The story was originally published in the print edition of The Japan Times on June 27, 1976. It is being republished online to accompany this revisiting of the infamous fight, following the death of Ali on June 3, 2016.
The celebrated “bout of the century” between world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali and Japan’s pro wrestling champion Antonio Inoki turned out to be the rip-off of the century.
The 15-round contest for the “martial arts championship of the world” Saturday noon at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo 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.
Referee Gene LeBell called it even at 71-71, judge Ko Toyama gave it to Inoki by 72-68 and the other Japanese judge, Kokichi Endo, favored Ali by 74-72. LeBell, an ex-pro wrestler, said he took one point away from Inoki for an illegal karate kick to Ali’s groin in the 13th round.
Probably never in the history of sports has there been such a big buildup to such a big letdown as in this much-publicized, $10-million contest between the world’s best boxer and one of the world’s top pro wrestlers.
Several of the estimated 13,000 fans showed their anger and frustration by tossing their programs at the ring, while many even left before the final decision was announced.
In a nutshell, the hour-long bout resolved itself to 15 tedious rounds of Inoki making flying kicks, scissors and sweeps at Ali and landing on his back on the mat, and Ali constantly circling and dancing away, taunting and making faces at the Japanese wrestler. Ali’s bruised and battered left shin seemed to be the only damage suffered by either contender.
In commenting on the decision, referee LeBell said Ali was given points for “a very good defense” and Inoki received points for “a very good offense, although it was not good enough to beat Ali.” He added that it was such a close fight it was impossible to favor one or the other.
Ali said afterward that he deserved a draw because he was the aggressor and Inoki the defender. He said the fight showed that a boxer has very good reflexes and can defend himself against an expert in the martial arts.
Actually, Ali managed to land only five left jabs throughout the fight, while Inoki connected with a few flying kicks and sweeps in nearly every round. Ali said he wasn’t tired and could have gone at least 20 rounds, but he appeared frustrated after the fight was over when he admitted that he got in only two good left jabs to the head – in the 7th and 13th rounds. It was certainly no test of the specialized skill of either man.
In the 6th round, Inoki grappled with Ali on the mat for the only time in the fight and cut loose with a vicious elbow jab that made Ali so mad he stood in his corner for a minute or so, refusing to continue the fight.
And after another clinch in the corner when Inoki kneed Ali in the groin in the 13th round, Ali was so furious he started to climb through the ropes to leave the ring. But on both occasions, he was persuaded to continue and the referee penalized Inoki for the illegal kick in the 13th round.
There were only three or four times when the two contenders actually grappled with each other and each time the referee separated them. Although both men constantly motioned for the other to come on and fight, neither one ventured too far to the other, Inoki crouching and staying out of range of Ali’s powerful arms and Ali keeping his distance from Inoki’s powerful legs.
Ali said later he was afraid that if he missed with his punches, “even by an inch,” Inoki could pull him down on the mat and possibly do some damage. Inoki concentrated almost entirely on making flying kicks or kicking Ali behind the knee to get him off balance. But after each attempt, Inoki invariably landed on the mat on his back so that Ali was never able to counter his attacks.
Since the rules were changed again a few days before the fight to rule out punching by Ali while down and karate chops by Inoki, the results appeared to give Inoki a far greater opportunity to employ his wrestling tactics, such as the flying kick, than it gave Ali the chance to use his boxing skill. Inoki’s “wrestling” efforts were about as meager as Ali’s boxing efforts. Thus, Inoki was trying to fight the bout lying on the mat and Ali was attempting to fight it from the traditional boxing stance. Of course, Inoki usually got back on his feet after each kicking attempt, but only tried to rush Ali two or three times.
Ali continued to tease Inoki throughout the fight by shouting: “Inoki no man – Inoki a girl” and “Get up off the floor, you sissy.” Asked afterward if he was upset when Inoki was on the mat, Ali replied simply: “I just let the time go by so I could collect my $6 million.” Inoki stands to earn from $2 million to $4 million, depending on the gate receipts among other things.
After the 7th round, Ali’s corner objected to Inoki’s left shoe, the seams of which had split at the toe. Referee LeBell, who said later the shoe had become as sharp as a razor, put some tape on the toe. Ali’s left shin was bleeding slightly at this point from where Inoki’s shoe had torn the skin during one of the Japanese wrestler’s flying kicks.
Ali praised Inoki after the fight by saying that he was the best in his field in the world and “I’m the best in the world in mine.” He added: “It proved that two great stars don’t get hurt when they fight each other.” Ali admitted, however, that his left leg was sore from being constantly kicked by Inoki.