Muhammad Ali was looking for paychecks in 1976. As the reigning heavyweight champ of the WBC and WBA, he had fights with Jean-Pierre Compton, Jimmy Young and Richard Dunn in a four-month period from February to May.
Ali also signed for a goofy match with Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki that would take place in Tokyo on June 26. Ali would receive $6.1 million and Inoki would get $4 million, in what was being billed as the “world mixed martial arts championship.’’
What made this interesting was there was no public knowledge of mixed martial arts competition back then. Any attempts to frame what occurred in Tokyo as the forerunner to current MMA competition is quite a stretch.
To train for the boxing vs. wrestling match, Ali became part of a wrestling card in Chicago on June 10. He was set for two matches with a three-round limit. The first was against Kenny Jay, a regular on AWA cards in the Twin Cities, and then Buddy Wolff, from St. Cloud.
I got ahold of Kenny to recall the event on Saturday, following Ali’s death on Friday. Kenny was known as the “Sodbuster’’ – and also for generally winding up on the wrong end of results, particularly on the AWA’s weekly wrestling shows.
Question: “What was the action taking place?’’
Sodbuster: “Ali boxed; I wrestled.’’
Question: “How did that work?’’
Sodbuster: “Actually, it went pretty well. I got Ali in some holds and he landed some punches.’’
Question: “How did this come about?’’
Sodbuster: “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.’’
Question: “What was the result?’’
Sodbuster: “He knocked me out at the end of the second round.’’
Question: “I assume you were told beforehand to get knocked out at the end of the second round.’’
Sodbuster: “No, no … Ali got me with a good one.’’
Qbservation: “Nice to see you’re still sticking to the story after all these years, Kenny.’’
Sodbuster: (No comment).
According to the Associated Press report, Jay was “apparently’’ knocked senseless, and had to be escorted out of the ring by his cornerman, Dick the Bruiser, and two police officers.
The referee for both matches was Gagne. Ali’s three-rounder with Wolff offered more fireworks. Gagne was alleged to be ready to declare a pin against Ali after Wolff administered two “back breakers’’ by slamming the heavyweight champ over his knee.
Muhammad managed to crawl away just in the nick of time. Then, in the third round, he turned Wolff into such a mess with punches both Ali and Gagne were splattered with Wolff’s blood.
Ali even tried his own wrestling hold – a leg scissors across Wolff’s mid-section. When the match was over, Ali was declared the winner, but Wolff charged across the ring “like a water buffalo’’ to take another shot at his opponent.
Ali hit Wolff with another series of punches, and even landed a few on Dick the Bruiser for good measure.
Then, Ali went to Tokyo for the big match, and Inoki spent most of it crawling around the ring on his back like an overturned crab. It was widely considered the greatest rip off of the public in Ali’s career.
There was that check for $6.1 million, of course. Kenny Jay did OK, too, as part of the warmup in Chicago.
“They picked me up at the airport in a limo and I got a thousand bucks,’’ he said. “It was great.’’
Jay was saddened by the news of Ali’s death when he heard it on Saturday morning. “I only met him for a minute before our match, but he seemed like a good guy,’’ Kenny said.
NOTE: I decided to brighten the Sodbuster’s day and tell him that amid his many losses, there was a night when I saw him go undefeated.
“You were the bouncer at the Court Bar,’’ I said. “You threw me out, along with my brother, and my St. Cloud Times colleagues Mike Augustin and Frank Hyland.
“You went 4-0 that night, Kenny.’’
“Really,’’ he said. “You probably deserved it.’’
There’s no probably about that, Sodbuster.