What If Muhammad Ali Had Fought Wilt Chamberlain?

BY Bernard Fernandez ON July 25, 2014
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Every great athlete in a sport other than boxing believes – or at least wants to believe – that, given enough time to prepare, he could successfully transfer his skills to the ring. That’s why every big-time boxing match has a glut of baseball, football and basketball stars in the premium seats, in addition to the usual coterie of Hollywood types.

It’s not surprising, really. We all like to think we can readily channel our inner tough guy if necessary. And who can blame a Jim Brown or a Herschel Walker for having the delusion that they might have become heavyweight champions of the world, if only they had taken up the sweet science at an early age instead of football. Brown, arguably the best running back and the best lacrosse player ever, even snagged the role of a former heavyweight champ in “Mars Attacks!,” which had a scene of him flattening a succession of alien invaders in that most appropriate of boxing settings, Las Vegas.

But let the record reflect that even the most accomplished of athletes fail or at least underperform when they attempt to make the difficult crossover into boxing. Probably the most notable of the wannabes was Charlie Powell, who spent seven years in the NFL as a wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders, but who also was the world’s No. 2-rated heavyweight contender at one point in the late 1950s. And if anyone dares to mention Powell in the same breath with, say, Mark Gastineau or Ed “Too Tall” Jones, please lie down with a cold compress on your forehead until you return to your senses.

But what if “The Greatest” – Muhammad Ali – had found himself staring across the ring at a 7-foot-1, 275-pound giant who very well might be the most dominant athlete in the history of American team sports? A giant who demonstrated, time and again, that his abilities were so transcendent, so remarkable, that he could have been a nearly unstoppable force in almost any sweaty endeavor he would have taken up?

That athlete is the late Wilt Chamberlain, and we are fast approaching the anniversary date of what might have been the most intriguing oddity bout ever staged. Had Chamberlain not reneged on a verbal agreement to fight Ali by extending his contract with the Los Angeles Lakers for a significant pay hike, Ali-Wilt would have taken place on July 26, 1971 in the Houston Astrodome.

Sonny Hill, who played on the same basketball team as Chamberlain at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia and is the founder of the Sonny Hill League in his hometown, is the foremost keeper of the flame for all things Wilt. But even Hill has his doubts as to the legitimacy of the supposed pairing of Ali and his good friend, who somehow packaged Nikolay Valuev’s immense size as well as the breathtaking versatility of an Olympic decathlete.

“Was it a publicity stunt?” Hill wonders, reflecting back on the fuss made over the rumored bout between a couple of loud and proud superstars. “I’m not sure that it wasn’t. It just seems to me that there wasn’t a real affinity on Ali’s part or Dippy’s part (Chamberlain always preferred his “Big Dipper” nickname to “Wilt the Stilt”) to have a real boxing match.

“I’m not so sure that even a great athlete like Wilt, with limited training as a boxer, could have gone into such a bout and been competitive with someone like Muhammad Ali, who undoubtedly is one of the greatest fighters of all time. Ali was at the height of his career then.

“But if Wilt had had a full year to get ready? I don’t know. It would have been interesting.”

Hill is more certain of where Chamberlain, who was 63 when he died of congestive heart failure on Oct. 12, 1999, ranks as a basketball player. He said the debate as to who is the greatest of all time, Michael Jordan or LeBron James, is specious because any such discussion should begin and end with Wilt. Chamberlain, Hill noted, holds NBA records that almost certain will never be broken: 100 points in a game, 55 rebounds in a game (against Bill Russell!), a 50.4 scoring average for an entire season, 118 career games of 50 or more points, a .727 field-goal percentage for a season.

Although Chamberlain still holds or shares 62 NBA records, that figure would be even higher had blocked shots not become an official league statistic until the 1973-74 season, the year after Wilt retired. Harvey Pollak, a longtime statistician of the Philadelphia 76ers as well as for the NBA as an entity, kept track of blocks back in the day and he swears there was a night when Wilt blocked 28 shots against the Detroit Pistons. Chamberlain’s vertical leap measured out at 46 to 48 inches, and he once threw down a dunk at KU on a rim raised to 12 feet.

You want stamina, which is essential in boxing? With overtimes, Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes for a season, an amazing feat given that NBA games consist of four 12-minute quarters. He also averaged 45.8 minutes per game over his 14-year career. Oh, and in all that time he never once fouled out.

You want strength? Hill said Wilt was demonstrably stronger than two burly guys with whom you might be familiar – Shaquille O’Neal and the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hill said a long-retired Wilt went head-to-head with the young Shaq in a pickup game and still was able to do whatever he pleased.

“Wilt moved Shaq around like he was a rag doll,” Hill said.

And Schwarzenegger?

“Arnold, who was a world-class weightlifter and bodybuilder, was making the movie “Conan the Barbarian” with Wilt,” Hill continued. “When he wasn’t shooting his scenes, Arnold would work out with weights, and I mean really heavy weights. One day he was straining with the bar and Wilt walked over, almost casually lifted it three or four times, and set it down. Arnold did not work out with weights again the entire time Wilt was around. Wilt had ungodly strength.”

