Muhammad Ali versus Antonio Inoki
Extracts from letters written by Donn F. Draeger to Robert W. Smith. Letters in the Joseph R. Svinth collection, reprinted courtesy of Robert W. Smith and Joseph R. Svinth. Copyright © 2000. All rights reserved.
Editor’s note: On June 25, 1976, boxer Muhammad Ali and professional wrestler Antonio Inoki worked a 15-round draw at the Budokan in Tokyo. The match aired live on closed-circuit TV and drew 32,000 spectators to Shea Stadium in New York. The Shea Stadium card also featured boxer Chuck Wepner versus wrestler Andre the Giant, a match that reportedly inspired scenes in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films.
(May 25, 1976)
If the Ali-Inoki thing comes off, it will be a fix. You know that of course. No decision yet for pride gets in the way of he who has to dive. Inoki is a protégé of Riki Dozan, [EN1] who found him in Brazil farm fields. [EN2] Inoki can’t wrestle, but looked fierce and could be taught to roll around. A powerful chap, something like Maurice Tillet, the French Angel, who drew on looks. [EN3] Inoki learned his craft here with Riki, never did sumo formally, though he has learned a bit to spice up his performance. He is a leader of different wrestling organization than the one that lists Giant Baba (another glandular freak who can’t wrestle) as world champion. [EN4] Inoki, like Baba, is not world champ except in his own billing.
Inoki’s recent "defeat" of [former Olympic judo champion] Willem Ruska was a farce. Ruska could murtilize him if he was allowed to do so; so could [former Olympic judo champion] Anton Geesink. The whole thing with Ali is a promotion gimmick.
There is a rumor that Inoki will take on a karate style fighter [Willie Williams] later in the year, also crap as to the outcome.
Of course Ali will win the match; he can’t be allowed to lose. But do you think Ali, or at least his handlers, are unaware of the fact that a good wrestler is advantaged over a boxer? [Former boxing champion Jack] Dempsey and others can attest to that as you well know. [EN5] Frankly, if Ali sticks to boxing, I feel that I could get him: if I could avoid his blow and make a clinch I am sure that I could win on the ground, just like any other good grappler. (Hell, I’d try it for less money, too!)
If this were a real go, I think that it would scare Ali away, and that if Inoki insists on it, the thing will never take place. (Inoki is 6’4", 245 pounds, and an ex-shotput, discus, and javelin man.)
(June 19, 1976)
Yesterday at the Budokan, the site for the coming Ali-Inoki farce, all was busy in preparation for what almost everybody knows to be a yaocho (fix). It is funny that people realize that this is a phony yet will still pay US $1,000 per ringside seat. At the wrestling association it is no secret that the fix is on. Many wrestlers and judoka are eager to have a chance and for less money.
The best man in the ring that night will be Gene LeBell, who will referee. He could defeat both the headliners in one night. I will try to see him soon.
LeBell apparently has no objections to being the referee for this phony event; it’s said that he will gross fifty grand for his efforts. [EN6]
Inokuma Isao [a former Olympic judo champion] tells me that he would love to tackle Ali, and predicts that he could dump Ali within the first minute. Surely he can.
By the way, in Japanese the word "Ali" is pronounced "ah-ree", and echoes a word meaning "ant." Guess what friction this word has produced? The Ant versus the Pelican. Wow! There must be two Shaolin styles like this somewhere, eh?
The rules have been so seriously modified that the contest is no longer boxing versus wrestling. Unless this were done there would be no way to choreograph the match and make it look convincing. Ali can grapple or punch the man down; Inoki is not allowed to leg-dive or tackle. That latter restriction is the same as prohibiting Ali from jabbing. What a farce!
At the Budokan, Watanabe Kisaburo, the former Chuo University [judo] flash, explains that the event will bring money to the now low coffers of the Budokan, which must now make its money not on the [martial arts] events for which it was structured but on Rolling Stones and Beatles concerts and farces such as the Ali-Inoki thing. [EN7] Sad. Watanabe also believes he could cream Ali inside of one minute. I believe he could.
