TKO Outta Nowhere: 15 Boxer vs. Wrestler Matches

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(AP Photo)

With yesterday’s official announcement that 5x multi-weight MMA Champion and UFC MegaStar Conor McGregor would be facing 13x multi-weight boxing Champion (and MegaStar) Floyd Mayweather Jr., an absolute dream match became a realization. It will feature two of the best pound for pound fighters of the past 20 years in a boxing match and is sure to be one of combat sports’ biggest PPV buys of all time. And while most combat sports analysts are convinced this could be Conor McGregor’s version of CM Punk entering the world of UFC, there’s no denying it’s an absolute blockbuster of a fight.

Photo: WWE

Fans love when athletes cross sports to interact with other top stars – it’s like seeing Batman and Spider-Man in the same universe. Seeing fighters from other arenas is always intriguing – after all, the entire basis of UFC’s success was seeing different fighting disciplines squaring off. And since pro wrestling is an art that often imitates life, it’s no stranger to having its brethren face off against pro boxers every once in a while. In fact, Floyd Mayweather Jr. himself has crossed over to the pro wrestling world, when he tangled with The Big Show at Wrestlemania XXIV in 2008.

Here’s a look at some memorable match-ups from history that have featured a boxer vs. wrestler.

#1 JACK JOHNSON vs. FRED MARCUSSEN, 1914

(Exact date not known) Berlin, Germany

There’s not a whole lot of details beyond this video, but back in 1914 at a fight in Berlin, then reigning World Heavyweight Champion boxer Jack Johnson of the US faced off against pro wrestler Fred Marcussen (many consider this the world’s first MMA fight, although more accurately is the first one ever filmed). While the history books remember Johnson as a formidable boxer in the ring and the first African-American heavyweight champion (beating Tommy Burns in 1908), not much is remembered of Marcussen. You’d think this film was only seen in Germany – imagine the impact it would have had in the United States if they’d seen their World Champion boxer tap out to a German wrestler.

#2 NICK LUTZE vs. PIO PICO, 1937

August 11, 1937, Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, California

Nick Lutze was a high midcard star from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, routinely facing such legendary grapplers as Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis, Lou Thesz, Jim Londos and more. In 1937, he faced a professional boxer named Lupe LeMon (who also went by Pio Pico) in Los Angeles and in front of 22,000 people, the boxer was once again no match for the shoot wrestler, who again makes the boxer tap. Later that night in the main event, Bronko Nagurski would successfully defend his wrestling World Heavyweight Championship in his first defence, against Vincent Lopez.

#3 COWBOY LUTTRELL vs. JACK DEMPSEY, 1940

July 1, 1940, Ponce de Leon Park, Atlanta, Georgia

Fourteen years retired from pro boxing, former World Champion Jack Dempsey was guest starring with local wrestling promotions as a guest referee. During one match in May of 1940, the heel Cowboy Luttrell took exception to one of Dempsey’s calls and pushed him away. This lead to a match that July where Jack Dempsey put on the gloves and attempted a comeback at the age of 45. He defeated Luttrell by count out (he knocked him through the ropes and Luttrell never recovered). Unfortunately, his comeback never materialized.

#4 ANTONINO ROCCA vs PRIMO CARNERA, 1952

January 1952, Capitol Wrestling (pre-WWWF), Madison Square Garden, New York City

Antonino Rocca was one of Vincent J. McMahon Sr.’s top stars in the 1950’s with his NWA affiliated Northeast promotion with Toots Mondt was still called Capitol Wrestling (it would soon become the World Wide Wrestling Federation). At a benefit for the Italian Relief Fund, the main event saw Rocca – one of the first high fliers in the sport – face off against former boxing World Heavyweight Champion Primo Carnera (he beat Jack Sharkey in 1933). Carnera would have a successful career in pro wrestling, defeating former World Champion Ed “Strangler” Lewis in 1947 and unsuccessfully challenging Lou Thesz for the NWA World Heavyweight title.

