The year was 1961 and the town was Las Vegas, Nevada. Two men sat behind a podium receiving questions from the press, each preparing to step inside a different squared circle in the newly opened Las Vegas Convention Center. One man was George Wagner, better known in the pro wrestling world as Gorgeous George. The other was Cassius Clay, a man who would soon be known the world over as Muhammad Ali.
Reporters aimed their questions at Clay first. The soft spoken 19-year old heavyweight boxer was less than a year removed from winning Olympic gold at the Rome games and was poised entering his seventh professional fight, having won each of the previous six in most impressive fashion. Though brief his words were confident; a controversial exhibition on its own for a black man at that time, even in Las Vegas. The mood in the room changed considerably when reporters turned their attention to Gorgeous George.
The 46-year old pro wrestler wasn’t nearly the physical specimen Clay was, but his presence outshined his younger counterpart in spades. When asked about his opponent later that evening (Freddie Blassie) Wagner shouted, “I am the Gorgeous One, the sensation of the nation! Not only am I the best wrestler in the world, the most highly skilled, with the greatest technique, but I’m also the most beautiful wrestler who ever lived. If this bum I’m fighting messes up the pretty waves in my hair I’ll tear off his arm!”
Gorgeous George was the first significant character of pro wrestling’s television era. The one-time journeyman cultivated what is now recognized as the first real gimmick persona; a flamboyant show off whose arrogance and effeminate nature drew the ire of most everyone watching at home. Fans from coast to coast reached into their wallets without second thought for the chance to see Gorgeous George receive his comeuppance.
Clay couldn’t help but smile as the middle-aged and overweight wrestler wearing a sequin robe and blonde wig carried on for another five minutes, barely stopping to take a breath. The act was hardly foreign to him; Clay had been a pro wrestling fan since childhood and grew up watching Gorgeous George on television since the early 1950s. Later that night he took in the pro wrestling atmosphere in person for the first time; an existential experience he would later describe in his autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, “I looked around and I saw everybody was mad. I was mad! I saw 15,000 people coming to see this man get beat, and his talking did it. I said to myself, this is a good idea.”
As influential as the experience was, the coup de grâce came later in the evening once the audience had filed out of the arena; a one-on-one meeting with the man who had single-handedly packed the house. In an incredibly rare instance of breaking kayfabe during that period, George eagerly offered up his bag of tricks. “You saw that crowd out there, most of them hated me and the rest of them wanted to kiss me,” Ali would recount. “The most important thing is, they all paid their money and the place was full. You’ve got your looks, a great body, and a lot of people will pay to see somebody shut your big mouth. So keep bragging, keep sassing and always be outrageous.”
Invaluable words of a performer taken to heart by a prize fighter.
Three years later, Clay found himself in the center of the ring as the newly crowned Heavyweight Champion; a resounding seventh round TKO of Sonny Liston. All but two of the nation’s most respected boxing journalists failed to believe Clay had a chance to even last the distance let alone win. Despite its’ label as a routine and one-sided title defense a tremendous amount of intrigue surrounded the fight; Clay’s vociferous self-promotion in the face of certain defeat caught the attention of the nation. Fans paid their money to watch the loudmouth from Louisville take it on the chin.
Not quite. Instead they witnessed a sitting heavyweight champion fail to answer the bell for the first time in over 40 years.
As monumental as the moment was, the real story came amidst the chaotic post-fight scene. Clay starred directly into a camera broadcasting across the nation and uttered the most bombastic words ever to come from the lips of a professional athlete (and most assuredly from a black athlete) up until that point in time, ‘I’m the greatest of all time’; a game-changing statement that indeed shook the world.
Gorgeous George would have been proud. The trailblazer suffered a heart attack on Christmas Eve of 1963 and died two days later at just 48 years old. Perhaps it was serendipity that the two crossed paths when they did, that George recognized something special and chose to break the parochial barriers of kayfabe, passing the torch to someone outside the protected world in which he lived. Whatever the reason, the ramifications of the brief encounter are as potent today, in the wake of Ali’s sudden death, as they were half a century ago.
