Pro Wrestling Goes Mainstream – The First MMA Fight Ever!

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Hello and welcome back to the Pro Wrestling Culture Cloud (PW2C)! Here comes that time where we leave the squared circle for a moment and enjoy appearances made by wrestlers in other media. If this is your first time reading the PW2C column, I encourage you to take a look at this pro wrestling glossary in order to get more familiar with some terms.

Muhammad Ali vs Antonio Inoki
A REAL Boxer vs Wrestler fight

Due to the huge number of fighting styles, there have always been questions and debates about which one was the best. Based on that, the sport currently known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has achieved tremendous success during the last two decades and significant growth is occurring to this day. Back in the 70s, however, most of these fights were closer to low-class circus shows. The participation of two legendary names was thus the principal reason behind the success of this fight… well, at least on a financial level.

The Build-up:

The fight was set from basically nothing. Muhammad Ali, then WBC and WBA Heavyweight Champion, was well-known for his bragging (part of me always wondered how popular of a pro wrestler he would have been in the 80s WWF). Thus, during a reception, he asked the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association whether an “Oriental” fighter was willing to challenge him. Antonio Inoki, who was part of several staged exhibition matches against champions of different martial arts, accepted the challenge.

Thanks to their press conferences, where both fighter threw many “verbal jabs” at each other, seats were sold at up to 300,000 Yen (roughly $3,500). Muhammad Ali, upon his arrival at the airport, was shouting “Muhammad Ali has returned! There will be no Pearl Harbor!”. Even Vince McMahon Sr. saw dollar signs and arranged a live broadcast at the Shea Stadium. The night also featured other matches, including André the Giant vs boxer Chuck Wepner and Bruno Sammartino vs Stan Hanson for the WWWF Heavyweight belt. You can watch the full show here here.

Vince McMahon Sr.’s WWWF Card

The Fight: Boxer vs Wrestler… REALLY?

After huge anticipation by the fans, the fight took place at the Nippon Budokan arena in Tokyo, on June 26th, 1976. Unfortunately, some odd rules made sure that Inoki’s grappling advantage would be taken away in order to protect Muhammad Ali from any career-threatening injury. Don’t you think it is a joke, Inoki was NOT allowed to grapple Ali, nor could he kick him unless his knee was on the ground, which was probably a way to prevent him from using Dropkicks. It pretty much ruined everything, as the “wrestler” part of “boxer vs wrestler” was all but taken away.

If I had to describe the fight in one word? Atrocious! It was just painful to watch, and that is the reason why I did not even try to find more than the highlights in the video below. Imagine yourself having to sit through 15 3-minutes rounds where a boxer is almost running away from a wrestler whose sole attack is a flying low kick. The bout ended as a draw (3-3), which satisfied both men. It should be noted that Inoki had scored a total of 6 points, of which 3 were taken away due to illegal attacks.

The Aftermath:

Muhammad Ali was largely privileged by the rules, that did not protect him from injury though. In fact, Inoki’s repeated attacks to Ali’s left leg resulted in two blood clots and an infection that, according to several claims, affected his movement for the remainder of his career, resulting in a few losses before retirement in 1981. Rumors went as far as saying that Ali’s leg could have been amputated. As for Inoki, he broke his right leg, but went on wrestling for another 20 years before he finally retired in 1998. Both men have become great friends afterwards, and perhaps a significant proof of that is Inoki’s conversion to Islam in 1990 as he recently changed his name to Muhammad Hussain.

Obviously, the match was poorly received, be it by the live crowd who threw objects to the ring asking for their money back, or by all kinds of critics. Boxing “experts” look at this fight at Ali’s worst highlight of his career. However, despite the bad health consequences for Ali, the notoriety of their names in wrestling and boxing were enough to consider this fight a premise to the emergence of a discipline that would later be known as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

I hope you enjoyed this 2nd entry of Pro Wrestling Goes Mainstream. Be sure to tune in next week. If you have any suggestion feel free to use the comment section below. Have a nice weekend!

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