Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki
|Date||June 26, 1976|
|Venue||Nippon Budokan, Tokyo, Japan|
|Title(s) on the line||N/A|
|Tale of the tape|
|15 round Draw|
The fight between American boxer Muhammad Ali and Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki was held at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo on June 26, 1976. At the time, Ali had come off a knockout victory over Richard Dunn in May and was the reigning WBC/WBA Heavyweight Champion. Inoki, who had been taught the art of catch wrestling by legendary wrestler Karl Gotch, was staging exhibition fights against champions of various martial arts, in an attempt to show that pro wrestling was the dominant fighting discipline. The fight itself, which was fought under special rules, is seen as a precursor to modern mixed martial arts. The result of the fight has been long debated by the press and fans. The fight was refereed by Gene LeBell.
In April 1975, at a reception held in the United States, Muhammad Ali was introduced to Ichiro Hatta, president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association. Ali characteristically bragged to Hatta: "Isn't there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I'll give him one million dollars if he wins". This flippant remark made headlines in Japan, and Ali's challenge was accepted by Inoki, whose financial backers offered the boxer $6 million for the fight. The deal was struck in March 1976, and the fight was scheduled for June 26 at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan.
Several press conferences were held to promote the fight. When the two men first met, Ali announced he would nickname Inoki "The Pelican", because of his prominent chin. Inoki replied, via an interpreter: "When your fist connects with my chin, take care that your fist is not damaged". He then presented Ali with a crutch, to use after he had been thrown from the ring. Inoki said afterwards: "I don't know how seriously Muhammad Ali is taking the fight, but if he doesn't take it seriously, he could suffer damage. I'm going in there fighting. I may even break his arm".
On the day of the fight Ali made a scene upon his arrival at the airport, bellowing "There will be no Pearl Harbor! Muhammad Ali has returned! There will be no Pearl Harbor!" as he walked past the mass of journalists. Anticipation for the fight was huge; it would be broadcast to 34 countries around the world to an estimated audience of 1.4 billion. Because of time zone differences, the bout was seen on June 25 at over 150 closed circuit TV locations in the US. In New York, pro-wrestling promoter Vince McMahon, Sr. sold tickets to a closed-circuit telecast of the fight at Shea Stadium, and drew a crowd of 32,897. At Shea, the Ali and Inoki fight would be the main event on a card that also featured wrestler André the Giant vs. boxer Chuck Wepner. The Budokan itself was sold out, with the most expensive seats costing 300,000 Yen.
The fight was contested under specially created rules. Due to varying claims over the years, it is difficult to know the reasons behind their implementation. It has been alleged that the fight was originally to have been a worked match. According to boxing journalist Jim Murphy, the original plan was for Ali to accidentally punch the referee and knock him out. While standing over the referee, looking concerned, Inoki would knock him out with a kick to the head. The referee would then come around and count Ali out, giving Inoki the win in front of his fellow countrymen, and allowing Ali to save face. However, when Ali found out he had to lose, he refused, turning the fixed fight into a real one.
According to Inoki, Ali and his entourage had signed on expecting the fight to be an exhibition rather than a real contest. It was only when they went to see Inoki train six days before the fight, and saw him use a series of brutal drop-kicks and violent grapples on sparring partners, that they sensed it would be a legitimate fight. Inoki alleges he was asked by Ali "OK, so when do we do the rehearsal?", with Inoki replying: "No, no. This isn't an exhibition. It's a real fight!"
In the days leading up to the fight Ali and Inoki's representatives began to renegotiate the rules. A list of restrictions was imposed on Inoki. He would not be allowed to throw, grapple or tackle Ali, and could not land any kicks unless he had one knee on the mat. Ali's camp also demanded that the rules not be made public before the fight. Judo expert and US Marine Donn Draeger noted: "The rules have been so seriously modified that the contest is no longer boxing versus wrestling. Unless this were done there would be no way to choreograph the match and make it look convincing. Ali can grapple or punch the man down; Inoki is not allowed to leg-dive or tackle. That latter restriction is the same as prohibiting Ali from jabbing. What a farce!"
Forty years after the fight, the referee Gene LeBell stated that there were no limitations on kicking or grappling and said all types of kicking, throwing and grappling were allowed.
Professional wrestler Bret Hart, then an employee of Inoki's, claimed in his autobiography that "the black Muslims who were backing Ali made it clear that if Inoki laid a finger on their champ, they would kill him. That's why Inoki lay on his back for fifteen rounds, kicking Ali in the shins so as not to use his hands".
