Josh Gross is a sports journalist who has covered MMA since 2000, and two years ago he published his book Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment. In the book, he dissected the story of the mixed rules fight and looked at how it helped shape the MMA and professional wrestling scene we see today.
In part one of our interview with Josh Gross, we discuss the history of combat sports, the impact Ali vs. Inoki still has on MMA, Brock Lesnar’s UFC 226 appearance, and the battle between sport and entertainment in mixed martial arts and the UFC.
What’s incredible is that you released the book in 2016, and I would argue it’s even more relevant now than it was two years ago. We’ve had Floyd vs. Conor, and recently we had Brock and Cormier going toe to toe. Does it surprise you how much impact Ali vs. Inoki still has today?
No, I think if you look back on the history of it, and you understand how crucial it was to establishing what mixed martial arts looks like currently, it will continue to affect it as we move forward. We see it constantly. Now there’s a large debate about whether this is sport or entertainment? Does it matter whether you win or lose? Or is it about how popular you are?
The way that you have to establish your name before the fight, after the fight, the way that most fighters are expected to bark at themselves, and the way the audience is receiving what they are seeing. I’m not crazy about a lot of it, but I recognise that’s the real genesis in the history of what mixed martial arts is. It is the cousin to pro wrestling. The link could be closer than that.
I am a sports person; I want to know who the best is. That’s always been my motivation for being invested in what mixed martial arts, and UFC was. To me, it became a platform for determining who the best fighter in the world is. That’s what still binds me to MMA. You get those bouts like the Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier fight. I was incredibly excited by that fight, and for a lot of other people, there was not enough pro wrestling shenanigans before the fight.
Going back to Stipe vs. Cormier for a moment, would you not say it’s quite fascinating that in a short space of time, they went from that sports theory to pro wrestling theatrics when Brock Lesnar came in the cage?
That was the two sides of what this business is butting up against each other in an obvious way. I think it’s a reason why people were put off by that because it was unfair to Stipe Miocic. It diminished what went on inside the octagon, and maybe that’s some people taking it too seriously and not allowing it to be entertainment. Brock Lesnar at his peak was very dangerous, extremely charismatic, and someone that I was bought into because he was a unique physical specimen. But that ship has sailed. He hasn’t technically won a fight in eight years, and the fact he’s such a big draw for UFC is the only reason he is fighting Daniel Cormier for the title.
Some of us, I don’t know if it’s a fleeing number; don’t want it to become a sideshow circus. I don’t want it to become business as usual. Once in a while, these kinds of moments are okay, but we have entered the entertainment era which was highlighted by the matchup of Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor. So these things are constantly fighting one another.
With all the years of mixed martial arts the world has been exposed to, do you think a modern fan would appreciate or at least understand what was going on in the Ali vs. Inoki fight?
Oh, no question. People today have a much greater understanding of what mixed rules fights are. In 1976, most of the audience didn’t know whether it was real or not. They didn’t know whether it was a wrestling showcase or a real sporting event, they didn’t understand it. But because of Ali’s personality and his global superstardom, they had to tune in. A lot of people didn’t know who Antonio Inoki was and the lineage he came from, but for the people who did, his participation was a big deal.
I think there is no question if you were sitting in a theatre or stadium watching it in 1976, you recognise that was probably pretty boring, and it didn’t live up to any kind of pro wrestling hype. There is no doubt that people today are much better equipped to understand what happened in the fight. They may not find it entertaining, and it’s not. But there are moments, and I didn’t think it was terrible; I ended up watching it like thirty times.
I did an intricate breakdown of the fight; I spent one chapter on it because the book is not just about the actual fight. I tried to watch different versions of the broadcast; I tried to make sure people felt what happened in the ring, the verbal exchanges between Ali and Inoki, and the fan experience both in the arena and at close circuit venues. I tried to capture that hour of time in one chapter.
What was the perception of mixed rules fights at that time? Even in UFC’s early years, they struggled to get the mainstream to accept it.
Yes, there was a struggle to accept it because a lot of people didn’t understand it. A lot of times when people deal with something they don’t understand, there is a backlash in negative responses. With the early UFC shows, I think it was less about lack of understanding for what was happening in the cage, as opposed to the visceral reaction to the violence that was coming out of the cage.
There were questions about what this means for society in large? What does this say about cultures who embrace these things? Mixed rules fights go back three/four thousand years. So people thought society was going back. So conversations were different because I don’t think anyone looked at Ali vs. Inoki and thought it was too violent.
Historically, Japan has been the nation to embrace MMA. Pride FC was a huge company, and even bigger than UFC at one time.
Even before that, Pancrase debuted two months before UFC 1, and it was a direct result of the heritage of Antonio Inoki and his strong style wrestling. There was a sense among people who practiced that style of professional wrestling, was that what they were doing was an actual martial art and that it could work in a real fight. That’s what the idea of Pancrase was.
If you remember Ken Shamrock, he was a Pancrase fighter coming to the UFC. So Pride was definitely a reaction to this history and heritage of martial arts, and bushido that was familiar to Japanese audiences. It was one of the reasons that a mixed rules fight between Ali and Inoki was so received. It was one of the reasons why Inoki had pushed so hard and so long to continue this idea that pro wrestling is a real martial art, and I’m going to represent that style in competition.
He did it numerous times, and most of them were scripted outcomes. But just the idea had a big impact on how modern-day audiences in Japan reacted to this kind of combat.
Do you think that fight is also a symbol of the times as well? Not only did a superpower in boxing and wrestling come together for a joint event, but someone like Ali took a dangerous risk, something someone like Floyd Mayweather would not do.
Yeah. Perhaps you could say that you got that with Mayweather and McGregor or CM Punk going to the UFC. For me, Ali had a tremendous amount of courage. He was extremely ambitious in the way that he viewed himself and in terms of the risks he was willing to take, and this was amongst those risks, there’s no question about that.
Do you think this should be something people remember a little more when it comes to Ali because of the courage it took to do something like this?
There are so many reasons to remember Muhammad Ali, and this fight may be glossed over. The sub-headline to my book is ‘The Forgotten Fight that inspired mixed martial arts and launched sports entertainment.’ And it really was the forgotten fight. People looked at this as an embarrassing moment for Muhammad Ali, and one of the things I wanted to do was change the paradigm in which people saw this.
It does have a large impact on the future of combat sports, and I don’t know if Ali intended that. I don’t want to take away from him because he always had a sense of his reach and the impact he could have on people. So I think it was in his estimation that by simply engaging in an event like this, something could arise out of it.
My feeling on Ali is that he should be remembered for this event, because if you are someone that cares about mixed martial arts, then you should care about this contest. You should certainly know about it, and by understanding it, it will give you a much better appreciation for what mixed martial arts is today.