One of the most influential and important figures in the history of Japanese professional wrestling has died.
Yahoo! Japan reported Antonio Inoki passed away at his home on Saturday, October 1. A specific cause of death was not reported, but Inoki’s health problems over recent years were well known. In an interview earlier this year, he admitted he had been near death on a number of occasions.
News of Inoki’s passing came nearly 62 years to the day after his pro wrestling debut at the age of 17 on September 30, 1960. Another literal and figurative giant in Japanese wrestling history, Inoki’s future tag team partner Shohei Baba, made his in-ring debut on the same card for the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (later, simply known as the Japan Wrestling Alliance).
Inoki and Baba’s departures from the JWA changed the course of wrestling in Japan forever. In 1972, Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling, while Baba founded All Japan Pro Wrestling. Without two of its top stars, the JWA collapsed.
Inoki’s influence spread around the world. In 1976, he squared off against Muhammed Ali in an infamous “wrestler vs. boxer” match. The bout is viewed by many as a prelude to the future popularity of the sport of mixed martial arts.
Inoki’s leadership of NJPW was not without its missteps. His interest in MMA during the early 2000s gave birth to an in-ring philosophy that became known as Inoki-ism. However, the shift to the shoot fighting style nearly doomed NJPW. Inoki sold his stake in NJPW in 2005 and stepped away from the company.
Inoki explored other promotions and ventures following his exit from NJPW. Those included him founding the Inoki Genome Federation
Inoki also found success in the political arena. He served two terms in the House of Councillors. He was first elected in 1989. During that term, he notably traveled to Iraq, where he met with Saddam Hussein and successfully negotiated the release of a group of Japanese hostages.
A failed re-election bid saw Inoki leave office, but he returned after being elected to a new term in 2013. This one was marked by a number of controversial trips to North Korea. Inoki retired from politics in 2019.
Word of Inoki’s death began circulating in North America on Friday night.
News of his passing was announced during Friday night’s live broadcast of “SmackDown,” with Michael Cole conveying the company’s condolences to Inoki’s family, friends, and fans. On Twitter, WWE Chief Content Officer Paul “Triple H” Levesque shared his own tribute.
“One of the most important figures in the history of our business, and a man who embodied the term ‘fighting spirit,'” Levesque wrote. “The legacy of WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki will live on forever.”
Inoki defeated Bob Backlund to win the WWF Heavyweight Championship in 1979, but the company never officially recognized his reign. Inoki was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010.
AEW Owner and CEO Tony Khan joined the many on social media paying tribute to Inoki’s memory.
“RIP Antonio Inoki, a pioneer in the pro wrestling industry,” Khan wrote on Twitter Friday night. “Inoki’s influence and his achievements will live on forever in the wrestling world; he’s an inspiration to all of the dreamers. Thank you sir.”
Many of NJPW’s current top stars are in London, England where the company is holding its two-night Royal Quest II event this weekend.
Source: Wrestling Inc.