Antonio Inoki, whose most famous moment on the world stage was an unorthodox exhibition match against boxing champion Muhammad Ali that aimed to settle which sport could beat the other, died Friday in Japan. He was 79 and no cause of death was released.
Inoki was considered a combat sports trailblazer, but also was a successful entrepreneur and politician in his native Japan, where he was one of the country’s most famous people.
In wrestling-mad Japan, Inoki was considered its most important star, selling out countless arenas and stadiums from the 1970s and on. He was also the first Japanese wrestler to win the WWF championship and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010.
But all that was a prelude to the Ali exhibition on June 26, 1976, when Inoki took on the champion in a bout that was a precursor to today’s mixed martial arts matches.
In addition to the sold-out crowd of more than 14,000 at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, the exhibition fight aired on closed-circuit across the world, including more than 32,000 people at Shea Stadium in New York.
Inoki spent most of the 15-round contest on his back, kicking at Ali’s legs and landing those kicks more than 100 times. Ali took far more damage in the bout than Inoki did, and sustained serious injuries. Ali’s left leg was so badly swollen and bleeding that it led to an infection, and later had two blood clots that led to a consideration of amputation. The damage limited his mobililty for the rest of his career. .
Years later, mixed martial arts fighter Colin McGregor recalled the match. “Ali tried to reach down and punch and he ended up getting swept,” McGregor said at a media scrum before his match with boxer Floyd Mayweather. “Inoki ended up on top and the referee separated it straight away. If that moment in time was to let go for five more seconds, 10 more seconds, Inoki would have wrapped around his neck or his arm or a limb and the whole face of the combat world would have changed right there and then.”
Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972, and was the promotion’s biggest star for more than a decade, having huge matches with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Dory Funk Jr., Big Van Vader and Bruiser Brody.
Aside from sports, Inoki started his own political party, the Sports and Peace Party, and was elected into the Japanese House of Councillors in 1989. Inoki flew to Iraq in 1996 on a one-man diplomatic mission and negotiated with Saddam Hussein the release of 36 Japanese hostages.
He was also an elected politician in the Japanese government from 2013 to 2019.
No information on survivors was immediately available.