Springtime, 1971. Inside an office within the Houston Astrodome, a most unusual negotiation is about to take place. Seated at one end of the table is Muhammad Ali, former Heavyweight Champion of the World and self-proclaimed greatest fighter of all time. Next to him: Bob Arum, the former Justice Department attorney turned boxing promoter who had worked with Ali since his 1966 fight with George Chuvalo.
A few minutes later, they are joined by one of the most imposing figures in all of sport, the towering titan of professional basketball Wilt Chamberlain. Ali and Chamberlain knew each other well and had appeared together on numerous occasions in the past, from television talk shows to press conferences addressing civil rights issues. The purpose of this meeting, however, was far different from their previous encounters.
Today no media cameras are present, no reporters scramble for sound bites. The two most famous athletes in the world isolated themselves within the cavernous empty stadium to quietly discuss an event without precedent in the annals of sport. For on this day, Muhammad Ali and Wilt Chamberlain will agree to face each other in a 15-round boxing match, to be held in the Astrodome on July 26, 1971.
For Chamberlain, fighting Ali represented the pinnacle in his quest to conquer not only his own sport, but the entire sporting world. His accomplishments on the basketball court were already legendary. His records of 100 points scored in one game and 55 rebounds grabbed in another remain untouched, and many observers (then and now) considered him to be the greatest ever to play the game. With an NBA championship trophy and multiple MVP awards on his mantle, Wilt felt he had little left to achieve in basketball. However, Chamberlain was a driven man whose accomplishments spurred him to continually seek greater glory. In the off-season, Chamberlain was a world-class volleyball player and avid weightlifter who possessed enormous physical strength. With nothing left to prove in basketball, Wilt intended to prove that he was one of the greatest all-around athletes of all time. Naturally, there could be no better way to establish this credential than to switch sports and dethrone the man known to the world as “The Greatest”.
For Ali, the circumstances surrounding this fight were less rosy. Following his conviction for unlawfully refusing induction in the armed forces, his nearly three-year exile from boxing had taken its toll both professionally and financially. Although he kept his public profile high with numerous speaking engagements, his income during this period was negligible, and by the time he was finally granted a license to fight again in the US he was nearly penniless. Despite questions as to whether he was the same consummate fighter he had been several years earlier, the beginning of Ali’s comeback was promising, with a TKO of Jerry Quarry in October of 1970 and a knockout of Oscar Bonavena that December. Those victories set up one of the most highly anticipated clashes in Heavyweight history, a title match against reigning champion Joe Frazier in March of 1971.
The battle between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden lived up to its billing and stands as an all-time classic fight. There was only one problem for Ali – he lost. To the shock of many fans and perhaps most of all to himself, Ali was beaten by unanimous decision. With his hopes of regaining the championship denied, and his purse from the fight being applied to debts in order to stabilize his finances, he sought new avenues for maintaining his popularity and increasing his bank balance. The publicity and gate dollars a fight with Chamberlain would generate were more than enough incentive to garner Ali’s agreement to the bout.
Interestingly, Ali’s loss to Frazier also placed his fight with Chamberlain in jeopardy. Wilt had long been interested in taking on Ali, but his dream was based on the context of a match for the Heavyweight title. Chamberlain’s goal was more than just to beat the man, he coveted what was considered the greatest prize in all sports: the status of being The Heavyweight Champion of the World. Prior to the Ali-Frazier fight, Wilt had agreed that he would enter the ring after Ali defeated Frazier in March and was again champion. When Smokin’ Joe retained the title by beating Ali, the latter’s proposed fight with Chamberlain no longer carried title implications, and Wilt’s desire started to wane. Nevertheless, an intrepid Bob Arum continued to stay in contact with Chamberlain and stoke his interest. Given Wilt’s own proclivities for fame and fortune, it wasn’t too hard to sell. Arum promised big bucks and an even bigger spectacle, and soon Chamberlain was back on board.
Although Chamberlain had no competitive experience as a boxer, he approached the Ali fight with a plan. He would retain the services of world-class trainer Cus D’Amato – who readily volunteered to prepare Chamberlain for the bout. The choice of trainers was thoroughly appropriate, as D’Amato possessed an uncanny ability to create heavyweight champions quickly. He had trained Floyd Patterson to become at age 21 the youngest Heavyweight titlist in history, a record that stood for decades until broken by D’Amato’s next protégé – Mike Tyson. D’Amato opined that with proper coaching, Wilt could utilize his overwhelming size advantage to secure victory. The strategy was to keep Ali at bay by using the long jab – indeed, the longest jab of all time – and employ Chamberlain’s massive reach to prevent Ali from landing damaging shots. If Chamberlain could jab effectively it would give him the space to land blows outside of Ali’s range, and if enough shots landed Chamberlain would win a decision simply based on the punch count.
In contrast, Ali was so confident that he hardly felt a plan was necessary. Other top-level athletes outside of boxing had entertained the idea of fighting him before. While Ali was preparing for a fight in London in 1966, football legend Jim Brown was in the area working on the film “The Dirty Dozen”. Brown informed Bob Arum, with whom he was acquainted, that he wanted to challenge Ali to a fight for the title. When Ali heard this, he instructed Arum to have Brown meet him in Hyde Park where Ali took his morning training runs. When Brown arrived, Ali told the NFL star to try and hit him and not worry about whether Ali got hurt. Brown proceeded to throw a barrage of heavy punches, all of which Ali dodged with ease. With Brown still swinging in earnest, Ali playfully slapped Brown’s face repeatedly as the latter’s punches sailed by in futility. Brown quietly dropped his challenge thereafter. For the fight with Chamberlain, Ali summed up his prognostication in a single word. As Wilt entered the office in the Astrodome to discuss the final terms of the match, Ali sized up his foe and shouted: “Timber!”
As word of the match spread throughout the sporting world, excited questions began to fly. Did Wilt really stand a chance against “The Greatest”? Could Wilt actually pull off an upset? Would this be the highest-grossing fight of all time? Would Wilt’s boxing shoes be the largest of all time? Sadly, these questions were to forever remain unanswered. On April 22, 1971, Walter Cronkite reported on the CBS Evening News that Wilt Chamberlain had declined to sign the final contract for the match. The world would never see these literal and figurative giants trade blows in the ring, and sporting aficionados everywhere were left to ponder what might have been.
The official reason for Chamberlain’s withdrawal, provided by his attorneys, was that the after-tax money Wilt would earn from the bout was only $500,000. They claimed this was too small a purse to make the effort worthwhile. Naturally, other opinions abounded. Bob Arum believed that Wilt was trying to use the idea of the fight (and the potential that he might be injured) as leverage in contract negotiations with Los Angeles Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke. Arum stated that at the Astrodome meeting, Wilt excused himself to a private room to call Cooke and discuss details of his NBA contract renewal, and would certainly have mentioned the fact that he was about to agree to fight Muhammad Ali. If so, Cooke undoubtedly would have attempted to talk him out of it, and nothing in the sports world speaks as persuasively as money.
When interviewed in later years, Wilt himself offered another explanation for his decision to withdraw from the fight. Chamberlain reminisced: "I remember leaving my place in L.A. and -- my father is a big fight fan -- and I said, `Dad, I got a couple of days off and I'm getting ready to go to Houston to sign to fight Muhammad Ali.'" His father told him he should work on his free throws instead.
"And I looked at my Dad and said, 'Well, Dad, you're probably right."