Ali-Inoki and Clinton-Trump: Same Ring, Different Game

One of the weirder chapters of Muhammad Ali’s career was his embarrassing 1976 bout against Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki.

A 2009 retrospective on this blemish on the champ’s ring record describes what happened when the bell clanged to start the festivities:

Before the ringing had stopped, Inoki had sprinted the 16-feet gap between the two men, and thrown himself feet first at Ali in a deranged two-footed tackle. Ali sidestepped, Inoki missed. Before the two could square up, Inoki threw another lunging kick, missed again, and landed flat on his back.

And then things started to get really silly.

Inoki didn’t get up. He lay on his back at Ali’s feet and refused to stand.

As Ali circled him warily Inoki scooted around on his behind, like a hound trying to scratch its ass on the carpet. Occasionally he would kick viciously upwards at Ali’s knees. He stayed like this for all but the first 14 seconds of the three-minute round.

That was the template for the entire match, though at one point Inoki managed to drag Ali to the canvas and sit on his head. For his part, Ali threw six punches. In 15 rounds. The event was scored a draw.

Inoki’s reputation soared from his non-loss. Ali’s suffered from his participation in a farce. He also sustained significant leg injuries that some say hampered him in later fights.

I hadn’t thought of this piece of sports entertainment in a long time. But it came to mind last night watching two opponents sharing the same stage but playing completely different games — Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Hillary Clinton ain’t “The Greatest.” She’s not known for her jab. It’s Trump, not Clinton, who’s renowned for his lip and has shocked the world by becoming the Republican presidential nominee and pulling himself into a position to win the election just a few weeks from now.

But in the debate, we got to see Clinton operating, for better or worse, by the rules of conventional politics. She spent time preparing. She maintained her composure when things got heated. She made a point of appearing presidential in the traditional sense.

Trump played a different game altogether, the one that got him the nomination. He bluffed, he bragged, he interrupted, he contradicted, and he interrupted again. His version of looking presidential was to cite his income for last year — a figure he put at $694 million — as “the kind of thinking that our country needs.”

You might judge who managed to stay on their feet for this round of the Clinton-Trump match and who was scrabbling around on their back kicking at their opponent’s legs by the candidates’ post-event reactions. Or one reaction, anyway:

‘Good Guy, Bad World’

Floyd Patterson died, and now that’s mostly a reminder of a time when there weren’t three or four or seven world championships in every boxing weight class; in other words, a time when boxing was a marquee American sport and the heavyweight championship had an aura of importance about it. I remember my mom’s enthusiasm for Patterson, listening to his fights with Ingemar Johansson on the radio, her excitement when Patterson won back the title Johansson had taken from him. The New York Times’s obit of Patterson talks about his “sensitivity”:

“He was a good guy in the bad world of boxing. He was sweet-tempered and reclusive. He spoke softly and never lost his boyhood shyness. Cus D’Amato, who trained him throughout his professional career, called Patterson ‘a kind of a stranger.’ Red Smith, the New York Times sports columnist, called him ‘the man of peace who loves to fight.’ ”

How “shy” and “sensitive” was Patterson? David Remnick’s beautifully written “King of the World” recounts many of the Patterson anecdotes you’re likely to read in the obituaries and more than a few that go beyond the usual euphemisms. When he beat Johansson to take back the title, he helped his stricken foe back to his corner. In another fight, Patterson knocked his opponent’s mouthpiece out. The dazed fighter lowered his gloves and proceeded to search for the missing gear; Patterson stopped and helped him before going on to knock the guy out. Part of Patterson’s odd legend is that he sometimes carried a fake beard with him to his fights in case he lost and wanted to depart the arena incognito; in fact, he used it after losing the championship to Sonny Liston at Comiskey Park in 1962.

But the Remnick passage that came to mind when I heard Patterson died is one that explores the depths of Patterson’s humiliation when he lost to Johansson:

“Patterson was a speed fighter, but against Johansson he never made his move. He froze, and Johansson, a burly Swede of modest talent, unloosed what his camp called, so annoyingly, his ‘toonder and lightning.’ After the first knockdown, Floyd got off the canvas and began walking dreamily toward his corner. Leaving the neutral corner, Johansson came in from Patterson’s blind side and struck him down again; the assault looked less like boxing than an angry drunk splitting open another man’s skull with a beer bottle. By around the fourth knockdown, as Patterson crawled around the canvas, staring through the ropes, his eyes locked on John Wayne, who was sitting at ringside, and, as he stared at the actor, Floyd felt embarrassed. Embarrassment was Patterson’s signature emotion, and never more so than now. The fight was not even over before he started to wonder if everything he had fought for — his title, his belonging to a world greater than the one he grew up in — if all that was now at risk. Had he ever deserved any recognition, any belonging in the first place? What would John Wayne think of him? The referee, Ruby Goldstein, stopped the fight after Patterson had gone down for the seventh time.”

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