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Ali vs. Inoki: A look at the Greatest of All Time's crazy trip to Japan

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Mess or Magnificent, you be the judge.

It's now been over a week now since the world lost Muhammad Ali. For a week I've seen all the tributes, all the video packages, and watched the procession through Louisville leading up to the wonderful service where we got to hear all the wonderful stories from those who knew him best.

I was born in 1980, roughly a few months before Ali's last ever boxing match and years after his glory days. I didn't really grow up as a boxing fan, nor am I really one now. I couldn't tell you any of the champions and about the only fights I take in are actually the Olympic boxing tournaments, corrupt and slighted as those disasters may be.

I am, as you can tell by my Strong Style coverage every week, am a wrestling fan. So growing up I was still aware of Ali's accomplishments, but I knew him better from being the guest referee at the original Wrestlemania more than anything else.

During all these tributes, it was mentioned that unique showman style both in the ring and out was inspired by watching "wrasslin'" as a kid and Gorgeous George during his day. Ali understood what being a showman was all about. I said after his passing that had he gone into wrestling, he very well could have been the first major black world champion.

It was maybe that appreciation for the showmanship of wrestling that led to what some have called "The worst fight of Ali's career". His infamous excursion to Japan and his mixed rules fight against Antonio Inoki.

In the life of a man known for his zany stories, this one may be the craziest. This story starts in April of 1975. Ali was at a party and happened to be introduced to the head of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association, Ichiro Yada. Ali famously said, "Isn't there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I'll give him one million dollars if he wins". Almost certainly meant to be another of his bragful boasts, Yada took it more seriously and brought the comment back to Japan with him and to the Japanese media. One person who happened to take notice of the quote was Antonio Inoki.

Inoki was one of the biggest name wrestlers in Japan in 1975. He had been a star of the JWA promotion in the 60's and had started his own company, New Japan Pro Wrestling, 3 years earlier where he was the big star. He also had trained with Karl Gotch a famous catch wrestler and grappler. So Inoki wasn't just some goof who made himself the star, he could actually handle himself in a real fight. His combining of Gotch's grappling and martial arts style hand strikes and kicks was what invented "Strong Style" in the first place. When he read about Ali's challenge, he and his investors in New Japan put up $6 million for the fight.

It took a while for things to be put together. Ali had fights with American Rob Lyle, Englishman Joe Bugner, The famous "Thrilla in Manilla" fight with joe Frazier that damn near killed him, and Belgian Jean-Pierre Coopman before the fight could be locked down by promoter Bob Arum for June 26, 1976, at the famous Budokan in Tokyo.

Between March when the fight was finalized and June, Ali kept himself busy. He had two boxing matches, beating American Jimmy Young and Englishman Richard Dunn. He also got himself involved in some tune-up matches with wrestlers.

See, once this mixed match was signed, wrestling promoters all over The United States were tripping over themselves to cash in. The fight would be carried via closed-circuit television (the precursor to Pay-per-view) to arenas around the country. So a number of promoters scheduled their own shows, with the advertised main event being able to see the fight on the giant screen. Vincent J. McMahon's WWWF held the second "Showdown at Shea" card that also featured Andre The Giant vs. Chuck Wepener live there in the arena, and the Georgia territory held an event with both mixed rules matches being shown after a card featuring Jack Brisco vs. Dory Funk jr..

 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Ali had picked up famous wrestling manager "Classy" Freddie Blassie for his wrestling foray and made two stops in Chicago for the promoter (and top star of his own territory) Verne Gagne for two matches. First, he fought jobber wrestler "Sodbuster" Kenny Jay, and then he fought "The Hackensack Mauler" Buddy Wolfe.

 

 He also made a stop in Philadelphia and a taping of WWWF Championship wrestling where he ran across Gorilla Monsoon.

 

As you can see, these were all a work. Jay and Wolfe were actually sparring partners for Ali to prepare on how to work a fight. He was having the time of his life.

Except no one told Inoki the fight was a work.