The King of Kings
In pro wrestling what happens outside of the ring is often more important than what takes place during an actual match. By the 1960s the pure nature of athletic competition (or at least a performance presented as such) was no longer enough to draw considerable profits on its own. The television market became oversaturated with pro wrestling content, much of which failed to excite the viewing audience in any meaningful way. Wrestlers like Buddy Rogers, who witnessed the innovative style of Gorgeous George, began to understand that a wrestler’s ability to create a connection with the audience (whether positive or negative) was the most important asset they could possess. People either wanted to cheer for someone or actively root against them; the absence of conviction meant empty seats.
As pro wrestling began to slowly enter into a critical transformation period, Clay, who formally changed his name to Muhammad Ali shortly after winning the Heavyweight title, turned the professional boxing scene upside down overnight, and he did it using the exact same tactics as the country’s most successful pro wrestling heels. At a time when professional athletes were expected to convey a certain level of humble sophistication, Ali unapologetically touted his athletic prowess, insulted his opponents and proclaimed bold statements of his own greatness every chance he had.
The art of the promo, as it’s referred to today in pro wrestling circles, was developed right before the eyes of the American public, who ate it up precisely as designed. Ali commanded the attention of everyone watching on television; his presence strong enough to penetrate through the screen and directly into America’s living room. His witty catchphrases and brilliant way with words captivated his supporters and fueled the hatred of his detractors. Each defense of his heavyweight title became a mega event; fans packed arenas from New York City to Miami to either watch the master at work or hope to see him thrown from his artificial pedestal. Empty seats at an Ali fight were not rare, they simply didn’t exist.
Ali’s flashy style hardly ended with his infamous pre-fight antics, it followed him directly into the ring. Everything from the dramatic pre-fight staredown, complete with animated facial expressions to sell the moment, to outrageous footwork and showmanship in the way he floated around his opponent, strategically landing one lightning quick jab after another. He was a living highlight reel of charisma; a human video game before video games had even been created. Gorgeous George may have bestowed the basic tools of showmanship to a young Cassius Clay, but it was Muhammad Ali who perfected the concept down to an exact science, and in so doing paved the way for the future of pro wrestling. Without Ali there would be no Superstar Billy Graham, no Dusty Rhodes, no Ric Flair, no Hulk Hogan, no Shawn Michaels, no Rock or countless other personas.
Ali lived his life as a pro wrestler first and a boxer second, even if his brash antics were not afforded the protection of choreographed action or predetermined outcomes. He was as calculated as he was impulsive; his knack for progressive storytelling psychology (the blueprint for all successful pro wrestling angles) was impeccable. He would begin by highlighting his opponent’s talent, if need be he’d embellish without hesitation, anything to make the other guy look good. Ali could make even the most pedestrian of fighters sound like world beaters. Once the seeds were planted he would systematically break down every aspect of his opponent, everything from his looks to his fighting style and everything in between. Nothing was off limits; anything to create greater conflict and drama. More often than not his opponents were unknowing participants of the game; supporting characters in a larger story they were blind from seeing. Verbal jousts and minor scuff ups like the altercation between Ali and Joe Frazier on an episode of ABC’s Wide World of Sports were valuable promotional twists to sweeten the pot (just as Jerry Lawler and Andy Kaufman would later exploit). Once the table was set and the last ticket was sold the fight could take place; a resounding victory more often than not. And then it was on to the next challenger, the next story.
Simply put, Ali was sports entertainment before sports entertainment.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Hulk Hogan versus Andre ‘The Giant’ is regarded by many as the greatest pro wrestling story ever told and with good reason. The compelling drama so eloquently defined by Gorilla Monsoon as an irresistible force meeting an immovable object allowed the medium to penetrate deeper into the mainstream than ever before. A brief encounter between the two forces of nature on the last Saturday Night’s Main Event prior to their 1987 title match drew an 11.5 Neilson rating, a record for that time slot that remains to this day. 80,000 plus fans packed into the Pontiac Silverdome to witness the monumental confrontation at WrestleMania III; an additional 400,000 people watched on pay-per view or close circuit television. One year later the televised rematch earned a 15.2 Nielsen rating and over 33 million live viewers, an achievement no televised pro wrestling event has yet to top. The greatest pro wrestling story ever told was but a superb adaptation of the greatest sports story of all time…The Rumble in the Jungle.
