Skip to Main Content

Ali-Chamberlain the greatest fight that never happened

By Norm Clarke
VSiN Columnist

May 1, 2017 08:17 PM

Gene Kilroy remains unconvinced the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor megafight will happen. 

He’s been down this road before.
 
Kilroy, a member of Muhammad Ali’s inner circle for years as his business manager, recalls when 7-foot-1 NBA superstar Wilt Chamberlain wanted to fight Ali in 1971, a year after the former world champion came out of retirement.
 
Chamberlain was emboldened by his 14-inch reach advantage and the fact he outweighed Ali by more than 50 pounds.
 
Kilroy, a longtime Las Vegas casino host, said he tried to discourage Chamberlain, saying it would be a mismatch.
 
“I told him, ‘It would be like Ali playing basketball against you,” said Kilroy in a telephone interview.
 
UFC president Dana White has publicly stated that if the Mayweather-McGregor fight happens it would be under boxing rules. “No kicking, no elbows, just straight-up boxing, in a boxing ring and the whole deal.”   
 
“If it’s strictly boxing rules,” said Kilroy, “the MMA guy doesn’t have a chance. It’s like going from one sport to another, like Ali playing basketball against Wilt.”

McGregor was an all-Ireland boxing champion as a teenager before moving to kick boxing at age 16.
 
Mayweather would be putting his 49-0 record on the line, a hallowed mark in that it tied the great Rocky Marciano’s boxing feat.

“Wilt wanted Cus D’Amato to train him,” said Kilroy.
 
Chamberlain was 35 at the time, a year away from retiring from the NBA after 13 seasons with more than 70 records. He was a goliath on the basketball court. 
 
He’s the only NBA player who averaged 40 and 50 points per season, grabbed 55 rebounds in one game and averaged 22.9 rebounds during his career. The league didn’t keep track of blocks back then, but Chamberlain got up to 25 one night.
 
Ali was 29 in 1971 and 31-0 with 25 knockouts when he faced unbeaten Joe Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs) in Madison Square Garden in New York City for the undisputed heavyweight title. Frazier won in 15 rounds by unanimous decision.

Before that fight, Bob Arum, Ali’s promoter, heard rumblings that Chamberlain wanted to fight Ali for the world championship. Arum went to Herbert Muhammad, Ali’s manager, and they agreed the fight would generate tremendous revenue. But when Ali lost to Frazier they thought it meant the Chamberlain fight wouldn’t happen.
 
After some thought, they agreed to go ahead with the huge payday, according to Tom Hauser’s “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.”

Chamberlain told Hauser, “I was offered more money than I had ever gotten (as a basketball player.)
 
He added, “If I had been an oddsmaker, I’d have made Muhammad a 10-1 favorite. But I truly believed there was a chance for me to throw one punch and take Ali out.”
 
A press conference was set up to finalize the fight on July 26, 1971 at the Houston Astrodome. Ali was provoking Chamberlain at every opportunity. Arum cautioned Ali to back off until the contract was signed.
 
On the day of the press conference, Ali was waiting. As Chamberlain walked in, Ali yelled, “Timber!” Arum told Hauser that Chamberlain, “turned white, goes into the next room with his lawyer, comes out and says he’s not fighting.
 
“I think Ali intimated him; that’s all it was,” said Arum. "At the moment of truth, Wilt realized that fighting Ali was a totally ridiculous concept.”
 
Words to live by
 
Paola Boivin, a longtime, well-respected sports columnist for the Arizona Republic, announced on Sunday she is leaving the newspaper to teach at Arizona State’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
 
The good times “far outweighed the bad,” she said.

“The majority of athletes I covered were decent, thoughtful and sometimes even supportive,” she wrote.
 
One of the good guys was Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser, now a Las Vegas resident. One day he pulled her aside in the Dodgers clubhouse.

“He noticed every time I walked  through, I would stare at my shoes. It was the residue of being hassled early in my career,” she wrote.
 
“Don’t do that,” said Hershiser. “Stand tall, look straight ahead and act like you belong. Because you do.”
 
Boivin wrote, “From that moment on, I did.”

Sightings
At Larry Ruvo’s Keep Memory Alive Power of Love gala at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Friday: Siegfried and Roy, Steve Wynn, billionaire investment mogul Ron Perelman, former Oakland Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett, Larry King and Steve Schirippa of “The Sopranos.”…
Backstreet Boys AJ McLean and Brian Littrell, at Topgolf (MGM Grand) on Thursday, their night off from their residency at Planet Hollywood. Also at Topgolf on Thursday: members of the San Jose Sharks.
 
The punch line
“Federal agents just seized 300 pounds of Yak meat that was illegally smuggled into JFK airport. And yet somehow JFK still smells less like yak meat than LaGuardia.” – Jimmy Fallon.

back to news
Close