Despite the ancient Greeks proving the question moot thousands of years ago by employing both striking and grappling in the art of pankration, the modern world has, for years, been fixated on a very old question. Who would win if a boxer fought a wrestler?
This query was the reason why Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki squared off in a clash of styles on June 26, 1976, though it was hardly the first or last time a boxer and grappler shared a ring prior to the rise of no-holds-barred fighting in America. While judoka Gene LeBell legitimately choked out pugilist Milo Savage in 1963, that sporting contest stands out as unique, since many notable boxer-wrestler pairings were staged and conducted as a means of entertainment rather than competition.
It was allegedly under this impression that Ali entered into his match with Inoki, which Ali claimed earned him a $6 million purse. The reigning World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council heavyweight boxing champion, Ali promoted the bout with colorful manager and former National Wrestling Alliance titleholder Freddie Blassie by his side.
Prior to his meeting with Inoki, Ali participated in a worked match with Kenny Jay in Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association, “knocking out” the jobber with a comical right hand. An in-ring confrontation with Gorilla Monsoon would also take place in the Vince McMahon Sr.-run World Wide Wrestling Federation, with Monsoon hoisting Ali in an airplane spin before casually dumping him on the canvas.
This was not the type of confrontation awaiting Ali in Japan -- a country that idolized Inoki as Americans would come worship Hulk Hogan years later. The founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling, Inoki was trained by the legendary Karl Gotch and Rikidozan in a strong style that relied heavily on the catch wrestling roots of “sports entertainment.”
Earlier that year, Ali had fought Joe Frazier for a third time in arguably the most brutal match in the history of modern boxing: “The Thrilla in Manila.” The once-fleet-footed heavyweight from Louisville was no longer the razor-sharp wrecking machine that had destroyed the likes of Sonny Liston and Cleveland Williams, the result of years of punishment in the ring.
Accounts differ regarding why the match was altered from a work to a shoot, but the eleventh-hour rule set birthed from that change certainly made for a strange attraction. Inoki was apparently barred from suplexing Ali and could allegedly only kick if he had one knee on the ground. This resulted in Inoki flopping to his back while launching kicks at Ali’s lead leg for the majority of the 15-round fight, causing damage that later landed Ali in the hospital with blood clots.
The bout, which aired in the United States on closed circuit television following heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner’s worked match with Andre The Giant at Shea Stadium, was declared an unsatisfying draw. Though the awkward, frustrating bout proved virtually nothing about either man or his respective style, the iconic confrontation is nevertheless viewed as an important if not spectacular step toward the establishment of MMA.