Antonio Inoki vs Muhammed Ali: All about the 'fight of the century'
Antonio Inoki, a former pro wrestler turned politician in Japan, died on Saturday
Inoki rose to prominence when he faced Muhammad Ali
The match took place on June 26, 1976
The 79-year-old mixed martial artist has been restricted to a wheelchair since 2021 because of spinal issues. According to the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co., Inoki was "upbeat and in high spirits" when he passed away.
Inoki popularised Japanese professional wrestling and pioneered mixed martial arts matches involving top wrestlers and champions from other combat sports such as judo, karate, and boxing.
Antonio Inoki vs Muhammed Ali match
On June 26, 1976, thousands of spectators at the Nippon Budokan venue in Tokyo, Japan, and millions of others worldwide tuned in to watch two of the biggest names in sports and entertainment. The first mixed martial arts fight featured boxer Muhammad Ali and professional wrestler Antonio Inoki, a match fans remember as “the fight of the century”. This match took place 20 years before the first mixed-rules fights in the UFC or Pancrase.
Gene LeBell officiated the fight.
Inoki had previously defeated Olympic Judo Gold Medalist Willem Ruska. The current heavyweight boxing champion was Muhammad Ali. He defeated Joe Frazier in "The Thrilla in Manila" a year before.
There were potentially 1.4 billion people who could watch this fight, 34 countries, a sold-out Shea Stadium in New York, and thousands of fans in the sold-out Nippon Budokan arena; however, none of these viewers would know the rules at the time of the fight.
The two teams came to an unusual rule conclusion. Inoki couldn't strike while standing and couldn't throw any punches. Ali could punch while standing but not while on the ground, and he couldn't kick. Inoki, the professional wrestler, was also barred from performing a takedown.
Inoki was sliding and kicking while on the ground for the entire 15-round fight. Inoki would then remain on the ground and invite Ali to join his guard, which Ali would never do. Ali's legs were severely damaged in this fight, which was declared a draw.
"It was 1976 when I fought Antonio Inoki at the Budokan," Ali said at Inoki's final wrestling match. We were tough opponents in the ring. Following that, we built love and friendship on mutual respect. So now that Antonio has retired, I feel a little less lonely. After 22 years, it is an honour for me to be standing on the ring with my good friend. Our future is bright and well-defined. Antonio Inoki and I have worked hard to promote world peace through sports, demonstrating that there is only one humanity despite sexual, ethnic, or cultural differences. It gives me great pleasure to be here today," as per mmasucka.com .
Ali was the WBC/WBA heavyweight champion at the time, having won a knockout victory over Richard Dunn in May. Inoki, who had been taught catch wrestling by wrestler Karl Gotch, was staging exhibition fights against martial arts champions in an attempt to demonstrate that pro wrestling was the dominant fighting discipline.
The fight was significant in the history of MMA, particularly in Japan. The match inspired Inoki's students Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki to establish Pancrase in 1993, which led to the establishment of Pride Fighting Championships in 1997. In 2007, rival Ultimate Fighting Championship purchased Pride.
The fight itself, which took place under special rules, is regarded as a forerunner to modern mixed martial arts (MMA). The fight's outcome, a draw, has long been debated by the press and fans.