On this day: Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki clashed in Japan in infamous mixed rules bout
Muhammad Ali’s motto of “flying like a butterfly and stinging like a bee” was much more than a cute little poetry line that rhymed well with his adopted Islamic surname. It was quite a vivid description of his boxing style as well: at his best, Ali would combine his stinging jabs and long right hands with his superb footwork to create a style that had no parallels up to that day and remains unique even today.
But right in the middle of one of his finest years in the boxing ring he made the unwise decision of attempting something completely unusual in exchange for a huge purse at that time.
In an ill-advised money-grab that would have a devastating impact on his health and his career, the great Ali travelled to Japan where he was scheduled to clash against Japanese-Brazilian wrestler Antonio Inoki in what would be a precursor of today’s inter-disciplinary boxing vs. MMA bouts, with very murky rules.
With a worldwide audience estimated in 1.4 billion, Ali climbed onto the ring wearing his customary boxing gear while Inoki wore tight shorts and long boots laced with bronze eyelets. As the bell sounded, Inoki charged through the ring to attack Ali but then dropped on his back onto the canvas and proceeded to start kicking Ali on his legs, especially his left leg, in one of the weirdest scenes in combat sports history.
Since Ali was wearing gloves and was able to punch Inoki with both hands but his foe was deprived from his ability to punch Ali with his bare hands, this was Inoki’s idea of staging his own aggression. As the bout unfolded and the awkward situation unnerved both fans and principals, a few other tactics were adopted by both fighters in an attempt to make the clash more appealing, but to no avail.
In the end, Ali sustained severe punishment on his legs, including two severe blood clots, which caused him to have his left leg wrapped up in a cast for a period of time, and his mobility was never the same. As Ali approached the end of his days as a professional prizefighter, his reduced mobility in the ring led to him absorbing much more punishment, which in turn accelerated the inevitable downfall of his powers – and with them, his career as well.
The Ali-Inoki match was enormously profitable for Ali, who pocketed over $6 million for his efforts. But as much his punching power remained intact after the fight, it was the loss of his vaunted ability to fly around the ring with the grace of a butterfly what can really be seen as the true price he had to pay for this totally forgettable adventure.
Diego M. Morilla writes for The Ring since 2013. He has also written for HBO.com, ESPN.com and many other magazines, websites, newspapers and outlets since 1993. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has won two first-place awards in the BWAA’s annual writing contest, and he is the moderator of The Ring’s Women’s Ratings Panel. He served as copy editor for the second era of The Ring en Español (2018-2020) and is currently a writer and editor for RingTV.com.