Trouble in Tokyo – Ali v Inoki
Muhammad Ali is remembered for a lot of things, but his contest with Antonio Inoki was one he’d hoped people would forget. Logan Walker takes a look at the greatest boxer’s strangest fight.
Muhammad Ali was many things. He was a revolutionary and innovative boxer, with a style that countless others have tried and failed to imitate over the years. He was the Louisville Lip, one of the greatest talkers that boxing (or any sport, for that matter) has ever seen, inspiring the likes of Conor McGregor, Tyson Fury and Jon Jones. He was a man of extreme conviction, who refused to bend in the face of overwhelming pressure. He was a hero who stood up against racism and religious intolerance at a time when doing so put his career and prospects in serious jeopardy. He was willing to sacrifice everything in the name of a just cause, which is what he did when he refused to be drafted in the Vietnam War, losing his world title and boxing licence as a result. At the very peak of his powers, Ali gave up his career to stand up for what he knew was right. He was, simply put, the greatest sportsman the world has ever seen.
He was also human, and like all humans, he was capable of lapses of judgment and was prone to making a few strange decisions from time to time. Of these decisions, none were more damaging to Ali’s career, reputation and health than this one.
Tokyo, June 1976. Muhammad Ali was 34 and the reigning WBC/WBA heavyweight boxing champion of the world, fresh off a comprehensive knockout victory over Englishman Richard Dunn in Munich. While his powers were undoubtedly waning, he was still a force to be reckoned with, and his famous charisma was as sharp as ever. He maintained an innate and natural ability to draw the eyes of the world on him. The reason the champion was in Japan’s capital was to face off against renowned martial artist and professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in an exhibition match, touted to the public as an opportunity for each of the fighters to showcase their skills. A head-to-head battle between the disciplines of boxing and wrestling.
Ali had found himself in this situation after making a typically brazen statement to the head of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Society the previous year, when he claimed that no Asian fighter could beat him and offered $1,000,000 to any man who could pull off the feat. Ichiro Hatta, the president in question, took the slight personally and set about pulling together investors to fund a fight between Ali and a challenger. $6,000,000 was raised, and 33-year-old Inoki stepped up to the plate to take on Ali.
“Six million dollars, that’s why.” Ali’s response to a journalist’s question about why he took the fight.
Ali’s camp believed that the match would purely be an exhibition as opposed to a legitimate contest, a view not held by Inoki. It is not exactly clear what was intended to happen when the fight went ahead, with some claiming that Ali was supposed to lose, and others claiming the champion had too strong a sense of integrity to ever agree to anything like that. In any case, the bout was set for the 26th of June at the legendary Budokan in Tokyo.
Ali and Inoki met for the first time at a press conference scheduled to promote the spectacle (or farce, depending on your perspective). The champion dubbed Inoki ‘The Pelican”, on account of the Japanese fighter’s large chin. Inoki responded coolly: “When your fist connects with my chin, take care that your fist is not damaged.” The press conference concluded with Inoki presenting Ali with a set of crutches.
On the day of the bout, Ali did very little to ingratiate himself with his Japanese hosts. On his arrival at Haneda International Airport, the champion declared: “There will be no Pearl Harbour! Muhammad Ali has returned!” Ali was not known as the Louisville Lip for nothing. The anticipation for the bout reached fever-pitch in the city, and the world-famous Budokan, which has played host to guests including The Beatles and ABBA over the years, was completely sold out, with some tickets selling for as much as £1,500. Venues in cities across the globe such as New York and Birmingham offered the public a chance to watch the fight on the big screen, charging for the privilege, while an estimated audience of 1.4 billion watched from home.
When Ali arrived at the stadium, he was met by a sea of intrigued fans and journalists. The fight was to be contested under a series of complicated and convoluted rules, neither boxing nor wrestling. In an attempt to neuter Inoki’s ability to seriously hurt the world heavyweight champion, it was decided that he could not grapple, tackle or throw Ali. He also could not deliver any kicks unless he had one knee planted firmly on the mat when doing so. The rules were hidden from the public to protect Ali’s reputation.
Inoki made his entrance first, draped in his signature purple robe and accompanied by his entourage, welcomed by the Japanese crowd with rapturous applause. The hometown hero, as it were.
Ali was second to make his way to the ring, wearing a red and white robe and flanked by his team, including the legendary trainer Angelo Dundee.
As soon as the bell rang for the start of the first round, any notions the champion had of this being a relaxing night were dispelled. Inoki sprinted at Ali, closing the 16-foot gap between the men in a matter of seconds. Inoki flew at Ali, attempting to deliver a two-footed tackle, which the champion sidestepped and dodged. Instead of returning to his feet, Inoki adopted a strategy that mostly consisted of laying on his back, scuttling around the ring, and attempting to deliver kicks to the shins and knees of Ali.
The events of the first round repeated themselves for rounds two and three, as the crowd stared on in disbelief and horror at the tragedy unfolding before them. In round four, however, things took a turn as Inoki finally managed to corner Ali. As Ali searched in vain for an escape route, Inoki delivered a series of powerful kicks to the legs and thighs of the American. In a fit of desperation, Ali climbed the ropes and shouted in frustration at Inoki, branding him a coward and a cheat.
In the sixth round, Inoki inflicted on Ali one of the most infamous and humiliating moments of the world champion’s career. As Ali grabbed at one of Inoki’s feet in an attempt to deflect an attack, the Japanese wrestler used his other leg to wrap around Ali and flip him onto the mat. As Ali scrambled desperately to recover, Inoki moved across his chest and squatted directly in his opponent’s face. Ali was incensed and indignant.
In the later rounds, the true toll of the damage caused by Inoki’s savage kicks became apparent. The champion was wounded, with visible lacerations and tears on his legs, caused by a loose eyelet on one of Inoki’s boots. Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, climbed into the ring and demanded that Inoki either change his boots or repair them immediately. He acquiesced to the demand. An announcer observed that Ali’s legs appeared to be haemorrhaging.
The fight lasted 15 rounds, with the majority seeing Ali circling Inoki, attempting to evade kicks and deliver punches of his own, with little success. In total, throughout fifteen rounds, Ali threw six punches. Hardly the performance expected of the greatest boxer of all time. It had been less an exhibition of two talented fighters and more a shameful display of greed over sense.
The crowd were enraged by the farce they had just witnessed and began throwing trash into the ring, booing and demanding a refund. The outcome of the fight was a draw, a convenient result for both fighters. Ali was able to say he would have won had it not been for his opponent’s cheating and cowardice, and Inoki could say he outsmarted the American despite the restrictions placed on him.
The event severely damaged the reputation of both men, who were seen as con artists, duping the public to run off with their hard-earned cash.
Ali, however, would face more serious consequences than just a bruised ego. His legs were swollen and bloody after the match, and infection quickly set in. Two blood clots formed, leading to serious talk of amputation. Ali’s doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, would later claim that the boxer never fully recovered from the damage. Pacheco would leave the Ali camp shortly after the event in Tokyo as he believed his advice was falling on deaf ears, that the world champion was placing himself in harm’s way by continuing to fight.
Pacheco may have been vindicated somewhat, as following the bout with Inoki, Ali never knocked out another opponent.
Ultimately, the showdown at the Budokan between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki was an ugly and strange affair. It did not raise the profile of either athlete, and in the case of Ali, it contributed to the demise of his legendary career. He went from being the heavyweight champion of the world, adored by legions of fans, to a has-been who would do anything for a payday. It took a long time for his reputation to recover, and the Tokyo episode is conveniently forgotten when people are discussing the life of the greatest.
And that’s who Muhammad Ali was. Yes, it’s true, he probably should have called time on his career a few years before he did, and there are a few examples of him making questionable decisions that were most likely influenced by the promise of money.
But these are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
He was, is, and always will be, the greatest.