Only fans lose in Tokyo farce
TOKYO — "I'm gonna grab the money and run like a thief in the night," trainer Angelo Dundee said lightheartedly before his fighter, world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, met reputed wrestling titleist Antonio Inoki Saturday in a match in which the two kicked and poked at each other like piqued kindergartners as they battled to a dull and lusterless 15-round draw.
By Sunday morning, Ali was on his way to Seoul and Dundee was halfway back to Miami, taking with them some $6 million Ali got for meeting Inoki in what was billed as the "World Martial Arts Championship" — perhaps the first mixed match in which a prizefighter and a wrestler fought by their own rules.
Ali said before the bout that he would "annihilate" his 6-foot, 4-inch opponent with a new technique called "rope-the-dope." And some 14,000 dopes were roped into the Budokan (Hall of Martial Arts), along with millions who watched a farcical minuet on closed circuit television all over the world.
Ali left Tokyo with wealth but no laurels — not after 15 flustering rounds against a ponderous opponent whose freakish style made it impossible for Ali to show any speed, class, style or punch. Instead of putting Inoki down in eight rounds, as he had predicted he would, Ali spent most of the time trying to get him on his feet.
The whole thing had the aura, or rather the scent, of a Saturday night wrestling match rather than a fight, — Inoki's blue, dragon-emblazoned robe, All retainer Drew Bundini Brown's hypnotic "hoodoo stare" at Inoki before the fight, referee Gene Le Bell carefully frisking the two combatants for contraband.
Ali wore specially-made four-ounce gloves and Inoki fought bare-handed. Either fighter could have been pinned for three seconds or knocked out for 10. And the freakish rules of catch-as-catch-can wrestling were what made it a non-fight.
As the bell touched off round one, Ali cantered out gracefully, sighting on the spearpoint chin of an opponent he had dubbed "the Pelican." Inoki lunged out, twisted sideways in midair and aimed a flying kick at Ali, missing and falling on his back.
The pattern of the bout was set in that first minute. Instead of getting up, Inoki stayed on his back and used his bottom like an oversized bearing as he wriggled around in circles, kicking at the back of the mystified boxer's legs and trying to hook him in the instep to pull him down.
Ali motioned for Inoki to stand up and fight. Inoki gestured for Ali to come down and wrestle. Neither man would fight at the other's level. Ali caught one solid, reddening kick around the thigh, but smiled it off and waved to the crowd.
In the second, Ali circled the prone Inoki with his gloves down and stuck out his tongue, throwing taunts instead of punches because he had nothing to hit.
Inoki's kicks were landing sharply, and the back of Ali's left leg would be severely flushed and bruised at the end of the bout. For the next six rounds, the action was freakish and bizarre — Inoki fighting on his back, Ali posturing in corners and suddenly bracing himself on the ropes like a gymnast on horizontal bars, kicking down at Inoki like a man treading water.
All the while, Ali grimaced with frustration and kept up a barrage of abusive insults. "Inoki girl!" "Inoki sissy!" "Inoki coward!" At one point, Ali stared in disgust at the man on the floor and yelled, "You want to — or fight?"
Ali kicked back at Inoki and from time to time seized his left leg, which led to a fairly stirring exchange in the sixth. All used the hold to get Inoki on his back, and there was a blur of motion and impact as both fighters tangled and Inoki was suddenly sitting on Ali's back. Le Bell broke them apart and warned Inoki for swinging a blow and following through with his elbow — the pivot punch that has been outlawed in boxing since 1896.
In the eighth, the fight was halted twice, on Dundee's demands, because the toe had split on Inoki's right shoe and there were razor-sharp edges of exposed leather that had to be sealed with tape.
As far as this observer could see, Ali landed only five punches the entire fight, the best a solid left that whipped sweat from Inoki's head in the 10th. Inoki did fight on his feet from time to time, but his crouching wrestler's stance protected his long chin and Ali could do nothing more than dance around the tall grappler as if he was a maypole. At the end of the 12th, Inoki protectively flung himself on the floor once more and a disgusted Ali stood over him with his hands on his hips, looking like a housewife railing at a drunken husband.
Ali almost lost by default in the 13th, threatening to jump out of the ring after the dull bout's most rousing moment. Inoki lunged at Ali and got both arms around him. Ali wriggled over to the ropes and gripped the top strand to keep himself from being dragged down. Inoki suddenly brought up his knee, but Ali was fortunately wearing one of the heavy protection cups. Trying to break them apart, Le Bell burrowed his head under the arms of both fighters and looked like a man beneath a human archway. Finally untangling them, he called a foul on Inoki that would cost the wrestler a critical point.
Ali sulked in his corner and started to climb out of the ring, but Le Bell carefully shepherded him back out to the center of the ring, where he raised a lump under Inoki's right eye with two sharp jabs as the round ended.
For the last two rounds, Ali was cool and business-like, but again had nothing to punch. "I'm a boxer, not a rassler," he told Le Bell as the referee tried to get him into a close mixup with Inoki.
As it ended, the ring was showered with trash from the balcony and a ringsider who paid $1,000 for his ticket gamely smiled.
Boxing judge Ko Toyama called Inoki the winner 72-68 and Kokichi Endo, a wrestling judge, gave it to Ali 74-72. The decisive ballot, cast by Le Bell, had it even at 71-71. Le Bell told newsmen at ringside that Ali came perilously close to losing and it was only because of points taken away from Inoki for the elbow punch and the knee that his own card called it a draw.
"Ali showed how great boxing was and Inoki showed how great wrestling is," Le Bell said. "Neither man shamed his art."
Le Bell said that besides meeting George Foreman and Ken Norton in approaching bouts, Ali would like to fight wrestler Bruno Sanmartino in New York.
Ali weighed 218 for the fight and Inoki 221.