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The Debacle of The Decade: Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali

In America, the fight was referred to as “The War of The Worlds.” In Japan, the press hyped the fight as for title of “The World’s Toughest Man.” A no-rules fight to settle the age old question in front of millions of people: Could a wrestler beat a boxer? The world waited with curious interest to see a new type of fight: Mixed Martial Arts.

Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali vs. “World Martial Arts Champion” Antonio Inoki.

The Debacle of The Decade.

“Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins”

-Muhammad Ali to Ichiro Yada (President of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association)

This quote supposedly came before Ali defeated Joe Frazier in the now legendary “Thrilla in Manilla” in April of 1975; a staged remark to build to an Ali-Inoki showdown in the future. In America, the quote was met with indifference by all of the media in the United States, but the quote was all over the Japanese TV and print. Right away, Inoki sent Ali a letter accepting the challenge along with a picture of him and negotiations for the fight began. After a three year ban in boxing that hindered him financially, an easy and safe payday in Japan seemed like a good idea.

New Japan Pro Wrestling, the company that Inoki owned and was the top star in, was facing heavy competition for their rival All Japan Pro Wrestling. The promotion was run by Shohei Baba, a former friend and now fierce rival of Inoki, whose promotion was backed by Nippon TV. Baba also had connections to the major NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) territories and could import many of the top American stars along with World’s Champion, which gave credibility to AJPW. A fight with Ali would give Inoki some much needed credibility, along with a huge pile of money for Ali to could swim in.

‘Six million dollars, that’s why’

-Ali justifying why he was taking the fight

Inoki and his backers (primarily TV Asahi) made an offer of six million dollars (all guaranteed, remember that) for Ali to face Inoki in a worked fight. The fight would go down like this: Ali would beat Inoki for most of the fight until Inoki would hit him with a lucky kick to the head and pick up the victory. Ali’s group accepted the agreement and the fight would take place in June of 1976. In what would be an ironic twist of fate, the man who promoted would be none other than “Big” Bob Arum, the same man who would make racist and homophobic remarks about MMA nearly three decades earlier.

The press conference in America was classic Ali, calling Inoki “The Pelican” due to the unusually large chin that Inoki had. Inoki countered back, insinuating that Ali would break on his hand on Inoki’s rather large chin, drawing laughs from the press. Both men played their roles perfectly, with Ali being the loudmouth and Inoki as the peaceful, but intense Japanese champion.

The fight was scheduled to the broadcasted all over the world on CCTV (Close Circuit Television) airing in major pro-wrestling areas like Georgia, San Francisco, and at Shea Stadium in New York, along with locations in England and Canada. I would probably guess that the promoters probably had to pay a lot of money for broadcasting rights, and split the gate with both Inoki and Ali’s group. Out of the many American promoters who agree to air the fight, Vince McMahon Sr. used to fight to promote his second mega-event as Shea Stadium, along with a long awaited grudge match between Bruno Sammartino and Stan Hansen, along with a boxer-Vs-wrestler match between Andre the Giant and Chuck Wepner. The fight was set to take place at the legendary Budokan Hall in-front of a sold out crowd.

“Is shall not be no Pear Harbor! Muhammad Ali has returned! Just like MacArthur! He shall destroy him!”

-Ali’s manager “Classy” Freddie Blassie

On June 16, nearly 2000 fans and media came to greet Ali when he arrived at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Japan. Ali’s manager “Classy” Freddie Blassie loudly proclaimed that Ali was here to destroy Inoki and leave the people Japan in tears. Blassie was sent by McMahon to manage Ali and appear on the various talk shows and events to hype the fight. Blassie was already a legend in Japan due to his bloody battles in-which he would bite his opponent with “sharpened” teeth, and was known as “The Vampire.”

“When you meet me, I’m making you world famous. Don’t know body knows Antonio Inoki, I couldn’t pronounce your name for a few days”

-Ali on fighting Inoki

Ali and Blassie were whisked away to a Q&A session with media and proceeded to bring up how the only Japanese person he hated was Inoki, and continued to make fun of Inoki’s chin. Ali and Blassie also made the proclamation that the fight would end in round eight by a vicious knockout, and that Ali’s message to Inoki and the media was simple: Destroy him. On June 18, The Foreign Correspondent Club of Japan was packed full of casual on goers, and mixture of Japanese and American media for a press conference between the two. Inoki and his group presented Ali with a crutch, insinuating that Inoki was looking to snap Ali’s leg like a chicken bone. Ali countered back by putting the crutch on Inoki and stating that he would lend him the crutch after he knock’s Inoki out. Everybody was all smiles at the press conference, and then everything quickly went to hell.

On June 20, public workout was held at Korakuen Hall, in-which both men show off his skills in-front of people who paid 1000 yen to watch. Ali came out first and shadow-boxed, and then would beat-down a few local boxers with Blassie screaming instructions. Inoki showed off his kicks, karate, and various submission skills as Ali and Blassie watched with interest. Inoki the addressed Ali, proclaiming that victory would be his as Ali was “held back” by officials. Of course this was worked in-order to add even more hype to the showdown in six days. Immediately after the session, a meeting was called and Ali’s management demanded that all the tactics that Inoki used would be banned. Ali also decided against losing, citing that losing to a wrestler would hurt his image stateside. The only way Inoki could kick his opponent would be on the ground (Remember that) and no grappling allowed. With his hands tied, Inoki reluctantly agreed to the rule changes, and the dynamic of the match was changed.

