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Meet The Minnesota Wrestler Who Fought Muhammad Ali

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Three-time heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was beloved around the world.

But for a Minnesota man, it was even more personal.

In his four-decade professional wrestling career, Kenny Jay was never a star.

"I'm just a farmer's son from a little town, Holdingford, Minnesota," he said.

But he was known in wrestling circles as the go-to-guy you had to get to make your star look good.

"They always said, I was in there," Jay remembered, "and I was aggressive, and I didn't slack or nothing. Because I wanted to put a good show on."

Which is why he got a phone call one fateful day in 1976. He'd been picked to get pummeled by Muhammad Ali.

"'You're gonna wrestle Muhammad Ali,'" he recalled being told. "You know, I got stunned. I was like 30 to 35 years old. I'm a little farmer's son, you know, and I'm taking on the most famous, famous boxer."

The call came with very little warning. The fight was that night in Chicago, and Jay was quickly whisked away to get on a flight.

It was one of those boxer versus wrestler bouts. Jay's bout with Ali was a warm-up and hype-builder for a more highly publicized fight Ali had coming up against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki.

He was excited. And scared to death.

"We got introduced," Jay recalled. "And here I got to shake the hand that's going to probably kill me! … I knew I didn't have a chance. But it was awesome."

Jay quickly saw -- and felt -- firsthand what made Ali so incredible.

"It was really nerve-wracking, you know, when that bell rang," he said. "I figured if I could get him around the waist, he could pound me on the back all he wants, as long as he just don't hit me in the face, you know?"

And then Ali did hit him in the face.

"And then he finally did," Jay said. "I lost my train of thought, and boy, wham, right here."

Jay lasted more than six minutes with Ali.

"I got hurt worse than that [hurt me]," Jay said, erupting into laughter. "You know, so it was great ... Still to this day, I got pictures with him, and we still talk about it, and everybody brings it up, 'You took on Muhammad Ali?'

"It was awesome. It was just like a feather in my hat, to be a little farmer boy that got to do something that everybody would have loved to do, you know? It was great. I'll never forget that, and I'll never forget Muhammad Ali.

"There will never be another Muhammad Ali."

Ali died Friday night at the age of 74. A spokesperson from Ali's family says he died from septic shock at a Phoenix hospital.

He will be buried in his hometown of Lousiville, Ky., on Friday.

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