The fight was Ali's seventh in defense of the crown and his first on American soil since he had made his famous "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Congs" remark earlier in the year. Caught in the patriotic backlash of angered politicians, Ali had been a man without a country, defending his title in Toronto, London and Frankfurt, but not in the United States. This was to be, in effect, his "homecoming," although not a very popular one.
Williams was a tough man who had had a tough life. He'd been shot in the stomach by a policeman, attacked by a girlfriend with a meat cleaver and slugged it out, despite being KO'd, with Sonny Liston twice. Before being shot, Williams had been a thrilling puncher and top contender, but what he had left was unknown. Hed won impressively enough in his comeback fights, but would Williams be up to task against the sharp and quick Ali?
Though Cleveland was past his prime, he was still a top contender. He also still had a devastating punch. However, the young Ali was almost impossible to hit cleanly, as Williams would discover.
During the first round, Ali remained elusive. Williams tried to cut the distance between them, but Ali's superior footwork kept him beyond his challenger's punches, although Williams did show flashes of his old power when he landed a shot or two. "He caught me a couple of times and really shook me up," Ali confided to Cus D'Amato years later.
Ali opened up the second with two jabs to Williams' stomach before back pedalling as Cleveland came on strong, then from nowhere he threw a one-two combination that sent the Texan to the canvas. Gathering himself during the mandatory eight count, Ali loosed a 16-punch barrage that rocked Williams back on to the seat of his pants. Gamely, big cat rose but five punches later, he was back on the deck and saved by the bell.
Enter the Ali Shuffle
Some thought it a gimmick, but as Ali explained to Cus D'Amato, "When I do the shuffle, whatever you have planned, you are either gonna forget or look at my feet." In the third, his feet flew a counterpoint to his fists - Williams was down again and the referee spared him more hurt.
Broadcaster Howard Cosell told Thomas Hauser; "The greatest Ali ever was as a fighter was against Williams. That night, he was the most devastating fighter who ever lived." Even Muhammad Ali's fiercest critics outside of the ring now saluted his dominance within it.
Ali was concerned that Williams might be badly hurt if the bout went on for any length of time. Jerry Izenberg, alone with Ali the night before the fight, advised him to KO Williams quickly to avoid causing any lasting damage.
Cleveland Williams, along with Liston, was thought by many to be among the hardest punchers in the division in recent years.
Many say Ali was at his very best this night.
On this night, Ali introduced the 'Ali Shuffle.'
The fight drew 35,460 in attendance
"He caught me a couple of times and really shook me up," Ali confided to Cus D'Amato years later.
"I'm surprised he hit as hard as he did... That Cleveland Williams had a lot of hard punches," said Ali.