Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Early Years Of MMA: Ali Vs. Inoki

By Ross Everett

While mixed martial arts fighting has only recently become popular in the United States, contests between fighters of different martial arts disciplines have taken place in Japan for many years. They weren't called "mixed martial arts" until recently, but they were definitely an embryonic form of the now booming sport. Many of the most famous events of this type took place in Japan during the'70's involving pro wrestling legend Antonio Inoki.

Inoki would often face other martial artists in fights that are widely accepted to have been "worked" (having a predetermined outcome) in the same manner as professional wrestling matches. While Inoki faced a number of karate, judo and boxing champions his most famous match was certainly his fight against world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

There's still much speculation about how Muhammad Ali came to fight Japanese wrestling legend Antonio Inoki, and even more uncertainty about what happened immediately before and during the fight. Ali took the booking because he thought it was to be a big paycheck for little work. Most accounts suggest that his handlers agreed to the 'worked' finish without his knowledge, and once he found out that he was to 'take a dive' he refused.

Many conspiracy theorists have noted that these rules were never announced to the crowd on fight night, leaving many with the impression that they were being made up as they went along. Action in the fight would further validate this view, but there actually were rules that both camps agreed to heading into the fight. Not surprisingly, most of these were designed to protect Ali. In fact, they were so one-sided that if Inoki hadn't been so concerned about preserving his big payday he would have been justified in not fighting. Inoki was prohibited from punching with a closed fist or striking Ali in the head (ostensibly since he wasn't wearing gloves). Inoki was prohibited from using any sort of submission maneuver. The most absurd limitation was that Inoki was prohibited from "grappling or trying to take Ali to the ground". A few observers noted that this was like not letting Ali throw a jab.

The result was an absolutely horrible fight. Neither man showed much interest in engaging the other, with Inoki spending most of the time on the ground doing what he could under the one sided rules. Inoki threw kicks at Ali's legs, Ali threw an occasional jab and tried to protect himself from his opponent's leg strikes. The fight ended a 74-74 draw, with the real losers being the fans.

Some interesting trivia about the fight--the referee was former pro wrestler "Judo" Gene Labell, who is considered by many 'the baddest man on the planet' even in his 80's. He could have very likely beaten up both men at the same time--a spectacle that might have been welcomed by the live crowd and closed circuit audience worldwide.

In the aftermath of the fight, Inoki's popularity was greater than ever--in a perverse way he was something of a hero due to his trying to fight despite the rules being stacked so soundly against him. He remained one of the country's most popular professional wrestlers and even enjoyed a career in Japan's parliament. Without missing a beat, he quickly resumed his series of fights against other martial artists who were apparently all more comfortable with the "worked" environment of pro wrestling. Among his "victims" was none other than Leon Spinks, presumably serving as some sort of vindication for his draw with Ali. The popularity of these matches led to a number of promotions that were essentially hybrids of martial arts and pro wrestling, and these led to the big Japanese MMA promotions of today.

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