But Chamberlain wasn’t just a marvel at hoops. He was a high jumper at the University of Kansas, a conference champion using the old-fashioned straddle roll, and he’d routinely outsprint the Jayhawks’ quarter-milers in practice, just for fun. He was an exceptional volleyball player, too, and the Kansas City Chiefs even inquired about any interest he might have in football, thinking he would be unstoppable as a tight end going after passes lobbed high. Several NBA teams – the Cleveland Cavaliers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks and Sixers – all tried to lure Chamberlain out of retirement when he was in his late 40s, convinced that even an aging and diminished Wilt was better than many of the younger big men then patrolling the paint.

So it really should come as no surprise that the notion of an Ali-Wilt fight, as improbable as it may have seemed, gained traction in the spring of 1971. Cus D’Amato, who had trained world champions Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres, and who later launched the career of future champ Mike Tyson, expressed interest in preparing Chamberlain for a fight with Ali, although circumstances dictated that Wilt would have had only about three months to get ready. Bob Arum would have been the promoter.

In “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” Arum told author Thomas Hauser of the far-fetched idea that didn’t seem so far-fetched to some of the principals.

“In 1971 before the (first Joe) Frazier fight, I heard that Wilt Chamberlain wanted to fight Ali,” Arum said. “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?’

“Well, we thought about it. And you have to understand, people pay millions of dollars to publicists and advertising agencies to promote themselves the way that Ali was instinctively able to. Even after he lost to Frazier – and later, when he lost to (Ken) Norton and (Leon) Spinks – he still overshadowed them all. So I told Herbert, `Let’s do the fight anyway.’”

Chamberlain’s interest was piqued, to be sure. He was always about doing things on a large scale, and he might have been the only athlete on the planet with an ego as colossal as Ali’s. If he was to box, the process wasn’t going to be a gradual build-up starting against hand-picked opponents in four-rounders.

“From the time I entered sports, guys tried to get me to become a fighter,” he said. “Ask any boxing manager, if they had to pick an athlete from another sport to develop who they would choose, and they’ll say a basketball player. That’s because of some very basic things basketball players have – size, speed, quickness and hand-eye coordination. And I always thought that if I had to fight somebody, it would be Ali for two reasons.

“No. 1, he was the greatest of his era. And two, he was a kind person, so if it turned out that I was in over my head, he wouldn’t take cruel advantage of it, where some other fighters might try to hurt me if I was vulnerable.

“I was offered more money than I’d ever gotten (as a basketball player). 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. I could see that happening … Against Ali, I thought I could acquit myself reasonably well. Ali would be coming in blind; he’d have no idea what he was facing, whereas I’d know what to expect. And of course, I had God-given strength and athletic ability.

“If I’d been an oddsmaker, I’d have made Muhammad a 10-to-1 favorite. But I truly believed there was a chance for me to throw one punch and take Ali out.”

So why didn’t it happen? Arum, now 82 and recovering from knee-replacement surgery, was not available for comment, but in Hauser’s book he said Chamberlain’s very large feet got cold at an Astrodome press conference to announce the bout.

“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!’ 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.”

Perhaps Arum was correct. Perhaps no athlete, not even Wilt Chamberlain, could come into boxing on short notice and expect to take down one of the greatest heavyweights ever, maybe even the very best to ever lace up a pair of gloves. Then again, Arum had been down that path before.

Chamberlain, you see, isn’t the only other non-boxer endowed with such incredible physical ability that a lot of people believed he could return to action deep into middle age. Jim Brown, who won eight NFL rushing titles in his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, had been retired for 17 years when he appeared on the cover of the Dec. 12, 1983, issue of Sports Illustrated, wearing a Los Angeles Raiders uniform. The headline read “Jim Brown: Are you serious? A comeback at 47? Hey! You’re just what the boring NFL needs!”

Arum, interestingly, had introduced Brown to Ali after Brown’s final NFL season, in 1965. Arum began promoting boxing matches in 1966, at which point Brown asked the new president of Top Rank if he could arrange a title bout between himself and Ali.

Ali met with Brown at Hyde Park in London, where the champ asked the 6-2, 230-pound football legend to try to hit him, as hard as he could. A perplexed Brown then fired a succession of roundhouse shots for about 30 seconds, all of which Ali easy evaded, while occasionally landing stinging, open-palm slaps.

“Ali kept slapping him in the face, not hard, but hard enough and often enough to make the point that as great an athlete as Jim was, he’d have no change in the ring against Ali,” Arum is quoted as saying in Hauser’s book.

Bottom line: Boxing is not like any other sport. Just as there are great boxers who would be utter failures at football, basketball and baseball, so, too are there great athletes in those sports who would fare better trying to pole-vault across the Grand Canyon than stepping inside the ropes against an elite fighter.

ESPN released its totally arbitrary list of the Top 100 athletes of the 20th century in 1999. Ali got the No. 3 slot, behind only Jordan and Babe Ruth, with some of other boxers listed being Sugar Ray Robinson (No. 24) and Jack Dempsey (52). Chamberlain came in at No. 13, which Hill said is ridiculously low whatever the rating criteria.

Comparing apples to oranges is always an iffy proposition. As superb as Ruth was as a baseball player, can anyone imagine him challenging his contemporary, Dempsey, for the heavyweight championship of the world? It would be as absurd as Dempsey picking up a bat and competing against Ruth in home-run derby.

All that being said, the feeling lingers that Wilt Chamberlain is the one non-boxer who might have held a winning lottery ticket against Ali, or against quite a few pretty good heavyweights, if he could have just landed the right punch at the right time. Yeah, the Big Dipper was that exceptional.

If the fight had come off, we’d probably still be talking about it today. As matter of fact, that’s just what I’m doing now.

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