Monday, June 20, 2016


But why bring it up?
By Don Stradley

Despite the laborious title of Josh Gross’ ALI vs INOKI: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment,  I’m not convinced that Ali’s fiasco with a Japanese wrestler in 1976 inspired or launched anything. There’d been mixed boxer/wrestler matches going back several decades, and as for “sports entertainment,” the coy term for professional wrestling, there’d been enormously popular wrestling events long before the Ali - Inoki debacle. Hell, in 1934 Strangler Lewis wrestled Jim Londos in front of 35,275 at Wrigley Field. Still, Ali-Inoki is a large link in a very long chain, and as such, deserves a closer look than it’s generally given.  

You couldn’t ask for a closer look than the one Gross gives this odd footnote in sports history, but the tone is problematic. Depending on the reader’s interest, one might be put off by Gross, a longtime MMA journalist, who is clearly more interested in mixed martial arts than boxing. While Gross reminds us constantly that boxers haven’t fared well in mixed rules bouts, he doesn’t acknowledge that a few boxers have knocked MMA men goofy. And while he interviewed quite a few wrestling and MMA types for his book, including an insignificant “writer” from the WWE, he didn’t speak to quite so many boxing people. One whose input is sorely missed – Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee – is long dead.

Inoki was an interesting character  - he was as hungry for fame as Hulk Hogan and Vincent K. McMahon combined, and was knowledgeable about real fighting techniques as well as American-style ring theatrics – but kept himself blanketed in mystery. Was he really Korean, as some suspected? Was he affiliated with gangsters, as many in the Japanese wrestling world are said to have been? He played the role of noble athlete, but anyone who spends 15 rounds trying to kick Ali in the nuts is certainly no boy scout. Then there was the bizarre New Year’s Eve ritual where Inoki’s most devoted admirers would stand in line waiting to be slapped in the face by their hero. It was, recalls Bas Rutten in the book’s intro, a “hard” slap. This was a sort of spiritual exercise, where Inoki would supposedly transmit some of his fighting spirit into his fans. Call me a  misguided Westerner, but I’ve never wanted Lennox Lewis to hit me in the mouth for luck.

The Ali- Inoki debacle took place during one of the worst years of Ali’s career. After the watershed period of 1974-75, Ali’s popularity was at its highest in ‘76, but he was showing signs of age, and even burnout. Ali had wanted to fight in Japan and had fished around for a Japanese boxer, but when Inoki’s promotional company contacted him with an offer, he saw it as a chance to partake in the ballyhoo of professional wrestling. As for the question of who would win between a boxer and a wrestler, I can’t imagine anyone over the age of 12 concerning themselves with it. But according to Gross,  this question has tormented mankind for centuries. Though Ali used it as a promotional crutch, I doubt he was seriously thinking about it. It’s more likely he wanted to get away from boxing for a bit because he needed a distraction, something whimsical to draw money. Ali had, as Dr. Ferdie Pacheco said, “the blood of a con artist.”

Where things went haywire was in establishing rules for the event. Inoki was unhappy when Ali’s camp demanded certain martial arts tactics be banned,  but he knew being linked with Ali was worth a few concessions. The bout, which took place at the legendary Budokan Hall in Tokyo, was pure shit. Inoki stayed low, butt-scooting across the ring, kicking at Ali’s legs. Ali spent the entire 15 rounds yelling at Inoki, unsure of how to deal with the crablike character in front of him. Far more entertaining was what Ali did stateside to promote the match, which included workouts with wrestling journeymen Buddy Wolff and Kenny Jaye. With “Fearless” Freddie Blassie as his “manager,” Ali would throw big, exaggerated uppercuts and the goons would rocket skyward like villains in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. At least it was funny. 

