On Friday, the 79-year-old Antonio Inoki, a pioneer in the field of combat sports, an important politician, and a larger-than-life figure in his native Japan passed away. The news was made public by his company, New Japan Pro-Wrestling.
However, Inoki had been ailing for some time and had been confined to a wheelchair before his untimely demise.
Inoki left politics in 2019, after a long career. Inoki was one of the most well-known Japanese citizens for his various contributions to the arts, but he will be remembered most for his career in professional wrestling and boxing, especially his match against Muhammad Ali.
By the 1970s and beyond, Inoki had become Japan’s most popular professional wrestler, selling out venues around the country. In addition to being the first Japanese wrestler to win the WWF championship, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010.
Perhaps the most famous mixed-rules fight ever was Inoki vs. Ali, which took place on June 26, 1976. As a result of his time spent learning from catch wrestler Karl Gotch, Inoki was able to hone the “powerful style” of fighting that he had honed during his amateur wrestling and judo career. Obviously, Ali was a legendary boxer at the time and a household name all over the world.
Ali vs. Inoki was a forerunner to the modern sport of mixed martial arts, which has spread over the world under the auspices of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which was created in 1993. One of the most widely-watched fights of its time period. More than 14,000 people attended the show in person at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan, while millions more watched through closed-circuit broadcast.
As part of a card that also featured pro wrestling and mixed-rules events, the fight was shown on the big screen at New York’s Shea Stadium, drawing an attendance of 32,897. The Ali-Inoki fight was a draw, but Inoki landed more than 100 kicks to Ali’s legs while Ali was on his back for the majority of the 15 rounds. Ali was injured in the legs and suffered much more punishment than Inoki did during the fight.
Although boxing was already the most popular combat sport at the time, especially in the United States, Ali’s match with Inoki sparked a debate about whether or not boxing was the best style to win a more fluid, all-encompassing fight, which continued for decades before and after Ali vs. Inoki, all the way up to the creation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Legendary Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor Carlson Gracie once called Inoki “one of the best fighters” he had ever witnessed. UFC star Conor McGregor, in promoting his historic boxing showdown against Floyd Mayweather, has mentioned Ali vs. Inoki as an inspiration for the crossover bout.
McGregor remarked in a media scrum before his fight with Mayweather, “Ali tried to reach down and hit and he ended up getting swept.” The referee quickly broke it up once Inoki had climbed to the top. If he had let go for even five or ten more seconds, Inoki would have wrapped around his neck or arm or a limb and the whole combat universe would have altered right then.
Compared to the present state of combat sports, when it is commonplace for boxers to battle MMA fighters and professional wrestlers to fight YouTubers, etc., Ali vs. Inoki was a revolutionary event.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling is deeply saddened at the passing of our founder, Antonio Inoki.
His achievements, both in professional wrestling and the global community are without parallel and will never be forgotten.
Our thoughts are with Inoki’s family, friends and fans. pic.twitter.com/n8zA9hj78e
— NJPW Global (@njpwglobal) October 1, 2022
Inoki rode the wave of attention he received after his bout with Ali to become the most well-known pro wrestler in Japan. For over a decade, beginning in 1972, he was New Japan Pro-top Wrestling’s star, competing in iconic matchups against legends like Hulk Hogan, Dory Funk Jr., Big Van Vader, and Bruiser Brody.
However, it was Inoki’s foresight that led to the combination of martial arts and professional wrestling. Nobuhiko Takada, one of his trainees, co-founded the mixed-martial-arts (MMA) promotion PRIDE Fighting Championships in 1997.
Inoki participated in the opening ceremonies for numerous Pride performances, including a drop from a plane into Tokyo National Stadium while wearing a parachute for Pride Shockwave 2002, which was seen by more than 90,000.
Nobuyuki Sakakibara, promoter for Rizin and Pride’s creator, said of Shinya “Mr. Inoki” Inoue, “I have learned so much from Mr. RIZIN has taken on PRIDE’s “Toukon” spirit. Having him compete in RIZIN would be amazing. My heart breaks at the thought. Pray for his eternal rest.
A number of mixed martial arts and professional wrestling events were promoted by Inoki in the 2000s. Inoki, who spent a large portion of his youth in Brazil, faced off against mixed martial arts (MMA).
icon and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Renzo Gracie in an exhibition bout in front of more than 40,000 spectators in Osaka in the year 2000. Inoki’s last professional wrestling match was in 1998, in front of 70,000 in the Tokyo Dome, and it was against current UFC Hall of Famer Don Frye.
Around this time, Inoki established Inoki Dojo, a Los Angeles-based training facility for mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fighters and professional wrestlers. Some of its alumni include Lyoto Machida, the first ever light heavyweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, as well as current WWE superstars Bryan Danielson and Shinsuke Nakamura. Earlier in Machida’s MMA career, Inoki managed and mentored the future star.