This is where things get a little tricky. There are two sides of what happened in the 2 weeks or so leading up to the fight. One story has it that the match was going to be a work all along. Supposedly the planned finish was to have Ali accidently knock out the ref. Ali would stand over the ref concerned and Inoki would run up and give him his finisher, the enziguri kick to the back of the head, and knock Ali out. The ref would be revived and count Ali out, giving Inoki the win in his homeland, but having Ali save face since it was an illegal move for the fight and that the ref got knocked down. Supposedly Ali balked at this idea and the fight was made into a shoot.

The other story goes that Ali thought the match was going to be a work, but Inoki did not. When Ali and his group went to see Inoki's training and saw him using his deadly kicks and strikes, Ali wanted to know when they were going to go over the finish. When Ali's camp learned the fight was going to be a shoot fight, they panicked and demanded that a bunch of rules was placed on the fight or they would pull out. And according to former world champion Bret Hart who was in Japan at the time, The Black Muslims vowed to kill Inoki if their most visible member got hurt. And although he wasn't linked to them (at the time anyway) the Japanese Yakuza probably had something to say about the fight as well.

Whatever the case, Ali's camp wanted several rules to be implemented so that their fighter (and cash cow) wouldn't get killed. The rules included: No grapple/submission holds, No tackles, No kicks unless Inoki had one knee on the mat (eliminating the enziguri), and no dropkicks. No headbutts, No knees below the belt, no kicks above the belt, and no open handed attacks to the eyes. These rules were also not to be made public to protect Ali's image. Basically, they were trying to set up Inoki to stand up and trade punches (and some low kicks I guess) with the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. 

Inoki is smarter than that, though.

 

As you can see, Inoki literally took the low road and went for the legs with kicks. Ali didn't expect this offense and spent most of the fight avoiding contact.  Ali didn't even throw his first punch until the 7th round. He only threw 6 punches the whole fight. The only bit of excitement for most fans came at the beginning of the 8th round when Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee demanded Inoki tape up his boot because one of the eyelets at the end of his shoelaces had come loose and were digging into Ali's already swollen and bleeding legs. After 15 rounds the match was called a draw. Supposedly Inoki would have won the fight on points but had 3 points deducted after he elbowed Ali in the face during the 6th round. Believe what you will. Fans across the US thought it was a joke and the Japanese fans were pissed (which is an accomplishment considering the usually mellow attitude of Japanese fans).

The fallout of the fight was hard on Ali. His legs were massively swollen and he ended up having two blood clots removed from his legs and nearly had to have one amputated when an infection set in. Ali took part in a couple of exhibition boxing matches against doctor's orders and then had his big fight against Ken Norton. He could still punch but his mobility went downhill thanks to this fight and the damage it caused.

Inoki on the other had just kept on going. He would have other shoot fights against guys like Willie Williams and even some match that were supposed to be worked matches but ended up going shoot like his infamous fight against The Great Antonio. He would keep on being the big star for NJPW until 1997 and would run the company up until a few years ago. He had a few rounds as an elected politician in the Japanese senate.

The fight itself would have its own transformation as well. Considered largely a joke for decades, it wasn't until mixed martial arts became popular that the fight would get another look. Of course,  the details of the rules changes also helped the fight's stature as well. Nowadays MMA experts find the fight to be a huge inspiration fo the sport, and even Inoki's defensive posture during the fight is used a lot nowadays (although most MMA refs would tell the guy to get up after a while).

Most importantly Ali and Inoki became friends. All these years later they kept in touch and respected the hell out of each other. Ali was ringside for both Inoki's match with Ric flair in North Korea that drew over 150,000 fans and was at Inoki's retirement match against MMA fighter Don Frye (which really was a work. Frye made a great pro wrestling heel). In the days after Ali's passing Inoki held a press conference to extend his condolences.

So while many view this fight as a joke and a lowlight of Ali's magnificent legacy, I'm not completely sold on that. Sure, things came off the rails and the fight itself is hardly any good. But at the same time, he ended up making a lifelong friend and earned the respect of one of the toughest people in the world. How many of use can say that?

 

Farce? No. It was just another way Muhammad was way ahead of his time.

We'll miss you champ.

 

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Soul Tsukino
Soul TsukinoContributor   gamer profile

Soul Tsukino lives in the state of Maine. When not enveloping himself in a new fiction story he also comments on happenings in the animation and Otaku fan scene. A creative writer since he was yo... more + disclosures


 


 


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