The Japanese pro wrestler who almost got Muhammad Ali’s leg amputated

If you’ve never heard of the fight that almost got one of Muhammad Ali’s legs amputated, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad sports fan. It probably just means that you’re not Japanese.

In 1975, well-rested from his victory in the “Thrilla in Manila” fight against Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali met the president of the Japan Amateur Wrestling Assn. at a party. After finding out who the man was, he boasted: “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter to challenge me? I’ll give him $1 million if he wins.”

The Japanese press took the quote and ran with it, and before long, a fighter stepped to the challenge. Antonio Inoki, a beefy pro wrestler with a body toughened by years of working in the coffee fields of Brazil as a child and being thrown out of moving cars by his coach as part of “training,” wanted a shot at Ali. 

“If I have a chance to fight with you, I could make you sleep on the canvas within 10 minutes,” he wrote through an interpreter to Ali.

There was no way the champ could back down from that (or the $6 million that Inoki put up to make the fight happen).

So, the stage was set for what sporting history would record as one of the first ever Mixed Martial Arts battles: in one corner, 6-foot-2 Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali, weighing in at 218 pounds, with a reach of 78 inches. In the other, the pride of Japanese wrestling: Antonio “Burning Spirit” Inoki, billed at around the same height, and a heftier 240 pounds. He had a reach of -- well, his reach doesn’t matter.

But we’ll come to that shortly.

Muhammad Ali, standing on scale, gestures at his opponent, National Wrestling Federation world heavyweight champion Antonio Inoki. (Associated Press)

In the days leading up to the match, Ali worked the media circus as only he could. 

"You are bad in Japan," he shouted at Inoki during a press luncheon, "but Japan shall meet the ghettos! I’m gonna show you how we do it in the ghettos … how the colored folks do it!”

Inoki, who didn’t understand English, smiled, and chewed his food. The crowd laughed.

Because of the language barrier, Inoki mostly kept silent during these events, but that didn’t stop him from speaking the international language of intimidation. Before the event, he had quietly arranged for a single crutch to be sent to Ali.

Ali, ever the master of trading insults, brought it out, and handed it back to Inoki. The crowd laughed again.

Muhammad Ali re-gifts a crutch to Antonio Inoki. (Associated Press)

Little did they realize that by the end of the fight, both men would need crutches.

‘The fight of the century’

June 26, 1976. Tokyo’s Budokan stadium is packed. 

Tens of thousands more are watching on television. 

Ali has let it be known that Inoki will not make it to the final bell. “Inoki will fall,” he assured a reporter a few weeks before. He exudes confidence.

Meanwhile, Inoki is under incredible pressure. He has put his country on his shoulders, and he is feeling the weight.

The gong sounds.

Inoki rushes toward Ali and slide kicks him in the leg.

Then, he gets on his back, and beckons. Ali shouts at him to get up and fight. Inoki refuses, and just lies there, watching him.

He would pretty much stay there for the rest of the match.


The crowd quiets a bit, then starts to boo. They had come to see the fight of the century, not some dude crab walking on the mat.

But this wasn't Inoki’s fault.

There are various versions of this story, but the one with the most credence in Japan sports media is that Ali had assumed this would be a fixed match -- just a fun show for the public, and an easy payday for Ali. In a recently unearthed audiotape, Ali can be heard talking about the match:

“What I’ve promised to do is an exhibition fight. [Inoki] will not be hitting me with full force…”

So Ali was a little shocked when he met Inoki's interpreter, and asked when the rehearsal for the “fight” was. The interpreter was puzzled.

“There’s no rehearsal.” 

As far as Inoki’s side was concerned, this was a serious fight. Ali found out just how serious a few days before the match, when he walked into a public sparring session and saw Inoki practicing. Inoki was roundhouse kicking a guy in the shoulders. Hard.

This did not look like a staged fight. Ali started shouting, and left the room. That evening, his management contacted Inoki's people with a new set of restrictions for the match: No kicks made while standing up, no throws, no locking holds, no elbow strikes. And definitely no drop kicks.

