Fight No. 55: The Muhammad Ali farce that inspired MMA

“Nobody will ever come close to this man’s greatness. And if they do, they better wake up and apologise.”

One of millions on Saturday morning, this tribute was accompanied by a black and white image that stood out.

The passing of the greatest sportsman of all times, had sent social media timelines into full Hanna-Barbera mode. Screens scrolled up and scrolled down but the same five or six background images, iconic all, were repeated over and over.

So this caught the eye a bit quicker. It was Muhammad Ali the showman, Muhammad Ali the salesman...with a touch of serious here too. Microphones sprouting up from the table in front of him, Ali, with a suit sharper than his tongue, bewitching, wild eyes hidden behind black shades, is holding court.

Hands expressive, face expressive, soul expressive. (The image was taken in May 1968, a time of exile, when social fights wholly dominated the discourse of a sporting champion stripped of his title.)

The tribute had come from Conor McGregor. As sympathisers thronged social media, the world of mixed martial arts wasn’t counted absent.

Far from it.

“Rest in peace my biggest inspiration,” wrote Jon Jones, modern combat’s reigning pound-for-pound king.

“A man who transcended his sport and became an American icon,” said Daniel Cormier, Jones’ great rival and current UFC light heavyweight champion.

“Being great is one thing, but inspiring others is what really makes you remembered,” was the tribute of the recently retired Dubliner Cathal Pendred.

All fitting words. Yet it was Jeremy Stephens, a well-travelled veteran of the Ultimate Fighting Championship less widely known to fresh MMA converts, who came closer to a pertinent point.

“I have always looked up to #MuhammadAli,” he wrote. “He paved the way 4 combat sports.”

The seminal scion of the squared circle, Ali’s impact, influence and omnipresence in boxing’s grand, golden times of mass appeal has always been heralded. However, as the sport slid slowly then steadily down the social conscience and a young upstart has more recently risen, another wonder of the life of Ali hasn’t received nearly enough attention — he might just have invented mixed martial arts too.

Any and all of the available professional fighting records of Muhammad Ali show 61 entries. Fifty six of them sit green for victory and five red for defeat. In one particular sense, it makes for a fitting final tally, a testament to a man for whom the mere idea of anything resembling middle ground would have been absurd.

Yet Ali did once draw a professional fight. It just wasn’t boxing.

The bout that would have brought his record to 62 outings would have been recorded as fight No. 55, nestled among a hectic 1976 schedule, between knocking out England’s Richard Dunn in Germany in May and outlasting Ken Norton in the pair’s rubber match in the Bronx in September.

The stop-off in between Munich and New York would be Tokyo. And that — mere geography — is about the only aspect of fight No. 55 that made any semblance of sense.

In June 1976, Muhammad Ali was boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world. Antonio Inoki was also a heavyweight champion, the all-conquering king of Japanese professional wrestling. What was going to bring them together for 15 rounds of ultimately farcical action? The same thing that spurs fighters brought together by Dana White and UFC chiefs to mix their martial arts in more modern times. Money.

In a superb deep dive on the fight in The Guardian in 2009, Andy Bull recalled that Ali and Inoki “would be contesting the title of toughest man on the planet. Of course the whole thing stank of the circus... ‘Why fight a wrestler and demean the boxing title’...Ali was asked. ‘Six million dollars, that’s why,’ the champion replied.”

The fight had been concocted a year earlier when Ali was introduced to Japanese wrestling chiefs at a drinks get-together in the US. An Ali boast about giving a million dollars to any Oriental fighter who could beat him touched off a storm back in Japan at a time when relations between the countries were strained.

With the likes of a younger Bob Arum and Vince McMahon Snr involved in the promotional side, it had circus written all over it.

The rules, initially at least, were few — Ali would wear light gloves, Inoki none; Ali could tag out of grapples; no knees or kicks below the belt.

“There’s no question that Ali’s presence made people watch,” Josh Gross, leading combat sports writer and author of the upcoming book Ali vs Inoki, told the Irish Examiner.

“He was arguably the most famous man on the planet at the time, and used his fame to sell the boxer-grappler concept as worthwhile. He defended it vigorously in the media before the match.”

Whatever about mixed martial arts, the lead-up to the fight was filled with mixed (and missed) messages. Once on Japanese soil, Ali was on the sell. Inoki never lacked in this department either. The only problem was working out what they were selling.

Some fixers had assumed Ali was aware it was all a set-up and for his $6m (€5.2m) paycheque, he would lose. The champion knew no such thing, nor did his camp consider it. The rules were hastily rewritten and Inoki’s skills shaved out of the equation — no tackles, no takedowns and no kicks unless one knee was in contact with the mat.

So Inoki’s knee stayed in contact with the mat. On fight night, with the vaunted Bundokan arena heaving with paying punters and armies watching closed circuit feeds around the world, the home favourite went to ground.

For the majority of the fight Inoki attacked Ali from a horizontal position. Pictures from the night are really quite something. Ali, mouth and eyes wide, hopping around to avoid this whirring dervish at his feet.

In the sixth round, Ali had the ignominy of bring flipped to the canvass before Inoki straddled him. It might just have been his most lowest moment. He didn’t throw his first punch until the seventh. Only five more punches would follow in the next eight rounds.

The crowd grew restless, riled then almost revolted. Inoki’s kicks eventually found their mark, bruising, swelling then bleeding Ali’s legs, injuries that required a hospital stay and many say left a more lasting mark on the ageing champion.

After 15 rounds of farce, the fight was called a draw. Inoki, it transpired, had actually won by three points. All three were deducted for ‘fouling’.

Handy, that.

“There was very little frame of reference among sport watchers for mixed-rules bouts in the mid-1970s. Boxing writers hated it. Wrestling fanatics didn’t understand it,” says Gross. “But the fact is Ali vs. Inoki was called ‘mixed martial arts’ by the people involved. Even though the bout was considered a dud or farce at the time it certainly inspired a generation of martial artists across the globe to think about mixed-matches.”

Fight No. 55, the one that is logged in the actual record books, came three months later at Yankee Stadium when Ali defeated Norton for a second time in their third meeting but his mobility was still hampered from the leg injuries Inoki inflicted.

The champion would fight another six times in the next four years before finally walking away. He lost half of them, the debilitating defeat to Larry Holmes in his penultimate bout and demoralising farewell fall to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas somehow not smudging a golden record.

For his part, Inoki fought on until 1998, intermittently in the final phases. An icon in his homeland, his global impact is only being truly felt as MMA continues to gain mass appeal. Though he spent most of those 15 slapstick rounds on his back, by luring Ali into combat, Inoki had helped get something off the ground.

“Bouts pitting strikers and grapplers have occurred for thousands of years, so while Ali’s match with Inoki wasn’t new it was easily the highest profile contest of its kind until the recent global success of the UFC,” continues Gross. Two years ago, Conor McGregor’s rise to the top of the MMA world beginning to pick up pace, the ailing icon reminded everyone of the trail he blazed.

“What do you think @DanaWhite?” came a tweet from Ali’s official account, accompanied by a picture of him dragging Inoki around the Tokyo ring by the ankle. “Muhammad Ali - the original #MMA fighter?”

The UFC president is known for many things. Humility wouldn’t come high on any list.

This, though, was different. This was Ali. On a new world medium, in new world speak, the message was one for all ages, all eras.

“U sir are the original everything!” came White’s reply. “Ur the reason combat sports is where it is 2day.”

Josh Gross’s book, “Ali vs Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment” is released June 21.

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