Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no. Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph.—Susan Sontag
Anyone who remembers Cleveland Williams likely does so because of Neil Leifer, SI shutterbug extraordinaire, whose overhead shot of Muhammad Ali strutting triumphantly away from a splayed and seemingly slayed Williams, laid out on a splotchy canvas in the Houston Astrodome like some victim of a drive-by shooting, is considered one of the greatest photographs in sports history. Not only was his loss to Ali (TKO by 3) forever fixed in the collective pop culture psyche of the United States, but Williams unwittingly became a benchmark for an Ali at his absolute peak.
And the Astrodome itself, nicknamed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” for its cutting-edge hemispherical roof and climate-controlled environment, seemed like a symbolic correlative for the encroaching Ali era—the ex-Cassius Clay, now Space Age heavyweight, with never before seen warp speed and gravity-defying agility—way out in some wild future yonder. But on November 14, 1966, the Astrodome was nothing more than an oversized sporting mausoleum for Cleveland Williams. At the time Williams challenged Ali, the “Big Cat” was as threatening as a malnutritioned kitten. He was thirty-three years old, in his fifteenth year as a pro, and a physical wreck after having been shot at point-blank range in a scuffle with a police officer two years earlier.
Born in the heart of the Depression, 1933, and in a Jim Crow state, Georgia, Cleveland Williams had little but dreams to spare. Some of them, about material success and personal distinction, he discovered in the pages of The Ring. Williams dropped out of school in the seventh grade and, labor laws be damned, began working in a paper mill, where he got his first taste of scrapping as a teenager. While the average lunch break for a working stiff in the 1940s probably involved a bologna sandwich and a pack of Lucky Strikes, for Williams, more often than not, fisticuffs marked his idle moments. “I came out of a town where there were no boxing gyms,” Williams told Boxing & Wrestling. “What fighting there was, it was all rough-and-tumble in a clearing in the woods. Between cutting the trees and loading the pulp, we would get a fifteen-minute break. Instead of resting, we would slambang each other around.”
In the early 1950s, Williams made his way to Florida via Greyhound, where he telephoned Lou Viscusi one night from a Tampa bus station. Viscusi, best known for managing Willie Pep, sent him to Ybor City to train under Tony Cancela. Soon Viscusi unleashed Williams on The Cracker Barrel circuit—Tampa, New Orleans, Miami Beach—where even a raw novice could build a gaudy ledger and a string of kayos to go along with it. After two and a half years as a pro, Williams racked up a 33-1 record before being mangled in three rounds by the patron saint of The Kill-Or-Be-Killed: Bob Satterfield. With Viscusi running shows out of Houston now, Williams relocated and cleaned up in the Southwest.
By 1959, Williams was 44-2, with thirty-five knockouts. But Williams was part of a “Lost Generation” of heavyweights kept on permafrost since 1956 by the oddball combo of Floyd Patterson—shy, mannerly, introspective—and Cus D’Amato—paranoid, eccentric, Nietzsche devotee. Heavyweights as talented as Eddie Machen, Zora Folley, Nino Valdes, and, of course, Sonny Liston were shut out of title shots by the hypocritical mafia boycott of Cus D’Amato, whose self-righteous crusade against underworld riffraff had the added benefit of ensuring that Patterson could continue his sideshow reign for as long as possible. Never mind that D’Amato was partners with bookies, gamblers, and, irony of all ironies, Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, less than twenty years away from being named boss of the Genovese crime family. Like some of the wiseguys he waxed sanctimoniously about from his spartan cot setup at the Gramercy Gym, D’Amato was a target of the New York State Athletic Commission, which banned him from renewing his managerial license.
In 1958 Williams took a break from the broiling Texas sun to win via DQ over Dick Richardson in London. A rematch was scotched when Williams backed out at the last moment, claiming voices had told him not to go through with the fight. He was suspended by the BBBoC. A fighter who suffers from auditory hallucinations is unlikely to become a world champion, but Williams had even more troubles than that. Just as often as he appeared in the pages of The Ring, it seemed, Williams popped up on police blotters across the country. Most infamously, Williams once generated surreal headlines juxtaposing his name with the phrase “Meat Clever.” In 1959, a domestic dispute with his girlfriend, Gwendolyn Scott, turned violent and Williams attacked her with a meat cleaver (Baltimore Sun, subscription required). Although Scott was hospitalized, she refused to press charges and Williams avoided jail time. To make matters even more bizarre, Williams took a detour from roadwork one day and jogged over to the police station, where he requested, and received, the meat cleaver in question. In another strange episode, Williams, who went AWOL so often from the army that he was considered a deserter, fought under an assumed name—Eugene Mack—while on the lam from Uncle Sam. In 1956, he was recognized in Austin by an opponent he had defeated years earlier—as Cleveland Williams—and arrested by the police shortly after “Mack” scored a 3rd-round KO over Johnny Hollins. Williams spent the remainder of his military career in the brig or doing hard labor.
Two quick, if stirring, knockout losses against Sonny Liston in 1959 and 1960 were painful setbacks, but Williams embarked on a 16-1-1 streak that positioned him for a January 1965 shot at the vacant WBA heavyweight title against Ernie Terrell. But Williams would never make it to the ring against Terrell (against whom he had previously split two fights).
On November 28, 1964, Williams, picked up on suspicion of DUI, brawled with a state highway patrolman named Dale Witten. The result: Witten drew his gun and, in the ensuing struggle, shot Williams at point blank range. “Then,” Williams would recall years later, “I went to hell.” Randy Gordon summed up the damage in World Boxing: “A .357 magnum slug had 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.” Over the next year or so, Williams underwent multiple surgical procedures and withered away into a skeletal version of himself. He lost one of his kidneys, had loops of his intestines removed, suffered partial paralysis in his left leg, and limped away with a bleak souvenir of his bloody tribulation: The bullet that nearly killed him remained lodged in his hip for the rest of his life.
For Williams, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel left him slightly unhinged. In a desperate fugue, he crept over to the notorious Fifth Ward, where he slept in a car and wandered the streets at night. Finally, like a forlorn stray, Williams was picked up from the Houston gutters and returned to his manager, Hugh Benbow, who put him to work on his ranch in Yoakum. Williams built himself back into a fair replica of his pre-ICU days, and he returned to the ring to wallop a few bindlestiffs at the Sam Houston Coliseum down on Bagby Street. He was half the fighter he used to be. Even so, he maneuvered his way into a title shot with the help of publicity-hungry Benbow. (Oilman, rancher, wiseacre—Hugh Benbow might qualify as Runyonesque for some, but he was closer to the flesh-peddlers depicted by Robert Wise in The Set-Up or Budd Schulberg in The Harder They Fall. “Get up and fight, you yellow son of a bitch!” he squalled from ringside after Williams had been poleaxed by Ali.)
Ali and Williams faced off at the Houston Astrodome on November 14, 1966, in front of 35,460 spectators and hundreds of thousands more via closed-circuit telecasts. Against a prime Ali, a man with middleweight moves in a heavyweight body, Williams had a better chance of surviving another gunshot wound than scoring an upset. Ali scored three knockdowns in the second round and one more in the third before referee Harry Kessler finally saved a gory Williams from possible injury.
From the rafters of the fresh (not gleaming, though, not with all that concrete) Astrodome, where Leifer had set up a remote-controlled camera, the world would see Ali from where he, perhaps, often saw himself: above the mere mortals in the ring. That night, Cleveland Williams was just a shadow of a shadow, but he deserves to be more than just a permanent footnote to the Ali legend, preserved in Kodak film stock and reproduced, at whim, in perpetuity. After all, forever is a long, long time.