by Andrew Bryan
On October 1st 2022, just over a year from writing, the legendary Antonio Inoki died. He was known by many names, born Kanji Inoki, then converted to Islam and went by Muhammed Hussein Inoki, but most knew him as Antonio, one of the greatest and most influential wrestlers of all time. Today we look at his life and legacy.
If you are a frequent reader of my articles, you will have likely read the name Antonio Inoki a few times, even if you aren’t familiar with the man himself. He was mentioned in both The Life and Times of Gene LeBell and Rikidōzan vs Kimura: The Legendary Footnote. The world of professional wrestling is a small one, and eventually everyone knows everyone else. Antonio Inoki trained under both Rikidōzan and the legendary Karl Gotch, on his journey to become a professional wrestler.
For those not in the know, in the early days of professional wrestling, wrestlers were taught legitimate catch-wrestling, and were capable of fighting for real. Catch wrestling is a simple enough concept to understand, you could win by submission, or by pin, and it’s still practised today by fighters like Josh Barnett and Shayna Baszler.
The ability to fight for real, and the legitimacy of professional wrestling as a martial art – was woven into the DNA of Antonio Inoki. This mindset is something that never left him, and proved to be controversial later in his career, but we will get there.
As a wrestler, Antonio Inoki began his career in the Japanese Wrestling Alliance, founded by Rikidōzan, who of course sat at the top of the company as its primary draw and star. The JWA largely consisted of former sumo wrestlers and judoka, who were adapting their transferable skills to professional wrestling. Antonio Inoki was a slightly different breed of wrestler, with his training under Karl Gotch putting him more in line with classic European professional wrestlers, who’s style permeated the rest of the globe.
After Rikidōzan murder in 1963, the JWA would last for another 10 years, mostly relying on the star power of Antonio Inoki and fellow wrestling legend, Giant Baba. The relationship between Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, is a saga in of its own and could easily make up multiple articles, but in short. Baba and Inoki were in fierce competition with each other, were none too fond of one another and shaped wrestling as we know it today. The two men would ultimately leave the JWA and go their separate ways, although they walked very similar paths. Giant Baba would found the legendary All Japan Pro Wrestling, known for its influence from American Wrestling, particularly “Southern Rasslin’” and the creation of what is commonly known as ‘The Kings Road Style’.
Meanwhile Antonio Inoki would found New Japan Pro Wrestling, the promotion it’s more likely you have heard of, if not already a wrestling fan. While All Japan would have great success for some thirty years, after the passing of Giant Baba, it would effectively be replaced by Pro Wrestling Noah. All Japan still exists today, but it’s not near the popularity of NJPW, Noah or Dragon Gate.
Meanwhile NJPW went through many twists and turns to sit today as the second largest promotion in the world (aside from WWE) and the largest promotion in Japan. While AJPW was known for the Kings Road Style, NJPW was known for strong style.
Strong Style vs Muhammed Ali
Strong Style is based upon the catch wrestling principles that Antonio Inoki learned. Submission moves, gritty wrestling mixed with legitimate martial arts strikes. It is best exemplified today by wrestlers like Minoru Suzuki and Katsuyori Shibata. It is a tough, gruelling style that requires you to endure a lot of pain as you’re repeatedly hit. For a great example look at any match between Katsuhiko Nakajima and Kenoh in Pro Wrestling Noah, as they repeatedly full force kick each other in the chest.
This was Antonio Inoki’s bread and butter, and the fact that he had legitimate fighting skills, coupled with the fact he literally owned the ring that he stood in – meant that any wrestler had to have respect, and perhaps a healthy dose of fear for Antonio Inoki.
One particularly famous match saw Inoki legitimately knock out The Great Antonio. A large behemoth of a man who struck Inoki with multiple stiff, dangerous shots to the back of the head. This saw Inoki retaliate and knock his partner out for real.
Antonio Inoki positioned professional wrestling as a real, legitimate martial art and that his wrestlers were tough and could fight. In the first few years of NJPW’s existence, Antonio Inoki fought in exhibition matches against different martial artists to demonstrate the power of his strong style pro wrestling.
… Which brings us to the time when he fought Muhammed Ali…
Muhammed Ali and Antonio Inoki fought each other in what is sometimes considered to be the first (and worst) mixed martial arts match. It is also one of the least enjoyable fights you can ever sit through to the point of it coming out the other end and being funny.
Refereed by Gene LeBell, I’ve talked about this fight before, this fight was meant to prove that Muhammed Ali could beat any professional wrestler in a fight. Today you might think to yourself ‘well yeah, obviously’ but at the time people weren’t necessarily in the know that professional wrestling was a worked show, rather than legitimate contest, and the presence of legit tough guys like Inoki blurred the line. Old pro wrestling looked more like a real fight and in the days before MMA, audiences weren’t really as educated as to what a fight would look like, if it wasn’t a boxing match.
