That Time Muhammad Ali Nearly Had His Leg Kicked Off by a Pro Wrestler in One of the Most Bizarre Matches in History

Muhammad Ali is undeniably one of the finest pugilists to have ever put fist to face. While that is news to approximately no one reading this, a less discussed aspect of Ali’s career is his brief involvement with the world of Mixed Martial Arts- specifically, that time he nearly had his leg kicked off fighting a Japanese pro wrestler in the 1970s.

The genesis of what has come to be known as “one of the most embarrassing moments” of  Muhammad Ali’s storied career began around 1975 when Ali met the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association, Ichiro Yada, at a party. It’s reported that during a brief conversation with Yada, Ali boastfully exclaimed: “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.”

Whether this was a genuine challenge by Ali or simply some of his famous trash-talk isn’t clear, but we know that Yada interpreted it as the former and the quote was reported as such by the Japanese media. This brought it to the attention of Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki, who decided to take the boxer up on his offer. Not only that, but Inoki somehow managed to convince investors to pony up some $6 million to sweeten the deal for Ali, who accepted the offer to fight in March the following year, with the match itself being arranged to take place on June 26th.

From this point on the details leading up to the fight get a little harder to confirm. For starters, although the eventual fight that took place between Inoki and Ali was genuine, it’s contested whether Ali’s camp knew this from the start. You see, at this point Inoki was already pretty famous in Japan for arranging similar fights with other famous fighters, pitting their skills against his own unique brand of wrestling, dubbed “strong style”. These matches were clearly fixed and often ended in a spectacularly theatrical way. For example, in one match against a karate expert, Inoki won by powerbombing his opponent to the ground and knocking them out with a leg drop, a la Hulk Hogan. In another, the match was declared a draw when both combatants inexplicably fell out of the ring at the exact same time.

Although Inoki did take part in a few legitimate fights, Ali’s camp, and the man himself according to many, similarly assumed the fight would be fixed. In fact, in an interview from the time, Ali was quoted as saying: “What I’ve promised to do is an exhibition fight. [Inoki] will not be hitting me with full force.”

Exactly how this match would have been fixed isn’t clear, although the most commonly touted version of the original “scripted” end to the fight was, according to sports journalist Jim Murphy, to have Ali accidentally punch the referee. A concerned Ali would then bend over to check on him, at which point Inoki would kick him in the head. Ali would go down, the ref would miraculously recover and declare Inoki the winner when Ali didn’t get back up. This would thus see Inoki the villain, but victor, while Ali would only have lost because of his outstanding character in being more concerned with the well being of the ref instead of winning the match.

Of course, as anyone who’s ever researched anything about Ali can probably deduce, the fact that he’d lose, however nobly, allegedly didn’t sit well with Ali and he ultimately decided he wouldn’t go along with any version of the fight which would see him lose- the script needed re-written. The problem at this point was that Inoki also allegedly refused to lose.

That said, a competing version of the events leading up to the fight touted by the Japanese media and Inoki himself is that the fight was always intended to be real and that Ali’s camp made the mistake of assuming otherwise until the boxer arrived in Japan. According to this version of the story, Ali only realised the fight would be genuine upon seeing the intensity with which Inoki was training, with Ali watching him fell a series of sparring partners with devastating dropkicks and throws. Upon seeing this, the champ realised that Inoki was taking the fight altogether more seriously than he was- something that was confirmed when he asked Inoki when they were going to rehearse, only to have the wrestler reportedly respond: “No, no. This isn’t an exhibition. It’s a real fight!”

Whatever the truth of the events that led up to Ali realising the fight was going to be genuine, we know that upon learning this information his camp scrambled to find a way to hamper Inoki’s, as he called it “burning fighting spirit”. You see, although Inoki was best known for taking part in staged fights as a professional wrestler, he was still a terrifyingly skilled grappler, trained in the art of man-throwing by legendary catch wrestler Karl Gotch-  a man known in Japan by the simple and unassuming moniker of “The God of Wrestling”.

So a few days before the fight was set to take place, Ali’s camp forced Inoki agree to a few new rules that would basically see Inoki having to fight with one arm tied behind his back. Specifically, these rules forbade Inoki from using any wrestling techniques (especially dropkicks) and even from throwing kicks unless one knee was on the mat. No such restrictions were placed on Ali who was free to do anything he pleased within the bounds of the standard rules previously agreed upon.

Furthermore, Ali’s camp told Inoki’s camp that these restrictions couldn’t be publicised and that if they went to the media with any of the demands they’d made, Ali would refuse to take part and head home. Not wanting to upset any of the thousands of fans who’d bought tickets to see the fight live and the millions set to watch around the world, let alone the potentially lucrative payday for himself that he’d been training hard for, Inoki begrudgingly agreed to the terms.

