The primed and peaking Muhammad Ali was, without a doubt, the single finest heavyweight boxer in history. Though the world never got to see Ali reach his absolute peak – his prime years forever robbed due to his refusal to serve in the “unjust” Vietnam War – Ali of 1966 and 1967 was about as great as he would ever be. How much greater Ali, aged 25, might have become had he not been placed in enforced exile we will never know.
But the best version of Ali the world ever had the joy, the privileged, the pleasure of watching was almost certainly the Ali who fought at The Houston Astrodome on November 14, 1966. Ali, facing a past his best (a bullet lodged in his abdomen, put there by a highway patrolman in November of 1964) Cleveland Williams, danced, punched and literally floated around the ring. Ali’s hand speed was never sharper, his punching power was never more electrifying and his defence was never more impregnable.
Williams, a heavy-handed puncher who had been in with the best (a prime Sonny Liston twice, Ernie Terrell, Eddie Machen) before the shooting, gave it his best shot (pardon the pun) but he was facing The Greatest at his greatest. He never had a chance. In fact, no heavyweight in history, before or since, would have had a chance of beating Ali on this night. Ali, his feet barely touching the canvas – his famous “Ali Shuffle” on display for the first time – raked Williams with shot after shot. And how many times was Ali hit in return? Ten times, that’s how many, or how few punches, “Big Cat” managed to get home with, this according to perhaps exaggerated reports.
Four times in total Williams crashed violently to the canvas before he was stopped in the third round. Ali danced ever so sweetly in the opening round, his reflexes, his fitness and his grace stunning to witness. When had, or has, a big man ever moved like this! In round two, Ali turned destroyer. Coming down off his toes, Ali unleashed his hard to see blows and down Williams went. And then again. And again. Three times inside the round. Williams was saved by the bell.
Williams was ravaged by more punches in the third, the challenger being sent down for a fourth time. Incredibly brave, Williams again beat the count, but this time the referee, Harry Kessler, seeing a bloodied Williams take even more head-spinning blows flush in the face, called it. It was all over. Ali had given us the fight of his that deserved to be placed in the time capsule, for all future boxers, boxing fans and boxing trainers to observe whenever they wished to see how a heavyweight should go about things when he wants to punch with tremendous authority while presenting a ghost of a target.
Not that any heavyweight could ever emulate what Ali did on the night of November 14, 1966. That was a one-off. Ali was never quite as otherworldly again. Ali had given us his masterpiece.