Antonio Inoki, a combat sports trailblazer, influential politician and larger-than-life figure in his native Japan, died Friday at the age of 79, it was announced by New Japan Pro-Wrestling, the promotion he founded.
The cause of Inoki’s death was not released, but he had fallen ill in recent years and was relegated to a wheelchair.
Inoki retired from politics in 2019. Though he touched many parts of Japanese culture in his lifetime and became one of the most famous people in the country, Inoki was most known for his work in combat sports as a pro wrestler, promoter and fighter — most notably, his bout with Muhammad Ali.
Inoki was the most important professional wrestler in the history of Japan, selling out countless arenas and stadiums from the 1970s and on. He was also the first Japanese wrestler to win the WWF championship (though 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 Muhammad Ali in perhaps the highest-profile mixed-rules bout ever. Inoki had a background in amateur wrestling and judo and trained under catch wrestler Karl Gotch, developing a methodology of fighting he called “strong style.” Ali, of course, was one of the top boxers in the world at the time and incredibly well-known globally.
Ali vs. Inoki was a direct ancestor to what we know now as mixed martial arts, which has become a global sport led by the UFC, founded in 1993. Ali vs. Inoki was one of the most watched fights of its generation. In addition to the sell-out crowd of more than 14,000 at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, it aired on closed-circuit across the world.
Shea Stadium in New York aired the bout 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 at Ali’s legs and landing those kicks more than 100 times. Ali took far more damage in the bout than Inoki did and sustained injuries to 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 into many heads that maybe boxing was not the best style to win a more fluid, all-encompassing fight, a debate that raged decades before Ali vs. Inoki and years after until the dawn of the UFC.
During the lead up to his historic boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, UFC superstar Conor McGregor cited Ali vs. Inoki several times as an influence on him with regards to the crossover bout with Mayweather. Brazilian jiu-jitsu pioneer Carlson Gracie once said Inoki was “one of the best fighters” he had seen.
“Ali tried to reach down and punch and he ended up getting swept,” McGregor said at a media scrum before his match with Mayweather. “Inoki ended up on top and the referee separated it straight away. If that moment in time was to let go for five more seconds, 10 more seconds, Inoki would have wrapped around his neck or his arm or a limb and the whole face of the combat world would have changed right there and then.”
In a current combat sports landscape where it has become common for boxers to fight MMA fighters and pro wrestlers to fight YouTubers and so on and so forth, Ali vs. Inoki was far ahead of its time.
Inoki used his popularity gained from fighting Ali to become the most popular pro wrestler in the history of Japan. He founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972 and was the promotion’s biggest star for more than a decade, having huge matches with the likes of 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 pro wrestling together. One of his students, Nobuhiko Takada, helped start the MMA promotion PRIDE Fighting Championships in 1997, which became very popular and was later purchased by the UFC. Inoki was at many Pride shows, as part of its introduction ceremony and did a parachuted skydive from an airplane into 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 many of his adolescent years in Brazil, took on MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Renzo Gracie in an exhibition match front of more than 40,000 people in Osaka in 2000. Prior to that, Inoki’s final official pro-wrestling match came against current UFC Hall of Famer Don Frye in 1998 in front of 70,000 at the Tokyo Dome.
During that time period, Inoki opened up a training academy for MMA fighters and pro wrestlers in Los Angeles called Inoki Dojo. Former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida as well as Bryan Danielson and Shinsuke Namakura, both now very popular pro wrestlers, were students there. Inoki managed and taught Machida early in the MMA great’s career, as well.
“I owed him so much because for me everything started when nobody knows me and Inoki-san gave me a unique opportunity to be a professional athlete,” Machida told ESPN. “There is one word in Japanese which is called ‘guiri.’ It means to recognize people who did something at the beginning where [someone] doesn’t have opportunities whatsoever and he did that for me.
“I really appreciated everything he did for world of fighting and what he represented as a human being and fighter. Thank you my godfather and RIP.”
Aside from sports, Inoki was a major mover and shaker in the political world. He started his own political party, the Sports and Peace Party, and was elected into the Japanese House of Councillors in 1989. Inoki flew to Iraq in 1996 on a one-man diplomatic mission and negotiated with Saddam Hussein 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 long had relations with North Korea. His original pro-wrestling trainer, Rikidozan, was of North Korean descent.
Inoki helped put together 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 day. Inoki defeated Ric Flair in the main event, the only time the two legends wrestled each other.