Way before there was Dana White and the UFC, there was Vince McMahon and the World Martial Arts.
In 1978 Vince awarded Antonio Inoki with the first WWF World Martial Arts Heavyweight Championship.
Wrestling started with legit test-of-strength matchups between strong men in carnivals. Over time it grew into an effort to entertain the gathering fans.
But through all the planned outcomes, many of the wrestlers were trained in the art of hooking, the skill of really being able to hurt your opponent. This skill would be utilized by a young promoter, Vince McMahon.
Vince was always looking for ways to shake up the business or present fans with something new. So he decided to start up MMA. He looked to his superstar Antonio Inoki to help him in his journey.
It started in 1976, when Vince was so confident in Inoki’s MMA skills that he booked him in a match with the most talented boxer ever, Muhammad Ali. This match became a highly anticipated match-up. But when Ali’s corner visited one of Inoki’s matches and saw what they got Ali into, they became real scared.
Some said it was a work as it was the only way Ali would agree to the fight. Ali’s corner insisted that multiple new rules be implemented just shortly before the fight. Inoki could not grapple with Ali and kicks could only be thrown when Inoki was on the ground.
It severely watered down the bout, as most of the rounds you would see Inoki scooting on his backside to throw a kick. Ali only landed six punches and several uneventful rounds later the bout ended in a draw.
Three years later, Vince decided to promote his own MMA bouts, with Inoki being the center piece of it all. Inoki was awarded the belt and defended it in legit shoot fights for over a decade. The grappler defeated multiple MMA fighters, until he lost in the fifth round to Russian judo gold medalist Shota Chochoshivili.
He regained his belt just a month later only to retire it soon after.
Naysayers claim that the matches were a work, yet none of Inoki’s opponents have ever come out and said it was a work.
As the owner of New Japan Pro Wrestling, Inoki trained many fighters who went on to be MMA stars. He also help start the legendary and now defunct PRIDE, which was the second biggest MMA organization in the world. Inoki also fathered Pancrase, Rings and Shooto. And he also worked with current UFC stars Rampage Jackson and Mark Colman.
Inoki was the ambassador of the International Fight League and he also ran his own MMA organization, Universal Fighting Organization until 2002.
Inoki may be a legend in pro wrestling, but MMA fans may owe him a bigger debt of gratitude.
(Although the Gracie family held martial arts tournaments in Brazil in the '20s, Inoki is credited for first hosting MMA matches starting in the 1970s.)