Thursday, June 23, 2016

Remembering Muhammad Ali Through the Prism of Mid-Atlantic Wrestling

by David Chappell
Mid-Atlantic Gateway

Exclusive, rare audio recording of Tony Atlas
included within this post.

When “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali passed away recently, it got me to thinking about Ali’s connections to professional wrestling. Without question, Ali was a big fan of wrestling. In fact, Ali admitted that much of his showmanship outside of the boxing ring had its genesis from the pro wrestling world. And on rare occasions, “The Greatest” even entered the wrestling ring or its immediate environs as an actual participant.

Ali’s connections to Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling were not substantial, but nevertheless were noteworthy and memorable in my mind. The final portion of Ali’s in-ring boxing career (1974-1981) intersected with a significant number of years from the Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling era.

ABC News
My earliest joint recollection of Ali and Mid-Atlantic Wrestling was on November 1, 1975. Traveling to Harrisonburg, Virginia, and what is now called James Madison University (JMU), I had just heard a promo cut by Superstar Billy Graham building a Texas Death Match against Wahoo McDaniel set for November 7, 1975 at the Richmond Coliseum. At JMU, they were showing a replay of the brutal “Thrilla in Manila,” the epic Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, that had happened a month earlier. On the replay, there were also sound bites from Ali. I couldn’t help but think how Graham and Ali had the same natural charisma, which made you hang onto every word they said. The violence of the fight replay also had me wondering the whole next week if the Texas Death Match in Richmond would be as violent as the boxing match in Manila was. Superstar Graham’s promo certainly suggested that it would be!

During the mid-1970s, when Ali was still a boxing champion or top contender, Ric Flair would occasionally bring up Ali’s name in Mid-Atlantic Wrestling promos. Usually it was in the context of other celebrities of the day, like Joe Namath, Elvis Presley or Burt Reynolds, that the “Nature Boy” would favorably compare himself to. Ric would also take poetic license with some of Ali’s famous lines, and turn them into his own masterpieces. My favorite Ric Flair “Ali-ism” came from the middle of 1975 when Flair told announcer Bob Caudle on a Mid-Atlantic television interview, “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee…and every pretty lady wants a piece of me!!”

Ali’s most famous encounter with a wrestler in the ring was the matchup against Antonio Inoki on June 26, 1976 in Tokyo, Japan. While not tied to Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, I was nevertheless interested in the outcome and remember listening for updates by round on my scratchy transistor radio. The match and resulting “draw” left many unsatisfied, but it did bring Ali back into a wrestling discussion on Mid-Atlantic Wrestling television! Later in the summer of 1976, “Professor” Boris Malenko managed Bolo Mongol, who had just completed a tour of Japan. Malenko bragged that Bolo Mongol had defeated Inoki three times in three different Japanese cities. Malenko hastened to add for the viewing audience, that Inoki was the same man that Cassius Clay (Boris used Ali’s birth name) couldn’t defeat!

What made this segment particularly memorable was that for the only time I could remember, Bolo Mongol actually spoke on Mid-Atlantic TV saying, “Clay could not beat him; I beat him.” I was told much later in time that Bolo Mongol and the Masked Superstar were actually the same person. At first I didn’t believe it, and went back to the audio I had of that Bolo Mongol statement…and yes, it was clearly the same voice as that of the Masked Superstar!

Tony Atlas and Muhammad Ali  (Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Magazine)

The popular strongman from Roanoke, Virginia, Tony Atlas, also had a Mid-Atlantic connection with “The Greatest” during Tony’s second stint in the Mid-Atlantic area in 1978. Atlas and Ali made a joint appearance of sorts in an edition of a Mid-Atlantic Magazine that was sold in the territory’s arenas in 1978! Posing for a photo together as part of a Friendship Force International function, both Tony and Ali seemed very happy in promoting the “peace through friendship” agenda that the Friendship Force espouses and acts on, by bringing diverse people from all over the world together.

But what comes to mind for me as the most enduring Ali connection with Mid-Atlantic Wrestling also happens to involve Tony Atlas, and it was a promo that Tony did with Rich Landrum promoting a bout against Ken Patera, which was a no disqualification match in Charleston, South Carolina set on August 18, 1978.

Exclusive Rare Audio: Tony Atlas Does His Best Muhammad Ali (Local Promo with Rich Landrum)

Mark Eastridge Collection
Doing his best Muhammad Ali impersonation and in perfect Ali cadence, to the point that I thought “The Greatest” had entered the Mid-Atlantic area for one night to battle the dastardly Patera for the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Title, Atlas exclaimed, “Everybody’s always talkin’ about Ken Patera, sayin’ Ken Patera is strong…Ken Patera lift a whole lotta weight. Eveybody know Ken Patera lift five hundred pounds. Let me tell you something Ken Patera, when I get you in the ring daddy I’m gonna float like a butterfly and I’m gonna sting like a bee…Patera, your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see!”

Without taking a breath, Atlas continued, “I gonna hit you in your mouth, there ain’t no doubt. Patera, if you come out there I’m gonna put you out! Now Patera, I know you got the title; I want the title. But this is p-funk! Electrify, personify and satisfy daddy! So I’m gonna boogie down; I gotta do it! I am the people’s champion… I’m not the Mid-Atlantic champion… I wanna be the Mid-Atlantic Champion. I want the title daddy; I want some of you to go along with it! We gonna get down, right there daddy! All of it’s gonna happen. P-funk, excitement, pandemonium in the air…Patera come on out, daddy we’re gonna get down, we gotta get down, we’re gonna get down.”

Tony wrapped up the interview reiterating, “Patera, I want the title; I want some of you to go along with it. 500 pounds is gonna be hittin’ back, 500 pounds is gonna be boogying with ya daddy! Patera, you got the title, you ain’t gonna keep the title! I want you Patera; it’s gonna be p-funk. P-funk, excitement...I gotta get there! I’m goin’ there now. Bye ya’ll, I’ll meet you there…"

With Muhammad Ali’s recent death, the tie-ins between the legendary boxer and Mid-Atlantic Wrestling immediately started coming back to me. While the connections might be few in number, they have stuck with me for around four decades. But more than anything else, thinking about them together again, confirmed to me that both Muhammad Ali and Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling were each truly, “The Greatest.”