This Week in History: When Muhammad Ali Fought a Japanese Wrestler

By Ned Kelly, June 28, 2020

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We decided it was time to brush the cobwebs off the bizarre story of Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki. It starts back in 1975, when reigning WBC/WBA Heavyweight Champion Ali had bragged "Isn't there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I'll give him one million dollars if he wins."

The remark made headlines in Japan, and up stepped professional wrestler Inoki, who found backers to fund the spectacle. (When Ali was asked why he was demeaning his world boxing title by fighting a wrestler, "Six million dollars, that's why," came his response.) The venue was fixed as the Budokan in Tokyo, 26 June 1976.

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Ali had signed on the expectation the fight would be an exhibition rather than a real contest. It was only when he 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 he sensed it would be legitimate. Inoki alleges he was asked by Ali "OK, so when do we do the rehearsal?" Inoki replied "No, no. This isn't an exhibition. It's a real fight!"

Ali’s representatives began to renegotiate the rules. Inoki 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.

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. Ali began walking around the ring, out of reach of Inoki's kicks, taunting him "Coward Inoki! Inoki no fight!"

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Ali, for his part, did not throw his first punch until the seventh round, and threw six in total during the entire fight. The most excitement came in round six, when Ali tried to grab Inoki’s ankle as he kicked him. Inoki managed to grab Ali’s right calf, wrap his leg around it and flip him over on the canvas. He then rolled on top of Ali’s chest, but while in his hold he elbowed Ali in the face, costing him three points.

The fight went the 15 round distance and was scored as a draw. Inoki had been three points up but was docked all three for that elbow foul. 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 crowd at the Budokan, unaware of the restrictions put on Inoki, were less than impressed, throwing rubbish into the ring and chanting "Money back! Money back!" Janitors took a full day to clean up the garbage that was hurled at the two 'combatants.'

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It was rougher than it looked though. Inoki’s right leg, which he had used for the majority of his kicks, was broken. Ali’s left leg, which took the kicks, was badly swollen and bleeding, which led to an infection. He suffered two blood clots. At one point amputation was discussed. And all for what boxing writers and fans consider one of the most embarrassing moments in Ali’s career.

So there you have it, the precursor to modern MMA. It makes Mayweather vs McGregor look like the Rumble in the Jungle.


For more, This Day in History stories, click here.

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