This month’s eagerly anticipated bout in Las Vegas between former five-division boxing champion Floyd (Money) Mayweather and UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor may end up being the largest-grossing boxing match in history.
More than a year in the making, the fight pits perhaps one of the greatest boxers of all time against one of the leading mixed-martial artists. Despite the hype, there is no title at stake, but perhaps something more important is — namely, bragging rights, not only between the two verbose combatants, but also between their rival fan bases: traditionalists favoring the “Sweet Science” and the growing legion of mixed-martial arts enthusiasts.
Although Mayweather-McGregor is boxing match between foes representing two different martial-arts styles, it immediately prompts comparisons to a bout that occurred 41 years ago, more than 5,500 miles from Las Vegas. That’s when arguably the world’s most famous man participated in a sporting spectacle that tarnished his legacy and almost cost him much more.
It happened June 26, 1976, when world’s heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali took on Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in a glorified exhibition that was billed then as “The Martial Arts Championship of the World.”
Ali was, perhaps, at the height of his popularity in the summer of 1976. He had regained the heavyweight championship in “The Rumble In the Jungle,” upsetting the younger, more powerful George Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) two years earlier. The next year, in perhaps his last great fight, he had defeated Joe Frazier in “The Thrilla in Manila.”
Ali and his infamous manager, Herbert Muhammad, were trying to cash in on the boxer’s worldwide celebrity. Long before the dawn of social media and satellite TV, Ali was seemingly everywhere. There were a succession of talk show appearances, the champ’s own TV variety special, a major Hollywood movie, a Saturday morning cartoon series, books, countless magazine and newspaper articles, a record album, commercials, title fights on each of the three major television networks, and even an Ali action figure.
Driving the increased exposure was Ali’s constant need for money. By this time, Ali was in the midst of a costly divorce from his second wife, Khalilah, and he was living with Veronica Porsche, whom he would marry the following year. The champ was also supporting his parents, various mistresses and an entourage of nearly 50 people, known as the “Ali circus,” most of them being hangers-on.
But the 34-year-old champion was also in athletic decline. His third bout with Frazier, the fight he called “the closest thing to death,” had nearly taken his full measure. After Manila, Ali barely trained for some of his fights. By May 1976, he’d already defended his title three times, but there were clear signs his marvelous skills were eroding. A woefully out-of-shape Ali nearly lost the title in his second defense that year against journeyman Jimmy Young in a nationally broadcast bout, which may have been the worst performance of his career.
Even more ominous was the rubber match scheduled for September 28, 1976 at New York’s Yankee Stadium with No. 1 contender Ken Norton. The muscular ex-Marine had soundly beaten Ali and broken his jaw in their first fight in March 1973. Only a valiant last-round rally by Ali had denied Norton of victory in their rematch six months later.
In search of some quick money, Ali agreed to step into the ring with Japanese catch wrestler Antonio Inoki in Tokyo on June 26th – for a six-million dollar pay day. The exhibition bout was for the so-called Martial Arts World Championship – the first contest advertised as such and a precursor to today’s Ultimate Fighting Championships.
The idea for such a bout came shortly after Ali defeated Foreman, when Ali met a group of Asian businessmen, led by wrestling promoter Ichiro Hatta. The champ allegedly boasted that he would pay a million dollars to any Asian fighter who could defeat him. A group of Japanese businessmen started working on such a promotion and, by the spring of 1976, an agreement was signed to bring Ali to Japan.
Top Rank boxing promoter Bob Arum and wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, Sr., put the deal together. Ali’s opponent, Inoki, was the well-known throughout Japan, a 6-3, 240-pound wrestler. Ali, as was his custom with most of his opponents, promptly dubbed Inoki “The Pelican” for the grappler’s prominent chin.
(Ali’s foray was just another in the long history of boxer-vs-wrestler matches, dating back to 1940, when former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey knocked out three different grapplers in mixed matches. Over the years, the list of boxers who have fought wrestlers, or fought in other martial arts contests included former heavyweight champions Jersey Joe Walcott, and Leon Spinks. Others, like Riddick Bowe, James Toney and Ray Mercer, participated in mixed-martial arts contests after their fistic careers were over.)
