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Book review: Ali vs. Inoki, The Forgotten Fight (Josh Gross) – a buy recommendation

By Zach Arnold | April 19, 2016

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Click the image cover to order the book at Amazon

Price: $10.96 USD
Personal rating: 7.5 out of 10 stars
Recommendation: Buy the book

FTC disclosure: I received an advanced book copy last week in the mail for review.

General thoughts

Josh Gross tackled one of the most controversial events in the history of combat sports with vigor and research. His final work product is a 282-page book that is incredible in its scope of information compilation. It took me three days to read the book, go through my notes, and re-read certain sections to absorb all of the details but it was well-worth it.

The book is an easy read but requires some patience and diligence to comprehend the massive amount of history surrounding the Ali/Inoki fight and why celebrating or remembering its 40th anniversary this Summer is so important to the current fight business climate.

It is a long book but a worthwhile read. There is no singular correct way to approach this topic. There are lots of books on Ali. Lots of printed material. Lots of video tape if you are willing to scour Youtube or watch Japanese DVDs. However, the job of compiling all of this information and detailing the Bizarre at Budokan while also revealing some new information is where Josh’s book excels.

After reading the book, I called Josh and asked him several questions to get a better sense of what he was aiming to achieve here and why it was so important to him to spend over a year writing 70,000+ words on.

Detailing the book

I come from a legal/investigative writing background where strict organization, getting to the point, being concise, translating ambiguous statements, and connecting disparate spots into a tight story is my style of writing. I’m not as talented a writer in terms of creating a flowing text as many of my contemporaries in combat sports media.

That kind of writing style doesn’t lend itself to appropriately tell the multi-dimensional stories & eras that Josh wrote about with Ali, Inoki, Gene LeBell, Gene Kilroy, and Freddie Blassie. You could write a book on each of those characters and that’s probably what I would have done. Josh didn’t have that luxury. He had to tie all of their stories, their backgrounds, their stunts, and their fights into one book. You have to be an indefatigable writer to do the kind of work that Josh put into this book.

My highest compliment to Josh is that he did a remarkably accurate job of detailing the history of Japanese and US pro-wrestling during this time period. Josh is not a pro-wrestling guy. I still don’t think he will ever be a wrestling guy, but his evolution in learning how all the major combat sports are intertwined & connected to each other is a big step up for him. It’s a tough learning curve.

The book starts out with a foreward by Bas Rutten about his experiences with Japanese MMA, primarily Pancrase and its relationship to Japaese wrestling. He discussed how he had to learn to become a complete fighter or else he wasn’t going to have much of a career. Quite a development given the discipline vs. discipline concept that Ali/Inoki represented, that UWF Japan built upon, and what UFC would come at us with in 1993.

The opening chapter of the book is hot. Here you have this $10 million dollar sales pitch by Ali to sell a circus fight with rules that neither guy fully understood until hours before the fight itself took place at Budokan. Ali, like Hogan & Flair & other top legends in American wrestling history, understood the gravity of the skepticism he was facing in trying to sell a fight to the public — especially a fight that casual fans thought was surely going to be scripted.

Josh interviewed a lot of people for this book. Included in that list is Dave Meltzer, Jeff Wagenheim, Kevin Iole, Andrew Malcolm, Gene Kilroy, and Judo Gene LeBell. LeBell is such a wonderfully sadistic personality and was the greatest choice ever to referee the Ali/Inoki fight. LeBell was a cheap date to take that booking for $5,000.

The impact of the Ali/Inoki fight was so important in Japan. It greatly influenced the stunt that UWF matchmaker Yoji Anjoh pulled at Rickson Gracie’s gym in Southern California and how it led to the infamous Nobuhiko Takada vs. Rickson Gracie fights. UWF was marketed as dojo pro-wrestling and was an off-shoot in the 1980s from Inoki’s New Japan Pro-Wrestling. UWF was MMA before there was MMA. There are still UWF-themed fights in 2016 with “UWF vs. Krav Maga” and “UWF vs. FMW.”

The book is lengthy at 282 pages. It should have been capped at around 200 pages, if possible. But that’s the thing — it’s impossible to write a book with so much documentation and come out with a work product that’s short in length.

After a great first chapter, the next few chapters feel out of place. There is important discussion about Farmer Burns, Strangler Lewis, and Gene LeBell vs. Milo Savage. All of it matters but it doesn’t feel natural to go from reading the first chapter discussing the days before Ali/Inoki to going back for history lessons. I’m not sure if it is a lay out issue of chronology or if it’s history that requires an extensive look like Jonathan Snowden did with The Shooters, but I came away feeling that the momentum had stalled after the first chapter.

