The Great Antonio

Comedian Bill Burr recently did commentary on a professional wrestling match held in 1977 in Japan between Antonio Inoki, the man who fought/wrestled Muhammad Ali a year and half prior to this fight, and a crazy, bulbous strongman named The Great Antonio.

Inoki’s bout with Ali in June of 1976 is considered by many to be the first MMA fight in history. Such an unusual bout had unusual rules: if either man pinned the other for a count of 3, or knocked his foe out for a count of 10, that fighter won, regardless of whether or not the wrestler or boxer scored the feat. It was possible that the boxer could pin the wrestler, or that the wrestler could KO the boxer.

The story goes that the bout was supposed to be a work (a scripted fight), but that Inoki was agreeable to throwing away the script and having a legitimate fight with the boxing great. The rules were ridiculously altered so that Inoki could not use his advantages as a wrestler, not being able to tackle Ali or take him down with a leg dive.

Instead, Inoki spent most of the 15 rounds in a crab-like posture, kicking at the champ’s legs. Muhammad’s legs swelled up from being kicked upon, and his left leg had blood clots that nearly required an amputation. The result of the bout was a “draw” and both Ali and Inoki were able to save face, and Ali was able to make a lot more money in the remaining years of his prizefight career.

For the Great Antonio, wrestling seemed to be a hobby as he traveled through North American circuits, as he was much better known for performing (as Jerry Stiller would say later in Seinfeld) feats of strength. According to Wrestlingdata.com, Antonio (real name: Antonio Barichievich) wrestled mainly between 1959 and 1961, specializing in handicap matches (where a team of wrestlers usually face one individual, or a smaller team) to get over as an attraction.

Promoters saw the strongman from Canada as a sideshow, and didn’t view Antonio as the kind of grappler that should be a champion. That was usually the case with bigger and stronger wrestling performers, because if the bigger man was told to lose a bout to relinquish the title and they didn’t want to lose, how would you get the title off of him? At 52 years of age in 1977, Barichievich was making a comeback of sorts in Japan, usually wrestling and “winning” 1-against-3 matches in Inoki’s New Japan wrestling promotion.

The bout degenerated quickly, with Antonio no-selling Inoki’s offensive maneuvers, then hitting Inoki in the back of the head and neck with blows that certainly didn’t sound as if they were being pulled or simulated. It was clear that Great Antonio was not being cooperative and had no interest in making Inoki look good, as is usually the custom in the stagecraft of the business. He had gone into business for himself, trying to get himself over the smaller, more agile Inoki, who had spent years of his career building his reputation. Usually, such a move without any kind of orders meant retaliation was in order, and in Great Antonio’s case, that retaliation would occur for the whole arena to see, and to be chronicled on tape (and now on YouTube) for years on end.

After a few moments of this, the proud Inoki had had enough, and what should have been a scripted contest got very real within an instant. He began striking the Great Antonio with everything he could muster, taking the strongman down by the legs and legitimately stomping on his head and busting him up. The bout was awarded to Inoki with Great Antonio deemed unable to continue, lying in a bloody heap on the mat, perhaps losing consciousness at some juncture.

Inoki would go on and build a career for himself in Japan, fighting many other boxers, kickboxers, and other various martial artists in staged competitions. The Great Antonio would have success on TV and movies, playing a caveman in a 1981 film called Quest For Fire before passing of a heart attack in Montreal in 2003.

Even for the unreal world of wrestling, this was quite a strange bout.

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