A year or so ago, I wrote the following story for a book project I have since set aside. In honor of the recent passing of Muhammed Ali, I thought it would be fitting to share this.
He was the greatest fighter of all time. He was the undisputed sportsman of the 20th century. He appeared on more Sports Illustrated covers than anyone, including Michael Jordan. In a span of twenty one years, he won a gold medal, three world championships, and a total of 53 matches with only five losses. He survived a three and a half year exile enforced on him by his own government and returned in even greater form than before.
If you walk through the Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, you’ll learn about his early life. You’ll learn about the prejudice he faced as a child. You’ll learn about his conversion to Islam. You’ll learn about his many accomplishments as a fighter and as a champion for peace around the world. You can even sit and watch many of his most famous bouts in their entirety.
Still, there’s one match missing from this museum, one match that the champ and his people would like everyone to forget. It’s a match that everyone wanted to see but no one wants to remember, a match that reflected some of the great inter-fight matches of the past and foreshadowed the rise of MMA fighting some twenty years later. The match that took place in Japan in 1976 pitted the Greatest, Muhammed Ali, against a legendary Japanese fighter, Antonio Inoki.
Inoki was not a boxer. He was a professional wrestler. He stood 6’3” and weighted 240 pounds in his prime. Inoki trained with legends like Karl Gotch and Rikidozan. He began his fighting career in 1960, the same year young Cassius Clay (later Muhammed Ali) rose to national prominence in the United States. After eleven years fighting for the established Japanese promotions, Inoki struck out on his own to found his own promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Inoki was a professional wrestler and Ali a professional boxer. In days long past, the two disciplines went hand in hand, in the ring and out. In the late 19th century, William Muldoon faced off in the ring with his good friend, boxing champion John L. Sullivan. Wrestling champion “Strangler” Lewis had a close friendship with his contemporary, boxing champ Jack Dempsey. Lou Thesz was never shy about his friendship with African American boxing champion Joe Louis. By the 1970s, however, the two sports had long been divided. Boxing promoters refused to be categorized along side the sideshow of professional wrestling, while wrestling promoters doggedly insisted their sport was no less real than boxing.
A match between Ali and Inoki might never have happened if Ali hadn’t made the boast that, after beating men from nearly every other country in the world, he was looking for a champion from Japan. In an April 1975 meeting with Ichiro Hatta, the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association, Ali laid out the challenge. “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.”
Inoki, as savvy a businessman as he was a grappler, saw an opportunity, and he challenged Ali to a fight. Inoki had already engaged in some mixed fighting competitions, most notably the 1972 Munich Olympics judo gold medalist Wilhelm Ruska. Inoki wanted to be viewed as a legitimate fighter, but there were some in the press who refused to be convinced the Ruska bout was not staged. Inoki saw an opportunity to be legitimized in the eyes of the press and the world, so when Ali made the challenge, Inoki answered him, offering Ali a pay day of six million dollars.
The money was a big factor in getting Ali to agree to the match, but Ali’s childhood attraction to the sport of professional wrestling likely played a role as well. Ali learned to fight at the Columbia Gym in downtown Louisville, where Heywood Allen and the Allen Athletic Club held wrestling exhibitions every Tuesday night. Young Cassius Clay might easily have seen Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Baron Leone, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, “Wild Bill” Longson, and his hero Gorgeous George competing in the same building where he trained.
Ali was also well aware that professional wrestling as a work with pre-arranged finishes designed to tell a good story. What Ali didn’t know was that in his case, Inoki had no intentions of working Muhammed Ali. As far as Inoki was concerned, Ali’s boast as an insult to his country and his people. Inoki was a professional wrestler, but he was also a shooter, and he had every intention on humbling the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Promoter Bob Arum, who also masterminded the Snake River Canyon jump of Evil Knievel, was brought in to help promote the fight that was broadcast on closed circuit TV in the United States. A pair of wrestling promoters from New York got involved and paired it with another boxer-vs-wrestler match to take place the same day at Shea Stadium between Chuck Wepner and Andre the Giant. The promoters were Vincent J. McMahon and his son, Vincent K. McMahon.