#5 “NATURE BOY” BUDDY ROGERS vs. “JERSEY” JOE WALCOTT, 1959

October 7, 1959, The Forum, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Photo: WWE

On the card at The Forum a week earlier, former boxing World Champion “Jersey” Joe Walcott (he defeated Ezzard Charles in 1951) was the special guest referee in a bout between Champion Buddy Rogers and Edouard Carpentier. Things got messy after the match and Walcott took a swing at Rogers. Following week, the two tangled in the main event. The Nature Boy beat Jersey Joe in just over a minute.

#6 “JUDO” GENE LEBELL vs. MILO SAVAGE, 1963

December 2, 1963, Salt Lake City, Utah

While Johnson vs. Marcussen is considered the first documented (on film) MMA match, the first televised MMA match in the United States was 1963’s bout that featured the fifth ranked light-heavyweight boxer Milo Savage facing pro wrestler, shoot fighter and martialist “Judo” Gene Lebell. Lebell’s aunt was wrestling promoter “Red Head” Aileen Eaton and at the age of 7, began learning catch wrestling from Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis. He began judo at the age of 10. He worked the NWA territories for years and went on to train such legends as Bruce Lee, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Mando Guerrero, Daniel Bryan and Rhonda Rousey.

#7 GORILLA MONSOON vs. MUHAMMAD ALI, 1976

June 2, 1976, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

In preparation for his upcoming Boxer vs. Wrestler showcase versus Antonio Inoki, Muhammad Ali was training and working with some of the wrestling territories. Just over a month before his heavily hyped match with Inoki, a confident Ali stormed the ring after a match between one of WWWF’s biggest stars, Gorilla Monsoon, following his match with Baron Mikel Scicluna. Monsoon stopped Ali’s showboating in it’s tracks and began to work over Ali. Monsoon never said whether the interaction was staged or not, but it’s well known at the time that Monsoon was not particularly fond of the idea of Ali being in a wrestling ring as an attraction. A few days later, he would also appear on a card for AWA in Chicago, facing “The Sodbuster” Kenny Jay. Ali’s sideman for his territorial warm-up tour was ‘Classie’ Freddie Blassie

#8 MUHAMMAD ALI vs. ANTONIO INOKI, 1976

July 25, 1976, The Budokan, Tokyo, Japan

Arguably the most famous boxer vs. wrestler match in history, it was an event hyped in the mainstream for months. It was aired on Closed Circuit television as well as aired as the main event following several promotions special events held in conjunction, including the WWWF, AWA and NWA. It was supposed to be a shoot fight, but Ali’s camp got cold feet and new rules were added last minute, much to Inoki’s frustration. He was only allowed to kick if one knee was touching the mat, which resulted in Inoki fighting from the ground the entire match. While Ali did little damage to Inoki, those infamous kicks from his back ended up injuring Ali, whose developed blood clots on his legs from the blows and was forced to the injury sidelines for months after that.

#9 ANDRE THE GIANT vs. CHUCK WEPNER, 1976

July 25, 1976, Shea Stadium, Queens, New York

On the same night as Inoki’s legendary showdown with Muhammad Ali half way around the world, the WWWF ran a special event with it’s own co-main event featuring a boxer vs. wrestler (the Ali-Inoki was broadcast following the card): ranked heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner (who famously fell seconds short of going 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali) faced off against the WWWF’s own super monster, Andre The Giant. While it was scripted for the most part, near the end, Wepner began working a little “stiff” which began to toy with Andre’s legendary temper. Fun side story: Chuck Wepner was the primary influence for Sylvester Stallone‘s script for Rocky. When he wrote the story for Rocky III, he was influenced by the Wepner vs. Andre match into adding the Rocky vs. Thunderlips (portrayed by a young Hulk Hogan) sidestory, which helped launch Hulkamania in the WWF. So in a way, it was Andre’s match with Hepner which helped influence Hulk Hogan’s career, which lead to their epic showdown at WrestleMania III.

