Boxers in wrestling a rich tradition

Floyd Mayweather Jr. headlines WrestleMania on Sunday with his matchup against Paul “Big Show” Wight in Orlando. But he is far from the first boxing star to try his hand at pro wrestling. Here are some of the most notable examples over the years:

1. Muhammad Ali: The most famous boxer of all time made numerous appearances at pro wrestling events in the United States, Japan and once in North Korea. Ali was even a referee at the first WrestleMania in 1985.

Ali was the only boxer besides Mayweather to do a high-profile pro wrestling match while still in his prime, when he faced Antonio Inoki on July 25, 1976, at Budokan Hall in Tokyo in a match broadcast on closed-circuit television throughout the U.S.

The match was supposed to be scripted, with Ali losing. At the last minute, Ali got cold feet and the match almost fell apart. To save the event,Inoki agreed to fight for real, with a rule set that was akin to fighting in a straitjacket. Inoki couldn’t punch because he wasn’t wearing gloves. He couldn’t kick while standing. He couldn’t use throws, nor use any submissions. So he spent 15 rounds laying on his back throwing kicks to Ali’s legs. The match, officially called a draw, was a farce, but in Japan it is considered one of the most famous pro wrestling matches ever, as well as the birth of mixed martial arts.

Photo Muhammad Ali taunts Antonio Inoki in their 1976 match in Tokyo. The referee, Gene LaBell, is presently a judge for mixed martial arts competitions.
2. Mike Tyson: Tyson’s participation in WrestleMania 14 in Boston in 1998, as a referee for a match where Steve Austin beat Shawn Michaels for the WWF title, may have been the most historically significant appearance by a boxer on a wrestling show on a long-term basis. Austin was already on the verge of becoming the hottest wrestler in the country, but by getting into a staged shoving match with Tyson on national TV, he started getting recognition past just the wrestling fan audience. It was the popularity of Austin that was the key in the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) , at the time behind in a heated wrestling war with rival World Championship Wrestling, that started turning the corner in a battle Vince McMahon’s company won. As for Tyson, at the time suspended from boxing for biting Evander Holyfield’s ear, his big move was a supposed knockout punch to Michaels after the match.

3. Primo Carnera: A dubious heavyweight champion in 1933-34, long after his boxing career was over and he was left broke, turned to pro wrestling from 1946-63. In his early years, the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder was one of the biggest pro wrestling box office attractions in the country. While considered poor as a wrestling performer, he was a headliner almost his entire run.

4. Joe Louis: Heavily in debt to the IRS after his boxing career ended, Louis wrestled some in the 1950s and ’60s, and as late as 1972. But the former heavyweight champion was used more often as a main event referee, working at many of the biggest arenas in the country into the early ’70s.

5. Jack Dempsey: During the 1920s, when Dempsey was the king of boxing and Ed “Strangler” Lewis was the king of wrestling, there were serious efforts to have them face off in a legitimate match. But after Dempsey did some training with wrestlers, he lost interest in the offers. On July 1, 1940, in Atlanta, a 45-year-old Dempsey, whose boxing career ended a dozen years earlier, destroyed a pro wrestler with no boxing background, Clarence “Cowboy” Luttrell, for two rounds under boxing rules in what videotape evidence seems to indicate was not a choreographed match, even though it was part of a pro wrestling show. Dempsey also did boxing matches with famous pro wrestlers Bill Longson and Wild Bull Curry on pro wrestling shows, which were likely more along the lines of traditional pro wrestling.

6. Archie Moore: Moore’s pro boxing record shows two knockout wins over pro wrestlers on pro wrestling events, a 1956 win over “Professor” Roy Shire, and a 1963 win over “Iron” Mike DiBiase, the stepfather of ’80s wrestling star Ted “Million Dollar Man” DiBiase. But both were along the lines of pro wrestling feuds, done identically. Moore refereed matches where the villain blamed Moore’s officiating for costing them the match, and challenged Moore to boxing matches. Both also ended identically, in the third round, stopped due to blood. Shire later became one of the most successful pro wrestling promoters of the ’60s and ’70s out of the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and on a few occasions in big matches used the longtime former light heavyweight champion as a special referee.

7. Joe Frazier: Frazier refereed a famous Ric Flair vs. Dusty Rhodes match on November 22, 1984 in Greensboro, N.C. He stopped the match due to Rhodes’ bleeding, which was done to set up a Rhodes vs. Frazier match, which never materialized. The former heavyweight champion did lose a scripted boxer vs. wrestler match in the Caribbean to Carlos Colon in 1984, the father of current World Wrestling Entertainment star Carlito.

8. “Jersey” Joe Walcott: While in his late 40s, long after his boxing career ended, Walcott participated in what were billed as former world heavyweight champion boxer vs. world heavyweight champion wrestler matches against Buddy Rogers and Lou Thesz. They were both scripted matches, with the wrestlers winning.

9. Leon Spinks: Spinks, while still active but long past his prime as a boxer, wrestled extensively in both the U.S. and Japan, including high-profile matches with Inoki in Japan and Jerry “The King” Lawler in Memphis during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Spinks’ 1986 match with Inoki had gigantic ratings on Japanese television, but was an embarrassment. Inoki was supposed to drop Spinks backward on his head and pin him, but Spinks went dead weight and both went down with no impact. Spinks then laid down for the finish and wouldn’t get up, since it was his time to lose. After the unconvincing ending to the match, Spinks got right up like nothing had happened.

10. Evander Holyfield: As recently as August 13 in Madison Square Garden, Holyfield did a mock boxing match with WWE wrestler Matt Hardy in Madison Square Garden, which was taped for airing a few nights later on NBC. Holyfield did the wrestling gig to help promote his next boxing match.