I wrote a while back that if you visit the Muhammed Ali Center in Louisville, there’s one fight from the Champ’s career that is very conspicuous by its absence. It’s the legendary – some would say infamous – boxer vs. wrestler match that took place in 1976 against Japan’s Antonio Inoki. While many people look on that match (if they glance at it at all) as a disaster and a public failure, the battle between Ali and Inoki in many ways opened the door not only for the rise of sports entertainment and the WWE, but mixed martial arts. At least that’s the contention of MMA writer Josh Gross, who has shed a bright light on the forgotten Ali match in his book, Ali Vs. Inoki.
Gross has put together a phenomenal look at one of the most bizarre chapters in boxing and wrestling history. The 320 page work is an exhaustive look at the events leading up to the fight, the participants on both sides, the fight itself, and the aftermath. Gross covers the fight from all sides, giving his reader a perspective from all sides on the fight including Ali and his handlers; Ali’s corner man, the great Freddie Blassie; referee and deciding judge “Judo” Gene LeBell; and the enigmatic Inoki and his seconds, including the legendary shooter Karl Gotch, whom Gross maintains could hardly contain himself from entering the ring and twisting both men, Ali and Inoki, in knots. Gross also tells some amusing stories about the WWWF side of the story, including a tale told by Vince McMahon, Jr., about taking Ali down in his hotel room. The reader is left to decide for him or herself if they believe McMahan’s version of events. (I for one, am not buying!)
Gross is an MMA guy, and his bent leans toward the world of mixed martial arts all the way. Nevertheless, he gives a fair and balanced look at the world of professional wrestling as well as boxing. Ali Vs. Inoki is a must read for any fight sports fan and a must have for wrestling book collectors. It’s a brilliant look at the fight some want to forget but no one ever will, a turning point in the career of Muhammed Ali (who never was the same after the bruising his legs took during the bout), and a groundbreaking matchup that inspired a new wave of fight sports that continues to thrive to this day.
I don’t often comment on WWE booking. It’s not what I do, there are plenty of other Tuesday morning bookers on the Internet already, and besides that… I’m a fan. Never been in the business, so what do I know?
That said… I wish the WWE had booked Goldberg differently for this return.
Last week, the fans went nuts for his return. I’ve never been a Goldberg fan, but even I got chills seeing his entrance. This week, the “Goldberg” chants were drowned out by chants of “Suplex City.”
Fans don’t want to see Goldberg vs. Lesnar. They’ve seen it, and they already know how it’s going to end. Fans want to see the old Goldberg. They want to see “The Streak” Goldberg.
Goldberg should be coming out and squashing people. Feed him some of the guys from WWE Superstars for a few weeks and then pay it off at a Pay-Per-View with a slightly higher profile squash.
In other words, treat him the way you treated Austin, Michaels, and Foley at Wrestlemania… not the way you did Sting.
At the end of the day, I think Goldberg came back for one reason: so his son could see him wrestle. I think that’s awesome. But I wish his son could get a chance to see the real reason that arena filled with “Goldberg!” chants last week.
A year or so ago, I wrote the following story for a book project I have since set aside. In honor of the recent passing of Muhammed Ali, I thought it would be fitting to share this.
He was the greatest fighter of all time. He was the undisputed sportsman of the 20th century. He appeared on more Sports Illustrated covers than anyone, including Michael Jordan. In a span of twenty one years, he won a gold medal, three world championships, and a total of 53 matches with only five losses. He survived a three and a half year exile enforced on him by his own government and returned in even greater form than before.
If you walk through the Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, you’ll learn about his early life. You’ll learn about the prejudice he faced as a child. You’ll learn about his conversion to Islam. You’ll learn about his many accomplishments as a fighter and as a champion for peace around the world. You can even sit and watch many of his most famous bouts in their entirety.
Still, there’s one match missing from this museum, one match that the champ and his people would like everyone to forget. It’s a match that everyone wanted to see but no one wants to remember, a match that reflected some of the great inter-fight matches of the past and foreshadowed the rise of MMA fighting some twenty years later. The match that took place in Japan in 1976 pitted the Greatest, Muhammed Ali, against a legendary Japanese fighter, Antonio Inoki.
