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The tale of Muhammad Ali’s deranged sparring partner

Muhammad Ali
Roy Williams took Muhammad Ali 20 rounds and got his five grand. Steve Bunce tells the story as only he can

THEY threw away the mould when they made Roy “Tiger” Williams. He was the big guy and I mean big guy with the real attitude in the Muhammad Ali travelling show. He stood 6ft 5ins, weighed 240 pounds and only cared about getting paid what he was worth.

He fought 36 times as a professional in rings all over America and won 30. He had a stop at a sporting club in London, shared rings with big names and was hard. However, don’t be fooled by losses and poor reports from some of those fights. Big Roy was not that type of boxer. There is one story about Big Roy that made his reputation.

In 1974 in Zaire for the Rumble, Williams was Ali’s main sparring partner. Hundreds of savage rounds getting Ali ready for the man he was destined to beat. On the night of the fight, Williams was scheduled to fight for five-grand. It was an extra, a bonus to go with the paid-sparring cash. However, the Williams fight was scratched from the bill, victim to late-running and weather. Big Roy was not happy when he was told that he would not get paid: “You mother f*****!” I have no idea what people expected.

Larry Holmes, also a sparring partner for part of the time in Africa, remembers Roy as “perpetually p***ed off about something, usually money.” Well, the five-grand snub was not something that Williams was prepared to overlook.

Williams showed up at Deer Lake looking for Ali, money and redemption. He pushed Ali, he angered Ali and a 10-round fight in the gym was ordered. It was hard, not a play spar, so the witnesses claim. Williams countered the rope-a-dope, moved away and picked his shots. Ali tried to take him out. There were few laughs.

At the end of 10 rounds, Ali still refused to pay. Williams and Ali arranged to do the same thing the next day. It was even more brutal; 10 rounds, no clear winner and Williams still demanding his money. There are, as you can imagine, a few versions of this infamous two-day brawl, but in every version Williams gets his money and is sacked. It happened, make no mistake. 

Muhammad Ali

Williams continued to get a living, dropping Leon Spinks heavily in sparring before the first Ali fight. And in back-to-back fights in 1976 he met Holmes and Earnie Shavers. In April he lost over 10 rounds to Holmes.

In December it got serious one night at the Aladdin Theatre for Performing Arts in old Las Vegas. It was Williams against Shavers and Shavers was on a glorious promise from Ali: “Beat Roy and you get me.” They fight and hit each other to a point where both men look like they are walking in three-feet of treacle; in round nine, Shavers is hurt, stumbling, Williams is exhausted and the bell saves the pair.

Please, now apply your fingers across your eyes because the start of round 10 that night in that fight is the type of start that gives this brutal game a good name. It is glory, but not for the squeamish.

Ding-ding, round 10: They try and touch gloves but both are swaying – imagine being too exhausted to touch gloves? Williams lands with a crunching right hand and Shavers falls heavily and wearily into the ropes. Williams lands with a sickening uppercut, then hooks and Shavers grabs to hold on, to survive. He is shaken off, rocked again and falls back into the ropes in the corner. The referee jumps in to give a standing count and nearly gets flattened himself. The round is just 20 seconds old. It looks like Earnie will not get the Ali shot.

And then it continues. This fight would have ended in modern boxing. At ringside, people are running, grabbing the ropes, pleading and screaming. Joe Louis, part of the Tiger’s team, is up throwing punches. It’s in colour, the version I watched, but it could be something from a night in the Thirties in another lockdown. Shavers rallies in the last minute and Williams is trapped in the same corner taking right after right after right. This is Earnie Shavers hitting him, remember. Williams gets a standing eight count with 28 seconds left on the clock. The corners are up on the ring apron, there is chaos. Williams can barely stand for the count. The ref waves Williams forward, Shavers moves in and then Big Roy simply stumbles and tumbles in a heap to the canvas. The fight is over, there is about 14 seconds left on the clock in the last round.

“I still don’t know how I won that fight,” Shavers told me in Los Angeles in late 2018. Nobody does, is the only answer. Nine months later Shavers went the full 15 rounds with Ali for the heavyweight title at Madison Square Garden.

Williams fought and won seven times after the Shavers war, sending five to an early shower.

Williams might have been bitter, nasty, mean, miserable and angry. Still, they say he also had some good points. He did, he could fight. And after boxing? Las Vegas and Philadelphia, prison, a band. Still as sunny as ever, as private as ever. Roy “Tiger” Williams. That, my friend, is a fighting man, the man who took Ali twenty rounds and got his five grand.

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