There are many ways to remember Muhammad Ali: cocky, young rapping poet; outspoken political and cultural icon; or perhaps the greatest heavy weight champion of all time, however skipping around the ring while trying to avoid the kicks of a Japanese wrestler probably isn’t one of them. Yet that’s where Ali found himself two years after he wrestled with an alligator and handcuffed lightning and just eight months after he outfought the late Joe Frazier in the Thriller in Manilla.
The unlikely match up between Ali and Japanese pro-wrestler Antoni Inoki came about after Ali met the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association, Ichiro Yada, at a reception in New York in 1975 and flippantly asked if there was “no Oriental fighter who will challenge me?” before saying that if there was and they could beat him, he’d give the them $1m. When Yada returned to Japan, Ali’s remark made headlines in the Sankei Sports Newspaper and Inoki doggedly started pursuing the heavyweight champ to take up his challenge.
At the time Inoki was Japan’s top wrestling star and is now seen as a pioneer of mixed martial arts having taken on opponents from all the major disciplines such as, Akram Pahalwan, whose career he ended with an arm break; Olympic Judo gold medalist Willem Ruska and Kyokushin Kaikan karate practitioner Willie Williams.A few months later, in June, Ali stopped in Japan on his way to fight Joe Bugner in Malaysia and during a Press conference he received a ‘response’ from Inoki accepting his challenge and was reported to have said “interesting, I’ll do that” a comment his manager quickly denied.
However, Inoki kept up the pressure, producing an English-language pamphlet imploring Ali not to “run away” and by March of 1976 the two fighters had signed up, with Ali no doubt persuaded in part by a $6m pay cheque (Inoki would receive $4m). There were several Press conferences to promote the fight with both men engaging in trash talk. Ali started calling Inoki ‘The Pelican’ because of his large chin with Inoki responding by warning Ali that "When your fist connects with my chin, take care that your fist is not damaged" before presenting him with a crutch to use after the fight. Ominously, Inoki was also reported as saying he was there to fight for real but he didn’t think Ali was and that the American could “suffer damage”.
On the day of the fight, Ali declared to the world’s journalists: “There will be no Pearl Harbour! Muhammad Ali has returned! There will be no Pearl Harbour!" However, it wasn’t if the fight needed hyping any more. It was to be broadcast to over 30 countries and would have an estimated audience well in excess of one billion. Vince McMahon Snr, who would go on to make his fortune with the WWE, sold tickets to a closed circuit broadcast of the fight at New York’s Shea Stadium. Fans there had a mash-up double bill and got to see boxer Chuck Wepner lose to wrestler Andre The Giant in three rounds. (Wepner had lost to Ali by a last-round knockout the previous year in a fight which inspired a young out-of-work actor called Sylvester Stallone to write a film called Rocky. And Wepner’s defeat to Andre The Giant inspired Rocky’s charity bout against wrestler Thunderlips, played by Hulk Hogan, in Rocky III.) Unfortunately the fans at the Shea Stadium, just like those watching across the world were left disappointed by a fight which ended in a draw after 15 turgid rounds; a consequence of the bizarre rules established for the fight.
Boxing journalist Jim Murphy claims that the bout was originally intended to be a ‘worked’ (or choreographed) fight in which Ali would ‘accidentally’ punch the referee, then as he stood concerned over the downed official, Inoki would knock Ali out with a kick to the head. Thus, everyone would be a winner: Inoki would seal a win on home soil, but Ali would save face because he would have put his concern for the referee ahead of his desire to win. This view seems to be supported by Bob Arum the promoter who put the fight together. “Professional wrestlers are performers. This thing is a fraud,” he said. However, so this version of events goes, Ali didn’t want to lose and the fight was turned into a real one. Ali’s doctor Ferdie Pacheco tells a different story: “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.’ And when we got over there, we found out no one was laughing.”