Speaking of which, the match, although largely an embarrassing footnote in Ali’s otherwise celebrated career today, was massive news at the time. Along with selling out the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo where the match was set to take place, the bout also almost sold out a stadium in the US.

How?

Well, sensing that the match would be a big draw, wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Sr (not to be confused with his son, the current CEO of the WWE) arranged to have it screen at Shea Stadium in New York, preceding the whole thing with an exhibition match between Andre the Giant and boxer Chuck Wepner. In addition to these crowds, a reported 1 billion people were expected to watch the match on TV sets around the world, though of course that reported number, as ever when it comes to sporting events- with the Super Bowl being most notorious for this- were grossly exaggerated.

Nevertheless, the crowds were massive, drawn to watch the fight by the pre-match antics of both fighters, who spent the weeks leading up to the bout openly mocking one another. Ali in particular bragged to the The Guardian at the time: “The guy comes for me. I just jab him, bop, bop, bop. He can’t get close enough. What’s karate from a distance man? Nothing. When I’ve jabbed him enough, I’ll knock him out.”

Inoki similarly made fun of Ali, bringing a crutch to their first pre-fight conference and telling the boxer he’d need it after he broke his leg by throwing him out of the ring.

With all this bluster and bravado on display, along with a combined total of $10 million ($67 million today) to go to the fighters, 60% to Ali and the remaining to Inoki, and the title of “toughest man on the planet” up for grabs, the fight was set to be one for the history books. And in some ways, it kind of was. Throughout the match, which went to decision after 15 rounds, Muhammed Ali, the self professed “greatest of all time” threw a mere 6 punches.

You see, in what have been described as “15 rounds of pure slapstick”, Inoki spent almost the entire fight scooting around the ring on his backside, tirelessly chasing Ali and peppering his thighs with lunging kicks delivered safely from the fetal position. You see, in what you have to admit was a pretty ingenious strategy, Inoki realised that he could circumvent all of the rules imposed on him, and nullify Ali’s ability to punch him, by simply delivering all of his kicks from the floor.

Ali had literally no counter to this tactic as to get in for a punch he’d have to come in close enough to be susceptible to lightning fast, crushing kicks. Thus, he spent the 15 rounds yelling at Inoki, taunting him to “fight like a man” (instead of a genius apparently), in between trying to kick his feet away and occasionally, when Inoki would manage to corner him, climbing on the ropes to try to protect his legs from the barrage of kicks.

Beyond being an effective defense, in the 6th round, Inoki caught Ali with a leg hold and brought him down before sitting on his face and hitting him in chin with an elbow- the latter of which the judges deemed to be a foul. This infuriated Ali, who threw his first punch of the bout in the next round. Ali’s 2nd punch wouldn’t be thrown until the 10th.

As the match wore on, with Ali finding himself unable to coax Inoki to stand up, his legs began to swell up and were peppered with bruises from the constant assault. His trainers, feeling something was amiss, initially assumed Inoki had hidden something in his boots, but after a search was conducted, it turns out Inoki, even just lying on the floor, simply could kick really, really hard.

As a compromise, however, at this point one of Inoki’s boots was taped up, reportedly to stop his shoelaces whipping against Ali’s thighs.

This back and forth between the two men continued until the final bell of the 15th round.

Although Inoki was technically up by 3 points because he was the only one to score any real clean hits, these were deducted for the elbow he threw in the 6th round, and the whole thing was declared a draw.

If it ending in a tie wasn’t upsetting enough to those watching, throughout the entire bout, the crowd in attendance had been throwing garbage into the ring and chanting for their money back- nobody it seems, was happy with the spectacle. Again, it’s important to note here that the audience the world over wasn’t aware of the restrictions placed on Inoki at this point (Inoki only explaining himself after the fact), and were none too pleased by his odd strategy which resulted in very little actual fighting in the traditional sense.

Nevertheless, both men were quite injured. You see, it turns out at some point in the match, Inoki managed to break some bones in his foot with the force of the kicks he was dolling out on Ali. Ali, on the other hand, ended up suffering from two severe blood clots and his leg became infected to the point that it nearly had to be amputated.

Although both Inoki and Ali both had their complaints about the fight after the fact, with Ali remaining frustrated about Inoki’s tactic and Inoki being annoyed that he was unfairly handicapped by the rules he had to follow and many the world over, who didn’t understand, upset with him for making a farce of the fight, both men became quite friendly with one another after. In fact, when Inoki would retire in 1998, Ali flew to Japan to attend his final match, and even made an appearance in the ring, with a message then being read to the crowd,

…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 honour to be standing on the ring with my good friend after 22 years…

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