TOKYO — Popular Japanese professional wrestler and Diet member Antonio Inoki, who faced world boxing champion Muhammad Ali in a mixed martial arts match in 1976, has died at the age of 79.
Inoki brought fame to Japanese professional wrestling, pioneering mixed martial arts matches between top wrestlers and champions of other martial arts such as judo, karate, and boxing.
Inoki, who was battling a rare disease called amyloidosis, died Saturday, according to New Japan Pro Wrestling, which he founded.
He gained worldwide fame in the sport in 1976 when he faced Ali in a mixed martial arts match at the Budokan Hall in Tokyo.
However, the bout was seen by many outside of Japan as unprofessional and not taken seriously. was kicking the ant’s leg.
He entered politics for the first time through his sport.
Even as he battled his illness, Inoki was cheerful and energetic. The last time Inoki appeared in public with his trademark red scarf hanging from his neck was on a TV show in August, and he was in a wheelchair.
“As you can see, I’m pushing myself to the limit. Every time I see you I get strength,” he said.
Born Kanji Inoki in Yokohama, a suburb of Tokyo, in 1943, he moved with his family to Brazil when he was 13 and worked on a coffee plantation. Inoki gained local fame for his shot put when he was a student, and made his debut as a professional wrestler at the age of 17, attracting the attention of Rikidozan, known as the father of Japanese professional wrestling, during a wrestling tour in Brazil.
Inoki made his professional wrestling debut in 1960 and took the name Antonio Inoki two years later.
Along with his biggest rival, the late Shohei “Giant” Baba, another Japanese legend, Inoki has made professional wrestling a very popular sport in Japan. Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972.
Inoki entered politics after winning a seat in the House of Councilors in 1989, serving as leader of the Sports Peace Party. He went to Iraq in 1990, where he won the release of a Japanese hostage. He has also staged professional wrestling matches in North Korea.
Over the years, Inoki developed personal ties with North Korea and visited the country many times to resolve the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals to North Korea.
He retired from wrestling in 1998, but remained active in politics until 2019.
Many compliments were posted on social media.
“A big star has fallen. I apologize.”
Yoshio Arita, a journalist and former lawmaker, praised Inoki for his efforts to resolve the abduction issue with North Korea.
“Another important route to North Korea has been lost,” tweeted Arita, accusing other former Japanese leaders of relying on “useless” ties and failing to make improvements. “Thank you for your hard work, Inoki-san.”
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