The Japanese wrestler that almost amputated Muhammad Ali’s leg
Sometimes, professional wrestling is real.
If you’ve never heard of the June 1976 fight that almost got Muhammad Ali’s leg cut off, it doesn’t mean that you’re culturally unaware, or a bad sports fan. It probably just means that you’re not Japanese.
So, let me set the stage. In 1975, Muhammad Ali went up to the head of the New Japan Pro Wrestling league, and reportedly boasted:
‘Isn’t there any Oriental fighter who will challenge me? I’ll give him one million dollars if he wins.’
Word got back to Japan, and one ‘Oriental’ dude decided that he was willing to take Ali up on his offer. After a few months and some paperwork back and forth, the stage was set for one of the strangest, and most dangerous, fights of Ali’s life.
In this corner, Muhammad Ali.
Age 34. Height: 6 feet, 3 inches. Weight: 214 pounds. Reach: 78 inches.
Fighting Style: Boxing.
Background: World Heavyweight Champion. Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.
And in that corner, Antonio Inoki.
Age: 33. Height: 6 feet, 3 inches. Weight: 240 pounds. Reach: it doesn’t matter (we’ll come to that later).
Fighting Style: Pro Wrestling.
Background: A professional wrestler from the legendary Rikidozan stable. Known for his famous ‘Octopus Hold’. His trainer once pushed him out of a speeding car to toughen him up.
The circus starts.
Of course, the media went nuts at the announcement of the fight. Ali worked the cameras and the microphones as only he could, bragging and boasting about how bad he would beat Inoki to a pulp.
In return, Inoki quietly arranged for a single crutch to be presented to Ali.
Even on the day of the match, Ali continued the trash talk. He shouted that ‘there will be no Pearl Harbor’, and taunted Inoki, calling him a ‘pelican’ because of his big chin (to be fair, dude does have a pretty big chin).
Inoki knew that references to WWII weren’t going to work out so well for him, so he retorted back through a translator that he’d better get some good gloves so that he didn’t hurt his fists on his chin. He also added a line that wouldn’t have made much sense unless you were Japanese:
‘Let me teach you some Japanese, pal. In our language, ‘Ali’ means ‘little insect’.’
Calling someone a ‘little insect’ is something that, say, an evil anime character would do to the person he’s about to kill.
The two enter the ring to a sold-out crowd at the Tokyo Budokan hall. This event has been billed as the ultimate showdown of fighting, period, and the crowd is riled up.
The gong sounds, and both fighters come out. Ali comes out, skipping and dipping, but Inoki won’t engage him. Instead, he stays crouched down, as if he’s already cowering from a blow. Suddenly, he goes in for a slide tackle, kicking Ali in the leg. Then, for the rest of the round, he crab-walks across the mat, never standing up tall enough for Ali to get a punch in. Sometimes, he just lies down on his back, daring Ali to step close enough to catch another kick. Ali seems a little confused and upset, and shouts at Inoki to ‘stand up and fight like a man’.
But in reality, this was all Ali’s doing.
There’s conflicting information on what exactly happened, but since there’s a bit of information in English already about the match, I’ll give Inoki’s side of the story. Ali had come to Japan assuming that the match would be orchestrated. He knew about pro wrestling theatrics in the States, and figured he’d be have a bit of fun on stage in front of a Japanese audience. But when he popped in to ask when the rehearsal was, he saw Inoki sparring with a partner, and practicing flying kicks and grappling moves on his teammates in preparation for the big match.
This didn’t look like the gimmicky pro wrestling he’d seen on TV.
Ali got a little concerned, and asked when rehearsal was going to be. Inoki stared at him, and replied that there was no ‘rehearsal’:
‘No, no, this isn’t an exhibition. It’s a real fight.’
Ali left. Then all of a sudden, Ali’s staff came back, saying the fight would be canceled, unless they could make some changes to the rules. Most of these involved limiting Inoki’s ability to fight. No grapples. No tackling. No open hits to the face. No dropkicks. No kicks above the waist. No kicks period, unless one knee was on the mat.
