While Zuffa is heavily hyping the battle between James Toney and Randy Couture at UFC 118 as the first high profile clash between a boxer and a martial artist in MMA history, there have actually been a handful of seminal contests between the sweet science and cage fighting's best. The first, and most influential, happened all the way back in 1976 and starred the best heavyweight boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali, and Japan's most famous pro wrestler, Antonio Inoki. Fighter's Only breaks it down:
In 1976 "The Greatest" was in his second reign as world heavyweight champion. In the previous two years he had defeated the likes of George Foreman and Joe Frazier. On June 26 he engaged in a battle with a Japanese professional wrestler called Antonio Inoki at the Budokan Arena, Tokyo. For all the wrong reasons their encounter would become almost as famous as ‘The Rumble in the Jungle' and in ‘The Thriller in Manila'.
The fight was actually supposed to be a professional wrestling match. While many in the boxing media questioned Ali's decision to take the match, feeling professional wrestling would sully his reputation, there were six million reasons for him to do so. Before this fight, Ali's biggest boxing pay day had been just $5 million. A fake pro wrestling match with Inoki would bring in more than that-without the risk of being punched in the head repeatedly.The plan was simple. Ali would dominate Inoki and make him bleed with punches. Concerned for his downed opponent, Ali would ask the referee to stop the fight. While his back was turned, Inoki would strike-kicking him in the back of the head with his famous enzuigiri kick. Ali would look strong and be the hero, despite losing. Inoki would carve out a niche as a foreign villian on a planned tour of America's wrestling hotbeds.
It seemed to Ali like a lot of fun. He went on the road to promote the bout and had plenty of yukks at the expense of Inoki and his unusual look, especially his trademark Jay Leno-esque chin. Then something changed. Ali had second thoughts, started thinking about his legacy and his reputation. Things went from simple to simply weird overnight, as Dave Meltzer explained:
The match was supposed to be scripted, with Ali losing. At the last minute, Ali got cold feet and the match almost fell apart. To save the event, Inoki agreed to fight for real, with a rule set that was akin to fighting in a straitjacket. Inoki couldn’t punch because he wasn’t wearing gloves. He couldn’t kick while standing. He couldn’t use throws, nor use any submissions. So he spent 15 rounds laying on his back throwing kicks to Ali’s legs. The match, officially called a draw, was a farce, but in Japan it is considered one of the most famous pro wrestling matches ever, as well as the birth of mixed martial arts.
At the time, the show was considered a disaster. It bombed at the box office and Inoki's reputation was in shambles in his home country of Japan. Eventually he would rehabilitate his image, adding other legitimate combat sports athletes to his list of victims in worked fights, and go down in history as one of the fathers of MMA. But that would be in time.
Ali never collected his six million. He had to settle for $2.1 million and was lucky to get even that considering the financial losses. Worse, physically he was never the same. Inoki's 65 leg kicks took their toll. Ali was hosipitilzed after the fight and was never the same boxer again. His legs were gone-his mental faculties would soon follow.
See a great highlight of the Inoki-Ali fiasco after the break. Jonathan Snowden is the author of Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and the upcoming MMA Encyclopedia.
Muhammad Ali vs Inoki Before and After (via thierrykhanry)