It always seems to start with an innocent, random meeting when a boxer wanders from ringside to accept the applause of a wrestling crowd and then somebody makes an insult, somebody swings a punch or a chair and like magic we have a fight.
Tyson Fury enters the wrestling world on Thursday night in Saudi Arabia, treading in the footsteps of boxing's greatest, to meet a man often dubbed the "unstoppable monster," Braun Strowman, in the latest partnership between the wrestling and the boxing worlds. Fury will be an inch taller, but nearly 140 pounds lighter.
In September, Fury fought a legitimate fight in Las Vegas and won on points, but he suffered an ugly pair of cuts to his right eye, which required the attention of a plastic surgeon and the neat application of 47 stitches to close the wounds. In London last week -- the two cuts nearly invisible -- Fury was not concerned about the cuts opening and delaying any of his many fights planned for next year.
Fury, ever the showman, proved he has already acclimated to the world of "sports entertainment" by blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.
"I will fight Deontay Wilder next February, I might even have another wrestling fight before then and maybe even a MMA fight or two," teased Fury. "Strowman is going down -- clean knockout, forget the eye, it's not an issue."
Relax, Fury will not be in the MMA business just yet.
Strowman and Fury clashed in the ring at a wrestling event, insults were exchanged, plans were made and deals were struck. The wrestling promoters wanted Fury to simply referee a fight, perhaps even get in another verbal row, but he wanted to have a fight and that is when the Saudi Arabian deal was signed. Fury went deep into secret wrestling training: "It's harder than boxing training," he insisted.
It was all good pantomime stuff and no doubt Strowman will topple over for a full count and add his name to an impressive list of wrestling's finest men and what happened to them when they opted to share a ring with boxing's best. What a joyous journey it has been, but it was not always so clean, calculating and lucrative.
Boxing idol Joe Louis had a brief wrestling career at the start of the 1950s, when the rigors of the ring were simply too dangerous for his ancient frame. Louis, however, was injured so severely -- he broke three ribs against Don "Cowboy Rocky" Lee when he tumbled awkwardly -- that his wrestling career finished quickly; Louis then became a wrestling referee, working until the 1970s. The wrestling money was a lifeline at a time when the tax authorities were hounding him.
On one night in 1976, the wrestling and boxing worlds converged in a perfect storm of the ludicrous, the dangerous and the iconic when Muhammad Ali, Antonio Inoki, Chuck Wepner and Andre the Giant met. It was a night of creative mayhem, a night that has been told and retold with so many bold claims, so many deceptions and so many truly ridiculous facts and fictions.
In Tokyo, Ali met Inoki over 15 rounds of three minutes; Ali wore gloves, Inoki was bare-fisted and they both wore their respective boots from their chosen sports. On the same night, at Shea Stadium in New York, wrestling's biggest attraction, Andre the Giant, met Wepner, who the previous year had survived into Round 15 with Ali and inspired the Rocky franchise. The promoter of the Wepner fight was Vince McMahon, who is also the promoter of Thursday's show in Saudi Arabia, and he arranged for big screens to show the Ali vs. Inoki fight after the Wepner vs. Andre fight. That is, trust me, a double-header from fantasy land.
So, where to start in the telling of those two tales?
At Shea Stadium, 33,000 watched Wepner, wearing gloves, land what seemed like 483 unanswered punches to the back of Andre's head before the Giant was roused from his slumber; Andre the Giant then butted Wepner, lifted him off his feet and ejected him over the top rope. Wepner's people -- all wearing white jackets with Don King emblazoned across the back -- helped their boxer to his feet and shoved him back in the ring. There was an ugly melee, as expected, and eventually Andre the Giant had his hand raised just in time for McMahon to erect the three screens and start the live show from Japan.
Wepner claimed it was real, known as a "shoot" in wrestling, and not choreographed, known as "work" in wrestling; it was work, no question. The Inoki and Ali fight was harder to translate.
It was meant to be "work," but there was a real fear that Inoki would try something and that meant new rules were created to protect Ali's health and image; Inoki was allowed to kick only if he had one knee on the canvas and that is where he spent most of the 45-minute fight -- crawling after Ali and lashing out with his feet. Ali landed six punches, avoided several lunges, and the whole thing was a boring test of endurance. Ali was meant to get $6 million, before receiving just $2 million, and he needed hospital treatment for blood clots and muscle damage to his legs. It was, interestingly, billed as 'The Mixed Martial Arts Championship of the World."
It ended in a draw.
There is, however, no confusion over the glorious wrestling appearances of Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather.
In 1998, Tyson knocked out Shawn Michaels, one of the main attractions in the grappling world at the time. The plot was wonderful -- Tyson, in a double cross, sides with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin in a match against Michaels. The reveal is wonderful (it's like something from a silent movie) and after Michaels and Tyson push each other, Michaels throws a punch and Tyson counters and it is all over. What a finish.
Mayweather's clash with Big Show in 2008 is one of the slickest and craziest storylines in wrestling. Mayweather concedes 9 stone and 18 inches in height and still connects with a few punches when he is introduced at a show. The crowd goes wild, Mayweather and his team race from the ring and Big Show charges after them. The only way to settle this is... to fight!
Mayweather wears gloves and giant clown pantaloons, which add to the mayhem, and pounds away at Big Show's gut. It ends when Mayweather takes off one of his gloves, then removes a piece of bling from a knocked-out member of the carnage in the ring and uses the chain as a knuckle-duster to knock out Big Show. There is pandemonium. And that, my friend, is pure theater.
On Thursday, Fury enters the known, his fight plan firmly in his head. It will be "work," don't worry, but the boxer will sure make it feel like a "shoot." The audience will simply plan to enjoy it.