Terry Funk, along with being a legendary professional wrestler, deserves recognition as a sort of godfather of the Boxer vs. Other fight, a matchup of differing combat disciplines of the type that will captivate the world for however long Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Conor McGregor lasts.
Funk, 73, began wrestling in 1965 out of Amarillo, Texas, where he still lives, and he even still gets in the ring occasionally. He’s seen and done as much in the so-called squared circle as anybody’s ever seen and done. And what’s taking place this weekend in Las Vegas makes now a fine time to revisit an underappreciated chapter in his half-century-plus career: In the early 1990s, Funk toured Japan alongside former heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks, a junket whose success foreshadowed the popularity of the UFC, now the top fighting promotion in the world.
Funk is humble even by non-pro-wrestler standards, despite spending his life in a profession where humility is assumed to be a weakness. But he confesses that MMA’s evolution from a niche pastime to a mainstream sports juggernaut leaves him feeling pretty good about his legacy. As it should.
“We were ahead of the curve,” Funk says of his tours with Spinks. “No question about it.”
Some of history’s most popular boxing champions, of course, had shared a ring with non-boxers long before Spinks and Funk ever hit Japan.
Some examples: In November 1913, Jack Johnson, the baddest man on the planet in the early 20th century and maybe ever, took on a French wrestler named Andre Sproul in Paris. Though supposedly a pro wrestling event, the New York Times reported that the match ended when Johnson “resorted to his boxing instincts” after feeling he’d been fouled and “swung a stiff punch on his opponent’s solar plexus and knocked him out.”
Joe Louis, who became perhaps America’s most-beloved fighter of all time while defending the heavyweight title throughout World War II, made his pro wrestling debut in March 1956 against Don “Cowboy Rocky” Lee at Uline Arena in Washington, D.C. “Why is he wrestling? Money of course,” promoter Ray Fabiani told the Washington Post days before the match. “Eventually they all come to it.” Fabiani said he’d previously contracted celebrity heavyweights Jack Dempsey, Primo Carnera, and “Two Ton” Tony Galento to wrestle for his promotion. The Post reported that Louis was told he could not strike his opponent with a clenched fist because “the DC boxing commission will not sanction a bout between a boxer and wrestler.” Nonetheless, come fight night, the match ended when, according to the paper, “Louis threw a punch that may or may not have hit Lee,” and the 320-pound Cowboy was counted out.
Then there was Muhammad Ali’s June 1976 bout with Japanese wrestling star Antonio Inoki in Tokyo. That apparently unscripted affair remains both the biggest event in the history of the Boxer vs. Other genre, and its biggest debacle.
Inoki stayed on the mat for pretty much the entire non-fight, throwing kicks at Ali’s legs. Ali hadn’t trained to attack a man on the canvas, so he did nothing other than bore a live crowd of 13,000 at the Budokan arena and a massive global closed-circuit audience, including what the New York Times reported as 32,897 viewers at Shea Stadium.
“I never fought a man who fought on the floor,” Ali told an interviewer in the ring in Tokyo after the final bell but just before judges declared a draw. “I was starting to think that he was a sissy or something.” (The promoter behind the Ali vs. Inoki brouhaha, by the way, was Top Rank boxing maven Bob Arum, who had recently promoted Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in a dime-store rocket, another historic fan ripoff.)
Funk tells me he’s still mad about Inoki’s non-fighting strategy. “I was so pissed off at that,” he says. “Inoki just sat on his ass and started kicking at [Ali]. If that wasn’t chickenshit I never saw anything chickenshit. Just crawling around like he was a salamander or a poisonous scorpion that just shot his wad. Damn, that was godawful. Just godawful. If Inoki’s still alive, I’ll kick the shit outta him.” (Inoki is alive indeed. Now 74, the wrestling legend and MMA pioneer of sorts revealed years ago that he had converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Hussain Inoki. He told the Pakistani publication Dawn that while people assume his new first name is a tribute to Muhammad Ali, this was actually coincidental; he further explained that his middle name was a tribute to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.)
Funk was born in 1945 in Hammond, Indiana, the son of a burgeoning pro wrestling legend, Dory Funk. Before joining his father’s promotion, Funk was a football star at West Texas State in the mid-1960s alongside future Miami Dolphins great Mercury Morris and Dallas Cowboys star Duane Thomas. He began wrestling in Japan at least as far back as 1970, and for a time after the Ali vs. Inoki bout was worried that the fiasco could hurt his income. “The money [in Japan] was fantastic, five times the money you’d make in the States at that time,” he says.
But, as it turned out, Funk and other American combatants kept getting invites from the Far East. And by early 1990s, Ali vs. Inoki was forgotten enough that a now-defunct Tokyo hardcore promotion called Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) put on a series of matches throughout Japan featuring wrestlers, boxers, and traditional martial artists. Spinks and Funk were brought over as the headlining Yanks.
Spinks, for the unfamiliar, was a former U.S. Marine from St. Louis who became an American hero by winning a gold medal as a light heavyweight in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. He then turned pro and shocked the world by beating Ali in February 1978 to become world heavyweight champion in what was only his eighth fight.
