A popular Japanese professional wrestler and lawmaker, Antonio Inoki, who faced world boxing champion Muhammad Ali in a mixed martial arts match in 1976, has died aged 79.
Inoki made Japanese professional wrestling famous and pioneered mixed martial arts matches between top wrestlers and champions of other combat sports like judo, karate, and boxing.
He was also the first in his sport to enter politics. He promoted peace through sports and made more than 30 trips to North Korea during his tenure as legislator in hopes of forging peace and friendship.
Inoki, who was battling a rare disease called amyloidosis, died earlier Saturday, according to the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co., of which he was founding president. Inoki was upbeat and in good spirits, even as he battled illness.
With his signature red scarf hanging around his neck, Inoki last appeared in public in August on a television show, in a wheelchair.
“As you can see, I push myself to the limit, and I get stronger the more I see you,” he said.
Born as Kanji Inoki in 1943 in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, he moved to Brazil with his family when he was 13 and worked on a coffee plantation. Inoki achieved local fame in the shot put as a student and made his professional wrestling debut at age 17 while on a wrestling tour in Brazil where he caught the eye of Rikidozan, known as the father of Japanese professional wrestling.
Inoki made his professional wrestling debut in 1960 and gave himself a ring name Antonio Inoki two years later.
Along with his rival and another Japanese legend, the late Shohei “Giant” Baba, Inoki made professional wrestling a hugely popular sport in Japan. Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972.
He rose to worldwide fame in the sport in 1976 when he faced Ali in a mixed martial arts match at Budokan Hall in Tokyo, a match remembered by fans as “the fight of the century”.
Inoki entered politics in 1989 after winning a seat in the upper house, one of Japan’s two houses of parliament, and leading the Sports and Peace party. He traveled to Iraq in 1990 to secure the release of Japanese citizens held hostage there. He also hosted a professional wrestling match in North Korea.
Inoki has forged personal ties with North Korea over the years and has visited the country on several occasions to help resolve the long-standing issue of past abductions of Japanese nationals to the North.
He retired as a wrestler in 1998, but remained active in politics until 2019.
New York Post