Antonio Inoki, a martial arts 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 disclosed, but he had fallen ill in recent years and was relegated to a wheelchair.
Inoki retired from politics in 2019. Although he touched many parts of Japanese culture during his lifetime and became one of the most famous people in the country, Inoki was most famous for his work in martial arts as a professional wrestler, promoter and fighter — most notably his fight with Muhammad Ali. .
Inoki was the most important professional wrestler in Japan’s history, selling countless arenas and stadiums from the 1970s. He was also the first Japanese wrestler to win the WWF Championship (although the reign is 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 high-profile mixed-rule fight ever. With a background in amateur wrestling and judo, Inoki trained under catch wrestler Karl Gotch, developing a fighting method he called “strong style.” Ali was of course one of the top boxers in the world at the time and incredibly well known worldwide.
ali vs. Inoki was a direct ancestor of what we now know as mixed martial arts, which has become a global sport under the leadership of the UFC, founded in 1993. The fight was one of the most watched fights of his generation. In addition to the sold-out audience of more than 14,000 people at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, it was broadcast on a closed circuit worldwide.
Shea Stadium in New York broadcast the match on the big screen, drawing a crowd of 32,897 people 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 match 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 suffered leg injuries.
Boxing was by far the most popular combat sport at the time, especially in the United States, but Ali vs. Inoki gave many minds the idea that boxing might not be the best style to win a smoother, all-encompassing fight, a debate that started decades before Ali vs. Inoki raged and for years after that 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. Leading up to his historic boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, UFC superstar Conor McGregor mentioned Ali vs. Inoki several times as an influence on him regarding the crossover match with Mayweather.
“Ali tried to reach down and punch and he ended up being swept,” McGregor said during a media scrum before his match with Mayweather. “Inoki finished on top and the referee immediately parted it. If at that moment were released for five more seconds, 10 seconds longer, Inoki would have wrapped around his neck or his arm or a limb and the whole face of the fighting world would have changed there and then .”
In the current martial arts landscape where it has become common for boxers to fight MMA fighters and professional wrestlers to fight YouTubers and so on, Ali vs. Inoki ahead of his time.
Inoki used his popularity gained from fighting Ali to become the most popular professional wrestler in Japan’s history. He founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972 and was the promotion’s biggest star for over a decade, with great matches featuring the likes of Hulk Hogan, Dory Funk Jr., Big Van Vader and Bruiser Brody.
But it was also Inoki’s vision to merge what became known as MMA and pro wrestling. One of his students, Nobuhiko Takada, helped start the MMA promotion PRIDE Fighting Championships in 1997, which became very popular and was later bought by the UFC. Inoki was at many Pride shows as part of the induction ceremonies and parachuted from a plane to Tokyo National Stadium in front of more than 90,000 people at Pride Shockwave 2002.
In the 2000s, Inoki promoted several hybrid MMA and pro wrestling cards. Inoki, who spent much of his teenage years in Brazil, took on MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Renzo Gracie in 2000 in a demonstration match in front of more than 40,000 people in Osaka. against current UFC Hall of Famer Don Frye in 1998 for 70,000 in the Tokyo Dome.
During that time, 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 very popular professional wrestlers, were students there. Inoki also guided and taught Machida early on in the MMA great’s career.
“I owed him so much because for me everything started when no one knew me and Inoki-san gave me a unique opportunity to become a professional athlete,” Machida told ESPN. “There is one word in Japanese that is called ‘guiri’. It means to recognize people who in the beginning did something where [someone] doesn’t stand a chance, and he did it for me.
“I really appreciated everything he did for the world of fighting and what he represented as a human being and a fighter. Thank you my godfather and RIP.”
Sports aside, Inoki was a great mover and shaker in the political world. He founded his own political party, the Sports and Peace Party, and was elected to the Japanese House of Councilors in 1989. Inoki flew on a one-man diplomatic mission to Iraq in 1996 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 continued diplomacy with North Korea. Inoki had long relations with North Korea. His original professional wrestling coach, Rikidozan, was of North Korean descent.
Inoki helped set up a two-day pro wrestling festival in the country in 1995, which drew 150,000 on the first day and 190,000 on the second. Inoki defeated Ric Flair in the main event, the only time the two legends wrestled.