Of all the episodes in the iconic boxing career of Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at age 74, perhaps the most curious came in a Japanese ring.
On June 26, 1976, Ali fought professional wrestler Antonio Inoki at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Hall in a mixed martial arts match billed as “The Bout of the Century.” It was watched by an estimated 1.4 billion people worldwide.
What they saw, however, was a bizarre and tedious 15-round spectacle that left the crowd chanting for its money back and Ali struggling to live down the embarrassment.
“The celebrated ‘Bout of the Century’ turned out to be the rip-off of the century,” The Japan Times declared the following day. “The 15-round contest was pretty much a bore from start to finish. Ending in a draw, it proved once again that when an apple fights an orange, the results can only be a fruit salad.”
Enticed by a $6 million payday, Ali agreed to fight Inoki after his boast that he would give $1 million to any Asian fighter who could beat him was taken seriously by the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association.
World heavyweight champion Ali, then age 34 and eight months on from his “Thrilla in Manila” fight against Joe Frazier, arrived in Tokyo expecting an easy ride.
Ali’s camp envisaged an exhibition fight in the manner of professional wrestling, where bouts are choreographed and the outcome predetermined.
The original “script” would see Ali accidentally punch and knock out the referee. Then, as he was bending over to check on the fallen official, Inoki would kick him in the head. The referee would come round and count Ali out, giving Inoki the win but allowing Ali to save face through his noble actions.
But upon arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where he greeted reporters with cries of “There will be no Pearl Harbor!” Ali discovered that Inoki was deadly serious.
“When Ali landed at Haneda, I was escorting him,” Ken Urushibara, who served as Inoki’s interpreter, told The Japan Times this week. “One of the things he asked me was, ‘When are the rehearsals?’ And I said, ‘What rehearsals?’
“He said, ‘Well, there has to be rehearsals.’ I don’t remember if he said so in as many words, but he certainly implied that he expected it to be an exhibition. To which I said, ‘It is not an exhibition. It is a very serious bout.’ I don’t know where Ali got the idea that it was supposed to be an exhibition. Presumably someone who was not familiar with Antonio Inoki’s intentions.”
Inoki, a hugely popular figure in Japan, would accept nothing less than a genuine contest. But for Ali, facing an unfamiliar and dangerous opponent in a mixed martial arts bout, something had to give.
“I used to write about professional wrestling, and these guys would tell me there was no way in a wrestler-versus-boxer match that a boxer could ever win,” said best-selling author Robert Whiting, who watched the fight on TV in his Tokyo apartment.
“Because a wrestler can do so many things. He can get around the guy or get him in a full nelson, do drop kicks, all sorts of stuff. I think that dawned on Ali. He hadn’t considered that. So that’s how it wound up being a complete fiasco.”
Both sides quickly convened for a series of meetings at the Keio Plaza Hotel to hammer out the rules of the bout. The result was a list of restrictions — mostly on Inoki — that helped turn the fight into a laughing stock.
Inoki was not allowed to throw, grapple or tackle Ali, and any kicks he launched in the boxer’s direction would have to be made with one knee on the mat. Ali’s camp also insisted that the rules would not be made public.
“The rules were extremely stringent,” said Urushibara. “Both sides had to set up their rules to protect them from losing.”
It was later alleged that members of Ali’s entourage had threatened Inoki in the event that he harmed the boxer. But in front of the cameras, the mood was anything but heavy.
Ali worked the Tokyo audience like the consummate entertainer, jousting with Inoki as they talked up the fight at a riotous press conference and weigh-in at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
Ali declared that he would nickname Inoki “The Pelican” on account of his lantern jaw, while Inoki told his opponent that his name meant “ant” in Japanese, and that he intended to crush him underfoot. Inoki also presented Ali with a crutch to use for his post-fight recuperation.
“It was without question the most entertaining press event we ever had,” said author Karel Van Wolferen, at the time the East Asia correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
“The weigh-in took place in the library of the club. In his boxer shorts, Ali registered an exact 100 kg. Joking all the time, Ali gestured that I get on the scales as well, and when the scales showed 95 kg he frowned and said ‘That’s not possible with such a slender body!’ and ordered me back on the scales again.
” ‘Clowning’ was an often-used description of Ali’s public appearances. But what he did at the FCCJ was much more than that. He was a master of his public.”
When the day of the fight arrived, excitement was through the roof. The bout was being broadcast in 37 countries, and the 14,500-capacity Budokan was sold out with ringside tickets going for ¥300,000.
“There was a lot of excitement in the venue before the match,” said renowned boxing writer Shoji Tsue, who covered the fight. “People were wondering what the match would be like and just how they would fight each other.”
But when the bell rang, it soon became clear that the crowd would go home disappointed.
Hamstrung by the strict rules, Inoki spent practically the entire duration of the 15 rounds on his back, aiming kicks at Ali’s legs while the American danced around him, yelling at him to get up.
“I couldn’t believe how bad it was,” said Whiting. “It was just round after round after round of Inoki on his back. Ali only threw six punches the whole fight. That’s like one punch every three rounds. It’s insane.”
Inoki’s kicks occasionally connected with Ali’s legs and eventually opened up a wound. In the eighth round, Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, demanded that the wrestler put tape on his boots, claiming that a loose eyelet was cutting Ali’s leg.
“The following morning I had to go to Mr. Ali’s room,” said Urushibara. “Ali showed me the rear of his thigh and he said, ‘Look at this, it’s discolored. This is the result of the kicks that I received.’
“Ali was hospitalized after he got back to the United States because of blood clots, which were the result of the kicking,” he said. “I think that’s pretty firm evidence that the kicks were quite serious.”
An infection stemming from Inoki’s kicks would cause Ali problems for the rest of his career, and at one point it was even suggested that his leg may have to be amputated.
But the crowd at the Budokan, who had not been told the precise rules, were far from impressed. As the referee declared the match a draw after 15 turgid, action-free rounds, jeers rang around the venue and a hail of rubbish flew toward the ring.
“From the start, Inoki was on his back and Ali was standing up,” said Tsue. “It stayed the same for the full 15 rounds. There was no excitement whatsoever. You could only describe it as a farce. I don’t think there was a single person who would say it was exciting.
“The fans thought it was boring and they booed. The tickets were very expensive, so people were really angry that the match played out that way.”
Fight promoter Bob Arum later described the match as “the low point of my career,” and the embarrassment clung to Ali until he stepped back into the ring to wash away the memory.
But the fight also left a positive legacy. Ali and Inoki formed a lasting friendship, with Inoki adopting Ali’s ring music and “bom-ba-ye” catchphrase as he rocketed to global stardom.
“Antonio Inoki and Mrs. Inoki were invited to Ali’s wedding the next year, and I accompanied them,” said Urushibara. “They were great friends. They would hug each other every time they met, and they did meet several times. Ali attended Inoki’s retirement bout.
“It placed Inoki on the world stage. He became known in the United States. He became known for what everyone considered the farcical fight, but the fact remains that it was a great stepping stone for Antonio Inoki to really become internationally known.”
Ultimately, the fight was nothing more than a minor footnote in Ali’s career, a peculiar episode in a life full of epoch-defining moments.
But for those who watched the fight in Japan, the memory will live forever — for better or for worse.
“The contest was declared a draw,” said Mike Tharp, at the time the Wall Street Journal’s Tokyo bureau chief. “It had been a farce. But millions of Japanese got to see the world champion in their own land.”
Read Andy Adams’ original report of the Ali/Inoki fight in The Japan Times. TV Asahi will broadcast a special program about the bout on June 12 from 9 p.m.