The world lost one of it’s greatest global pop cultural icons when Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. A long time sufferer of Parkinson’s Disease, he passed away in the company of his family. The rest of the mainstream press will paint the picture that most people know. The boxer. The social activist. The Rumble in the Jungle. The Greatest. But this article is about his connection to another world. The love he had and interaction he had in the world of professional wrestling.
There was no denying Ali’s charm, even from his early days as Cassius Clay. He was the smooth talkingist, cool walkingist athlete the world had seen, winning over audiences of all race, creed and colour by the early 60’s. But a chance run in with wrestling icon Gorgeous George during a radio interview showed a young Clay how to promote himself for a fight.
“[George] started shouting: ‘If this bum beats me, I’ll crawl across the ring and cut off my hair, but it’s not gonna happen because I’m the greatest fighter in the world.’ And all the time, I was saying to myself: ‘Man. I want to see this fight’ And the whole place was sold out when Gorgeous George wrestled … including me … and that’s when I decided if I talked more, there was no telling how much people would pay to see me.”
Muhammad Ali to Thomas Hauser in “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times”(1992)
His real foray into the world of professional wrestling was an impromptu run-in during a WWWF match on June 2, 1976 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During training for his upcoming crossover fight with NJPW founder and WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki, Ali stormed the ring following a match between Gorilla Monsoon and Baron Mikel Scicluna, only to end up in Monsoon’s patented Airplane Spin. A young Vincent Kennedy McMahon handled the mic duties during the match.
A few weeks later, Muhammad Ali and Inoki headlined a sold out card at the famed Budokan in Tokyo, Japan, that also featured Andre the Giant facing boxer Chuck Welpner. A miscommunication of the rules and varying reports of specifics, but in the end, Inoki thought it would be a legitimate fight while Ali assumed it was a worked shoot. It resulted in some tense moments backstage – in his 2008 autobiography, Hitman, Bret Hart (then working for NJPW as part of an exchange with Stampede Wrestling) stated that “(the guys) who were backing Ali made it clear that if Inoki laid a finger on their champ, they would kill him. That’s why Inoki lay on his back for fifteen rounds, kicking Ali in the shins so as not to use his hands”. The fans were outraged. While the match’s place in history is monumental, it’s legacy time spanning, the match itself was clumsy and awkward.
But through it all, Ali and Inoki became lifelong friends. When Inoki wrestled his final match in 1998, Ali – now 14 years into his fight with Parkinson’s and visibly weakening – flew to Japan to be in attendance, and through an assistant, said this over the PA following the match:
“It was 1976 when I fought Antonio Inoki at the Budokan. In the ring, we were tough opponents. After that, we built love and friendship with mutual respect. So, I feel a little less lonely now that Antonio has retired. It is my honour to be standing on the ring with my good friend after 22 years. Our future is bright and has a clear vision. Antonio Inoki and I put our best efforts into making world peace through sports, to prove there is only one mankind beyond the sexual, ethical, or cultural differences. It is my pleasure to come here today.”
On March 1, 1985, Ali returned to the WWF (now under the Vince Jr.’s ownership), one year after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, to be the special ringside enforcer for the Main Event of the very first Wrestlemania, between Hulk Hogan & Mr. T vs. Rowdy Roddy Piper & “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. Ali was starting to show visible signs of the effects of his new opponent and it’s clear that many of the cheers when he raised Hogan’s hand in victory where equally an applause of respect for the man in the bow tie.
A few months after his Wrestlemania appearance, Ali appeared in Mid-South Wrestling‘s SuperDome cards, as the back-up for wrestler Eddie “The Snowman” Crawford in a match against a pre-WWF Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Ali got involved at the matches end and Roberts ends up taking a few shots from The Greatest.
His public appearances would dwindle in the following years as the Parkinson’s took stronger hold over him (although he did make a ringside cameo at WCW‘s Halloween Havoc in 1995), but his hold on people’s hearts never waned. Many have often wondered why in all these years of having a Celebrity wing in the WWE Hall of Famer, that one of the biggest celebrities the world has ever seen – who actually has a deep connection to wrestling’s history – wasn’t yet a member.
Ali’s legacy is clearly not in the world of professional wrestling. He was arguably the greatest boxer the world has ever seen, one of the world’s most beloved and unifying pop culture icons, and a fierce social rights activist who put his money where his mouth was. But it’s nice that even for a few moments, he let the wrestling world into his life.
(Main Photo: Top three from WWE.com, bottom one from geektyrant.com, a still from the 2014 documentary, “I Am Ali”)