Floyd Mayweather made Japanese kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa cry during his show, but Muhammad Ali nearly lost his leg when he faced professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in their crossover match
In 1976, Muhammad Ali was one of the most famous men on the planet and quite possibly at the peak of his powers.
In the ring, he had won the Rumble in the Jungle against Joe Frazier the previous year and in 1974, had beaten George Foreman in the Thriller in Manila.
By June 1976, Ali had defended his WBA, WBC and The Ring heavyweight titles three times and was heading for a showdown with Ken Norton.
However, before he could get into this business, he had an itch that he wanted to scratch in pro wrestling.
Ali, a longtime pro wrestling fan, agreed to face Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in an exhibition bout, with the bout taking place in Tokyo.
Inoki is one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time. He founded the NJPW in 1972, which remains the leader of Japanese professional wrestling today and although he never competed in WWE, he is part of their Hall of Fame for his contribution to the business.
A true legend in his homeland, Inoki was 33 in 1976 and, like Ali, was in his prime.
After being trained by Karl Gotch, he had an MMA pedigree and he fully intended to show Ali what he knew.
When he arrived in Japan, Ali had no idea that Inoki was preparing for a real fight. The legendary heavyweight had assumed it would look like a professional wrestling show where they would choreograph certain streaks and the outcome would be predetermined.
Think Rocky Balboa vs Thunderlips in Rocky III and you’ll get the idea.
Ali’s understanding was that he would “accidentally” knock out the referee and while he was checking on the official, Inoki would kick him in the head and knock him out.
The referee would wake up and count him, thus giving Inoki the hero’s victory in his home country while Ali is protected from defeat as he kept his morals by checking the ref and Inoki had to cheat to beat him – everyone wins.
But when Ali landed and asked when the rehearsals were taking place, he soon learned that he was going to fight and Ali’s camp had to scramble to accept the rules and regulations of the contest.
A meeting was held at a nearby hotel to set the rules for the fight, but they had to favor Ali. Inoki was not allowed to throw or tackle Ali, nor was he allowed to throw kicks while standing on two feet. He either had to have one knee on the mat or be on his back. Ali’s camp also did not want the rules to be made public.
The fight that ended up happening was not what one would expect. These two men did not do a show; Inoki was only interested in beating Ali, and as a result, he spent the majority of the fight on his back, a place where he could kick Ali and not eat punches.
Ali was visibly upset at Inoki’s tactics and yelled at him to get up. Inoki continued to cut Ali’s legs and shot him in the fifth round. In the sixth, the boxing legend’s leg was a hell of a mess.
The fight drew massive boos as it continued. To sum up, Ali threw six punches in combat.
The end result was a draw, essentially so that both men could save face. There were no Inoki tears like when Floyd Mayweather – the best boxer of his generation – traveled to Tokyo to fight Japanese kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa.
According to his promoter Bob Arum, what Ali thought was a jovial and lucrative affair almost caused him to lose his leg thanks to two blood clots.
“Alright, okay. It was terrible, it was embarrassing. But Ali is bleeding from his legs. He has an infection in his legs; almost has to have an amputation. [Ken] Norton’s fight would not have happened, but Ali could have been crippled for the rest of his life.
Ali fought Norton three months later in September and won. He would successfully defend his title two more times before losing to Leon Spinks in 1978. He would avenge that loss and reclaim his belts five months later, leading to his retirement.
It didn’t last long and he fought twice more before finally retiring in 1981 as the only three-time heavyweight world champion online. His career ended with losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick.
Four years later, Ali appeared at the very first WrestleMania as a referee in the main event between Hulk Hogan and Mr T. vs. Paul Orndorff and Roddy Piper.