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Wrestling Star Antonio Inoki, Who Once Fought Muhammad Ali, Dies

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Antonio Inoki, a Japanese wrestling icon, controversial politician and pioneer in the promotion of mixed martial arts who once fought heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, passed away Saturday at the age of 79.

Born Kanji Inoki in Japan, Inoki moved to Brazil with his family as a teen where he was discovered by Korean-born Japanese wrestling sensation Rikidozan. Returning to Japan, Inoki made a name for himself in pro wrestling eventually training under legendary catch wrestler Karl Gotch and forming his own promotion, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, in 1972.

Inoki shot to international fame in 1976 when he participated in the most famous mixed rules bout in history prior to the UFC as he and Ali engaged in a 15-round draw. Inoki refused to engage Ali on the feet, instead lying on his back and kicking at the boxer's legs the entire bout. Many claimed the match was prearranged but Gene LeBell, the late Black Belt hall of famer who refereed the fight, maintained it was a legitimate - if boring - contest.

Though most in the combat sports world viewed it as a farce, the match increased Inoki's prestige in Japan and prompted him to promote more crossover "fights" featuring karate and judo champions against wrestlers. While most of those bouts were choreographed, Inoki did eventually promote legitimate MMA events including giving future UFC champion Lyoto Machida his professional start.

Elected to the upper house of the Japanese national legislature in 1989, Inoki failed to win re-election in 1995 following scandals over campaign financing and alleged links to organized crime. He returned to politics in 2013 winning election but would receive a 30 day suspension from the Diet over unauthorized visits to North Korea.

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