Antonio Inoki, one of the largest figures in the history of professional wrestling, has died at the age of 79.
The news of Inoki’s passing began to circulate Friday evening in North America (Saturday in Japan) with the knowledge that Inoki had been in poor health for some time with the effects of his illness visible during a television appearance in Japan over the summer.
Inoki was born February 20, 1943, in Yokohama and was one of eleven children to parents Sajiro and Fumiko. After his father died, the family moved to Brazil, which was where Inoki grew up and excelled in sports. Inoki was recruited back to Japan and fell under the wing of Rikidozan, the most popular and enduring figure in Japanese wrestling history.
Inoki was positioned alongside Shohei “Giant” Baba and Kintaro Oki as the successors to Rikidozan in the JWA (Japanese Wrestling Association) with Inoki making his pro debut on September 30, 1960.
Just three years later, Rikidozan died tragically and business was negatively impacted by his loss. After leaving JWA for a year, Inoki wrestled for Tokyo Pro Wrestling but the company shuttered and Inoki returned to the JWA.
Inoki formed a team with Michiaki Yoshimura but became a big star teaming with Baba as business was resurrected during this era with the two positioned as pillars of the company. Their own ambitions grew and each would go their separate path – Baba leaving in 1971 and forming All Japan Pro Wrestling the following year while Inoki exited in 1972 to launch New Japan Pro Wrestling with both promotions celebrating their 50th anniversaries this year.
Inoki did not have access to the top foreign talent that Baba held, through the latter’s connection to the National Wrestling Alliance, although New Japan would enter the alliance in 1976.
Inoki’s greatest marketing concept was himself, projecting an image of legitimacy and booking other mainstays of combat sports to come into New Japan as a pseudo-proving ground where Inoki could prevail and sell to his audience, that he was the toughest fighter in the world.
In 1976, he beat Olympic judo gold medalist Willem Ruska in a worked match that served as a lead-up to his famous fight with Muhammad Ali in June that year and would become one of the most famous contests in Japanese history and treated as the birth of MMA in that country.
Ali was in between fights where he had just defeated Richard Dunn the month prior and was scheduled to fight Ken Norton in September. From Inoki’s perspective, it was an attempt to further enhance his legacy by buying a victory over the top boxer in the world but the Ali camp would get cold feet on proceeding with a worked fight, and the two engaged in a horrible fifteen-round fight that is often romanticized today but was considered a dismal affair in 1976.
The fight aired on closed-circuit throughout the U.S. with various promoters running cards in their territory and then showing the Ali vs. Inoki fight with Vince McMahon Sr. and Bob Arum running the promotional end in the U.S. McMahon was one of the few promoters to make out okay running Shea Stadium on the back of Bruno Sammartino seeking revenge for a legitimate broken neck at the hands of Stan Hansen and returning way too soon to save the card. The AWA ran a card at Chicago Stadium, Georgia Championship Wrestling booked The Omni, World Class ran The Sportatorium, and Mike LeBell ran at the Olympic Auditorium among the venues across the country.
The fight ended in a split draw with the deciding judge being referee “Judo” Gene LeBell, who had it 71-71 after one scorecard for Ali and one for Inoki. In later years, it was reported both Ali and Inoki were paid significantly less than what they were promised.
In time, Inoki was the greatest beneficiary of the fight while the boxing press treated it like a joke and a blemish in the career of Ali. Inoki continued this formula with Chuck Wepner, Willie Williams, and Leon Spinks.
New Japan went to new heights in the early ‘80s off the success of Inoki, Riki Choshu, Tatsumi Fujinami, and Satoru Sayama a.k.a. Tiger Mask.
In November 1979, there was a match between Inoki and then WWWF champion Bob Backlund where Inoki won the title but lost it back to Backlund several days later. The title was declared vacant after the rematch was ruled a no-contest in Japan. In the WWF’s history, they do not recognize the title reign and consider Backlund’s run uninterrupted from February 1978 until December 1983.
The IWGP heavyweight championship was created in June 1983 with Hulk Hogan becoming the inaugural champion after knocking out Inoki in the final of the IWGP League final. Inoki would defeat Hogan one year later by count-out (Hogan was WWF champion at the time, and he was not doing jobs even to someone the level of Inoki). After the belt was deactivated, the championship with the lineage that attaches to today’s version was created in 1987 with Inoki being the first holder of the title until vacating it in May 1988 due to injury.
Inoki retired from in-ring action in April 1998 with a sold-out show at the Tokyo Dome where he defeated Don Frye in under five minutes. The card did a reported $7 million gate and $2.6 million in merchandise sales.
His influence would be heavily criticized in the ensuing years with a refusal to compromise from his belief of presenting pro wrestlers as the toughest men on Earth during the rise of MMA in the country. This led to many legitimate fighters populating New Japan cards and sending unprepared wrestlers into dangerous shoot fights and a mixing of the worlds that the public rejected and nearly put New Japan out of business.
Inoki sold the company to Yukes in 2005, which later sold New Japan to Bushiroad in 2012 and is the current ownership group.
He launched the Inoki Genome Federation in 2007 and had an extensive political career dating back to 1989.
Inoki is a member of the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, International Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum, Wrestling Observer Newsletter inaugural Hall of Fame class, and WWE Hall of Fame among his many accomplishments.
He had four wives throughout his life and a daughter named Hiroko.
We will have more in the coming days on the extensive career and legacy of Antonio Inoki.