Japanese wrestler and politician Antonio Inoki dies aged 79

TOKYO (AP) — 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 at age 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.

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.

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, an exhibition match remembered by Japanese fans as “the fight of the century”.

For many outside of Japan, however, the match was considered unprofessional and not taken seriously. Inoki was mostly on the mat kicking Ali’s legs as the boxing champion circled around him.

He was the first of 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 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.

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 established a personal connection 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.

A wave of tributes were posted on social media.

“A huge star has fallen. An era has come to an end,” tweeted Atsushi Onita, also a wrestler who once served as a lawmaker. Onita called Inoki “the grandfather of professional wrestling” and added, “Thank you Inoki-san. I express my condolences from the bottom of my heart.”

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

“Another important road with North Korea is lost,” Arita tweeted, as he criticized other former Japanese leaders for relying on “useless” relationships and failing to make any improvements. “Thank you for your hard work, Mr. Inoki.”

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