Antonio Inoki, one of the most important figures in the history of professional wrestling, has passed away at the age of 79 on October 1st, 2022. The sport has sadly lost one of its true icons.
Born in 1943, Inoki came under the tutelage of the legendary Rikidōzan and trained in the dojo with Karl Gotch amongst others for Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, the first Japanese pro wrestling promotion to exist. Importantly, Inoki would train alongside another person who would equally become important to Japanese pro wrestling: Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba, the co-founder of All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW) and a man with whom Inoki, under the team name ‘B-I Cannon’, won the NWA International Tag Team Championships on 4 separate occasions.
Founding New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972 after he was fired from JPW for an alleged takeover attempt, Antonio Inoki was the figurehead of what would become and remains to be, the most successful Japanese pro wrestling company of all time. Although he would leave New Japan in 2005 after a downturn in the promotion’s popularity, NJPW never forgot the importance of Inoki and has continually honoured him over the years. The death of Antonio Inoki will be a big blow to the spirit of the company undoubtedly.
Inoki had long had a fascination with MMA, and although his attempts to bring the MMA style into pro wrestling were sometimes met with controversy and derision, the global popularity of MMA and UFC today, as well as ROH’s Pure Wrestling and the myriad other MMA influences in the sport, have borne out Inoki’s contention that MMA most certainly has its place in pro wrestling.
Antonio Inoki participated in some notorious matches in his time, often in pursuit of his goal of bringing MMA into pro wrestling, and although his early NJPW matches were against the likes of Lou Thez and Karl Gotch, contests with the likes of Akram Pahalwan and former strongman The Great Antonio went from worked shoots to violently legit shoots, and he participated in a bizarre 2-hour 4-minute fight on Ganryujima Island, half an hour of which featured Inoki peering out of his tent in a historical nod to a fight that had previously taken place on the island. These matches could often be polarising but added to Inoki’s reputation as a legitimate badass, as well as giving doubters of pro wrestling’s legitimacy pause for thought.
However, despite his position as the top guy in New Japan, Inoki could be undoubtedly giving. He lost to Hulk Hogan, by knockout no less, in the final of the 1983 IWGP League to crown Hogan as the first IWGP Heavyweight Champion, when he could have just as easily claimed the gold for himself (ironically, Inoki has one unrecognised reign WWF champion before Hogan’s run). He also got Big Van Vader over in Japan by having Vader come out for an impromptu match and defeating Inoki quickly before continuing to pound him after the bell, causing a riot. Inoki’s instruction was for Vader to hit him as hard as he could so he would break Inoki’s nose or split his lip. Now that’s giving.
Outside of wrestling, Antonio Inoki was very involved in politics, and while I’m not qualified to comment on Japanese politics, his decision to put on a two-day wrestling festival, Collision in Korea, in North Korea was an extremely bold move and one that is still talked about to this day.
There was never a figure like Antonio Inoki before him, and I doubt we will see the likes of him again. Rest in piece, Inoki-san. Wrestling Obsessive offers our sincere condolences to his family, friends and fans.