The late Muhammad Ali may be best remembered as the greatest boxer to ever live, and rightfully so, but upon closer look at his life and legacy, it becomes clear that he was the epitome of sports entertainment before it was a buzz phrase in Vince McMahon's vocabulary.
Ali combined his undeniable athleticism with a flare for the dramatic to create a larger-than-life personality for himself that appealed to the masses. It was that personality that helped elevate him beyond the sanctity of boxing and into a pop culture phenomenon as men, women and children found themselves absolutely fascinated by the boxer.
There is no denying the effect he had on the sporting world and the entertainment industry. He was a larger-than-life figure, an icon in its truest definition. The biggest names in both fields paid tribute to him upon the announcement of his passing:
Ali was as recognizable for his stand against the Vietnam War, his fight for equality and his research for Parkinson's disease as he was his unparalleled boxing career.
What few understand is the effect that professional wrestling had on his showmanship and what he ultimately gave back to that industry.
Master of the Mic
One of the skills that allowed Ali to rise from obscurity to the forefront of the boxing world was his brashness and, more importantly, his ability to talk fans into caring about his fights. He was a masterful self-promoter and skilled entertainer. He gave audiences a hero to cheer or, in other cases, a cocky and arrogant villain to root against. He talked crowds into whatever arena he was competing in, not unlike the wrestlers of his time.
In fact, it was Ali himself who admitted that he learned the value of talk from the world of professional wrestling in his autobiography, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (h/t Yahoo Sports). Speaking to collaborator Thomas Houser, he recalled his first exposure to the industry.
[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.
Over the years, Ali would give credit to another wrestler, one who stood by his side as a manager for a brief period of time in 1976, the late "Classy" Freddie Blassie. He would shift credit from George to Blassie, crediting the all-time great villain for teaching him the gift of gab. The back-and-forth continued for decades, with no one really knowing who to place credit on for Ali's recognition of the importance of promos in sports.
In 2015, Dave Meltzer sat down for an interview with Hitting the Highspots, hosted by former WWE employee Rob Naylor, and cleared things up:
"He was boxing in Vegas on a Friday night and the wrestling was on a Saturday. He said it was a Gorgeous George match in Las Vegas. So, um, he was doing a thing and other people said, 'No, no...it was a Blassie match. It turns out, when I investigated...it was a main event of Fred Blassie vs. Gorgeous George."
Meltzer concluded that Ali, fresh off of an Olympic gold medal, was actually inspired by both men.
Ali recognized the power that comes with talking audiences into buildings. A bigger paid crowd means more money and exposure for the athletes. Professional wrestling's greatest, including "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes and "Superstar" Billy Graham, modeled their promos after the boxing great.
They utilized his panache to its fullest, resulting in interviews that would ultimately earn them status as two of the greatest talkers in professional wrestling history.
Ali took from the sport but gave back, motivating some of the brightest stars and Hall of Famers to ever lace a pair of wrestling boots. That was not his only contribution to the sport, though. When the time came, Ali was more than willing to step inside the squared circle with an opponent of a different breed.
Not Joe Frazier or George Foreman, no. Ali would step out of his comfort zone and battle the great Antonio Inoki in one of his most trying battles.
A year after The Thrilla in Manilla in which Ali defeated Joe Frazier, in what many consider one of the greatest fights in boxing history, The Greatest was understandably cocky and arrogant. Whereas his talking was typically one of his greatest strengths, it got him in trouble when he challenged any "Oriental" to a fight, pledging $1 million if he was defeated.
Unimpressed by Ali's bravado and offended by his challenge, the great Japanese wrestler (and 2010 WWE Hall of Fame inductee) Inoki accepted.
As detailed in Aaron Tallent's piece for the Sweet Science in 2005, it became apparent to Ali very quickly that the match would not be a typical, choreographed wrestling match with a scripted winner, forcing the boxing champion to insist on specific rules: "So it was decided that suplexes would not be allowed. Head-butts, knee blows below the belt and open-handed eye gouges were banned as well. Finally, Inoki would not be allowed to kick Ali above the waist either."
