Antonio Inoki, Japanese Wrestler and Politician, Dies at 79

Antonio Inoki, a famous Japanese professional wrestler and lawmaker who fought world boxing champion Muhammad Ali in a mixed martial arts match in 1976, has died. He was 79 years old.

Inoki brought Japanese pro wrestling to prominence and initiated mixed martial arts matches between top wrestlers and champions from other combat sports such as judo, karate, and boxing.

Inoki, who had been battling a rare disease called amyloidosis, died earlier Saturday, according to the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Company, of which he was founding president.

He rose to international fame in the sport in 1976 when he faced Ali in a mixed martial arts match at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall, an exhibition match remembered by Japanese fans as the “Fight of the Century”.

However, to many people outside of Japan, the match was viewed as unprofessional and not taken seriously. Inoki was mostly on the mat, kicking Ali’s legs as the boxing champion circled him.

He was the first person to enter politics in his sport. He promoted peace through sports and made more than 30 visits to North Korea during his tenure as a lawmaker in hopes of establishing peace and friendship.

Inoki was upbeat and in good spirits, even as he battled illness. With his trademark red scarf hanging around his neck, Inoki was last seen in public in a wheelchair on a TV show in August.

“As you can see, I’m pushing myself to the limit, and I’m getting stronger as you watch,” he said.

Born Kanji Inoki in 1943 in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, he moved to Brazil with his family at the age of 13 and worked on coffee plantations. Inoki rose to local fame in shot put as a student, and debuted as a professional wrestler at age 17 during a wrestling tour in Brazil where he became known as the father of Japanese pro wrestling. Attracted the attention of the visiting Reikidozan.

Inoki made his pro wrestling debut in 1960 and two years later gave himself the ring name Antonio Inoki.

Along with his rival and another Japanese legend, the late Shohei “Giant” Baba, Inoki made pro wrestling a very popular sport in Japan. Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972.

Inoki entered politics in 1989 after winning a seat in the upper house, one of the two houses of Japan’s parliament, and headed the Sports and Peace Party. He traveled to Iraq in 1990 to secure the release of Japanese citizens held hostage there. He also organized a pro wrestling match in North Korea.

Inoki has developed a personal relationship with North Korea over the years and has visited the country repeatedly to help resolve Japan’s long-standing problem of past abductions of Japanese citizens in North Korea.

He retired as a wrestler in 1998, but remained active in politics until 2019.

Tributes poured in on social media.

“A huge star has fallen. An era has ended,” tweeted Atsushi Onita, a wrestler who once served as a lawmaker. Onita called Inoki “the great father of pro wrestling” and added, “Thank you Inoki-san. I offer my condolences from the bottom of my heart.”

Yoshifu Arita, a journalist and former lawmaker, praised Inoki’s efforts to resolve the abduction issue with the North.

“Another important path has been lost with North Korea,” Arrieta tweeted, as he criticized other former Japanese leaders for relying on “useless” contacts and making no improvements. “Thank you for your hard work, Mr. Inoki.”

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