Posts Tagged ‘Boxing’

Cleveland “The Big Cat” Williams.

April 8, 2010

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.

Tod Herring: Terror of the East End.

April 7, 2010

Tod Herring, As Many of Us Older East Enders Remember Him.

If you grew up male in the Houston East End in the years following World War II, you knew who Tod Herring was by reputation, if not from painful personal experience. He was the meanest dog on any block for miles and none of us who grew up in his territory are likely to ever forget him. I was reminded of Tod yesterday when jack Murphy, an old St. Chistopher’s Catholic School buddy wrote to remind me of Tod’s once dominant terror upon our collective unconscious.

In Herring’s case, “collective unconscious” bears a more literal meaning than the definition intended by Dr. Carl Jung. With Tod, “collectively unconscious” would have been the probable group outcome for six average guys who tried to take on the biggest bully in Pecan Park and environs by themselves with no back-up plan.

Here’s what Jack Murphy said to me in his e-mail:

“Bill, if memory serves, the absolute official start of summer (in the East End) was marked by the reopening of the bathtub sized Mason Park Pool and the annual attempted drowning of yours truly by Tod Herring and his Southmayd (Elemenery School) gang of pagans.”

“Brother Bill (Murphy) always came to my rescue and the St. Christopher Catholics lived to drown another day while Tod went on to become the Texas Heavyweight champion and a sometime drinking companion.” – Jack Murphy

Jack Murphy’s memories of Tod Herring are a lot more personal than mine. They were each older than me, a fact that us younger eyewitnesses to street mayhem always quietly celebrated. Being younger and smaller than Tod Herring bought you a degree of invisibility in his presence. Tod always seemed more aware of those guys who were just as big or bigger than him, especially if they showed any kind of attitude that suggested they thought they were hot spit. On the physical and psychological planes, Tod Herring lived simply as the dominant alpha male – one main guy who wasn’t going to take any spit from anyone, especially from those who also thought they were more deserving of his top position in the pecking order of life on the East End streets.

The first time I saw Tod Herring in action was sufficiently convincing to me. Several of us were walking home from the Pecan Park school bus when we came up upon Tod getting into a screaming match with some other guy about his size. All of a sudden, the two guys are squaring off with double fists, and making this little circular look around each other.

Tod Herring

All of a sudden, the argument and fight are over with one blow to the jaw from a Herring right hand to the other fellow’s face. The other guy dropped to the sidewalk like a dead pigeon. He was out cold. The fairly ripped Tod Herring stood over him for a second or two and then just walked away. He never spoke or even acknowledged the presence of the rest of us before he walked away like Mr. Cool. I guess our cloaks of invisibility were working pretty good. And the other guy didn’t die. We helped him up as best we could. He then walked quietly away in the other direction from Herring, and also in a state of not saying much, if anything, to us onlookers.

My awareness of Tod Herring sort of dimmed after I finished the 8th grade at St. Christopher’s Catholic School and started commuting across town to St. Thomas High School. Herring and most of my Pecan Park neighborhood pals had headed for Milby High School. I’m not sure how Todd Herring got along in high school, but I can’t imagine it being much different from anything we had seen up to that point. My next awareness of Herring surfaced during my undergraduate years at UH (1956-60). I started reading about Tod Herring in the Houston Post as an up and coming heavyweight boxer.

That recognition of him as a boxer, left me with only four more freeze frame pictures of Tod Herring’s life to come as I went my own way through the early adult years:

(1) Fighting the Former Heavyweight Champ. On May 14, 1965, Tod Herring of Houston fought former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in Stockholm, Sweden. Patterson knocked out Herring in 40 seconds of the third round, pretty much ending whatever hopes the former Houston bad boy still had for winning the title. I never thought much of Patterson prior to that fight, but that KO of Herring changed everything. Anyone who could knock out Tod Herring had to have something special going for him.

(2) Tod Herring Charged with Killing a Man in a Bar Fight. I have no dates for this memory or for any of the rest. It happened sometime in Houston in the early years that followed the end of Herring’s boxing career. Herring was charged with killing a man with his fists over some kind of bar argument. The prosecution argued that Herring’s professional background as a boxer even made his fists a “deadly weapon.” (Heck! A lot of us non-lawyers from the East End could have testified to that assertion.) At any rate, Tod was sentenced to the penitentiary, apparently going there with a drinking problem that wasn’t that easy to arrest.

(3) Tod Herring in Recovery. Sometime around 1980, I read in the Houston Post that Tod Herring was now out of prison and living a clean and sober life again back in the East End. The article even featured a great smiling photo of Tod Herring, swinging a golf club out in the sunshine of the Glenbrook Country Club, as Herring also bubbled with gentle praise for the lessons of recovery. He sounded nothing like the archetypical bogeyman that many of us grew up fearing. I was happy for him. He had family around him and they all seemed to love and support him in his recovery.

(4) Tod Herring is Dead. Not too many years later, I picked up the paper one day and learned that Todd Herring had passed away suddenly – from a heart attack, I think. I have no idea if Tod had been able to stay out the grip of his addictions since the time of that earlier feel-good article or not. He was just gone now. Gone again and this time for good. He was also gone again from my mind until my memory of him was reawakened in the e-mail from Jack Murphy.

What’s the lesson here? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s simply that even the monsters of our childhood memories are not all bad and terrible sometimes. Sometimes they are, but other times, they are just human beings who found a deeper way to get lost from love.

God rest your soul, Tod Herring, wherever you may be.