As soon as the opening bell rang, Inoki ran the 16-foot gap and slid at the legs of Ali, who sidestepped the attack. Inoki stayed on the ground for all but the first 14 seconds of the three-minute first round, kicking at Ali and landing one clean hit to Ali's right leg. The majority of the fight saw Inoki on his back kicking Ali's legs, occasionally connecting. By the third round, a wound had appeared on Ali's left knee.
Ali began walking around the ring, out of reach of Inoki's kicks, taunting him by shouting "Coward Inoki! Inoki no fight!". In the fourth round, Inoki, still on his back, trapped Ali in a corner and started kicking wildly at his thighs. Ali leapt up on to the ropes and tucked his legs underneath him. In round six, Ali tried to grab Inoki's left ankle as he kicked him, but Inoki wrapped his right leg around Ali's right calf and flipped him over on the canvas. He then rolled over on top of Ali's chest. While in this hold, Inoki elbowed Ali in the face, costing him three points.
Ali did not throw his first punch until the seventh round. In the eighth, Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, demanded that Inoki tape the tips of his shoelaces, claiming that one of the eyelets came loose and was cutting Ali's legs. A wound had already opened up on his thigh. In the tenth, Ali threw his second punch, and two more in the thirteenth. He threw only six punches in total during the fight.
The fight went the fifteen round distance and was scored as a draw. Inoki had been three points up but was docked all three for fouls. The result meant no one had to lose face; Inoki could claim he would have won had it not been for the penalties, whereas Ali could defend himself by saying his opponent had cheated.
The fight was poorly received. The crowd at the Budokan threw rubbish into the ring and chanted "Money back! Money back!". Donn Draeger said of the response: "the Budokan janitorial people took almost a full day to clean up the garbage that was hurled at the two 'combatants' as the result of their lousy performance".
The public, unaware of the restrictions put on Inoki, were critical of his tactics during the fight. During the fight Ali's left leg was badly swollen and bleeding, which led to an infection. He also suffered two blood clots in his legs affecting his mobility for the remainder of his boxing career. At one point amputation was also discussed.
The fight is considered by boxing writers and fans as one of the most embarrassing moments in Ali's career. Ali and Inoki became good friends following the fight. Inoki started using Ali's theme music, "The Greatest" (taken from the film), as his own signature tune, and borrowed the catchphrase "bom-ba-ye" from Ali's fans at the Rumble in the Jungle. Ali would continue to box for the next five years. In 1978 he lost the WBA and WBC heavyweight championships to Leon Spinks, but regained the WBA title (the WBC had stripped Spinks of his title due to his refusal to fight Ken Norton, the Number 1 contender) in a rematch the same year. In 1986, Spinks would also fight and lose to Inoki in the eighth round of a match for the WWF World Martial Arts Heavyweight Championship. After a two-year retirement, Ali would lose to Larry Holmes in 1980, and following a unanimous-decision loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981, retired from boxing.
Inoki continued to wrestle for the next twenty-two years. In 1989, Inoki established his own political group, the Sports and Peace Party (スポーツ平和党). He was elected to the House of Councillors of the Diet of Japan. In 1990, he was sent to negotiate with Saddam Hussein over the release of Japanese citizens being held hostage in Iraq. He eventually left office in 1995 amid accusations he had been bribed by the Yakuza.
The fight played a role in the history of mixed martial arts, particularly in Japan. The match inspired Inoki's students Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki to found Pancrase in 1993, which in turn inspired the foundation of Pride Fighting Championships in 1997. Pride was later acquired by its rival Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2007.
In 1998, 38 years after his wrestling debut, Inoki retired. Ali flew out from America to watch Inoki win his final match against Don "The Predator" Frye. After the match, Ali climbed into the ring and hugged Inoki. Ali's representative read a message over the PA:
"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 honour 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 [sic] or cultural differences. It is my pleasure to come here today."
- Antonio Inoki Home Page: best matches. Asahi-net.or.jp. Retrieved on 2015-05-30.
- [dead link]
- Tallent, Aaron. "The Joke That Almost Ended Ali's Career". The Sweet Science. February 20, 2005. Retrieved June 28, 2012.
- Bull, Andy. "The forgotten story of ... Muhammad Ali v Antonio Inoki". The Guardian. November 11, 2009. Retrieved June 28, 2012.
- Cohen, Eric. "Antonio Inoki vs Muhammad Ali". About.com. Retrieved June 28, 2012.
- Bret Hart (8 October 2008). Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling. Grand Central Publishing. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-446-54607-2.
- "What role did boxer Muhammad Ali play in early MMA? Let 'Ali vs. Inoki' author Josh Gross explain". MMAjunkie. June 13, 2016.
- "MMA Origins: Fighting For Pride". BloodyElbow. May 2, 2013.
- on YouTube