The Night I Saw Muhammad Ali Fight at Shea Stadium, Kind of

I was late to root for Muhammad Ali.

When I was eight years old in March 1971, I have to admit, I was rooting for Joe Frazier to beat Muhammad Ali, and I was happy when Frazier won. Even at a young age, I didn’t appreciate people who bragged and no one bragged more than a guy who called himself “The Greatest.” Besides,  Joe Frazier and I shared the same first name, just like my favorite football player of all-time, Joe Namath, so how could I not root for Smokin Joe?

In the years that followed, I twice more rooted for Frazier to beat Ali, not to mention, rooting for Kenny Norton, George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Jimmy Young, Ernie Shavers, and probably everyone else who fought Ali, and except for Norton’s upset win in 1973, the referees were not lifting the arm of the guy I was rooting for at the end of these fights. Fortunately, except for the bet of 88 cents (yes, 88 cents…it was a double or nothing bet of 44 cents that I owed my next door neighbor Frank who my family appropriately referred to as “Frank Next Door”) caused by Ali’s win in the Thrilla in Manila, at least Ali was not causing me to go into debt at a young age.

When Ali fought Leon Spinks on February 15, 1978, of course I rooted for the upstart Leon Spinks  and was thrilled as Spinks battled through 15 rounds. When the ring announcer read the judges’ decision, and Spinks was declared the winner, I remember jumping in front of the TV in amazement.

Then I was very sad.

After all his years in the ring, is this how it would end for Ali – losing to Leon Spinks? I had spent as much of a lifetime a 15 year old sports fan can in rooting against someone and now that he had finally lost, I felt sad for him. What a sad way for champion to end his career.

Needless to say, I rooted hard for Ali to regain a title a third time when he fought Spinks in a rematch later that year, and was very happy when he won, and saddened when he made a couple of ill-fated comeback attempts in 1980 and 1981. Like many people, I gained an appreciation for his opposition to serving in the Viet Nam War and winced to see him in his later years as Parkinson’s disease stalked him harder than even Smokin Joe in 1971. I remember seeing him slowly rise to embrace someone at a book signing in Manahttan in the 1990’s, and it may have been as painful  for me to watch as it must’ve been for him to rise.

Looking back, the 1970’s was really a great time to follow heavyweight boxing and in this pre-pay-per-view era, a lot of Ali’s fights were on free TV. The one drawback was the really “big” fights (eg. the Frazier fights) were shown on close circuit TV in movie theaters and since I was too young to attend them, I’d have to wait for Wide World of Sports to re-broadcast them. However, on June 25, 1976, on a humid Friday night, nine days before our nation’s bicentennial, my love of the Mets and my rooting against Ali converged

For on this day, I sat in field level seats on the first base side with my brother and his friends to witness Muhammad Ali battling Antonio Inoki at Shea Stadium. Well, we were at Shea Stadium and Ali and Inoki were in Japan but they were up there on the close circuit TV screens in the outfield and we were sitting in great seats for a baseball game at a wrestling match.

To be honest, our main reason for attending was to watch long time WWWF champ Bruno Sammartino (the “Living Legend”) take on Stan “the Man” Hanson in a Steel Cage match. Hanson had not only beaten Bruno in their first match in April, but he had hospitalized him with a “broken” neck. Hanson was best known for his sinister “lariat” move which basically consisted of hitting his opponent with his elbow pad after inserting an illegal foreign object in it.

Among the other wrestling matches in the ring on the Shea Stadium infield was another wrestler vs. boxer match, this one being Andre the Giant vs. Chuck Wepner. For the “Bayonne Bleeder,” this match was a year after his unlikely 15 round fight vs. Muhammad Ali and a few months away from the premiere of the Wepner inspired film, “Rocky.”

The wrestling matches were exciting. Bruno ripped the lariat from Hanson’s arm, smashed him repeatedly with it, and walked out of the steel cage with his championship intact. Andre the Giant lifted up Wepner and after flinging him over the ropes onto the Shea Stadium grass, Wepner figured it was safer not to get back into the ring, so Andre was declared the winner.

But what would Ali do? He was supposed to fight Ken Norton in September. Was he really going to risk injury in a match with a wrestler?

After all the wrestling matches were done, the close circuit screens were fired up and after seeing highlights such as George Foreman pummeling Joe Frazier three years earlier (which stilled wowed the crowd), there on the screen was Ali being lead into the ring by his manager…no, not Angelo Dundee, but “bad guy” manager “Classy” Freddy Blassie, who billed himself as the “fashion plate of professional wrestling” in addition to calling other people “pencil neck geeks.”

The match began and Inoki fell to his backside and started kicking Ali in the shins. Ali returned those kicks with kicks of his own into Inoki’s shins.

That was the first round…and the second round…and the third round…and every other round of the fight. It was 15 rounds of two guys kicking each other in the shins. For an hour, we waited for something to happen but except for getting annoyed by gnats on a humid night while the giants on the big screen bored us, pretty much nothing happened. It may very well have been the worst sporting event that did not involve Evel Knieval. One of my brother’s friends described it best when he said, “One guy won’t be able to sit for a week and the other won’t be able to stand for a week” as the match ended in a draw if my memory serves correctly.

Did we feel cheated? No, not really. We had bought tickets primarily to see Bruno fight,  the wrestling matches were entertaining, it was fun being with my brother and his friends, and if the Ali-Inoki match was contrived, well it wouldn’t have been the first contrived professional wrestling match in history. I don’t think anyone was betting rent money on the outcomes of any of these matches. I wasn’t even trying to win back the 88 cents I lost on the Thrilla in Manila.

I must’ve saved the ticket stub from that night for over 20 years until I may have tossed it out in a rare mood of purging and de-cluttering. As we bid farewell to Muhammad Ali, thank you Champ for the memories, and no hard feelings for the Inoki match – and if I’m lucky, maybe that ticket stub will turn up somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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