(July 11, 1976)
The Ali fiasco was carefully staged. The main concern was to not injure Ali, causing Inoki to complain that by the rules and this concern there was damn little that he could do to make it look good. The clumsy Ali [EN8] could not even avoid the baby-like kicks of Inoki, [EN9] and the fact that he still suffered some minor injuries is evidence of Ali’s relative lack of combative skill. Anyway, the upshot is that Ali is laughing at the public for he made some money by doing nothing, though not as much as he hoped. I think he should be barred from boxing for participating in such a vast con job. Inoki is probably finished here in Japan for the obvious fix and there is a lot of static still being heard. [EN10]
By the way, the Budokan (venue) janitorial people took almost a full day to clean up the garbage that was hurled at the two "combatants" as the result of their lousy performance. The whole thing was disgusting! [EN11]
EN1. Originally from South Hamgyong Province, in northeast Korea, Rikidozan’s birth name was Kim Sin Nak. He moved to Japan before World War II to become a professional sumotori. In 1951 he took up American professional wrestling under the tutelage of Tetsuro "Rubberman" Higami. In December 1954 Rikidozan defeated Kimura Masahiko for the Japanese professional wrestling title, in October 1957 he drew with Lou Thesz in the first-ever "title match" held in Tokyo, and in March 1962 he became the first Asian to win a World Wrestling Association (WWA) heavyweight belt. He died from a knife wound in December 1963.
EN2. Although born in Yokohama in 1943 Inoki Kanji was always billed as a Brazilian Nisei. Thus his ring name Antonio. Inoki started wrestling in Tokyo in September 1960. After making a US debut in Honolulu in March 1964, he returned to Japan. His participation in a National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) "world title match" with Dory Funk, Jr., in December 1969 elevated him to star status, a position he retained for the next thirty years. (Literally -- his last match was in Tokyo in April 1998.) He was affiliated with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
EN3. Tillet suffered from a disease that caused facial deformity. He died of heart disease in Chicago in August 1954. He was 51.
EN4. Born in Niigata, Japan in 1938 Baba Shohei started wrestling professionally in September 1960. (It was on the same card as Inoki, actually.) During the Rikidozan era, it was arranged that Baba would lose to visiting Americans that Rikidozan would then defeat in the finals, but after Rikidozan died then Baba got to win the finals. In fact, he still holds the record for the most Japan Wrestling Association world league championships. (Six, if it matters.) This being professional wrestling, of course those wins were prearranged; for Walter "Killer" Kowalski’s description of a Japanese title bout that Antonio Inoki "won" while unconscious, see Jeff Archer, Theater in a Squared Circle: The mystique of professional wrestling (Lafayette, CO: White-Boucke Publishing, 1999), 304-305. In 1972 Baba helped establish a Japanese wrestling association called All-Japan Pro Wrestling, and a year later he was declared All-Japan Pro Wrestling’s heavyweight champion. Professionally he and Inoki were bitter rivals.
EN5. Dempsey had done some professional wrestling in his youth and throughout his life he regularly refereed bouts. For a precise listing of the advantages the grappler has over the striker during one-on-one combat, see Charles B. Roth, "The Muscle Head Always Wins," Esquire, June 1949, 101-102.
EN6. A three-time US AAU judo wrestling champion, LeBell later took up professional wrestling (his mother was a Los Angeles promoter) and Hollywood stunt work. In the latter role, he’s remembered as the man who gave Bruce Lee "noogies" (e.g., held Lee under one arm and rubbed the top of Lee’s head with the other). Persistent but unconfirmed stories also report LeBell easily manhandling film star Steven Seagal after the latter started boasting that he was as good a fighter in real life as he was on the screen.
EN7. For an online photograph of the interior of the Budokan during the Beatles’ 1966 visit, see http://www.bekkoame.or.jp/~garp/japan66.htm. For a similar photograph of the Ali-Inoki match of 1976, see http://www.albany.net/~hit/puroresu/newjapan/ali1.jpg.
EN8. Although Ali was the classiest American heavyweight boxer of the 1960s and continued fighting until 1981, he was never the same following the 1975 Thrilla in Manila. I wish he had retired sooner.
EN9. Like most professional wrestling techniques, Inoki’s kicks were thrown in such a way as to be easily seen by the crowd and safely handled by the opponent.
EN10. Draeger was wrong and both Ali and Inoki quickly recovered the favor of their fans.
EN11. Disgusting it may have been but the promoters still ran with it to the bank: in 1977 Inoki started using a tune from Ali’s film The Greatest as his theme song and in 1986 he attempted to reprise the evening by pinning boxer Leon Spinks, who had once beaten a completely over-the-hill Ali.
JCS Jan 2000