The following is adapted from the new book Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment, written by Josh Gross and published by BenBella Books, Inc. Copyright 2016. In the excerpt, Gross describes Ali's 1962, an influential year during the young fighter's ascention to championpion and showman. Spending half the year in Los Angeles around famous pro wrestler, fight world characters and the Hollywood set, Ali watched his evolution from kid to superstar kick into high gear. To purchase a copy of the book, click here.
New York matchmaker Teddy Brenner lived up to his reputation by testing Muhammad Ali’s doggedness in the boxer’s Madison Square Garden debut, and Sonny Banks, a 21-year-old converted southpaw puncher from Detroit, got the nod. Midway through the opening round, Banks snapped off a left hook that put Ali on the canvas and turned the Miami-based trainer, Angelo Dundee, from tan to pale. Ali, a 5-to-1 favorite, needed only the count of two to regroup, shake off the cobwebs, and get to his feet.
“That was my first time knocked down as a professional,” Ali told the press on a 12-degree February night in Manhattan. “I had to get up to take care of things after that because it was rather embarrassing, me on the floor. As you know, I think that I’m the greatest and I’m not supposed to be on the floor, so I had to get up and put him on out, in four as I predicted.”
Suckered by the illusion of landing a second money punch, a fight finisher, Banks became a predictable headhunter with that left hook. As he crumbled under Ali’s angular fighting and incessant, buzzing jab, Banks, penned A.J. Liebling, “was like a man trying to fight off wasps with a shovel.”
Unsure of Ali’s recuperative powers until Banks touched his charge’s off button, Angelo Dundee was encouraged to see the type of pugilist he was dealing with. Critics, meanwhile, had new information to critique regarding the quality of Ali’s chin after he moved to 11-0.
For all of the whirlwind dancing and speed that defined so much of Ali’s career, Banks showed that perhaps The Greatest’s best boxing trait was standing when he had to.
Ali did so many things better than most, and determining his “best” is difficult to pin down. The man’s energy output in life was preternatural, yet he was as relaxed as any fighter—a fundamental reason for his legendary stamina and pace. A rare few boxers, never mind heavyweights, moved as Ali did. And, as Liebling noted in his 1962 New Yorker piece “Poet and Pedagogue,” which beautifully described the Banks fight, the “Louisville Lip” needed no help providing the press a quote, making news, or coming up with rhymes.
Eighteen days passed between Ali’s debut at MSG against Banks and the last night in February, a Wednesday, when he stopped another left-hooker, Don Warner, in four rounds in Miami. Ali predicted a finish in five, but because Warner wouldn’t shake hands before the fight he said he deducted a round for poor sportsmanship.
Highlighted by three bouts in Tinseltown, Ali fought a half dozen times in 1962 and enjoyed the run of L.A. during a period that shaped him as a boxer, showman and person.
By the spring of ’62, as Ali checked in to the Alexandria Hotel on 5th and Spring Street in Downtown L.A., President Kennedy was entangled in the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam festered, the Cold War frosted and the Cuban Missile Crisis was mere months away.
On top of everything else, the young president faced the pleas of pro wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie, who stood as the dominant West Coast champion after taking the belt from Frenchman Édouard Carpentier at the Sports Arena in June 1961.
Blassie drove big television ratings in L.A. on Wednesday nights from 8 to 9:30 p.m. on KCOP channel 13. So far as live sports went, boxing (and, ahem, wrestling) were easier and less expensive to broadcast than, say, baseball because they required only a couple cameras to sufficiently cover the action. From the start, TV and pro wrestling went as well together as any two things could.
On March 28, 1962, within walking distance of Little Tokyo, L.A.’s strong Asian community filled the Olympic Auditorium hoping that the father of puroresu, Rikidōzan, would make history as the first Japanese to challenge for and subsequently win an American pro wrestling title. Despite stomping Masahiko Kimura in Tokyo and possessing a wild-man reputation away from the ring, Rikidōzan wasn’t well known in the West. Still, the new hero—such was Rikidōzan’s stature at the time—received a far more honorable portrayal than most Japanese wrestlers after the Second World War. While Blassie’s old tag team partner, Mr. Moto, played the role as untrustworthy, maybe scheming another Pearl Harbor, Rikidōzan, proud and seemingly forthright, was talked about as the sort of man who wouldn’t stoop to hitting another when he was down.
Blassie the villain lost the belt to the pride of Japan, Antonio Inoki’s mentor, when referee Johnny “Red Shoes” Dugan counted out the tanned American. Though many fans reviled Blassie and wanted him to lose, most viewers at home or at the Olympic Auditorium couldn’t have imagined him without the World Wrestling Association world heavyweight title. Everyone went wild as Rikidōzan won the first and only fall during an hour of wrestling. The time limit elapsed and Blassie flipped when famed ring announcer Jimmy Lennon raised Rikidōzan’s hand, officially declaring him champion. Blassie hollered that the contest was supposed to be two of three falls, then he ripped the referee’s shirt in half down the front.
“I’ve never seen such injustice in all my life,” Blassie howled at KCOP-13’s Dick Lane. “I’m going to take this up with the World Wide Wrestling Association president and then I’m going to take it up with the athletic commission. If that isn’t far enough I’m going to see my great friend President Kennedy because this was the dirtiest trick that’s ever been pulled.”