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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

That Summer of ‘76 when Muhammad Ali met Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki

While the world's tuned in to catch the big-money fight between notorious cagefighter Conor McGregor and champion boxer Floyd Mayweather, Gaurav Bhatt looks back at the mother of all such freakshows, between Muhammad Ali and a Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt |
Updated: August 27, 2017 11:18:11 am
Muhammad Ali, Japanese wrestler, Antonio Inoki, Muhammad Ali Antonio Inoki, sports news Muhammed Ali took of Japan’s Antonio Inoki in 1976.

Chances are, by the time you read this, two men will have pulled off the biggest heist planned in plain sight. Save for a spectacular case of the luck of the Irish, the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor should end with the former’s hand being raised. Not that the loss would bother McGregor. After all, in a fight worth hundreds of millions of dollars, there are no real losers.

Fittingly, seeds for the contest were sown on a late-night talk show. Back in July 2015, when he was a hot commodity but nowhere close to today’s levels of notoriety, McGregor appeared on Conan to promote a UFC fight where he was asked by host Conan O’Brien: “Your sport is different. But you are in the same weight class as Floyd Mayweather. What if you were in the ring with him? What do you think would happen?”

McGregor replied, “If you’re asking would I like to fight Floyd Mayweather… I mean, who would not like to dance around the ring for $180 million? I certainly know that he would not like to step in my world, where there’s pure unarmed combat with no limitations. But I would step in his and box him. There’s no real fight for Floyd left anyway after (Manny) Pacquiao. If you’re looking for a fight to generate interest, it must be cross-sport.”

The first sales pitch was thrown. But McGregor had to sell pay-per-views (PPVs) worth $4mn and rake in $40mn in earnings in 2016 to lure the 40-year-old boxer out of retirement home. Mayweather’s last bout — the ‘Fight of the Century That Wasn’t’ against Pacquiao — had set the 4.4mn PPV buyrate and $72mn gate (ticket sales) records. He made $220mn off the dud but tax troubles called for another big payday. Add to that a chance to school the next big thing in combat sports and surpass Rocky Marciano to retire 50-0, and Mayweather signed up. Several negotiations and Twitter exchanges later, the fight was finalised in June.

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Sorry, did we say fight? Perhaps another F-word should suffice. “Freakshow,” is how veteran boxing promoter Bob Arum puts it. Talking to a group of reporters in Los Angeles, Arum said, “McGregor’s boxing record is 0-0. They say, ‘well, he’s the best MMA guy’. So what? He’s fighting a world-class boxer. I have a great difficulty thinking of the competitive nature of this event. It’s like you take LeBron James and put him against this (Anthony) Joshua kid.” Almost like putting a world-class boxer against a professional wrestler, a freakshow Arum himself promoted 41 years ago — “the most atrocious crap that I’ve ever put on.”

*****

Muhammad Ali was at the peak of his pop-culture popularity during the summer of 1976. Eight months removed from the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ where he and Joe Frazier beat the pulp out of each other, the world champion was approached by Tokyo-based promoters for a contest against professional wrestler Antonio Inoki. While not a global phenomenon like Ali, Inoki was a big star in his country. A strong showing against Ali would have made him a national hero.

For Ali the motivations were even simpler. The $6mn (about $25mn adjusted for inflation) on the table was the most he had been offered for a contest. But perhaps there was something beyond the money that made Ali want to take up the fight. The very thing that made him The Greatest — a willingness to test himself. Ali dominated an era with contemporaries such as Frazier, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman, Kyle Norton, Ron Lyle etc. But he wanted to fight more than just boxers.

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In 1971, basketball legend Wilt ‘the Stilt’ Chamberlain successfully challenged Ali to a fight. Chamberlain was a foot taller, 60 pounds heavier, reached 14 inches further and worked with Cus D’Amato, Floyd Patterson and (later Mike Tyson’s) trainer. Ahead of the 10-round fight, as Chamberlain and Ali sat down for a press conference, the latter answered every question with a soft “timberrrr.”

When quizzed on his strategy for a 7’2” opponent, Ali raised his forearm and said, “Timber! The tree will fall.” Chamberlain, who had tried to move the conference along with nervous chuckles up until that point, left the room for a word with his manager and lawyers, who later came back to announce that the fight was off.

Even earlier, in 1966, a 25-year-old Ali was called out by NFL star Jim Brown. Brown, who had won eight titles in his nine seasons with Cleveland Browns, had just retired and convinced Ali’s promoter Arum to arrange a meeting with Ali. The two met at London’s Hyde Park, and Ali asked Brown to hit him as hard as possible. The 6’2”, 230-pound fullback threw punches for 30 seconds. Ali evaded all and slipped in a few slaps for good measure. Brown withdrew his challenge.

