At the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo, Japan on June 26, 1976, thousands of fans in the arena and millions around the world tuned in for two of the biggest names in sports and entertainment. Muhammad Ali vs Antonio Inoki, a boxer versus a professional wrestler, a mixed rules contest; the first MMA bout. This fight was 20 years before the first UFC or Pancrase mixed rules fights. But why didn’t this fight start the mixed martial arts craze in the ’70s?
Because the fight sucked.
Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki – Real Fight?
In the 1970s the biggest name on earth was Muhammad Ali. He fought in sold-out arenas all across the United States and the world such as Zaire, The Philippines, Germany, Madison Square Garden, New York, Indonesia, Canada, and others. And, at the same time, Antonio Inoki was one of the biggest celebrities in Japan. He was a heel in the professional wrestling world. Today, Inoki is in the WWE Hall of Fame.
“Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins,” Ali had proudly said to the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association. Boxing promoter Bob Arum had said, “these Japanese people have come to him with all kinds of money to go over and fight this wrestler, Inoki, in Japan.” Ali began training with the Sheik, who had defeated Inoki in Japan in 1974.
The two combatants had agreed on a price, a ten million dollar match; $6 million for Ali, $4 million for Inoki. This would nearly be $50 Million USD in 2021. A massive sum of money for a bout that hadn’t yet agreed on exactly what the rules would be. Would this be a boxing match? A choreographed professional wrestling bout? Or a mixed rules contest? Neither person had agreed on exactly what this would be. However, in spite of this, tickets were being sold, and TV rights were being distributed.
“People have always wondered how would a boxer do with a wrestler. I’ve always wanted to fight a wrestler,” Ali said on The Tonight Show, he was claiming it would be a real fight. “I’ve seen them grabbing each other. Throwing each other down and twisting each other’s arms. And I said, ‘Boy I could whoop him. All you gotta do is hit him, hit him really fast and hard, and move off of him.’ And now I’m going to get a chance to do it.”
‘Judo’ Gene Lebell was brought in as the referee for this bout. Lebell, as a Judoka, had fought against a boxer, Milo Savage, in a mixed rules contest in 1963. “See, I knew it was never supposed to be scripted. But nobody told me about a specific set of rules. I was to call it as a fight.” Lebell, the Judo legend, said re-affirming this to be a real fight.
Ali’s manager, Ferdie Pacheco, said that they thought, though, it was not to be a real fight. “We’re going to go over there. It’s going to be orchestrated. It’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s just a joke.’ And when we got over there, we found out no one was laughing.”
Upon arrival in Tokyo, Ali was under the impression that it would be an exhibition choreographed bout. However, Inoki’s crew said that it was to be a real fight. The two teams had still not agreed to the rules but weigh-ins and press conference duties had to be met. Ali called Inoki “The Pelican” due to his sizeable chine. “When your fist connects with my chin, take care that your fist is not damaged,” Inoki said to Ali, “I don’t know how seriously Muhammad Ali is taking the fight, but if he doesn’t take it seriously, he could suffer damage. I’m going in there fighting. I may even break his arm.”
The two teams came together the night before the fight and hammered out the rules.
Muhammad Ali vs Antonio Inoki
At the time of the fight, these rules had not yet been made public. Potentially 1.4 billion people had the opportunity to watch this bout, 34 countries, sold out Shea Stadium sold tickets in New York, and thousands of fans live in the sold-out Nippon Budokan arena; and yet, none of these viewers would know the rules at the time of the fight.
The two teams came to an odd conclusion of rules. Inoki could not strike while standing, and could not throw punches at all. Ali could throw punches while standing but not on the ground, and could not kick. Inoki, the professional wrestler, was not allowed to execute a takedown either.
Would this fight begin the MMA craze well before the UFC or Pancrase even started? It would not. Given how poorly thought out these rules were, it became an awful matchup. And it ruined fans’ tastes and desires for mixed rules contests.
It was a full 15 round fight in which Inoki was sliding and kicking while on the ground. Inoki would then stay on the ground and invite Ali to enter his guard, which Ali wisely never did. This bout caused massive damage to Ali’s legs and was declared a draw. Otherwise, this fight had no lasting impact on mixed martial arts and the world at large. If anything, due to how poorly this fight was received it may have set MMA even further back.
As time went on Inoki and Ali became good friends. During the Gulf War, the two were sent as an envoy to negotiate with Saddam Hussein. And, Ali attended Inoki’s last wrestling match in Tokyo. Inoki was invited to a wedding of Ali’s and spoke at his funeral.
Inoki is the founder of New Japan Pro-Wrestling and has an annual MMA event “Inoki Bom Ba Ye.” This year will be its 20th anniversary and the ‘Bom Ba Ye’ name is a dedication to Muhammad Ali. “Muhammad Ali personally gave Inoki his theme music, “ALI BOM-BA-YE”, written by Michael Masser in 1977.”
At Inoki’s last wrestling match Ali was invited to give a speech, “It was 1976 when I fought Antonio Inoki at the Budokan. In the ring, we were tough opponents. After that, we built love and friendship with mutual respect. So, I feel a little less lonely now that Antonio has retired. It is my honor to be standing on the ring with my good friend after 22 years. Our future is bright and has a clear vision. Antonio Inoki and I put our best efforts into making world peace through sports, to prove there is only one mankind beyond the sexual, ethinic or cultural differences. It is my pleasure to come here today.”
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