The Ali Effect: How Pro Wrestling’s Promo has Influenced Combat Sports (and Vice Versa)
On June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali passed away. Although he was not a pro wrestler, Ali had many ties to the genre. Of course, there’s his appearance at the very first Wrestlemania, performing as a guest referee alongside Pat Patterson in the main event pitting Hulk Hogan and Mr. T against “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. There’s also the odd-but-unforgettable bout with pro wrestling legend Antonio Inoki, which is often considered to be a precursor to modern-day MMA. However, Ali’s effect on the world of pro wrestling does not stop there.
The first ripple in this gargantuan wave, a figurative tsunami if you will, was not Ali’s effect on wrestling. Rather, this long tale begins with the other squared circle affecting Ali. Nicknamed “The Louisville Lip”, Ali was known for his brash attitude and ability to put his opponents down in the most poetic fashion known to man.
"Last night I had a dream, When I got to Africa,
I had one hell of a rumble.
I had to beat Tarzan’s behind first,
For claiming to be King of the Jungle.
For this fight, I’ve wrestled with alligators,
I’ve tussled with a whale.
I done handcuffed lightning
And throw thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad.
Just last week, I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone, Hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.
I’m so fast, man,
I can run through a hurricane and don't get wet.
When George Foreman meets me,
He’ll pay his debt.
I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree.
Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.”
-Muhammad Ali, prior to the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with George Foreman.
In Boxing during this period, this style of verbal assault was near unheard of. To a pro wrestling fan, that string of poetic barbs can be identified quite easily. That is a good ol’ fashioned promo. Ali didn’t hide this fact, either. When the Associated Press asked him about his shit-talking ways, Ali stated plain as day “[I got it] from seeing Gorgeous George wrestle in Las Vegas. I saw his aides spraying deodorant in the opponents' corner to contain the smell. I also saw 13,000 full seats. He told me people would come to see me get beat. Others would come to see me win. I'd get 'em coming and going.”
It’s often debated whether it was Gorgeous George or “Classy” Freddie Blassie who initially influenced him, but the fact that Ali utilized a skill he adopted from pro wrestling to pack thousands of fight fans into arenas from Madison Square Garden to the Philippine Coliseum is not up for debate. People were intrigued by Ali’s gift of gab. Ali’s brand of verbal mindfuckery was putting asses in seats. It wasn’t long before pro wrestling, Ali’s initial influence, started taking back for its own gain.
Enter “Superstar” Billy Graham. 275lbs of meat, goatee, and a thick leather coating which is often confused for skin. When Graham wasn’t swiping lines directly from Ali, he was using a very similar manner of speaking. The poetic, rhyming style would nearly always find its way into the promos of Graham. “I'm the reflection of perfection, the number one selection,” he would proclaim. “I'm the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour.” Graham taking Ali’s style of rhyming smack talk would influence many other fellow wrestlers from Hulk Hogan, to Ric Flair, and even Madison Square Garden opponent Dusty Rhodes.
As you get further down the line the direct imitation of Muhammad Ali starts to dwindle, but the principles remain the exact same. Be loud, be boisterous, be confident (or cocky), and you’ll get the attention of your audience. People don’t want to listen someone who thinks they’re pretty decent. Ali said “I’m the greatest,” Randy Savage said “I’m the cream of the crop,” Steve Austin said “I’m the toughest son of a bitch in the WWF,” and Sasha Banks says “I’m the boss.” Each of those phrases differ in tone and delivery quite a bit, but the message is identical. I’m the absolute best at my craft. All eyes on me.
Nowadays, in wrestling, it’s not just common to have the ability to flap your gums in an intriguing manner, it’s an essential skill. In the world of “shoot” combat sports, on the other hand, it somewhat fell by the wayside for a while. It’s not like shit-talk didn’t exist, but a couple of macho dicks saying “I’m gonna knock your ass out” back and forth isn’t quite as interesting as Ali’s flowing, stinging taunts. In the past few years, though, things have started to come back around to the world of combat sports.
