Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest boxers, and greatest personalities, who ever lived. So, it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that over his life, Ali had some very close ties to the world of professional wrestling, an industry built on great fighters with larger-than-life personalities. From the wrestlers that influenced his unique style of promos, to the modern Superstars that have borrowed from his work, there are many places in wrestling where Ali’s legacy on the business can be found, and these are just a few of the most prominent examples.
6. Gorgeous George
Ali often spoke about the legendary Gorgeous George and how he influenced the style and personality that Ali brought to his promos and fights. For those who are unaware, Gorgeous George was one of the most famous wrestlers in the world during the 40’s and 50’s, playing an incredibly flamboyant character who was tough as nails inside the ring. In fact, Gorgeous George basically created the template for the more entertainment-based spectacle that wrestling would become, and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010 for his incredible influence on the industry as a whole. Ali talked about meeting George when he was 19, and deciding to pattern his promos after the wrestler, who would brag about his greatness so much that people would pay in the hopes of getting to see someone finally take him down.
5. Dusty Rhodes
The legendary Dusty Rhodes would claim friendship with Ali over his career, and the two charismatic athletes definitely seemed to rub off on each other when it came to incredible promos. In Rhodes’ incredible “Hard Times” promo, you can hear the same style as you would find in Ali’s public statements, whether about his opponent, or his ongoing fight with the US government over his refusal to serve in Vietnam. Both Rhodes and Ali found a way to speak to the “common people” of America, forging a bond with the masses that elevated them to heroes of the working class. In addition, during an interview shortly before his death, Rhodes claimed that he had been working with Ali in order to face off in a “boxer vs wrestler” match in the 70’s, which was allegedly supposed to occur at the Orange Bowl in Miami. Of course, that match never took place, but Ali would find himself stepping into the ring with wrestlers on more than one occasion in his career.
4. Antonio Inoki
Almost certainly the most famous connection between Ali and wrestling was his hugely hyped 1976 match against Japanese legend and WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki. Inoki was revered in Japan, the creator of “Strong Style”, which was an effort to make pro wrestling look as legitimate as boxing and other fighting styles. To that end, Inoki had been participating in exhibition fights against the top fighters in various disciplines of martial arts, which led to the idea for a match between him and the greatest boxer on the planet. The fight was broadcast in over 34 countries, and in New York, was shown on closed circuit TV as part of a larger wrestling card promoted by Vince McMahon Sr, which included Andre The Giant facing boxer Chuck Wepner. Unfortunately, due to restrictions placed on Inoki that were not revealed until afterwards the match itself was incredibly disappointing, going a full fifteen rounds, and ending in a draw after Inoki spent most of the match on his back, kicking ineffectually at the upright Ali. Stories vary as to why things went down the way they did, but ultimately the fight is mostly remembered for the hype of seeing Ali face Inoki, and the creation of a lifelong friendship between the two men involved in the match.
3. Gorilla Monsoon
In preparation for his fight with Inoki, Ali actually appeared in WWE, as part of one of their Madison Square Garden shows. While there, Ali ran afoul of Gorilla Monsoon, who was still an active wrestler at this time, but would eventually go on to become one of the greatest commentators in wrestling history. After Monsoon finished his match, Ali, who had been a guest at ringside, jumped into the ring to show off for the fans. Monsoon took exception to the interruption, and after Ali shadow-boxed with him for several seconds, the massive wrestler grabbed Ali, lifted him up in an Airplane Spin, then slammed Ali to the mat. While neither Monsoon nor Ali ever admitted that the whole thing was staged (it almost certainly was), it was incredible to see someone of Ali’s fame agreeing to be defeated by a mere pro wrestler. But Ali was a smart man, who probably could have been a great pro wrestler had things gone a different way, and likely knew that having him look vulnerable against Monsoon would help build intrigue for his match against the far more talented Inoki a month later.
When Vince McMahon was creating WrestleMania, he knew he wanted to include as many celebrities as he could, to turn the event into a true entertainment phenomenon instead of just a big wrestling show. And there is no doubt that in this respect, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreamss, as the first WrestleMania was as much a showcase of popular culture as it was about the wrestling. Mr T grabbed headlines for actually wrestling on the show, Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” connection was another highlight, and Liberace’s turn with the Rockettes will live on in WrestleMania video packages forever, but what often gets glossed over is the presence of Ali in the main event of the evening, as the special guest referee (although he was on the outside, and did not actually act as referee). During a mid-match brawl, in fact, Ali even got a shot in on Piper as part of the melee. Years later, Mike Tyson would play a similar role to Ali’s, acting as a guest enforcer at ringside during the WrestleMania XIV match between Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin.
1. Shinsuke Nakamura
Ali’s influence wasn’t just relegated to his active career, which is part of the reason why he’s considered The Greatest. Ali continues to be an inspiration for athletes of any age, and his penchant for showmanship can be still be seen in many pro wrestlers. Most notable among current wrestlers is one of the world’s most charismatic Superstars, Shinsuke Nakamura. One needs only to look at Nakamura’s flashy entrances, his superhuman charisma, and his undeniable style to see the influence that Ali had on the King of Strong Style. If that weren’t enough, Ali’s legacy also lives on in the name of Nakamura’s famed finisher, a high knee strike that was originally known as the “Boma Ye”. This is a reference to the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Ali and George Foreman, which saw the audience chanting “Ali Boma Ye” (Kill Him, Ali). When Nakamura debuted in WWE, the Boma Ye was re-named “Kinshasa”, after the city in Zaire where the Ali-Foreman fight took place.