The tsuyu—the rainy season that wraps around your head like a wet towel—hugged Tokyo last week, and when it did not rain the narrow, crowded streets were choked by a heavy mist, adding mystery to a week neck deep in the stuff. The Lockheed affair broadened its shadow and a pair of earthquakes rattled buildings, but all talk centered on what came to be known as The War of the Worlds, the latest in the kind of popcorn nonsense that was, on the surface, blood kin to Evel Knievel and his death cycle—the ego going amuck.
Why Muhammad Ali needs more attention from a world he says he owns is beyond a normal mind, but here he was last Saturday morning in Budokan Hall, up against a wrestler by the name of Kanji Antonio Inoki. Nobody knew what to make of it. Would it be a hoax? Could Ali get hurt? What would the final rules be? Was Inoki truly a man of the samurai tradition, a man who could stick his hand down the throat of a pig and pull out its heart?
Concerned much more with the form of things than with content, the Japanese, who have produced the half-million-ton tanker and the world's smallest television set and tape recorder, have now given us a sporting event that will go down as the dullest in history. Among other things, it was declared a draw. No, it was not a hoax; it was not prearranged in any way (indeed, a bit of neat choreography might have helped). But it was more like a tea ceremony, or watching a man getting a haircut, than a fight.
Inoki turned out to be a fraud of the first rank—not even a good illusionist, as some are in his trade. He was just an ordinary wrestler with a good pair of legs and a lot of money with which to accommodate his strange whims, one of which was to challenge Ali. For 15 rounds he moved around the ring on his back—like a crab with his belly up. For his part, Ali clowned, sticking his tongue out and gesturing to Inoki to stand up and punch with him, meanwhile staying close to the safety of the ropes. The rules said Ali could stop the action—action?—by grabbing the ropes. The scene left one to meditate on his own sanity and the Japanese word wakarimasen, which means "I can't understand."
July 4, 1976
Nobody among the 10,000 people at Budokan, some of whom paid $1,000 for a ringside ticket, could understand. What they saw was an Ali who, in the few brief intervals when Inoki stood up, threw only six punches in the entire fight. That's a million dollars a punch. Only a couple of them landed and both were harmless jabs. Meanwhile, Inoki spent the time slithering about trying to get a leg in back of Ali's left leg. The result was that Ali was kicked about 60 times on his leg. His shin was bloodied and the back of his leg was covered with hematomas. His corner began to work on the leg early, applying ice bags and Vaseline; it could have been the first fight ever stopped because of a cut leg.
The Ali-Inoki affair was supposed to settle once and for all that old and idiotic saloon argument: Who would win a match between a wrestler and a boxer? Granted, it is not one of the burning questions of our times, but whip it up to an adjectival soufflé, add the name of Ali, throw in some inscrutable Oriental claptrap, and you have James Cagney going against a bullet-headed black belt on a Tokyo wharf for God and country. The curiosity level grew high, and popcorn sold by the ton.
A crowd of 32,897 turned up at New York's Shea Stadium to view the match on closed-circuit television, and millions of others watched throughout the world, all of them corroborating what H. L. Mencken once said: "People know what they want, and they deserve to get it...good and proper." They also confirmed what Ali said before the match: "All the inventions in the world, all the new things comin' out every day, but I find a loophole. A new thing." It is Ali's contention that the world is bored, and that he alone provides it with relief.
Maybe so, but Ali is currently walking a thin line between being a supreme talent, a magical figure with a pull and draw never before experienced, and being an impossible bore. He has been badly overexposed. His theatrics are stale; each line he speaks seems to come from a man with a key in his back.
So why did he need a Japanese wrestler? Six million dollars is part of the reason, but there is more. By some weird reasoning—perhaps only a rationalization for taking the money—he talked himself into believing that the prestige of his sport was somehow at stake here. Ali also believes that he must constantly astound the planet, that his beauteous ring gifts are not enough. He talks often of the mythological Hercules, little knowing that intelligence was conspicuously absent in much that Hercules did. Too hot, Hercules points an arrow at the sun and threatens to shoot it. Tossed by the waves, he tells the waters to be calm or else he will punish them.
After he arrived in Tokyo, Ali began to hear stories of how Inoki could maim him for life. He became annoyed, and said, "I intend to wear the kind of gloves I use on the heavy bag. With these gloves, over taped fists, a man could easily get killed. I fear for Inoki. I also fear for his family."
The Ali camp was apprehensive. "I don't know what to think of all this," said Trainer Angelo Dundee. "This could get nasty."
Bitter meetings over the rules followed, and it was finally decided that Inoki could not use his hands or feet in karate fashion.
The rules clearly did not favor Inoki, and he did what any sensible man would do: stay on his back, far away from the Ali jab that rams out in 1/25 of a second. Being on his back did not help Inoki win the crowd's favor—or increase his chances of becoming a genuine national hero, one of the reasons he guaranteed Ali $3 million just to show up in Tokyo.
He seemed a pathetic figure in his dressing room as large tears dropped from his eyes; he could not speak. The money—an estimated $2 million—he had made apparently was not enough to console him. Besides the desire to become a hero, what else had he hoped to gain? To restore prestige to the floundering sport of professional wrestling in Japan? To set up a big tour of the U.S.? He sat there, his huge jaw drooping like a sinking aircraft carrier, and one could only hope that he would be reunited with an elder sister, who he said had lost contact with the family 20 years ago.
"I hope all this publicity brings us together again," he said before the fight.
It would have been better for him to take out a classified ad.
As it is, he and Ali have left at least one spectator to ponder over and over the words of the mystic Lafcadio Hearn, writing of Japan:
"Remember that here all is enchantment, that you have fallen under the spell of the dead."
He can say that again.