When Mike Tyson participates in a wrestling show in March, he won’t be breaking new ground.
Iron Mike is at least the 11th world heavyweight boxing champion to be involved in professional wrestling - at least on a one-time or short-term basis.
Tyson is getting about $4 million to participate as a non-wrestler in Wrestlemania. There are reports he needs money despite purses totally more than $100 million in his last six fights. He contends, however, that he is not doing it for the money.
Two former champs who actually wrestled because they did need money were Primo Carnera and Joe Louis.
Carnera, a much-maligned boxing champion of the 1930s, wrestled for about 14 years. Louis, heavyweight champion for 11 years, wrestled less than a year because he sustained broken ribs and a bruised heart when 320-pound Rocky Lee jumped on him.
“I enjoy it (wrestling), but I don’t want to get hurt,” Tyson said.
Tyson’s decision to work for the World Wrestling Federation as an “enforcer” March 29 at Wrestlemania 14 in Boston’s Fleet Center was greeted by questions about hurting boxing and about his dignity.
Louis, who defended the undisputed heavyweight boxing championship 25 times in 1937-48, was asked the same questions when, burdened by a $1.2-million tax debt, he turned to wrestling in 1956.
“It ain’t stealing,” Louis said.
Other former heavyweight champions involved in wrestling were Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali, Max Baer, Gene Tunney, Jack Sharkey, Jersey Joe Walcott, Rock Marciano and James “Buster” Douglas.
Baer once wrestled in an exhibition with Carnera, while the others refereed.
Walcott also was in a financial pinch when he refereed wrestling matches, including Louis’ debut before 4,100 people on March 16, 1956, in Washington’s Uline Arena.
For several of the boxers, wrestling was a way to supplement their income, just as they did with public appearances, stage performances and movie roles.
“I wouldn’t make a fist if you didn’t pay me,” Tyson said.
Ali actually performed the role of enforcer, who is outside the ring and goes to the aid of the referee, in the first Wrestlemania, at Madison Square Garden in March 1985. That’s the role Tyson will have when Shawn Michaels wrestles Stone Cold Steve Austin on March 29.
The enforcer, of course, ends up in the ring. Ali played for laughs. How will Tyson play it?
Dempsey and Ali also participated in boxer vs. wrestler competitions of 3-minute rounds in which the fighters wore gloves.
Dempsey met wrestler Cowboy Luttrell on July 1, 1940, almost 13 years after his last fight - a 10-round decision loss to Gene Tunney in the Battle of the Long Count. Dempsey knocked Luttrell out of the ring with a left hook, and the Cowboy was counted out at 1:38 of the second round.
Ali still was champion when he met Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki on June 25, 1976 at Tokyo.
“Ali was guaranteed $6 million, although financial irregularities and broken contracts would cut that to $2.2 million,” Thomas Hauser wrote in his 1991 book “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.”
Ali didn’t earn his money, but he paid a price.
“Nobody knew this was going to happen, so we had a dead show,” Ali said of the match.
It was declared a draw after Inoki spent 15 rounds in a crab-like position on the mat kicking out at the circling Ali’s legs. Ali was hospitalized for blood clots and muscle damage in his legs.
Louis’ wrestling career ended not long after it began.
“Lee messed up the choreography,” Richard Bak wrote in his 1996 biography “Joe Louis; The Great Black Hope.”
“Instead of seizing Joe in a head lock, he jumped on him, breaking two of his ribs and bruising his heart,” Bak wrote.
Louis was always cast as the “good guy.” So was the 6-foot-5-1/4, 270 pound Carnera. It had to be a pleasing role for the Italian, called the Ambling Alp.
Unknown to Carnera for much of his boxing career was that many of his wins on the way to the heavyweight championship were fixed. When he did get a title shot, he surprised by knocking out Jack Sharkey with a right uppercut on June 29, 1933. He defended the title twice before being hammered into defeat in the 11th round by a taunting Max Baer on June 19, 1934.
Carnera fought until 1938, then returned for a few fights after World War II. He was 39 and broke.
In 1946, Carnera got some wrestling offers. He took up wrestling and became popular throughout the world while earning an honest living until he retired about 1959.