When Muhammad Ali fought hockey’s heavyweight champ, Dave Semenko

Larry Messier had an idea. 

It was 1983. His nephew, Mark Messier, was a 22-year-old burgeoning star for the Edmonton Oilers, along with another 22-year-old named Wayne Gretzky. Tasked with protecting them was Dave Semenko, a 6-3 enforcer from Winnipeg who would eventually amass 1,175 penalty minutes in nine NHL seasons, and earn the nickname “Gretzky’s Bodyguard.”

Semenko, to some, was the heavyweight champ of the NHL at that time.

Larry Messier, however, was working for the actual Champ.

He was part of Muhammad Ali’s entourage, working public relations for him. Ali was 41 years old – two years removed from his ignominious defeat at the hands of Trevor Berbick in Nassau, and one year before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The greatest boxer – hell, the greatest sports celebrity – who ever lived was now more personality than pugilist.

He had participated in exhibition matches before, like the infamous one against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976. So Messier started to put a proposal together: a three-round exhibition boxing match at the Northlands Coliseum between the Baddest Man on the Planet and the Baddest Man on the Oilers.

Glen Sather, ruler of everything Edmonton, signed off on it as long as the proceeds went to charity. Semenko was sold from the first word about the idea, and connected with Rocky Addison, a former Manitoba middleweight champion, to begin a training regimen that included the ultimate sacrifice for an Edmonton Oilers player at that time: Going clean and sober for several weeks.

What was in it for Ali?

Larry Messier, at the time, said Ali was doing it for charity and to show up Semenko. “He thinks, 'Who does Dave Semenko think he is, running around the NHL beating everyone up?’” claimed Messier.

He didn’t mentioned how much Ali was being compensated for the fight. Ali dodged the topic as well, as Ali did: “I’m not here for the money because you couldn’t afford to pay me,” he said. “I’m here because you all have followed me over the years and you can tell your grandchildren you did see him.”

Ali wasn’t exactly in top shape at that point, and wore a blue sweat suit for the match. Semenko was in top form, was training hard and actually had a member of Ali’s team warn him not to “not to do something stupid like trying to take the champ's head off."

But according to Semenko’s book, “Looking Out For Number One,” he also had a meeting with the Champ. From Greatest Hockey Legends, which had a great write-up on the fight and several clips from Semenko’s book:

"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 was the consummate showman, of course, and even produced one of his singular poems for the Edmonton brawler:

"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."

The match was held on June 12, 1983. The last game of the Stanley Cup Final that season was May 16, when the New York Islanders completed a sweep of the Oilers.

Six thousand fans attended the match, including celebrities like actor Jan Michael Vincent (Airwolf!), who was in Ali’s corner.

The two fighters entered the ring as “Eye Of The Tiger” played over the PA system. Semenko appeared to be wearing a bathrobe, because he was.

From Greatest Hockey Legends:

"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."

When his name was announced, Semenko strutted out to the middle of the ring and pointed at Ali with his glove. That sent Ali into a hilarious pantomime, as his handlers “held him back” from running across the ring and beating the stuffing out of the Oiler.

Jet Magazine, Ali vs. Semenko

As for the fight, here’s how the Associated Press saw it:

Ali

And after the final bell, the match was ruled a draw.

For Ali, the match is considered his final bout, although not his final time in a ring, as he took part in the first WrestleMania two years later. In fact, he declared that “boxing is dead” after his Canadian tour, saying “I got all that I need from boxing, but it doesn’t interest me anymore.”

But to the fans who crowded an Edmonton arena in June 1983, Ali’s motivation wasn’t at issue. It was about the chance to see the legend, even if it was in his Elvis in Vegas years. It was about the chance to chant “ALI! ALI! ALI!” as he danced around the ring during that surreal bout.

Muhammad Ali died on Friday, at 74. Capturing the essence of his life – elite athlete, passionate activist, pariah, idol, showman, father, Black American – is inconceivable. Perhaps, then, it’s best to say that he was many meaningful things to many people ... even when those people are just showing up to see him clown around in a sweat suit against a hockey player for three rounds.

Rest in peace, Champ.

More Muhammad Ali on Yahoo Sports:
Muhammad Ali, simply 'The Greatest', dead at 74
Dan Wetzel: Among legends, Muhammad Ali was 'The Legend'
Slideshow: Remembering Muhammad Ali
Sports world reacts to Muhammad Ali's death
What made Muhammad Ali a hero to so many?
Here's why the Ravens had a special bond with Muhammad Ali
Remembering Ali lighting the Olympic torch
Marlins announce Ali's death before official word came down
Jim Brown once challenged Ali to a fight and it didn't go well for Brown








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Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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