Antonio Inoki, a combat sports pioneer, influential politician and towering figure in his native Japan, died on Friday at the age of 79, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, the promotion he founded, announced.
The cause of Inoki’s death was not released, but he had become ill in recent years and was confined 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 best known for his work in combat sports as a professional wrestler, promoter and fighter — most notably his fight with Muhammad Ali.
Inoki was the most important professional wrestler in Japanese history, selling out countless arenas and stadiums from the 1970s onward. 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 Muhammad Ali in perhaps the most famous mixed-rules bout. Inoki had a background in amateur wrestling and judo and trained under wrestler Carl Gotch, developing a fighting methodology he called the “strong style”. Ali, of course, was one of the best boxers in the world at the time and incredibly well known worldwide.
Ali vs. Inoki was a direct precursor to what we now know 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 sold-out audiences of more than 14,000 at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan, it was broadcast worldwide on closed-circuit television.
Shea Stadium in New York televised the bout on its big screen and drew a crowd of 32,897 with an undercard of professional wrestling and mixed martial arts 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 more than 100 times. Ali took a lot more damage in the fight than Inoki and suffered injuries to his legs.
Boxing was the most popular combat sport at the time, especially in the United States, but Ali vs. Inoki forced the idea in many heads that maybe boxing wasn’t the best style to win a more fluid, all-out fight, a debate that raged decades before Ali vs. Inoki and years after until the dawn of the UFC.
During his previous historic boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, UFC superstar Conor McGregor cited Ali vs. Inoki several times as an influence on him regarding the Mayweather fight. Brazilian jiu-jitsu pioneer Carlson Gracie once said Inoki was “one of the best fighters” he had ever seen.
“Ali tried to reach and punch and he ended up getting swept,” McGregor said at a media scrum ahead of his fight with Mayweather. “Inoki ended up on top and the referee separated him right away. If that moment were to let him go for another five seconds, another 10 seconds, Inoki would have wrapped around his neck or arm or limb and the whole face of the fighting world would have changed right then and there.”
In the current combat sports environment where it has become commonplace for boxers to fight MMA fighters and professional wrestlers to fight YouTubers and so on and so forth, 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 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 professional wrestling together. One of his students, Nobuhiko Takada, helped launch the MMA promotion PRIDE Fighting Championships in 1997, which became very popular and was later purchased by the UFC. Inoki has been to many Pride shows, as part of their opening ceremony and parachuted from a plane 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 much of his teenage years in Brazil, took on MMA and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legend Renzo Gracie in an exhibition match in front of more than 40,000 people in Osaka in 2000. Before that, the last official pro wrestling match of Inoki vs. current UFC Hall of Famer Don Frye in 1998 in front of 70,000 at the Tokyo Dome.
During this time period, Inoki opened an academy to train MMA fighters and professional wrestlers in Los Angeles called the Inoki Dojo. Former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida, as well as Bryan Danielson and Shinsuke Namakura, both now very popular professional wrestlers, were students there. Inoki also managed and trained Machida early in the MMA great’s career.
“I owe him so much because for me it all started when nobody knew me, and Inoki-san gave me the unique opportunity to be a professional athlete,” Machida told ESPN. “There is a word in Japanese called ‘guiri.’ It means recognizing the people who did something in the beginning [someone] there are no options and he did this for me.
“I really appreciate everything he did for the fight world and what he represented as a human being and a fighter. Thank you my godfather and RIP.’
Aside from sports, Inoki was a major mover and shaker in the political world. He founded 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 one-man diplomatic mission 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 has long maintained relations with North Korea. His original professional wrestling coach, Rikidozan, was of North Korean descent.
Inoki helped organize a two-day pro-wrestling festival in the country in 1995 that 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.