Sky Pilot: Wilt the Stilt

By Pete Ehrmann on July 25, 2014
Sky Pilot: Wilt the Stilt
"Deacon" Jack Hurley couldn't talk about Chamberlain without reverting to prize fighting.

“He could be a great fighter, and he could make more at that than he could as the world’s best basketball player…”

Another boxing website has a new piece by Philadelphia writer Bernard Fernandez ruminating about a proposed fight in 1971 between Muhammad Ali and 7’1” basketball icon Wilt Chamberlain.

“From the time I entered sports,” Fernandez quotes Chamberlain, “guys tried to get me to become a fighter.”

Unmentioned in the piece is that the first to publicly tout Chamberlain’s prospects in the ring was “Deacon” Jack Hurley, legendary manager of lightweight Billy Petrolle in the 1920 and ‘30s and light heavyweight/heavyweight Harry “Kid” Matthews in the ‘50s. And lauded by Jimmy Cannon in 1958 “the last of the great teachers.”

Hurley (who also promoted the heavyweight championship fight in Seattle two years earlier between champion Floyd Patterson and Olympic champion Pete Radamacher) was temporarily out of boxing then and doing publicity for the Harlem Globetrotters, whose roster included the All-American giant from Kansas State.

Hurley accompanied the ‘Trotters to Milwaukee for a January 3, 1959 game against the Hawaiian All-Stars at the Arena.

In an interview with Cleon Walfoort of The Milwaukee Journal several days beforehand, he was supposed to whoop it up about the basketball game. But Hurley, wrote Walfoort, “couldn’t talk about the Globetrotters without talking about Wilt Chamberlain. And he couldn’t talk about Chamberlain without reverting to prize fighting. He even thinks he could have made a fighter out of Chamberlain.”

“It could be done,” Hurley said. “Chamberlain is the most marvelously coordinated athlete I’ve ever seen. He’s over seven feet tall and weighs 230 pounds. He’s young enough. And he’s a great athlete.”

Chamberlain was getting $65,000 to play for the Globetrotters that year.

“…He could be a great fighter and he could make more at that than he could as the world’s best basketball player,” said Hurley. For one thing, he said, “he could have a tremendous left jab with those long arms of his.”

But first, Hurley went on, “You’d have to find out in the gym if he could take a punch… It wouldn’t only be a question of whether he could punch or take a punch. It would amount to whether he had the other qualifications of a fighter, and as a natural athlete I think he would have.

“That includes relaxing in the face of danger. It includes making yourself the boss in the ring. In every fight, there is the question of which fighter is the gamer of the two. You have to make the other man believe you are the boss. That’s what fighting is about.

“You can teach Chamberlain or anyone else the tricks and the technique,” Hurley said. “Like Joe Louis, the way he used to shoot his left jab short on purpose, to get a chance to throw his right when his opponent came in. But Louis, good as he was, would never have beaten Jack Dempsey because Dempsey could have taken Louis’ best punch and Louis couldn’t have taken Dempsey’s.”

Then, remembering why he was in town to begin with, Hurley said, “I don’t have to sell Chamberlain as the world’s best basketball player. And this isn’t the time to talk about him as a heavyweight championship prospect in boxing. Still, it wouldn’t be as unlikely as you might think.”

The idea had old Jack plenty revved up.

“If I could maneuver a guy like Matthews into a fight with Rocky Marciano,” he told Walfoort, “there’s no telling what I could do with Chamberlain.”

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  1. Eric 08:20am, 07/27/2014

    I remember the Kareem-Kent Benson incident. Benson barely made contact with Jabbar. Meanwhile, Jabbar goes into a act like he has just been impaled with a Jon Bones Jones elbow to the ribs. The 7’ ahole then comes up to a totally unprepared Benson and sucker punches him in the jaw. Cowardly act. Sucker punching someone is the equivalent of shooting someone in the back. Despicable act, that is coming more prevalent in today’s society, that and stomping someone while they are down or even unconscious. Things like this were looked down upon not too long ago, but are even encouraged in today’s sick society.

  2. nicolas 03:58pm, 07/26/2014

    Marv Jensen who managed gene Fulmer I believe was interested in Jim Brown becoming a boxer. i don’t think that Chamberlain ever got into a fight on the basketball court.  Irish Frankie brings up Kareen Abdul Jabar, and this is sort of true. I remember that jabar hit happy Hariston in a game, and wasn’t even thrown out. Chamberlain confronted Jabar, but no punches were thrown. As for Jabar, I do agree with Irish on this. Clyde Lee of the Warriors and Kent Benson come to mind. He knocked Benson out cold, apparently because Benson elbowed jabar in the stomach. But I do remember Dennis Autrey punching Jabar, wobbled him, and almost knocked him down. Jabar thought about fighting him, but he was stunned. Aurey got kicked out of the game, and Jabar had to sit out the rest of the game, ursine a black eye. Jabar from my remembrance, never got into another physical confrontation again.

  3. Eric 02:17pm, 07/25/2014

    Chamberlin was extremely athletic for such a huge man, and I’ve read that he was uncommonly strong. Heard that Wilt the Stilt even impressed the Governator with his feats of strength on the set of the second Conan movie.  Of course that doesn’t guarantee a victory in a boxing ring, but it doesn’t necessarily hurt either. Can you imagine how short Frazier would’ve looked next to Wilt. I’m guessing this whole event was staged and neither man ever took it more serious than making some coffee money. I heard Jim Brown say during an interview that Herbert Muhammad was concerned about Ali taking this “bout” because of the huge size disparity. Kind of have to believe Brown, he seems pretty credible, he even acknowledged that Ali would’ve beaten him rather easily in a boxing match. That’s alright, Ali would’ve have probably sucked at running back. I believe at one time they were offering or trying to persuade Brown to box Ali.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:37pm, 07/25/2014

    Kareem Abdul Jabbar would have been a better candidate with his hateful, spiteful attitude…..he was always sucker punching hapless opponents anyway.

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