Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, known around the world as “The Greatest,” has passed away. During and after his years as a decorated and controversial boxer, Ali became a cultural icon, making his mark in the sport, an inspiration to all athletes, and a light to those who suffered for civil rights. Ali crossed paths with some of the greatest figures seen in boxing, such as Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Larry Holmes. His trilogy with Frazier is regarded as one of the greatest rivalries in sports, as Ali would claim the World Heavyweight title from Frazier in one of the most immortal matches in boxing known as “The Thrilla in Manila.” He later lost the title but would reclaim it in his upset of the then undefeated George Foreman, who would become one of Ali’s closest friends in the end.
While boxing was what made him legend, there are many that do not know that Ali did foray into the world of MMA, if only once. While in Japan on a tour in 1975, he challenged any Japanese fighter that would be willing to step into the ring with him. Japanese pro-wrestling legend Antonio Inoki caught wind of this challenge and accepted, which kicked off a huge marketing campaign for the promotion. Ali and Inoki often traded jabs and insults, such as Ali nicknaming Inoki “The Pelican” because of his protrusive chin, and Inoki giving Ali a crutch because of how hurt he declared Ali would get during the match. On the day of the match in 1976 when Ali arrived, he declared, “There will be no Pearl Harbor! Muhammad Ali has returned! There will be no Pearl Harbor!” Being a heavily anticipated event, the fight was to be broadcast in 34 countries around the world to an estimated audience of 1.4 billion.
What is lost in the annals of history is how the rules being set for the match came about. What was evident to anybody watching at the time was that this was not going to be a conventional match, pitting boxing against wrestling. The rules that were in place put Inoki at a disadvantage versus Ali, as he was not allowed to throw, tackle, or kick unless he had one knee on the ground. The fight ended up going the full 15 rounds at three minutes each, seeing little action other than Inoki being at his back kicking at Ali’s knees, sometimes connecting. Ali would be dancing around so as to avoid Inoki, taunting Inoki in the hopes of getting him to stand up for the fight. At one point Inoki did corner Ali and continued his assault of kicks, and even got the boxer to the ground by leg trip. However an elbow to Ali’s face resulted in a penalty point deduction for Inoki. When the fight ended, it was declared a draw, perhaps due to Inoki’s penalty, or perhaps because Ali didn’t do enough.
No matter how the match was scored, the fight was not well received, as the booing crowd threw trash into the ring to show their displeasure of being let down for what was supposed to be one of the biggest shows in the making. It was no surprise that fans demanded their money back as well. Muhammad Ali also had considerable damage done to his knees thanks to Antonio Inoki’s kicks, even if they happened while the wrestler was on his back. The fight is also considered to be one of the low points of Ali’s career.
The rest is history as far as how these two legends progressed in their respective arts. The match now has better reception in terms of how far MMA has come. As Antonio Inoki is a legend in his own right in the world of Japanese “puroresu,” Japanese fans regard the fight as an important one for bridging the gap between the two countries, and for showing a new art of fighting. Japan also holds Ali in high regards as a great boxer, and for the peace he has fought to preserve. Ali and Inoki ended up becoming close friends after the fight, Inoki going so far as to convert to Islam out of deference to his friend. The match today is also regarded as an early form of MMA. Perhaps if not for this match, the sport today may have been different. As many have been saying out of respect to Ali, there could never be another Muhammad Ali. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” as the Legend would say. Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016 at the age of 74. His death comes 23 days short of the 40th anniversary of Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki.