Antonio Inoki, the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling who became one of the greatest pro wrestling stars in Japan’s history, has passed away.
Yahoo News Japan has confirmed that Inoki passed away Saturday morning in Japan. Inoki, 79, has struggled with health problems in recent years and was confined to a wheelchair.
During Friday’s SmackDown, announcers Michael Cole and Corey Graves took the time to speak about Inoki’s death.
Inoki started wrestling in 1960 and trained under Rikidozan, one of the first popular professional wrestling figures in Japan. Later in the decade, he formed a tag team with Giant Baba in the Japan Wrestling Association, with the team winning the NWA International Tag Team Championship four times. Baba would later form All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972 and become a direct competitor to Inoki’s NJPW.
After being fired from JWA in 1971 for planning a takeover of the promotion, Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling the following year. One of Inoki’s more famous fights during this period was a 1976 mixed martial arts match between himself and Muhammad Ali, where the match ended in a draw.
Inoki also headlined one of the most attended shows in pro wrestling history in Pyongyang, North Korea, where he defeated Ric Flair on the second night of a two-day event. The announced crowds for those shows were 165,000 and 190,000 respectively.
Inoki retired from professional wrestling in 1998, his last match being a win over Don Frye. He continued to lead NJPW until 2005, when Yukes bought Inoki’s controlling shares in the company. Later, he founded a new promotion, Inoki Genome Federation. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010.
In addition to pro wrestling, Inoki also had a career in politics, winning a seat in the House of Councilors in 1989. He left politics in 1994 following scandals, but was later elected to Japan’s upper house as a Member of Parliament from 2013 to 2019.