Did you know: Muhammad Ali fought in MMA?
Ali suffered severe leg injuries after the fight
Antonio Inoki, one of professional wrestling’s most important figures was stuck in the shadow of his gargantuan, tag team partner Giant Baba for most of his career. When they eventually went their separate ways, Inoki again played second fiddle to Baba in their promotional war. But Inoki had plans to net an opponent so big the world would be forced to stand up and watch.
While his adversary was busy filling stadiums, Inoki looked to bring credibility to wrestling by defeating legitimate martial artists. He triumphed over America’s first freestyle wrestling champion Frank Gotch and Olympic gold medal winning judo practitioner Willem Ruska - but these were just appetisers to Inoki’s next opponent .
On February 26, 1976 Inoki inked a deal with boxing’s Bob Arum to face off against the great Muhammed Ali at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall. The stage was set for the first major “mixed rules” match almost two decades before the UFC opened their doors.
Ali was feasibly the most recognisable athlete, of any sport, in the entire world. A year removed from the “Thrilla in Manilla,” his rubber match with biggest money making rival Joe Frazier, Ali didn’t need to take part in this spectacle, but the lure of $6 million, the biggest payday of his professional career was hard to turn down.
Broadcast in 34 countries to an estimated audience of 1.4 billion people the fight was seen by a mass, global audience. Sadly, when the dust had settled and the fight was over, the only losers that evening were those who tuned in or bought a ticket.
Two days out from the match the Ali camp began to have second thoughts on the fight, even considering cancelling it at one point. Their discussions were stringent and frustrating to the Japanese promoter who had spent a fortune hyping the fight.
The rules imposed by Ali’s camp essentially set the match up for failure. Inoki couldn’t force takedowns, he couldn’t throw closed fists, he couldn’t kick to the head or body and if the fight hit the mat, ground and pound attacks or submission attempts were strictly forbidden.
Seemingly every one of Inoki’s offensive tools was discarded. As a result his plan of attack consisted of dropping to his back in a crab-like position and kicking the calves of the champion boxer for fifteen long rounds.
The leg kicks were effective, even flooring the WBA/WBC world heavyweight champion on three separate occasions but it didn’t stop the chorus of boos hatefully being shouted towards both competitors for the lion’s share of their 45 minute affair. The bout was declared a draw.
In all likelihood, both combatants would later regret the bout. As a result of Inoki’s leg kicks, Ali was later admitted to St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica, California with blood clots in both legs. Even when he returned to boxing, Ali suffered issues with his legs for the remainder of his career.
Inoki wasn’t hurt physically – in fact, he only tasted six blows from the powerhouse puncher , but he did suffer financially. The once promising idea yielded a negative return on investment and to add insult to injury, Inoki became the laughingstock of the wrestling scene. His credibility was irreversibly tainted.
MMA has become a cornerstone of sports entertainment the world over, but sports pundits continue to wonder how MMA has become so popular seemingly overnight. However, in reality fans were yearning for such a sport as far back as 1976.
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