THROWBACK: Ali vs Inoki, the 1970s version of Mayweather vs McGregor

Dominic Menor, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 25 2017 01:51 PM | Updated as of Aug 25 2017 01:52 PM

US boxer Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, three-time World Heavyweight Champion and winner of an Olympic Light-heavyweight gold medal, shouts at a Japanese boxer during an exhibition fight in Tokyo, 01 July 1976. Agence France-Presse

To find an unscripted sports event that can match or even surpass the bizarre buildup to the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor showdown on Saturday (Sunday morning, Manila time), one has to go all the way back to June 26, 1976.

Before Muhammad Ali shared the ring with professional wrestler Antonio Inoki on that day, it was unthinkable that an active athlete would agree to take part in a cross-discipline promotion, especially one involving two sports that require utterly dissimilar skill sets.

As much as people scoff at the legitimacy of Mayweather-McGregor now, the existence of mixed martial arts (MMA) and its success over the years have helped fight fans better digest the hype surrounding it and prepare them for what's about to happen over the weekend.

Without the benefit of a precedent, Ali vs. Inoki was the quintessential theater of the absurd right from Day 1.

But beyond the obvious draw (a star athlete on the marquee and the surreal showdown being peddled to the rubbernecker in sports fans), the behind-the-scenes details brought to light in Josh Gross' book "Ali vs Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment" put into perspective just how mind-boggling that fight was.

The New York Post's Larry Getlen shared bits and pieces from the book in an article posted on the Post last year.

There's the story about the plan to stage the outcome of the fight, essentially having Ali "angrily invoke Pearl Harbor before returning to America with his seven-figure paycheck," Getlen wrote.

In an article by the Washington Post's Rick Maese, Thomas Hauser, Ali's biographer, said Ali, a devout Muslim, rebuffed a scripted bout in the last minute because "it'd be against the principles of Islam to defraud viewers."

An article on the Japan Times last year said it was Inoki who wanted "a very serious bout."

Ken Urushibara, Inoki's interpreter, recalls: “(Ali) 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.”

Fearing a boxer would die if he fought a wrestler, Ali's handlers got around to convincing Inoki's people to accept rules favoring "the Greatest."

"Inoki's hands and feet were tied, almost literally," Getlen wrote, "as he was barred from kicking unless he was kneeling, squatting or on the ground."

And so the stage was set for a world-class puncher to take on a fighter forced to lie on his back most of the bout because that was the only way he could kick Ali without breaking the rules and level the playing field.

Like all events involving Ali, the hype machine was dialed to 11, complete with racial slurs and body-shaming comments. He called Inoki "the Pelican" because of his prominent chin, to which Inoki replied: "When your fist hits my chin, I hope you do not hurt your fist."

The promotion was characterized by a lot of noise, but once the bell rang, the only sound people heard at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Hall was that of loud boos and angry demands for a refund.

With Inoki, who didn't want to risk getting punched in the face, on the ground a majority of the fight and Ali refusing to engage the wrestler on the mat, the affair became one long snoozefest.

Bob Arum, of Top Rank promotions who worked with Ali in those days, told the Japan Times that the fight was "the low point of my career." Ali, who was guaranteed $6 million, received only $1.8 million.

Japanese parliamentarian and mixed martial artist Antonio Inoki, who fought boxing begend Muhammad Ali during a celebrated exhibition match in 1976, speaks at a press conference following the news of the death of Ali, at a hotel in Tokyo on June 4, 2016. Kazuhiro Nogi, Agence France-Presse

The Japan Times headline the day after the bout best summarized it: “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.”

More like junk food, the way it was panned at the time. But was it all really empty calories?

The New York Times called it "a dull bout" on June 26, 1976. Fast-forward nearly 40 years later, however, it acknowledged that "the bout was farce, but in a way it was a precursor to the modern spectacle of mixed martial arts in which practitioners of boxing, wrestling, judo jujitsu and other combat sports can mix it up under unified rules."

That's what Gross thinks, too, suggesting that Ali-Inoki set the stage for competitive fighting in its current, more diversified form -- be it the more palatable MMA or an extreme version of it such as Mayweather-McGregor.

"The Ali-Inoki fight was really put in a box as something that should be forgotten," he said, "kind of a footnote at best, an embarrassment at worst.

"Forty years later in a world where mixed-style fighting is popularized and people know what they'r watching, you can view it through a different lens."


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