Inoki was not a boxer. He was a professional wrestler. He stood 6’3” and weighted 240 pounds in his prime. Inoki trained with legends like Karl Gotch and Rikidozan. He began his fighting career in 1960, the same year young Cassius Clay (later Muhammed Ali) rose to national prominence in the United States. After eleven years fighting for the established Japanese promotions, Inoki struck out on his own to found his own promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Inoki was a professional wrestler and Ali a professional boxer. In days long past, the two disciplines went hand in hand, in the ring and out. In the late 19th century, William Muldoon faced off in the ring with his good friend, boxing champion John L. Sullivan. Wrestling champion “Strangler” Lewis had a close friendship with his contemporary, boxing champ Jack Dempsey. Lou Thesz was never shy about his friendship with African American boxing champion Joe Louis. By the 1970s, however, the two sports had long been divided. Boxing promoters refused to be categorized along side the sideshow of professional wrestling, while wrestling promoters doggedly insisted their sport was no less real than boxing.
A match between Ali and Inoki might never have happened if Ali hadn’t made the boast that, after beating men from nearly every other country in the world, he was looking for a champion from Japan. In an April 1975 meeting with Ichiro Hatta, the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association, Ali laid out the challenge. “Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.”
Inoki, as savvy a businessman as he was a grappler, saw an opportunity, and he challenged Ali to a fight. Inoki had already engaged in some mixed fighting competitions, most notably the 1972 Munich Olympics judo gold medalist Wilhelm Ruska. Inoki wanted to be viewed as a legitimate fighter, but there were some in the press who refused to be convinced the Ruska bout was not staged. Inoki saw an opportunity to be legitimized in the eyes of the press and the world, so when Ali made the challenge, Inoki answered him, offering Ali a pay day of six million dollars.
The money was a big factor in getting Ali to agree to the match, but Ali’s childhood attraction to the sport of professional wrestling likely played a role as well. Ali learned to fight at the Columbia Gym in downtown Louisville, where Heywood Allen and the Allen Athletic Club held wrestling exhibitions every Tuesday night. Young Cassius Clay might easily have seen Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Baron Leone, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, “Wild Bill” Longson, and his hero Gorgeous George competing in the same building where he trained.
Ali was also well aware that professional wrestling as a work with pre-arranged finishes designed to tell a good story. What Ali didn’t know was that in his case, Inoki had no intentions of working Muhammed Ali. As far as Inoki was concerned, Ali’s boast as an insult to his country and his people. Inoki was a professional wrestler, but he was also a shooter, and he had every intention on humbling the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Promoter Bob Arum, who also masterminded the Snake River Canyon jump of Evil Knievel, was brought in to help promote the fight that was broadcast on closed circuit TV in the United States. A pair of wrestling promoters from New York got involved and paired it with another boxer-vs-wrestler match to take place the same day at Shea Stadium between Chuck Wepner and Andre the Giant. The promoters were Vincent J. McMahon and his son, Vincent K. McMahon.
Arum was just as much in the dark about Inoki’s plan as Ali’s people. In fact he reassured worried members of Ali’s camp that they had nothing to worry about. “Professional wrestlers are performers. The thing is a fraud.”
Said Ali’s doctor Ferdie Pacheco, “Ali’s fight in Tokyo was basically a Bob Arum thought-up scam that was going to be ‘ha-ha, ho-ho. We’re going to go over there. It’s going to be orchestrated. It’s going to be a lot of fun and it’s just a joke.’ Well, when we got over there, we found out no one was laughing.”
Ali’s managers had reasons to be worried. The 1975 “Thrilla in Manilla” versus Joe Frazier had taken a huge toll on Ali’s body. In total, Ali had taken punishment from seven Hall of Fame fighters in his career. Doctors began advising the champ in 1975 that he needed to hang up the gloves sooner rather than later, citing severe damage to brain and kidney tissue as their chief concerns. Ali would continue to ignore this advice for another five years, facing one more Hall of Famer, Larry Holmes, on his way out.
With Arum’s reassurances that the champ would suffer no real damage, Ali made his way to Japan in the summer of 1976 for what he believed would be a fun and easy pay day. Ali even brought a special guest along to be his ringside manager, another of his childhood wrestling heroes, “Classy” Freddie Blassie.
