How Muhammad Ali helped to shape Mixed Martial Arts as we know it today

Newstalk.com speaks to pioneering MMA journalist Josh Gross about his book 'Ali vs. Inoki' and where the UFC goes after its takeover

BY Cian Roche 18:24 Friday 26 August 2016, 18:24 26 Aug 2016

Image: Anonymous / AP/Press Association Images

Unbeknownst to some, mixed martial arts (MMA) hasn't always been the global event that is has become today. Thanks to the savvy marketing done by Dana White and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the UFC is now one of the most recognizable fighting promotions in the world.

The explosion in popularity of MMA over the past five years around the world has seen the value of the company jump from $2m to $4bn after it was sold earlier this summer.

Global superstars like Ireland's Conor McGregor as well as well-known names such as Jon Jones and Anderson Silva have helped build the name of the company to what it is today and cast a shadow over rival promotions like Bellator.

However, MMA has its roots much deeper than many expect and intertwine with historical figures in combat sport. Muhammad Ali is perhaps the highest profile name that surfaces when you cast your eye back over the history of the sport.

In 1976, Ali agreed to a mixed-rules fight with Japanese wrestling icon Antonio Inoki after the pair had flirted with the idea of a crossover bout. One of the original "super-fights" (in comparison a modern day equivalent could be McGregor's rumoured bout with Floyd Mayweather), the pair were set to pit the best of both worlds against each other in what would be a global spectacle.

"There was actually quite a lot of coverage about the fight in 1976 in the major American newspapers especially in the week leading up - there was daily coverage almost," Josh Gross, author of Ali vs. Inoki tells Newstalk.com. 

"They had reporters in Tokyo and the major sporting magazines like Sports Illustrated featured closely as well.

"It was a very busy time for Muhammad Ali. This was eight months after the 'Thrilla in Manilla', he had three boxing bouts between the contest with Joe Fraizer and this contest with Antonio Inoki. He took the time to promote it as well. In March they had a press conference in New York, when he was on Wide World of Sports after his fight in May and in Maryland in the US - in a boxing bout where he did not look very good - he took the time to talk about how important this contest against Antonio Inoki was to him and what he hoped to accomplish."

Inoki to many would be an unknown quantity, but in Japan - even to this day - he was an icon of professional wrestling.

"He’s an enormously important cultural figure in Japan. He’s a pro-wrestling icon and the way it was described to me - and I’ve seen Antonio Inoki in Japan, I’ve seen the response he gets publicly and how his fame was used - he was like The Rock and Hulk Hogan combined times 10.

"I mean there’s really no comparison, he is an enormous cultural figure and certainly still remains one today as a politician in Japan. Still into his 70s he is still very active. He’s a unique character in a lot of ways.

"Ali dubbed Inoki the Pelican. Ali was famous for naming opponents: Sonny Liston was The Bear, Joe Fraizer was The Gorilla. For Antonio Inoki, the Pelican made sense. He had this huge chin that kind of hangs out and for a boxer it would seem like the perfect target."

Down the years crossover fights like this had been discussed: Boxer Jack Dempsey had toyed with the idea of fighting Ed 'Strangler' Lewis in the 1920s, but a fight never materialised. The night of the Ali vs. Inoki bout, Andre the Giant fought boxer Chuck Wepner in a mixed rules bout. 

The trouble with fights like these was that people didn't know whether or not these fights were 'shoots' [bouts where the fighting would be genuine] or a 'work' [when bouts would be scripted].

"There was a lot of confusion between audiences as to whether this would be an exhibition or a pro wrestling match or a real fight. Ali himself was very vocal, he put himself on the line and said that this was absolutely a real fight and said he wouldn’t participate in any sort of mixed fight that wasn’t real. He flirted a lot with pro-wrestling so I think it was easy to see why people would be confused by what this was exactly.

