Ali v. Wilt: The Fight that Almost Happened


Wilt Chamberlain was one of the greatest athletes of all-time. Boxing promoter Bob Arum gave the basketball Hall of Famer the chance to prove it against "The Greatest." Arum had twice arranged fights between the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain and heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

The first fight, which had signed contracts, was spoiled when Ali was beaten by Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. But because Ali wanted to stay busy after that loss and Chamberlain wanted the fight, Arum went back to work on it.

"It was always Wilt's dream to fight Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship," Arum said. "But when Ali lost to Frazier, it couldn't be a championship fight. However, Wilt was still interested in doing it for the right amount. We got together and his lawyer, myself and Wilt worked it out."

The sides came to a verbal agreement that Chamberlain and Ali would fight a 15-round bout on July 26, 1971, at the Houston Astrodome. The savvy Arum, though, knew that without a signed contract, there was no guarantee the fight would go through. So Arum pulled Ali aside before the news conference and told him to cool it.

"You know how Ali was and what a great promoter he was," Arum said. "I was assured by Wilt's lawyer he would sign, but I just had a funny feeling. I grabbed Ali before Wilt got there and "told him I thought the guy was getting shaky and might pull out of the fight and I told him to shut up until (Chamberlain) actually signed. And he went, `Yeah, yeah, yeah.'"

But as soon as Chamberlain and his lawyer entered the office at the Astrodome where Ali and Arum were waiting, things changed. The showman in Ali took over even though there were no media there to witness it. As Chamberlain ducked his head through the doorway, Ali shouted `Timber! The tree will fall in four!!"

Chamberlain immediately asked Arum if he could use a private phone for a few minutes before proceeding. Arum set him up in Astrodome owner Judge Roy Hoffheinz' office and left him alone. Chamberlain called Jack Kent Cooke and quickly agreed to terms with the Lakers.

"I don't know whether he was using the possibility of the fight as leverage against the Lakers or not, but obviously Cooke didn't want him to go ahead with the fight," Arum said. While Arum said he was convinced Ali would have beaten Chamberlain, he said the fight would have been "huge" at the box office, and said that longtime trainer Cus D'Amato had worked with the basketball star and saw potential in him as a boxer.

At the same time, Arum had seen how poorly a world-class athlete from another sport would have performed against Ali. Arum was in London with Ali in the mid-1960s when football superstar Jim Brown was there filming a movie. Brown had yet to announce his retirement from the NFL, but went up to Arum, a close friend, and said he wanted to fight Ali.

Arum relayed the message to Ali who said to bring Brown to London's Hyde Park. When they arrived, Ali told Brown to try to hit and not to worry about his, Ali's safety. "Jimmy was obviously a big, strong guy and he would probably have beaten the (crap) out of everyone in the NFL at the time," Arum said. "Ali told him to hit him and Jimmy started swinging. He was throwing these big, hard punches, but he wasn't coming close to hitting him.

"Then, Ali said he would start to hit back when Jimmy was trying to hit him. And Ali hit him in the face with an open palm and slapped him about 20 times before Jimmy could get out of the way. Jimmy was one of the great athletes ever, but boxing is a different sport and that's why I don't think Chamberlain wouldn't have been much of a threat."

Chamberlain had never had no professional boxing experience either. But he was convinced that his remarkable athleticism would enable him to hold his own against Ali. D'Amato, who guided Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight championship and later trained Mike Tyson, encouraged the Stilt, telling the Big Fella he had a chance.

As boxing novelty acts go, this would have been a lollapalooza: The greatest boxer ever Ali against the most prolific scorer ever. Ali was not averse to trying something new for a payday -- witness his "draw" with Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki on June 25, 1976, in Tokyo. Chamberlain, then 34, thought beating Ali would establish that he was the world's greatest athlete.


FLCeltsFan said...

I didn't remember this. But it would have been a classic!! Too bad it never came about

Lex said...

great piece on bob ryan, FCF.

You and bob are celtic institutions.

FLCeltsFan said...

Thanks Lex! And you are an inspiration!

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