Muhammad Ali’s ‘comedy’ fight shows why Fury vs Ngannou isn’t the joke you think it is

Ali sustained career-altering injuries while fighting wrestler and martial artist Inoki in Tokyo

Steve Bunce
Monday 17 July 2023 09:35 BST
Fury v Ngannou set for boxing fight Oct. 28 in Saudi Arabia

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Many in the same business as Muhammad Ali believe that the boxer never fully recovered from his comedy fight with a wrestler in Tokyo.

It was the summer of 1976; Ali was the world heavyweight champion, and some men in Japan came up with a financial package for Ali to meet renowned wrestler, Antonio Inoki. It was scheduled for 15 rounds of three minutes, and it was for the ‘heavyweight martial arts championship of the world’ belt. Sound familiar?

It was, trust me, not the joke you might think it was. For a start, it was meant to be a fix, a rigged encounter with blood, comedy, action and a classic wrestling twist. Ali got wind of the fix and refused to attend rehearsals.

The plan was simple: Ali would beat Inoki senseless for six or seven rounds, the wrestler was prepared to cut himself with razor blades and then, because of all the blood, it would be stopped in Ali’s favour. At that point, with Ali’s hand raised and 20,000 Japanese fans howling, Inoki was meant to jump on Ali’s back and pin him. Glorious stuff – Ali rejected it.

It came at a crucial time in Ali’s career. He had just stopped Richard Dunn in Munich to retain his heavyweight title; Dunn was dropped repeatedly, and they were the last knockdowns Ali ever scored. He fought seven more times, in six world title fights, but never dropped another man. He met men like Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and Earnie Shavers in that period; everybody in Ali’s entourage came to regret each awful fight during that time. The hidden injuries from the Inoki farce added to the decline.

The Inoki circus was conceived and sold as a safe way to make $6m and not get hurt; neither thing happened. At a ‘contract-signing’ event the night before, which was available to fans at a price, they agreed it would be winner-takes-all. Ali also had four suites and 31 rooms at the best hotel in Tokyo; this was not a joke.

“I can’t let boxing down,” Ali said before the fight. “He’s not used to taking hard shots to the head. The moment I go upside his head, it’s over.” Ali’s assessment is true, but the rules were not made clear.

Inoki dropped to his back and chased Ali for 15 rounds from that position on the canvas. In total, Ali threw six punches and connected twice; it was repetitive and dull, with Inoki on his back kicking out at Ali. At the end, it was declared a draw. There was no grandstand wrestling moment and there had certainly not been a single quality moment of boxing. Ali’s legs were cut, bleeding and damaged from Inoki’s hard wrestling boots and the dozens of kicks he had sustained. It was the eyelets on the boots that caused the superficial damage; the real damage was hidden as ruptured blood vessels formed.

Ali was told to rest the leg and get it treated before leaving Tokyo, but he had commitments in Korea and Malaysia; when he got back to America, he was hospitalised with blood clots and muscle damage. His left leg remained damaged until the end of his boxing career.

Ali finished with about $2.2m dollars for the event; Inoki had been guaranteed $2m but was paid just a fraction of that total. In Tokyo, in that ring, nobody won.

Incidentally, the fight was being shown all over the world on closed-circuit screens. In New York, outdoors at Shea Stadium, it was part of the night when Chuck Wepner, the inspiration for Rocky, met Andre the Giant in a wrestling ring. The Ali and Inoki fight was shown on big screens. What a time to be a fan.

Anyway, back in 1976, Ali limped on, fighting from memory for too many people and for far too long, and Inoki, well, he became a genuine mixed martial arts pioneer and icon. The big lad was in front of all curves. Inoki died last year and fought for the last time in 1998 when he was close to 60.

The man who busted Ali’s legs was far more than just a novelty act on the wrestling circuit.

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