“I'm not a martial artist, I am a gangster from West Linn, Oregon and I win fights with these [fists] and I make no goddamn apology.”
-Chael P. Sonnen
Trash talking remained a part of prizefighting, but no one has really be able to use verbal taunts in an entertaining manner quite like Ali. Enter one Chael Patrick Sonnen, American gangster. Sonnen is quite a controversial figure in combat sports, particularly with his sharp tongue or his open usage of PEDs. Whether you like the man or not, Chael Sonnen may very well be responsible for the recent shit-talking renaissance in the world of combat sports, particularly MMA.
Sonnen was riding a three-fight win streak, capped off with a unanimous decision thrashing of Nate Marquardt. While many fighters would take the route of stating “it would be an honor” to fight the champion, Anderson Silva at the time, Chael P. took the exact opposite approach. He’d often use direct attacks such as “When Anderson Silva walks into a room, you can hear a rat piss on cotton.” He’d even go as far as to attack Silva’s coaches, stating “he’s got a black belt [in Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu] under the Nogueira brothers. I think a black belt under the Nogueira brothers is [like saying] I got a free toy in my happy meal.”
Such insults drew all eyes on the American Gangster, and he got his World Middleweight Title shot against Anderson Silva. He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk in this fight. Sonnen clattered the absolute fuck out of Silva for over 23 minutes. The fight was not close to being close. Silva is not considered the best MMA fight ever for no reason, though, and caught Sonnen with a Hail Mary triangle choke near the close of the fifth and final round.
Sonnen was not one to be denied. His first fight back was against Brian Stann, and he defeated the former Marine by first round triangle choke. When Joe Rogan asked him about his thoughts on the fight, Sonnen wanted nothing to do with answering him. Instead, five words that will forever be ingrained in the memories of MMA fans came out of Sonnen’s mouth. “Anderson Silva, you absolutely suck.”
Sonnen would get his rematch after being Michael Bisping, who is now the UFC Middleweight Champion as of July 2016, but would lose once again to Anderson Silva. In fact, his record in UFC and WEC title fights is a measly 0-4. It was Sonnen’s ability to get those by using his mic skills that makes him an unforgettable character in the world of MMA.
Mic skills in MMA didn’t die with Sonnen’s retirement (*cough* duetopissinghotforHGHandEPO *cough*). Although many did try to imitate Sonnen’s style, there is a fighter who has found his own flashy style. Style on the mic, as well as literally style with ridiculous $500 shirts a-la The Rock circa 1998. He’s mouthy, he’s arrogant, and he’s notorious. He’s Conor McGregor.
"These custom-made suits aren't cheap. This solid gold pocket watch, three people died making this watch. I need to put people away. I need those big fights. I'm going to end up in debt pretty fast."
One part Muhammad Ali, one part Ric Flair, and remove all fucks available to give. Shake and serve. Conor McGregor is the reigning king of the mic in MMA. He’ll call out anyone from any weight class, and he’ll be damn entertaining doing it. As Chael Sonnen did, he utilized his verbal talents to drum up interest in a fight with the UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo. Unlike Sonnen before him, McGregor would vanquish his foe in 13-seconds flat.
After winning the 145-pound crown, McGregor would enter a rivalry with fellow shit-talker Nate Diaz. The back-and-forth verbal jabs would set up a massive 170-pound super fight. It was a back-and-forth slugfest until Nate caught Conor with a stiff left hook, took the fight to the mat, and sunk in a rear naked choke. When the dust settled, Nate Diaz dropped one of the most iconic lines in MMA mic history. “I’m not surprised, motherfuckers.”
The fight was over, but the war is not even close to being over. These two mouthy maniacs had a rematch at UFC 202, these two weren't short for words. I mean, after all, the promos make the bout that much sweeter.