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While Brown and Chamberlain were legit tough guys, they hadn’t stepped inside the ropes. Inoki, in that sense, was more up Ali’s alley. As is tradition in Japanese pro-wrestling, Inoki had trained in submissions and basic grappling but was not considered a competent ‘shooter’ (a legitimate fighter).

The fight had been finalised for June 26, 1976 and Ali proceeded to do the second thing he did best — talk. Cue, a late-night talk show. “People have always wondered how would a boxer do with a wrestler. I’ve always wanted to fight a wrestler,” Ali said on The Tonight Show. “I’ve seen them grabbing each other. Throwing each other down and twisting each other’s arm. And I said, ‘Boy I could whoop him. All you gotta do is hit him, hit him really fast and hard and move off of him.’ And now I’m going to get a chance to do it.”

Throughout his life, Ali credited his transformation from an Olympic gold-winning boxer to the biggest draw in the sport to the oft-derided world of pro-wrestling. A chance 1961 encounter with golden-era wrestling star Gorgeous George inspired Ali (then Cassius Clay) to shape the provocative persona and use the jargon to talk people into the building.

But while it was usually the interviews that were out of the playbook, now was the time for Ali to put on his pro-wrestling boots. Before leaving for Tokyo, Ali did a short circuit of the hottest wrestling territories to promote the bout. In Maryland, the 400-pound Gorilla Monsoon hoisted and spun him around before throwing him on the mat. In Chicago he knocked out Kenny Jay after being put into a few holds and “bloodied” Buddy Wolff later that night after receiving backbreakers and hip-tosses.

Forget being comfortable with the absurdity, the champion boxer was having the time of his life with all the showmanship and theatrics, discounting a few bumps on the road (he landed on his hip during the altercation with Monsoon despite having practiced the moves backstage). When they first came face-to-face in Tokyo, Ali called Inoki ‘The Pelican’ due to his large chin. Inoki replied, via an interpreter: “When your fist connects with my chin, take care that your fist is not damaged” and presented Ali with a single crutch. Ali and Co. were pleased with how well everything had gone according to plan. Little did they know that there wasn’t one.

*****

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“I agreed to promote the fight because the Japanese had come up with a lot of money. Then I realised, ‘what the hell am I promoting?’,” says Arum. “How can you promote a boxer versus a wrestler?” Enter, Vince McMahon (Sr). The wrestling patriarch helped Arum devise a script.

“Ali would fool around for a few rounds. He’d get Inoki up against the ropes and “throw” vicious punches. Inoki, who kept a small razor blade in his mouth, would slice his eyebrows. Ali, the humanitarian, would ask the referee to stop the fight and as he turned around, Inoki would pin him down. 1. 2. 3. And Ali would claim it was another Pearl Harbour.”

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How the script was thrown out depends on which retelling you go with. Arum over the years has oscillated from “Ali got cold feet because he didn’t want to dupe the public” to “Ali went to the Japanese to ask for a rehearsal and they turned him down and threatened to break his leg.” There’s one consistency. Inoki wanted to fight and use the bout to demonstrate not just his legitimacy but that of pro-wrestling’s.

“I didn’t want Ali to do it,” confidant and business manager Gene Kilroy told The Indian Express. “Ali was going into his sport. Inoki wasn’t going into Ali’s. For Ali, it was a big payday. But he was also very relaxed. He actually believed he could floor Inoki and wanted to fight.”

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Kilroy remembers spending three days negotiating the rules of the contest, and bending them in Ali’s favour. Inoki, the wrestler was prohibited from throwing, grappling, tackling or kicking above the knee. He could only throw kicks with one knee on the canvas.

Nobody filled the referee in. “See, I knew it was never supposed to be scripted,” remembers Gene Lebell, a decorated Judoka who defeated boxer Milo Savage in 1963, in what was perhaps the first televised MMA fight. “But nobody told me about a specific set of rules. I was to call it as a fight.”

The bell rang, and Inoki charged at Ali, trying to land a kick. He then assumed a crab-like martial-arts stance, and spent majority of the 15 rounds on his back. He aimed kicks at Ali’s legs while while the American danced around him, looking for a chance to land a punch. Those assembled at the Nippon Budokan arena grew angrier, and Ali kept imploring Inoki to “Man up!”

