The Muhammad Ali who crushed Cleveland Williams: could anyone have beaten him?

Mike Tyson? Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko? Joe Louis? Lennox Lewis? Rocky Marciano? Any other heavyweight you care to mention! Would the Muhammad Ali of 50 years ago today – when he was every bit an unhittable, lightening-fast, lethal-punching fighting machine against Cleveland Williams – have beaten any of them?

Historians call it Muhammad Ali’s peak performance; his defining, shining moment of true brilliance in a career filled with majesty. This is the Ali-Cleveland Williams fight from 50 years ago: November 14th 1966. “Ali never danced like that again,” one writer wrote. “That version of Ali would have beaten any heavyweight in history,” a number of experts have claimed.

It was just over two years into his first reign as heavyweight champion of the world when Ali, then aged 24, danced and punched his way to victory in absolutely blistering harmony against his big-hitting challenger known as “Big Cat” Williams. Ali was making his seventh defence and his speed and athleticism never looked better. Though Williams was past his best as a fighter, his decline assisted by the bullet wound he had suffered in his stomach, he was still a good contender. He could also punch extremely hard. The Ali of the 1960’s, however, was almost impossible to hit cleanly, as Williams was to painfully discover.

Unveiling the “Ali Shuffle” in his first big fight, The Greatest was truly a thing of beauty in the boxing ring inside the cavernous Houston Astrodome. And while some say the Shuffle was nothing more than a gimmick, Ali begged to differ; claiming the blurring motion of his feet rapidly levitating above the canvas was designed to distract his opponent enough into looking down, he could then strike with his equally fast punches. Ali’s punches were truly blurring in this fight.

Four times in total “The Big Cat” hit the mat, before being stopped in the third and final round of action. It was in this bout that Ali put to rest a common assertion regarding his ability as a fighter – namely that he couldn’t really punch too hard. Such a notion was as blown to smithereens.

Coming out for the opening round, Ali danced effortlessly. Never before or since did the great man make his poetic claim of “Floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee” so apt. His reflexes at their lightning fast peak, Ali was the very epitome of a unbeatable looking fighter. How could any other heavyweight stand a chance with him when he was so fast? Cleveland Williams was, unfortunately for him, a man who had to try and answer that question when Ali was at his absolute best. He couldn’t do it. The fight was a complete one man show right from the get-go.

In the second round, Ali came down off his toes and opened up with dazzling shots to the head. Connecting with both stunning accuracy and jarring power, Ali soon had his challenger down. And then again, and then for a third time. Bravely beating the count three times inside as many minutes, Williams was showing great courage but not too much else.

The bell ended round two, one of the worst rounds Williams had ever suffered in his fighting life, and the beating was temporarily halted. In the third session Ali’s couldn’t-miss punches ravaged Williams again, sending him south for a fourth time. And on this occasion, despite the challenger again rising inside ten seconds, the bout was stopped for good by referee Harry Kessler.

The world had just seen the very best display by the man who rightly holds the distinction as the finest heavyweight champion of all-time. Ali’s three round demolition of Cleveland Williams was a show of mesmerising boxing brilliance that was never to be repeated.

At 214-pounds and standing at just over 6’3,” Ali was big enough, tall enough and just plain great enough to have beaten any other heavyweight in history when at his absolute peak. Ali said it himself, but he truly was The Greatest!

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