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Long before Mayweather-McGregor, there was the Ali-Inoki farce

Updated August 19, 2017 - 9:11 pm

LeBron James walks out of the locker room sporting a glitzy sleeveless robe with the colors navy blue, wine and gold as the latest Kendrick Lamar single blasts through the arena speakers.

The four-time NBA MVP unleashes a “Cleveland, this is for you” roar with the words “Ohio Against the World” printed on his mouthpiece.

James then goes between the ropes to face his toughest challenge yet. The 6-foot-8-inch James touches gloves with the 6-6 heavyweight champion of the world, Anthony Joshua.

Intrigued?

That’s the hypothetical boxing matchup Top Rank promoter Bob Arum presented when dissecting the highly anticipated cross-sport bout between world boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder Conor McGregor. The boxing match Saturday at T-Mobile Arena is expected to generate close to a staggering $1 billion.

“LeBron James to me is the best athlete of our time,” Arum said. “You put LeBron James in the ring with Anthony Joshua, it’s a joke.”

The outcome would be foreseeable, but the same “what-if” factor that is driving Mayweather-McGregor would be enough for the public to fork over money to watch James’ attempt to dethrone Joshua.

Arum’s cautionary tale

Arum, 85, has dealt with cross-sport spectacles before. He promoted the historic dysfunctional fight between boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976 in Tokyo.

“Ali-Inoki was one of the biggest disgraces that I ever did,” Arum said last month in a downtown Los Angeles hotel. “It was a real joke. It’s painful to watch.”

Arum said he spent two weeks trying to reach terms on a set of rules for the far-fetched match. He said the task became more daunting when Ali refused to go for a scripted World Wrestling Entertainment-like bout that had him losing.

Both sides eventually agreed on nothing, Arum said. He said it was an anything-goes match, and became one of the original mixed martial arts bouts.

“All they were talking about was breaking Ali’s legs,” Arum recalled about Inoki’s representatives.

“So the bell rings for the first round, Inoki goes out and flops on his ass, shoots at his legs. Ali by the third round is running around saying, ‘You yellow (expletive), get up and fight.’

“It was a joke. … It was a joke!” Arum said.

“Finally, Inoki gets a little brave. He stands up, and Ali throws a punch, and he must have missed him by two feet, and Inoki staggers back like he got hit. I mean, you’ve never seen … the worst piece of junk ever done.”

The once-in-a-lifetime match was disastrous, as the Japanese crowd was livid about the lack of action. Could that be the outcome after the final bell rings at T-Mobile Arena?

Many expect the 49-0 Mayweather to outclass McGregor in his boxing debut for a lackluster fight.

Or could something bizarre occur, which was the case in the aftermath of Ali-Inoki.

Ali almost needed to have his leg amputated because of the blood clots that developed from the numerous kicks the legendary boxer suffered, according to Arum.

Arum immediately regretted doing Ali-Inoki.

“The first couple of rounds, this is exciting,” Arum said of the match that ended in a draw. “But it was 15 rounds. By the sixth round, I said, ‘My God, I’ll never live this thing down.’ ”

It’s easy to say Mayweather will run circles around McGregor for his 50th victory. But to many, there’s so much more to this uncommon fight.

While McGregor won’t be anywhere near the fish out of water that Ali was or James would be, there is no doubt the two-division UFC champion is stepping into a whole new world when he enters the ring against perhaps the greatest boxer of all time.

Successful crossover

Few have been able to master both sports, though Holly Holm might be the best example.

A former world champion in boxing, she transitioned to MMA and knocked out Ronda Rousey in November 2015 to win the UFC women’s bantamweight title.

“It’s very different,” Holm said last month after UFC 214 in Anaheim, California. “You have less weapons in boxing, but you have to use them more. You have to use the same weapons in a lot of different ways.

“It’s just a whole different type of fighting. And it’s longer. That changes a lot, and there’s a different kind of pace with that. Sometimes you’re just thinking, ‘Gosh, what round are we on?’ Even though the rounds are shorter, it’s just a different pace both mentally and physically.”

