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The FOUR times Muhammad Ali faced a wrestler

Everyone knows about Muhammad Ali's fight with pro wrestler Antonio Inoki; some call it the birth of MMA. But that was the fourth time!

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Everyone knows about Muhammad Ali's fight with professional wrestler Antonio Inoki. Many call it the birth of mixed martial arts.

However, it is far less well known that Ali engaged in other boxer vs. wrestler bouts, as a warm up. It is also less well known that Ali was a fan of Rasslin' and that he drew much of his act from it, most notably from Gorgeous George.

When Ali was just 19, he met a 46-year-old George at a Las Vegas radio station. The wrestler gave The Greatest some sound advice.

"A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth," George to Ali. "So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous."

That was in 1961, and the beginning for Ali.

1976 was busy for The Greatest. The WBC and WBA champion boxed Jean-Pierre Coopman, Jimmy Young, and Richard Dunn from February to May. And Ali had the boxer vs. wrestler shoot with Inoki on June 26. However, that bout had some warmup preparation.


On June 2, 1976, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ali jumped into the ring as Gorilla Monsoon was finishing a short match against Baron Mikel Scicluna (not a real Baron). Ali removed his shirt and started dancing around Monsoon while throwing jabs. Monsoon responded by getting Ali in an Airplane Spin and driving him ignominiously to the mat.

Afterward, Monsoon declared to a very young Vincent K. McMahon that Ali had no business being in The Squared Circle, being as he "didn't know a wrist lock from a wrist watch!"

Marella would never say whether the incident was a fix (only one person knows the ending is preplanned), a work (both people know it is preplanned), or a shoot (real).

"I never saw him before and haven’t seen him since," said Marella much later.


As a continuation of his warm up for Inoki, Ali took part in an AWA pro wrestling card on June 10 in Chicago.

First up was Kenny "The Sodbuster" Jay. Ali, wearing extra-large gloves for safety, was cornered by "Classy" Freddie Blassie.

Star Tribune sports columnist Patrick Reusse reached out Jay to ask about what it was like to be in The Squared Circle with The Greatest.

Patrick Reusse: “What was the action taking place?’’

The Sodbuster: “Ali boxed; I wrestled.’’

PR: “How did that work?’’

TS: “Actually, it went pretty well. I got Ali in some holds and he landed some punches.’’

PR: “How did this come about?’’

TS: “Verne Gagne called me the night before and said there was a ticket for me to go to Chicago and take on Muhammad Ali. So, that’s what I did.’’

PR: “What was the result?’’

TS: “He knocked me out at the end of the second round.’’

PR: “I assume you were told beforehand to get knocked out at the end of the second round.’’

TS: “No, no … Ali got me with a good one.’’

PR: “Nice to see you’re still sticking to the story after all these years, Kenny.’’

TS: (No comment).

Jay described the experience and Ali positively.

“They picked me up at the airport in a limo and I got a thousand bucks,’’ he said. “It was great.’’

“I only met [Ali] for a minute before our match, but he seemed like a good guy."

Next up that night was Ali vs. Buddy Wolff, which ended with a lot of blood, and a fair Superman Punch by Ali.


The same night, Ali faced Buddy Wolff in a three-rounder.

The referee was again promoter Verne Gagne, with Blassie cornering Ali, and Bruiser Brody cornering Wolff. Ali suffered two back breakers, but managed to kick out to avoid the pinfalls.

Then Wolfe likely bladed himself, or conceivably Ali landed some hard shot, and blood spattered everywhere. Ali even tried a leg scissor to Wolff's midsection.

When Ali was declared the winner Wolff went crazy but eventually, order was restored, and The Greatest said he was going to be coming after Bruno "Sanbertino" and Gorilla "Monzón."

Last up was Inoki, and a $6,000,000 paycheck.


Pro wrestling has played a significant and woefully under appreciate role in the development of Mixed Martial Arts. The video below is by far the most significant mixed rule event before UFC 1. While Gene LeBell vs. Milo Savage was the first nationally televised mixed rules bout in the USA, Inoki vs. Ali was the first internationally televised mixed rules event, with a worldwide audience estimated at up to one billion fans.

The Ali vs. Inoki match itself took place with a convoluted rule set a long way from the Unified Rules (think fire in a cave vs. electric lights) and thus was boring. Gene LeBell was the referee.

The telecast seen in Japan included another boxer vs. wrestler bout, from Shea Stadium. In all there was:
Andre "The Giant" vs Chuck Wepner
Wilhelm Ruska vs Don Fargo
Muhammad Ali vs Antonio Inoki

Chuck Wepner is the boxer on who Sylvester Stallone based his Rocky character. The New Jersey liquor salesman was given a shot at Ali's title, and actually knocked the champ down in the 5th. A photographer caught that Wepner had used an old trick to get the knockdown (he stepped on Ali's foot as he threw a shoving blow) but it stayed in the record books as a legitimate knockdown.

Dutchman Willem Ruska won two Olympic gold medals in judo, and two world championships. In addition to the pro wrestling vs. pro wrestler Don Fargo, he reportedly defeated Ivan Gomez in a Vale Tudo match in Brazil, which was, in reality, a chaotic work.

Ali vs. Inoki Full Fight (a shoot, albeit one with weird rules)

Ali vs. Inoki Highlights

Wilhelm Ruska vs Don Fargo (a work)

Andre "The Giant" vs. Chuck Wepner (a work, with some Strong Style moments)

Andre vs. Wepner was the inspiration for Rocky Balboa vs. Thunderlips in the Rocky 3 documentary.

The name of the Ali vs. Inoki event was War of the Worlds, the same name Art Davie and Rorion Gracie decided upon some 16 years later, before they made a late change, and ultimately called the event the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The War of The Worlds: Battle of the Champions
June 25, 1976
Nippon Budokan arena
Tokyo, Japan

Ali vs. Inoki is widely considered to be one of the least interesting bouts in mixed rules history, and was declared a draw. Ali landed only six punches, and was paid $6,000,000. On the negative side, the kicks from what we would now call Open Guard that Inoki landed ended up putting Ali in the hospital with blood clots.

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