Before Mayweather-McGregor, there was Ali-Inoki
The mixed martial arts fight that lives in infamy
After a year in the making, Saturday’s breathlessly anticipated bout between former five-division boxing champion Floyd (Money) Mayweather and UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor pits perhaps one of the greatest boxers of all time against one of the leading mixed martial artists.
Despite the hype, there is no belt at stake. It’s something more important — bragging rights. Not just between the two narcissistic combatants, but also between their rival fan bases: traditionalists who favor the “Sweet Science” and the growing legion of mixed martial arts enthusiasts.
For another moment quite like this — perhaps, even, the moment that made this moment happen — one has to go back 41 years ago and about 5,500 miles west of Las Vegas. On June 26, 1976, world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali took on Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in another glorified exhibition billed as “The Martial Arts Championship of the World.”
The Greatest was at a pinnacle of his popularity in the summer of 1976. He’d regained the heavyweight championship in “The Rumble in the Jungle,” upsetting the younger, more powerful George Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) two years earlier. The next year, in perhaps his last great fight, he had defeated Joe Frazier in “The Thrilla in Manila.”
Long before the dawn of social media and YouTube, Ali was a worldwide brand. He and his manager, Herbert Muhammad, were looking to cash in on the boxer’s worldwide celebrity. The champ had a TV variety special, a Hollywood movie, a Saturday morning cartoon series, an album, oceans of ink in countless magazines and newspapers, a seemingly endless succession of talk show appearances, commercials, of course, and even an Ali action figure.
Ali’s constant need for money also drove the desire to diversify his fame. In 1976, Ali was in the midst of a costly divorce from his second wife, Khalilah, and living with Veronica Porche, whom he would marry the following year. The champ was also supporting his parents, various mistresses and an entourage of nearly 50 people, known as the “Ali circus.”
In search of some big, quick money, Ali agreed to step into the ring with Japanese catch wrestler Inoki in Tokyo on June 26 — for a $6 million payday. The exhibition bout was for the Martial Arts World Championship, the first contest advertised as such and a precursor to today’s Ultimate Fighting Championships.
The idea for the bout came shortly after Ali defeated Foreman in 1974. The champ met a contingent of Asian businessmen, led by wrestling promoter Ichiro Hatta. In the meeting, Ali allegedly boasted that he would pay a million dollars to any Asian fighter who could defeat him. True or not, after that conversation, Hatta immediately started working on a promotion. By spring 1976, an agreement was signed to bring Ali to Japan.
Top Rank boxing promoter Bob Arum and wrestling impresario Vince McMahon Sr. put the deal together. Ali’s opponent, Inoki, was a 6-3, 240-pound wrestler who was famous in Japan. Ali, true to his nature, promptly dubbed Inoki “The Pelican” for the grappler’s prominent chin.
On June 2, 1976, shortly after the Inoki fight was announced, Ali came out of the audience at a wrestling match in Philadelphia and grappled with the legendary 6-foot-5, 400-pound Gorilla Monsoon (Robert James Marella), who lifted the champion over his head and mock body-slammed him to the canvas. A week later at the Chicago International Amphitheater, Ali fought wrestlers Buddy Wolfe and Kenny Jay under mixed rules in preparation for Inoki.
Todd Boyd, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, said he sees many similarities between Mayweather-McGregor and the spectacle that was Ali-Inoki.
“Is it cynical? Yes,” Boyd said. “We live in a culture where even the presidency is a reality show. Reality shows and celebrity TV define America. People want spectacle, and they want it whenever they can get it — once a day or once an hour. Mayweather-McGregor fits in with how they see the world: hype, spectacle, but bulls—.”
Like Ali-Inoki, Boyd said, Mayweather-McGregor gives fans the thrill of a real contest without the substance.
“Floyd’s always been very selective,” added Boyd. “He’s always made sure he’s never fought anybody who’s going to be problems for him. They’re trying to squeeze the last bit out of the orange. Boxing is dying; MMA and UFC is on the rise. The only thing left is the spectacle. You can’t make a fight, because there’s no competition. They’re not watching this to watch a boxing match; they’re more interested in the show.”
Boyd says the outrageous promotional antics of last month’s Mayweather-McGregor press tour went far beyond Ali-Inoki, actually harkening back to the race-baiting era of Jack Johnson and the birth of the Great White Hope.
“Anytime you put a black guy and a white guy in a ring,” said Boyd, “it’s going to conjure up images of Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. Are we going to be talking about Mayweather-McGregor in 100 years like we are about Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries? I seriously doubt it. We may not be talking about [Mayweather-McGregor] in six months.”
The Ali-Inoki contest was telecast in more than 130 countries. In New York, more than 30,000 fans showed up at Shea Stadium to watch the closed-circuit telecast and were first treated to a live undercard.
A boxing ring was pitched over the baseball infield for a boxing-wrestling match between the real-life “Rocky,” Chuck Wepner, and pro wrestling legend Andre the Giant – all 7 feet and 300 pounds of him. That “fight” ended when the wrestler, angered at being punched by Wepner, picked up the 6-foot-5, 230-pound boxer, spun him around and threw him out of the ring. Although he was counted out, Wepner returned to the ring and went after Andre, precipitating a wild melee.
