Forty Years Ago, the Fight that Never Was

Earlier this year, the sports world celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight championship fight, which took place on March 8, 1971 in New York’s Madison Square Garden.  What has gone virtually unnoticed is the 40th  anniversary of the proposed July 26, 1971 bout between Muhammad Ali and NBA star Wilt Chamberlain.  Of course, it may have been forgotten because the Ali-Chamberlain fight never took place, but the interesting question of why a bout pitting one of basketball’s greatest stars against an all-time boxing legend would ever be considered survives. The answer lies in the fact that Wilt Chamberlain was far more than a basketball star.

 At 7’1, Wilt Chamberlain was born to play basketball, but unlike most seven-footers, Wilt had the agility and coordination that allowed him to excel in other sports. In addition to leading the Jayhawks to the NCAA finals st theUniversityofKansas, Chamberlain, competed in various track and field events, including the 440 high hurdles and shot put, and winning the Big Eight high jump championship three straight years. After performing with the Harlem Globetrotters for one year, Wilt joined the NBA in 1959. As a member of the Philadelphia Warriors, Chamberlain became an instant star, breaking every conceivable scoring record within his first few seasons. In the 1961-1962 campaign, Wilt averaged an incredible 50.4 points a game, scoring an even more hard to believe 100 points during a March 2, 1962 contest against the New York Knicks.  The Warriors moved to San Francisco starting with the 1962-1963 season, with Wilt continuing to thrive, scoring 44.8 points a game his first year on the West Coast.  Unfortunately, Chamberlain’s ability to score baskets never translated into championships during his Warrior years, as Wilt’s teams were always bested by the Boston Celtics, led by Chamberlain’s longtime rival, Bill Russell.  The Celtics won the NBA title in each of Wilt’s first seven seasons, giving him the undeserved reputation as a “loser.” Giving Chamberlain some degree of consolation was the fact that he was the highest paid player in the league, and reportedly, was the first professional athlete to reach the $200,000 per year level.

 As Wilt’s basketball career moved along, Chamberlain continued to pursue various hobbies away from the court.  According to his own autobiography, Wilt was a master chef, a championship level pool player, an expert behind the wheel of a racecar, and probably would have been a high priced attorney if he ever had time for law school. In reading Wilt’s words now, he sounds like more like a description of Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” than an NBA center.  Of course, the book’s most celebrated passage was Wilt’s claim to have bedded over 20,000 different women.  One has to wonder how he ever found the time to do much else.

The first attempt to lure Chamberlain away from the NBA came from Hank Stram, the head coach of the AFL Kansas City Chiefs.  Stram invited Chamberlain to the Chiefs training camp, and put Wilt through the paces of working out as a wide receiver. Stram was very impressed when Chamberlain was able to beat running-back Curtis McClinton in a short sprint, and practically drooled while watching Wilt catch passes that otherwise would have sailed over the goal post. Chamberlain never seriously considered Stram’s offer to join the Chiefs, as pro-football receivers were not paid anything close to what Wilt was making in the NBA.  Although had the offer been to play quarterback…..

It was in early 1967 that the possibility of an Ali-Chamberlain fight first began to take shape. Muhammad Ali, completing his third year as heavyweight champion, was beginning to run out of opponents. Always interested in the potential of money and attention, Chamberlain, now playing with thePhiladelphia76ers, stated publically that he would be more than willing to enter the ring against Ali.  Sensing a great story, ABC Sports invited both men to appear on a segment of “Wide World of Sports,” which aired on March 11, 1967.  Hosted by Howard Cosell, the meeting between the two men was classic television, as Ali, in his best form, constantly feigned outrage over the fact that the heavyweight champion was being matched up with a basketball player. As the “contestants” were being measured for reach, height and size of fist, Ali gave his view of what might happen in an Ali-Chamberlain fight…”T.I.M.B.E.R.!” As a parting shot, the champion insisted that Wilt, if the two ever did met in the ring, shave his beard. As Ali explained, “I ain’t fighting no billy-goat.” No bout took place in 1967, as Ali had bigger issues to deal with  stemming from his refusal to be inducted into the military on religious grounds.  Ali was stripped of his title, and was not allowed to fight for 3 ½ years.  Wilt’s immediate future was much brighter, as he and the 76ers won the NBA title, defeating the Warriors in the finals, 4 games to 2.

In 1971, the economic landscape in boxing had changed in the heavyweight division thanks to Muhammad Ali’s return to the sport months earlier.  Ali and Joe Frazier had split a $5 million purse when the two met in March, a fight that saw Joe win a 15-round decision.  With a rematch with Frazier on indefinite hold, Ali figured his best opponent in terms of box office would be the starting center for the Los Angeles Lakers, who happened to be, as you may have guessed, Chamberlain.  Seeing the kind of money Ali and Frazier had shared convinced Wilt to agree to a July 26th bout to be held in the Houston Astrodome, with the formal announcement planned for  an April 22nd press conference. Although most experts gave Chamberlain little chance of beating Ali, one voice of descent was Cus D’Amato, the former trainer of ex-heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, who offered his services to Wilt. Although the prevailing wisdom was that Chamberlain’s only chance was to land a huge punch with all of his 280 lbs behind it, D’Amato felt that Wilt should merely take advantage of his sizeable reach advantage, and jab his way to a victory by decision.

Everything seemed in place on April 22nd when Ali officially announced the time and place of the fight, but before the press conference was even over, Jack O’Connell, senior vice president of the Astrodome, interrupted the proceedings with the words, “We do not have a fight at this time.” Chamberlain had pulled the plug on the entire project, and never again considered getting into the ring with anybody. No one knows exactly why Chamberlain called off the fight, as Wilt himself offered different reasons at different times. One explanation was that Wilt was unhappy with the financial terms, as it appeared that Chamberlain’s $500,000 share was only a fraction of what Ali figured to make, while another reason was that Wilt didn’t like the fact that the fight wouldn’t be for the title (Joe Frazier was the current champion). However, the most plausible excuse was in Chamberlin’s book, where he notes that his father warned him that a bout against  Ali might result in Wilt looking very foolish.

 We’ll never know what would have happened if the Ali-Chamberlain fight had taken place, but the best guess is that it would have been a farce. It’s likely that the first punch Wilt received would have pretty much settled the outcome, even if Ali let it go a few more rounds just for fun. But those who were upset by the bout’s cancellation needed not to worry…Evel Knievel’s Snake River jump was only three years away.