“The greatest Ali ever was as a fighter, was against Williams - that night, he was the most devastating fighter who ever lived.”
A bold statement from legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell, but you’d have a difficult time arguing against it if you’ve ever seen footage of Muhammad Ali’s dismantling of Cleveland ‘Big Cat' Williams, which happened on November 14th 1966.
There’s no doubt that his two wins over Sonny Liston, the rumble he had with 'Big' George Foreman in Zaire and the brutal third war with Joe Frazier in the Philippines are more significant chapters in Ali’s spellbinding career but in terms of sheer brilliance and elegance in one fight - nothing comes close to the show he put on at Houston’s Astrodome.
Two astronauts who called Houston home, James Lovell and Buzz Aldrin, were making headlines around the globe aboard the Gemini 12 spacecraft at the same time - on that night though, that didn’t matter.
Attention turned to the ring and 35,460 people showed up on the off chance they’d see Ali finally get shut up.
The fight was Ali’s seventh defence of his heavyweight crown and, more significantly, his first on US soil since he famously uttered: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
America really had made Ali public enemy number one at this point. Some were angered by his decision to become a follower of the Nation Of Islam (and subsequent refusal to fight in Vietnam), some were upset by his motor mouth and, sadly, many people had a problem with the colour of his skin.
At 33, Cleveland Williams was on the decline and hadn’t been entirely the same fighter since being shot in the gut by a policeman’s revolver two years prior. He was a threat though, and some truly believed Williams had at least a puncher’s chance of being the first man to beat ‘The Louisville Lip’.
What followed, however, was one of the greatest performances from any man in the history of boxing.
Boos flooded the stadium as Ali made his way to the ring - if it affected him at all, you wouldn’t have been able to tell.
He opened the fight by dancing around Williams in typical Ali fashion. Hands dropped to his side, daring Williams to hit him, he picked him off with snapping jabs any time he dared come close.
The second round saw Williams hit the canvas three times and he went down again in the third.
Sixty seconds into that same round, referee Harry Kessler was forced to end the fight and rescue the helpless ‘Big Cat’.
This was Muhammad Ali at his absolute prime. Five months later he was forced into boxing exile by the US Government for three years.
Yes, many great nights and bigger wins were still to come in Ali’s glittering career, but it’s crazy to think the world never really got to see 'The Greatest' in his prime after this fight.