(Sylvester Stallone would feature a similar scene with pro wrestler Hulk Hogan as “Thunderlips” in Rocky 3.)
Tokyo’s famed Nippon Budokan was packed to watch Ali take on the national favorite.
Ali’s camp had expected their Inoki to take part in a scripted, playacted affair. But a few days before the bout, Ali attended one of Inoki’s public workout sessions and saw the Japanese grappler demonstrating dropkicks and body slams.
By this point, the 34-year-old champion’s fame could not hide that he was facing an athletic decline. After his third bout with Frazier, the fight he called “the closest thing to death,” the champ would be never be the same. By May 1976, he’d already defended his title three times, but there were clear signs his marvelous skills were eroding. Skirting his training, a woefully out-of-shape Ali nearly lost that title in his second defense that year against journeyman Jimmy Young in a nationally broadcast bout, which may have been the worst performance of his career.
Ali spoke to Inoki through the wrestler’s interpreter and asked when the two would rehearse their scripted contest.
Inoki’s response? “There’s no rehearsal.”
A visibly shocked Ali quickly left the event, amid his customary histrionics, but also with concerns within his camp that the boxer could be seriously injured in a real contest with Inoki, thus endangering his $6 million showdown three months later with Ken Norton.
This set the stage for furious negotiations between the two camps on the basis of special mixed martial arts rules. It was agreed that Inoki would not be able to throw, grapple or tackle Ali and could only launch kicks with one knee on the canvas — essentially eliminating most of his fighting tactics. The results were predictably disastrous.
Other than the first 14 seconds of the first round, when Inoki ran across the ring and tried to land a flying kick on Ali, the wrestler spent the rest of the match on his backside, scooting about like an overturned crab, kicking furiously at Ali in an attempt to corner him. Ali spent most of the match taunting Inoki, challenging him to stand up and “fight like a man.”
Ali threw just six punches, landing only two jabs. Fans in the arena booed what “action” did happen. Inoki kicked Ali about 60 times, cutting a shin and raising hematomas on the back of his legs. The fight did go the 15-round distance and was ruled a draw. Angry fans, some of whom paid $1,000 for ringside seats, showered the ring with debris and demanded their money back.
“Ali-Inoki was scripted, and it was a freak show,” said Jerry Izenberg, sports columnist emeritus at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, who covered Ali’s entire career. “I didn’t go. I wouldn’t go across the street to see that.”
Meanwhile, Ali’s plan for an easy payday turned out to be not so easy. The boxer’s legs had been so battered from Inoki’s kicks that the champ reportedly fainted in the elevator in his Tokyo hotel from the pain. Making matters worse, Ali ignored the advice of his camp and went ahead with a three-day visit to Korea to box a couple of exhibitions for U.S. servicemen stationed at bases there.
“Ali’s leg was all bloodied up,” said Gene Kilroy, Ali’s former business manager, who sat at ringside for the bout. “When we got back to his hotel room, I wrapped his legs in ice. I taped ice to his legs, but he’d take it off. When we got back to L.A., I called a friend who picked Ali up as soon as our plane landed. We went straight to the UCLA Medical Center, where the doctor discovered he had blood clots. He said that if we hadn’t wrapped his legs in ice, he might have died.”
Ali was in the hospital for two weeks. An infection from a cut on Ali’s knee was reportedly so serious that doctors briefly considered amputating the leg.
Ali would recover enough from the injuries that he suffered against Inoki to face Norton in September. The champ stood toe-to-toe with a dangerous fighter, uncertain whether his legs had healed enough to move around the ring. After falling behind early, Ali would find his dancing legs and eke out a unanimous, but unpopular, 15-round decision over the dogged Norton.
“It was unnecessary, ill-advised, to put it mildly,” said author Mark Kram Jr. “[Ali] put himself in harm’s way. ‘Stupid’ is a very imprecise word. But I think it foreshadowed what was to come in terms of prolonging his career and putting himself in dangerous situations.”
Ali stayed away from wrestlers after Inoki, but the twilight of his career would be marked by punishing matches against the likes of Earnie Shavers, Larry Holmes and, lastly, Trevor Berbick.
Inoki eventually fared better, at least physically. The bout did not make him a national hero, and it bombed in Tokyo, leaving him heavily in debt to his financial backers, who’d bankrolled Ali’s half of the champ’s purse. The wrestler would later sue Ali.
Even so, former combatants who had caused each other so much pain formed an unlikely friendship. Inoki attended Ali’s wedding to Porche in 1977. Inoki even received Ali’s permission to use his signature song, “The Greatest Love of All,” during his ring entrances.
But perhaps most importantly, especially when one considers the Mayweather-McGregor fight this weekend, two of Inoki’s students, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, founded Pancrase, a mixed martial arts fighting promotional company. Pancrase inspired the creation four years later of the Pride Fighting Championship, which was eventually acquired 10 years ago by … the UFC.