Antonio Inoki, Japanese lawmaker and global wrestling icon who fought Muhammad Ali, dies

Popular Japanese professional wrestler and lawmaker Antonio Inoki, who faced world champion boxer Muhammad Ali in a 1976 bout that helped promote mixed martial arts as a major spectator sport, has died aged 79.

Inoki made Japanese pro wrestling famous, pioneering mixed martial arts matches between top wrestlers and champions from other martial arts such as judo, karate and boxing.

Inoki, who was suffering from a rare disease called amyloidosis, died Saturday, according to the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co., of which he was a founding president.

He achieved worldwide fame in the sport in 1976 when he faced Ali in a mixed martial arts match at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall, an exhibition bout that many Japanese fans remember as the “fight of the century.”

However, for many outside of Japan, the game was seen as unprofessional and not taken seriously. Inoki was on the mat most of the time, kicking at Ali’s legs while the boxing champion circled him menacingly.

Inoki was the first in his sport to enter politics. He promoted peace through sport and during his time as lawmaker made more than 30 trips to North Korea in hopes of forging peace and friendship with the largely isolated nation.

Inoki was optimistic and in good spirits even as he battled the disease. With his signature red scarf dangling around his neck, Inoki last appeared publicly in a wheelchair-bound TV show in August.

“As you can see, I push my limits and I get strength when I see you,” he said.

Kanji Inoki was born in Yokohama just outside Tokyo in 1943, moved to Brazil with his family at the age of 13 and worked on a coffee plantation. Inoki achieved 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 caught the attention of Rikidozan, known as the father of Japanese pro wrestling.

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

With his arch-rival, Japanese legend Shohei “Giant” Baba, Inoki made pro-wrestling a hugely popular sport in Japan. Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972.

Antonio Inoki, wearing a red scarf, bows at a news conference

Antonio Inoki, wearing his signature red scarf, bows at the end of a press conference in Tokyo in 2014.

(Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press)

Inoki entered politics in 1989 after winning a seat in the Upper House, one of Japan’s two chambers of parliament, and led the Sport and Peace Party. He traveled to Iraq in 1990 to secure the release of Japanese citizens who were being held hostage there. He also hosted a pro wrestling match in North Korea.

Inoki developed a personal connection with North Korea over the years, repeatedly visiting the country to help resolve Japan’s long-standing problem of previous kidnappings of Japanese nationals to the North.

He retired from wrestling in 1998 but remained active in politics until 2019.

A flurry of tributes was posted on social media.

“A great star has fallen. An era has come to an end,” tweeted Atsushi Onita, another wrestler-turned-legislator. Calling Inoki “the great father of pro wrestling,” Onita added, “Thank you Inoki-san. I offer my condolences from the bottom of my heart.”

Yoshifu Arita, a journalist and former lawmaker, praised Inoki for his efforts to resolve the kidnapping issue with the North.

“Another important route with North Korea is lost,” Arita tweeted as he criticized other former Japanese leaders for relying on “useless” links and failing to improve. “Thank you for your hard work, Mr. Inoki.” Antonio Inoki, Japanese lawmaker and global wrestling icon who fought Muhammad Ali, dies

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