The night Muhammad Ali shuffled towards perfection


Muhammad Ali's most famous nights in the ring are so revered that their promotional titles carry the evocative heft of any Hollywood blockbuster or Broadway show.

The Rumble In The Jungle and The Thrilla In Manila will forever echo through the ages.

Those celebrated triumphs over George Foreman and Joe Frazier arrived with Ali in his 30s, after his refusal to take part in US military operations in Vietnam brought about a three-and-a-half year boxing exile.

For the best example of his pure athletic brilliance, the man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee cast his mind back to November 14, 1966.

"Against Cleveland Williams," Ali told his biographer Thomas Hauser. "The night I was at my best."

Before a record indoor boxing crowd of 35,460 at Houston's Astrodome, Ali unveiled his aesthetic calling card during a three-round demolition of Williams, a dutiful and dangerous 32-year-old slugger.

Football has the Cruyff Turn and athletics has the Fosbury Flop; that night in Texas a capacity crowd pondering the legitimacy of the reigning heavyweight champion's self-proclaimed greatness were treated to the debut of the Ali Shuffle, as the whirring feet of this renegade dance move peppered a brutal ballet.

Williams began with commendable orthodoxy, approaching an opponent who jogged almost gleefully from his corner at the opening bell, and thrust out a firm left jab towards the champion.

Unfortunately for the hometown favourite, Ali was operating a long way from the textbook. He slipped extravagantly away from the blow and circled away to his left - dancing on the balls of his feet, hands slung low.

It was the first time Williams, who survived a police shooting in 1964, would be bamboozled during seven minutes and eight seconds of exquisite punishment that must have felt like a lifetime.

Ali's constant, dazzling movement contrasted marvellously with Williams' stiff, high guard, soon penetrated by rapier lefts.

Midway through the opening round, the Ali Shuffle made a first fleeting appearance. Williams took this as an invitation to come in on the attack, only to be hammered by precise left hooks to body and head.

Overhand rights began to accompany the Ali jab for an already beleaguered Williams, who absorbed a seven-punch combination, watched a shuffle hesitantly from centre-ring and shipped four more.

Williams dutifully ambled after his quicksilver foe for much of round two until Ali, virtually fox-trotting backwards, landed a short right off the jab to send the challenger tumbling.

It was a canvas with which he would become well acquainted.

If the first knockdown demonstrated a sublime marriage of grace, timing and power, Ali showcased the savagery of his trade by concluding a follow-up onslaught with a left-hook to place Williams on the seat of his trunks.

The "Big Cat" rose and pawed at his battered nose. A sad left arced well short of Ali, whose precise one-two, double jab and crushing right had Williams splayed flat on his back as the bell sounded.

Pride overrode sanity as the challenger ambled back to his stool with the help of three cornermen, who patched him up for round three.

Against a foe now struggling to place one foot convincingly in front of the other, Ali almost mockingly broke into his most prolonged shuffle of the evening - the precursor to a succession of unerring head shots. Williams fell again.

Somehow he continued, skittering about like the town drunk under Ali's barrage.

Referee Harry Kessler saved Williams from his own bravery in the face of an awesome presence, dancing and punching close to perfection.

"The greatest Ali ever was as a fighter was against Williams," celebrated American sports broadcaster Howard Cosell reflected.

"That night he was the most devastating fighter who ever lived."