#10 ANTONIO INOKI vs. KARL MILDENBERGER, 1978

November 9, 1978, Roland Bock’s Catch Europa Tournee, Frankfurt, Germany

Inoki used the Ali fight to springboard into several future fights with pro boxers, including this one only two years later, when he toured Europe and faced one of Germany’s top boxers, former European Heavyweight Champion Karl Mildenberger. With both men freely allowed to use more of their arsenal, Inoki made short work of the boxer.

#11 ANTONIO INOKI vs. LEON SPINKS, 1986

Inoki faced his third heavyweight Champion in 1986, facing former World Champion Leon Spinks (he beat Muhammad Ali in 1978). Both men started with boxing gloves, but by the fifth round, Inoki removed them and went full out. He pinned Spinks in the eighth round.

#12 MASAKATSU FUNAKI vs. ROBERTO DURAN, 1992

(Exact date not known) Pancrase, Tokyo, Japan

“Is this a worked match? Sort of…in that Funaki carries Duran to make the match more interesting and give the fans more of a fight, but it is a 100% SHOOT.” UFC Legend Josh Barnett, January 8, 2015, Facebook Post

Masakatsu Funaki was a student from NJPW, joining the NJPW Dojo out of high school in 1985. For the rest of the 1980’s, he was a buddy star in New Japan. In 1993, along with Minoru Suzuki and his student, Ken Shamrock, founded Pancrase, one of the world’s first MMA promotions. With a boxing career on the downslide, former multi-weight boxing Champion Roberto Duran headed to Japan to try his hand in a mixed discipline form of combat. The two would meet up in Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi, a hybrid promotion of (what would become) MMA and pro wrestling, where Funaki worked in-between NJPW and Pancrase founding.

#13 BUTTERBEAN vs. BART GUNN, 1999

March 28, 1999, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, WrestleMania XV

Photo: WWE

In hoping to capitalize on the growing MMA fever of the burgeoning UFC, the WWF attempted it’s own shoot fight tournament, Brawl For Allfeaturing multiple wrestlers shoot fighting on live television. Terrible idea. With many tournament favourites getting beat down early, Bart Gunn emerged as the unlikely knockout king and tournament winner. His “prize” was moving on to face real life pro boxer Eric “Butterbean” Esch at WrestleMania. Sadly, Bart’s power was no match for a trained boxer and Butterbean knocked out WWF’s KO artist pretty quickly. To add salt to injury, Gunn was released shortly after his humiliating defeat.

#14 EVANDER HOLYFIELD vs. MATT HARDY, 2007 

August 18, 2007, Madison Square Garden, New York City, Saturday Night’s Main Event

Photo: WWE Network

During a feud between Matt Hardy and MVP on Smackdown, MVP challenged Hardy to a boxing match. At the last minute, MVP withdrew but announced his replacement to be former World Champion Evander Holyfield (who was training for an upcoming WBO Heavyweight title fight vs Champion Sultan Ibragimov). Holyfield finished Hardy easily, but turned on his benefactor after the match.

#15 ROCKY BALBOA vs. THUNDERLIPS, 1982

(Exact date unknown), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

But when it’s all said and done, nothing tops the courageous effort from Philly’s own Rocky Balboa, who faced off against pro wrestler Thunderlips in a Champion vs. Champion match. Despite the overwhelming size and power difference, “The Italian Stallion”‘s grit and determination persevered and he managed to defeat “The Ultimate Male”. Thunderlips would lose his title shortly after and lose credibility, until he turned face in 1989 and changed his name to simply Rip, once again becoming World Champion, but this time winning the hearts of the nation by defeating the villainous Zeus.

Main Photo: AP

1 COMMENT

  1. […] This kind of novelty match is not new. On June 26th, 1976 Muhamad Ali took on Antonio Inoki, Japan’s foremost wrestler at the Bodokan Hall in Tokyo. Inoki spent most of the fifteen-round fight on the floor trying to kick Ali. Ali himself, famously threw less than a dozen punches yet made over $6 million (that’s over $500k per punch!) but it was a sad spectacle for one of the greatest boxers of all time to be engaged in. […]

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