MUHAMMAD ALI VS. ANTONIO INOKI: THE FIGHT THAT NEARLY BANKRUPTED THE WWWF PAGE TWO OF THREE
Your Hawaiian vacation of pop culture
Copyright 2014-2016 by Dr. Mike Rickard
If you've read any of the obituaries about Muhammad Ali, you've probably come across mentions of his love of professional wrestling and how his biting promos were inspired by the legendary grappler "Gorgeous" George Wagner. Ali's participation with wrestling didn't end there. He participated in the famous match against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976 and appeared as a special referee at the inaugural Wrestlemania in 1985. What you may not know is that his match against Inoki nearly bankrupted the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) (albeit through no fault on Ali's part), and that WWWF champion Bruno Sammartino risked his health to save the day. Join me now as I look at some of the tall tales regarding the fight, the "Showdown at Shea" card it headlined, and Bruno's amazing rescue.
In 1976, Muhammad Ali seemed at the peak of his power. He had defeated Joe Frazier in the rubber match of their terrific trilogy at "The Thrilla in Manilla." Before that, he had defeated some of his strongest challengers including Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. Had Ali reached the same point as Alexander the Great that there was nothing left to conquer?
A new challenge appeared in the most unlikely way imaginable. Aaron Talent writes in "The Joke That Almost Ended Ali's Career" that an off-hand remark to the president of the Japan's Amateur Wrestling Association sparked interest in the fight. Supposedly, Ali remarked that he'd pay one million dollars to any Japanese fighter who could defeat him. Whether it was hubris or some of "The Greatest's" usual bombast, the remark was passed on to Japanese wrestling promoters. When Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki heard of it, he pushed hard to make the fight happen.
The concept of boxer vs. wrestler was nothing new. For years, promoters had dreamed of pitting a top boxer against a top wrestler. Unfortunately, promoters never seemed able to promote a bout between a top-ranked boxer and main event wrestler in a shoot. Instead, boxers either worked as special referees for matches, or wrestled in scripted bouts against wrestlers.
Wrestling promoters approached Ali about a match against one of Japan's top wrestlers, Antonio Inoki. Inoki had trained under Karl Gotch (a wrestler immortalized by Japanese fans as "The god of Wrestling"), developing what he called a strong style, based on catch wrestling (often known as hooking and shooting). Inoki participated in matches against practitioners of other martial arts including boxing, judo, kung fu, karate, and sumo. More than a few people speculated that these fights were worked but they helped to establish Inoki's reputation as a formidable opponent (To Inoki's credit, fighter Carlson Gracie praised Inoki's fighting skills).
According to the book Capitol Revolution: The Rise of the McMahon Wrestling Empire, Ali had been approached in the early 1960's to fight the legendary wrestler "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers for a $400,000 payday. Given both men's showmanship skills, the promos alone would have been worth the price of admission. Sadly, the same health problems that led to Rogers dropping the WWWF title to Bruno Sammartino saw him forced to bow out of the proposed match. Promoters proposed that Sammartino fight Ali but Ali refused.
Ali changed his mind when promoters approached him about fighting Antonio Inoki. Depending on whom you believe, Ali was offered anywhere from four to six million dollars for the fight. To keep things in perspective Ali had earned six million dollars for "The Thrilla in Manilla." Was Ali enticed by the money and/or by the thought of facing one of Japan's top wrestlers? Given the questions surrounding the validity of Inoki's "shoot" fights, Ali risked his reputation. He also risked losing face should Inoki defeat him.
One of the biggest mysteries concerning the fight was whether or not it started off as a proposal for a worked shoot or a legitimate fight. According to the book Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment, Ali was against taking a dive. This changed when promoter Vincent Jesse McMahon's son Vincent Kennedy McMahon ("Vince Jr.") offered him an intriguing scenario. Supposedly, Vince Jr. proposed a worked shoot where both men would keep face. Ali was skeptical until he heard the plan. Ali would dominate the fight until Inoki intentionally bladed himself, bleeding profusely. When Ali turned his back to get the referee to stop the fight, Inoki would hit an enzuigiri on him. Ali liked the idea as it allowed him to save face.
The book goes on to describe how miscommunication led to no one in Japan being informed of the plan. When Ali arrived in Japan, he reportedly asked when rehearsals would be held. When no one seemed to know what was going on, Ali was said to be furious, suspicious that he was being set up.
Although the match was billed as "boxing vs. karate," eventually it was saddled with restrictions that banned suplexes, open strikes to the eyes, kicks above the waist, and other moves. Ali had good reason to be concerned about Inoki's prowess. Ali was light years ahead of Inoki in boxing but Inoki would destroy him if things went to the ground.
The idea was to air the fight on closed-circuit television (CCTV) where fans could watch the fight in movie theatres and big screens in arenas. Some wrestling promoters decided to hold live wrestling cards then air the CCTV fight. In Vincent Jesse McMahon's case, he decided to incorporate the show into his second "Showdown at Shea" card. In the end, the fight was broadcast on CCTV in over 150 locations in the United States, including the "Showdown at Shea."
The "Showdown at Shea" was an outdoor wrestling supercard held at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. Vincent Jesse McMahon held one in 1972, the card main evented by a dream match between the promotion's two top babyfaces, Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales. The 1976 "Showdown at Shea" would feature wrestling matches, the Ali/Inoki match, and a wrestler vs. boxer match involving Andre the Giant and Chuck Wepner. The Andre/Wepner match would inspire the wrestler (Thunderlips aka Hulk Hogan) vs. boxer (Rocky Balboa aka Sylvester Stallone) in the film Rocky III.
As the show grew closer, it became clear that ticket sales were not what had been expected. There was a lot of skepticism about the Ali/Inoki match, especially in light of wrestling's worked nature. While promoters had not acknowledged that wrestling was worked, all but the most die-hard fans believed it to be a legitimate contest. People did not seem interested in the Ali vs. Inoki card. Vincent Jesse McMahon realized he was in trouble. If the show failed, the WWWF faced financial disaster, possibly ruin.
The promos alone between "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers and Muhammad Ali would have been legendary as both men were fantastic talkers.
Some wrestling promoters held live matches before airing the fight on closed-circuit television.
Vince McMahon hoped to capitalize on the Ali vs. Inoki fight by running his own card beforehand. This endeavor became "The Showdown at Shea," a card that threatened to bankrupt the WWWF.