It was one of the most significant fights in the pre-history of modern mixed martial arts—and perhaps the worst. It was famous and infamous at the same time, and it almost wasn’t even an actual fight. There are numerous, conflicting versions of what transpired during the bout, yet we still are intrigued by it today.
What we do know for sure is that on June 26, 1976, at the Nippon Budok an arena in Tokyo, Japan, legendary World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring and fought Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki for 15 rounds in a mixed-styles fight. It is also universally agreed that this fight is one of the most unwatchable of all time.
Today, we would expect Inoki, who had training from some of the legends of submission wrestling—including Karl Gotch—to simply take Ali down and dominate him like Royce Gracie did Art Jimmerson or Randy Couture did James Toney. Instead, Inoki sat on his butt for most of the fight, kicking from the mat at Ali’s legs. Ali couldn’t reach him from his standing position, and he landed a grand total of six punches. With many fans screaming for their money back and throwing debris into the ring, the fight was ruled a draw.
Most accounts also agree that the original plan to have a predetermined outcome fell apart before the match when Ali balked at losing by some illegal maneuver unseen by the referee, because he did not want to partake in a fixed fight (or perhaps one he would lose).
Inoki claimed in a lawsuit following the match that the rules, which were not explained to the public, prevented him from taking Ali down. This version is contradicted by the legendary grappler Gene LeBell,who refereed the fight. In a recent interview with combat sports historian Matt Phillips of Combat Sports Central, LeBell insisted that the only rules he had to enforce were: “No biting, no eye gouging, and no using the ears as handles.” Also, in Inoki’s corner was Karl Gotch. “Gotch kept shouting at him to take Ali down,” LeBell told Phillips.The implication was that Inoki’s crab-kicking was part of his strategy rather than out of necessity due to restrictive rules.
Of course, all of this took place in the realm of pro “wrestling,” where the only rule of thumb is to “Believe nothing you hear and only half of what you see.” While boxing promoter Bob Arum put this debacle together on Ali’s side, Ali’s manager for this match was “Classy” Freddie Blassie. So, who is telling the truth and who is kayfabing or lying outright to “protect the business” may never be known.
At the time, this match was considered an absolute disaster and humiliating embarrassment for all involved. And, as the years rolled by, the questions of who would win a real fight between a boxer and a wrestler or between a striker and grappler remained unanswered.
Ali vs. Inoki may have been an eyesore, but when the disgust of it lessened with time, more people became fascinated by the event. Fans wondered what it might have been and realized how it actually helped pave the way for better, more well-thought out attempts at style vs. style fights, in both Japan and the rest of the world.
Inoki took part in several “worked” style vs. style matches in that period. It is the battle against Ali, however, that is today viewed as an accidental incubator for mixed martial arts.