Cleveland Williams, who used to be a fighter, finally got paid this week for the beating he took from Muhammad Ali in the Houston Astrodome on Nov. 14. After taxes and debts have been deducted, Williams' share of the live gate—$7,471—was to be placed in his swollen left hand on Tuesday. That may not sound like such a grand sum for a man to earn in a championship fight, but Williams is happy with it. A week ago all he had was $16.73 and a gasoline credit card that his manager, Hugh Benbow, had warned him not to use.
Boxing is a sport that is noted for abusing and breaking its heroes. For a while the Williams case seemed to be turning into another depressing example. After the fight, Williams was confused and depressed. He had been told shortly before he went into the ring that his benefactor and former co-manager, Houston millionaire Bud Adams, had filed a legal action to hold up Williams' share of the live gate. Williams was under the misapprehension that Adams was trying to take away his money, and that baffled him. Then Williams put on a curiously feeble performance, fighting as if his elbows were pinned to his sides. After he had been knocked down four times and the fight had been stopped in the third round, the first voice he became aware of was that of Benbow.
"I could hear him yelling, 'Why don't you fight, you yellow bastard?' " says Williams. "Oh my, he cursed me and called me terrible names. Later we couldn't find Bimbo anywhere. If I had won, you would have seen Bimbo everyplace. But since I lost, he wouldn't come to the press conference. He said he was embarrassed. I asked him for money, and he gave me $40 and a gasoline credit card. The next day he said if I used that credit card I'd be in trouble."
"What Cleve should have done," says his wife Irene, "is right after they stopped the fight he should have walked over and punched Bimbo on the nose. That way, at least the people who saw it would have got their money's worth. They'd have had something to remember."
Although it has been reported that Adams' garnishment papers were served on Williams at the weigh-in, and that supposedly accounted for the distracted and sluggish behavior of Williams in the ring, the fighter says he did not see any papers. It was Benbow, he says, who told him of the action.
"I couldn't understand what he was talking about," says Williams. "Then we got up to go to the ring and Bimbo tells me to slow down, not to get into no hurry. My style is to dance and jump around all the way into the ring and to jump around until the fight starts, to get myself going. Bimbo made me walk real slow and then just stand there. I asked why and he said he didn't want me to get tired. Just before the fight started, a friend of mine hollered up from ringside and asked me why I wasn't sweating. I hadn't even warmed up."
"'That is the first time I ever saw Cleve go into a ring like he was a zombie," Irene says. "He acted like he was walking behind a coffin. He didn't look like Cleve Williams to me."
If legal and financial problems were on Williams' mind, he was bothered by an injured left hand, too. The fight, in fact, came close to not happening.
"I was working down there at Bimbo's ranch [in Yoakum, Texas]," says Williams. "I had sprained my left thumb, and the first knuckle on my left hand was so swollen and sore that I could barely stand to hit the bag. But Bimbo made me work six or eight hard rounds every day. He was getting 50� a head from people who came to see me. Bimbo would stand at the side of the ring and make speeches, telling everybody I was a Cherokee. I had to laugh at that, but I was hurting. One time he turned to Irene and asked what tribe she was from. Irene said she was 100% Negro. Bimbo says, 'Well, I don't know what tribe she's from, folks, but she's some kind of Indian herself.' He gets a lot of that from all those western novels he reads.
"Anyhow, my hand was bothering me real bad and Bimbo wouldn't let me leave the ranch until it began to swell up. Two weeks before the fight we all went to the doctor [James R. Whitehurst, who used to work for Adams' football team, the Houston Oilers], and he drained the fluid off my knuckle and gave me a shot. He said if I'd waited two more days, I couldn't have used my left hand at all. It still hurt me during the fight."