Williams joined Eddie Machen and Zora Folley to form a trio of hard luck boxers who met tragic deaths after a career of frustration.
Eddie Machen lost a decision to Ernie Terrell in a 1965 W.B.A. title bout. Later Eddie suffered some mental problems and eventually committed suicide. And Zora Folley, who was stopped in seven by Muhammad Ali in 1967, died of injuries suffered in a poolside accident.
And Cleveland Williams lived to be 66 before being struck down by a moving vehicle.
All three fighters, Williams, Machen and Folley, would receive their title shots long after their prime.
One must wonder what would have happened if they got their chance five years earlier against then heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. To Floyd's credit, he did win a twelve round decision over Machen in 1964, two years after Patterson lost his crown to Sonny Liston.
Cleveland Williams began his career in 1951, winning his first 27 fights with 23 via knockout. But in 1954, his career was temporarily derailed after suffering a knockout loss to Bob Satterfield. And, as a result of his obligations to the U.S. Army, Williams didn't fight at all in 1955.
When he resumed his career in 1956, Williams ran off 12 straight wins leading him to a match with the feared Sonny Liston. The two top-level heavyweight contenders met in April 1959 and traded bombs until Sonny put Williams to sleep in Round 3.
Eleven months later they met again in another war with Sonny winning in Round 2. Williams was down for an 8-count before the knockout.
In Cleveland's next 22 fights, he would orchestrate a 20-1-1 record with 13 KOs. The only blemishes during that stint were a decision loss to Terrell and a ten round draw with Eddie Machen. He scored victories over: Terrell (in their first meeting), Wayne Bethea, Alex Miteff, Billy Daniels, and Tod Herring.
Cleveland Wiliams' string of victories led to his world famous title bout with Muhammad Ali in November 1966.
A year prior to facing Ali, Williams was badly injured when he was shot by a patrolman during a traffic stop argument. The bullet entered his stomach allegedly causing severe damage. How he was able to fight again, and against a prime Muhammad Ali nonetheless, is a testimony to his will and courage.
The Williams that entered the ring against Ali was just a shell of his former self. In what many feel was Ali's best career performance, the champion dominated his aging rival. The bout was mercifully stopped in the third round and Cleveland would never again be a major factor in the division.
Following the loss to Ali, Cleveland was fodder for Bob Cleroux whom he dropped a 10 Round unanimous decision to and Mac Foster who stopped him twice inside the distance. By the end of his career, Cleveland Williams served as an "opponent" for upcoming fighters looking for a big name on their resume.
I had the opportunity to see Williams box a decent heavyweight named Ted Gullick in 1971 at the old Cleveland Arena. Gullick, who would also face George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, and Duane Bobick in later years, was no match for Williams this night. Using a ramrod jab and a solid body attack, Cleveland out boxed his upstart foe to win a ten rounder.
The consummate professional at work - That is how I'll remember Cleveland Williams.
Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams Highlights