Basically, Inoki’s entire fighting repertoire had been banned.

Not only that, Inoki’s side was not allowed to publicize the fact that these restrictions had been made. If they went to the media, the match would be canceled, and Ali’s promoters would keep the money.

So for the next few rounds... 

The fight drags on. The fans have all but lost hope for an exciting fight -- they have to settle for the occasional bit of comic relief, like this embarrassing scene below:

Other than that, the only source of entertainment for the fans is Ali’s trash talking.

Round 5

Things start to change in Round 5. Inoki maneuvers Ali up toward the ropes in Round 5, and slides in for a kick, hooking his foot behind Ali’s leg.

The force of the kick is enough to buckle Ali’s knee, and he falls. Inoki desperately tries to capitalize on this and lunges at him, but Ali is too fast -- by the time Inoki reaches for him, Ali has already sprung to his feet and is out of reach.

But it doesn't matter. That fall was the shot of confidence that Inoki needed. He’d tasted the blood of a giant.

He would be back for more.

Round 6

In Round 6, Inoki lands two more slide kicks. Hard ones. Ali still hasn’t landed a proper hit yet, and he’s tired of looking like a fool. So when Inoki makes a sloppy kick, Ali grabs at his legs, trying to hold him still so he can start punching.

This is the worst thing he could have done.

As Ali struggles to wrap up his legs, Inoki deftly twists his body, and pulls the champ down to the ground with him. Inoki knows he can’t beat Ali in a boxing match, but now that the fight is on the ground, he’s in his element. He goes for a submission hold, but Ali’s legs are too strong.

So he elbows Ali in the face, to get him to stop resisting.

It works. Ali is completely unprepared for the elbow strike, and grabs his head in pain. But elbows were expressly forbidden in the rules of the fight, so the ref jumps in and pulls Inoki off of Ali.

Round 8

Before the beginning of Round 8, Ali’s trainers start shouting and pointing at Inoki’s corner. Inoki’s side is confused for a few moments, and then they realize what’s going on -- Ali’s leg is now so swollen from those kicks that they are accusing Inoki of hiding something hard in his boots.

In the footage of the fight, Inoki looks annoyed. He’s faking it.

Before the fight, Inoki had hidden some steel plates in his boots, because as he said later: “They hadn’t made any rules about that.” But just before the match began, he realized that he couldn't go through with it. He unlaced his boots and took the plates out.

There were no plates in these boots.

Perhaps to appease Ali's camp, the referee makes Inoki wrap some tape on along the toe of his boot. 

Ali’s leg is swollen, and bleeding. The bell rings and the match continues.

Rounds 10 and 11

By Rounds 10 and 11, Inoki's strategy is now clear. He's aiming at Ali's swollen leg, attempting to break him down from there. It's working. The butterfly is no longer floating.

But he can still sting like a bee.

Suddenly, as Inoki is angling for another kick, Ali snaps out with a long jab. It’s only his second hit of the night, but it really connects.

You can see Inoki recoil. Inoki said later that every single time Ali hit him, it left a bruise.

Round 12  

In Round 12 alone, Inoki lands 10 low kicks to Ali’s leg. The boxer's movements are becoming more and more sluggish. He’s not dodging the kicks, and he's barely blocking them.

Round 13

In Round 13, Inoki decides it’s time to cash in.

He lunges at Ali, faking as though he's going to kick again. Ali shrinks back, creating a small opening. That's all the room Inoki needs. He dives at Ali's waist. The boxer pounds Inoki in the head with his left glove. His fist moves so quickly that it's almost imperceptible. Tomorrow, that will be another bruise.

But it's not enough to stop the momentum. Inoki plants his feet and lifts, trying to slam Ali to the ground again. Inoki knows this is his only chance -- to drag Ali back into his home turf. 

He can't get enough leverage, though, and Ali grips the ropes to prevent himself from being pulled down.

“If I'd have been 1, maybe 2 millimeters lower,” Inoki said in a later interview, “Ali would have fallen.”

