In the days before mixed martial arts, boxers and wrestlers rarely went at it with each other (a notable exception was pankration in the ancient Olympics). When a match like this happened, it was publicity stunt, and usually done for a laugh. But Muhammad Ali once found himself up against a wrestler who was dead serious about defeating the Greatest of All Time.
The genesis of what has come to be known as “one of the most embarrassing moments” of Muhammad Ali’s storied career began around 1975 when Ali met the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association, Ichiro Yada, at a party. It’s reported that during a brief conversation with Yada, Ali boastfully exclaimed: “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.”
Whether this was a genuine challenge by Ali or simply some of his famous trash-talk isn’t clear, but we know that Yada interpreted it as the former and the quote was reported as such by the Japanese media. This brought it to the attention of Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki, who decided to take the boxer up on his offer. Not only that, but Inoki somehow managed to convince investors to pony up some $6 million to sweeten the deal for Ali, who accepted the offer to fight in March the following year, with the match itself being arranged to take place on June 26th.
From this point on the details leading up to the fight get a little harder to confirm. For starters, although the eventual fight that took place between Inoki and Ali was genuine, it’s contested whether Ali’s camp knew this from the start. You see, at this point Inoki was already pretty famous in Japan for arranging similar fights with other famous fighters, pitting their skills against his own unique brand of wrestling, dubbed “strong style”. These matches were clearly fixed and often ended in a spectacularly theatrical way. For example, in one match against a karate expert, Inoki won by powerbombing his opponent to the ground and knocking them out with a leg drop, a la Hulk Hogan. In another, the match was declared a draw when both combatants inexplicably fell out of the ring at the exact same time.
Ali was surprised and a little concerned when he saw how Inoki was training for the fight. The result was a fight called “15 rounds of pure slapstick” that drew crowds on two continents. Read how that all went down at Today I Found Out.
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