RondaRousey.com’s Real Shooters feature explores the good, the bad, and the weird of pro wrestling-MMA crossover moments in history.
Just about everyone who watches professional wrestling knows that the matches are—to a certain extent—choreographed, planned out by the performers either beforehand, in the ring, or some combination of both. But the scripted violence can be real to a certain extent as well, especially if the wrestlers agree to hit each other harder than usual. An extreme example of this type of worked shooting in pro wrestling occurred at WCW‘s Clash of the Champions XXVIII, in the only in-ring meeting between Antonio Inoki and a young wrestler who would go on to be quite influential in WWE.
Antonio Inoki has been featured before in Real Shooters, as an important figure in pro wrestling and MMA, both as a competitor and a promoter. In 1994, the 51-year-old Inoki was firmly established as one of the most popular performers in the history of Japanese wrestling, an accomplished businessman, and in the midst of the first stage of his political career, serving as the equivalent of a senator in the Japanese House of Councillors. After over 30 years in the squared circle, Inoki had decided to hang up his boots and retire.
Unlike many wrestlers, when Inoki retired, he stayed retired for good—but the process took him four years. Inoki booked the “Final Countdown” for himself between 1994 and 1998, a series of matches against pro wrestlers and martial artists building to a final bout with Don Frye at the Tokyo Dome that drew what was, at the time, the largest live wrestling gate ever.
And as part of this winding down of his career, Inoki made his only appearance for WCW, which had a partnership in the 1990s with the company he founded, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). Inoki was booked at Clash of the Champions XXVIII on August 24, 1994, at the Five Seasons Center in Cedar Rapids, IA, against an up-and-coming wrestler who would later be recognized as an all-time great: Lord Steven Regal, currently known as William Regal.
In 2019, Regal is best known as NXT’s General Manager and WWE’s Director of Talent Development and Head of Global Recruiting. But at the time of his match against Inoki, he was a 26-year-old newcomer to WCW. He started his wrestling career in Britain, then started touring internationally, and signed with WCW in 1992. After a stint as a good guy, he became the villainous “Lord Steven Regal,” an upper-class English snob character (similar to the one he’d play for the rest of his in-ring career), mixing unpleasant superiority with impressive grappling skills and a willingness to break the rules.
Regal was the WCW World Television Champion at Clash of the Champions XXVIII, but this match wasn’t for the title. It was a legendary performer most of the audience didn’t know well enough to love versus a bad guy they knew they hated. Unbeknownst to many, it was also a clash of wrestling styles that were very significant to Inoki’s road to retirement.
Two of the most influential and respected non-Japanese trainers and performers in the Japanese wrestling scene while Inoki was in his prime were Karl Gotch and Billy Robinson. Both men trained in English wrestler Billy Riley’s Snake Pit catch wrestling training school. Gotch was Inoki’s opponent in the main event of the first NJPW show in March 1972, and though Robinson worked more in All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW), his relatively short stint of matches for NJPW in 1975 included a 60-minute time-limit draw against the company founder.
As Regal pointed out on the XPAC 12360 podcast in 2017, “I was very fortunate that they picked me. … I was the last of sort of that sort of British style that was a big thing in Japan with Billy Robinson and people. I was the only one around doing it at the time.” Regal vs. Inoki was a throwback to a wrestling trend of which the Iowa crowd wasn’t aware, but one that fit perfectly with what Inoki was doing with his career at the time.
Inoki vs. Regal was a more realistic pro wrestling match than most, one with a straightforward story. Both men were clearly skilled in striking and grappling, but Regal had the advantages of size and the willingness to use underhanded tactics.
Though it can be looked back on now as a bout between two greats—if not either man’s greatest work—it clearly wasn’t that high of a priority for WCW at the time. As Regal changed up the match with a leg lock, commentary started talking about the drama involving Hulk Hogan, who was scheduled to face Ric Flair in the main event but had been attacked earlier in the show. The match was at one point shown in split screen with footage of Hogan arriving to the locker room, and the pay-per-view later showed commentary talking about the main event situation while Regal vs. Inoki was still going on.
However, this match isn’t best known for being of a style rarely performed in the United States or for the surrounding Hogan drama, but for its worked shoot finish. Inoki locked Regal in a “choke sleeper” and choked him out, causing the referee to stop the match. He didn’t let go right away after the three-count and Regal remained slumped on the mat. Regal later confirmed that he was legitimately choked unconscious by Inoki, which was how he decided before the match that he wanted to go out.
On that same episode of XPAC 12360, the British wrestler explained:
“That was the finish, and I knew he wanted me to tap. … I wasn’t going to tap. I knew it would just be better if I didn’t. I’d been put out before… We know nowadays that’s not a smart thing to do, but I didn’t at that time and I knew it would be over really quick, and it was. He put it on and I didn’t tap and I was out before I knew it.”
Though he acknowledged his decision regarding the finish was less than safe, Regal remained “happy and honored” to have had the match with Inoki. “At the end of the day, who at my age can say that they fought somebody that fought Muhammad Ali?”
As an unusual historical event with an unusual finish, Regal’s match with Inoki will continue to be remembered as not just a time when two influential figures in wrestling collided, but a moment when professional wrestling got a little bit more real.
You can watch this match and the rest of WCW Clash of the Champions XXVIII on the WWE Network.