Business picked back up as the focus shifted on the relations between America & Japan. Who better to be America’s evil ambassador than vampire-tooth shaver Fred Blassie?

Fred Blassie was super huge in Southern California and the home of pro-wrestling in the early 1960s was the Olympic Auditorium. I still hold that building in great reverance. So did Jimmy Lennon’s family and anyone else who used to go to the fight events there. Josh touched on a really interesting topic in regards to how much involvement there was from organized crime in the Los Angeles scene and how the parallels existed with Rikidozan in Japan during his rise. Remember, it was Rikidozan’s double-cross of Masahiko Kimura in the 50s that forever changed the landscape of wrestling in Japan. His death, not a decade later, changed everything for both Antonio Inoki & Giant Baba. Inoki went all-in with Rikidozan style. Baba went more classic American pro-wrestling with all the major names he worked with.

Karl Gotch was the glue. He was the trainer for so many of Inoki’s early stars in New Japan. He would be the father of UWF. He still maintains a God-like status in Japanese wrestling history. He and Danny Hodge, two men with vice grips and techniques ready to turn men into pretzels. Throw in Billy Robinson and you saw the melding of different fight styles that primed the landscape for what we eventually saw at Budokan with Ali & Inoki.

There is a great piece of foreshadowing in Josh’s book where he talked about Gong Magazine and Josh Barnett approaching Karl Gotch in Tampa with video of Barnett’s fight with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Instead of getting compliments, Gotch was pissed with what he saw. It was the exact same emotion that he had for the Budokan fiasco he witnessed with Ali & Inoki. He clearly thought Inoki could finish the guy any time he wanted and was a powder keg that the job didn’t get done.

With the backdrop of the Budokan fight, Ali was burning through all of his cash with his various divorces and ties with the Nation of Islam. The New York presser with Ali & Inoki promoting their Budokan fight was something that I vividly remembered as a kid. I was going back to my childhood reading Josh’s book. Inoki as The Pelican with that chin of his.

The book spends a lot of time focusing on the role of Jhoon Rhee in teaching Ali martial arts, specifically the “Accu-punch.”

Ali always had a wrestling promoter’s mindset in marketing his fights, including the reported concept of staging a fake kidnapping to drum up media interest. I suppose that’s more original than Conor McGregor’s media tactics. One of the great mysteries surrounding the Ali/Inoki fight involved the financials. Ron Holmes was the front man for a company called Lincoln National Productions in California. Between Lincoln & Bob Arum at Top Rank, millions of dollars were at stake. Ali was supposed to get $6 million dollars. In the end, he supposedly got $1.8 million. The story about his business advisers being livid at what happened is something that I wish there had been more focus on. However, Josh tried to reach out to some of the major players who are still alive and nobody wanted to talk. I guess those secrets will be headed to the grave.

I strongly remember the video of Ali landing at Haneda Airport in Tokyo with obnoxious Freddie Blassie as his mouthpiece. It was a media circus. Everyone was fighting with each other to get a piece of Ali, to get a quote out of the quote machine. It was TMZ material before TMZ existed. So was the stunt of Gorilla Monsoon’s encounter with Ali in Philadelphia. Vince McMahon Jr. took away a lot of lessons from the Inoki/Ali fight. He tried to interject himself in the proceedings and found himself getting summoned home. He was as clueless about the Japanese in the 1970s as he is today. There are some great stories in Josh’s book detailing Vince’s various business dealing with Japanese poltiics.

The irony of all ironies, of course, is that Ali/Inoki created the boom of closed circuit television and the manifestation of that boom would be Wrestlemania 1 at MSG. A main event featuring Hulk Hogan, Antonio Inoki’s rival of the early 80s. The guest referee? Ali. Not to mention all the unsubstantiated rumors that it was Inoki who helped Vince Jr. with money for Wrestlemania.

The round-by-round play-by-play of the Ali/Inoki fight in the book is meticulously crafted by Josh Gross. Really well done. It’s actually a better read than it is to watch on video tape.

Despite Inoki’s awful technique, he exposed to the world the value of leg kicks and other fighters took great notice including Mo Smith. The value of cross-training, especially with The Alliance (Smith, Frank Shamrock, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka) would change the way fighters prepared for upcoming bouts. Ken Shamrock got into a war of words with Mo Smith.

“You’re not a fighter, you’re a specialized fighter.”

