The fight between reigning and defending heavyweight king Muhammad Ali and challenger Cleveland Williams, which took place on this day back in 1966, has been called numerous things: ‘Seven minutes in boxing heaven.’ ‘The Greatest at his greatest.’ ‘Sheer poetry in motion.’
It was arguably Ali at his absolute blinding peak, his powers at their most destructive. Ali on this night was untouchable, and it has been argued by some that no heavyweight, either before November of 1966, or after, would have been able to defeat this version of the man born by the name of Cassius Clay.
Ali’s critics point to the fact that the dangerous-punching Williams was not the fighter he had been due to the shooting he was the victim of two years prior to the bout; this when a possibly trigger-happy cop shot Williams at close range, the bullet from his .357 magnum doing terrible damage to Cleveland’s colon and right kidney. Williams could easily have died from his wounds, and the fighter himself put the fact that he didn’t die down to divine intervention.
Upon facing Ali, Williams, now aged 33, had recovered from losing 60 pounds in weight and, since returning to the ring from the hospital bed, he had strung together four wins, two of them coming by stoppage. But Ali, aged 24 and already proven to be the fastest heavyweight of all-time, was just too much for Williams in every department.
Ali, unveiling his “Ali Shuffle,” was on his toes, he was razor sharp with his hands, with Ali’s punches never missing the target. At a little over 212 pounds, Ali, at 6ft 3″, was the very epitome of what the perfect heavyweight fighting machine should look like. The 210 pound, 6ft 2″ Williams gave it his best shot, yet he was unable to hit Ali even once. Ali’s combinations were deadly, while his otherworldly footwork kept him out of the way of the few punches Williams did manage to get off with. In short, Ali couldn’t miss, while he himself was impossible to hit on this night.
The fight at The Houston Astrodome saw Ali deck Williams three times in the second round, with Williams being saved by the bell. Ali then dropped the “Big Cat” again in the third, before referee Harry Kessler, seeing how bad a state Williams was in, stopped the fight. Ali had boxed the perfect, ‘I’ll hit you, you won’t hit me’ fight.
And For those people who say Ali’s majesty was aided by the fact that he was in the ring with a compromised opponent, it would be interesting to hear who these folks feel Ali would NOT have been able to defeat on this night. Would any heavyweight from any time in history have beaten the November 14, 1966 version of “The Greatest?” It sure would take a strong argument to convince plenty of us that any man would have been up to the mighty task.
No, Ali would not have been “too small,” for a Tyson Fury or a Klitschko brother. No, Ali would not have been overwhelmed by a peak Mike Tyson. No, Ali would not have struggled to defeat a Lennox Lewis or a, well, anyone you care to mention. You can of course disagree if you wish, but Ali, whatever you may think of him outside of the ring, was super-special inside it. And Ali wasn’t just great at dishing it out. No, Ali – as he would prove in his second career, when he came back after almost four years out due to his being stripped and unlicensed due to his refusal to serve in the military – had a chin, along with sheer guts, heart and stamina to die for.
Ali, though, was at his dancing best, his beautiful best, when he ran over a game but doomed Cleveland Williams. Just try and picture this version of Muhammad Ali fighting today. How badly we miss Ali. Even those of us who were not even born when he was in his magnificent prime.