Foes meet at lunch; Ali Ant taunts Big Bird
TOKYO — This, kiddies, is the story of the Pelican and the Ant.
Once there was a big, bad prizefighter named Muhammad Ali, a bombastic giant of a man who walked among larger but lesser giants and battered aside, with mighty fists that were like leather-bound maces, all who opposed him.
He was wondrous, this Ali, with a mouth that could sell tickets faster than a computerized vending machine.
One day he met another giant, a powerful but awkward fellow who could stand in a doorway and darken a room.
"You're a pelican," said Ali, laughing with delight.
"And you're an ant," said the other giant — to be told by Ali he was disdainfully sealing his doom.
On June 26, Ali promised Friday, he will transform a fairy tale for adults into high drama, proving once and for all that a boxer can beat a wrestler — a profound question that has prodded generations of barflies into spirited debate.
Ali came to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan for a lunch hour confrontation with wrestler Antonio Inoki, whom he faces at the Budokan in a 15-round match billed as the "World Heavyweight Martial Arts Championship."
Ali already holds the premier title in boxing, but insists that isn't good enough — he has to fulfill a boyhood dream that began when he watched. Gorgeous George, Argentine Rocca and all the giants of another day.
With a flick of one finger, Ali shortened Inoki's life in the ring, revising predictions of an eight-round knockout to one round.
"I've been waiting all my life to beat a rassler and prove that a rassler can't beat a great fighter," Ali said. Then he turned on Inoki, who sat a chair away, and said, "You wait until I hit you on that pelican jaw.
"This is my last year. I can't go out the loser. I got some movies to make and a lot of things to do."
Ali doggedly insisted the bout was genuine, something Japanese sports journals have been lightheartedly questioning ever since the match was made.
Mysterious callers, Ali said, have been telephoning him and trying to rig the fight, but he has turned a deaf ear to them.
"I can't get wrapped up in a rig," Ali said. "My credibility would be ruined. I might want to run for office sometime, maybe as the first black president of the United States. Oh, I can hear Howard Cosell now, running slow motion pictures of the fight and calling it a fake."
That, said Ali, will also be solid and definite proof that the fight is on the level — slow motion newsreels that would easily show up faked punches or a phony knockout.
"I'm not going for no rig," Alt said. "Have my little girl, who's eight years old, go to school and all the other kids saying, 'Your daddy got beat, your daddy got beat.' "
Inoki had little to say. Ali hardly let him say anything.
Through an interpreter, however, the 6-foot, 4-inch grappler got in a couple of telling jabs and Ali briefly found himself outpointed.
"My adversary says I talk too much," Inoki said in a translated statement, "and I consider this a supreme compliment from one who is so gifted."
He said Ali's name is difficult to translate into Japanese, but that the closest approximation in ideographic characters means "ant."
"And in a week's time, he will be crushed underfoot like an ant," Inoki said.
Then he presented Ali with something he said the champion would find useful on a somber Saturday — a gilt-wrapped crutch.
"Tell you what I'm going to do," said Ali, "I'm going to bring this-into the ring and when the fight is over, lay it right across his chest, like this."
He held it under the smiling Inoki's chin.
At a mock weigh-in before the luncheon, both men were said to scale exactly 220 pounds although Inoki, who ordinarily scales about 245, looked much larger and heavier.
If the fight is not just an exhibition, Inoki would appear to be in serious trouble. Besides the powerful but gawky physique that moved Ali to dub him "the Pelican," Inoki moves slowly and ponderously and has the kind of long, spearpoint chin that is the despair of boxing trainers.
"You're meeting the king of all kings," Ali said, "the Lord of the Ring."
Although he understands no Japanese, Ali carefully listened to what passed between Inoki and his interpreter. Once, Ali jumped up, moved toward Inoki and asked, "Did he say mother something? What'd he say? Oh, I thought he said something about my mother."
In a game of one-upmanship, just before they assumed boxing and wrestling stances for photographs, Inoki took off his coat and Ali removed his shirt. Inoki then stripped to the waist, also, and backed away timidly when Ali moved toward him.
Ali feinted a jab at Inoki's chin and as the wrestler moved his hands up to block it, flicked the same left at his exposed midriff.
"Oh, man," Ali chuckled, "you're in trouble."
Then he picked Inoki up, easily draping him over one shoulder.
Instead of rope-a-dope, Ali said, he will use a new technique against Inoki called rope-the-dope. When Inoki clamps a hold on him, he said, he'll wriggle over to the ropes and use them for leverage as he pulls himself free.
Emphatically denying there's any possibility of a faked match, Ali pointed to Inoki and said, "He's not a world symbol like I am."
Does Ali really want to run for president?
"No, I don't want to get shot."