The History Of Freakshow Fights
Professional sports always has an entertainment component to it. Fans want to be entertained. Not knowing the outcome of a duel between athletes is part of it, as is watching displays of outstanding athletic abilities. But sometimes, just the weirdness and unusualness of an event can create curiosity. And combat sports with its loose promotional structures above the amateur level and its sometimes shady commissions is prone to allowing these freakshows. After all, punching someone in their face or kicking someone in the liver is not comparable with any other discipline within the world of sports.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Conor McGregor is probably the epitome of a freakshow. If the Irishman were not such a great fighter in the Octagon and unique trash talker outside of it, no one would give him a chance against the best boxer of the last 10 or 15 years. Interest has been created, even when combat sports experts, in the majority, can only shake their heads about this boxing match.
Mayweather vs. McGregor is, however, not the first encounter between athletes from different combat sports, and certainly not the first one which you could, without hesitation, call a “freakshow fight.” There have been countless examples where some giant fought a much smaller man in some ring somewhere in Japan. But the intrigue of Mayweather vs McGregor is that two combatants considered top-tier in their respective disciplines meet each other.
When An Icon Pummeled a Cowboy
It is much harder to find comparable cases. And, quite frankly, there has not been anything close to the fight on Saturday. Yet, there have been a few rather high profile freakshow fights dating all the way back to the 1940s. Then-retired boxer Jack Dempsey, a former heavyweight champion and American icon, was overseeing professional wrestling and boxing matches as a referee to make a few bucks. It was the year 1940 when Dempsey refereed a tag team match in Atlanta. Pro wrestler Cowboy Luttrell apparently wanted to make a name for himself, shoving and attempting to hit Dempsey.
The altercation led to a challenge issued by Dempsey, who was 45 years old at the time. He wanted to teach Luttrell a lesson by punching him with “the smallest gloves they would allow.” Although the pro wrestler outweighed Dempsey, who had retired in 1927 and not trained for years, the former heavyweight champion was determined to step into the squared circle as a competitor once again. The fight turned out to be a huge draw and a lopsided affair. In front of 10,000 fans at the Ponce de Leon Park in Atlanta, Dempsey destroyed Luttrell within the first two rounds.
‘The Manassa Mauler’ showed that his skills were still there when he started out blasting Luttrell with blow after blow. Dempsey’s opponent was saved in the second round when he was literally knocked out of the ring. Luttrell, being a typical pro wrestler, later claimed he beat up Dempsey a few years after the fight in Dempsey’s restaurant.
‘The Manassa Mauler’ himself went on to cement his status as an American icon when he joined the Coast Guard Reserve during World War II. He became a commander in 1944 and was assigned to the transport USS Wakefield. In 1945, he was on board of the attack transport USS Arthur Middleton for the invasion of Okinawa.
Bleeding Knees in Tokyo
One iconic combat sports figure that also has his history with the US military participated in arguably the most legendary freakshow fight to this day. Muhammad Ali, already a global superstar, took on pro wrestler and martial artist Antonio Inoki in 1976. In the years before, Ali had dethroned George Foreman in Kinshasa, claiming the heavyweight title for the second time, and survived the war with Joe Frazier in Manila.
The outspoken and often brash Louisville-native fit pro wrestling like only a few boxers before and after him. He made appearances at WWWF events and eventually ended up having what was supposed to be an exhibition match with Inoki, and what New York Times writer Victor Mather after Ali’s death described as his “least memorable fight.” Ali thought it was a fixed match and had to find out that Inoki was fighting for real. The Japanese, frightened to be hit by Ali, laid in a crablike posture on the ground for most of the fight, kicking Ali’s knees where the boxing champion had two blood clots and an infection after the match.
Ali only landed two punches throughout, and the usually respectful audience in Tokyo booed relentlessly. When the match was over, the jury announced a draw, while garbage rained down in the ring. “I wouldn’t have done this fight if I’d known he was going to do that,” Ali said. “It all proved boxers are superior to wrestlers.”
The expectations for this spectacle were high. As the bout was not broadcasted on television in the US, fans had to travel to stadiums and theaters to watch it on closed-circuit. Some 30,000 came to the Shea Stadium, where boxer Chuck Wepner and pro wrestler Andre the Giant fought in a preliminary bout, with Wepner winning in the third.
Overall, the event did not draw well. Journalist Dave Meltzer wrote about the match in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter: “Most boxing fans considered it a joke and pro wrestling fans didn’t support it because they were into supporting local heroes, and Inoki was not well known and most promoters didn’t spend a lot of effort in promoting him.”
