Before Mayweather vs. McGregor, there was Ali vs. Inoki

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Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor has moved away from the absurd and into the realm of possibility. The proposed matchup remains a money grab, serving no other purpose for either fighter. If the fight happens, Mayweather will demand $100 million and win in his usual way—supreme skill with minimal excitement. While McGregor, despite likely earning a career-high purse, will be thoroughly dominated and try to save dignity by claiming Mayweather refused to engage in actual fighting. The fight is predictable because boxing rules will govern it, not MMA conventions nor even a hybrid of the two—as was the case when Muhammad Ali fought a Japanese wrestler, Antonio Inoki, in 1976.

Ali vs. Inoki began as a joke. “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter to challenge me?” Ali asked the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association. “I’ll give him $1 million if he wins.”[1] As Ali’s quote spread throughout Japan, the fight became a reality when Japanese businessmen contacted Ali’s manager, Herbert Muhammad—son of Elijah Muhammad—offering a $6 million payday. The challenger was Antonio Inoki, a popular Japanese professional wrestler whose “training” regimen included throwing himself from moving cars as a way of toughening his body.[2] But despite the legitimacy of the opponent, Ali and his people thought the fight was a set-up.

There are various versions of what was supposed to happen. Bob Arum, Ali’s promoter, claims the plan called for Ali to “pound on Inoki for six or seven rounds. Inoki would be pouring blood. Apparently he was crazy enough that he was actually going to cut himself with a razor blade. Ali would appeal to the referee to stop the fight. And right when he was in the middle of this humanitarian gesture, Inoki would jump him from behind and pin him. Pearl Harbor all over again.”[3] Another version of the “script” had Ali accidentally punching and knocking out the referee. While a concerned Ali checked on the unconscious referee, Inoki would kick Ali in the head just as the referee woke up. The referee would then count out Ali and Inoki would win the fight though Ali would “save face through his noble actions.”[4]

Just as there are various accounts of what should have happened, there are different reasons for those plans ultimately failing. Arum, again, says Ali’s conscience did not allow him to go through with tricking the public and instead, he “refused to go to any of the rehearsals. So all of a sudden, we had a real fight.”[5] Another source states that Inoki was serious about the fight and Ali did not realize it until he arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. There, attempting to sell the fight, Ali yelled towards reporters, “There will be no Pearl Harbor!”[6] Noticeably, both Arum and Ali evoked Pearl Harbor more than thirty-five years after it occurred. We do not know what they meant beside the obvious: Inoki was Japanese. But the stereotype of Japanese and Asians as “cunning and corrupt, treacherous and vindictive, [given] to lechery, dishonesty, xenophobia, [and] cruelty” has been common in the United States since the late 1800s.[7] Pearl Harbor and WWII only intensified the stereotypes with war posters commonly depicting Japanese as a deceitful people, if not sub-humans.[8]

This stereotype would also play into the supposed plan of Inoki attacking Ali when he least expected it. Of course, Ali soon recognized there would be no rehearsals and that the fight was more than an exhibition.[9] This became clear when Ali saw Inoki’s public sparring sessions and saw him practicing roundhouse kicks to the shoulders of his trainer at full-strength and speed. Concerned, Ali’s management placed new restrictions on Inoki, banning him from kicking while standing up. As part of the new rules, Inoki also could not throw Ali, apply lock holds, or use elbow strikes.

Regardless of Ali’s expectations, the fight went on as scheduled and besides the millions he stood to gain, the fight was also about ego. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer, says the Inoki fight allowed Ali to show he “was not only the best boxer in the world but also the best fighter.[10] Incidentally, in 1978, two years after Ali fought Inoki for the unofficial title of the best fighter in the world, DC Comics released Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, a comic book in which Ali showed he was the best fighter in the universe. The comic’s plot shares similarities with one account of what should have happened in his fight against Inoki with Ali showcasing his fighting superiority and concern for his opponent. In the comic, Ali refused to knock out Superman though he dominated him. Instead, Ali walks away from a battered Superman, who eventually fell on his own. Even, the comic’s ending shows a magnanimous Ali, shaking Superman’s hand and saying, “Superman, WE are the greatest.”[11] Unfortunately for Ali, his fight against Inoki did not end as well—in fact, it was a disaster for both men.

