The Rise of Japanese Wrestling and Muhammad Ali

Poster marketing the Ali vs Aoki boxing/wrestling exhibition in Japan
Poster of the Ali vs Aoki exhibition match in Japan

Japan’s head of the Olympic delegation, Olympian Kenkichi Oshima, proclaimed 6 days prior to the start of the 1964 Games that Japan must win at least 15 gold medals. Since Japan’s haul for the 1960 Games in Rome was only 4, Oshima’s declaration was uncustomarily boastful.

As it turned out, Japan won 16 gold medals, part of it due to the entry of Judo to the summer games. But arguably the main reason was Japan’s emergence as a wrestling power, as their wrestlers won a surprising five gold medals. Much credit was given to the team’s coach, Ichiro Hatta, famous for his Spartan training methods and singular mindset on winning.

Equally interesting, at least to me, is that Hatta is the one who introduced Muhammad Ali to Japanese wrestler, Antonio Aoki in April, 1975, setting up a mixed martial arts battle in the Budokan on June 26, 1976. In the end, the battle between Ali and Aoki was a bore, and a low point in Ali’s career. But it certainly sticks in my mind as a quirky sports cultural milestone.