Chuck Wepner, who fought Andre the Giant on the New York undercard of the Ali/Inoki telecast, claimed that Donald Trump tried to book him for an MMA cage fight in Atlantic City against Tex Cobb. Trump was one of McMahon’s biggest backers in the 1980s.

After the Ali fight, Inoki would go on to do his mixed fights with Willie Williams, the UWF roster including Akira Maeda & Osamu Kido, and then the feud with the Russians in the late 80s. The launch of UFC in Denver changed everything, as did the parallel rise of Pancrase and Maeda’s RINGS promotion. In Josh’s book, it is noted that Art Davie wanted Gene LeBell as the referee for UFC 1 but Rorion Gracie supposedly spiked that idea.

Amidst all the discussion of the involvement of organized crime in the Japanese and Southern California fight scenes, Josh Gross quotes former PRIDE US executive Hideki Yamamoto as claiming that Dream Stage Entertainment used former mobster intermediary Hiromichi Momose to “control” Inoki and hide income from tax authorities while New Japan Pro-Wrestling was doing business with PRIDE in the early 2000s.

Final thoughts

The amount of history covered in Ali vs. Inoki, The Forgotten Fight is intense. As a reference book, I would strongly recommend purchasing it. It is an important reminder of how the combat sports business changed dramatically after Ali fought Inoki at Budokan.

There is also great focus on the physical impact the fight had on Ali. Did the leg kicks wreck Ali’s boxing career or did the head trauma he suffer from previous fights catch up to him?

Where did all the money go from the fight? If Ali got stiffed out of millions and Bruno Sammartino allegedly didn’t get paid 3% of the closed circuit TV money to fight two months after a broken neck, who pocketed the cash? Was it Bob Arum or the “saintly” Vince McMahon Sr.?

Despite an exhaustive review of news reports, clippings, video interviews, and personal interviews with players involved in the Ali/Inoki fight, Josh Gross manages to raise some important questions that remain unanswered. In talking with Josh, I was blown away by the fact that many people had never heard about the Ali/Inoki fight at Budokan. Josh’s book gives newer fight fans a great chance to discover history and a better understanding of what exactly did transpire. By today’s standards, what happened at Budokan was tame and tedious. By 1976 standards, there was great bewilderment and fear that the credibility of two legends was destroyed.

Topics: Boxing, Japan, MMA, Media, Pro-Wrestling, Zach Arnold | 2 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

2 Responses to “Book review: Ali vs. Inoki, The Forgotten Fight (Josh Gross) – a buy recommendation”

  1. jim allcorn says:

    Sounds like a great book to me. I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
    I had literally JUST become a boxing fan back in 1976 when at 14 years old I decided to watch Ali’s title defense vs the infamous “Lion of Flanders” Jean Pierre Coopman live on network television. Coopman remains, to this day, one of the most unworthy of heavyweight title challengers & Ali toyed with him en route to disposing of him easily in the 5th round.
    But, it was more than enough to pique my interest & I made sure to tune in to Ali’s next fight on TV just a month later against another huge underdog in the then-lightly regarded Jimmy Young. Only unlike Coopman, Young turned out to be one of the elite heavyweights of that era & many thought that he clearly outboxed Ali, who was given a hotly contested decision win that night.
    On the undercard that night was another top contender in Ken Norton, who butchered former title fight opponent Ron Stander in five bloody rounds.
    I count that particular night as the one that turned me into a diehard fight fan.
    And when they announced that Ali would be fighting a bout against a Japanese wrestler & “master of the martial arts” in Inoki, I was thrilled. As a brand new boxing fan & a huge fan of Bruce Lee movies & the whole martial arts craze of the early to mid ’70s, I couldn’t wait to see it.
    Unfortunately, it was only available for viewing at closed circuit exhibitions at arenas for $20 a ticket & I couldn’t get my dad to take me & spring for tickets, so I wasn’t able to go see it live.
    Which was a huge disappointment to me.
    Even the fact that the fight itself turned out to be such a dud didn’t completely ease my hurt feelings over missing out on the live broadcast.
    Which is why, to this day, I still have such a fascination for the fight.

  2. Safari_Punch says:

    I have the Blassie book and the Vince McMahohn biography. Both of the books covered the topic. Is this really worthwhile to get this after having someone who was a pro wrestling legend in Japan (Blassie) sharing his first hand account of this fiasco?Mike Mooneyham and Shaun Assael do a good job of filling in a lot of the blanks that Blassie either didn’t have knowledge of or didn’t think was important enough to disclose — or the editors omitted.


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