In order to prepare for the bout, Ali traveled the United States, either confronting or competing against wrestlers in exhibition bouts. There was the not-so-great bout with Kenny Jay and the "war" with Buddy Wolfe, both of which were officiated by Verne Gagne.
In both instances, Ali was accompanied to the squared circle by idol Blassie, essentially setting himself up to be the heel in the equation. How could he not? He was cocky and unlikable, a loudmouthed villain from another sport invading the world of professional wrestling and touting his greatness. It came naturally, was never forced and, thus, the crowd bought into it.
The most memorable of Ali's wrestling angles prior to the showdown with Inoki came on June 1, when he confronted Gorilla Monsoon after a match. His arrogance, again, got the best of him and led to him being lifted off the ground and airplane spun. Embarrassed, he fled from the ring while Monsoon laughed off the idea of Ali getting in the ring with him.
The much-anticipated bout between Ali and Inoki took place on June 26, 1976, in the Nippon Budokan. Ali was the picture of confidence while Inoki was classy-yet-subdued. They were polar opposites and, when the bell rang, would remain that way.
Ali through punches, landing five of them throughout the 15-round fight. Inoki landed 64 kicks, knotting up and bloodying Ali's legs. According to longtime fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco, per Tallent: "Ali is bleeding from the legs. He gets an infection in his legs; almost has to have an amputation." He would also suffer clots that threatened his life, proving that the "fake" wrestling match that Ali originally thought he was getting himself into was far more real than he could have ever imagined.
It ended in a draw, despite such a wide disparity in landed blows. The conclusion was a fitting way to conclude what was a boring, slow match that may have been wildly underwhelming but proved that Ali was a gifted performer and probably could have excelled in the world of pro wrestling if he wanted.
Following the revelation of his passing, and despite previous hostility between them, Inoki held a press conference paying tribute to one of his most recognizable rivals.
Lending Credibility to WrestleMania
The inaugural WrestleMania was a gigantic risk on the part of Vince McMahon. He has waged everything he had, personally and professionally, on the idea on event meshing pop culture and professional wrestling. He recruited television star Mr. T, musicians Cyndi Lauper and Liberace and New York Yankees manager Billy Martin to stand alongside his biggest star, Hulk Hogan.
But the promoter was no finished. He dipped into his history with Ali, whose match against Inoki he had helped promote in the States, and used that previous business relationship to convince The Greatest to appear as special referee for the main event pitting Hogan and Mr. T against "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff.
As the great Pat Patterson revealed during a 2006 episode of WWE Classics on Demand's Legends of Wrestling, Ali's Parkinson's disease was setting in and he was in no shape to referee an entire match. McMahon adjusted, putting Ali on the outside of the ring as the special guest enforcer.
That did not stop the bodacious athlete from getting involved. At one point, he entered the ring, clearing it of the villains and exchanging a few words with them. Even with his health deteriorating, he found a way to become one of the most buzzed-about elements of pro wrestling's biggest night.
An Enduring Legacy
Ali was a template for the perfect professional wrestler. Despite the fact that he plied his craft to great success in a different profession, he was always quick to admit his admiration for wrestling and brought considerable attention to it by actually climbing between the ropes to compete.
He did not have to. He was one of the biggest sports stars on the planet, not to mention a civil-rights activist and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and forcing men to go to battle via the draft. The last thing he had to spend his time doing was partaking in wrestling angles and risking his career in a non-sanctioned battle against Inoki.
But he did.
And he came back, working the inaugural WrestleMania and even appearing in WCW in 1994 as the company donated proceeds from the gigantic Halloween Havoc match between Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair to fund Parkinson's research.
Whether he was crediting his act to the legendary stars of yesteryear in Gorgeous George and Fred Blassie, creating awareness of the industry through his unselfishness or simply greeting Ric Flair, the Steiner Brothers and Scott Norton with magic tricks that generated much-needed laughs and smiles as they arrived in Korea for an enormous event, Ali and professional wrestling will forever be linked.
On June 3, pop culture lost one of its greatest icons, boxing lost its most celebrated fighter and pro wrestling lost one of its greatest ambassadors.
A classic heel in execution, with over-the-top shenanigans and enough arrogance to make Rick Martel envious, his legacy is one of a hero to millions:
He will be missed.