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Forever Fighting Spirit: Antonio Inoki’s Five Best Matches

A look at the legend’s strong style and iconic legacy through five battles

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Much of the discourse around the death of Antonio Inoki has focused on his mythic exploits in the wrestling business as a promoter, or his pioneering MMA fight with Muhammad Ali, or his work as a political figure. His life was truly unconventional, one of the great lives of the past 100 years, but Inoki was also an in-ring wrestler, one who was a big part of some epic matches. Here is a sampling of great Antonio Inoki pro wrestling matches.

Antonio Inoki vs. Jack Brisco

JWA Summer Big Series, August 1971

At the time, Inoki was the secondary star in Japan (behind Giant Baba), battling against Brisco, who is a couple of years away from being crowned NWA World Heavyweight Champion. People often prejudice 1970s wrestling as being all dull mat work; this was a match dominated by mat work, but there was nothing dull about it. Both wrestlers were constantly looking to capture small advantages; always moving, always adjusting, everything filled with effort. There were three suplexes in this match, and each one had a tremendous fight and struggle in it—you could see the strain in every step of the application and the eventual execution.

The first fall had a great finish, with Inoki attempting to lock in his signature Octopus Stretch, only for Brisco to counter it by jerking him down headfirst into the mat and getting the pin. Inoki was able to withstand the second fall rush by Brisco and counter him with a beautiful bridging German suplex to win the second fall. Having taken the full advantage with that move, Inoki was able to really put on the pressure in the third fall, including ending the match by locking on the Octopus Stretch he failed to land at the end of the first fall, after which he almost contemptuously tossed Brisco to the mat. This was Inoki building his legend; here he is the brash up-and-comer, five years away from the Ali fight that would cement his legacy forever. A legend in his youthful prime, eager to prove that he belongs among the best in the world.

Antonio Inoki vs. Andre the Giant

NJPW First MSG Series, May 1978

This bout finds Inoki at the peak of his powers trying to fell the ultimate pro wrestling oak tree, the iconic Andre the Giant. Most people remember an older, more lumbering Andre; he retained his timing and presence right up until his last match, but here he still showcased real athleticism. There have been taller and heavier wrestlers than Andre, but no one has ever been as massive. Andre the Giant was a moving mountain.

The opening of this match was excellent, as Inoki ripped off an enzuigiri to the side of Andre’s ear, dropping the Giant quickly. Most Andre matches build to the moment when he finally falls; here Inoki got him immediately. He leaped over to pin him, but Andre kicked out and threw Inoki off of him and out of the ring. (A lucky shot may get him for a second, but that is still Andre the Giant; you better pack a lunch.) After recovering from the kick, Andre actually took back control by grappling with Inoki, putting on a half crab, landing a big headlock takeover, and putting on a bow and arrow. He put Inoki in a fascinating position; you would figure Inoki would be the more skilled on the mat, but what good is a skill when a giant is grabbing your head and trying to rip it off?

Inoki was able to grab his signature short arm scissors and tried to numb Andre’s arm, but Andre was able to get loose and spill them both to the floor, where he roughed Inoki up. This led to a huge Andre suplex and a running jumping splash attempt. Inoki scurried away, escaping the splash (and looking like Indiana Jones avoiding the boulder), but he didn’t roll far enough away and got caught by Andre’s behemothic head, which is enough to send him to the floor, unable to return. A rare Inoki loss, although one in which he still had his moment of triumph with the early knockdown. He eventually would best Andre, but this is a great example of how a great wrestler can raise all boats, even in defeat.

Team NJPW (Antonio Inoki, Kantaro Hoshino, Kengo Kimura, Tatsumi Fujinami, and Umanosuke Ueda) vs. Team UWF (Akira Maeda, Kazuo Yamazaki, Nobuhiko Takada, Osamu Kido, and Yoshiaki Fujiwara)

NJPW New Wave Dash, March 1986

This match was the highlight of the Universal Wrestling Federation vs. New Japan Pro-Wrestling feud, which overall was one of the greatest series of matches in pro wrestling history. The UWF was a promotion that had broken away from New Japan with the idea of promoting pro wrestling as a real sport. It was a big success early but eventually fell apart when a match between Akira Maeda and Super Tiger (Satoru Sayama) broke down into a shoot, where Maeda intentionally kicked Tiger low. The bulk of the UWF native wrestlers (minus Sayama) then returned as an invading force to New Japan. This match had Inoki marshaling his forces to take on (and take out) the marauding gang in an elimination match. Inoki was the avatar for New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and the general leading his troops to battle is a role that fit him like a glove. Interpromotional wrestling matches in Japan frequently have incredible atmospheres, and this was a crowd living and dying with the home team and their idol.