Spinks’s time in the spotlight in the U.S. ended with their rematch in September 1978, which had Ali regaining the heavyweight title for the third and last time. But much of the world—including fans in Japan—never forgot about Spinks. “Boxing was not as big as wrestling in Japan,” says Funk. “But people knew Leon Spinks.”
During his Japanese jaunts, Spinks wore boxing gloves in the ring. Some opponents did, too; others didn’t. Videos of many of the matches have surfaced on YouTube and other social media sites in recent years, and Funk says he’s aware that modern rasslin’ critics aren’t always kind to Spinks’ ring generalship or skills as a bump salesman. But, Funk says, take it from somebody who saw the matches as they took place: Spinks was a fabulous worker, as well as a good guy and somebody easy to root for.
“Leon was great,” Funk says. “I enjoyed the shit outta him. The fans loved it. Anytime he did anything, the fans came to their feet. If he got a few good jabs in and then threw a big right and flattened you, they’d yell. They accepted him wonderfully.
“He didn’t do anything wrong by signing on with wrestlers,” Funk adds. “His own goddamn industry wouldn’t provide enough money for him to have a life after he retired. Boxing wouldn’t, so wrestling provided him a way of living. That’s the whole goddamn truth.”
Spinks’ highlight versus wrestlers came in March 1992 in Tokyo, when he knocked out Tarzan Goto to win something called the Martial Arts Heavyweight Championship. Two months later, he lost that belt to Atsushi Onita, who happened to be the FMW founder and the guy signing Spinks’s paychecks. (Funk also found himself on the business end of a match finish favorable to the boss: On a May 1993 card in Kawasaki Stadium in Kanagawa, Japan, just after Spinks got pounded into submission by an alleged judo expert named Gregory Veritchev in what was billed as a “Different Style Fight,” Funk lost to Onita in a “No Rope Exploding Barbed Wire Time Bomb Death Match.”)
One match from the tours for which video isn’t Googleable: Funk vs. Spinks in August 1993 in Gunma, Japan. According to the exhaustive pro wrestling database Cagematch.net, that was their only one-on-one encounter. The record shows Funk won by disqualification, though he doesn’t remember the exact ending. “I don’t know what the hell Leon did [to get disqualified],” Funk says. “He probably punched me in goddamn nose.”
Spinks has been in bad health in recent years, and rarely makes public appearances these days. But last week, he attended some events put on by the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame, including a ceremony inducting him and his brother, fellow former heavyweight titlist Michael Spinks. According to reports from the shindig, Leon looked great. Reached at his Las Vegas home after the induction, Spinks confirms the media’s version that he had a fine time while being honored by his peers. But he admits that his recollections of the tours of Japan alongside Funk and other wrestlers aren’t so sharp.
After a break in the interview so he can view a couple YouTube videos of his matches with wrestlers, however, his memory gets jogged a bit.
“They were always kicking me,” Spinks says with a big laugh. “It’s coming back to me! Yeah, they were always kicking me! That hurt!”
The more he watched his old self taking punishment, the more Spinks seemed to want to a take a time travel trip to Japan circa 1993 to get another shot at the the wrestlers and martial artists attacking him in the YouTube clips.
“I’d knock the shit out of them,” he says.
Asked how it feels to know that a Boxer vs. Other event of the sort he toiled in a long time ago in another hemisphere will hold the sports world’s attention this weekend—from a ring in his current hometown no less—Spinks replies, “It’s weird!” But he says he doesn’t ever mull any role he might have played in kickstarting the MMA boom, or watch UFC bouts enough to predict how McGregor will fare against Mayweather.
Funk, however, says he’s been following UFC closely for years, and is a McGregor fan. He’s eager to watch the fight, and to forecast how it’ll go down.
“I don’t know McGregor personally, but I know him,” Funk says. “I’ve known 50 guys like him, maybe not as tough as him, but just like him. I love the guy. But he’s now going into a sport that has nothing to do with his sport. You put gloves on a guy who is used to using his hands, you have no idea what a disadvantage that’s going to be. Now McGregor, will he try to give the fans his money’s worth? Yes, he’ll do that. But, if he goes in and just starts getting hit and feels he’s at a disadvantage at any time, he’s going to do what he needs to do.”
And what does he need to do?
“He’ll take him down and he’ll try to break a leg,” Funk says.
Funk, of course, is hardly the first guy to predict that McGregor will toss the Marquess of Queensbury rules before allowing himself to be knocked out. In fact, the pre-fight talk about imminent disqualification was such that UFC boss Dana White felt he needed to assure boxing fans that McGregor’s contract stipulates a stiff financial penalty if at any point he tries to ground-and-pound Mayweather. Funk, though, says even a seven-figure fine won’t stop McGregor’s inner brawler from taking over if need be.
“I don’t think that he is just going to get his ass kicked,” Funk says. “If he goes in and feels he’s at a disadvantage at any time, he’s going to go ahead and protect his sport. This isn’t just saving face for him. It’s his whole sport. I know that’s what I’d do. A couple million dollars out of that payday won’t hurt.”
Whether his Vegas prediction comes true or not, Funk will return to the ring next month at Dorton Arena in Raleigh, N.C. after a long layoff as he headlines a legends card. Funk promises he’ll play by the rules of wrestling.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously identified Mercury Morris as an NFL Hall of Famer.