Antonio Inoki, Japanese wrestler and improbable diplomat, dies at 79
By Alex Traub
Antonio Inoki, a Japanese wrestler best known for fighting Muhammad Ali to a draw in a mixed martial arts match and who also used his showmanship to win fame and influence in North Korea, Iraq and Pakistan, died Saturday in Tokyo. He was 79.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling, a wrestling company that Inoki had founded, announced that the cause was amyloidosis, a rare organ disease.
Inoki had the jutting chin of a wartime dictator but also wore a red scarf with the panache of a French New Wave filmmaker.
He inhabited varying public roles with success. He developed a one-man foreign policy on trips around the world while a member of the Japanese parliament’s upper house. He built a reputation and a following in Pakistan by presenting himself when wrestling there as a convert to Islam. And he projected the image of a jovial jock when slapping fans and fellow celebrities in the face, a signature move intended to transfer some of his fighting spirit.
But it was an anticlimactic stunt match in Tokyo against Muhammad Ali on June 26, 1976, that brought him attention in the United States and cemented his renown elsewhere.
Ali was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, and the fight was touted as a contest not just between two men but between two sports. Anticipation built, and Shea Stadium drew more than 30,000 people for a telecast.
Not long after the bell sounded, Inoki flung himself to the mat and proceeded to crawl and kick Ali, a strategy that appeared to stupefy his opponent. Ali danced around the ring, absorbing painful kicks and landing only two punches through the whole fight.
The odd spectacle was ruled a draw and inspired the crowd to hurl garbage at the ring.
“Perhaps last summer I was too serious,” Inoki told The New York Times in a regretful interview the next year. “I was doing my best to win. It wasn’t a fake fight or it would have been more interesting.”
After Ali died in 2016, the Times ran a retrospective article about the bout: “Ali’s Least Memorable Fight.”
One expert commentator saw it differently. Conor McGregor, the mixed martial artist who had fought undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2017, said at a news conference before their bout that he had studied the Ali-Inoki match. Of particular interest was a moment in the sixth round when Ali fell, and Inoki got on top of him before the referee separated the two men.
“If that moment in time was 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,” McGregor said.
Kanji Inoki was born on Feb. 20, 1943, in Yokohama, a Japanese port city. He adopted “Antonio” as a wrestling name. When he was a teenager, his family moved to Brazil. Rikidozan, a professional wrestler in Japan, visited Brazil, met Kanji and became his mentor, guiding him into a career as a popular Japanese wrestler.
Information about Inoki’s survivors was not immediately available.
The Ali episode did no long-term damage to Inoki’s popularity in his homeland, where he became a presence in advertising, from Tabasco sauce to pinball parlors.
And he shrewdly curried favor abroad. In Pakistan, he became known as Muhammad Hussain Inoki in the local press; exchanged his red scarf for a green one, reflecting the color of Pakistan’s flag; and cultivated a rivalry with a famous family of Pakistani wrestlers.
After one fight ended ambiguously, Inoki chose to admit defeat, satisfying Pakistani fans’ urge for a homegrown victor, according to a 2014 profile in Grantland.
Inoki’s most impactful foreign intervention occurred in Iraq. In 1990, months before the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was holding dozens of Japanese citizens hostage. Inoki, who had recently been elected to Japan’s parliament, brought relatives of the captives with him on a trip to Iraq, where he organized a “Sports and Music Peace Festival.”
That style of diplomacy paid off: Inoki was “credited with helping negotiate the release of 41 Japanese citizens,” The New York Times said in a 2017 profile.
From 1995 to 2017, Inoki had also become a figure in North Korea, visiting the country 32 times. The relationship originated with “Collision in Korea,” a 1995 event during which Inoki defeated the American wrestler Ric Flair.
Some in Japan criticized the old wrestling star’s socializing with high-ranking officials of a nuclear-armed autocracy as a publicity stunt. He said he had a noble goal: “to establish peace through sports diplomacy,” he told the Times.
“The United Nations, Trump and Japan are all saying we need to apply more pressure,” Inoki continued. “But first we need to listen to them and understand what the reasons are behind their activity.”