Today hockey icon Gordie Howe passed away, and it's the funeral of Muhammad Ali. I admired Howe and saw him play for about 10 years - he played until he was 52! even playing along side his two sons Mark and Marty for a number of years.
Ali... as I wrote about a few blogs ago, I got to meet him as a 1 year old, which is to say I didn't. But he did bless me with a kiss after a chance meeting early one morning in England when my dad was pushing the baby carriage around to get me to stop crying as I apparently had been doing all night long. You cane read the full story HERE.
As for Japan and Ali... there is that famous or infamous event where Ali 'fought' professional wrestler Antonio Inoki... an event I recall seeing on TV (a replay) back in 1975.
In 1974, Ali had just had one of his most famous boxing matches ever, the Thrilla In Manila where he fought the amazing Joe Frazier. As a kid... I loved to watch boxing, and used to say it was my favorite spectator sport even ahead of hockey. I wonder why my dad never got me into boxing?
Anyhow... 1975... Ali met the president of the Japan Amateur Wrestling Assn. at a party, and perhaps wishing to expand his global reach boldly asked: "Isn’t there any Oriental fighter to challenge me? I’ll give him $1 million if he wins.”
Don't get upset at the Oriental thing... I think it was okay to say up until the early 1990s. Now it's "Asian".
Well... Asia ain't no Frazier, and once the Japanese press heard this boast from the brash Ali, word got to noted Japanese wrestler Inoki, who accepted the challenge...
... but how could a boxer fight a wrestler? Yeah... professional wrestling is entertainment with the results staged aforehand, with the wrestlers working out a routine... and I knew that as a 10 year-old... but why would Ali ever allow himself to be body slammed or kicked?
Turns out... Ali nearly had to have a leg amputated after this debacle that finally occurred in 1976..
I met Inoki in 1993 when he visited Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken. Matthew called me up to tell me there was going to be a sumo exhibition in town and that we should go. I think he was already there but called me from a pay phone (that was nice of him. I guess I owe him 10 yen for the call).
Inoki was a government official at that time, and was part of the entourage to provide opening remarks to the sporting event.
Afterwards, I met sumo wrestler wrestler Musashimaru (6'-3, 525lbs/1.91cm, 237kg) and had an entertaining experience with him.
But I did also shake hands with Inoki... 6-2 and 240lbs... whose oven mitt hand swallowed my hand in a friendly handshake that was gentle, knowing that he could have crushed my digits had he wanted.
Anyhow... back to Ali versus Inoki... in a fight set-up that would have had me if I was Ali, firing my promoter.
"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.
Here's a video of it:
Ali is playing the media crowd like only Ali can... and I love that Inoki just smiles, continues to eat and takes it. We are talking payday, as Ali points out.
Now... despite the fact that Inoki couldn't speak English, he did have a crutch sent to Ali - as a means of intimidation, which Ali re-gifted back to Inoki during the above press conference.
|Ali... the mouth that roared. Inoki would have been one handsome dude if he didn't have that extra large chin.|
I know... this sounds serious... and it was.
I watched the match and thought... did anyone tell Inoki that this event isn't real?
On June 26, 1976 the bout took place in Tokyo's Budokan stadium. Instead of a bell, a gong is struck to begin the match.
Ali tells everyone that Inoki won't last 10 rounds of their scheduled 15 round fight, and Inoki... well.. he had the weight of his country on his shoulders... but this is just a show, right?
So.. match starts and Inoki races across the ring and slide kicks Ali in the leg knocking him back. Then Inoki moves to the center of the ring and lies on his back with his knees bent and beckons Ali to attack him.
Ali having none of that, yells at Inoki to stand up and fight.
Inoki refuses and pretty much stayed down there for the entire fight.
The crowd begins to boo... assuming that Ali and Inoki would go toe-to-toe... but here's the thing...
... prior to the fight... Ali had thought this was a fixed entertainment match... a promo... that no one was hitting anyone hard. But when he met with Inoki's English interpreter to ask when the rehearsal was going to be, the interpreter seemed stunned and said there was no rehearsal.
To Inoki, this was going to be areal fight. Ali saw that for himself a few days later and before the fight when he saw Inoki practicing - kicking the crap out of his sparring partner with a roundhouse kick to the head - and hard.
Later that night, Ali's crew met with Inoki's to lay out the ground rules:
- No standing kicks;
- No throws;
- No elbow strikes;
- No drop kicks.
Ali's team also told Inoki's team that should the media ever find out, the match would be canceled and there would be no money to Inoki... which I think was $100,000.
Ali... he held onto the ropes and tried to avoid being kicked. Boring. Booooooooooooo.
But in Round 5... it changed.