Ali arrived on June 16, and the two competitors met for the first time at a lunch party for the media. Ali gave one of his trademark speeches, telling the world what he would do to Inoki at Nippon Budokan Arena. He nicknamed Inoki “The Pelican” because of Inoki’s “Big bullseye chin.” Inoki responded, “When your fist connects with my chin, take care that your fist is not damaged.” Inoki also handed Ali a gift, a wooden crutch to use after Inoki threw him from the ring.
There are conflicting stories as to how and when it was decided the match would be a shoot. Some in Ali’s camp claim that they were sold on the match being a work, but that Ali balked at the plan when he was told that Inoki expected him to lose. Fight journalist Jim Murphy says the finish called for Ali to accidentally knock out the ref. Ali would then check on the ref’s condition, allowing Inoki to get the quick roll up for a pin. Inoki would get the victory, but Ali would save face by being the good guy, concerned for the safety of the ref.
Inoki’s camp insisted the match was always intended to be a work. Ali only learned of this when he went to see Inoki train.
“OK, so when do we do the rehearsal?” Ali asked.
“No, no. This isn’t an exhibition,” replied Inoki. “It’s a real fight.”
However the decision/revelation took place, Ali’s team went to work renegotiating the rules of the fight. Ali, being the bigger name, had the upper hand in these negotiations, and the rules came out very one sided. Inoki would not be allowed to duplex Ali. He could not head-butt Ali, knee him below the belt knee blows, use open hands, or kick Ali over the belt.
Inoki was disappointed. Essentially, Ali’s people wanted him to go into the ring and be a punching bag. Inoki decided to take the matter lying down – literally. The result was one of the most memorable and boring and embarrassing bouts in fight history.
As soon as the bell rang, Inoki slid on his back and started to kick Ali. Inoki stayed there for most of the firs round, keeping Ali and his deadly fists at bay by kicking wildly at the champ’s legs.
The awkward battle continued round after round, with Inoki staying low and aiming for Ali’s legs, his only viable means of offense. In the sixth, Ali tried to grab Inoki’s leg. Inoki brought his other leg up tripped Ali to the mat, and sat on his chest.
Ali didn’t even throw a punch until the seventh round. He continued to dodge Inoki’s feet, waving his arms and yelling at Inoki to “fight like a man.” Inoki knew better and stayed flat on the mat.
In the eighth, Ali’s manager Angelo Dundee asked that the boots on Inoki’s feet be taped. The shoe laces had cut Ali’s legs, and it was clear Ali’s legs were taking a brutal beating.
The match went to the fifteen round time limit and was declared a draw. Inoki would have actually won the match it not for losing three points on a foul. Angry fans in the Budokan chanted for their money back. The two men collected their pay day, and the sports press of the world left the match shaking their collective heads over the fiasco.
The match was an embarrassment for Ali, but the damage went far deeper than merely hurting his public reputation. Ali’s legs were in terrible condition, and the champ suffered two blood clots from Inoki’s pounding feet. “Ali is bleeding from the legs,” recalled Bob Arum. “He gets an infection in his legs; almost has to have an amputation. Not only the [Ken] Norton fight would’ve been not happening, but Ali could’ve been a cripple for the rest of his life.”
Ali refused to seek immediate medical treatment or to curb his schedule, which included exhibition matches in South Korea and the Philippines. After completing his Asian trip, he spent a few weeks in the hospital back in Los Angeles.
In September, Ali stepped back into the ring with Ken Norton. Although Ali won the match by unanimous decision, it was clear he was not the same man he once was. Ali had lost a step, and he would never again win a match by knockout.
Five years later, Ali hung up the gloves for good. Two decades in the ring took a sad toll on the former champ’s body, but in retirement, Ali continued to use his status as the most popular athlete in the world to fight for justice and world peace.
Ali didn’t shy away from future opportunities to be a part of the wrestling business. Bill Watts brought Ali in to appear at ringside with The Snowman for a match against Jake “The Snake” Roberts at the Superdome in New Orleans. Ali was also a guest at the inaugural Wrestlemania, appearing as the special guest referee in the main event.
Inoki continued to wrestle for another twenty-two years, a luxury afforded him because his sport was a work. In 1986 he managed to convince Leon Spinks, the man who took Ali’s Heavyweight Championship, into a mixed fighting match, a match Inoki won by pin fall. In 1990 Inoki, like Ali before him, converted to Islam. Inoki has also served his country as an elected member of the House of Councillors.
