Solving pub arguments with a computer in the 1960s

Solving pub arguments with a computer in the 1960s

It was Murry Woroner, a short, chunky, balding advertising executive and radio producer from Miami, who was among the first to grasp that marrying fantasy with nascent computer technology was a license to print money. And he wasn’t wrong.

In 1967, Murray came up with an idea of how to settle every pub argument about boxing. He said that by putting all the stats and details of each fighter (when they were in their prime) into a computer, it could determine who would win if they ever met. He used the then-cutting edge NCR 315 Data Processing System and computer with 12 bits of memory (that’s not even 1% of a small update for an app today). It was a publicity stunt, but it was hugely popular, as each fight was performed as a radio play – as if the fight was taking place live.

A flattering 1968 Sports Illustrated piece, entitled 'And In This Corner .... NCR 315', hailed the tournament as "one of the most astonishing marketing successes in radio history". Woroner, it added, "brought to our wondering ears, via radio and computer, the All-Time Heavyweight Tournament and Championship Fight. He reduced 16 magnificent fighters (from John L. Sullivan to Muhammad Ali) to keypunch perforations, fed them into a National Cash Register 315 computer and let them fight: the bare knucklers vs the gloved sluggers, the rigid standers vs the dodging dancers, the quick vs the dead. 

One of these radio plays came to the attention of Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. At the time he could not box due to his unwillingness to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali was close to being declared bankrupt; his reputation was pretty much his only remaining asset. So when Woroner claimed Ali would lose in a semi-final to Jim Jeffries– a fighter Ali dismissed as "history's clumsiest, most slow-footed heavyweight.", Ali threatened Murry with a $1m lawsuit for defamation. The government had stolen his title, he fumed, and now Woroner was taking his good name.

However ever the shrewd businessman, Woroner instead offered to pay Ali $10,000 to participate in a filmed version of one of the radio fantasy fights: against Rocky Marciano who had retired 14 years earlier. The two men, who had never met before, allegedly grew quite fond of each other as they fought in front of the cameras for days in order to get the right footage. The two fighters sparred for about 70 to 75 rounds, which were later edited according to the ‘findings’ of the computer. Sadly, Marciano died in a plane crash three weeks after filming ended. That is how the movie “The super fight” was born. 

Woroner, incidentally, was not someone acquainted with hubris. "We could do more than sports," he told Sports Illustrated. "Much more. Wars! Hitler's Germany against the Roman Empire! Napoleon versus Alexander the Great! How about election campaigns? George Washington versus Franklin Roosevelt! Abraham Lincoln against George Wallace! And debates? Socrates takes on Karl Marx! Thoreau against Jean-Paul Sartre! Why not? Why not?".