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Before Mayweather-McGregor … Ali v Inoki

Japanese parliamentarian and mixed martial artist Antonio Inoki fought boxing legend Muhammad Ali in 1976 © AFP/File / KAZUHIRO NOGI

LOS ANGELES, United States, Jul 13 – There are many in the boxing world who are appalled by the prospect of Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor climbing into a ring next month.

Bob Arum is, emphatically, not one of them.

After more than half a century in the fight game, the legendary 85-year-old promoter often gives the impression of a man who has seen it all before.

And when it comes to cross-code duels in the vein of Mayweather-McGregor, he has.

Forty-one years ago, Arum promoted the infamous Tokyo bout between Muhammad Ali and Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki.

That shambolic night at the Nippon Budokan arena on June 26 1976 saw Inoki spend most of the bout on his back, attempting to kick out at Ali’s legs. Ali meanwhile threw only six punches in 15 rounds of farce.

The spectacle is widely seen as a tawdry lowpoint in Ali’s glittering career, a cynical, no-holds-barred grab for a multi-million-dollar payday.

Or as Arum remembers it: “It was the most atrocious crap that I’ve ever put on.”

The contest had been born a year earlier when Ali met Ichiro Hatta, the president of the Japanese Amateur Wrestling Association, and mischievously lamented about the fact that he had never faced an Asian challenger.

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The remark caught Inoki’s attention and soon Ali was being offered $6 million to fight the Japanese wrestler.

Arum recalled a fruitless attempt to hash out the ground rules for the fight between himself, Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee, manager Herbert Muhammad and Inoki’s handlers.

– ‘It’s another Pearl Harbor!’ –

“I spent two weeks in a conference room in Tokyo, with the Japanese, trying to get rules for that fight. And in the end we went into that fight without any rules at all,” Arum told reporters at a recent lunch in Los Angeles.

“Inoki spent most of the fight on his back kicking out at Ali. There was one round where he stood up and Ali threw a punch and he missed him by two feet. By two feet! Because Ali was frustrated. But Inoki staggered back into the ropes like he’d been hit. It was ridiculous.”

According to Arum, the plan had initially been to concoct a stage-managed conclusion to the fight that would have kept all sides happy. US wrestling promoter Vince McMahon came up with a narrative that would have seen Inoki declared the winner while Ali could claim a moral victory.

“Vince figured out a scenario, which I didn’t take that seriously, where Ali would get Inoki on the ropes,” Arum said. “And Inoki as a professional wrestler, would have a razor in his mouth, and he would cut his own eyebrow, so he’d be bleeding and everything. And Ali would have him on the ropes and ask the referee to stop the fight, and the referee would refuse.

“And eventually Ali would turn his back on Inoki and plead with the referee to stop the fight. At which point Inoki would jump on Ali and get him to the canvas and the referee would count ‘1-2-3 out’ and declare Inoki the winner.

“And then Ali was supposed to yell ‘It’s another Pearl Harbor!’. But Ali got spooked when he got there and he wouldn’t go through with it.

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“So after that we spent two weeks trying to figure out what the rules would be. And we couldn’t come up with anything.”

– Bad for boxing? –

Memories of Tokyo perhaps explain why Arum is unwilling to join the legions of critics who have disparaged Mayweather and McGregor August 26 fight as being “bad for boxing.”

“Mayweather-McGregor will make a lot of money for the people involved,” Arum said. “The idea of whether its good for boxing is sort of irrelevant. I don’t even know what ‘Good or bad for boxing’ means. It really has nothing to do with boxing as it carries on.

“It’s a spectacle. And people will either watch it or they won’t. And that’s why those kind of questions bother me because nobody is putting a gun to anybody’s head.

“If you want to buy the fight and pay the $100 to watch it on pay-per-view then you do, if you don’t, you don’t. It’s the free market. And the free market should be able to exist without people telling them that it’s good for boxing or not good for boxing. Let them do it.

“But at the same time, do I think it’s going to be a real fight? No I don’t.”

Arum also had a warning for anyone expecting to see Mayweather risk trading blows with McGregor, predicting that the 40-year-old former welterweight king would opt for the sort of cagey style which marked his fight with Manny Pacquiao in 2015.

“With Floyd it’s always take the money and run,” Arum said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

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