On Monday night, the WWE paid tribute to Muhammad Ali on their flagship show, RAW, with a moving video package.
Muhammad Ali transcended the sport of boxing with his charisma, charm, talent, and with his opinions on the state of America — thrusting “The Greatest” into worldwide stardom. Ali was no stranger to controversy. Born Cassius Clay, Ali changed his name in 1964 to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam, stating that Cassius Clay was his “slave name.” In 1966, the Heavyweight Champion refused to be drafted into the United States Army, opposing America’s involvement in Vietnam. He was later stripped of his championship title and found guilty in court for draft dodging, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971. With his charisma and the controversy surrounding him, Ali was a perfect fit for the WWE and professional wrestling.
Muhammad Ali was the first boxer to utilize his prowess and charisma on the microphone, being inspired by Gorgeous George, a professional wrestler. Muhammad Ali’s nickname, “The Greatest,” also was motivated by Gorgeous George, and Ali started using it when he was still fighting as Cassius Clay. When speaking with autobiographical collaborator Thomas Houser, Ali explained the influence that George had on him.
“[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.”
The influence that George had on Muhammad Ali was evident after Ali won his first championship when boxing legend Sonny Liston gave up in the 7th round. After the fight, Ali cut a promo that would be more fitting for a WWE ring than a boxing ring.
“I’m the Champion of the World. I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned 22 years old. I must be the greatest; I told the world … he wanted to go to heaven so I took him in 7 … I am the king of the world. I’m pretty … I’m a bad man. I shook up the world! I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”
Ali would continue to shake up the world, in the World Wide Wrestling Federation (now the WWE). On June 2, 1976, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Muhammad Ali was at ringside as a special guest of the WWE. Wrestling legend and WWE Hall of Fame inductee Gorilla Monsoon had a match that evening that would be interrupted by “The Greatest.” After Monsoon threw his opponent out of the ring, Ali stood up, pointed to the mammoth wrestler, took his shirt off, and leapt in the ring. A young Vincent K. McMahon was calling the play-by-play at ringside as the two combatants circled the ring. Ali threw a couple of jabs, which missed the 400 pound Gorilla, and then pointed at the behemoth and started to say something, when Gorilla suddenly grabbed Ali by the arm and spun him around in an airplane spin and threw him to the canvas. Like a true sports entertainer, Ali looked shocked while holding his back in pain.
This incident was a precursor to the legendary match between Muhammad Ali and Japan’s most famous wrestler to date, Antonio Inoki. Ali presented himself with arrogance on the microphone, and he made the perfect heel for professional wrestling. Rumor has it that Ali talked to the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association, Ichiro Yada, at a reception and said, “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.”
That comment made headlines in Japan and Antonio Inoki accepted the challenge. Inoki’s backers offered Muhammad Ali $6 million for the fight. Inoki took the fight very seriously, saying, “I don’t know how seriously Muhammad Ali is taking the fight, but if he doesn’t take it seriously, he could suffer damage. I’m going in there fighting. I may even break his arm.”
The fight took place on June 25, 1976, at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. It was aired in 34 countries worldwide, and at over 150 closed-circuit TV venues in the U.S., including to a crowd of over 34-thousand people at Shea Stadium. The event was viewed by an estimated 1.4 billion people. The fight itself was fairly boring, and wasn’t well received. It contained many rules that limited the opponents and wasn’t the usual staged fight that fans were used to watching; but for all intents and purposes, it was real.
Inoki spent the majority of the rounds on his back kicking at Ali’s legs, and Ali didn’t even throw his first punch until the 7th round. The match went 15 rounds and was declared a draw, but Ali felt the repercussions throughout his career. At the end of the match Ali’s legs were bloodied causing an infection where doctors were afraid they might have to amputate his legs. Ali also suffered from two blood clots, which many think affected his mobility for the remainder of his career.
Though unpopular at the time, the contest is now looked upon as a legendary matchup and a once-in-a-lifetime contest. Currently, Inoki serves on the House of Councillors under the Japan Restoration Party. After the passing of Muhammad Ali, he made this statement.
“I would like to express my deepest regret to the one who was my partner in the ring, a man who battled until the end. Thanks to Ali and the reputation of our fight, I can do what I’m doing today and bring a different perspective to politics and in particular foreign policy.”
Muhammad Ali made several appearances, in and out of the ring, at many professional wrestling events throughout his career. This included the WWE’s inaugural Wrestlemania, where he was a guest referee in the main event, adding to the success and draw of the innovative event. World Championship Wrestling (WCW) also paid tribute to Ali at its 1994 Pay-Per-View event, Halloween Havoc, where Ali was the guest presenter for the heavyweight title.
With his involvement in professional wrestling and sports entertainment, it was fitting that the WWE would pay tribute to Muhammad Ali. Whether it was in the boxing or wrestling ring, Ali entertained fans throughout his career and truly showed audiences worldwide why he was, indeed, “The Greatest.”
[Photo via WWE Muhammad Ali tribute video]