Antonio Inoki, a combat sports pioneer, influential politician and larger-than-life figure in his native Japan, died Friday at the age of 79. The announcement was made by New Japan Pro-Wrestling, the promotion he founded.
Inoki’s cause of death has not been revealed, but he had fallen ill in recent years and was relegated to a wheelchair.
Inoki retired from politics in 2019. Although he touched many aspects of Japanese culture during his life and became one of the most famous people in the country, Inoki was best known for his work in combat sports as a wrestler, promoter and professional fighter. most notably, his fight with Muhammad Ali.
Inoki was the most important professional wrestler in Japanese history, selling out countless arenas and stadiums beginning in the 1970s. He was also the first Japanese wrestler to win the WWF Championship (although the reign was not not currently recognized by WWE) and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010.
On June 26, 1976, Inoki fought Ali in perhaps the most publicized mixed rules bout of all time. Inoki had a background in amateur wrestling and judo and trained under wrestler Karl Gotch, developing a fighting methodology he called “strong style”. Ali, of course, was one of the best boxers in the world at the time and incredibly well known around the world.
Ali vs. Inoki was a direct ancestor of what we now know as mixed martial arts, which became a global sport run by the UFC, founded in 1993. The fight was one of the most watched fights in his generation. In addition to the sold-out crowd of over 14,000 at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, it was shown on closed circuit around the world.
New York’s Shea Stadium showed the fight on its big screen and drew a crowd of 32,897 with an undercard of pro wrestling and mixed-rules matches. Ali vs. Inoki ended in a draw, but Inoki spent most of the 15-round contest on his back, kicking Ali’s legs and landing those kicks over 100 times. Ali took much more damage in the fight than Inoki and hurt his legs.
Boxing was by far the most popular combat sport at that time, especially in the United States, but Ali vs. Inoki put the idea in many heads that boxing might not be the best style for winning a more fluid and all-encompassing fight, a debate that raged decades before Ali vs. Inoki and years after until the dawn of the UFC.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu pioneer Carlson Gracie once said that Inoki was “one of the best fighters” he had seen. During the build-up to his historic boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, UFC superstar Conor McGregor repeatedly cited Ali vs. Inoki as an influence on him when it came to the crossover fight with Mayweather.
“Ali tried to duck and punch and he ended up getting swept up,” McGregor said during a media scrum ahead of his match with Mayweather. “Inoki ended up on top and the referee immediately separated him. If that moment were to let go for five more seconds, 10 more seconds, Inoki would have wrapped himself around his neck, his arm or his chest. ‘one member and all the face of the fighting world would have changed on the spot.’
In today’s combat sports landscape where it’s become commonplace for boxers to fight MMA fighters and professional wrestlers to fight YouTubers and the like, Ali vs. Inoki was way ahead of its time.
Inoki used his popularity gained from fighting Ali to become the most popular professional wrestler in Japanese history. He founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972 and was the promotion’s biggest star for over a decade, having huge matches with Hulk Hogan, Dory Funk Jr., Big Van Vader and Bruiser Brody.
But it was also Inoki’s vision to blend what became known as MMA and professional wrestling. One of his students, Nobuhiko Takada, helped start the MMA promotion’s PRIDE Fighting Championships in 1997, which became hugely popular and was later bought out by the UFC. Inoki has performed at many Pride shows as part of his introduction ceremonies and parachuted from an airplane into Tokyo’s National Stadium in front of over 90,000 people at Pride Shockwave 2002.
“I learned so much from Mr. Inoki,” Rizin promoter and Pride founder Nobuyuki Sakakibara wrote on social media on Saturday. “The ‘Toukon’ spirit was inherited from RIZIN by PRIDE. I really wished he could enter the RIZIN ring. I’m devastated. May his soul rest in peace.”
In the 2000s, Inoki promoted several hybrid MMA and pro wrestling cards. Inoki, who spent much of his teenage years in Brazil, faced MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Renzo Gracie in an exhibition match in front of over 40,000 people in Osaka in 2000. Prior to that, Inoki’s last official professional wrestling match came against current UFC Hall of Famer Don Frye in 1998 in front of 70,000 spectators at the Tokyo Dome.
During this period, Inoki opened a training academy for MMA fighters and professional wrestlers in Los Angeles called Inoki Dojo. Former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, as well as Bryan Danielson and Shinsuke Nakamura, both now popular professional wrestlers, were students there. Inoki also coached and taught Machida early in the MMA great’s career.
“I owed him so much because for me, it all started when nobody knew me and Inoki-san gave me a unique opportunity to be a professional athlete,” Machida told ESPN. “There is a word in Japanese called ‘guiri’. It means recognizing people who have done something in the beginning where [someone] has no opportunity, and he did it for me.
“I really appreciated everything he did for the fighting world and what he represented as a human being and a fighter. Thank you my sponsor and RIP.”
Besides sports, Inoki was a major player in the political world. He started his own political party, the Sports and Peace Party, and was elected to Japan’s House of Councilors in 1989. Inoki flew to Iraq in 1996 on a diplomatic mission individually and negotiated with Saddam Hussein for the release of 36 Japanese hostages.
He was also an elected politician in the Japanese government from 2013 to 2019, when he controversially advocated for continued diplomacy with North Korea. Inoki has long maintained relations with North Korea. His original professional wrestling coach, Rikidozan, was of North Korean descent.
Inoki helped organize a two-day professional wrestling festival in the country in 1995, which drew 150,000 on the first day and 190,000 on the second day. Inoki defeated Ric Flair in the main event, the only time the two legends faced each other.
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