As a mainstream athlete, Antonio Inoki is probably best known for battling Muhammad Ali to a draw in an actual on-the-level fight—albeit one restricted by last-minute rule changes—after The Greatest backed out of plans to lose a traditional entertainment wrestling match. But Antonio Inoki is not a mainstream athlete. He’s a professional wrestling legend, and one of the most grandiose and ambitious batshit merchants that this deliriously batshit sport has ever seen. Forty years ago this weekend, he painted something that came very close to being his masterpiece of bullshit artistry. That it remained unfinished doesn’t matter at all.
Inoki has parlayed his wrestling fame into multiple terms in Japan’s equivalent to the U.S. Senate, and has attempted to merge his two careers with ridiculous stunts like partnering with North Korea to run a pair of cards in Pyongyang back in 1995. Inoki, naturally, headlined the second card, putting on a show with Ric Flair in their first-ever meeting; George Foreman was the originally announced opponent within the DPRK, but appears never to have been involved at all. While it’s hard to top the North Korean expedition for gonzo Inoki ventures, in large part because it actually happened, it’s worth remembering that, four decades ago this week, Inoki got mainstream sports media to report that he was setting up a wrestling match with Ugandan strongman—as in military dictator, not wrestler—Idi Amin.
The original idea behind Inoki’s match with Ali was that it would be one of many “Different Style Fights” in which Inoki would compete against semi-notable names from other combat sports. Ali and Chuck Wepner represented boxing, Olympic gold medalist Willem Ruska stumped for judo, “Monster Man” Everett Eddy was the kickboxer, and so on. Each time, Inoki would conquer the invading martial artist, proving once and for all that pro wrestling is the strongest fighting art. At the end of 1978, Inoki attempted to expand his horizons to combat athletes who were better known for their exploits outside of sports. That’s where the murderous Ugandan dictator came in.
“Ugandan President Idi Amin, a former boxer, may fight Japan’s popular wrestler Antonio Inoki next June with world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali as referee, it was announced today,” reported the UPI wire on December 30, 1978. Hisashi Shinma, Inoki’s business manager, told Japanese media that Tokyo promoter Yoshio Ko, the man on the ground for the Ali match, was working on putting together the mixed match with “flexible” rules, to be held somewhere in Uganda. While the wire story says that Ali “reportedly” suggested his “good friend” Inoki as an opponent for Amin after refusing the autocrat’s challenge himself, it’s unclear if they are citing previous wire reporting or the Japanese sports media.
According to the Associated Press, the planned “martial arts fight” was “officially” announced for June 10, 1979 at a press conference in Tokyo held a few weeks later. “Ali will get $1 million and Inoki $500,000, but Amin, being a public figure, will not receive any money for himself,” read one report, which ran sans byline in The Ottawa Journal. Apparently, the brutal dictator, whose brain was already known to be ravaged by years of syphilis, would participate in a stunt bout, but was drawing the line at personally enriching himself. “Half of the net profit” would go to Uganda itself, the report added.
(It’s best not to take any of this too literally. Ko, who was then somewhat well-known as an organizer of expeditions to find the Loch Ness Monster, had a track record that was heavier on strange promises than actual results. In 1977, he had tried to promote a fight between a karate master and a bengal tiger inside a steel cage, with Ali as referee, at Stade Sylvio Cator, Haiti’s national stadium, until the local government intervened.)
Anyway, according to Ko, the fight would be held at a 35,000 seat soccer stadium in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. There, Ali would officiate the bout wearing “headgear, gloves, and a flak jacket,” presumably to protect him from... snipers? Something else? Ko claimed that he had just gotten back from Uganda days earlier, and while he was seemingly confident enough to announce the event, there was no signed contract yet. It would be signed on February 16 in Kampala, he said. If you’re wondering why we’ve only heard from the Japanese side so far, the AP reported that “no confirmation of their roles was available from Amin or Ali.”
It somehow took another week for Ugandan Ambassador to Japan, Samusoni Bigombe, to shoot down the story publicly. Bigombe finally told the AP that the bout was “a complete fabrication and tends to demean the highest office of the president of a friendly state.” The bout was already fodder for opinion columnists—“In keeping with the Uganda-Japan spirit, Amin could enter into a home-run hitting contest with Sadaharu Oh,” wrote Bud Vandersnick of the Moline Dispatch. “If Amin wins, he can use the bat to calm his dissidents.”—but that statement should have closed the book on the whole deeply stupid affair. But not if you’re Antonio Inoki, who was still fixated on the Amin match when he went on a work trip to Calgary six months later.
“If I break his neck in the ring many people would be very pleased,” Inoki told the Calgary Sun through an interpreter. “Although I’ve had many offers to fight, at present I’m interested in Amin. I’ll seriously consider the fight if the promoter can pull it off. Amin was the heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda and could be a tough opponent.” Inoki seemed aware of the criticism that the Amin match had received in the west, but if he knew precisely why people got upset about the prospect of him mixing it up with a mass murderer, he didn’t show it. “Many people criticized the match,” Inoki said. “That fight wasn’t a cooked-up scenario.” Inoki went on to explain that “the biggest problem was that we had to agree to such strict rules.” This had been his problem in his fight against Ali, too, he said. “When I attacked Ali I had to have one hand and one foot on the mat at all times.”
It takes chutzpah to claim that the biggest problem with doing a thinly veiled pro wrestling match, with Idi Amin, in 1979, was agreeing on the rules. But you already knew Inoki had that.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.