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Wilt Chamberlain vs Muhammad Ali: An epic boxing match that never happened

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In 1971, Wilt Chamberlain wanted to challenge Muhammad Ali in a boxing match for his heavyweight title.

The match was supposed to take place in the legendary Madison Square Garden. ABC arranged a special sports segment with both Ali and Wilt appearing together to announce the fight. Jim Brown was supposed to be the promoter and already secured enough money that engaged both of them in contract negotiations. After several failed negotiations, Ali finally accepted Chamberlain's challenge after being offered a ton of money, something he desperately needed after being banned from boxing for three years after refusing to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam war.

Chamberlain was 35 at the time, a year away from retiring from the NBA after 13 seasons with more than 70 NBA records under his name. He was a Goliath on the basketball court. Ali was 29 in 1971 and 31-0 with 25 knockouts when he faced unbeaten Joe Frazier (26-0, 23 K.O.s) in Madison Square Garden in New York City for the undisputed heavyweight title. Frazier won in 15 rounds by unanimous decision.

After some thought, they agreed to go ahead with the massive payday, according to Tom Hauser's "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times."

Chamberlain told Hauser, "I was offered more money than I had ever gotten (as a basketball player.)

For Chamberlain, fighting Ali represented the pinnacle in his quest to conquer not only his own sport but the entire sporting world. His accomplishments on the basketball court were already legendary. His records of 100 points scored in one game and 55 rebounds grabbed in another remain untouched, and many observers (then and now) considered him to be the greatest ever to play the game.

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With an NBA championship trophy and multiple MVP awards on his mantle, Wilt felt he had little left to achieve in basketball. However, Chamberlain was a driven man whose accomplishments spurred him to seek greater glory continually.

On the day of the press conference, Ali was waiting. As Chamberlain walked in, Ali yelled, "Timber!" Arum told Hauser that Chamberlain, "turned white, goes into the next room with his lawyer, comes out and says he's not fighting.

I think Ali intimated him; that's all it wasAt the moment of truth, Wilt realized that fighting Ali was a totally ridiculous concept.

Bob Arum

The official reason for Chamberlain's withdrawal, provided by his attorneys, was that Wilt's after-tax money would earn from the fight was only $500,000. They claimed this was too small a purse to make an effort worthwhile. Naturally, other opinions abounded.

When interviewed in later years, Wilt himself offered another explanation for withdrawing from the fight. Chamberlain reminisced about how he wanted to do it because of his father.

I remember leaving my place in L.A. and — my father is a big fight fan — and I said, `Dad, I got a couple of days off, and I’m getting ready to go to Houston to sign to fight Muhammad Ali.’

Wilt Chamberlain

His father told him he should work on his free throws instead.

And I looked at my Dad and said, ‘Well, Dad, you’re probably right.

Wilt Chamberlain

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