Antonio Inoki, Japanese pro wrestling legend, dead at 76

Antonio Inoki, a legendary Japanese pro wrestler, promoter and politician who faced Muhammad Ali in a mixed-martial arts match in 1976, died Saturday. He was 76.

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Inoki was battling a rare disease called amyloidosis, according to the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co., The Associated Press reported. Inoki was the founding president of the wrestling promotion.

The Yokohama native -- born Kanji Inoki -- also starred in U.S. wrestling promotions and served two terms in Japan’s parliament, according to the Japan Times. He had marquee matches with Hulk Hogan, Dory Funk Jr., Big Van Vader and Bruiser Brody, ESPN reported.

According to World Wrestling Entertainment, Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972. He was Japan’s most influential wrestler and sold out countless arenas during his prime in the 1970s. He was the first Japanese wrestler to win the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) title, but his reign is not currently recognized by WWE, according to ESPN.

Inoki, along with his pro wrestling rival Shohei “Giant” Baba, made pro wrestling wildly popular in Japan.

Inoki was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010.

On June 26, 1976, Inoki met Ali in a mixed-martial arts match before a sold-out crowd of 14,000 at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan, ESPN reported.

The match, which also aired on closed circuit television and was also shown before 32,897 fans at Shea Stadium in New York, ended in a draw. Inoki spent most of the bout on his back, kicking Ali’s legs and landing more than 100 blows, according to ESPN.

“Ali tried to reach down and punch and he ended up getting swept,” MMA fighter Conor McGregor said at a news conference before his 2017 match with Floyd Mayweather. “Inoki ended up on top and the referee separated it straight away. If that moment in time was to 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.”

Tributes to Inoki were plentiful on social media. Atsushi Onita, another pro wrestler turned politician, tweeted: “An era has come to an end.”

“Thank you, Inoki-san. The supreme father of pro wrestling,” Onita wrote.

Paul Levesque, also known as Triple H in the WWE, tweeted that Inoki was “one of the most important figures in the history of our business, and a man who embodied the term ‘fighting spirit.’”

“The legacy of WWE Hall of Famer Antonio Inoki will live on forever,” the chief operating officer of WWE added.

Inoki moved to Brazil with his family when he was 13 and worked at a coffee plantation, the AP reported. He made his pro wrestling debut when he was 17 in 1960 and adopted the ring name Antonio Inoki two years later.

Inoki won a seat in the upper house of Japan’s parliament in 1989 and traveled to Iraq the following year to win the release of Japanese citizens held hostage there, according to the AP. He also staged a pro wrestling match in North Korea, according to the news organization.

Inoki’s final official pro wrestling match was against current UFC Hall of Famer Don Frye in 1998, ESPN reported. The bout was held in front of 70,000 at the Tokyo Dome.

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