Muhammad Ali put up one million dollars for ‘any Asian fighter’ that could knock him out. But he wasn’t banking on Antonio Inoki putting up such a fight.
‘It’s hard to see old enemies depart, but I pray for the soul of Muhammad Ali.’ These were Antonio Inoki’s words, pronounced following last year’s death, on 3 June, of Muhammad Ali, one of the world’s biggest – if not the greatest – boxing icons.
Inoki was not a boxer; he was a Japanese wrestler. Yet he was the star of one of the most difficult fights of Ali’s career. 40 years after the two clashed, he is still remembered as the man ‘who almost got Muhammad Ali’s leg amputated’.
It was 1975 when Ali, already an international boxing star, met with the president of Japan’s amateur wrestling association. Ali’s question, in keeping with star’s oversized ego, was: ‘Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.’
Of course, the boxer’s words resonated around Japan. The local press wanted a Japanese fighter, so the gauntlet was handed to Antonio Inoki, a wrestler who had, until then, proved to be a match for anyone he fought.
‘Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins,’ said Ali
Inoki is considered the greatest fighter in the history of Japanese wrestling. Born in Yokohama, post-war financial hardship forced his family to emigrate to Brazil, where he began to show his strength winning championships in the shot put, discus and javelin.
But Inoki’s impressive trajectory mattered little to Ali. ‘I’ll knock him out in 10 minutes,’ he declared, all the while alluding to his black superiority thanks to his upbringing in the American ghettos.
During the joint press conferences, Inoki would smile innocently; with no English he could not understand a word that was said. Ali, meanwhile, made fun of him, goading the fighter and stirring up the atmosphere and the media.
The fight took place on 26 June 1976 in Tokyo’s Budokan arena. Inoki was playing at home, and 12,000 people were packed into the room. Tens of thousands were watching from their homes, expecting the ‘Fight of the Century’. However, although both would end up on crutches, it turned out to be a very different fight to the one viewers had imagined.
No sooner had the fight began, than Inoki fell to the floor and started kicking his opponent. Ali, taken by surprise, shouted at him to get up and fight face to face. But the Japanese fighter refused, despite the boos from the crowd and the intense media pressure he had been under.
The blame, however, did not lie with Inoki.
Ali wanted the fight to be staged, carefully rehearsed prior to the big night, but Inoki refused
According to the long version of the story, for Ali, it was to be a simple question of going through the motions; an exhibition fight, rehearsed from beginning to end in which the American would end up blazing his way to glory. But, when Ali went to see Inoki to discuss preparations for the grand event, the Japanese fighter seemed puzzled. ‘There’s no rehearsal,’ he replied.
Inoki had taken the challenge seriously, and Ali was not amused. He quickly had the rules rewritten to ensure he would have the upper hand. This included forbidding kicks while standing up. And no elbows strikes either. In an instant, all of Inoki’s fighting moves were out.
And what was more, if Inoki’s team leaked any of this information to the media, the fight would be cancelled.
So the Japanese fighter had no choice but to adapt. Since the rules stipulated that only standing kicks were allowed, he decided to throw himself to the floor each time he wanted to strike with his feet, a strategy that was to lead to the most outlandish scenes in boxing history:
Inoki focused on hammering at Ali’s legs throughout the fight, while the American did what he could to defend himself. Already in the fifth round a blow from Inoki almost brought the boxing legend down. They were in for a long fight.
In total, Inoki landed 64 kicks and Ali just 5 punches. Although, according to the Japanese fighter, ‘each one left a bruise’.
Kicks standing up were forbidden, but nobody said anything about kicking from the floor…
The home fighter concentrated on pummelling one of Ali’s legs that was badly swollen. The American camp were quick to protest claiming the Japanese fighter had steel plates concealed in his boots to inflict more damage. However, when he took his boots off, this clearly was not the case. Although he did later confess, ‘I had hidden some plates because they hadn’t made any rules about that. But before the match I realised that I couldn’t go through with it.’
At the end of 15 brutal rounds, despite Inoki’s clear victory, the judges declared a draw and the money was shared between both men. The crowd booed both fighters out of the ring.
But Ali came away worse off.
The boxer had two blood clots in his infected leg. And, in an interview with The Guardian, his promoter Bob Arum, said that they were on the verge of having to amputate. He recovered in the end, but his footwork was never the same again.
But what is most surprising about this story is that the men maintained their friendship after the fight. A year later, Ali invited Inoki to his wedding. From then on, both men would develop a relationship that was to last many years.
The boxer had two blood clots in his infected leg, and it almost had to be amputated
Their relationship was more than just a friendship, they had a shared world vision. In 1990, Muhammad Ali travelled to Iraq to negotiate the release of 15 American hostages with Saddam Hussein. Antonio Inoki, likewise, fought for the release of 41 Japanese hostages.
‘Inoki and I put our best efforts into making world peace through sports, to prove there is only one mankind beyond the sexual, ethnical or cultural differences,’ Ali said when his friend retired.
Yet another lesson from two fighters who will surely never be forgotten.