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By Mike Johnson on 2022-09-30 20:37:00

Yahoo Japan is reporting that WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki, one of the most important professional wrestlers who ever lived, passed away at the age of 79 this evening.  Inoki had been battling health problems in recent years and appeared in a wheelchair in his most recent public appearances.

Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972.  Inoki had been one of the main stars of Japan's JWA and after being fired after a failed attempt to take over that promotion, instead created NJPW.  Inoki was the centerpiece of the promotion, a babyface showing fighting spirit against international fighters coming into the promotion, facing everyone from Loun Thesz to Bob Backlund to The Great Antonio to Andre the Giant.  

Although it is not officially part of WWE's history, Inoki defeated Backlund for the WWF Championship in Japan in November 1979.  Backlund won the belt back a week later but it was then declared vacant due to Tiger Jeet Singh getting involved.  Instead, Backlund defeated Bobby Duncum Sr. to win the title back in a bout for the vacant championship in New York City's Madison Square Garden.  Backlund came to the ring without the belt and left the right with it, with the NYC fans never knowing he wasn't the champion the entire time.

A major part of Inoki's legacy is and always will be his bout against famed boxer Muhammad Ali.  The original plan was for a worked finish, which Ali later balked at, so instead they went into the ring for a legitimate contest with unique rules that was and remains boring to watch but had become heralded as the first ever mixed martial arts match with UFC and all modern MMA having its history tied back to an international closed circuit attraction that didn't draw at the gate and bored everyone who watched it unfold in real time.  But, the legend of the moment grew over time.

Inoki was a made man in Japan, to the point that a victory over him would make someone - including the late Leon "Big Van Vader" White an immediate star upon beating him. 

Inoki used his political clout from his celebrity in New Japan to promote the idea of peace through sports, running events worldwide including the World Wrestling Peace Festival in Los Angeles and the two-day live event in Pyongyang, North Korea that was recently chronicled on Dark Side of the Ring, headlined by Inoki facing Ric Flair.   He used his celebrity to become elected to Japan's House of Councillors in 1989, holding that position through the mid-1990s.  He traveled to Iraq to secure the release of Japanese political prisoners there, agreeing to run a live wrestling show as part of the agreement.    In 2013, Inoki was elected to the Japanese Diet but a visit to North Korea that had not been authorized by Japan was among the reasons he ended up on the outs politically.

Inoki officially retired from the ring after a series of retirement matches in 1996 and eventually sold his majority ownership of NJPW.  He would go on to found the Inoki Genome Federation promotion. 

Inoki was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010 by Stan Hansen.  Below is my coverage from that induction evening:

"Hansen said he wrestled all the top competitors in Japan and they were hard ranks to climb.  He said Inoki stands alone in many respects.  "Inoki was a household name with everyone in Japan - that's how over he was."

Hansen said that Rikidozan learned of a pure Japanese athlete living in Brazil and brought him back as a young star to train under him.  He said the rest of the story is that Inoki became an icon in Japan.  Inoki was excited about promoting pro wrestling - Hansen emphasized PRO WRESTLING - and said he was lucky enough to be a part of that.

He talked of Inoki putting together a Boxer vs. Wrestler match and that launched MMA.  He said Inoki did it as a wrestler.  He said Inoki used pro wrestling to promote peace and Inoki used his power to go to North Korea and Iraq.  He said Inoki pushed the envelope and went to India and Pakistan before anyone else to try and broaden pro wrestling.

Hansen said that after the Shea Stadium show (where Hansen faced Bruno Sammartino), Vince McMahon Sr. got him booked for Inoki in Japan.  At the time, Hansen didn't know much about how over Inoki was.

One time, Hansen's back was bad.  He and Dynamite Kid got on an eight hour train that stopped every twenty minutes.  He said they went to the southern part of Japan and were sent to chiropractors.  They used flame and a cup to kill the pain in a vacuum.  The doctor told Hansen he could 'adjust him' to where he would be impotent, to which Hansen said "Whoa!"

He told a story about Inoki wrestling Jack Brisco in Japan.  Hansen, Chavo Guerrero and Steve Keirn are watching in the back.  Inoki goes over and starts tossing his winnings out of the ring to the fans.  Hansen said that it showed how much the promotion gave to the fans.

Hansen told a story of wrestling Inoki in Sapporo and having Inoki choked outside against a railing.  Hansen said he doesn't see very well without his glasses.  He sees someone winding up to hit him then the person tossed an egg on him.  Hansen said he hopped the rail and followed the fan around.  He said he knew the fan would trip over someone, and he did.  He 'taught the fan a lesson' and the next day, there's big trouble and he needed to go to a police station.  He spent the entire day being questioned.  He leaves to go to the show and there's the fan, all bandaged up, bowing and apologizing.  Inoki had told the fan about the trouble and the fan went on to become a great sponsor for Hansen.

Hansen said it was his honor to tell some stories and induct Inoki into the Hall of Fame.

Inoki said his English is bad, and that he started in Japan.  He thanked everyone for attending the ceremony.  He said it was an honor for him to receive such a prestigious honor and the timing was perfect, as his first match was 50 years ago this year. Inoki said he was proud to develop professional wrestling and martial arts.

Inoki then spoke in Japanese with a translator.  He said he wanted to thank his fans in Japan and those who came here for the ceremony.  He said this year is his 50th anniversary and he appreciates the fans and everyone who worked on inducting him.

He said he's been watching many of his matches recently and the most famous was the fight against Muhammad Ali.  He said after the match he was able to build a nice friendship with Ali, and via that friendship, he was able to attend an event in North Korea that drew 190,000 people twice.

He said with the skills he developed as a wrestler, he was able to promote a 'Sports for Peace' event in Iraq.

He thanked all his fans.  He said he's been working on unique events and would like to promote a card in Antarctica with WWE to promote Global Warming awareness.

Inoki did his traditional Japanese cheer after explaining it to the crowd and asking them to do it with them.  They all did.  A really nice speech."

Inoki was rightfully inducted and honored by every professional wrestling Hall of Fame you can think of and held countless championship belts, but his true legacy will have been his work as a trailblazer for combat sports, professional wrestling and MMA alike.  He built the blueprint for professional wrestling in Japan, used that fame to attempt to spread goodwill (and his own name) in the name of sports and set the stage for countless stars to make their living and an infinite amount of fans to live vicariously through the Japanese style of professional wrestling.  

There will never, ever be another personality like Antonio Inoki and with his passing, the era of the glory days of Rikidozan, Giant Baba, Dick Beyer, and so many other Japanese stars, has truly closed its doors once and for all.

Our deepest condolences to the family, friends and fans of Antonio Inoki.

This is a breaking story and will be updated as needed.  Obviously, there is no way this short story can comprehensively cover Inoki's importance so our bio may be updated as well.

If you enjoy you can check out the AD-FREE PWInsider Elite section, which features exclusive audio updates, news, our critically acclaimed podcasts, interviews and more by clicking here!

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