Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment by Josh Gross

November 20, 2020

This book makes the best of a concept with arguably limited potential, which is pretty much the opposite of what happened in the match it covers.

It’s automatically an impressive feat to get a full book out of a match where famously almost nothing happened. Even with a literal blow-by-blow account (Gross bravely becoming sure the only person in history to watch the match multiple times), the core of the book is inherently limited in drama.

Unfortunately the lack of cooperation from the key players involved means the book doesn’t reveal too much about the match, in particular the process by which a potential worked finish was set aside, a legitimate contest decided on (or reached by default) and the rules negotiated. Even with the book’s explanations, it still reads somewhat unclear exactly what each man could and couldn’t do and whether it’s fair to criticise Inoki for not taking down and submitting Ali, or whether the rules meant this really wasn’t a boxer vs grappler affair at all.

Within these limitations, Gross does an excellent job of putting the match into context. Without ever losing the thread that keeps everything on topic, he covers everything from the development of Japanese wrestling, to the history of boxer vs wrestler bouts, to Ali’s interest and appreciation for pro wrestling. There’s also some insightful coverage of how Inoki’s leg kicks would be viewed very differently decades later with the emergence of mixed martial arts and the involvement of pro wrestlers in that process.

The book also does a good job of conveying the atmosphere and expectations of those watching Ali-Inoki on closed circuit or covering it in person.

It still feels a little thin, with the final 25% of the Kindle version taken up by the index, reading almost like the non-fiction equivalent of a novella. But while the topic didn’t necessarily provide enough meat to feel like a “full” book, what’s on offer is certainly worth your time.

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