As only he can Steve Bunce tells the story of Dave Zyglewicz, the world title fight he secured and The Big Cat who was shot
THE advert was in The Ring and the message was simple. It was an SOS, a few words to save our sport. The heavyweight boxing business was in turmoil, under the spell of mobsters, with a felon as champion and a great pretender as the leading contender.
Meanwhile, a young man called Dave Zyglewicz was finishing his duty in the United States Navy and wondering what he was going to do when his service was over.
Zyglewicz read the advert carefully, ticking off the questions and promises in the copy as he mouthed the words slowly. He read it again, he wanted to make sure that there was not a secret catch. The advert started: “Young boxers wanted… boys from 18 to 23…. weight around 200 pounds… six-feet tall… who want to make a lot of money… No Experience Necessary.” Big Dave liked that, he ticked every box.
There was also the promise to pay your fare, get you a job and put a roof over your head in Houston. What could be easier? Zyglewicz read the words at some point in 1964. Yep, Ziggy was the man for the mission.
The advert had been placed in the boxing magazine by a man called Hugh S. Benbow, a fan, promoter and ducker and diver from Houston and the benefactor of Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams.
Zyglewicz made contact, Benbow sent the money and the game started. There is a claim that Zyglewicz was the Navy Atlantic Fleet Champion, an area that even the WBC has so far failed to make a belt for.
Make no mistake, Ziggy could have a fight. He was entertaining, came forward, went looking for the quick finish. He was a simple heavyweight treat on any card. The type of fighter that kept bums on seats in local arenas. He made his debut in April 1965 and put together an unbeaten sequence of 24 fights before his first loss in 1968. He was involved in brawls, stopping 12 of his first 24 opponents in entertaining fights in Texas; he was an attraction in his new home town of Houston, filling seats at Dance Town, the Coliseum and at fairgrounds across the state.
Ziggy was on the Williams and Muhammad Ali undercard in front of 35,000 at the Astrodome in Houston in 1966; Ziggy won in four rounds to move to eleven and zero, Williams was ruined in the third round. The promoters were Benbow and Bob Arum. There was chaos in the dressing room before the fight, Ziggy would have seen it all. Williams was served with legal papers telling him that he owed Benbow’s old partner, Bud Adams, 67,615 dollars. Adams had paid for all the hospital care when Williams had been shot and nearly killed by a policeman in late 1964. Williams was convinced the care was free – he was wrong. Instead, an hour before the most important fight of his life he was served with the shattering papers. Benbow and Adams had split in 1965. Williams was shaken, shocked, could barely talk and the fight with Ali was minutes away. Ali is said to have gone to see him at that point and told him that they never had to fight, that they could call it off. Williams was in a trance. They did fight and it was savage and finished with Benbow hollering from ringside: “Get up and fight, you son of a bitch.” What a business.
The shooting of Cleveland Williams is never easy to read about. It’s too familiar, too modern, too American. Williams was stopped in his car by a small policeman. He was then placed in the police car. The policeman, Dale Witten, pulled his .357 Magnum to try and calm Williams. That will work every time. In the struggle a bullet went through Big Cat’s colon and bowel, right kidney and came to rest near his hip. It stayed there. It caused nerve damage. Witten stood accused of saying: “I don’t want to take that n* to hospital and get his blood all over the car.” Williams did get to hospital, he lost more blood, survived six hours of surgery and dropped nearly 100 pounds in weight. After the shooting, Benbow found him some work on a ranch and he came back to boxing the following year.
Meanwhile, Ziggy kept on fighting and winning. The local fans loved his style. “The Mexicans went crazy for me – I always gave them a fight and that is what they paid for,” insisted Zyglewicz.
And then Joe Frazier came calling. Frazier was the WBC champion during Ali’s exile. Frazier wanted big fights, but following Ali was a joyless task. Frazier beat Buster Mathis, had a war with Oscar Bonavena and toyed with Manuel Ramos before meeting Zyglewicz.
A fight with Ziggy was made for the Sam Houston Coliseum in April, 1969. Over 12,000 tickets went in a flash. Benbow knew it would sell. Ziggy really was a favourite, that’s not an invention.
Zyglewicz had lost just once in 29 fights, he was in truth two inches shorter than six-foot and ten pounds lighter – he had lied when he applied. Frazier was both taller and heavier, and that was rare.
The MC for the night, Benny King, sold the fight. Whew, it was beautiful. The crowd cheered and hollered for Ziggy and booed Frazier. The champion was, at the time, feeling particularly unloved, especially in Philadelphia, his city of love. Zyglewicz was the The Houston Slugger that night. Ding ding, they stood and exchanged left hooks, Frazier felt it, fired back, Ziggy came back and then ping, perfect Frazier left hook and The Houston Slugger was over after just 16 seconds of the first round. It was meant to be the first time that Zyglewicz had ever been dropped. He went down heavy, but was up fast.
Frazier pulled his tiny eight-ounce gloves tighter, set his feet and went back to fighting. Ziggy met him with a short right, then more hooks, body shots. It was, trust me, a rootin’ and tootin’ Texas slugfest. Frazier sent a few right uppercuts through the middle and then mixed vicious left hooks to body and head. And then one left hook sends Zyglewicz down and out. His arm high above his stricken body and dangling, held disturbingly on invisible thread. It is not a funny ending. The official time is 96 seconds of round one. That’s the end of Ziggy. Frazier, in his next fight, meets Jerry Quarry and it is one of the best heavyweight fights of any decade. The Ring, the magazine that delivered Ziggy, voted Frazier v Quarry as the fight of the year.
In 1982 Zyglewicz made a mad comeback in New York. He won, but that was the end of Ziggy, the man who answered a simple advert and five years later stood toe-to-toe with Joe.