Basically, Inoki’s entire pro wrestling repertoire was banned. The slide kicks were all he could use.
In the second and third rounds,
it’s more of the same. Inoki on his back, Ali yelling at Inoki to get up. Inoki sometimes gets up, and attempts a kick. At this point, Ali is still dodging most of them.
If you look at footage of the fight, you see the camera occasionally pan over to the side of the ring, and you can get a glimpse of Ali’s staff, who are starting to look a little nervous. But Inoki’s side is definitely sweating bullets right now. This wasn’t publicized until much later, but Inoki had put up several million dollars to make the fight happen. This wasn’t the New Japan Pro-Wrestling league’s money — it was Inoki’s own, and he’d borrowed most of it. So if he lost, he, along with all of his fellow fighters, would be personally ruined.
But they also knew that Ali had more than money in the ring — like Inoki, Ali’s pride was on the line.
Neither fighter could afford to lose.
In the fourth round,
Inoki pins Ali up against the ropes. Ali tries to kick back, but it’s clear he’s just flailing here, while Inoki’s kicks are actually doing damage.
Also, Inoki’s training partners had realized that Ali wouldn’t really know how to attack with his feet, and Inoki had practiced for this very same ring-corner situation. Ali is eventually saved by the ref coming in and getting his body between the two fighters.
By this point, the crowd is getting restless. This is not the fight they came to see.
In the fifth round,
Inoki starts circling Ali, looking for a takedown. He sees an opportunity, and dives in, knocking Ali to the ground for the first time. Ali slips, but snatches the rope just in time, and manages to dodge a swat at the face from Inoki.
You can see the crowd jump to their feet in the background. This is what they came to see.
In the sixth round,
Inoki inches along the ground towards Ali, and throws a kick. Ali makes the mistake of trying to grab Inoki’s feet, and Inoki suddenly twists his body, knocking Ali to the ground. This is the chance he’s been waiting for. This is Inoki’s bread and butter.
Inoki jumps on top of him, pins him, and starts to twist his leg, likely going for a submission hold. But Ali reaches out and grabs the rope, and the referee comes over and pulls Inoki off.
Had Ali not been able to reach that rope, the fight might have ended here.
By the end of the seventh round,
Inoki has landed about fifteen kicks. Ali’s leg has been bleeding since the third round, and now it’s bleeding so badly that they pause the match, and Ali’s corner accuses Inoki of having something sharp hidden in his wrestling boots.
Actually, Ali’s team’s intuition wasn’t completely off the mark. Before the match, Inoki’s trainer had handed him a specially made pair of boots with steel plates sewn in. He put them on, but he couldn’t go through with it. He didn’t want to live a life of regret from cheating in what he knew would be the most important match of his life. He pulled them off, and put his normal boots back on.
So there was nothing hidden in these boots, but they made him tape them up anyway.
In the 9th round,
Ali takes a particularly brutal kick. By this point, it was obvious what Inoki was going for.
Inoki wasn’t just aiming at the legs, he was concentrating on a particular spot, and attempting to break Ali down from there. All of his kicks were wrapping around the back of Ali’s left leg, and catching him in the back of the knee.
In the 10th round,
Ali finally lands his second punch of the evening, catching Inoki in the head.
Ali was lighting quick, but never known as a heavy hitter. Inoki later said that every time Ali connected, he got dizzy.
By the 11th round,
Ali’s left leg is completely red and swollen. Before, he was skipping around in an attempt to show that the leg kicks weren’t hurting him, but now he’s dropped the act.
The butterfly is no longer floating.
In the 12th round,
Inoki lands ten kicks. He’s not worrying about accuracy anymore — anything that connects is painful. Ali’s legs are heavy. His mouth is still running though, and he starts trash talking.
In the 13th round,
Ali struts out with his shoulders cocked, but he’s clearly limping. Inoki feints a kick, and Ali gets spooked, favoring his wounded leg. Inoki jumps in and grabs Ali around the waist, going for a full body slam.
