Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki: Beyond The Mat

I recently set up Google News Alerts, a wonderful service that e-mails you search results from Google News whenever they show up. My first big payoff is this story, going beyond the mat documenting the 1976 “boxer versus wrestler” match between Muhammad Ali and my favorite Japanese wrestler, Antonio Inoki. It’s a great read (excerpt quoted below):

“Now Herbert [Muhammad, Ali’s manager] came to me and he said these Japanese people have come to him with all kinds of money to go over and fight this wrestler, Inoki, in Japan,” says Bob Arum, who promoted the exhibition. While Arum has promoted some of the biggest fights in boxing history, he has also promoted other extravaganzas, most notably Evel Knievel’s attempt to jump the Snake Canyon in a rocket car.

Ali’s handlers began putting the fight together in April of 1975, when Ali met Ichiro Yada, the then-president of the Japan Amateur Wrestling Association, at a party in the United States. Ali asked Yada, “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter to challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.” Ali was probably joking but Yada brought his comment back to the Japanese press. When Inoki read Ali’s words, he relentlessly pursued a match, finally getting him to sign a deal in March of 1976.

The money was without a doubt great: $6 million for Ali, $4 million for Inoki. And the bout seemed like it would be nothing more than fun, entertaining fare. As Arum put it, “Professional wrestlers are performers. The thing is a fraud.”

However, Inoki had not planned to put on a show. To him and his manager, it was a serious fight between a boxer and a wrestler. According to Pacheco, “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 spent much of the fight on the ground trying to damage Ali’s legs. Ali spent most of the fight dodging the kicks by stepping out of the way or staying on the ropes. Occasionally, Inoki’s boot would connect. By the third round, a wound had appeared on Ali’s left knee.

But Ali never knocked out anyone again, and his fight with Norton in September of 1976 is when sports writers and fans began to insist that he retire.

This high-point in Inoki’s wrestling career (his business career has seen him shoot to the very top of Japan’s wrestling and kickboxing leagues) ended up being the low point in Ali’s. I first learned of this match when I watched the bloody awful The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, in which Inoki appears as himself. In the movie (made in 1978) Inoki is so desperate to get on American TV so he can get a shot at a rematch with Ali that he agrees to fight a hideous, blubbering expat American. Inoki doesn’t speak English, so his performance was all grunts and mean glares. But Western exposure, as it has been for so many other Japanese entertainers, was merely a tool to show the Japanese public that he can knock heads with The Greatest and land roles in American movies.