Popular Japanese professional wrestler and legislator Antonio Inoki, who faced world boxing champion Muhammad Ali in a 1976 mixed martial arts match, has died at the age of 79.
Inoki made Japanese pro wrestling known and pioneered mixed martial arts competitions between top wrestlers and champions from other martial arts such as judo, karate and boxing.
He was also the first in his sport to go into politics. He promoted peace through sports and made more than 30 trips to North Korea during his time as a legislator in hopes of forging peace and friendship.
Inoki, who battled a rare disease called amyloidosis, died earlier Saturday, according to the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co., of which he was the founder. Inoki was cheerful and in good spirits, even as he battled the disease.
With his signature red scarf dangling from his neck, Inoki last appeared in public on a TV show in August, in a wheelchair.
“As you can see, I push myself to the limit, and I gain strength when I see you,” he said.
Born Kanji Inoki in 1943 in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, he moved with his family to Brazil at the age of 13 and worked on a coffee plantation. Gaining local fame in shot put as a student, Inoki debuted as a professional wrestler at age 17 during a wrestling tour in Brazil, where he caught the eye of Rikidozan, known as the father of Japanese pro wrestling.
Inoki made his pro wrestling debut in 1960 and gave himself the ring name Antonio Inoki two years later.
With his arch-rival and another Japanese legend, the late Shohei “Giant” Baba, Inoki made pro wrestling a hugely popular sport in Japan. Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972.
He became world famous in the sport in 1976 when he met Ali in a mixed martial arts match at the Budokan Hall in Tokyo, a match fans remember as “the fight of the century.”
Inoki entered politics in 1989 after winning a seat in the upper house, one of the two houses of the Japanese parliament, and headed the Sports and Peace Party. He traveled to Iraq in 1990 to win the release of Japanese citizens held hostage there. He also hosted a pro wrestling match in North Korea.
Over the years, Inoki developed a personal relationship with North Korea, visiting the country repeatedly to help solve Japan’s long-standing problem of past kidnappings of Japanese nationals to the north.
He retired as a wrestler in 1998, but remained active in politics until 2019.