Muhammad Ali and the Day Fans Pelted the Ring With Trash

In his new book, Ali vs. Inoki, Josh Gross untangles the complicated history of the 1976 meeting of two legends -- and a failed experiment.

When Muhammad Ali went on The Tonight Show on 14 June 1976, less than nine months after his “Thrilla in Manila” match with Joe Frazier, he was promoting an entirely different kind of bout. “Boxing is old news,” he declared. “We’re in a new field now. We’re going to Japan to take on this Antonio Inoki, the world’s heavyweight karate wrestling champion. This is a whole new thing.”

The match was planned as a mixed rules fight, combining elements of boxing with bits of wrestling, and Ali was simultaneously pitching it and reassuring the public that it would be a legitimate scrap. “I’m a little nervous, I must admit,” he said. “If this man grabs my arm, or gets in behind me and gets one of those body-snatchers or those backbreakers on me, I’m in trouble. But I’m counting on my speed and my reflexes, because if I hit him right and he don’t fall, then he can do what he wanna do.” Despite the media blitz surrounding the fight, many people retained their doubts.

In his debut book, Ali vs. Inoki, Guardian, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN writer Josh Gross digs through the match’s cloudy backstory, and examines its place as a forerunner to the wildly popular mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts of today. It’s a subject that brings with it a number of challenges. Largely derided as a fix at worst and a publicity stunt at best, the actual fight is widely remembered as an overblown non-event. Ali managed to throw only a small handful of punches, while Inoki spent the majority of the match in a mostly lying position, delivering an endless stream of kicks to Ali’s legs.

In a 2009 article, The Guardian called it “fifteen rounds of pure slapstick”, Richard Meltzer called it “just a big boring anticlimax”, in his article The Last Wrestling Piece, and Ali’s Wikipedia page places it conspicuously under the “Decline” section. In Budokan Hall, where the fight was held, fans pelted the ring with trash and chanted for refunds. In San Jose, where the fight was broadcast via a closed circuit feed, journalist Dave Meltzer, who was in attendance as a 16 year-old fight fan, described the crowd’s reaction as “almost like a riot”.

Gross convincingly recasts the fight as less of a dud and more like a failed experiment. It was, as he writes, “the world’s greatest heavyweight boxer, perceived then as the world’s greatest fighter, taking on a skilled opponent with divergent abilities.” Like Ali said on The Tonight Show, “a whole new thing.” “To me, I felt like it got an unfair shake,” says Gross. “It was from a different time, no one understood it. The boxing press thought Ali was making a mockery of himself and of boxing. There are a lot of reasons why people panned it. It wasn’t the best fight, there’s no question about that. I feel like if I can get people to see it in a new way, in a way that they’re maybe more conditioned to see because mixed-style fighting is so much more prevalent, I think they’ll see that it was a real fight and maybe it’ll get the attention it deserves considering who participated.”

Modern fight fans might doubt the connection between the halting, tightly restricted, non-action of the Ali and Inoki match, and the often brutal, more permissive attacking of modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Gross takes his time in tracking down the history of mixed-style fights, paying attention to the way different fight styles have traveled from culture to culture, and how they now blend together during modern fights. “The history of this sport hasn’t been told,” he says. “I think it continues to evolve and advance. If this story becomes more of a foundational story and people realize how important this event was in creating the conditions for MMA, I’ll be happy about that.”

He pulls in a number of colorful side characters, as well, like “Classy” Freddie Blassie, the wrestling legend who acted as Ali’s seeming manager for the fight, “Judo” Gene Lebell, the stuntman and martial artist who was assigned to referee, and Vince McMahon, Jr., the then-30 year old wrestling promoter, who, overflowing with ambition, helped orchestrate an elaborate promotional scheme to sell tickets to arenas across the United States hosting closed-circuit feeds of the fight.

The Ali and Inoki fight dragged together the worlds of boxing and pro wrestling, one generally regarded as sport and the other as lowbrow entertainment, into an awkward mix. Fans of both were left unsure what to expect. “[Ali] held an impromptu press conference in Tokyo a day or two before the match,” says Gross, “saying, ‘This is not a fake fight. I would not do a fake fight. I would not do a farce.’ Ali was quoted as saying he was fascinated to know what it was like to hit someone if they were on the ground. He really wanted to do that, I think.