Arum was just as much in the dark about Inoki’s plan as Ali’s people. In fact he reassured worried members of Ali’s camp that they had nothing to worry about. “Professional wrestlers are performers. The thing is a fraud.”
Said Ali’s doctor Ferdie Pacheco, “Ali’s fight in Tokyo was basically a Bob Arum thought-up scam that was going to be ‘ha-ha, ho-ho. We’re going to go over there. It’s going to be orchestrated. It’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s just a joke.’ Well, when we got over there, we found out no one was laughing.”
Ali’s managers had reasons to be worried. The 1975 “Thrilla in Manilla” versus Joe Frazier had taken a huge toll on Ali’s body. In total, Ali had taken punishment from seven Hall of Fame fighters in his career. Doctors began advising the champ in 1975 that he needed to hang up the gloves sooner rather than later, citing severe damage to brain and kidney tissue as their chief concerns. Ali would continue to ignore this advice for another five years, facing one more Hall of Famer, Larry Holmes, on his way out.
With Arum’s reassurances that the champ would suffer no real damage, Ali made his way to Japan in the summer of 1976 for what he believed would be a fun and easy pay day. Ali even brought a special guest along to be his ringside manager, another of his childhood wrestling heroes, “Classy” Freddie Blassie.
Ali arrived on June 16, and the two competitors met for the first time at a lunch party for the media. Ali gave one of his trademark speeches, telling the world what he would do to Inoki at Nippon Budokan Arena. He nicknamed Inoki “The Pelican” because of Inoki’s “Big bullseye chin.” Inoki responded, “When your fist connects with my chin, take care that your fist is not damaged.” Inoki also handed Ali a gift, a wooden crutch to use after Inoki threw him from the ring.
There are conflicting stories as to how and when it was decided the match would be a shoot. Some in Ali’s camp claim that they were sold on the match being a work, but that Ali balked at the plan when he was told that Inoki expected him to lose. Fight journalist Jim Murphy says the finish called for Ali to accidentally knock out the ref. Ali would then check on the ref’s condition, allowing Inoki to get the quick roll up for a pin. Inoki would get the victory, but Ali would save face by being the good guy, concerned for the safety of the ref.
Inoki’s camp insisted the match was always intended to be a work. Ali only learned of this when he went to see Inoki train.
“OK, so when do we do the rehearsal?” Ali asked.
“No, no. This isn’t an exhibition,” replied Inoki. “It’s a real fight.”
However the decision/revelation took place, Ali’s team went to work renegotiating the rules of the fight. Ali, being the bigger name, had the upper hand in these negotiations, and the rules came out very one sided. Inoki would not be allowed to duplex Ali. He could not head-butt Ali, knee him below the belt knee blows, use open hands, or kick Ali over the belt.
Inoki was disappointed. Essentially, Ali’s people wanted him to go into the ring and be a punching bag. Inoki decided to take the matter lying down – literally. The result was one of the most memorable and boring and embarrassing bouts in fight history.
As soon as the bell rang, Inoki slid on his back and started to kick Ali. Inoki stayed there for most of the firs round, keeping Ali and his deadly fists at bay by kicking wildly at the champ’s legs.
The awkward battle continued round after round, with Inoki staying low and aiming for Ali’s legs, his only viable means of offense. In the sixth, Ali tried to grab Inoki’s leg. Inoki brought his other leg up tripped Ali to the mat, and sat on his chest.
Ali didn’t even throw a punch until the seventh round. He continued to dodge Inoki’s feet, waving his arms and yelling at Inoki to “fight like a man.” Inoki knew better and stayed flat on the mat.
In the eighth, Ali’s manager Angelo Dundee asked that the boots on Inoki’s feet be taped. The shoe laces had cut Ali’s legs, and it was clear Ali’s legs were taking a brutal beating.
