Muhammad Ali was probably one of the most famous men in the world in 1976.
Arguably at the height of his powers, in the ring he had triumphed in Rumble in the Jungle against Joe Frazier the previous year, while in 1974 he beat George Foreman in Thriller in Manila.
By June 1976, Ali had defended his WBA, WBC and The Ring heavyweight titles three times and was headed for a showdown with Ken Norton.
However, before he could get into this business, he had an itch that he wanted to eliminate in professional wrestling.
Ali, a longtime professional wrestling fan, has agreed to face Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in an exhibition bout, with the bout taking place in Tokyo.
Inoki is one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time. He founded NJPW in 1972, which remains the leader of Japanese professional wrestling today and although he never competed in WWE, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for his contributions to the business in 2010.
A true legend in his native land, Inoki was 33 in 1976 and, like Ali, was in his prime.
Having been trained by Karl Gotch, he had an MMA pedigree and he fully intended to show Ali what he knew.
Upon arriving in Japan, Ali was completely unaware that Inoki was preparing for a real fight. The legendary heavyweight had assumed it would be like a pro wrestling exhibition where they would choreograph certain sequences and the outcome would be predetermined.
Think Rocky Balboa versus Thunderlips in Rocky III and you get the idea.
Ali’s understanding was that he would “accidentally” knock out the referee and while he was checking the official, Inoki would kick him in the head and knock him out.
The referee would wake up and count him out, thus giving Inoki the hero victory in his home country while Ali is protected in defeat, as he kept his morals by checking the referee and Inoki had to cheat to beat him – everyone wins.
But when Ali landed and asked when rehearsals were, he soon learned he was off to a real fight and Ali’s camp had to scramble to agree to the rules and regulations of the contest.
A meeting was called at a nearby hotel to set the rules for the fight, but they had to favor Ali. Inoki was not allowed to throw or tackle Ali nor was he allowed to throw kicks while standing on two feet. He either had to have one knee on the mat or be on his back. Ali’s camp also didn’t want the rules made public.
The fight that ended up happening was not what one would expect. These two men didn’t put on a show; Inoki was only interested in beating Ali, and as a result, he spent the majority of the fight on his back, somewhere he could kick Ali from and not eat punches.
Ali was visibly upset with Inoki’s tactics and shouted at him to get up. Inoki continued to chop Ali’s legs and took him down in the fifth round. In the sixth, the boxing legend’s leg was a bloody mess.
The fight drew massive boos as it went on. To recap, Ali threw six punches throughout the fight.
The end result was a draw, basically so both men could save face. There were no tears from Inoki like when Floyd Mayweather – the best boxer of his generation – traveled to Tokyo to fight Japanese kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa.
What Ali thought was a jovial and lucrative affair turned into him losing his leg to two blood clots, according to his promoter Bob Arum.
“So good, okay. It was terrible, it was embarrassing. But Ali is bleeding from his legs. He has a leg infection; almost has to have an amputation. Not only does the [Ken] The Norton fight wouldn’t have happened, but Ali could have been crippled for the rest of his life.
But what he did was pave the way for crossover fights like the one enjoyed by Mayweather, who also made big money fighting Conor McGregor, who cited Inoki in the build-up to the 2017 fight.
Three months after facing Inoki, Ali fought Norton and won. He successfully defended his title two more times before losing to Leon Spinks in 1978. However, he avenged that loss and reclaimed his belts five months later, which led to his retirement.
It didn’t last long and he fought twice more before finally retiring in 1981 as the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion of the world. His career ended with losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick.
Four years later, Ali, who died in 2016, appeared at the first ever WrestleMania as a referee in the main event between Hulk Hogan and Mr T. against Paul Orndorff and Roddy Piper.
As with Ali, there was a great outpouring of grief when Inoki passed away Friday night from the world of combat sports, given that his pioneering ways also indirectly led to the birth of the UFC.
The 79-year-old lost his battle with a rare disease called amyloidosis.