How Muhammad Ali influenced professional wrestling, MMA

Boxing

With the passing of Muhammad Ali, much of the talk about his legacy surrounds his contributions inside the squared circle. But Ali’s legacy extends beyond the boundaries of the sweet science as his influence bled into the worlds of professional wrestling and mixed martial arts.

Muhammad Ali served as the guest referee at WrestleMania I. (The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali served as the guest referee at WrestleMania I. (The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)

The man known as the “Louisville Lip” is often credited for his influence on the world of professional wrestling and the wrestler’s ability to “cut a promo” in order to sell their upcoming match.

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However, Ali has publicly credited professional wrestling for shaping and molding his ability to promote a boxing match like no other. It was in 1961 when Ali met pro wrestling superstar Gorgeous George that the future boxing champion realized the significance of selling a fight. In the autobiography “Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times,” Thomas Houser documents how the flamboyant and charismatic professional wrestler affected Ali.

“[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,' " Ali told Houser of when he met Gorgeous George. “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.”

Ali would go on to establish a legacy of pre-fight theatrics that would hold just as much significance outside of the ring as the action inside of it.

This wouldn’t be the last time that the worlds of Ali and professional wrestling would intersect.

Nearly a quarter century later, Ali would pay it forward by assisting in establishing the World Wrestling Federation as a cultural phenomenon by participating in the main event of the inaugural WrestleMania at Madison Square Garden. Ali was tabbed as one of the special guest referees for the featured match between Hulk Hogan and Mr. T taking on “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. Ali infamously stood on the ring apron and took a swing at Piper during the match.

“WWE is saddened to learn that two-time world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali passed away at age 74 on June 3, 2016,” a statement released by WWE said. Ironically, Ali has yet to be inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame, where celebrities such as Mike Tyson, Snoop Dogg, Pete Rose, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump all reside. Perhaps that will change with his passing and considering how influential he has been.

Ali’s influence didn’t stop there, however, as he also played a vital role in the birth of mixed martial arts. On June 26, 1976, Ali infamously faced Japanese professional wrestler and WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki in a 15-round exhibition match at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo, Japan. At the time, Inoki was staging exhibition fights in an effort to prove that his style of wrestling was the dominant discipline and the way to prove that would be against the greatest boxer of all time.

The exhibition fight had a fascinating build, as Ali would lambast Inoki at several press conferences prior to the fight. Ali also appeared on World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) television and involved himself in an impromptu scuffle with legendary pro wrestler Gorilla Monsoon.

What was originally supposed to be just an exhibition match for show turned into something quite different as Inoki’s handlers believed that this was going to be a real fight between a boxer and a professional wrestler. The original script that was drawn up ended up being tossed out the window and the fight dissolved into a bizarre dud in terms of action and entertainment. Inoki remained on his back for a majority of the fight, kicking at Ali’s legs.

Although the fight turned out to be a less than stellar exhibition that many boxing writers called one of the most embarrassing moments in Ali’s career, it indirectly provided the blueprint that would help launch the original iteration of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where combat sports of different disciplines compete against one another.

“I think Muhammad Ali changed the face of combat sports forever,” UFC president Dana White told ESPN. “A lot of guys didn’t have personality back in the day. He was charismatic and incredible. Anybody who has ever been involved in combat sports I think is a huge fan of Ali.”

This is just another example how the late, great Muhammad Ali was much bigger than just a boxer.

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