Social critic Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts said he sees many similarities between Mayweather-McGregor and the spectacle that was Ali-Inoki.
“Is it cynical? Yes,” Boyd said. “I guess we live culture where even the Presidency is a reality show. Reality shows and celebrity TV defines America. People want spectacle and they want it whenever they can get it, once a day, or once an hour. “Mayweather-McGregor fits in with how they see the world – hype, spectacle, but bullshit.”
Like Ali-Inoki, Boyd said Mayweather-McGregor gives fans the appearance of a real contest, without the substance.
“Floyd’s always been very selective,” added Boyd. “He’s always made sure he’s never fought anybody who’s going to be problems for him. They’re trying to squeeze the last bit out of the orange. Boxing is dying, MMA and UFC is on the rise. The only thing left is the spectacle. You can’t make a fight because there’s no competition. They’re not watching this to watch a boxing match, they’re more interested in the show.”
Boyd says the outrageous promotional antics of last month’s Mayweather-McGregor press tour went far beyond Ali-Inoki, actually harkening back to the race-baiting era of Jack Johnson and the birth of the Great White Hope.
“Anytime you put a black guy and a white guy in a ring,” said Boyd, “it’s going to conjure up images of Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. Are we going to be talking about Mayweather-McGregor in 100 years, like we are about Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries? I seriously doubt it. We may not be talking about [Mayweather-McGregor] in six months.”
Will Mayweather-McGregor be remembered as a singular bout, like Johnson-Jeffries, or be forgotten, like Ali-Inoki?
On June 2nd, 1976, shortly after the Inoki fight was announced, Ali came out of the audience at a wrestling match in Philadelphia, Pa. and grappled the legendary six-foot-five-inch, 400-pound Gorillia Monsoon (Robert James Marella), who lifted the champion over his head and mock body-slammed him to the canvas.
A week later at the Chicago International Ampitheater, Ali fought wrestlers Buddy Wolfe and Kenny Jay under mixed rules in preparation for Inoki.
The Ali-Inoki contest was telecast in more than 130 countries. In New York, more than 30,000 fans showed up at Shea Stadium to watch the closed circuit telecast, but were first treated to a live undercard.
A boxing ring was pitched over the baseball infield for a boxing-wrestling match between the real-life “Rocky,” Chuck Wepner, and pro wrestling legend Andre “The Giant” – all seven feet and 300 pounds of him. That “fight” ended when the wrestler, angered at being punched by Wepner, picked the six-five, 230-pound boxer up, spun him around and threw him out of the ring. Although he was counted out, Wepner returned to the ring and went after Andre, precipitating a wild melee.
[Sylvester Stallone, who appropriated part of Wepner’s story for his Rocky films, would feature a similar scene with pro wrestler Hulk Hogan playing the part of “Thunderlips” in Rocky 3.]
More than 10,000 fans only partially filled Tokyo’s famed Nippon Budokan indoor arena to watch Ali take on the national favorite.
Any chance of a real contest evaporated before either man entered the ring. Ali’s camp had expected their man to take part in a scripted, play-acted affair. But a few days before the bout, Ali attended one of Inoki’s public workout sessions and saw the Japanese grappler demonstrating drop kicks and body slams.
Afterwards, Ali spoke to Inoki through the wrestler’s interpreter and asked when the two would rehearse their scripted contest.
Inoki’s response? “There’s no rehearsal.”
A visibly shocked Ali quickly left the event, amid his customary histrionics, but also with concerns within his camp that the boxer could be seriously injured in a real contest with Inoki, thus endangering his six-million dollar showdown three months later with Norton.
This set the stage for furious negotiations between the two camps on the basis of special mixed-martial arts rules. It was agreed that Inoki would not be able to throw, grapple or tackle Ali and could only launch kicks with one knee of the canvas – essentially eliminating most of his fighting tactics. The results were predictably disastrous.