Many have wondered why Inoki would agree to rules that would make it impossible to win, but the reality was that Inoki had no choice at all, as Ali’s people threatened to leave Tokyo and head back to America if they didn’t get their way. Ali leaving Japan would be a disaster, as the amount of money that TV Asahi was making off commercials and endorsements would be lost. Most of the American promoters would demand refunds for having to build special screens for broadcasting the match, and for agreeing to broadcast the match. New Japan would be dead on arrival, and the possibility of Inoki working for Baba would be very slim. The 15,000 plus tickets would all have to be refunded and the event was scheduled to make 45 Million Yen which translates to about a half-a-million dollars.

While we gripe about today’s MMA ticket prices, the amount that New Japan was charging for the event was outstanding:

Royal Admission: 300,000 Yen (3,300 American, usually reserved for sponsors)

Special Ringside: 100,000 Yen (1,100 American)

Ringside A: 80,000 Yen (885 Dollars)

Ringside B: 60,000 Yen (660 Dollars)

Take note: The highest price for the upcoming UFC Event at the Ticketmaster site goes about 603 dollar, image what a normal seat at Budoken must have ran for.

Another detail that would come up was the referee assigned to work the match. The referee assigned to the match was legendary Judoka and all-around tough guy “Judo” Gene Lebell, who was already a legend in Japan for his famous pink Gi. Lebell was assigned to ref the fight to make sure that the fight wouldn’t get out of hand, and if Inoki tried to shoot on Ali. This was a relevant fear that many in Ali’s camp had, especially since Inoki’s trainer for the fight was the legendary Karl Gotch.

If Inoki tried to get out of hand, Lebell could easily get Ali out of harms way, and make sure that Ali would leave Japan with his limbs in-tact. In my opinion is if Inoki tried anything with Lebell, he would probably leave the arena with a broken limb or two. According to his autobiography, wrestling legend Lou Thesz was offered a ton of money by Inoki to come in and replace Lebell as the ref. This resulted in more speculation that Inoki was planning to shoot on Ali since Thesz and Gotch were best friends. I really don’t believe this since Thesz stated that he had no problems with Ali or what he was doing.

With all that settled, a sold-out Budoken Hall which netted a 500,000 dollar gate (American) to watch Andre the Giant throw Chuck Wepner out of the ring on the big screen. The sold out arena was anxious for the epic showdown between Inoki and Ali. The ring was filled with officials, entourage members, flower girls, and three females to sing the Star-Spangled Banner. Inoki and Ali were ready to go at it, and the fight was on, as Inoki darted across the ring and fell on his ass. Inoki started kicking Ali in the leg, missing more times than connecting. This would begin a trend that would continue for all fifteen rounds, much to the dismay of fans all over the world. The only interesting things that occurred would be Inoki popping up and grabbing Ali’s leg and taking him to the ground, in the process, Inoki landed an illegal elbow that was a point of controversy. Ali landed six punches throughout the fight, as Inoki refused to stand with Ali. Ali’s corner complained that Inoki’s shoelaces were causing cuts on Ali’s leg and he could get an “infection.” The fans started to turn on Inoki and slow chants of “money back” and garbage was hurled at the ring. After fifteen boring rounds, the fight was called a draw after Inoki had points taken away due to three fouls.

“It was terrible, it was embarrassing”

-Bob Arum on the fight

It took the janitorial staff on the arena a full day to pick up all the garbage that was thrown at the ringside area. The media dubbed it the ?? of The Century, translated to The Mediocre Game of the Century, and that Inoki and Ali were ridiculed by the world. Ali was paid only 1.8 million, and tried to sue Inoki for the rest, but failed. Ali did get an infection from the cut, and the blood clots he suffered from the kicks did severe damage to speed. The amount made from closed circuit wasn’t enough to cover the costs of putting on the event, or to break even. New Japan and Asahi was in-debt for many years following the fight, forcing Inoki to take more mixed fights. Inoki’s next mixed fight was against Chuck Wepner, the same man who was last seen getting thrown out of the ring by Andre the Giant. Inoki even tried to set-up a fight with George Foreman, but Foreman wasn’t interested in a worked fight after the Ali debacle. For some reason, the fight was never shown again in Japan and a video copy was never produced. Some say it was due to the embarrassment that Inoki suffered, others say it was never released since Ali would be paid royalties. What’s even more amazing was that a rematch was actually talked about after Ali retired in 1981 but the rumor was never confirmed or denied.

Did anything good come out of it? Yes. The boxer vs. wrestler bout between Wepner and Andre The Giant got significant media coverage and launched Andre The Giant‘s career in Hollywood. I mean, who else was going to play Fezzik in The Princess Bride? In MMA, the fight is seen as a curious piece of MMA history, the only real fight that Inoki was ever in. While this might not be most definitive story on what happened, we will never know what truly went down, only stories from those involved. Maybe a book will be written about the fight one day as Inoki rarely talks about what went down in that six day period.