If you happen to be a connoisseur of MMA freak show bouts, it’s likely that you recognize June 25, 1976 as the day that “The Greatest of All Time” Muhammad Ali took on Japanese wrestling legend Antonio Inoki in a mixed rules bout. The fight itself may have been an unwatchable display of bizarre kicks from Inoki – who was only allowed to kick if one of his knees was touching the mat – but it’s remembered as one of our sport’s first genuine freak show bouts.
Yet often forgotten by even the most die-hard fight fans among us is that the undercard for Ali vs. Inoki contained a match between Chuck Wepner (the boxer/liquor salesman whose bout against Ali served as the inspiration for the Rocky series) and Andre the Giant broadcast live from Shea Stadium. Before we go any further: Yes, you read that last sentence correctly, and yes, we’ll have video evidence of this after the jump.
By 1976, Andre the Giant had established himself as an unstoppable juggernaut in professional wrestling, to the point that simply getting in a few good shots in a losing effort against him could put another wrestler over. He may not have been professional wrestling’s first “unbeatable giant” character, but he was certainly the most successful and popular portrayal of it. Naturally, when Vince McMahon Sr. faced the dilemma of finding an opponent for the division killer, he got the idea of having him defeat a real fighter. Chuck Wepner – who coincidentally was considering becoming a professional wrestler by this point in his career – was the ideal opponent.
As you probably figured out by reading that last paragraph, the fight itself was a blatant work. A loss to Wepner would have killed Andre the Giant’s “unbeatable” aura, and probably his career in general. There was absolutely no way that McMahon was going to let one of his biggest draws fizzle out while fans were still willing to pay to watch him (Ironically, McMahon Jr. would allow this to happen twenty years later). Meanwhile, a loss would do nothing to Wepner’s reputation; if you’re famous for losing to Muhammad Ali, a loss to The Eighth Wonder of the World isn’t exactly going to bury you.
Perhaps the worked shoot nature of the “fight” is why Wepner vs. Andre the Giant has been all but forgotten by fight fans, while Ali vs. Inoki is still regarded as one of the first mainstream MMA bouts. The match may have fooled fans from an era that still sanctioned and licensed professional wrestling as if it were a legitimate competition, but even the dimmest fight fans of today can tell that something isn’t quite right when watching the video. From professional wrestling matches filling out the rest of the undercard, to a member of the McMahon family providing the commentary, to Gorilla Monsoon being Andre the Giant’s cornerman, to the post-fight brawl in the ring, there are way too many obvious signs that the action wasn’t exactly 100% organic. The fact that Chuck Wepner has recently opened up about the “entertainment” aspect of the fight doesn’t exactly help guard the illusion, either.
Interestingly enough, the most “fake” parts of the bout – from what appears to be a botched atomic drop to Andre throwing Wepner over the top rope – were possibly the only unscripted events to take place that evening. Rumor has it that by the third round, Wepner decided he’d throw his most powerful punches at Andre the Giant. Andre – who had a reputation for shooting on wrestlers who he felt were working too stiff with him -decided that he would get behind Wepner and pick him up, just to demonstrate that he could seriously hurt Wepner if he wanted to (he allegedly did the same thing to a young Hulk Hogan). When Wepner didn’t take the hint, Andre decided to skip to the planned finish right then and there – Wepner’s compliance be damned.
For better or for worse, Chuck Wepner vs. Andre the Giant was one of the first mainstream American mixed rules bouts, which took place thirty-seven years ago today. Whether or not you can still sit through it today depends on whether or not you appreciate oldschool professional wrestling, but odds are good that if you’re a cinema buff, you have an appreciation for Stallone’s recreation of it.