“Inoki girl. Fight on floor like girl. He’s afraid. He’s a coward in Tokyo. All your people see you, coward on the floor,” Ali yelled. But the trash-talking, or the occasional comic-relief of the clumsy fight, wasn’t worth the price of admission, and the boos got louder.

“Inoki kept telling Ali to come in, come in,” says Kilroy. “We kept yelling at Ali, ‘don’t do it! He will tie you up like a pretzel. Thankfully, Ali had enough of a wisdom to not get into Inoki’s game.”

That isn’t exactly how it went down. Not beyond Round 6 anyway. Growing impatient with the jeers and the kicks, Ali grabbed Inoki’s legs to keep him still for a punch. Inoki twisted his body, brought Ali down and attempted a submission hold. With Ali’s legs proving too strong for that, Inoki sneaked in an elbow to the head. The forbidden strike made Ali mad enough to stand in his corner for a minute, refusing to continue.

By Round 8, Ali’s legs were bloodied and swollen. To appease the boxer’s corner, Lebell made Inoki tape his boots. Kilroy remembers taking Ali to the UCLA after the fight. Ali had suffered blood clots and ruptured vessels near both knees and the doctors administered blood thinners. The fight would affect his mobility for the remainder of his boxing career.

Inoki landed 102 kicks. Ali could connect only five times, though each punch rocked his opponent, or at least Inoki sold them so. “One time, Ali missed by a foot, but Inoki being the great wrestling actor, staggered back instinctively, like it was a punch that landed on Sonny Liston,” said Arum. The fight was declared a draw, much to the crowd’s chagrin, who responded by throwing trash at both the competitors.

“Ali was very disappointed,” says Kilroy. “He always wanted to put on a show, and that fight was anything but.”
Recounting the fight recently, Arum said, “15 rounds of that nonsense and then the referee called it a draw. Ali’s leg was infected and he almost lost the fight against Norton that September.”

Things worked out better for Inoki. The wrestler adopted Ali’s ring music and “bom-ba-ye” catchphrase en route to global stardom. Ali, in turn, invited him to his wedding a year later. But the bout left a legacy larger than their friendship.

*****

Though widely panned, the contest nevertheless managed an audience over 1 billion in 34 countries. The spectacle not only helped transform the ‘rasslin’ business into today’s ‘sports entertainment’ industry, but played a part in the rise of MMA.

Inoki’s students Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki founded the MMA promotion Pancrase in 1993, which in turn inspired the foundation of PRIDE Fight Championships four years later. Pride was eventually acquired by the UFC in 2007.

“People romanticise that fight a bit now. Back then, the media treated it as a joke, a bit like the McGregor-Mayweather contest,” says veteran MMA and pro-wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer. “But you can say that it did pave the path for MMA in a weird way. Not in the United States. MMA gained popularity here thanks to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. But in Japan it absolutely did. It is considered as the one of the earliest, biggest MMA fight in pop-culture.”

MMA’s biggest star has of course taken notes. “It was a crazy fight,” McGregor said at an open workout last week. “Inoki sat full guard and was crawling across the floor kicking Ali in the legs. Ali was like backing up trying to say, ‘Get him up.’ (But) you’ve got to deal with these problems yourself.” He also reflected on the moment in round six that could have changed the face of combat sports.

“Ali tried to reach down and punch, and he ended up getting swept and Inoki ended up on top,” McGregor said. “(But) the referee separated it straight away. If that moment was let go for five more seconds, 10 seconds, Inoki would have wrapped around his neck or his arm or a limb, and the whole face of the combat world would have changed right there and then.”

McGregor, who owes his persona as much to Ric Flair, The Rock and Vince McMahon Jr as he does to Ali — “the first combat sports star that I looked up to” — gives the boxer credit for stepping out of his comfort zone. “I believe Ali was set up and didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. Ali wasn’t calling Inoki into boxing, so credit to Ali for that. That shows his character.”

McGregor’s position, now though, is the exact opposite. “He is going into Mayweather’s sport. They took everything away from the Irish one,” says Kilroy. “He can’t grab, hold, throw him down, kick him in the head. This isn’t gonna be much of a fight.”

What if it was Ali fighting McGregor? “He would have preferred some hybrid rules, so as to make it more interesting and less predictable for the fans.” But would he have enjoyed the build-up today? “Listen, I wanted him to retire after the Foreman fight. But he loved the crowd, the people, the cameras. That’s what got him excited. He would have loved it today. He’d be out-tweeting the best.”

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First published on: 27-08-2017 at 02:06:58 am

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