In 1995 Japanese wrestling legend Antonio Inoki needed a big show to maintain his political power and power over his New Japan wrestling organization, so he decided to book a show in North Korea and promise the largest attendance in wrestling history. And his working relationship with WCW made them a perfect fit to help with a show that would boast a crowd of anywhere between 150,000 to 190,000 people. WCW agreed to send Ric Flair, The Steiners, Scott Norton and a handful of others to North Korea for the event. Inoki, who had also “wrestled” Muhammad Ali 20 years earlier, called in a favor to get the champ to attend with the rest of the Americans.
So Flair and Ali ended up on a private jet together and headed to North Korea. The show itself has been chronicled plenty of times, most notably by this oral history in Sports Illustrated, and the most fascinating parts are about Ali’s interactions with the wrestlers:
Bischoff: I had a chance to sit right next to him on the plane and we talked a long time about his memories of professional wrestling and how it affected his career. He literally modeled the Cassius Clay persona after a professional wrestler named Gorgeous George. It was the first time I’d ever heard that story and to hear it directly from him was just fascinating. It was just he and I chatting on a plane. It’s still magic. I get giddy.
Norton: You ever see that gimmick where you can make a dollar bill disappear? He acted like nobody saw it and he did that. He was so happy to meet everybody. He was trying to entertain everybody the whole way.
Scorpio: Even with his hands shaking, when he signed his name, his name was perfectly signed. It was perfect handwriting—better than mine. I was just blown away to get his signature. And to actually take a picture with Muhammad Ali meant more to me because my dad, when he was younger he used to spar with Cassius Clay as a semi-pro boxer
Norton: He loved Hawk because of Hawk’s interviews in pro wrestling. He would tell Hawk, ‘I want you’ and start to do the same thing he did with me. Hawk had his little spiel: He’d go, ‘WELL…’ and start cutting a promo on Ali. And Ali would just sit there and laugh like a little kid. ‘Do it again!’ The more Ali laughed and liked it, the more Hawk cut promos on him.
The idea of Hawk cutting promos on Ali makes my heart sing. The video above came from that trip as Ali made a handkerchief disappear for the wrestlers. Always entertaining. Always charismatic. I honestly hope that video brings some joy and is a small reminder of how Ali took pride in entertaining others even in his later years.