Inoki agrees claiming that when Ali saw him grappling and kicking his sparring partners in training he asked: “OK, when do we do the rehearsal?” When he got the answer that, no, the fight was for real Ali insisted on imposing a set of highly restrictive rules or calling the fight off. Either way, Inoki was not allowed to strike Ali with a closed fist or with a blow to the head (as he would not be wearing gloves), he wasn’t allowed to use any kind of submission manoeuvre nor was he allowed to grapple or try and bring Ali to the ground and, if he wanted to kick, he had to do so with one knee on the floor. As judo expert Donn Draeger pointed out, this was akin to not allowing Ali to throw a jab. Ali’s camp also insisted that the rules were not made public which only heightened the disappointment of those watching and expecting a true match up.
This meant Inoki spent a large part of the time on the canvas kicking at the heavyweight champ’s legs. In the opening round, he immediately slid to the ground and spent only 14 seconds of the opening three minutes standing. Ali didn’t throw a punch until the seventh round and didn’t connect with a blow until the 10th, in all he threw just six punches in the entire fight spending most of his time trying to avoid being kicked and ending up telling Inoki he was a coward. By the third round a wound had opened up on Ali’s left knee. The highlight - if it can be called that - came in the fourth round when Ali tried to grab his opponent’s left leg only to be felled by Inoki’s other leg. The wrestler then managed to hold Ali down before hitting him in the face with his elbow and having a point deducted.
In the end the fight was scored 74-74, although Inoki had three points deducted in total for dubious infractions. The result meant no one lost face. Inoki was able to claim he would have won but for the penalties and Ali was able to claim his opponent had cheated. However, the crowd inside the Budokan Arena were clear who the losers were: them. They made their feelings clear, hurling rubbish at the fighters and shouting “Money Back! Money Back!” Despite the criticism, and the sense the fans had been cheated, the fighters both sustained serious injuries. Inoki’s right leg, which he used for the majority of the kicks, was fractured and Ali was left with serious wounds to his left leg which subsequently became infected so badly that his movement was restricted for the rest of his career and at one point amputation was even considered. Following the Inoki bout, Ali was scheduled to fight exhibition bouts in South Korea and the Philippines but, Pacheco told him to cancel them as the blood clots he’d developed in his leg could spread to his brain, heart or lungs and kill him. Ali ignored his advice and fought the exhibition bouts. He did, however, need to spend several weeks in hospital afterwards.
Early in 1977, Inoki challenged Ali to a rematch in a New York Times article and by the middle of the year they had agreed on a rematch with the Ali camp imposing two conditions: That Inoki must first fight heavyweight martial arts champion Everett ‘The Monster Man’ Eddie and then another heavyweight boxer. The boxer was slated to have been George Foreman, but Foreman pulled out and Inoki fought and beat Chuck Wepner instead. However, after Ali lost the heavyweight crown to Leon Spinks in February 1978, the Inoki rematch was cancelled. This didn’t stop Inoki appearing as himself in the Tony Curtis film The Bad News Bears Go To Japan in which a sub plot saw Inoki trying to set up a rematch with Ali and instead fighting Curtis’ character Martin Lazar. Inoki fought and beat Spinks in eighth rounds a decade after his bout with Ali, although many believed the fight to have been worked. The Ali fight did Inoki’s popularity no harm and he went on to become a successful politician and businessman selling everything from branded water to condoms and he even tried to negotiate the release of hostages during the Gulf War.
Ali did meet Inoki one last time in the ring following Inoki’s final fight in 1998 after which the pair embraced with Ali hailing their friendship. Their fight is now a largely forgotten footnote to Ali’s career and for many of those who do remember it, it’s seen as a highly embarrassing affair and it’s true the convoluted rules made it a bizarre spectacle. Yet, it’s quite probably still the most-viewed mixed martial arts fight of all time and is seen by some as an important step in developing the concept of mixed martial arts as a sport in Japan. Strange as it may seem, not only does Ali stand over the boxing world like a Colossus he was, along with Inoki, one of the early practitioners of MMA.
This article originally appeared on Roger Domeneghetti's blog 'Who Ate All The Goals?'