MMA, Pro-Wrestling Icon Who Fought Muhammad Ali Dies At 79

A significant person in the history of MMA has died.

After a fight with amyloidosis, Antonio Inoki, a legendary figure in Japanese combat sports and a cherished cultural icon, died on Friday at 79. New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), the wrestling organization run by Inoki, posted updates on its website and Twitter.

“The thoughts and deepest sympathies of all at New Japan Pro-Wrestling go out to Inoki’s family, friends and fans,” the statement read.

Inoki was born in 1943 in Yokohama, Japan.

He developed into a skilled track athlete and karate practitioner before his family emigrated to Brazil when he was 13. He was the second youngest of seven children.

Here, Inoki discovered his passion for professional wrestling and was discovered by renowned North Korean wrestler Rikidzan, who started training Inoki. Inoki and Rikidzan returned to Japan at 17 to wrestle for the Japanese Pro-Wrestling Alliance (JWA).

He was given the name “Kanji” Inoki when he was born, but he soon changed it to “Antonio,” commemorating his time in Brazil. From 1960 until 1972, Inoki competed for the JWA before quitting to form NJPW.

Inoki startled the world by entering the ring with famed American boxer Muhammad Ali for a mixed rules exhibition battle in June 1976. Inoki got ready for the biggest match of his life after answering Ali’s million-dollar call to any Asian fighters that April.

Inoki fully utilized leg strikes throughout the 15 rounds in Ali’s maiden encounter under a mixed regulation.

For 15 rounds, Inoki pummeled the boxing champion, sliding to the ground and kicking Ali’s legs as he went down before kicking his shins off his back.

Despite the fight’s draw and lackluster initial response, it attracted a reported sold-out audience of 14,500 spectators at the Budokan arena and an estimated one billion watchers worldwide. The scale and spectacle of the fight and its intriguing idea were essential elements in developing mixed martial arts as a sport.

After the fight, Inoki was chosen in 1989 to serve in the Japanese House of Councilors. Before the Gulf War in 1990, Inoki would play a crucial role in negotiations with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on behalf of his newly founded Sports and Peace party to secure the release of 36 Japanese prisoners. In 1995, he would fall short of being reelected.

Inoki ended his career in 1998 after winning his final match against a fellow wrestler and MMA legend Don Frye.

After winning an unofficial championship match for the title in 1979, he would officially become the promotion’s first Asian Heavyweight Champion in 2010 and be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

After winning the election in 2013, he was once again a member of the House of Commons. He retired from politics in 2019 at 76 due to deteriorating health.

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