Monday, October 6, 2008

Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams, 10/7/68

On October 7, 1968, the city of Tampa nearly went into sensory overload. Reigning Miss America Judith Anne Ford of Illinois arrived to participate in the annual Fire Prevention Parade. For those more interested in politics than parades, Hubert Humphrey’s running mate, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, made a campaign appearance at the Sheraton Tampa Motor Inn. And for those more interested in punches than politics, professional boxing made its long-awaited return to Tampa after a three-year absence.

Headlining the card at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory was one of the best boxers to never hold a major title, Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams. The 35-year-old fighter arrived in Tampa with a career mark of 69-6-1, including 54 knockouts. One of his most notable bouts was two years earlier, when he faced Muhammad Ali at Houston's Astrodome for the world heavyweight boxing championship.

Williams, a 5-1 underdog in the bout, was knocked out by Ali – who was nine years younger and in his prime -- in the third round. Williams' former manager, Lou Viscusi of Lutz, arranged for Williams to fight Mose Harrell of St. Petersburg, a relative novice with a 16-3 career mark. The bout essentially amounted to another tune-up in Williams’ comeback attempt to re-climb the heavyweight ladder and earn another chance at the title.

After his defeat to Ali, Williams had won four straight bouts against fighters with losing records. A victory over Harrell could have meant eventual shots at heavyweights Joe Frazier or Jimmy Ellis. The 21-year-old Harrell, who recorded a 27-2 mark as an amateur, had a lot to gain with a victory as well. Defeating Williams would launch Harrell right into the mix of heavyweight contenders. Despite their size difference – Williams outweighed Harrell by 21 pounds -- his own manager, Walt Profitt, felt confident going into the fight, saying, “I think he’ll knock Williams out.”

That night at the Armory, Harrell found out how difficult that would be to do. In front of a less-than-capacity crowd of 800 spectators, Harrell struggled to withstand blows from the larger and stronger “Big Cat,” who was once described by Sonny Liston as the hardest puncher he ever fought. Despite suffering an injury to his left arm while training in Houston earlier in the week, Williams battered Harrell with steady body shots throughout the fight. Harrell’s quickness on the mat kept Williams from getting a knockout blow through the early rounds, but the dancing came at a cost.

In the fourth round, Harrell suffered leg cramps that limited his movement for the rest of the bout. His time would run out against Williams at 2:26 in the seventh round when a series of combination rights, climaxing with a wicked uppercut, dropped him to the mat for good. With the victory, Williams passed Joe Louis for all-time knockouts with his 55th such decision.

Unfortunately for the “Big Cat,” he would never return to prominence in the heavyweight division. Defeats in four of his next five fights effectively ended his title ambitions, although he continued to fight against mostly journeymen boxers before retiring in 1972. He ended his career with a 78-13-1 mark, and tragically died in 1999 at the age of 66, the victim of a hit-and-run driver.

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