“I think it’s helpful to realize that Ali was a one-of-a-kind person. No one who lived in his time will see anyone else like him. And he was extremely competitive. I was fascinated to see that of all the things that motivated him, in the end it was about proving he was the best. He wanted to prove he was the best fighter in the world. To him that was a real thing. He knew the tradition of boxer versus grappler and he wanted to participate in that.”

Several people close to the fight contend that its organizers long intended to have Ali lose the fight in a staged finish, only to have Ali nix the idea as the date of the fight approached. As a result, the week of the match became a blur of negotiations over what type of contact would be allowed between the fighters. “It was one of the major points of controversy of the match. Very few people knew at the time what the rules were; there were tons of negotiations. This was a legitimate fight where Muhammad Ali could get hurt by a guy who could take him down and break his arm. That was a legitimate possibility, so the people around Ali tried to protect him as much as possible.” Agreement needed to be reached not only on how a win could be achieved and what types of holds and punches would be allowed, but also on the weight of Ali’s gloves, how much gauze and tape could be applied on the hands, and what kinds of footgear and trunks could be worn.

The longer negotiations dragged-on, the more passionate they became. Inoki angled for open-handed attacks to Ali’s Adam’s apple to be allowed and, angered over Ali’s use of the term “Jap” in interviews, pushed for as many offensive options as possible. “Guys,” said promoter Bob Goodman at one point, “we’re not talking about killing somebody.” “Ali had a ton of guts for stepping in,” says Gross. “Inoki was trained under Karl Gotch, who is an extremely important figure. [Gotch] was a legitimate heavyweight. He could take you down and break your arm and he’d be happy to do it. That’s who Inoki’s mentor was. I’ve heard lots of stories about Inoki and how serious of a grappler he was, and he could handle himself against very serious people. What happens if he does break Ali’s arm? What are the consequences of that?”

The final agreement left Inoki with very few options. His main method of attack would be limited to kicks, which he was barred from delivering from a standing position. Ultimately, Inoki would end-up spending almost the entirety of the match either on his back or crouching near the mat, delivering kick after kick to Ali’s legs. “All the rules really tied Inoki’s hands, literally and figuratively,” says Gross. “Ferdie Pacheco, who was Ali’s longtime physician and very famously connected to him, said, ‘Look, this guy is fighting Muhammad Ali. Of course we’re going to tie his hands.’

“The thing people know about this fight is that Muhammad Ali took a lot of damage to his lead leg and that was because in the end, Angelo Dundee [Ali’s trainer] said, ‘Fine, you can kick to the legs.’ Inoki gets a lot of crap for his strategy but in a lot of ways his strategy was determined by what he could do.”

Watching footage of the fight, it’s easy to see why many viewers struggle with how to take it. Early on, Ali, perhaps sensing the unease of the crowd, seems to struggle with it himself. He mockingly wiggles his butt at Inoki after a missed kick, sticks his tongue out at him after they tie up in the corner, and later yells, “Coward in Tokyo. All your people see you coward on the floor.” Inoki, staying close to the ground throughout, kicks Ali’s legs raw by the fifth round. By the 12th, Gross writes that Ali’s “left leg appeared to be double the size of his right.” New York Times writer Andrew Malcolm, who covered the match and gained entrance to Ali’s locker room immediately after it ended, told Gross, “[Ali’s legs] had the shit kicked out of them.”

Other than a few surprise moments when Inoki was able to knock Ali off-balance, opening up the possibility of him trapping Ali on the mat, the match produced little action. It went 15 long and unsatisfying rounds and, as Gross writes, “failed to impress anyone”. As soon as the final bell rings, Inoki throws both of his hands down in disgust and frustration. He told reporters that he was “handicapped by the rules that said no tackling, no karate chops, no punching on the mat. I kept my distance to stay away from Ali’s punches. I resorted to that tactic when I found out that Ali’s hands were taped to dish out a knockout punch.” “[Inoki],” says Gross, “went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali. That’s worth something.”

