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MMA and pro-wrestling pioneer Antonio Inoki dies at 79

The pro wrestler turned politician was best known for his mixed-rules match with legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, paving the way for the sport of MMA

New Years Eve producer Antonio Inoki. via <a href="http://sportsnavi.yahoo.co.jp/">SportsNavi</a>
New Years Eve producer Antonio Inoki. via SportsNavi

A key figure in MMA’s history has passed on.

Antonio Inoki, Japanese combat sports icon and beloved cultural figure, died Friday at the age of 79 after a long battle with amyloidosis. The news was reported by Inoki’s wrestling promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), on their website and twitter account earlier today.

“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 Yokohama, Japan in 1943. The second youngest of seven children, he grew into a seasoned track athlete and karate student before his family immigrated to Brazil at age 13. Here Inoki found a love for pro wrestling, being scouted by famed North Korean pro wrestler Rikidōzan who begin to train Inoki as his disciple. At age 17, Inoki moved back to Japan with Rikidōzan to compete for the Japanese Pro-Wrestling Alliance (JWA).

Born “Kanji” Inoki, he would adopt the name “Antonio” shortly into his professional career in honor of his time in Brazil. Inoki would compete for the JWA from 1960 to 1972, leaving to create NJPW and pursue other ventures.

In June, 1976, Inoki shocked the world by stepping into the ring for a mixed rules exhibition fight with legendary American boxer Muhammad Ali. Answering a million dollar call-out to any oriental fighter Ali had made that past April, Inoki prepared for the highest profile match of his life.

Ali’s first match under a mixed ruleset, Inoki took full advantage of leg strikes over the 15 rounds. Inoki battered the boxing champion’s for 15 rounds, dropping to the floor and kicking Ali’s legs on the way down and then kicking his shins off his back. Despite the fight’s stalemate conclusion and poor immediate reception, the event drew a sold out crowd of 14,500 at the Budokan arena and an estimated global viewership of over one billion. The size and spectacle of the bout, alongside it’s interesting core premise, were crucial ingredients for the eventual birth MMA as a sport.

Following the bout, a still-competing Inoki was elected to the Japanese House of Councilors in 1989. Representing his newly-formed Sports and Peace party, Inoki would play a critical role in negotiating with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for the release of 36 Japanese prisoners in 1990 before the outbreak of the Gulf war. He would fail to win reelection in 1995.

Inoki would retire from competition in 1998, defeating MMA legend and fellow wrestler Don Frye in his final match. He would be indicted into the WWE hall of fame in 2010, having technically become the promotions first Asian Heavyweight Champion following an unrecognized title bout back in 1979.

He regained his role in the House of Commons after winning the election in 2013, and officially retired from politics in 2019 at the age of 76 due to declining health.