Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki Gave Us a Preview of Mayweather-McGregor

In 1976, Ali and Inoki fought for 15 excruciatingly boring rounds, after which the crowd chanted for their money back.

by Mike Meehall Wood
25 August 2017, 12:07am

Screen capture via YouTube/ Boxing Hall of Fame Las Vegas

It's often said that there's not a new idea in this world. If there is, you can be sure as shit you won't find it in boxing. As long as there have been men, there have been men fighting each other, and as long as there have been men fighting each other, there have been other men arguing about whose method was best. Boxing, wrestling, and pankration were all in the ancient Olympics and Athenians doubtless sat around the Parthenon swapping drachma about who'd win if you faced them off in the one ring.

Suffice to say, Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor is nothing new and if you want proof, you need only to look at the actual TBE or, if you want to get technical, the GOAT, and his foray into the world of mixed martial arts. Muhammad Ali's 1976 match with Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki was every bit as farcical, money-grabbing, and pointless as this weekend's bout is going to be, with the added bonus that Floyd is no Ali and McGregor is no Inoki.

For his 49-0, his supreme defensive skills, and his four weight world belts, Floyd will be respected, but he will never be loved. Nobody is going to ask him to hold the Olympic flag, TV news isn't going to stop when he dies, and you're not going to see his face on T-shirts in 50 years. It's not fair to Floyd to make any Ali comparison—though he's the one calling himself The Best Ever—so let's move on to Conor.

The journalist Donald McRae recently called McGregor "a complex genius." To go off what The Simpsons' Sideshow Bob said of MacGyver ("First of all, he's not a genius, he's an actor, and second, he's not much of an actor"), McGregor isn't a genius, he's a boxer, and second, he's not much of a boxer. McGregor has proved his standup skills are more than a match for anyone in the UFC, but crucially he's fighting in an area where boxing is just one part of the skillset. You don't need to read anymore in these pages (or any other) of why nobody who watches boxing seriously thinks that he'll win.

If he is a genius, then his genius lies in his mouth rather than his fists and for that you can only commend him. If you're going to be on your back staring at the lights in Vegas, they might as well spell out your name.

Antonio Inoki might not be a genius either, but he could certainly match McGregor's mouth. Inoki is probably the most influential person in Japanese combat sports history—Ali, Vince McMahon, and The Rock rolled into one. After wrestling, he became a politician and negotiated hostage releases with Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. He's still in the Japanese Parliament today.

Inoki could fight, of course, and was trained under legendary catch wrestler Karl Gotch. Before facing Ali, Inoki had already defeated Dutch Olympic Judo champ Wim Ruska, pounding him with suplexes; he also took on kung fu, karate, and sumo fighters. Some were scripted, some weren't, but the bottom line is that Inoki was such a hard bastard that when it came to an all-in fight, Ali's people weren't interested. They had the champ train some judo and then thought better of it: there would be no grappling at all and no standing kicks either.

Ali himself was not, as hindsight can distort, past it. He was the champion of the world, fresh from rope-a-doping Joe Frazier in Manila and then defending his title another three times in three months—remember when boxers used to fight?—earlier in 1976. He would avenge his 1973 loss to Ken Norton just 10 weeks later at Yankee Stadium. Prime Ali it might not have been, but it wasn't far off.

If you were wondering what enticed them to fight in 1976, then let me remind you that there's not a new idea in this world. Ali had publicly called out any Asian to fight him for a million dollars, and Inoki answered with six million. Thirty-four countries broadcast the fight and it was shown in 150 beambacks in the States, including one to more than 30,000 at New York's Shea Stadium. Ringside seats at the Budokan in Tokyo—the spiritual home of martial arts in Japan—went for 300,000 yen, $2,700 in today's money and a damn sight more then.

Muhammad Ali's 1976 match with Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki was every bit as farcical, money-grabbing and pointless as this weekend's bout is going to be, with the added bonus that Floyd is no Ali and Conor McGregor is no Antonio Inoki.

It's often rumored that Ali and Inoki scripted the fight, but sitting through the full 15 rounds doesn't bear that out. Short of a Transformers movie, it's a struggle to think of anyone scripting something so dull. It's round after round of Inoki on his ass, kicking upwards while Ali wafts kicks at his grounded opponent, hoping to stand him up so he has something to punch at. As a spectacle it never starts: the wrestler isn't allowed to wrestle and the boxer has nobody to box. The full 15 rounds are available on YouTube and there's a minute-long highlights video that still manages to push the parameters of the word "highlight."

Of course, the rules were more than a little responsible for this. Ali's camp refused to let the rules be known ahead of time and thus the punters in the Budokan had no idea what they were watching. By the third round, a cut had opened on Ali's leg because of the repeated kicks from the prone Inoki and it took until the seventh for him to throw a punch back. At the end of 15 rounds, a draw was decided that allowed Inoki to save face in front of his own crowd while also allowing the Champ to remain the Champ. It was as if everyone had decided to forget all about the fight as soon as it had finished. The crowd in the arena chanted for their money back.

Many claim that Ali's leg would never recover from the beating that it took from Inoki's wrestling boot—he would never again score a knockdown—and he certainly never reached the heights he hit before his trip to Japan. Inoki and Ali became friends, though, so at least they got something out of it along with their huge purses.

There might be a lesson in there for Floyd and Conor, but it's unlikely that either of them look much beyond their purses. It's a free hit for McGregor, a final payday for Mayweather. Maybe the lesson will be for us. Whenever the final bell rings on Saturday night in Vegas, let's hope that we're not feeling like the crowd in the Budokan, chanting for our money back. If Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki taught us anything, it's that we probably will be.

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