Other than the first 14 seconds of the first round, when Inoki ran across the ring and tried to land a flying kick on Ali, the wrestler spent the rest of the match on his backside, scooting about like an overturned crab, kicking furiously at Ali in an attempt to corner him. Ali spent most of the match verbally taunting Inoki, challenging him to stand up and “fight like a man.”
Fans in the arena booed what little “action” there was. Ali threw only six
punches, landing just two jabs. It was dreadful. Meanwhile, Inoki kicked Ali about 60 times, cutting a shin and raising hematomas on the back of his legs. The fight went the 15-round distance and was ruled a draw. Angry fans, some of who paid $1,000 for ringside seats, showered the ring with debris and demanded their money back.
“Ali-Inoki was scripted and it was a freak show,” said Jerry Izenberg, sports columnist emeritus at the Newark Star-Ledger, who covered Ali’s entire career. “I didn’t go. I wouldn’t go across the street to see that.”
Meanwhile, Ali’s plan for an easy payday backfired. The boxer’s legs had been so battered from Inoki’s kicks that they had to be taped in ice to ease his discomfort. The champ reportedly fainted in an elevator in his Tokyo hotel from the pain. Making matters worse, Ali ignored the advice of his camp and went ahead with a three-day visit to Korea to box a couple of exhibitions for U.S. servicemen stationed at bases there.
A few days later, Ali was in even worse shape. After enduring a long plane ride from Asia to Los Angeles, the champ could barely walk.
“Ali’s leg was all bloodied up,” said Gene Kilroy, Ali’s former manager business manager, who sat a ringside for the bout. “When we got back to his hotel room, I wrapped his legs in ice. I taped ice to his legs, but he’d take it off. When we got back to LA, I called a friend who picked Ali up as soon as our plane landed. We went straight to the UCLA Medical Center, where the doctor discovered he had blood clots. He said that if we hadn’t wrapped his legs in ice, he might have died.”
Ali remained in the hospital for two weeks. An infection from a cut to Ali’s knee had set in and his condition was reportedly so serious that doctors briefly considered amputating one of his legs.
Ali would recover from the injuries that he suffered against Inoki and faced Norton in September. The champ initially stood toe-to-toe with dangerous Norton, uncertain that his legs had healed enough to move about the ring. After falling behind early, Ali would use his legs to dance and eke out a unanimous, but unpopular, 15-round decision over the dogged Norton.
“It was unnecessary, ill-advised, to put it mildly,” said author Mark Kram, Jr. “[Ali] put himself in harm’s way. ‘Stupid’ is a very imprecise word. But I think it foreshadowed what was to come in terms of prolonging his career and putting himself in dangerous situations.”
Ali stayed away from wrestlers after Inoki, but the twilight of his career would be marked by punishing matches against the likes of Earnie Shavers, Larry Holmes and, lastly, Trevor Berbick.
Initially, Inoki fared little better, at least financially. The bout did not make him a national hero and the fight bombed in Tokyo, leaving him heavily in debt to his financial backers, who bankrolled Ali’s half of the champ’s purse. The wrestler would later sue Ali, although the two men would later become friends.
When Ali wed Veronica Porsche in 1977, Inoki and his wife flew in from Japan to attend the wedding in Los Angeles. The two former foes formed an unlikely friendship. Inoki received Ali’s permission to use his signature song, “The Greatest Love of All” during his ring entrances.
Inoki, who continued to wrestle until 1998, reigning as a mixed-martial arts champion for nearly 20 years. In 1986, Inoki even defeated former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks in a mixed wrestling-boxing contest. Inoki subsequently parlayed his fame into politics. Inoki was elected as a Councillor to the Japanese Diet in 1990, before resigning five years later amid reports of his alleged involvement with organized crime.
But perhaps, most importantly, two of Inoki’s students, Masakatsu Funaki and Manoru Suzuki, founded Pancrase, a mixed-martial arts fighting promotional company. It inspired creation of the Pride Fighting Championships four years later, which were eventually acquired 10 years ago by the United Fighting Championships.