Boxers has always had a tendency for carnival and none more so than Ali

Boxing great’s bout with ‘Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard’ lived up to pantomime of billing

At a public appearance the day before the fight, Muhammad Ali brought the house down pretending to mistake an elderly lady for Joe Frazier. Photograph: Focus on Sport via Getty Images

At a public appearance the day before the fight, Muhammad Ali brought the house down pretending to mistake an elderly lady for Joe Frazier. Photograph: Focus on Sport via Getty Images

 

On the night he was to square off with Muhammad Ali at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, Dave Semenko realised he had neglected to buy proper boxing shoes and suitable attire to wear for his walk to the ring.

So, he improvised, ferreting out an old pair of black hi-tops and grabbing a crimson and silver terry towel bathrobe from the back of a door.

Moments before the first bell, his cornerman Rocky Addison was still cutting the sleeves open, trying to get the robe off over the 16oz gloves even as an angry Ali was across the ring, being theatrically restrained by his seconds, much to the delight of the baying crowd.

The son of a Winnipeg plumber, Semenko’s day job was as an enforcer with the Edmonton Oilers, serving as “Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguard”, a punishing role in which the six-foot-three heavyweight was charged with protecting the team’s most prized possession from opposing goons.

In the age of tiresome YouTubers squabbling on pay-per-view, it’s well to remember boxing has always had a tendency towards the carnivalesque

This often entailed dropping his hockey stick and throwing punches, and his hard-won reputation for dispensing retributive justice allowed the pre-fight publicity to sell the charity event as “the baddest man on the planet meets the baddest man on ice”. A whiff of pantomime about the billing. A touch more about the contest itself.

This was June, 1983 and Ali was 19 months removed from his last professional bout, a lack-lustre defeat to Trevor Berbick at a baseball field in the Bahamas. He climbed through the ropes in Edmonton, to the soundtrack of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, wearing a tracksuit that he never took off.

The epic body that once rippled with muscle now jiggled with fat, and, at 41, he obviously didn’t want fans to glimpse the scale of his physical decline. With Semenko coming at him mullet-headed and bare-chested in sweatpants, there were moments when the encounter had the look if not the feel of a tawdry, bare-knuckle street brawl.

Brainchild

The whole shindig was the brainchild of Larry Messier, an old-school PR man culled straight from the pages of a Damon Runyon novel. Weighing in at just over 30 stone, he came from one of the most illustrious hockey families in Canada and once promoted an effort to break the world record for a vertical mile running up the steps of the Eiffel Tower.

With a resume that included a stint as a bodyguard for Howard Hughes when the billionaire secreted himself in a penthouse atop Vancouver’s Bayshore Hotel, Messier had insinuated himself into Ali’s inner circle when he produced a range of commemorative gold coins with the boxer’s face on them.

I’m not here for the money because you couldn’t afford to pay me

In the age of tiresome YouTubers squabbling on pay-per-view, it’s well to remember boxing has always had a tendency towards the carnivalesque. Its long and colourful history is littered with curious mismatches, various lurid attempts at manufacturing weird and not so wonderful box office attractions.

Witness Ali’s own disastrous encounter with the wrestler Antonio Inoki in Japan, the several failed attempts to get him to fight the 7ft 1in basketball icon Wilt Chamberlain, and his desperate bout with the Denver Broncos’ defensive end Lyle Alzado.

There has, perhaps, never been a serious athlete more willing than Ali to participate in freak shows in the name of entertainment, burnishing his legend or simply lining his pockets. Sometimes, even all three at once.

On this particular occasion, the three-time heavyweight champion delighted the Canuck media by arriving into town and unveiling some doggerel about his opponent, the type of rhyme normally reserved for a Joe Frazier or a George Foreman.

“Ali comes to meet Semenko
But Semenko starts to retreat
If Semenko goes back an inch further
He’ll end up in a ringside seat . . .”

Relished the Ali show

It might have been a remix of an old standard (culminating in Semenko being launched, like others before him, into space as a satellite) but the locals relished the Ali show. At a public appearance the day before the fight, he brought the house down pretending to mistake an elderly lady for Frazier.

Six thousand fans paid between $9 and $40 into an arena that could hold nearly three times that, and instead of Angelo Dundee, Ali had Jan-Michael Vincent, star of Airwolf, then one of the biggest shows on American television, in his corner, assisting Bundini Brown.

“He just moved around the dressingroom with me,” said Semenko of when Ali came to see him before the fight. “He had his hands in the air and had me throw punches to see what type of skill level and what kind of ability I had, and he said, ‘We’ll be fine.’ Then, he went for a nap.”

Ali gave the crowd what it wanted, delivering plenty of verbals and allowing the local hero latitude to punch without ever taking any serious hits. He mixed in a few renditions of his trademark shuffle to inevitable cheers but right at the end of the third and final round, Semenko caught him on the head.

In the manner of a performer who knew his lines, Ali pretended to be wobbly-kneed then unleashed a flurry of his own, bloodying Semenko’s nose. Moments later, the referee declared the bout a draw.

“I’m not here for the money because you couldn’t afford to pay me,” said Ali. “I’m here because you all have followed me over the years and you can tell your grandchildren you did see him.”

No doubt they did.

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