The battle between the world’s greatest boxer and Japan’s greatest wrestler may not have high regard in the memory of sports fans, but it foreshadowed a change in the fighting sports. While boxing has steadily declined in popularity and wrestling has seen its ups and downs, Mixed Martial Arts has become the rage. UFC, Bellator, and other MMA promotions are now making millions by pitting fighters with diverse backgrounds against one another. What was once seen as a novelty is now a weekly ritual for fight fans. MMA has even allowed some professional wrestlers, most notably Brock Lesnar, to show the world that not all professional wrestlers are mere actors.
While the Ali-Inoki match is not not at all acknowledged in Ali’s museum, there’s a very nice epilogue to their story. In 1998 Inoki faced Don Frye in the final of a series of matches dubbed the Final Countdown. In honor of his former opponent, Muhammed Ali flew to Japan to witness his former adversary’s last match. After the match ended, Ali climbed into the ring to hug the man who had become his friend. A representative for Ali read a message from the champ.
“It was 1976 when I fought Antonio Inoki at the Budokan. In the ring, we were tough opponents. After that, we built love and friendship with mutual respect. So, I feel a little less lonely now that Antonio has retired. It is my honor to be standing on the ring with my good friend after 22 years. Our future is bright and has a clear vision. 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. It is my pleasure to come here today.”
While Ali vs. Inoki is looked upon by some fight fans with the same “reverence” Star Wars fans have for the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, it’s a credit to both men that the fight did not tarnish their reputations. Ali and Inoki are both Hall of Fame talents, two of the greatest who ever lived, and the impact they had on their respective sports will be felt for years to come. Some even argue that their confrontation helped to launch a fighting style that would challenge boxing and wrestling for supremacy forty years later, Mixed Martial Arts.
Ali vs. Inoki is a unique match in the annals of both sports. It deserves to be remembered for its novelty and its legacy, but like the aforementioned Star Wars travesty, it’s best not to look at it too long.
The last time I saw John Wayne Murdoch, he was falling backwards through a table on the shoulders of Shane Mercer from the top turnbuckle. Murdoch is as hardcore as they get. There’s no bump, no height, no foreign object that scares him. But of all the brave things John Wayne Murdoch has done in the ring, none compare to what he did last week.
Just a few days after the great Daniel Bryan announced his retirement due to concussions, Murdoch announced his departure from the same business. It may not be retirement for Murdoch just yet, but it will at least be an extended absence. Like Bryan, Murdoch is suffering from severe post-concussion symptoms. It scared him enough to go to the doctor, and the doctor’s diagnosis convinced him he needs a break from the business he loves dearly.
John Wayne Murdoch does not have an “angel” like Bryan has in Vince McMahon. There’s no billionaire promoter paying him not to wrestle. He has made this impossible choice on his own, and he deserves all the credit in the world for doing so.
As much as we know about the human body, especially the brain, there’s no bravery in fighting through head injuries. No matter how high your tolerance for pain may be, it’s not worth it to continue destroying something that can never recover from the damage caused by concussions. There are plenty of ways to stay involved in pro wrestling that no one should continue working past such a dangerous point of no return.
If you see John Wayne Murdoch at a show or on social media, thank him for all he has given to the business, then honor him by sharing his story with someone else. No one wants to see a promising wrestling career cut short, but we need more men like Daniel Bryan and John Wayne Murdoch to show the world that there are some things more important than stepping into the ring.
Forgive the goofy blog title, but after hearing Freddie Prinze, Jr. on Chris Jericho’s podcast, you’ll be saying the same thing.
Freddie has an amazing life story. He grew up around legendary film and martial arts icons like Bob Hall, Chuck Norris, and Judo Gene LeBell. And after he decided to walk away from his film career, he spent several years quietly working behind the scenes for the WWE.
Yes, THAT Freddie Prinze, Jr. worked as a writer, acting coach, and more for the WWE.
Go to the Talk Is Jericho page and download episode 212. This is a must hear episode that will completely change the way you look at the former teen heartthrob.
