Floyd Mayweather vs Conor McGregor isn’t the first time a novelty boxing match was proposed.
The sport flirted with Muhammad Ali vs Jim Brown and Mike Tyson vs Tony Mandarich, and potentially a few others that also never came close to happening. However, there was one freak show that was presumably very close to happening.
Was Muhammad Ali going to fight Wilt Chamberlain, then the world’s best basketball player and surely one of the greatest ever.
Of course, the 7’2″ Chamberlain, like McGregor, didn’t have any legitimate boxing experience. However, Wilt and many in the media were convinced his remarkable athleticism and size advantage would compensate for his lack of experience.
“In 1971 before the (first Joe) Frazier fight, I heard that Wilt Chamberlain wanted to fight Ali,” promoter Bob Arum told Thomas Houser in the latter’s book Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.
“So I went to Herbert (Muhammad, Ali’s manager), and we agreed that, whatever the merits of the fight, the gate would be tremendous. Then I went to see Wilt, and he told me his greatest dream was to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. And we signed a contract.”
“But then Ali lost to Frazier, and Herbert came to me and said, `There’s no championship to fight for. What do we do now?’”
They proceeded with plans to have the fight anyway but, according to Arum, Chamberlain started having second thoughts when Ali and Wilt met at the Astrodome to sign the new contracts.
“I said, `Ali, shut your mouth. Let’s get him signed to the contract before you start riding him.’ Ali told me not to worry. Then Chamberlain comes in, and Ali shouts `Timber!.’
`Timber! The tree will fall in four!!”
“Chamberlain turns white, goes into the next room with his lawyer, comes out, and says he’s not fighting.”
“I think Ali intimidated him; that’s all it was. At the moment of truth, Wilt realized that fighting Ali was a totally ridiculous concept.”
Arum had no doubt Ali would have easily beaten Chamberlain and insisted the fight would have been a “huge” event, especially because legendary trainer Cus D’Amato, who would mentor a fella named Mike Tyson years later, saw potential in the basketball star.
“I was offered more money than I’d ever gotten (as a basketball player),” Wilt said later.
“It would have been a scheduled 10-round fight and I honestly believe I had a chance. I thought a man as great at his job as Ali was might take me lightly.”
It would have been a spectacle, indeed, to see the 6’3″ champ take on a monster of a man eleven inches taller and every bit as athletic.
All of us sometimes lose touch with reality because we are blinded by the prospect of something sensational It’s that child in us all.
In the end, Ali vs Chamberlain would have proven to be little more than an overhyped freak show.