On June 25, 1976—eight months removed from “The Thrilla in Manila”—Ali faced Inoki in Tokyo’s Budokan Stadium. Closed-circuit television broadcast the fight across 134 countries. Bob Arum, Ali’s promoter, claimed the fight would “sell more closed-TV seats than any fight event in history.”[12] Unfortunately for the many who watched the fight, it proved far less exciting than expected. With the restrictions placed on Inoki, one of the few things he could do was lay on his back and kick at Ali. As a result, the 15-round fight deteriorated into “Inoki throwing flying kicks at Ali’s legs and Ali dancing backward.”[13] And although Ali only landed a few solid jabs, Inoki continuously pounded Ali’s legs with kicks that, by the latter rounds, left them badly swollen, bleeding, and bruised. At the end of the fight, Angelo Dundee talked the referee into ruling it a draw so that Ali and Inoki could both keep what little respect remained.[14]

The fight left everyone unsatisfied. The crowd, feeling cheated, threw trash in the ring while Ali apologized and blamed Inoki for the lack of action. “I wouldn’t have done this fight,” Ali explained, “if I’d known he was going to do that. Nobody knew this was going to happen so we had a dead show.”[15] Bob Arum called the match the lowest point of his career.[16] Ferdie Pacheco—Ali’s doctor—agreed. “Fighting Inoki was an incredibly stupid act,” Pacheco said. “To subject a great legendary fighter to a carnival atmosphere like that was wrong…[he] put his entire career in jeopardy for some dollars that he could have made just as easily without risking his reputation and his health.”[17]

After the fight, Pacheco implored Ali to seek medical attention instead of following through with his planned tour through Asia where he was to hold a boxing exhibition in Korea then dedicate a shopping mall in Manila, Philippines. Ali refused the advice, went along with the scheduled plans and by the time he returned to the US, doctors hospitalized him as his leg muscles remained badly damaged.[18] Blood clots developed and damage to Ali’s legs was so extensive, there was talk of a possible amputation.[19]

As for Inoki, he also felt embarrassed and though he did not suffer the same physical damage as Ali, his pain was emotional. Despite the $2 million he earned, he cried in the dressing room after the fight as his hopes of becoming a national hero faded along with his dreams of restoring “prestige to the floundering sport of professional wrestling in Japan.”[20] The only hope for consoling his disappointment was his wish to reconnect with an estranged sister with whom he lost contact, presumably, after the economic hardship of post-war Japan forced them to the coffee fields of Brazil. “I hope all this publicity brings us together again,” Inoki said before the fight.[21] Whether that reconnection ever occurred is unknown.

Ali vs. Inoki was a disaster that should serve as a warning but it will not. Even if Mayweather and McGregor never fight against each other, there will be other bouts proposed, eager to pit a boxer versus a mixed martial artist. With its money-making potential, one of these fights will eventually occur. The promotion leading up to that fight is predictable. Boxing will claim supremacy based on its longer history. Ironically, it may even call itself a civilized sport compared to MMA. Conversely, MMA will portray boxing as dying sport whose relevance continues to fade. They will call themselves the future of combat sports, a mixture of various disciplines from across the globe. And though the fight will attract interest and attention, it will leave most spectators unfulfilled. There is no other conclusion. If absurdity defeated both Ali and Inoki at the same time—how can anyone else stand a chance?


[1] Dexter Thomas, “The Japanese pro wrestler who almost got Muhammad Ali’s leg amputated” Los Angeles Times, June 9, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (New York: Touchstone, 1991), 337.

[4] Andrew Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship” Japan Times, June 7, 2016.

[5] Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 337.

[6] Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship.”

[7] Rhoda J. Yen, “Racial Stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans and Its Effect on Criminal Justice: A Reflection on the Wayne Lo Case” Asian American Law Journal, no. 1, vol. 6, 2000: 6-7.

[8] John W. Dower, War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific (New York: Pantheon Book, 1986), 99.

[9] Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship.”

[10] Angelo Dundee, My View from the Corner: A Life in Boxing (New York; McGraw-Hill, 2008), 202.

[11] Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Fight in History – Deluxe Edition (New York: DC Comics, 2010), 72

[12] Josh Gross, Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight that Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2016), 4.

[13] Andrew H. Malcolm, “Ali, Inoki, Fight to Draw in Dull Bout” New York Times, June 26, 1976.

[14] Dundee, My View from the Corner, 203.

[15] Malcolm, “Ali, Inoki, Fight to Draw in Dull Bout.”

[16] Mckirdy, “How a bizarre ’bout of the century’ between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki led to a firm friendship.”

[17] Hauser, Muhammad Ali, 337.

[18] Ibid, 338.

[19] Andy Bull, “The forgotten story of … Muhammad Ali v Antonio Inoki” The Guardian, November 11, 2009.  

[20] Mark Kram, “…But Only a Farce in Tokyo” Sports Illustrated, July 5, 1976.

[21] Ibid.