Perched in the corner, legs held up in the air to avoid a battering that ended up lasting 15 long rounds, Muhammad Ali roared. He was the champion of the world, the best boxer of all time—and against wrestler Antonio Inoki, he was all but helpless.
The date was June 26, 1976; the place Nippon Budokan, the most famous arena in Japan, where Inoki had plied his trade dozens of times before.
The event? Even 40 years later that's not clear. Was it a pro wrestling match gone wrong? A boxing match turned sideways? Or a foundational pillar in the world of mixed martial arts?
Whatever it was, all agreed it was ugly. A helpless Ali spent an hour of his life getting kicked in the leg repeatedly. He was reduced to yelling slurs at his Japanese foe, questioning his manhood, his courage and his legitimacy—while slowly, systematically, having his leg ground into hamburger.
The match, by design, wasn't supposed to be a complicated affair. Ali and Inoki would headline a card in Tokyo. Around the country, American wrestling promoters would offer their own events, capped by a closed-circuit showing of the wrestler vs. boxer extravaganza. The hope was everyone would walk away a little richer—Ali, especially.
"He got offered $6 million," Josh Gross, author of the upcoming book about the fight, Ali vs. Inoki, told Bleacher Report." He did it because the payday was huge and he was about to go through a divorce. He was dating Veronica Porsche, living an extravagant life, and a lot of people were taking his money. He was also giving a lot of his money to the Nation of Islam. For Ali, the money flowed. It came and it went. He needed a fix."
The sporting press was not amused at the idea of the world heavyweight boxing champion—a title that was supposed to mean something, darn it—reduced to competing in a fake wrestling spectacle. Years ago, this sort of matchup, whether featuring Jack Dempsey and Ed "Strangler" Lewis or Frank Gotch and Jack Johnson, was the stuff dreams were made of. But wrestling had fallen into such disrepute by the 1970s that a bout between stalwarts from each sport did little to excite the popular imagination.
The venerable syndicated columnist Red Smith was just one voice among many—a chorus of the nation's most important sports writers, all carrying the same tune, sending the same message: This "contest" was little more than a farce:
Perhaps it is naive to feel that a world champion ought to comport himself like a champion. After all, boxing is show business, more so than ever now that every performance by the champion is a multimillion-dollar production. Maybe it is unrealistic to expect more of a champion than a succession of pratfalls on the burlesque circuit. Nevertheless, some do mourn the Sweet Science.
"Sports writers at the time—boxing writers in particular—didn't like the idea of him doing this," Gross said. "Boxing was king at the time. Pro wrestling was really in the shadows at that point in its history. It didn't have the best reputation at the time. For Ali, the champion of the world, just eight months after the Thrilla in Manila, to go off and do this thing—people didn't even have a good understanding about what it was.
"Was it real? Was it an exhibition? It was confusing for people."
For Ali, it was a dream come true. He'd loved pro wrestling for years and was thrilled to be in the ring on WWWF television against the enormous Gorilla Monsoon and on ABC's Wide World of Sports, even if announcer Howard Cosell was less than pleased to see him there against undercard wrestlers in Chicago.
"However fictional the scene," said the announcer who had risen in the media ranks due to his relationship and banter with the champ. "Ali could get hurt."
Ali, however, was having fun. He had learned his trade, on the promotional side at least, in Los Angeles in 1962. He fought there three times that year as a young contender, training at the famous Main Street Gym, watching the great wrestlers of the era like Gorgeous George and Freddie Blassie and peppering anyone and everyone with questions about how to attract an audience.
"When Ali came in town the first time, I ended up sitting next to him during lunch," former Los Angeles Times columnist John Hall told Gross. "He asked all kinds of questions about Gorgeous George and Art Aragon—how they perfected the villain routine, got all the publicity and drew so well. There's a lot of Gorgeous George that rubbed off on Ali early on."
By the time he fought Inoki, however, Ali had long surpassed his wrestling idols, who, according to Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, were then borrowing their pattern from him. He could make any opponent seem interesting, even a complete unknown from the Far East:
Ali didn’t even know who Inoki was when the deal was put together, and upon meeting him in a New York press conference on March 25, 1976, immediately nicknamed him “The Pelican,” because of his Jay Leno-like jaw. The fact is, Inoki already was known, in the business, by those who weren’t fond of him, which were many, as “The Chin.”
No stranger to fight promotion, Inoki knew how to make his most notable asset a talking point, too. Before the bout, he was filmed being struck in the jaw over and over again, even going so far as to have a succession of young fighters step on his face, all to ostensibly prepare for Ali's powerful punch.
"When I was young I was very embarrassed by my chin and I went to a plastic surgeon to have it changed," Inoki told the New York Times' Andrew Malcolm. "He said it would be a good trademark. So I kept it. And he was right."
Fight promoters battled rumors and innuendo from the start. Suspicion that the bout's result would be predetermined was persistent and, according to promoter Bob Arum, true. The plan, he says, was an epic, dramatic pro wrestling bout—a quick cash grab in between championship bouts.
"Ali would pound on Inoki for six or seven rounds," Arum told author Thomas Hauser in his oral history of Ali. "Inoki would be pouring blood. Apparently, he was crazy enough that he was actually going to cut himself with a razor blade. Ali would appeal to the referee to stop the fight. And right when he was in the middle of this humanitarian gesture, Inoki would jump him from behind and pin him. Pearl Harbor all over again."
