In Depth

Muhammad Ali's strangest fights

Muhammad Ali enjoyed an epic career in the boxing ring over two decades, but let's take some time to review The Greatest's weirdest bouts, which included a fab group, a cartoon character and a fearsome NFL player.
Muhammad Ali and The Beatles quipped and mugged for the cameras in Miami in February 1964. (Associated Press)

This article has been updated from its original publication in 2013.

Muhammad Ali's two-decades worth of boxing performances, much of it as heavyweight champion of the world, ran the gamut, much of it sublime.

There were controversial bouts (each Sonny Liston fight), legendary ones (against Joe Frazier and George Foreman), supreme displays of talent (Cleveland Williams), straight-up dogs (Richard Dunn) and even some Canadian content (George Chuvalo, twice).

But he also took part, usually willingly, in some ridiculous head-to-head showdowns.

Here are five such barely lamented entries. Not included in this list: a planned meetup between Ali and Wilt Chamberlain, the seven-foot basketball legend who talked a good game in baiting Ali into a possible fight but then got cold feet soon after the pair met in a join television interview.

Cassius Clay vs. The Beatles, 1964

Two brash, young entities, whose massive impact on the culture and the decade were only just beginning to take hold, meet up at the 5th Street Gym in Miami.

The Beatles were just arrived in the United States, in between their momentous appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, while Clay was preparing for a heavyweight title challenge against the imposing Sonny Liston, a bout few thought he'd win.

The meeting with the Fab Four almost didn't happen, as the frustrated musicians were made to wait by a tardy Clay. By all accounts unchoreographed, they riffed effortlessly, exchanging verbal barbs, making fists and shadowboxing, and in the  most memorable image, John, Paul, George and Ringo fell like dominoes after being "decked" by Ali.

Muhammad Ali vs. Rocky Marciano, 1969

Ali was in limbo and in desperate need of cash after his refusal to be inducted in the U.S. Armed Forces for the Vietnam War led to a protracted legal struggle. A computer simulation pitting every heavyweight champ up to that point in history led to the idea of a filmed "fight" between the only two who were then undefeated.

Retired for a dozen years, Marciano was in need of some cosmetic changes to his hairline and gut ahead of production, which involved filming numerous one-minute rounds in July 1969. The undefeated champs got along fine, and fake blood was employed in the production, as no real punches of consequence were landed.

Several endings were filmed, with each man winning depending on where the viewer was located. Just a few weeks later, before post-production was complete, Marciano was killed in an Iowa plane crash a day before he was to turn 46.  

Muhammad & Rahman Ali vs. Joe Frazier, 1974

Ali lost to Frazier in the original Fight of the Century in 1971, but three years later it was a crossroads bout, with the winner to be positioned to battle the undefeated champ George Foreman. Wide World of Sports host and frequent Ali foil Howard Cosell had the fighters in to watch a replay of the first bout and promote the rematch.

It degenerated when Frazier mentioned Ali's hospital stay after the first bout. Ali pointed out that Smokin' Joe had actually convalesced for a longer spell. After being called dumb and ignorant by the Louisville Lip, Frazier ripped off his earpiece and stood menacingly before a seated Ali. Ali's younger brother Rahman came out of the shadows and onstage, pouring fire on gasoline.

"You want in on this, too?" warned Frazier, who was then immediately bear hugged by Ali, resulting in a prolonged wrestling match.

No real damage was done, and Ali won a 12-round decision in the "real" fight to come.

Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki, 1976

Speaking of wrestling … It wasn't the first meeting of boxer and wrestler — Jack Dempsey and Archie Moore had faced grapplers — but Ali in Tokyo against the jaw-jutting Japanese foe he dubbed "the Pelican" was the most famous such matchup until Sly Stallone nicked it wholesale for Rocky Balboa-Thunderlips in Rocky III.

Something called the World Martial Arts Championship was at stake but Inoki wanted no part of punching with Ali, spending most of the 15 rounds on the ground kicking Ali's shins and thighs. Ali cashed a healthy cheque, but there was nothing healthy about the blood clots he developed on his legs as a result.

Weirdly, in late 2012 Inoki went public with his conversion to Islam and a new Muslim name, Muhammad Hussain.

Muhammad Ali vs. Superman, 1978

The latest in a line of celebrity-themed plots involving Superman, from the creative team at DC Comics.

Ali and The Man of Steel battle for the right to save the planet from an all-powerful alien. The animated crowd in attendance includes then president Jimmy Carter, Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, the Jacksons, the Osmonds, Cher, Andy Warhol and Alfred E. Newman. After a slow start, Ali's fists leave Superman in a Kryptonite-like stupor.

In a harbinger of what was to come just a couple weeks later in his upset loss in the ring to young Leon Spinks, Ali is detached at an event held to ostensibly promote the comic, which sold for $2.50 US.

"I won't tell you nothing about the [comic] book," he said in The New York Times. "I'm just tired of the press and I'm tired of people."

The comic was re-issued in a special hardcover edition in 2010.

Muhammad Ali vs. Lyle Alzado, 1979

Arranged by a Denver promoter, the colourful NFL defensive lineman from the Broncos Alzado weighed in at 243 pounds, considerably less than his usual gridiron stature.

Alzado was brave, in the prime of his football career at 30, and had fought as an amateur in his teens.

Ali was retired (at least temporarily), pudgy and 37 years old. He was 10 months removed and 13 pounds heavier than his second bout with Leon Spinks, which saw him win the heavyweight title for an unprecedented third time.

"I won't try to hurt him, I just want to beat him up," Ali said in the pre-fight interview, to laughter from his entourage.

The promoters might have regretted the choice of date and venue. The two big men were forced to fight in 35 C temperatures at Mile High Stadium in July. If the Inoki fight was a joke, this more closely resembled the real thing, with Ali coming out of the eight-round exhibition with a welt on his face and Alzado bloodied in the mouth. Per the agreement, there was no winner announced if the fight went the distance.

"I'm retired," Alzado said after the bout, though unfortunately Ali didn't stick to that same advice, returning for real boxing beatings over the next two-and-a-half years against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick.

Clips for this feature were broadcast on BBC, ABC, and the Nerdist Channel.