Maybe so. Either way, this would be Inoki’s last chance.

The final two rounds

The final two rounds are basically mental trench warfare. Both men are exhausted, and spend most of the time circling each other, staring each other down. At the end of the 14th round, Ali jabs Inoki in the face. Inoki is either too tired or too stubborn to dodge, and takes the full force of the blow.

Both men shout at each other, taunt each other. Ali struts around. Inoki throws one final kick, and the bell sounds. The “fight of the century” is over.

Inoki throws his hands up in frustration. He embraces Ali, but he’s clearly angry.

That’s nothing compared to the fans, though. They're positively livid. They had come to see blood -- Ali's, Inoki’s, anyone’s -- and this was not what they had paid for. People start throwing trash at the two fighters.

In total, Inoki had landed 64 kicks, compared to Ali's 5 punches. But somehow, the match was declared a draw. One of the Japanese judges actually voted for an Ali win.

“I was mad, I figured he’d taken a bribe,” one of Inoki's partners said in an interview with a Japanese sports magazine. “After the match, I was running around, yelling ‘find me [that judge], I’m gonna kill him!’”

After he left the stage, Inoki collapsed. All of those kicks had broken his foot. 

Back in his hotel, Muhammad Ali’s leg was still swollen. He developed two blood clots in his leg, and in a 2009 interview with the Guardian, his promoter Bob Arum said that he almost had to have an amputation.

Ali would eventually recover -- mostly. He spent two weeks resting in Los Angeles and eked out a victory against Ken Norton in September. But his footwork was never the same.

A surprise result

But the most surprising part of this fight might be the friendship that came afterward.

About a year after the fight, Inoki received a letter from Ali. It was an invitation to his wedding party.

It was a small gathering of friends, and Inoki was among them, he said last week in an interview with Japanese media. He remembered being surprised to see how gracious Ali was when the cameras were off. Ali gave him a tour of the house, played practical jokes on him, and doted on Inoki's 3-year-old daughter. 

"I still have a picture of him picking her up and giving her a hug,” he laughed.

There was talk of a rematch, but it never materialized. Still, the two would remain connected, especially in the minds of Japanese, for years. Years after the fight, Inoki adopted Ali's theme song, “Ali Bom-ba-ye,” into his own version, called, naturally, “Inoki Bom-ba-ye” – with Ali’s blessing. 

And when word got to Ali in 1998 that Inoki would be retiring, he flew out to Tokyo to sit ringside at Inoki’s final match. At the end of the match, he entered the ring, and presented his former rival with a bouquet of flowers.

“It is my honor to be standing on the ring with my good friend after 22 years,” a representative of Ali's read over the mic. "Antonio Inoki and I put our best efforts into making world peace through sports, to prove there is only one mankind beyond the sexual, ethnical or cultural differences."

Ali wasn’t kidding. In the years after their iconic fight, both men had accomplished what traditional diplomats couldn’t -- bringing a bit of peace to the world through sports.

Late November 1990, only six weeks before Operation Desert Storm, Muhammad Ali made a trip to Iraq and directly negotiated with Sadam Hussein for the release of 15 American hostages. 

At the same time, Inoki was also struggling to secure the release of 41 Japanese hostages being held under similar conditions.

The two don’t appear to have worked together, but both were successful. In early December, both fighters left Baghdad and returned to their respective homelands victorious, with hostages safe in tow.

But Inoki didn’t leave without forging yet another connection between himself and his friend – this time, through a shared religion and a shared name. At some point during his stay in Iraq, Inoki walked into a mosque, and walked out a Muslim.

He was given the Muslim name of Muhammad Hussain.

When news of Ali’s death broke in Japan last week, reporters asked Inoki, now 73 years old, to make a comment.

"Thanks to Ali, I was able to do a different kind of politics and diplomacy," he said during a press conference.

"For that I thank him."

Follow me @dexdigi for more on the intersection of culture and the Internet.

This article was adapted from an article previously posted on Medium.


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