After he recovered from his leg injuries, Ali went on to winning a controversial decision against Ken Norton. He fought for several more years, although his health started to seemingly decline. Inoki, meanwhile, became a superstar in Japan, famous for his success in pro wrestling and as a member of the Japanese House of Councillors. For both, this supposed ‘ Martial Arts World Championship Fight’ became a footnote in both their illustrious careers.
Brawl for Embarrassment
Only a footnote in the history of pro wrestling is Bart Gunn. He became a victim of the infamous ‘Brawl For All’ tournament set up by the WWF in 1998. The mindset behind the tournament was to show who of the pro wrestlers would win in a real fight, which by nature exposed most of them as not being skilled at fighting. Fightful’s own Sean Ross Sapp once wrote: “The Brawl For All was more like a toughman contest that you'd see at a local high school gym on a Saturday night than the UFC of today. One minute rounds, huge 16-ounce gloves, no submissions.”
Instead of keeping the environment of choreographed performances and protecting the performers, some pro wrestlers suffered tremendously because of how the tournament went. Marc Mero, a former Golden Gloves champion, lost twice. ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams, a renowned amateur wrestler and considered the favorite, with WWF looking towards a lucrative pay-per-view match between Williams and Stone Cold Steve Austin, lost to Bart Gunn in the second round while also hurting his knee.
Bart Gunn, who had been a midcarder prior to the tournament, became the dark horse. He beat Williams, The Godfather and Bradshaw all by KO. Against these opponents, Gunn looked like he could legitimately box. He could not.
The WWF set up a boxing match with professional boxer Butterbean at WrestleMania XV in the aftermath. Butterbean, the so-called super heavyweight, knocked Gunn out within 35 seconds. It was a nice payday for the boxer, and it meant that Gunn would receive the pink slip soon thereafter. Some say the inevitable loss to Butterbean was a punishment by the WWF for defeating the company’s desired winner, Steve Williams. Or the company was simply out of its mind, just like when it created the infamous and business-exposing tournament.
Anything But Gentlemen-Like
The modern world of mixed martial arts, with promotions like Pride and UFC at its forefront, has its fair share of freak attractions and freakshow fights. One of the more known examples involved a former UFC heavyweight champion and a former heavyweight boxing titleholder. Surprisingly, the boxer left the cage victorious.
Ray Mercer, who won the WBO belt in the early 1990s, decided around the mid-2000s to try MMA. His first fight was a non-sanctioned exhibition bout against street fighting sensation Kimbo Slice, which Mercer lost by guillotine choke submission in the first round. This did, however, not prevent him from making a second attempt. This time, Tim Sylvia was the opponent at an event called ‘Adrenaline III: Bragging Rights’ in 2009.
Initially, the fight was meant to be a boxing match. But the New Jersey state athletic commission refused to sanction it, which forced the promoter to move the bout into the cage and put 4 oz gloves on the hands of Mercer and Sylvia. Both had a gentlemen’s agreement that they would only throw punches at one another. However, when Sylvia moved forward after the opening bell he immediately threw a leg kick. Mercer answered with an overhand right defeating the former UFC champion.
Lights Out On The Mat
Another famous fight between a boxer and a mixed martial artist did not end well for the former. And when the endless conversations about who would win a real fight come to a certain point, the MMA fight between James ‘Lights Out’ Toney and Randy Couture is cited. Of course, mixed martial artists are the more complete fighters as they have to focus on a variety of techniques on all levels.
Yet, Toney was seemingly only there to receive a paycheck. The loudmouth from Michigan had peaked in the mid-1990s when he fought Roy Jones Jr. as well as Montell Griffin. Fifteen years later, after talking UFC promoter Dana White into agreeing to the fight, Toney stepped into the Octagon—totally out of shape. Unlike Sylvia, Couture came in prepared. It took him, a former light heavyweight and heavyweight champion and role model for professionalism, about 15 seconds before he scored a takedown. While Toney survived the onslaught for a few minutes, he was eventually submitted via an arm-triangle choke.
For a while, the book of who would win—boxer or mixed martial artist—was closed. Mayweather vs. McGregor has fueled that old discussion once again. Mayweather will meet the Irishman on his turf, under the rules he has followed for most of his life. Predictions say it will be a record-breaking event—something that has not happened before. And it will be another episode in the list of freakshow fights.