Dennis Rodman wasn’t the first professional athlete to visit North Korea. He probably won’t be the last either. In 1995, Japanese pro wrestler – as in, WWE-level sports entertainment pro wrestler – invited fellow wrestling superstar Ric Flair and boxing legend Muhammed Ali to visit the Hermit Kingdom with him on a goodwill tour.
It didn’t take long for “The Louisville Lip” to speak his mind, even in the middle of the most repressive country on Earth.
This is what happens when you get on the wrong side of Muhammed Ali.
Ali was never one to keep his thoughts to himself – and he always accepted the consequences. In 1967, he was stripped of his title, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined ,000 for not obeying his call to be drafted saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
While Ali did not end up going to prison, his stance left him nearly broke and destitute, exiled from boxing for years. The experience didn’t curb his mouth one bit. He has always put his money where his mouth is, even when his voice was ravaged by Parkinson’s Disease.
But even a debilitating degenerative disease couldn’t stop him from lighting the Olympic torch in 1996.
So when The People’s Champion was invited to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1995, it should have been a surprise to no one that he would still speak his mind. Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki invited Ali and fellow wrestler Ric Flair on a goodwill tour of the country in 1995. The group was part of the DPRK’s International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Also coming with the group was Rick and Scott Steiner, Road Warrior Hawk, Scott Norton, Too Cold Scorpio, Sonny Onoo, Eric Bischoff, and Canadian Chris Benoit.
Flair and Inoki would headline two main events from Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium in front of more than 150,000 North Koreans. Muhammed Ali was just a wrestling fan. But when they arrived in the North Korean capital, things immediately got weird for the athletes.
Inoki, Flair, and Ali in Pyongyang 1995.
Their passports were confiscated, and they were assigned a “cultural attache” who followed their every movement and marked their every word. They were not left alone, even for a moment, even as they discussed the show they would put on later that night. One night, the group was sitting at a large table eating dinner with North Korean bigwigs, when one of the officials began some big talk about how North Korea could take out Japan and/or the United States whenever they wanted.
In his biography Ric Flair described Ali speaking up, his voice clear and loud as if his Parkinson’s Disease didn’t exist, saying:
“No wonder we hate these motherf*ckers.”
Antonio Inoki and Muhammed Ali in Pyongyang for the 1995 International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace.
When they were ready to go, Ric Flair was asked to say a few words about how great North Korea is and how much the United States paled in comparison. Flair demurred, instead thanking the North Koreans for their hospitality and complimenting them on their capital city.
Muhammed Ali was not asked to say anything before leaving.