- Don Stradley
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Floyd Mayweather's recent plunge into the world of professional wrestling was not an immediate headline grabber, but when a news conference officially announced his March 30 appearance at Wrestlemania XXIV -- and, more specifically, his $20 million paycheck -- the latest boxer versus wrestler farce finally received some coverage.
The payday is undoubtedly an exaggeration. WWE head Vince McMahon did not build an empire by offering people $20 million for a one-time appearance. (Although that could explain why Pete Rose kept coming back to get dropped on his head for several "manias" in a row.)
In fact, some wrestling insiders guess Mayweather's take will be closer to $1 million.
Still, various news outlets, including some reputable ones that should've known better, reported it as fact.
Chalk one up for Floyd and Vince.
Whether the paycheck is real or not, the story illustrates the surprising turnaround of Mayweather's career. Two years ago, he was literally weeping after beating Carlos Baldomir because he felt unappreciated; now, he's part of an annual pop culture event that attracts approximately a million viewers.
The story also shows how far the wrestling business has come. Either wrestling has raised its profile, or the mainstream has lowered its standards because "sports entertainment" is no longer the nadir of showbiz.
For Mayweather, Wrestlemania could mean that he has finally made it. But for some of us, there is only a sense of "Here we go again."
Did we not learn anything in 1976 when Muhammad Ali met Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki?
Unable to agree on a plot line, Ali and Inoki were boring together.
"Fighting Inoki was an incredibly stupid act," Ali's physician, Dr. Ferdi Pacheco, told Ali biographer Thomas Hauser. "To subject a legendary fighter to a carnival atmosphere like that was wrong."
Ali ended up in a hospital with blood clots in his legs from Inoki's kicks.
A far more entertaining spectacle was when, in order to hype the Inoki bout, Ali squared off with rotund wrestling journeyman Gorilla Monsoon, who hoisted Ali in the air and plunked him onto the canvas. To this day, some still maintain that Monsoon's airplane spin was legit.
New York Times columnist Red Smith understood Ali's wrestling venture, writing that, after all, "Boxing is show business maybe it's unrealistic to expect more of a champion than a succession of pratfalls on the burlesque circuit. Nevertheless, some do mourn for the Sweet Science."
Nine years later, Ali appeared at the first Wrestlemania as a referee.
Fighters have been participating in wrestling shows since the late 1890s when Bob Fitzsimmons horsed around with European wrestling champion Ernest Roeber. Boxing promoters often ran wrestling shows along with boxing -- McMahon's father did exactly that -- and customers wondered if boxers could beat wrestlers, or vice versa. The pugs and grapplers would get together to take our money and keep us wondering.
The McMahon brain trust whipped up an angle in which Mayweather would face WWE's resident dinosaur, Paul "The Big Show" Wight. But if the McMahons are counting on the boxing audience to add significant viewers to Wrestlemania XXIV, they'll need to put De La Hoya in the ring, too. Mayweather's 2007 bout with Oscar De La Hoya drew a record 2.15 million viewers. Mayweather didn't draw those numbers by himself, and if De La Hoya isn't interested, the Golden Boy should note that greater fighters than he have done it.
"There just can't be any bigger thrill than belting a wrestler," Jack Dempsey told a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1940. "You can really tee off on those babies."
Retired from boxing, Dempsey earned pocket money by refereeing wrestling bouts. When a brute named Billy Edwards tore Dempsey's shirt in January 1931, the ex-champion cracked him on the jaw. Soon, Dempsey was popping wrestlers all over America. Dempsey worked in wrestling well into his 50s.
To his dying day, Dempsey insisted the wrestlers he faced were really gunning for him, but he never worried. "They can't punch a lick," he said.
But after a 1940 mixed match with Detroit wildman Bull Curry, Dempsey left the ring with a puffed ear and a bruised rib. The Chicago Tribune's Stewart Owen wrote that seeing Dempsey in a wrestling ring, sitting between rounds on an upturned milk crate, was like seeing the great horse, Man O' War, "hitched to a garbage wagon."
Newsweek columnist John Lardner wrote, "Mr. Curry held Jack in a headlock until the great man's face turned mauve."
After Dempsey "knocked out" Curry, he explained to Lardner his motivation: "To be very frank with you, boy, I am doing it for the dough."
Still, Dempsey's rough image was a good fit for wrestling, and he enjoyed the action.
When Joe Louis tried wrestling, there was no joy at all. Louis donned the tights because he was in deep debt with the U.S. government.
George McLeod, an Arizona sportswriter, recalled Louis' wrestling days for a 1961 article: "He must have weighed 275 pounds; he couldn't move his feet in the ring. He couldn't grasp the tactics of show sport. He was not an entertainer in the wrestling sense and he knew it."
The Brown Bomber's mat career ended when a clumsy grappler landed heavily on top of him, causing serious damage to Louis' heart. Doctors ordered Louis to find a new line of work.
Unlike most fighters who appear on wrestling shows, Mayweather is wealthy and in his prime, which provides some intrigue: A fighter in Mayweather's position wouldn't allow himself to be humiliated, and McMahon wouldn't allow his gargantuan star to lose to a 147-pound boxer.
So what should we expect?
The bet here is that Mayweather becomes a "good guy" by Wrestlemania XXIV and, with some help from other wrestlers, topples the giant Wight.
But does it matter?
If boxing is, as Jimmy Cannon called it, "the red light district of sports," what does that make wrestling? The week Mayweather made his debut in WWE, McMahon was on the same program spanking a dwarf with a belt.
"If ESPN is doing a story on it, then WWE has already accomplished what they wanted to do," said Stu Saks, publisher of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. "You won't see Mayweather take any bumps. His people were worried he'd get hurt on 'Dancing With The Stars,' so he's definitely not getting hurt on March 30. But he has piqued your interest; that's all they wanted. They duped the world again."
Boxers like Tony Galento, Primo Carnera, Archie Moore, Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, Ali, Chuck Wepner, Leon Spinks, Buster Douglas, Mike Tyson, Butterbean and Evander Holyfield all took their turn in a wrestling ring.
Mayweather may not be entering the WWE in the same sorry state they were in, but when it's all said and done, he will have something in common with those other fighters: Win or lose, his Wrestlemania gig won't be remembered as a high point in his career.
Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.
5dDavid M. Hale