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Word on the Rings (6/4/16): The Greatest


While famous for being a concert mecca in Japan, the Nippon Budokan was first built to host the judo competition for the 1964 Summer Olympics. However, on June 26, 1976, the Budokan became an integral part of professional wrestling history: Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki, fought under special rules.



For many fans of pro wrestling and MMA, the fight is a familiar classic: bound by the rules of Ali’s entourage, Inoki lay on the ground and started doing the one thing he was practically allowed to do. For 15 rounds, Inoki kicked at Ali’s legs, causing bruising and bleeding. “Inoki, no fight!” Ali taunted, perhaps unaware that for that long and drawn fight, he only scored six punches. In the end, the fight that saw Inoki fighting flat on his back and Ali walking around the ring was called a draw.

Some people consider this a low point in the legendary career of Muhammad Ali. Yet for those who understood where this match came from—how Ali asked Inoki when they will “rehearse” the match—Ali truly understood the “performance” aspect of combat. He truly understood what it meant to play a heel.

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In many ways, Ali’s life and career was framed by this face/heel dynamic. In the 1960s, before “I Have A Dream” and in the heyday of racial segregation in the United States, Ali was seen as second-class citizen. Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, and his politically-charged views gained him a great following and the wrath of what was then the American establishment. Between 1967 and 1970, Ali’s passport was revoked, his boxing licenses denied, and one of the greatest fighting champions of boxing was exiled from the very sport that he represented.

Ali may not have been the first trash-talker in boxing history, but he was certainly one of the best. In fact, Ali himself was inspired by professional wrestling: his trash-talk and ring antics had traces of the performances of Gorgeous George, peppered with his own trademark style that evolved through the years. Drawing from his own experiences as a black man and as a Muslim living in the fringes of American racial prejudice, Ali taunted like he fought. The dodges, the weaves, the jabs and the crosses were not just boxing techniques for Ali: they also described how he put down his opponents verbally before, during, and after the fight. “Rope-a-dope” was not just a summary of his boxing technique, but was at the heart of his performance.



If fighting Ali for the belt wasn’t enough, a well-timed insult from him gave his opponents a reason to fight. His stinging barbs—whether it’s calling Sonny Liston an “ugly bear” or Joe Frazier a “gorilla”—gave layers of emotion to the fight even before they stepped into the ring. Ali’s savviness as a performer only heightened his reputation as a boxer. The fight became the climax that resolved all the trash-talking, the press conference rhymes, the taunts.

What places Ali a notch above everyone else is his ability to continue that performance during the fight, and after the fight. In wrestling language, Muhammad Ali cuts an extended promo. Ali was one of the very few boxers who knew—and practiced—the reality that winning the fight means getting into your opponent’s head as much as you had to get those solid punches in. The performance aspect of a Muhammad Ali fight meant that there were two fights going on in the ring at all times: the one taking place in the ring, and the one taking place inside the fighters’ heads.

In his long, storied career, Ali has his wins and losses in the ring, but one can argue that he was undefeated in the fights that took place in the mind.

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Muhammad Ali died today at the age of 74, leaving behind a legacy of 56 wins and 5 losses, and the only three-time lineal world heavyweight champion in boxing history. So many others can write—and have written—about his immense contribution to boxing, but it was Joyce Carol Oates who said it best: Ali defined boxing in terms of his reputation.


As we all pay tribute to Ali, it pays to learn from him. Ali’s ability to engage the crowd is still a rare commodity. He never really had to fight to rally the crowd for or against him, whether in Kinshasa or Manila or Madison Square Garden, or even the Budokan for that matter. Ali was a total performer who knew that the bounds of his performance transcended the actual fight. He told his story before, during, and after the fight: whether it’s by taunting his opponent, by arguing on live television, or the swagger and confidence that came with his legendary boxing technique.

Maybe the shot in the arm that wrestling needs need not come from the Attitude Era, or from the innovative moves of independent wrestling, but from the history it shares with boxing. Maybe it comes with learning from the greatest talkers, the greatest fighters, and the greatest instigators in eras that may just be hazy memories for so many, but still define greatness.

And in both rings—in rings where the fight is both fact and fiction—Ali may just be the greatest.

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Marck Rimorin (@marocharim) is an advertising professional, writer, bookworm, and overthinker. While a lifelong WWE fan, he also watches puroresu, lucha libre, and old clips of European wrestling. When not caught up in reading, making brand communications, or eating waybread under the shade of mallorn trees, Marck writes the overthink piece for Smark Henry: The Word on the Rings.

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