The match opened with Inoki facing off against Maeda, the brash leader of the UWF invasion and a man with contempt for everything Inoki stands for. The initial scramble between the two was electric, with Maeda throwing a jumping high kick that just missed knocking Inoki’s head off, followed by Maeda hitting a capture suplex and a hammerlock attempt, which Inoki reversed. Politics kept these two from having a singles match against each other during this feud, but every time they squared off, you could feel the hatred radiate. They had another exchange later in the match when Maeda grasped Inoki’s arm like a man hanging on to a life preserver in the ocean while Inoki countered and parried and attempted to squirm loose. There were also great exchanges between master grapplers Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Tatsumi Fujinami, constant motion on the mat, and reversal after reversal. Eventually, in their second go-round, Fujinami found himself trapped in a Fujiwara sleeper, unable to get the boa constrictor off of him. A desperate Fujinami ended up eliminating them both by flinging them together over the top rope. (That is another singles match that sadly never happened during this feud; as amazing as New Japan vs. UWF was, there was a lot left on the table.)

Any match with 10 guys like this is going to be full of great supporting performances. Kantaro Hoshino is an undercard junior heavyweight veteran who approaches this match like Henery the chicken hawk from the Looney Tunes cartoons; he is the smallest guy in the match but was constantly swinging and fighting and moving forward. Ueda was a semi-retired garbage wrestler that was not skilled enough to hang at this level. It got down to just Ueda and Inoki on the New Japan side against Maeda, Kido, and Takada. Ueda ended up against Maeda, who started crushing him with kicks. Ueda soon realized it was useless and grabbed Maeda’s leg, sacrificing himself while dragging Maeda to the floor with him, eliminating them both. It’s one of the smartest and coolest individual spots in wrestling history. This left Inoki by himself against Kido and Takada, but Inoki was always a wrestler who understood hierarchy. He wasn’t a guy to make a lower-ranked opponent look great, and Kido and Takada were way below him, so he dispatched both easily. This could have used a more dramatic close, but otherwise this was an all-time classic match with compelling stories and amazing performances woven in and out throughout.

Antonio Inoki vs. Masa Saito

NJPW Blazing Cherry Blossoms, April 1987

Masa Saito represented Japan in freestyle wrestling at the 1964 Olympics. He was primarily a star in the United States during most of his career, headlining in Florida and California and capturing the WWF Tag Team championship with Mr. Fuji. Saito was returning to Japan after spending two years in prison for beating up a group of police officers during an incident at a hotel with Ken Patera. That prison stint gave him an undeniable aura, and he came back to Japan an even bigger star. This was the second match in a four-match series. In their first match, Saito used a pair of handcuffs to beat on Inoki and Inoki unhooked a turnbuckle to respond; this match escalated that chaos and violence to the next level.

Saito dominated the early part of the match, attacking Inoki’s back and knees with his Scorpion Deathlock and trademark Saito side suplex. Eventually, he dropped Inoki crotch-first on the top rope, twice. In an iconic moment, Inoki ordered the ring crew to tear down the ring ropes, leaving him and Saito to slug it out in the middle of the ropeless ring. They spilled to the floor and Inoki cracked Saito’s head into the ringpost multiple times, opening him up. Saito’s protégé Hiroshi Hase then handed Saito the handcuffs he used in their previous match. Saito cuffed himself to Inoki, but soon the tide turned and Inoki proceeded to beat the bloody Saito into unconsciousness, forcing Hase to throw in the towel and the ringside wrestlers to pull Inoki off of a decimated Saito.

Inoki at his best was a spectacle wrestler; he knew how to frame huge moments, and being handcuffed to—and beating on—an obliterated Saito was a huge moment. This would eventually lead to Inoki winning the first IWGP tournament by beating Saito in the finals and to, eventually, a final confrontation: a two-hour war on Ganryujima Island, an uninhabited island where two legendary samurai had battled hundreds of years before. Inoki was in many ways the embodiment of a manga hero, and standing triumphantly over a bloody, beaten foe had the vibe of the final panel of an epic story.

Antonio Inoki vs. Big Van Vader

NJPW Wrestling World, Tokyo Dome, January 1996

Big Van Vader, who was in between his WCW and WWF stints, battled Antonio Inoki in the Tokyo Dome on his Final Countdown tour. Inoki created the Vader character and made him a star in his first match in Sumo Hall, where Vader quickly squashed Inoki, leading to a riot. This was an older Inoki and an older Vader, but still had the aura of those earlier wars.

Dome shows often have iconic entrances, and Inoki came down to the ring being serenaded by a harpsichord player. When the bell rang, that beauty got ugly, quick. Vader absolutely obliterated Inoki, cracking him with those signature rights and lefts, slamming him, and cracking him with clotheslines, with the early attack coming to a head with maybe the greatest German suplex in pro wrestling history. Vader tossed the 52-year-old in the air and dropped him directly on the back of his neck. It looked like Vader might have knocked him cold. Inoki was able to fight through the pain, though, and took Vader to the floor, busting him up (and open) with chairs. Vader took control again and released another helping of pain, with a chokeslam and a 450-pound moonsault. Inoki was also bloodied, probably from one of Vader’s stray right hands. However, Inoki was able to sidestep a Vader Avalanche, hit a bodyslam, and slap an armbar on Vader’s bad shoulder to get the win. It felt a little improbable that Inoki at his age would really be able to withstand that level of beating and still pull out a win, but it’s Antonio Inoki—fighting his way to victory was what Inoki did.

Phil Schneider is a cofounder of the Death Valley Driver Video Review, a writer on the Segunda Caida blog, host of The Way of the Blade podcast, and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History, which is available on Amazon. He is on Twitter at @philaschneider.