By 1974 Ali was as polarizing as a public figure can be. On one hand he defended his title against all challengers, backing up his braggadocios antics and an unblemished record. On the other hand he had refused induction into the armed services draft as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, a choice that ultimately cost him his title as state athletic commissions one by one revoked his boxing licenses. The unbeaten champion spent three years in exile before his draft evasion conviction was finally overturned by the Supreme Court, allowing him to once again practice his craft.
Not long after his return he was granted a shot at the title he never lost; a fight against Frazier (also undefeated) that was coined The Fight of the Century. Before a sold out crowd in Madison Square Garden, Ali fell for the first time both literally and figuratively; a resounding unanimous decision loss. Ali had finally taken the beating his detractors had been waiting for. A year later he would fall once more, this time to the heavy hitting Ken Norton. Amidst speculation that his career was over, like the great heel that he was, Ali refused to go quietly into the night. Instead, he came back even louder, even more grandiloquent than ever before, ultimately avenged both losses and forced himself back into the title picture once more.
In 1974 the Heavyweight title picture started and stopped with one man, George Foreman. Unlike his cheery spokesman persona of today, in 1974 Foreman was presented as an unstoppable monster; a vicious puncher with untamed ferocity. Training vignettes displayed his awesome power as he caved in one punching bag after another, thrusting his trainers out of view as they struggled to hold the bag upright. The world may have been afraid of George Foreman but Muhammad Ali was not.
Revisiting the the iconic showdown with the hindsight of modern times you cannot help but equate it to pro wrestling. Foreman played the role of a monster to perfection, declaring weeks before the fight, “He and I are both religious men, Muhammad and I, he’ll be very fortunate if I don’t serve as an exorcist and beat the devil out of him.” Ali, for his part, refused to acknowledge the insurmountable challenge that stood before him, “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whoop Foreman’s behind! I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
Pro wrestling storytellers have the luxury of writing the finish to a story in such a way that delivers the perfect conclusion to a conflict; pro wrestlers themselves can maximizing the drama by carefully crafting a match that remains consistent with the greater narrative being told. In pro sports, however, the story and the finish often exist on two completely different plains. On a warm October night in Zaire, Africa, The Rumble in the Jungle became the perfect combination of pro wrestling story and unbelievable athletic display.
As Ali walked to the ring on a warm October night in Zaire, Africa, commentators openly questioned if the walk would be his last. When the opening bell sounded and the fight was on, it appeared that speculation would soon become reality. Round after round Foreman delivered thunderous blows to Ali’s head and body, the former champion sent reeling into the ropes but refusing to go down. The harder Foreman swung, the louder the crowd chanted for Ali, using their support to keep the legend upright. Then, like a determined babyface, Ali made his thunderous comeback in the face of defeat, having survived the monster’s best offerings he was poised to strike back. In the eighth round Ali landed a jarring right hand that stunned the exhausted Foreman. Ali cocked his right hand back for another blow, but it was unnecessary, the giant spiraled down toward the mat before crashing flat on his back; Ali, fists still at the ready, watched as the lumbering giant crash down; a moment that could not have been made any better by the most talented of choreographers.
In a twist of fate akin to Steve Austin’s infamous face turn at WrestleMania 13, the unbelievable turn of events transformed the staunchest Ali detractors into instant believers; the gravity of the event solidified his legendary status for all of eternity.
Ali’s direct contributions to pro wrestling have been well outlined in the days since his death; a match in Japan against Antonio Inoki of historical significance, a tussle with Gorilla Monsoon that few athletes of his stature would condone and of course, his role as special guest referee in the main event of the inaugural WrestleMania. While his time inside a pro wrestling ring is certainly important to the industry, his use of pro wrestling psychology and deep appreciation for the art of the work were priceless contributions the industry continues to benefit from today. Ali paved the way for pro wrestling’s great boom of the 1980s, inspired many of the industry’s top talkers and provided endless inspiration for the fictional stories the medium produced.
Ali was a great many things to a great many people, but his legacy can be explained with the most simple of phrases. The Greatest.