He almost gets it — according to Inoki, if he’d been a couple millimeters lower, he could have lifted Ali clean off the mat and thrown him down. But Ali manages to hunch down, and the ref pulls them apart.
Inoki tries the move again, but he can’t get low enough. He pins Ali against the rope. He almost lifts him up again, but Ali grabs the rope and pulls himself down. Inoki starts to get cocky.
Then, Ali goes on the offensive.
He gets his final three hits in of the night, for a total of five punches landed. But at the sound of the bell, he’s back in his corner, lifting his left leg off the mat to relieve the pain.
The 14th round
comes and goes. Mostly the two just stare each other down and yell. Both fighters are exhausted.
The 15th round bell sounds.
Inoki walks into the center of the ring to shake Ali’s hand. Ali bumps his hand with his glove. They start circling each other. …and, nothing.
The final bell rings.
Inoki throws up his hands in disgust, clearly frustrated at the rules that prevented him from being able to fight properly. Ali comes over, embraces his opponent, and says something in his ear. He’s smiling, but he seems to be glad the whole thing is over.
The crowd isn’t so amused.
They came to see blood — Inoki’s, Ali’s, anybody’s — but the match was a total bore. Nowadays, this sort of stuff happens in MMA fights all the time, but people wanted to see hits, and lots of them.
So the arena turned into a small-scale riot. People were pushing, shouting, throwing garbage into the ring, and basically trashing anything they could out of frustration. I know you probably think Japanese people are polite and clean, but no. This mess took days to clean up.
Because there was no knockout, the decision went to the judges.
Inoki landed 64 kicks. Ali got in 5 punches.
And somehow, it was a draw.
‘In terms of the amount of hits gotten in, I thought Inoki had won’, said Inoki’s training partner this year in an interview:
But one of the judges voted for an Ali win. I was pissed, I figured he’d taken a bribe. After the match, I was running around, yelling ‘find me [that judge], I’m gonna fucking kill him!’
So, in the end, Inoki kept his money, and his pride. But he didn’t come out unscathed. After all of those kicks, his right foot was broken.
But Ali was much worse.
Apparently, he walked confidently off the mat, but as soon as the elevator doors closed behind him, he collapsed on the floor. He was in horrific pain. But he also had exhibition matches scheduled in the Phillipines and Korea over the next few days, and against the advice of his trainer, he went ahead with the bouts. By the time he returned to Los Angeles, he had two clots in his leg, and for a while, it looked like they might have to amputate his leg due to infection. He spent several weeks in the hospital.
In the next five years until his retirement, Ali repeatedly went to the hospital for this condition. As his trainer said, Ali’s footwork was never the same.
But Ali was never one to hold a grudge against an opponent, as embarrassing and damaging as the match was for him. When Inoki sent word in 1994 that he’d be having his final match soon, Ali took a plane to Tokyo and sat ringside. After the match, he stepped into the ring and offered him a bouquet (and probably a few choice words).
For probably obvious reasons, this match doesn’t get talked about much in articles and books about Ali. But this had a huge impact on the Japanese sports scene, as well as Inoki himself. After this match, Inoki adopted Muhammad Ali’s ‘Bom-Ba-Ye’ song, switching the lyrics to ‘Inoki-Bom-Ba-Ye’.
Actually, a quick poll of my Japanese roommates suggests that a lot of kids nowadays have no idea it was originally Ali’s song.
This seems to have been done with Ali’s blessing.
One last thing:
Inoki also shares a religion with Ali. In 1991, after Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in what became the jumpoff for the Gulf War, some 41 Japanese officials were trapped in the country, and essentially being held hostage. The Japanese government was having trouble negotiating, so Inoki hopped on a plane on his own dime and flew to Iraq. He threw a “Sports and Peace” event, featuring a concert and a pro wrestling show, in an attempt to get the restrictions on Japanese leaving the country lifted. Somewhere in between events, he walked into a mosque and walked out a Muslim, taking on the name Muhammad Hussein.
And at the end of the event, all 41 Japanese officials were released.
Ali vs Inoki highlights