Gene LeBell still shakes his head when he hears how the most infamous cross-sport fight in combat sports history — at least until Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor go at it Aug. 26 — was supposedly fixed.
“I remember looking at (Muhammad) Ali’s legs,” martial arts icon LeBell, who refereed the fight and is now 84, told USA TODAY Sports via telephone Monday. “There were marks and hematomas all over them. Ali ended up in hospital.”
Ali didn’t rake in the $100-plus million that Mayweather and McGregor will collect for their efforts at T-Mobile Arena when he took on Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976, but he did secure a $6 million purse. That was then a monstrous sum, especially for a bout that the boxing star believed would be scripted with a pre-ordained outcome.
“Except that it wasn’t,” LeBell added. “People don’t believe me but no one said anything to me about what had to happen or about a specific set of rules.”
The contest itself generated huge attention and played out before a sellout crowd at the Budokan in Tokyo. Inoki was a massive star in Japan, where pro wrestling enjoyed great appeal. Ali was coming off an 11-fight win streak in boxing, with the third bout of his trilogy against Ken Norton to follow soon after.
Sadly, the Tokyo fight was a dud. Inoki spent much of the 15 rounds on his back, kicking out at Ali’s legs, which quickly welted up. Different versions of what was permitted abound, with Inoki having claimed then that many of his typical tactics such as throws and strong grappling were forbidden, leaving him little option but to stay on his back, out of range of Ali’s strikes. Ali connected with just five punches the entire fight.
The lack of activity meant the much-touted battle went down as a footnote, fading into obscurity alongside the classic boxing events of the 1970s, many of them featuring Ali.
“It was the most atrocious crap that I have ever seen,” Ali’s promoter and current Top Rank chief Bob Arum said. “Nothing happened.”
LeBell said the entertainment void was because neither man had any fighting skills except his own. Ali couldn’t wrestle or strike except for with his fists. Inoki couldn’t box. Each stuck to what they knew best. The fight was eventually called a draw, LeBell scoring it 71-71, a boxing judge giving Inoki the win and a wrestling judge scoring it for Ali.
One man who has watched it in depth, perhaps surprisingly, is McGregor, an avid discipline of all combat sports and their history.
“I watched but you can’t see much of the build-up, it was different time,” McGregor said at his media workout last week. “But the fight was interesting. I believe Ali was set up and didn’t know what he was letting himself in for. Ali wasn’t calling Inoki into his game (boxing), so credit to Ali for that, that shows his character.
“It was a crazy fight. Inoki sat full guard and was crawling across the floor kicking Ali in the legs. Ali was like backing up trying to say ‘get him up.’ (But) you’ve got to deal with these problems yourself.”
Midway through the fight, Ali made an attempt to catch Inoki’s legs and subsequently land punches. As the most lucrative night of his life approaches, McGregor reflected how if that moment had gone differently, the event might have provided a seminal change in combat sports.
“Ali tried to reach down and punch, and he ended up getting swept and Inoki ended up on top,” McGregor added. “(But) the referee separated it straight away. If that moment in time was let go for five more seconds, 10 seconds, Inoki would have wrapped around his neck or his arm or a limb and the whole face of the combat world would have changed right there and then.”
As it was, boxing remained king for decades to come, whereas the explosion of the UFC and mixed martial arts was still a long way away.
While the fight wasn’t fixed, as Ali originally assumed, it could have turned out that way. Pro wrestling legend Vince McMahon Sr. contacted Arum with an incredible and hilarious script that he believed would give the bout the best possible result.
“Inoki would have a razor blade hidden and would cut himself,” Arum added. “He would be covered in blood and Ali would have him on the ropes and would be begging the referee to stop the fight. Eventually, Ali would turn completely to the referee, then Inoki would jump on him, pin him, the referee would count 1-2-3 and Inoki would win. Then Ali would shout: ‘It’s another Pearl Harbor.’”
Perhaps thankfully, that outcome did not eventuate. Ali would go on to beat Norton, though his legs became infected from all the cuts caused by Inoki’s kicks and his movement never quite got back to its scintillating best.
Inoki became a politician and the pair remained firm friends for the rest of Ali’s life. LeBell continued to be involved in combat sports, writing several books, worked extensively in the movie industry as a renowned stuntman and was involved in MMA recently through his friendship with Ronda Rousey. He is looking forward to having an armchair view of Mayweather-McGregor instead of the in-ring look he had 41 years ago.
“In reality, boxers shouldn’t wrestle or fight MMA guys,” LeBell added. “MMA guys shouldn’t fight boxers. But for $100 million I’d fight a lion, and I can’t wait to see what they make of this event.”