It’s been nearly twenty years since Jesse “The Body” Ventura was elected governor of the state of Minnesota. Since that time, wrestling fans have wondered when a professional wrestler would make a run for the nation’s highest office. Donald Trump may be a WWE Hall of Famer, but he hardly qualifies. And even if he did, he would be over 150 years too late to be the first wrestling superstar elected to the nation’s highest office. That honor belongs to a Kentucky-born attorney who made a name for himself as a grappler in the 1830s. His name is Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in a log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky. Kentucky loves to boast of its Lincoln connection, as does Indiana, where young Lincoln spent much of his boyhood. In 1830 Lincoln left his father’s household to strike out on his own, landing in New Salem, Illinois. He went to work for a man named Denton Offutt, a local merchant. Together with a few other young men, Lincoln traveled by flatboat to new Orleans to sell some goods for his employer. It was there that Lincoln first witnessed the evils of slavery, an institution he fight against in his later years when he entered politics.
It was during his employment for Denton Offutt that Lincoln became known as a wrestler. Offutt loved to boast of the strength and athleticism of his young employee. Standing at 6’4”, Lincoln was very tall compared to other men of the day. Had he lived in our time, it’s likely he would have grown to be 6’10”, giving him the size that Vince McMahon craves in his top stars.
Lincoln could not only walk the walk, he could talk the talk. A first person account of the time records that Lincoln once dispatched a would-be challenger with a single toss. After subduing his opponent, Lincoln called out to those watching, “Any of you want to try it, come and wet yet horns!” The challenge went unanswered, and Lincoln left the scene standing tall.
Lincoln’s most legendary moment came when he faced off with a young man named Jack Armstrong. Armstrong was the leader of a local gang in New Salem known as the Clary’s Grove Boys. The Boys were trouble makers known for nailing guys inside of wooden barrels and rolling them down hills. They were natural heels, the kind of men an audience would pay heavily to see brought down a peg or two.
Armstrong goaded Lincoln into a face off, and the two locked horns in the streets of New Salem. Armstrong underestimated his lanky foe, and when he discovered just how strong Lincoln was, he turned dirty. He started kicking and stomping Lincoln out of frustration. Lincoln snapped. He grabbed Armstrong around the collar and began shaking him like a rag doll. Lincoln tossed Armstrong a few times and left him lying unconscious in the dirt.
Some accounts say that the confrontation led to a truce between the two men. Armstrong was impressed and humbled by Lincoln, and the two were friends from that day forward.
The match also enhanced Lincoln’s reputation as a wrestler and as a man, and when Lincoln ran for office later in life, that reputation proved to be a major selling point for the voters of Illinois. These frontier voters loved a man who could stand on his own two feet, and in their eyes a man who wrestle would fight for them in Congress.
Lincoln’s chief political rival Stephen Douglas even spoke about Lincoln’s wrestling skills. Douglas would often praise Lincoln’s strength and skill as a grappler before going on to attack his positions on slavery and state’s rights. Douglas, like Armstrong before him, would ultimately lose to Lincoln, but unlike Armstrong, Douglas did not suffer the indignity of being shaken like a rag doll.
Lincoln was elected President during a very turbulent time in American history. He was the first man to run as a candidate for the Republican party, and it was the issues of the day that carried him to victory. That said, it would be a mistake to assume his past had nothing to do with his popularity. Like so many politicians before and after him, Lincoln’s celebrity, chiefly as a wrestler, earned him more than a few votes on election day.
Lincoln is remembered best for keeping the Union together while emancipating the slaves, but pro wrestling also owes a debt to Lincoln. Lincoln wrestled over 300 matches before trading grappling for politics. He was ahead of his time as a wrestler and a trash talker. He also broke ground for men like Jesse Ventura, Antonio Inoki, and The Great Sasuke, wrestlers who would use their fame to run for office.
After his death in 1865, Lincoln’s friends and biographers went to great lengths to make sure his legacy stayed strong. As with many early American figures, some of the stories of Lincoln were exaggerated to the point of becoming tall tales. Hard to believe, I know, but it is at least possible some of the stories of Lincoln’s wrestling prowess might have been stretched. Still, his reputation as a grappler was enough to earn him the highest honor afforded a pro wrestler. In 1992 Abraham Lincoln was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Although the induction came 127 years after his death, and although he is rightly remembered more for his tenure as President of the United States, one can’t help but feel Lincoln would have been honored.