The book’s narrative has an occasionally uneven gait in the early chapters, but Gross’s sometimes abrupt subject shifts serve the larger purpose of not only putting the fight into a historical context, but also helping the reader understand the potential danger both men posed to each other. Ali’s foot speed and quick hands are well respected by people with almost no knowledge of boxing, but the danger of a kick to the legs is likely less obvious.

“Without the proper defense of a leg check,” Gross writes, “which essentially comes down to raising a shin into the path of an oncoming kick, fighting becomes a game of pain tolerance, a lesson Ali learned the hard way. As uncomfortable as the response can be — think about the last time one of your shins hit a hard edge — most of the time it beats eating a flush kick to the thigh, and is generally worse for the attacker.”

Gross is trained in mixed martial arts, and his close attention to the possibilities for fighters to inflict physical pain on each other wakes you up to the inevitably of pain and injury in your own life. Discussing Inoki’s trainer, Karl Gotch, Gene LeBell tells Gross that “[Gotch] grabbed with either hand and had a death grip. He used to snatch parts of bodies and use them as a handle, because everything is a handle.” During the match, when Ali moved to block one of Inoki’s kicks and instead grabbed his ankle, he almost comically lifted him off the mat and then let him awkwardly bump back down. It can be seen as a humiliating pratfall for Inoki, or in Gross’s eyes, as a missed opportunity for Ali to wrap Inoki up into a submission hold.

“The self-defense technique,” Gross writes, “also allowed Ali a chance to grab and twist Inoki’s foot nearly 180 degrees. By itself the move accomplished nothing, and it was clear that Ali wasn’t aware that for twisting leg locks to work the knee had to be isolated so pressure on the joints wouldn’t be released.”

MMA contests are undeniably violent, and the prospect of watching one grown-up choke another into unconsciousness is abhorrent to some, but Gross is a convincing ambassador for the sport. His passion for it is enough to convince you to try and see it through his eyes. “I was around fighters pretty early. Southern California had at that time a pretty thriving underground fight scene. I found myself watching it on baseball diamonds, some of the best fighters in the world, in the middle of San Diego County, just because that’s where those guys had to fight.

“I do think the sport itself… I’ve always described that it has a sticky factor. Whether you like it or you’re repelled by it, you’re left with an impression. I love how stark it is. I’ve always enjoyed that about the sport. It’s incredibly violent, and I continually remind myself it’s not something I should become desensitized to. But I see it as competition. I see it almost as the pinnacle of competition. It’s different from table tennis. When you’re competing and you can pay a physical price due to your competition, that raises the stakes a lot.”

In April, New York became the final state to lift its ban on professional mixed martial arts, clearing a path for MMA promotions like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) to hold contests in Manhattan and across the state. It can only help the sport as it continues to gain recognition from mainstream sports fans and mainstream publications. In 1995, the New York Times led a Dan Barry piece on UFC fights with the headline, “Not Sweet, and Not a Science”. Now, the sport of MMA is accorded a level of respect in major publications that was unthinkable even a few years ago. UFC is covered regularly in the New York Times and, in a lengthy 2014 profile of UFC fighter Ronda Rousey, New Yorker writer Kelefa Sanneh wrote, “the word ‘fight’ is misleading: a mixed martial arts match is an athletic event and a brainteaser.”

“The potential [for growth] is enormous,” says Gross. “[UFC President] Dana White and the UFC have always said that they think mixed martial arts, and the UFC in particular, could be the biggest sport in the world. You sort of have to laugh at that based on what the realities are. Look at how popular, globally, a sport like soccer is. This is still cage fighting. It’s not going to appeal to the largest segment. It’s a niche sport. But a global niche is very powerful. People, wherever they’re from, they want to watch these fights. And if they can see really good fights, they’ll spend their time and their money. The growth potential has exceeded my expectations, quite honestly, and I think there’s room for that to continue.”

“For me, he continues, “it was important to trace the history of the sport. These mixed style fights have been happening forever, but Muhammad Ali happened to do it and he did it against the most famous pro wrestler in Japan and it was kind of a crazy event that people decided wasn’t important enough to remember. And I think it’s more important than enough to remember.”