The match went to the fifteen round time limit and was declared a draw. Inoki would have actually won the match it not for losing three points on a foul. Angry fans in the Budokan chanted for their money back. The two men collected their pay day, and the sports press of the world left the match shaking their collective heads over the fiasco.
The match was an embarrassment for Ali, but the damage went far deeper than merely hurting his public reputation. Ali’s legs were in terrible condition, and the champ suffered two blood clots from Inoki’s pounding feet. “Ali is bleeding from the legs,” recalled Bob Arum. “He gets an infection in his legs; almost has to have an amputation. Not only the [Ken] Norton fight would’ve been not happening, but Ali could’ve been a cripple for the rest of his life.”
Ali refused to seek immediate medical treatment or to curb his schedule, which included exhibition matches in South Korea and the Philippines. After completing his Asian trip, he spent a few weeks in the hospital back in Los Angeles.
In September, Ali stepped back into the ring with Ken Norton. Although Ali won the match by unanimous decision, it was clear he was not the same man he once was. Ali had lost a step, and he would never again win a match by knockout.
Five years later, Ali hung up the gloves for good. Two decades in the ring took a sad toll on the former champ’s body, but in retirement, Ali continued to use his status as the most popular athlete in the world to fight for justice and world peace.
Ali didn’t shy away from future opportunities to be a part of the wrestling business. Bill Watts brought Ali in to appear at ringside with The Snowman for a match against Jake “The Snake” Roberts at the Superdome in New Orleans. Ali was also a guest at the inaugural Wrestlemania, appearing as the special guest referee in the main event.
Inoki continued to wrestle for another twenty-two years, a luxury afforded him because his sport was a work. In 1986 he managed to convince Leon Spinks, the man who took Ali’s Heavyweight Championship, into a mixed fighting match, a match Inoki won by pin fall. In 1990 Inoki, like Ali before him, converted to Islam. Inoki has also served his country as an elected member of the House of Councillors.
The battle between the world’s greatest boxer and Japan’s greatest wrestler may not have high regard in the memory of sports fans, but it foreshadowed a change in the fighting sports. While boxing has steadily declined in popularity and wrestling has seen its ups and downs, Mixed Martial Arts has become the rage. UFC, Bellator, and other MMA promotions are now making millions by pitting fighters with diverse backgrounds against one another. What was once seen as a novelty is now a weekly ritual for fight fans. MMA has even allowed some professional wrestlers, most notably Brock Lesnar, to show the world that not all professional wrestlers are mere actors.
While the Ali-Inoki match is not not at all acknowledged in Ali’s museum, there’s a very nice epilogue to their story. In 1998 Inoki faced Don Frye in the final of a series of matches dubbed the Final Countdown. In honor of his former opponent, Muhammed Ali flew to Japan to witness his former adversary’s last match. After the match ended, Ali climbed into the ring to hug the man who had become his friend. A representative for Ali read a message from the champ.
“It was 1976 when I fought Antonio Inoki at the Budokan. In the ring, we were tough opponents. After that, we built love and friendship with mutual respect. So, I feel a little less lonely now that Antonio has retired. It is my honor to be standing on the ring with my good friend after 22 years. Our future is bright and has a clear vision. Antonio Inoki and I put our best efforts into making world peace through sports, to prove there is only one mankind beyond the sexual, ethnical or cultural differences. It is my pleasure to come here today.”
While Ali vs. Inoki is looked upon by some fight fans with the same “reverence” Star Wars fans have for the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, it’s a credit to both men that the fight did not tarnish their reputations. Ali and Inoki are both Hall of Fame talents, two of the greatest who ever lived, and the impact they had on their respective sports will be felt for years to come. Some even argue that their confrontation helped to launch a fighting style that would challenge boxing and wrestling for supremacy forty years later, Mixed Martial Arts.
Ali vs. Inoki is a unique match in the annals of both sports. It deserves to be remembered for its novelty and its legacy, but like the aforementioned Star Wars travesty, it’s best not to look at it too long.