Inoki gets Ali to the ropes, slides in for a kick, hooks his foot behind Ali amd buckles Ali's knee knocking him down... but before Inoki can move in, Ali is up and away.
Round 6 - Ali still hasn't punched Inoki because Inoki is sliding on the ground... and Inoki is continuing his slide kicks.
So, when Inoki tries another kick, Ali grabs his legs. R'uh-oh, Shaggy.
Ali tries to grab his legs, but Inoki twists his body causing Ali to flip onto the mat wher Inoki has a chance... except that Ali has monster legs and can't put him into a submission hold... so Inoki elbows Ali in the face. Hard.
Ali is hurt and grabs his face... but since no elbows were allowed, the ref jumps in to separate the two combatants.
By the time Round 8 is about to start, Ali's leg has become swollen from the kicks he has absorbed from Inoki who doesn't know that it's supposed to be a fixed match... which is interesting... because wrestling matches are fixed... but apparently he feels that this match is of national pride for himself and all Japanese.
Ali's team thinks that Inoki has something in his boots... but... Inoki didn't. He was going to, but actually removed them before the fight.
Still... Ali's backers have the referee place tape around Inoki's boot toe.
Doesn't matter... Ali's leg is bleeding and swollen... there ain't no floating like a butterfly or stinging like a bee.
But... actually, in Round 11, Ali is able to snap a long jab into Inoki's face... his second actual punch of the match. Jab or not... Ali is a boxer, and if you or I were to feel the snap of a jab, we'd crap our pants as we flew backwards through the air. Boxers know how to hurt.
By Round 12, Inoki kicks Ali 10 times... and it's obvious that Ali no longer can avoid them because he's feeling just swell.
For Round 13, Inoki fakes a slide causing Ali to flinch and move backwards, but Inoki dives at Ali's waist... which actually allows Ali to hit him in the head (causing another bruise tomorrow).
Still, Inoki has Ali by the waist and tries to lift him up to slam him into the mat! But, Ali grabs the ropes and Inoki fails.
Rounds 14 and 15 has both combatants exhausted... so they pretty much just circle each other like tired gladiators, which is what they are.
Ali punches Inoki in the face... Inoki was too tired to move and absorbed a heavy blow. While Ali taunted him, Inoki kicks him one last time in the leg.
Inoki hugs Ali, but he still looks angry that he couldn't take him out.
The fans... forget about the polite Japanese stereotype. They were ticked and began throwing garbage at Ali and Inoki.
The final stats:
- Ali - 5 punches landed;
- Inoki: 64 kicks landed.
Back in the locker rooms, Inoki collapsed, apparently breaking a foot while kicking Ali.
Ali... back at his hotel, his leg was very swollen and he apparently had two blood clots, with promoter Bob Arum saying in a 2009 interview that Ali almost had to have his leg amputated.
Well... I'm sure that was just boxing hyperbole... still... Inoki had done some good damage to Ali.
And whether it was because of Inoki's kicks, or Father Time catching up, Ali's footwork was even slower than it had been after he came out of jail in 1970 after serving time for refusing induction into the US Army to fight in Vietnam.
Now you might think that Ali and Inoki would have ended up hating each other... Ali especially because it was just supposed to be a joke of a promotional bout, but the two actually formed a friendship.
One year after their battle Ali invited Inoki to attend his wedding party. Inoki accepted and joined the very small gathering of friends.
Inoki says that when the cameras were off, Ali was different... calm and gracious... no clowning... except for the practical jokes... but he was even more impressed with how Ali treated Inoki's then three-year-old daughter.
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.
In 1998 when Ali heard that Inoki was retiring, he flew to Tokyo to sit ringside and watch Inoki's final wrestling match... and when it was over, entered the ring to present Inoki a bouquet of flowers.
Here's another weird story... In November of 1990 before the official Operation Desert Storm, Ali traveled to Iraq to deal directly with Sadam Hussein to release 15 American hostages.
Inoki... he also traveled to Iraq to negotiate the release of 41 Japanese hostages.
They weren't doing this as part of a dynamic duo plan, but rather each had conceived of the idea separately. Still... both were successful, with the hostages released!
While in Iraq... Inoki went to a nearby mosque and converted to be a Muslim, given the name of Muhammad Hussain.
Holy crap... a sideshow circus turns into hostage release and a conversion to be a Muslim.
Sports over politics.
When Inoki heard about the passing of Ali last week, he said: "Thanks to Ali, I was able to do a different kind of politics and diplomacy. For that I thank him."
And that's the strange but true story of Muhammad Ali and Muhammad Hussain, I mean Antonio Inoki.
PS: Image at very top shows a low-end ticked to the event at ¥10,000 or about US $100. I saw a top ticked priced at ¥300,000 or US $3,000. And this was in 1976.