“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I was really the greatest.”Muhammad Ali
This quote from Ali encapsulates what separated him from the rest. The world had seen many great boxers before him but none possessed the ‘gift of the gab’ like Ali. Many have tried to emulate Ali since, but all of them have ended up being cheap imitations.
Ali had incredible speed, ceaseless stamina and tremendous ring IQ. But what made Ali’s fights must-watch events was the months-long buildup, where Ali wouldn’t miss any opportunity to taunt, humiliate and belittle his opponent, make bold predictions about what he will do to his challenger in the ring and at every chance announce it to the world that he is the greatest of all time.
Ali did all of this for two reasons. Firstly, to rile up his opponent, make them waste their energy early in the fight while he just bobbed and weaved, conserving his energy before coming hard at them in later rounds.
Secondly, and most importantly, to sell tickets.
Very early in his career, Ali understood that to make big bucks as a boxer, he needs to pack arenas with people.
Ali was a tremendous boxer, a cut above the rest. But he knew through boxing he would attract only the fans of the sport. To make an actual impact and force everyone to take notice, he needed to do something more.
Ali discovered that something more in professional wrestling.
The real world of ‘fake’ wrestling
For the generation in Bangladesh who grew up in the late 90s or early 2000s, WWF, later rebranded as WWE, was a childhood staple.
Although WWE or World Wrestling Entertainment is just one of the many pro-wrestling companies out in the world, albeit the most famous one, in Bangladesh, WWE was pro-wrestling.
In WWE, men and women dressed in colourful clothing would march to a squared ring and engage in a ‘fight’.
Debates would rage on between school-goers, whether the fights in WWE are real or fake. But as time wore on and the kids matured into teenagers and adults, the realisation set in.
Pro-wrestling is not a real ‘fight’ like a boxing bout as the fate of the match is always predetermined. Non-wrestling fans often make the mistake of pointing this fact to wrestling fans. However, what they fail to realise is that wrestling fans are in on the secret.
Fans know it’s not an actual fight, but thousands still turn up at the venue and millions tune in on tv to watch pro-wrestling.
Because they are captivated by the stories told by the wrestlers. In one sense, wrestling is like watching the theatre. Everyone knows how a play on Romeo and Juliet will end. Still, audiences everywhere around the world pack auditoriums to see the story unfold.
A good wrestling match tells a story in the guise of a ‘fight’, where the central theme is usually the everlasting theme in all works of fiction– good vs evil.
The bad guy, who in wrestling terms is called ‘The Heel’, does everything he can to antagonise the crowd so much that they buy tickets to the venue and tune in on tv just to see the bad guy get pummeled by the good guy, who in wrestling terminology is called the ‘Baby Face’.
The art of being a ‘Heel’ has been around for almost as long as pro-wrestling. The first person who developed the archetype pompous heel was a US wrestler named ‘Gorgeous George’, the person who inspired the great Muhammad Ali.
Gorgeous George: Ali’s inspiration
George Wagner was an American pro-wrestler from the 1950s. His ring name was ‘Gorgeous George’.
George would come to the ring accompanied by two female companions, dressed in a pompous robe and to top it off, a crown on top of his head. Before he stepped inside the ring, his female companions would spray perfume all over the ring and on his opponent to ‘cleanse’ them off the stench.
George would then pick up a microphone and tell how lucky the crowd and his opponent are for getting to bask in George’s presence.
He would then continue enraging the fans during the match by throwing his hairpins in the crowd and using backhanded tactics to hurt his opponent.
All this would rile up the fans, who would be booing at the top of their lungs. But all this was just a set-up for the eventual triumph of his opponent. The crowd would erupt in joy as George would get the beating he deserves at the hands of the ‘Baby Face’ and suffer a humiliating defeat.
George’s tactics made him a despised figure by the majority of the fans while the other section enjoyed seeing his outlandish tactics unfold.
Through this character or ‘Gimmick’, George became the highest-paid pro-wrestler of his era. Fans would pack the venue to watch him get thrashed in the ring. And the more the people came to see him lose, the bigger his paycheck got.
Ali watched wrestling since he was a kid and knew of Gorgeous George. But they first met in 1961, after a wrestling show in Las Vegas.
George, who was at the tail-end of his career, gave 19-year-old Ali the advice that shaped the rest of his career.
A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.
A young Ali understood what George was trying to convey. Whether the crowd boo him or cheer him, as long as they buy a ticket to watch him box, he will stay relevant. And relevance will eventually lead him to fortune and fame.
So, Ali started acting a like a pro-wrestling ‘Heel’ before every fight. However, unlike in wrestling, he would back up his outlandish statements in the ring. And as he kept racking up wins, his haters started turning into fans.
Ali later ascended the sport of boxing and became a global icon for his anti-war stance and fight against racial injustice in the US and other parts of the world. But the cult of Ali was sparked by a pro-wrestler, a connection unknown to most.