Antonio Inoki made Japanese wrestling famous and later became a lawmaker
Japanese sport and wrestling are in mourning after legendary wrestler Antonio Inoki passed away at the age of 79.
Inoki died on Saturday, as confirmed by the New Japan Pro-Wrestling promotion, where he was the founding president.
He had been battling a rare disease called amyloidosis, which can cause vital organs such as the heart, liver, and kidneys to not function properly.
The Yokohama native made Japanese pro wrestling famous worldwide as a young man and was also a pioneer in mixed martial arts matches that pitted top wrestlers and champions from other combat sports such as boxing, judo and karate against one another.
His most famous opponent in this realm was boxing great Muhammad Ali, whom he faced in a well-received crossover fight in Tokyo in 1976, achieving global fame.
Inoki was also the first wrestler to enter politics. He promoted peace through sports and made over 30 trips to North Korea in the hope of forging a friendship between the country and his homeland.
Born in Yokohama in 1943 as Kanji Inoki, he moved to Brazil with his family as a 13-year-old and worked on a coffee plantation.
He came onto the scene as a professional wrestler at the age of 17 after having caught the eye of Japanese pro wrestling godfather Rikidozan, who granted him his debut in 1960. Antonio Inoki became his ring name two years later.
He made wrestling hugely popular in Japan before founding New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972.
Inoki entered politics in 1989 and retired from wrestling in 1992. Tributes for him poured in from both worlds, with wrestler-turned-lawmaker Atsushi Onita tweeting that a “huge star has fallen” and that an era “has come to an end.”
Yoshifu Arita, a journalist and ex-lawmaker, praised Inoki for his efforts to resolve the issue of past abductions of Japanese nationals to North Korea.
“Another important route with North Korea is lost,” Arita wrote on Twitter, criticizing other former Japanese leaders for making no improvements and relying on “useless” connections in the row.
Popular American wrestlers who paid their respects to Inoki included Ric Flair and Paul Michael Levesque, better known as Triple H.
Inoki last appeared in public in August when he featured on a Japanese television show in a wheelchair.
“As you can see, I’m pushing myself to the limit, and I’m getting power as I get to see you,” he said, wearing his trademark red scarf.