While Holm believes it would be a major upset for McGregor to win, she’s not completely discounting the possibility.

For one, she thinks the move from the cage to the ring is an easier transition than a boxer trying to learn all the disciplines that make up MMA.

Instead of trying to add to his arsenal, McGregor will just have to focus on one aspect of his game. But he will be going against one of the best defensive boxers ever.

“Conor’s pretty good at trying to find openings, and he’s really quick, so I think he’ll be able to land some shots,” Holm said. “A defensive fighter is even harder to fight in boxing than in MMA, because the way McGregor leans over and rolls his shoulder up, it’s so hard to punch him.

“In MMA, if someone is leaning back, there are other ways to attack him. You have leg kicks or takedowns or head kicks or so many other things. In boxing, Conor is going to have to get in past that without relying on anything else. That’s such a hard thing to do.

“When I was first training MMA and I would take a boxing match, a girl would lean back like that on me and I’d just think, ‘I wish I could just head kick you right now,’ I never actually felt like I would do it, it was just those thoughts you would get.”

Famed boxing trainer Freddie Roach has worked with some of the world’s top boxers, including Manny Pacquiao for his fight against Mayweather in 2015, the highest-grossing boxing match in history. He also has served as a boxing coach to UFC stars Georges St. Pierre, Andrei Arlovski and Anderson Silva.

McGregor has not trained with Roach but has stopped by his gym in Santa Monica, California. The UFC star has showed promise, according to reports Roach has received.

“He boxes with a lot of my fighters over there,” Roach said last month at his Wild Card Boxing Club gym in Hollywood. “He doesn’t dominate anybody. He does OK. So he does have that experience, and he does have some sparring experience, but I think the best guy he’s sparred with is Chris van Heerden (former IBO welterweight champion).

“He told me he can’t press him too much, but he is not bad. He said his footwork is pretty good.”

That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement. But UFC fighter Kevin Lee thinks it’s exactly the kind of thing McGregor needs to hear.

Lee has a unique perspective on the bout.

He’s a contender in the UFC lightweight division, where McGregor is the champion. Lee also trains occasionally at Mayweather Boxing Club and has been in the gym for some of Mayweather’s sparring sessions for the fight.

His advice to McGregor?

“We’re going up a long hill, baby,” Lee said. “I would try to be as honest with him as possible. You can’t blow smoke up the man’s (expletive). You can’t tell him, ‘Oh, you hit so ridiculously hard and you’re going to land a punch eventually.’ He’ll get the wrong idea.

“You have to be as honest with him as possible and tell him, ‘You’re in for a long fight.’ I don’t think he can handle the pace. I think that’s going to be the big difference after two or three rounds if he doesn’t catch Floyd early and hurt him, but I do think he’s got the power to hurt him. People underestimate how big Conor is, and he hits hard, but I think Floyd is way, way too smart to underestimate him.”

‘I will paint many different pictures’

McGregor believes the unknown will work to his advantage. Because he never has boxed, there’s no film to break down or patterns to study.

While he can’t use the full arsenal of strikes available in MMA competition, McGregor can borrow from his years of training to create a unique style that probably will be different from anything Mayweather has encountered.

“I will come out and I will paint many different pictures,” McGregor said in Los Angeles last month after the first stop on the world tour to promote the fight. “I can fight in many styles and from many different stances. I can take a capoeira approach, I can take a taekwondo attack, I can take a karate stance, I can take a boxing stance or a Thai boxing stance.

“I can come out in a Greco-Roman wrestling stance. I can start this fight in many different ways, and I will use all of them. I will paint many, many different pictures in this fight, dazzle him, and then the shots will find their home.”

Fight fans can’t wait to watch. Except for Arum, who might be singing a far different tune if he had a piece of the action this time around.

More boxing: Follow all of our boxing coverage online at reviewjournal.com/boxing and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-277-8028. Follow @adamhilllvrj on Twitter. Contact Gilbert Manzano at gmanzano@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GManzano24 on Twitter.

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