For a long time now, ever since he won the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in one of prizefighting's stranger battles—with both fighters trying to quit and only Liston succeeding—followers of boxing have been hoping to see Muhammad Ali, the former Cassius Clay, truly tested. The test would now seem to be in the offing. This Monday in Houston's huge Astrodome the largest crowd ever to attend a fight indoors will see Ali pitted against Cleveland Williams, the Big Cat from Yoakum, Texas. Williams is rightly considered to be the strongest puncher around. Everyone knows that Ali's speed of foot is sensational, that his reflexes are superb and that his punching is at least respectable, but no one yet knows whether he can take a punch well. Certainly he never has gone about the ring looking to be hit. The hardest blow to the head he ever has suffered was Henry Cooper's left hook in their first fight, and that put Ali down hard. He came back, however, to win by a knockout.
Cooper's lonesome hook is not to be compared in power to any blow that Cleveland Williams throws with either hand. For this reason alone, when Williams challenged Ali there were murmurs of dissent in Muhammad's tent. No one in his right mind ever really wants to fight Williams. ("He doesn't jab you," says Pinkie George, an oldtimer in prizefighting. "He two-by-fours you.") He has, nevertheless, found 71 opponents, and 51 of them, including Ernie Terrell, the World Boxing Association's pretender to the heavyweight throne, have been knocked out. That is a fearsome record, and owners of champions almost always have been reluctant to put their men in the same ring with such punchers.
But then, as the gleeful tale is told around Yoakum, Lou Viscusi—who once owned Williams' contract and has at least some minimal interest in this fight—played a typical Viscusi trump. During negotiations for the fight, he brought out a photograph of Williams taken not long after he had been shot through the belly by a Texas policeman. It showed an emaciated man of 158 pounds, looking rather more like a starved alley cat than the Big Cat.
"Is it true," asked Chris Dundee, chief negotiator for the Clay forces, "that one of his legs is thinner than the other?"
It was true at the time, and Viscusi nodded. ("Viscusi could talk the eyes out of a bullfrog," says Hugh Benbow, who bought Williams' contract from Viscusi and whose version of the title-fight bargaining is being presented here. It has been said of Benbow that he will not tell a little Texas whopper when a big one will do. Well, as he says, "You have to have a pitch." On this principle, Benbow has risen from rural poverty to wealth, both as an independent oil operator and rancher.)
Despite the evidence of the photograph, no one in Muhammad Ali's camp wanted the fight. It was the champion himself who cast the deciding ballot.
"I want to fight him," he said. "If I don't I won't be able to say that I'm the champ. If I lose to him I'll quit the ring."
The strategy of the Williams camp in seeking the fight was based on an incident that occurred on a lonely Texas road one night just two years ago. A state highway patrolman caught Williams speeding and arrested him. Other details are confused in a welter of contradictory declarations. Anyway, the officer ordered Williams into the patrol car and set out in the direction of Houston. Williams went along quite willingly because, as he said at the time, his manager would bail him out in Houston. No sooner had he said it, the Williams story runs, than the officer turned the car toward Tomball, a town where Negroes are not especially favored. Williams opened the door of the slowly moving police car and started out. "Man, I don't want to go to Tomball," he said. The patrolman seized him by the wrist and Williams dragged him out of the car (the story goes). The officer drew his .357 magnum pistol, favored by Texas policemen because it is just about the most feared and effective handgun there is. Williams says he seized the weapon to deflect its aim from his body. The gun went off as it was pointing toward his left hip and slightly downward. The bullet plowed crosswise through his intestines and lodged against the right hip, where it remains even now. Williams collapsed on the ground, and eventually lost consciousness. He awoke with the impression that someone was "kicking and stomping" him. He lost consciousness once more.
He awoke again, in Houston's Ben Taub General Hospital, and there had the good luck to have an old friend, Dr. Don C. Quast, a surgeon, watch over him. Then began a series of four operations lasting seven months that Dr. Quast now looks back on in wonder. The bullet had done massive damage. In such cases body tissue that looks healthy to the surgeon's eye often deteriorates unpredictably after the wound is closed. Then there must be a new operation. In addition to the colon damage, Williams suffered a wounded right kidney and this was removed on June 22, 1965. That was the last of the operations, for it was decided that he had been through quite enough and the bullet might as well remain inside him. It had broken his right hip joint and had caused partial paralysis of some hip muscles. "It is a miracle," Dr. Quast says now, "that he is not in braces."
One of the factors that may have been responsible for saving his life, the doctor said, is that Williams' abdominal wall "is two to three times thicker than that of a normal person" and this had the effect of slowing the bullet.