January 15, 2014

Ali vs. Semenko - It Really Happened

Legend. Superstar. Great. Hero.

These are all words that are used far too frequently in the sporting world. These words should be reserved for the absolute best of the best, for athletes like Pele, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Jesse Owens, Paavo Nurmi, Tiger Woods, Jim Brown, Jim Thorpe, Willie Mays, and in hockey Wayne Gretzky, Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Hull and maybe a couple of more.

But if there is one athlete above all others who deserves any such title. It is Muhammed Ali. I don't think the heavyweight champ needs any introduction. He was the greatest, he even said so himself. He is a worldwide phenomenon, as good a showman as he is an athlete. He was probably the most influential athlete ever, leaving a legacy far more important than that just of a boxer. Had Parkinson's disease not crippled Ali, I'm certain he would have brought about more change in the world.

Hockey fans like fights, for the most part. There's been a few on-ice heavyweight champions over the years - Gordie Howe, John Ferguson, Hammer Schultz, Bob Probert and nowadays Derek Boogaard.

In the early 1980s the unofficial championship belt arguably belonged to Dave Semenko. The tough guy known as "Wayne Gretzky's bodyguard" was as big and strong and as feared as anyone on the rink.

So have you ever wondered what would happen if hockey's heavyweight champ got into a fight with boxing's heavyweight champ? Well that's exactly what happened on June 12th, 1983.

Some of the details about this three round exhibition are pretty sketchy. It turns out Mark Messier's uncle Larry was behind it all. He was always trying to promote something, and his idea of Hollywood celebrities playing the Oilers in a floor hockey match turned into a heavyweight battle between Semenko and Ali, who at 41 was just 5 years removed from his last title reign.

I turned to Semenko's excellent autobiography "Looking Out For Number One" and unearthed some more details, but I never did find out who won the fight. I've seen some online comments suggesting Semenko "acquitted himself nicely."

Semenko apparently trained quite hard for the event, training under Rocky Addison, a former Manitoba middleweight champion. They watched video of Ali's fights looking for tendencies, and hit the gym for many hours. They held a one week training camp at the worst possible time for Semenko.

"They'd only just introduced Happy Hours in the lounges in Edmonton and the first think Rocky did was put me on the wagon. "Two for one sodas are not my idea of a Happy Hour on a hot June afternoon."

Semenko comments on how he really had no idea what to expect in the ring, other than he didn't want this to turn into some comedic sketch. About the only information he had was when Ali sent one scout to watch Semenko work out, but he apparently he was there more to deliver a message: "Make sure you don't do something stupid like try to take the champ's head off." Ali's people didn't want any funny business, but maybe they were more worried about what Ali would do to Semenko once he got up.

Before the match Ali met up with Semenko to greet him personally.

"When I was first taken over to his house to have a meeting about the fight, Ali came walking into the room, put his hands up and said, 'Okay, show me something.' I threw a few combinations and Ali said 'Don't worry, kid, we'll make it look good.' Then he left to take a nap!"

Ali later promoted the exhibition match in typical Ali style.

"Ali comes to meet Semenko
But Semenko's starting to retreat
If Semenko goes back an inch further,
He'll end up in a ringside seat."

"Sammy" was relieved when the whole show was over with. In the autobiography he revealed a funny story not many people knew about at the time.

"I didn't know what I was supposed to wear and didn't have a boxing wardrobe kicking around the house. I didn't have boots like Ali, so I got a pair of old black high-top runners. He had his zippered sweat suit to wear into the ring. I wore a crimson-and-silver terry-towel bathrobe. We hadn't even thought about it, but I'd been wearing the robe when they laced the gloves on me. So there we were, standing in our corner with the opening bell about to ring and I couldn't get the damned bathrobe off over those great big sixteen ounce boxing gloves. So Rocky stood real close to me, trying to block out everybody's view, while he hacked the sleeves off my bathrobe with a pair of scissors."

Like I said, the match itself is pretty sketchy. I believe the match officially ended in a draw, with no knockouts and no winner declared at the end. Ali apparently did his famous Ali Shuffle among other showboating in the ring, all to please the fans. And Semenko let him do it.

I also found this program (pictured to the right) of the event. The original purchase price was just $2, but with the signatures of Ali, Semenko, and several playboy playmates as well as increasing scarcity over time, the program is now for sale at this memorabilia house for $1500!

By the way, 5 years earlier Ali boxed an exhibition match against NFL star (and later acting star) Lyle Alzado. Unlike Semenko, Alzado was trained as an amateur boxer.


VK said...

Thanks! It's very interesting! Maybe you can ask Terry Jones about winner of the event he covered?

pookie16 said...

It would not please the fans to have Sammy lose. It would not be to Ali's reputation to have Sammy win. A draw was the only thing that made sense and that is how the newspaper reported it. It was noted that Ali was impressed with Semenko as far as the skills of someone that had no training. Ali did hit Semenko a few times and let Semenko hit him. No one was going to throw a punch that might hurt the other. I now wish I would have gone to the match, but at the time it seemed too silly to bother.

Anonymous said...

I was there,it was a great show and Ali was in fine verbal form.Telling the crowd that he knew they loved him and he loved them back.I feel lucky to have been sitting just a few rows back from the "Greatest".It was a thrill.

Anonymous said...

I was at that exhibition fight. There was also a kick boxing card at the event which I had a fighter participating in. I met Ali at the hotel that we were all staying in. I don't remember this program but I would love to see what is in it.


Unknown said...

I was given the honour of singing the National Anthems at this fight when I was only 13 years old. What an amazing night!