Whether or not Ali-Inoki was legitimate is a puzzle Gross can't solve. For one thing, he relies too much on the memories of crackpots. Can I really trust someone like "Judo" Gene LeBell, who made much of his living in the pro wrestling racket? That it was declared a draw suggests some sort of fix was in, particularly since Ali landed no more than a few punches. To paraphrase Pacheco, someone was going to get fucked, and it wasn't going to be Ali. My own hunch is that Inoki knew in advance that the bout would be called a draw, so he decided to just kick the crap out of Ali’s legs, not to win, but to send Ali home with some lumps and bruises. As for what Ali knew or thought, no one can say for certain. Inoki’s refusal to be interviewed for the book says a lot, too.

And, of course, there was the aftermath, with Ali calling Inoki a coward (I rather enjoyed the accounts of Ali taunting Inoki with some brutal American street talk, the sort that would get him banned from Twitter). For his part, Inoki claimed Ali’s hands were taped in a way that would make his punches too dangerous, hence, his strategy of staying on the canvas. Jhoon Rhee, the heralded taekwondo master who helped train Ali, suggested that Ali and Inoki had been scared of each other, not sure of what the other might do. And the public, feeling bamboozled, quickly forgot Ali-Inoki had ever happened. 

Yet, Ali-Inoki would occasionally rise from the ashes. Inoki kept the boxer-wrestler concept going with bouts against Check Wepner and Leon Spinks (and even a white-haired Karl Mildenberger), while Ali kept a hand in the wrestling biz by appearing as a referee at the first WrestleMania in 1985. The growing interest in MMA during the 2000s lead to Ali-Inoki being hailed, somewhat generously, as a kind of groundbreaker. If nothing else, Ali-Inoki showed future MMA promoters what to avoid. 

Gross covers all the bases. In fact, he covers too many bases, trying to squeeze in a history of pro wrestling in both America and Japan, plus a history of MMA. Despite Gross’ ambition, he lacks finesse. He gets carried away with insider fluff, like a blow invented by Rhee, “that melds thought and action into high-speed data flow.” He’s convincing when he suggests the bout was so badly received because Inoki’s kicking style was lost on American audiences, and he does a good job reminding us of the event's publicity blitz - it was the Ali event of the summer, and was hyped like any of his  heavyweight title bouts - but Gross remains an MMA mark, wallowing in stories about broken shinbones and dislocated shoulders; he’s like a dreamy kid who just saw his first Bruce Lee movie.

And every time he refers to Ali’s punches as “strikes,” I wanted to scream.

Gross, who has covered MMA since 2000, is also clueless when it comes to the pro wrestling side of the story. He strangely refers to Gorgeous George as a “reformed psychiatrist from New York City,” which still has me scratching my head. My favorite clinker, though, was when he mentions a bout between Inoki and Andre the Giant as “probably all fake.” Wow, do you think so?

He gets some amusing anecdotes from people on Ali’s team, namely Pacheco, Gene Kilroy,  and Rhee, who tells of Ali asking him to set up a rendezvous with a Korean woman after the match, even as Ali’s legs were, according to publicist Bobby Goodman, “so swollen he couldn’t put his pants on.”

But, as always, it’s Ali himself who stands out. Exhausted after the bout, surrounded by an entourage of bloodsuckers that numbered nearly 50 by this time, his legs covered in ice packs, Ali growled at a New York Times reporter that boxers were “so superior to rasslers. Inoki didn’t stand up and fight like a man. If he had gotten into hittin’ range, I’d a burned him but good.”  The irony, lost on Ali (and Gross) is that many boxers had said similar things about Ali, that his constant movement in the ring was somehow unmanly, and that if he’d stood still they would’ve nailed him. Now Ali knew how it felt to be Jerry Quarry.

As for Inoki, I keep thinking about matches from late in his career. In what could be seen as his own version of Ali’s "rope-a-dope," the 50ish Inoki would take a prolonged pounding, but at the last moment he’d pin his opponent, and then collapse. His seconds would rush into the ring, wrap him in his robe and take him away, a bit like the climax of a James Brown concert. Inoki’s fans ate it up, roaring as if they’d just witnessed something majestic. Inoki would move slowly down the aisle, his fans trying to touch him, fans who hadn’t even been born when Inoki met Ali, fans who may not have realized, or cared, that most of Inoki’s career was utter show business, but were still standing in line, waiting to be slapped.


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