

Enter Sonny Liston.

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Liston and Williams went to war twice, with both short, two, and three-round fights testing the mettle of both men. Tough, hard, no-nonsense trading of leather was the order of the day, and after being hurt, Liston, possibly at his peak as a fighter at the time in 1959, regained control and banged Williams out of there in the 3rd round. Most fighters would not have agreed to go anywhere near Liston in a second fight, yet Williams did the following year. The result was much the same, Liston winning a round earlier.

Williams had met one of the greatest heavyweights in history twice and had it not been for Liston, maybe “Big Cat” as Williams was known, would have got a shot at the crown, and plenty of historians strongly feel Williams would have had way too much firepower for Floyd Patterson. A win over Ernie Terrell followed, before Williams was held to a draw by Eddie Machen. A return with Terrell saw Williams drop a split decision and then, five fights and five wins later, Williams met his date with destiny.

Williams was no saint. He was arrested for domestic violence in 1959, when Williams attacked his girlfriend with a meat cleaver. No stranger to street fights, Williams sometimes heard voices – his scheduled return fight with Britain’s Dick Richardson called off as a result of the voices “telling” Williams not to fight. On November 28, in ’64, Williams was pulled over on suspicion of DUI, and the fighter got into a brawl with cop Witten. After a struggle (the two men having differing accounts of what exactly happened), Witten drew his gun and shot Williams at point-blank range. The Magnum .357 bullet “ripped into his body, traveled through his colon and bowel, penetrated his ureter, damaged some of the nerves controlling his legs, destroyed one of his kidneys, and came to rest in his right hip joint.”

The severity of the wounds – not too unlike those accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald suffered the November before – should have proved fatal. But while “lone nut” Oswald died, “wild man” Williams survived. Astonishingly, Williams returned to the prize ring just 15 months later. Even more amazingly, Williams got a shot at the world title. But Williams, now aged 33, was no longer anything like the fighter he had once been. A peaking Muhammad Ali wiped Williams out in dazzling fashion in November of ’66, this sadly Williams’ most famous fight.

But what might have been, how much might Williams have achieved had it not been for Witten and his (possibly) trigger-happy actions?

On that fateful evening smack, bang in the middle of the civil unrest in America caused due to the ongoing and bitter divide between the black and white races, Williams was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Witten (who was white) said the fighter had resisted arrest, Williams pleaded no contest; being fined $50 and, after he had miraculously recovered from his wounds, he was briefly jailed. As he was drifting in and out of consciousness after being shot, Williams recalled later, he had heard someone say, “I’m not putting that n****r in my car.” Eventually, Williams was taken to hospital.

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Williams, an incredibly strong man, and not just physically, forgave Witten. Witten even showed up in Williams’ dressing room before the Ali fight, telling the man he had shot at point-blank range how there were “no ill feelings.”

Williams fought on until 1972, never again coming close to a title shot. Witten presumably saw out his career with honors. Williams died at the age of just 66, the victim of yet more cruelly bad luck. Hit by a car in a hit and run as he walked across a street in his native Houston, Williams, this time was unable to recover from his injuries.

Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams – one of the greatest fighters never to win a world title.