Muhammad Ali’s Forgotten Fight Was Also One of His Most Influential

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Most Americans who watched Muhammad Ali take on Antonio Inoki, thought the bout was a strange spectacle. They were wrong. Bobby Razak, The History of MMA®

The following was adapted from Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment, which was published on June 21.

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero, David Remnick writes that he was so fascinated by the acclaimed heavyweight boxer that he even ventured to the Beacon Theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on June 25, 1976, to watch him battle a Japanese professional wrestler live on closed circuit.

The word even is revealing. Like most Americans who watched Ali take on Antonio Inoki, Remnick, then just 17, thought the bout was a strange spectacle, something worth forgetting. Most boxing writers framed it more derisively as a 15-round farce. A money grab. A disaster. A dangerous waste of time.

Perhaps that’s because the fight made Ali look less than graceful and because viewers failed to understand what they were watching: Inoki spent most of the fight avoiding the boxer’s blows by diving onto the floor and kicking at his legs. But 40 years later, Ali versus Inoki signifies more than a sad money grab. The odd match brought together the worlds of professional wrestling and combat sports and led to the rise of modern mixed martial arts in a way few people could have expected.

It took courage for Ali to do what he did. No one asked him to step outside traditional boxing to take on Inoki. Rather, most people with any sway wished he wouldn’t. He did it for himself, at the height of his career, months removed from beating Joe Frazier for the second time, perhaps his most impressive win.

Why did he do it? Yes, money was a big factor. But really, he wanted to know what it was like to hit a man on the floor, because Jack Dempsey skipped his chance and because he thought he would pull it off. In the 1920s, Dempsey, then the heavyweight champion of the world, turned down the money and declined to fight the toughest wrestler in America, Ed “Strangler” Lewis.

This is one area in which Ali deserves much more credit than he received for participating in a “farce.” In spite of rules designed to protect Ali and defang Inoki, this was a legitimate contest. Inoki, for instance, wasn’t allowed to kick while he stood and Ali could gain his freedom from a submission if he simply touched a rope. But nothing between the competitors was scripted or rehearsed, so Ali could easily have looked like a fool, wound up badly injured or brought disrepute to boxing. For all his punching prowess, the champion knew very little about defending kicks, which was evident as Inoki repeatedly threw himself to the floor and slammed a wrestling-boot-encased shin into Ali’s lead leg.

“Ali was always willing to endure ridicule to enhance his name and create interest in him and his sport,” says boxing writer Kevin Iole. “But it could have hurt his reputation, and it had the ability to do so. I don’t think Inoki took any risk. It was all upside for Inoki.”

ali-HMMA-06 In spite of rules designed to protect Ali and defang Inoki, this was a legitimate contest. Inoki, for instance, wasn’t allowed to kick while he stood and Ali could gain his freedom from a submission if he simply touched a rope. Bobby Razak, The History of MMA®

Ali was never the same after the Inoki fight. Whether it was a result of his latest bout with Frazier, the blows to his legs by Inoki, the normal physical price of a long boxing career or simply how it worked out, Ali wouldn’t put an opponent on the canvas again over the next five years. Following the third Frazier fight, Ali’s reflexes were noticeably slower and his speech patterns had shifted. The Inoki contest only exacerbated his decline because it sapped the heavyweight of whatever remaining mobility he could muster. Early in Ali’s career, his prowess was predicated on the swiftness of his legs. But not anymore.

Ali’s longtime physician and ringside doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, says that Ali’s kidneys were not allowing blood to pass, and there was evidence that the lining of his kidney’s cellular walls were disintegrating. The great boxer was falling apart from the inside, but he didn’t care. In Ali’s mind, he remained invincible. Until he wasn’t. “This guy was dying with every fight,” Pacheco says. “For them to put him up to the ring was criminal.”

Ali managed three more wins before losing his title to seven-fight “veteran” Leon Spinks in 1978. After regaining the belt versus Spinks at the Superdome in New Orleans the following year, the champion announced his retirement. It lasted 13 months, until he returned to the ring to fight Larry Holmes, a match he lost decisively. His final bout took place at a baseball park in Nassau, Bahamas. Out of shape at 236.5 pounds, Ali lost to Trevor Berbick in an ugly display. He looked like he could barely make it in or out of the ring on his own. This was undoubtedly the end his career.

Ali Ali once confided in his longtime adviser and friend Gene Kilroy that fighting Inoki could lead to similar bouts in the future. He was right. Ali and Inoki weren’t the first fighters take part in a hybrid bout. But their match inspired a generation of fighters and promoters to create mixed martial arts as we know it today. Bobby Razak, The History of MMA®

Yet the legacy of his fight with Inoki lives on. Ali once confided in his longtime adviser and friend Gene Kilroy that fighting Inoki could lead to similar bouts in the future. He was right. Ali and Inoki weren’t the first fighters to take part in a hybrid bout. But their match inspired a generation of fighters and promoters to create MMA as we know it today. “They made the path for other people to follow,” says Gene LeBell, a legendary martial artist who won the first televised mixed-match in America in 1963 and later served as the referee for Ali’s contest with Inoki. “And that’s what’s happening.”

Several years after the bout, in the early 1980s, a group of promoters tried to create the first American MMA league in Pennsylvania. The attempt was short-lived as the state became the first to ban matches that mixed boxing with grappling. Meanwhile, in Japan, disciples of Inoki sought to prove that wrestling and submissions could work in a real fight; they organized mixed-fighting entities during the late '80s and early '90s.

AlivsInoki_FrontCover-3 Josh Gross's book "Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment," was published on June 21. BenBella Books Inc.

When the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was created in 1993, its organizers didn’t want the bouts to be plagued by the onerous rule set that hampered the action between Ali and Inoki. Instead, the early cards listed only eye gouging and biting as fouls. These bouts proved violent and controversial and marked the sport’s rough beginnings in America.

Today, MMA is a mainstream sport with a global audience. Top-tier competitors are required to train in multiple disciplines and step into fights well-versed in every aspect of martial arts, from kickboxing to grappling. And though current bouts are generally more exhilarating than Ali’s and Inoki’s somewhat awkward affair, none of it might have been possible without the two men who bravely stepped into the ring that night.