When Ali arrived in Tokyo with Blassie in tow, however, everything had changed. Pride flickered in Ali. The same competitiveness that pushed him through the grueling fights with Joe Frazier made it hard for him to lie down for the wrestler.
"This match is serious," Ali told reporters at a press conference on fight week. "It's not like your average rassling match. The worst thing I could do would be to involve myself in a public scandal or fraud...that's the worst thing I could do as a religious man. A fixed or rehearsed fight—never."
Rules were negotiated in tense sessions that lasted late into the night. Ali wasn't especially concerned. His people, however, were terrified of what might happen in a real fight. Eventually, Meltzer reported, the resulting limitations on Inoki would make it difficult for the wrestler to thrive:
A set of rules were put together for this last minute shoot. No takedowns below the waist, because they didn’t want anything to happen to Ali’s legs. No closed fist punches. No kicks to the head and body. The only reason they didn’t say no kicks to the legs, which proved to be the key move of the match, was that nobody in those days even knew what low kicks were. Particularly, they banned the back suplex Inoki used to beat Ruska. No submissions. Inoki could use Greco-roman takedowns but no ground and pound. If Inoki grabbed Ali or tried to put him in any kind of move, Ali could get a break by grabbing the ropes and they would be reset standing. Inoki in essence was facing one of the greatest heavyweight boxers who ever lived, while wearing a straitjacket.
The result was a bout that few could love. Inoki opened every round by dropping to the ground. He'd then spend the remaining minutes chasing Ali like a crab and kicking him repeatedly in the leg while Ali cursed him viciously. Writing in Sports Illustrated, legendary boxing reporter Mark Kram made it clear he was not amused:
Concerned much more with the form of things than with content, the Japanese, who have produced the half-million-ton tanker and the world’s smallest television set and tape recorder, have now given us a sporting event that will go down as the dullest in history. Among other things, it was declared a draw. No, it was not a hoax; it was not prearranged in any way (indeed, a bit of neat choreography might have helped). But it was more like a tea ceremony, or watching a man getting a haircut, than a fight.
Despite the overwhelming success of Inoki's strategy—landing more than 100 kicks, while Ali managed just a paltry four punches—the fight was officially scored a draw. After the bout, fans were livid, not just in Tokyo, but at closed-circuit locations around America. Fans, so used to Ali putting on a great show, didn't know how to process what they had seen.
"People didn't understand it," Gross said. "There was no frame of reference for what they were seeing. The match itself was odd because of the rules. There were a lot of things working against it. That's why its legacy among those who remember it is as a dud.
"The takeaways were that nothing happened. Ali got kicked in the leg, and it was a joke. A lot of people had no frame of reference about what a leg kick was and what it could do. For Ali, it was clear those leg kicks from a guy who was wearing laced-up wrestling boots were very serious.
"Andrew Malcolm went into the locker room immediately after the match and saw Ali on a bench writhing in pain. His leg had already doubled in size. You could see welts all over it. Bob Goodman, the legendary publicist, was there the entire time and said he saw Ali the next day and couldn't believe how grotesque his leg was."
"I wouldn’t have done this fight if I’d known he was going to do that," Ali told reporters in his dressing room after the fight, per Gross' book. "Nobody knew this was going to happen. So we had a dead show. It all proved boxers are so superior to wrestlers. He didn’t stand up and fight like a man. If he’d gotten in range, I’d have burned him but good."
In an interview with Malcolm, Inoki blamed the fiasco on Ali, who changed the rules at the last minute. He even filed suit against Ali for more than $700,000, losses sustained as his New Japan Pro Wrestling business suffered at the box office. But he was honest in part too—some of the responsibility belonged to him.
"I think perhaps last summer I was too serious," Inoki told Malcolm. “I was doing my best to win. It wasn’t a fake fight or it would have been more interesting. I think I should have stood up more and taken a beating from Ali even if it led to my defeat. Then, at least, that way the audience would have enjoyed it more."
In time, however, memories of the bout softened—especially in Japan where Inoki continued to build his legend as one of the toughest men in the world. He wrestled a series of legitimate martial artists in the years to come, building on the Ali match and sparking a passion to prove wrestlers were real martial warriors who helped spawn the mixed martial arts revolution.
"At the time people didn't realize it. But, absolutely, this match impacted the Japanese pro wrestling business," Gross said. "And the Japanese pro wrestling business directly impacted the birth of Japanese mixed martial arts. They are the same thing. You can't separate them. Inoki's drive, ambition and the creation of the World Martial Arts title built a legacy of these mixed-style fights. Just the fact that he could get Ali in the ring with him says a lot about his ability to put on a show."
The fight also created a lifelong bond between Ali and Inoki. When the wrestler fought his final bout, against MMA legend Don Frye in the Tokyo Dome in 1998, Ali was there to pay his respects.
"Forty years later, it's clear that the match has a huge legacy in pro wrestling and mixed martial arts," Gross said. "Hopefully people will look at it in a new way and credit Ali with having the guts to step into this contest. He actually did a mixed match when other boxers like Jack Dempsey wouldn't. Floyd Mayweather Jr. would never do it. But Ali did. And that's a small sliver of legacy compared to everything else. But it matters."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.