Cleveland “The Big Cat” Williams.

Cleveland Williams of Houston.

They called him “The Big Cat” because of his athletic hand and foot speed and his paralyzing punching power. He seemed to have it all. Back in the early 1950’s, in fact, Cleveland Williams stood alone and tall (6’3″ & 195-230 lbs.) as Houston’s major hope for honor as home of the next heavyweight boxing champion of the world. A younger fellow named Tod Herring was still street fighting his way up, but Tod was several maturity laps behind the devastating force that The Big Cat had become by 1954.

Born June 30, 1933 in Griffin, Georgia, Williams moved his training base and home to Houston around 1957 after starting his boxing career earlier with a KO win over Lee Hunt in the 3rd round of a fight in Tampa on December 11, 1951.

Williams won his first 27 bouts, recording 23 of those victories by the KO route before losing a decision to Sonny Jones in New York City on September 24, 1953.

Cleveland then ran off another four straight KO wins, capped by an avenging 3rd round clobbering of Sonny Jones, before suffering his first KO loss, a 3rd round fall to Bob Satterfield in Miami Beach on June 22, 1954.

Following his second loss, Williams ran off another 12 straight victories over the next five years, finally signing to meet the monster Sonny Liston in Miami Beach on April 15, 1959. It turned out to be a turning point night in the boxing career of Cleveland Williams. Liston totally dominated the short match, taking it all on a 3rd round TKO of Cleveland Williams. Williams would later fight Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown, but he would never again come close to being seen as a serious contender for the crown after the first loss to Liston. The sentence was complete when Williams again lost on a TKO to Liston in a March 21, 1960 rematch in Houston. In the second match, Williams lost in the 2nd round, a round earlier than his loss in first loss to Liston in Florida.

On June 28, 1966, 33-year old Cleveland Williams finally squared off against Houston street brawler-bully Tod Herring in their mutual home town. The Big Cat still had enough to take out the younger Herring, winning in three rounds on a TKO and clearing the way for a heavyweight championship challenge of Muhammad Ali at the Astrodome in Houston on November 14, 1966.

November 14, 1966: Ali KO’s Big Cat Williams in 3rd Round of Astrodome bout.

Big Cat Dreams died quickly. Ali took charge early and hammered away at Cleveland Williams at will. The fight ended in the 3rd round as another KO win for Ali and the effectively sealed end-of-the-line for Cleveland Williams as a serious national challenger – although,  I am among those who contend that the real end to the world-serious career of Cleveland Williams came earlier – in the two fights with Liston.

Cleveland Williams would later defeat Terry Daniels in Dallas on May 11, 1972 in a 12-round decision that would give him the World Heavyweight Championship of Texas, but so what? By then, the man was 39 years old and fighting for a prize that few fans cared anything about. After two more meaningless wins in 1972, Cleveland “The Big Cat” Williams retired from boxing after his last bout of October 28, 1972. He had won most of his fights (80-11-1) and the hearts of Houston boxing fans along the way. That has to count for something.

Cleveland Williams died on September 11, 1999 at the age of 66.

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7 Responses to “Cleveland “The Big Cat” Williams.”

  1. Frank M Says:

    Recently heard an interview with Neil Leifer, the photographer that took the immortal shot from high above the ring in the Astrodome of Williams on the mat just after getting knocked out by Ali. Due to the innovative construction of the Dome with the gondola above, this shot was previously impossible to get, but Neil got it, much to the chagrin of the other photographers in attendance.

  2. James Anderson Says:

    People have forgotten that during “The Big Cats” road on his way to fight Ali, he was shot in the abdomen with a .357 Magnum by a Texas Dept. of Public Safety Police Officer who thought Williams was coming at him in the middle of the night to do harm to him. The officer was so scared he shot Williams. “The Big Cat” survived the gun shot wound but he was never the same after that.

    • Pete Taggerez Says:

      Your facts are wrong. Williams, arrested for drunk driving — two years after the fight — swung and hit the officer then tried to get his gun. The DPS patrolman shot him in self defense, and not with a .357 Magnum.

  3. Michael R. McCroskey Says:

    It was November 14, 1966, two years after Williams had been shot, that
    the first prizefight in what had been ballyhooed as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Houston Astrodome — 35,460 strong, setting an indoor record that had stood uneclipsed for 25 years, and paying in a near-record $461,290–took place.

    Here’s a link to what is entitled “Greatest knockouts of all time” where I copied this information:


  4. Norma Jeffers Says:

    I had the pleasure of meeting and caring for this gentle giant in his later years. He was a kind, loving man proud of his accomplishments but never boastful. He had the biggest hands I have ever seen and made the most beautiful art with them. Rest in Peace my friend. Glad I had the pleasure of knowing you.

  5. Who Hurt Branca Most – Thomson or Dressen? | The Pecan Park Eagle Says:

    […] Cleveland “The Big Cat” Williams. […]

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