Bob Arum on cringeworthy Muhammad Ali-Antonio Inoki fight in Japan and the challenges Floyd Mayweather faces

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports
The Wrestling-Boxing Exhibition Fight between Muhammad Ali and Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki. Ali and Inoki fought 15 rounds, ending in a draw. (Getty Images)
The Wrestling-Boxing Exhibition Fight between Muhammad Ali and Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki. Ali and Inoki fought 15 rounds, ending in a draw. (Getty Images)

In 1976, Bob Arum went to Japan to promote a bout between Muhammad Ali, arguably the most famous athlete of all time, and professional wrestler Antonio Inoki.

Just the thought of it some 40 years later makes Arum cringe. It is the difficulties he experienced trying to make something of that event that makes him wonder whether boxer Floyd Mayweather’s planned New Year’s Eve bout in Tokyo will even happen.

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Floyd Mayweather-Tenshin Nasukawa fight is still a mystery

Mayweather announced at a news conference on Monday in Tokyo (Sunday in the U.S.), that he would fight unbeaten kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawaa legitimate star in the kickboxing world — on New Year’s Eve at the Saitama Super Arena as part of the Rizin 14 card.

There is much left to the imagination about Mayweather-Nasukawa, because Monday’s news conference didn’t answer even the most basic of questions:

What are the rules?

What type of gloves will be used?

What weight class will the bout be in?

What kind of television deal in the U.S. will there be to generate income?

A 9 p.m. start time in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve would mean a 4 a.m. start time in Los Angeles and a 7 a.m. start time in New York. That fact alone makes it an extraordinary challenge to sell it in the U.S.

Floyd Mayweather and Tenshin Nasukawa shake hands during a press conference on Monday in Japan. (AP)
Floyd Mayweather and Tenshin Nasukawa shake hands during a press conference on Monday in Japan. (AP)

Mayweather’s massive paydays — he made in excess of $200 million for bouts with Manny Pacquiao and Conor McGregor — have come as the result of a huge pay-per-view buy. The Mayweather-McGregor pay-per-view was $99.95, meaning at 4.4 million pay-per-view buys in the U.S., it generated a gross of $440 million. Ticket revenues were $73 million, meaning only considering U.S. pay-per-view sales and ticket revenues, the gross to the promotion was $513 million.

The time difference between Tokyo and Los Angeles creates a massive problem for pay-per-view sales.

“Look, I hope they make a ton of money, I really do,” Arum said. “But how do they sell pay-per-view if it is starting at four in the morning on the West Coast? You have the same problem with streaming. There’s a limited marketability because of the time. When we did the [Manny] Pacquiao-[Jeff] Horn fight from Brisbane, [Australia], we did it on Sunday morning local time since it was prime time in the U.S. and it worked perfectly.

“So if you don’t get that big pay-per-view sale, you’re going to be dependent upon revenue from Japan, and that’s good, but limited. You’re looking at the gate and Fuji TV. Add all of that up and you might have $10 million from Japan.”

The lowest payday Mayweather has earned in the last five years was a $32 million guarantee to fight Andre Berto in 2015. He also earned additional money from pay-per-view revenues from that card, though they were not huge.

Because so little is known about the Mayweather venture with Rizin, it’s impossible to predict with precision how it will do.

It’s not even certain that the bout isn’t a “work,” a gimmick of some sort that would essentially be a wrestling match with a predetermined outcome.

Vince McMahon Jr.’s role in Ali-Inoki match

Even Arum had little idea what would go on with Ali-Inoki. It all began, he said, when he was called by Ali manager Herbert Muhammad.

“I had done a deal with Ali to do a fight with [Ken] Norton in September,” Arum said. “Herbert called me and said, ‘Bob, I need you to help me. The Japanese are offering a s–tload of money to fight this wrestler. I said, ‘How the hell is a boxer going to fight a wrestler?’ It didn’t work unless it was scripted in advance.”

Arum reached out to Vince McMahon Jr. of the WWWF, now the WWE, and asked for his help. McMahon agreed to put Ali onto several WWWF broadcasts to help promote the show, and there was a memorable stunt in which Gorilla Monsoon put Ali into an airplane spin.

Arum said McMahon came up with a brilliant plan that everyone agreed to put into place. It would involve Inoki using a hidden razor blade, common in pro wrestling, to cut himself.

“Vince said Ali would get Inoki trapped in the corner and start throwing these punches at him,” Arum said. “Inoki would cut himself on the eyebrows and with all the sweat and everything, pretty soon, his face would be covered in blood. Ali was supposed to keep throwing punches for a bit and then turn to the referee and beg him to stop the fight.

“Ali would turn to plead with the referee and he was supposed to turn his back on Inoki. Inoki would jump him from behind, pin him, one, two, three and get the win. The crowd would go crazy and Ali would start yelling, ‘It’s just like Pearl Harbor.’”

Communication breakdown worries Ali, alters history

It may have worked — it probably would have worked — except that communication wasn’t perfect.

The plan was communicated to Ali, who was met at the airport in Tokyo by a public-relations man named Shelly Saltman. They happened to run into a businessman named Ronald C. Holmes, who had negotiated the deal with the Japanese but wasn’t in on the McMahon-devised plan.

“[Holmes] didn’t have a clue, and he thought the whole thing was legit,” Arum said.

That turned out to be a problem. Saltman asked Ali about getting to practice in Holmes’ presence. Holmes was indignant, according to Arum.

He changed the course of history with his reaction.

“Holmes said, ‘What do you mean practice? This is real,’” Arum recalled. “And he’s going on and Ali hears all of it and he is getting spooked. He thought he was being set up, so you couldn’t talk to him after that.”

That meant the event would go off as a real, not scripted one.

“We were all worried Ali was going to break his leg,” Arum said.

The fight was awful. Inoki stayed down and did a butt scoot around the ring, kicking at Ali’s legs. Because Inoki was almost on the ground, Ali couldn’t punch him much. The exhibition match ended after 15 rounds in a draw.

Despite Ali’s name, it didn’t do much business, either. All in all, it was one promotion Arum wishes he could forget.

And while things are a lot easier now getting things broadcast from Japan, the time difference is the biggest issue Mayweather and Co. will face.

“I have no idea what they’re doing, but I wish them success,” Arum said. “They’re just going to find there are a lot of things that make it a huge challenge to do what they’re trying to do.”

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