The Night Antonio Inoki fought Muhammad Ali

On October 1, 2022, Antonio Inoki passed away. The whole combat sports and professional wrestling world will miss him upon his passing as he was a pioneer of the sports and a great Japanese ambassador. Today, to honor his legacy, I’m going to tell the story of his fight with Muhammad Ali.

After returning to boxing from being exiled in the United States for refusing to go to war in Vietnam, Ali had recaptured the heavyweight title from the heavy hitting George Foreman four years later. He made a trip to Japan in 1976 and met with Ichiro Hatta, president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association. It was there Ali started with his antics. He bragged that he would give a million dollars to any Oriental fighter who could beat him.

Japanese headlines went absolutely wild. Eventually Inoki accepted and Ali got a $6 million purse. We were scheduled for June 26 in Tokyo.

Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki: Mixed martial arts

Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki fought but not before buildup. There were press conferences to have both fighters sell the fight to fans. Ali, famous for his trash talk, called Inoki “The Pelican” because of his chin. Through an interpreter Inoki smoothly replied, “When your fist connects with my chin, take care that your fist is not damaged.”

Being trained in several martial arts, including karate and catch wrestling, said Ali could be seriously damaged. “I’m going in there fighting,” Inoki said. “I may even break his arm.”

Not all were happy with this fight being made. Ali was the reigning heavyweight champion and had Ken Norton, who held a 1-1 record with Ali at the time, was looming waiting to take the trilogy that he would never do. Two years earlier, Ali had beat George Foreman and had one of the best boxing matches of all time in the Thrilla in Manila with Joe Frazier, the epic trilogy between the two rivals.

John Roderick of the Associated Press said in an article titled “Can Boxing Survive Taint Of Ali-Inoki Travesty?” that the fight was “what is called by some the world’s first Martial Arts Championship – and by others a multi-million-dollar sham.” Sound familiar?

Vince McMahon Sr. sold tickets to a closed circuit telecast at Shea Stadium which drew 32,897 people. On the card was a bout between Andre the Giant and Chuck Wepner, whom Ali beat earlier in 1975.

A letdown, no takedown

Overall, the fight between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki was a massive letdown. The Budokan was sold out and fans were treated to…not much. Ahead of the fight, Ali went and watched Antonio Inoki train for six days and allegedly after seeing Inoki brutalize sparring partners with kicks and wrestling, Ali realized it was a legit fight. “Ok, so when do we do the rehearsal?” Muhammad Ali asked. Inoki coldly responded, “No, no. This isn’t an exhibition. It’s a real fight!”

Then the team of Ali renegotiated the rules and put restrictions on Inokie for what he could and could not do. He couldn’t throw, grapple or tackle Ali and he couldn’t kick him unless he had a knee on the mat. Ali and his camp, however, wanted to make sure that the rules were not known before the fight. Judo Gene LeBell, the referee of the bout, denied the limitations and said everything went. The real rules are not officially known but there is video evidence of Antonio Inoki and Muhammad Ali and it’s obvious he wasn’t using all his tools.

For the majority of the fight, Inoki lay on his back and butt scooted to Ali with Ali not engaging. Watch it for yourself above but be warned, you’ll wake up an hour or two later after falling asleep.

The event ended in a draw and the crowd chanted “Money back! Money back” as they threw trash into the ring. Ali had a super badly injured leg and it became infected. He also suffered blood clots in his leg that led to mobility issues. Amputation was on the table although Ali played down the seriousness.

After the fight, Ali and Antonio Inoki became friends. Inoki started using Ali’s theme music in his walkout. The bout was also influential in martial arts and had Inoki’s students, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki found Pancrase in 1993 which led to, of course, PRIDE (never die) in 97. We all know PRIDE would be bought out by the UFC in 2007.

Knowing that if we stretch a bit, it was because of Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki that the legend of Fedor Emelianenko was born, and the reason we saw Rampage Jackson, Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, and Mirko Cro Cop in the UFC.

Rest in peace, Antonio Inoki.

author avatar
Blaine Henry
Your friendly neighborhood fight fan. I watch way too many fights and my wife lets me know it.