There’s not an athlete in combat-sports history with a bigger influence than Antonio Inoki. How many other professional wrestlers have a common opponent in Superman? Inoki is one degree of separation from Clark Kent because of his 1976 fight against Muhammad Ali, then the WBC and WBA heavyweight champion with a 53-2 record. The pair of titans fought to a draw in a bout considered to be foreshadowing for mixed martial arts.
Inoki passed away at 79 early Saturday morning, leaving behind an unmatched legacy. He founded New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and trained many of Japan’s most famous professional wrestlers including Masahiro Chono, The Great Muta, and Shinsuke Nakamura. He’s a six-time Hall of Famer, yes one hand plus a finger, including the WWE Hall of Fame and the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Inoki won in the main event of the famed Collision in Korea two-day PPV event, which took place under both the NJPW and World Championship Wrestling banners, defeating fellow squared-circle legend Ric Flair. The total of attendees at the extravaganza has been disputed but is thought to be around 350,000 people combined for both shows — the highest total in pro wrestling history.
His popularity became so recognizable that Inoki had a career outside of wrestling. While still wrestling, he was elected to the Japanese House of Councilors, the equivalent to the U.S. House of Representatives. During his first political term, Inoki successfully negotiated with then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, releasing Japanese hostages before the beginning of the Gulf War. Inoki served another term in the House of Councilors starting in 2013. Inoki retired from professional wrestling in 1998, with his final match against UFC Hall of Famer Don Frye.
As an uncredited ancestor of mixed martial arts and forever changing the landscape of professional wrestling, Inoki built a combat-sports empire larger than Fedor Emelianenko, Bas Ruten, Dana White, Ted Turner, or Vince McMahon. Combined with his mainstream appeal across the globe, there won’t be another Inoki.