Before the fight the heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, also known as Cassius Clay, had talked morosely of retirement, of trouble with his hands and his back, of weariness of soul and body and of a wish to dedicate himself hereafter to the Black Muslim ministry on a full-time basis. He had conceded that his challenger, Cleveland Williams, the Big Cat from Yoakum, Texas, was the "most dangerous opponent" he had ever faced, but he also had gone through the customary routine of poesy and defiance.
"I beat the Bear [ Sonny Liston] and the Hare [ Floyd Patterson]," he said, "and I'll beat the Pussycat [ Williams]." But he also said, "I'm not announcing anything, but after Williams and [Ernie] Terrell I would like to retire with money in the bank."
It was this incessant theme of the possibility, even probability, of early retirement that made this heavyweight fight an occasion for tension. Few champions ever have talked so much, so earnestly, of their wish to retire.
And what happened, of course, was that the wily Muhammad, fighting in the magnificent confines of Houston's Astrodome before a crowd of 35,460—the largest ever to witness a prizefight indoors—was working his word magic once again, building up the fight, creating wild dreams of riches in his challenger's camp, and all the while planning to do as he always has done—to stay out of trouble at all times. He did it magnificently. In the third round Referee Harry Kessler stopped the fight. By that time Williams was clearly helpless. He had been down three times in the second round, had begun to spit blood in the third, was knocked down once more before even the first minute had passed, and then endured a dreadful barrage that had some of the crowd howling for the fight to be stopped, even though Williams is a favorite son of Texas. The end came at one minute and eight seconds of that third round. Not once during the seven minutes of fighting had Williams shown that he still could deliver the big punch that made him a threat to be avoided throughout his career.
Williams really never had much chance. Muhammad Ali, circling and snapping out his nuisance jab, is about as easy to hit as a wraith, and Williams' slow, plodding advance was exactly to Ali's liking. The champion flitted about the ring on what must be the fastest legs a heavyweight ever enjoyed and all the time his left hand was flicking out, peppering Williams' face, poking at his bullet-riddled belly. And, from time to time, Ali avoided a weak effort from Williams' left.
Picking the crowd's favorite in this fight was no problem. Williams was greeted with a roar of applause when he strode down the aisle in his black robe. Ali was received with a roar of boos, intermixed with a very few cheers that could scarcely be heard. The champion prayed, Muslim-style, before the bell, his head bowed and hands joined before him. Williams had done his praying in the dressing room.
There was good reason for Cleve Williams to pray. Two years ago he was shot through the abdomen with a .357 magnum bullet from a policeman's revolver and he survived only after four operations and highly skilled surgery. Tonight was, so to speak, his resurrection as a fighter. Alas, it seems also to have been the end as well.
"He died with his boots on," said Hugh Benbow, Williams' manager, after it was over, "and I'll never let him fight again."
Williams began in the first round with a few futile efforts to reach Ali with hooks and jabs, but they landed against a fading target. The first solid punch of the fight was the champion's right hand to the head, and thereafter he began to display his expertise with full confidence that nothing that Williams could deliver would damage him. He scored almost at will, with jabs, hooks and a four-punch combination. He circled the ring at a pace that Williams simply could not match.
That was the first round, and Williams was lucky to survive it. But it was the second that told the story. The round brought disaster to the Big Cat. A fully confident Ali began to show off a bit, his handsome face alight with the realization that he was the thorough master of the situation. Although he encountered a succession of Williams' jabs, and even a right uppercut, Ali was landing his lefts and rights with power.