It’s often claimed that Ali wasn’t aware that the fight was going to be real, but this doesn’t make an awful lot of sense. As Ali, correctly realised that if Inoki were allowed to actually wrestle with Ali, he would lose. Inoki would simply walk up to him through his punches, grab him, take him to the floor, and submit him. So Antonio Inoki was not allowed to wrestle in this wrestler vs boxer match. If the fight was meant to be a worked match – these rules wouldn’t have been in place.
Not only that but the rule was made that Antonio Inoki was only allowed to kick, if one of his knees were touching the ground. Otherwise he would simply leg kick Ali to death. While it’s interesting that Ali had worked out in the 1970s what some boxing fans still don’t understand today, this rule resulted in maybe the most hilarious fight I’ve ever sat through.
A slog of kicks from a buttscooted position, Inoki being too respectful of Ali’s hands, and Ali being too reluctant to do anything at all – saw the fight ruled a draw. While Ali claimed that he was the real winner, in actuality the decision went to referee Gene LeBell, who being educated on both grappling and striking, ruled the fight a draw, but only because Inoki had a point deducted during the fight. What was interesting is that the two ringside judges, actually scored the bout with the opposite bias, with the wrestling expert thinking Ali had won, and the boxing judge thinking that Inoki had won.
The fight was of course, panned, rubbish thrown into the ring and as a global community, we all promptly forgot that it happened until internet articles and videos started bringing it up again.
In Inoki’s mind though, the point was made. Strong style worked and he had beaten Muhammed Ali.
NJPW existed as a successful promotion, but nothing mind blowing, until the popularity of MMA in Japan began to rise. The narrative goes that this began the decline of NJPW and Antonio Inoki’s eventual departure.
Antonio Inoki’s insistence on strong style, saw him throwing his wrestlers into MMA organisations to fight against trained fighters. The issue is that while there are some strong style wrestlers who could indeed do that, the majority of them simply weren’t equipped to fight against people who’s day job is training for the ring.
The numerous wrestling losses caused NJPW to decline and fall out of favour with audiences, and eventually Inoki left to start a new promotion. While NJPW would bounce back by mixing a wide array of exciting wrestling styles with strong style wrestlers, Inoki would gradually move further and further away from wrestling.
Politics & The Collision in Korea
Here’s where things get murkier, the career of Inoki is complex, he had two stints in politics. He was a member of house of councillors as a representative of the Sports and Peace Party, which he founded.
In 1990, Inoki went on a private mission to Iraq, where he negotiated the release of Japanese citizens, who were currently being held hostage in Baghdad. The trip proved life changing as not only was Inoki successful in his mission to free those held hostage, but it also resulted in a pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq, which saw Inoki convert to Islam.
Five years later in an attempt to improve diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea, Inoki put together a high profile wrestling show. A cross promotion event between NJPW and WCW, which was just a year out from becoming the biggest professional wrestling show in the world, The Collision in Korea was a two day event held in Pyongyang.
The event, despite not being well known in the West, is the largest ever professional wrestling event in history, with more than 190,000 people in attendance on the first day. For comparison the most successful WrestleMania event, WM32, saw 101,763 in attendance.
Inoki already had good will in North Korea due to his affiliation with Rikidōzan who was himself North Korean on the technicality that he was born in an area that would one day become North Korea. With Kim Jong-Il looking to make a big impression on the world, the event was star studded.
The event was headlined by Ric Flair vs Antonio Inoki, with the undercard featuring The Steiner Brothers, Road Warrior Hawk and Yuji Nagata. Tiger Hattori was refereeing and Muhammed Ali was present in the audience, presumably seething the whole time. The event was huge… and then it got weird.
At the end of the event Ric Flair was expected to read a statement about how North Korea could easily destroy the United States, which he of course declined. They were also greeted with a speech about the greatness of passed leader Kim Il-Sung and were required to leave flowers at his statue. Then there is the added question of while the attendance figures were huge, to what degree was the attendance forced. While Inoki doesn’t hold responsibility for what the North Korean government may or may not have done, the fact of the matter is we just don’t know.
The event saw no coverage in the West, and wasn’t archived on WWE’s Network. Unfortunately for Antonio Inoki, it didn’t have the desired effect of improving relations between Japan and North Korea.
The Passing of Inoki
Unlike the last wrestling legend, I talked about. Antonio Inoki lived a long life, while his mentor was tragically murdered, Inoki lived not only to the age of 79, but was able to witness the 50th Anniversary of NJPW, the company he founded at just 29 years of age.
He was a complicated and fascinating man, his religious and political beliefs would flip flop all his life. His business decisions were great and terrible. His wrestling skills were second to none. We haven’t even touched on his work with WWE, and there is so much more to say about him. He was, like most, a complicated man with a complicated legacy – but perhaps no wrestler has left a legacy quite so fascinating.