"I think Ali did the best he could to use his reputation and use his fame to explain that this competition would be real and that there was significant danger for him as far as that went. It was something that most people at that time had no frame of reference for, although these types of fights had been taking place for thousands of years.

"But no one like Muhammad Ali had entered into them and so you had a man of his presence and stature involved and people are exposed to these kind of contests. There’s no question that he felt that he was opening the door to these kinds of matches and he thought he did.

"Ali knew that and he wanted to test himself in a format that wasn’t comfortable for him - he admitted to actually being nervous ahead of this contest which is not something he had ever said ahead of a boxing match."

The fight went ahead, to what many would describe as a farce because for the majority of the fight Inoki lay on the ground and kicked out Ali. The press in particular wanted nothing to do with the event in the build-up to the fight.

"There’s no doubt that the boxing press who covered Ali on a regular basis despised this bout was because they thought he was embarrassing himself and embarrassing the great history of the boxing heavyweight championship. They didn’t think it was becoming of someone of his stature.

"For a lot of reasons most of the boxing press just decided that this was a joke and wanted nothing to do with it which was why I feel the legacy for so long has been forgotten, which is one of the ways which I have framed this contest.

"Also this contest was looked upon little more than a footnote, something silly that Ali did at the height of his fame. My sense of it is, being able to see it 40 years on in a world where mixed style fighting is a globally recognised sport, is that its legacy is much larger than that."

Where the press saw farce, wrestling promotions around the country saw opportunity. At the time, pro wrestling wasn't seen as a very attractive to the American public. One reason for this is because promotions across America were broken into different factions, with no overarching or big name company that looked after the sport nationally.

"It was a night that boxing and professional wrestling really came together in America. It was a global event, there was no question about that. In America, the McMahon family - which now operates the WWE - they were part of the American pro-wrestling business, but at the time it was fractured.

"There were territories and you had promoters in different parts of the country. The McMahon family dominated the North East, Madison Square Garden was their claim to fame. They were approached with the opportunity to run the closed circuit business for this contest."

These close circuit events would feature different stadiums and arenas hosting their own cards and then beaming in the headline main event from Japan via satellite.

"Because of that, the McMahons tried to bring the pro-wrestling business together. They spoke to a lot of promoters around the country and said 'Hey, you guys carry this closed circuit, run a live event in the arena, it’ll do great and the fans will come out.’

"And in some cases the fans did come out. In Shea Stadium, over 32,000 people were there. It was definitely a spectacle and the pro-wrestling people were excited to attach themselves to Muhammad Ali.

Andre the Giant fought boxer Chuck Wepner at Shea Stadium that evening during the main card of Ali vs. Inoki.  Image: AP/Press Association Images

"You have to remember at the time pro-wrestling was really not the coolest thing in the US. There was a malignment in a lot of ways, they were almost in the shadows. So for someone like Ali to associate himself so directly to something like pro-wrestling, they felt like they had a good opportunity to re-introduce audiences to what they were doing. They were looking to capitalise purely off being associated with him."

Indeed, the event did spark into life the idea of mixed rules fighting and crossover fights between competitors of different codes. This has led to the growth in mixed martial arts and its sale in June could see it expand to the further most reaches of the globe.

"Clearly there are smart rich people who feel like they can continue to expand and become more of a presence around the world. There are portions of the globe that have not been exposed to MMA in significant ways and I’m thinking mainly of China when I say that. One of the reasons that this is an important deal is the possibility to expand into mainland China.

"You’re talking an immense population with a martial arts culture. You know, mixed martial arts is not the NFL, it’s not the NBA. You’re not taking an Americanized sport to another part of the world and asking people with no real sense of what they’re watching to participate and enjoy it.

"Everyone around the world understands what a fight is. Most people who have some martial arts reference or some understanding and the fact is that these kind of contest connect all of us. It’s a piece of all of us. Some people are more inclined to want to fight and others aren’t exactly keen to fight but are attracted to watching it."

Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment is available to buy now. 

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