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Antonio Inoki Changed the World

The granite-jawed Japanese star sought to prove that pro wrestling was the strongest sport while remaking it in his image

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Japanese wrestling legend Antonio Inoki died last week at the age of 79 from complications related to a rare disease called amyloidosis. Much like his singular chin, the life Inoki led has no analog among wrestlers in the United States—he was not only among the world’s greatest box office draws for several decades, he was also the founder of a wrestling promotion (New Japan Pro-Wrestling) that changed the way the sport is staged and remains Japan’s most popular organization to this day, a mixed martial arts pioneer who lured Muhammad Ali into the squared circle for a special-rules match that ended in a controversial draw, the creator of a karate style based on his own “strong style” wrestling technique, a personality so recognizable he sometimes turned up as a character in various Japanese manga series, a shrewd politician who spent more than a decade in Japanese politics, and a public servant who used wrestling to advance diplomatic causes in countries such as Iraq and North Korea. All of this, it could be argued, was in the service of a singular goal fueled by his “burning fighting spirit”: to demonstrate that pro wrestling was the strongest sport.

Before Kanji “Antonio” Inoki would ever grapple with other wrestlers, not to mention fame, the dissolution of business partnerships, marital infidelity, an out-of-control ego, and occasionally the very essence of what constituted professional wrestling, he would first have to grapple with crippling poverty. Sajiro Inoki passed away when his young son Kanji was only 5 years old. The family’s stock in trade had been the wholesaling of coal, and when the world began its transition from coal to oil as its go-to energy source, the Inoki family business was lost to bankruptcy.

For the sake of ensuring their survival, the remaining Inokis moved completely across the Pacific Ocean to a farm in São Paulo, Brazil, in order to work in the booming coffee industry. It was there that young Kanji Inoki first developed his remarkable conditioning by laboring in the mountainous terrain that cradled the coffee fields of São Paulo for 12 hours each day. Despite the relocation, the athletic talents that Inoki had first demonstrated in his junior high school in Yokohama traveled with him, and he captured Brazil’s national championships in the shotput and discus at 17 years old.

Inoki’s athletic accomplishments as a Japanese immigrant in a foreign land caught the attention of Rikidozan—“The Father of Puroresu”—who was traveling through Brazil at the time. Rikidozan was immediately impressed by Inoki’s stature, height, and natural athleticism, and returned to Japan with Inoki in tow to commence his training.

Upon joining Rikidozan’s Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA) organization, Inoki was promptly put to work in the ring, making his debut on the same night as Rikidozan’s prized pupil, Shohei “Giant” Baba, and in a match against another of Rikidozan’s young favorites, Kintaro Oki. At 6-foot-10, Baba was a physically imposing if irregularly proportioned specimen, with a large abdomen adorned by spindly arms and narrow legs, and with massive hands and feet at the ends of them. Oki was a Korean national like Rikidozan, who essentially acquired guardianship of the younger wrestler after Oki was smuggled into Japan aboard a fishing vessel. Collectively, the three would come to be known as the “Sanbagarasu”—or “Three Crows”—and they were intended to be the three disciples of Rikidozan who would maintain puroresu’s popularity well into the future.

Inoki was quickly made the personal attendant of Rikidozan, and in 1962, his ring name was changed to “Antonio” to emphasize his South American heritage. Certainly, “Antonio” was a popular name in the São Paulo region that was announced as Inoki’s homeland during his earliest matches in Japan, as São Paulo was home to millions of Italian Brazilians. While it has been theorized that the name change may have drawn inspiration from the popularity of Argentine wrestling star Antonino Rocca, the rationale for the name change in Japan was attributed to Rikidozan’s desire to exoticize Inoki’s origin, and also to potentially ingratiate Inoki with an overseas audience if an opportunity ever presented itself to send him to wrestle across the Pacific.

Despite the clear position of privilege that Inoki was seen to occupy in comparison to many of the other young wrestlers being trained for action in JWA, Inoki was reportedly dealt with severely by Rikidozan. Also clear to Inoki was the obvious separation between himself and Baba. As Rikidozan’s favorite above all others, Baba was never obligated to function as a lowly attendant before being sent overseas to achieve high-level mastery of pro wrestling, and was paid well even before he made his debut as a wrestler.

In fact, Inoki wasn’t released to travel overseas until after Rikidozan’s death in 1963. At that point, Inoki spent the better part of the next three years on an invaluable training expedition through the United States, where he received considerable in-ring seasoning by wrestling in front of audiences primarily in Texas, California, Tennessee, and the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, events in Japan were brewing that would foment the eventual schism between Rikidozan’s two most promising mentees.

Inoki vs. Iaukea, Hawaii, March 11, 1964
‘Honolulu Star-Bulletin’

In the aftermath of Rikidozan’s death, Michiharu Toyonobori, who had previously been a sumo wrestler just like the deceased puroresu megastar, had immediately inherited Rikidozan’s mantle as both the ace and president of JWA. Along with these lofty positions came in-ring accomplishments, and Toyonobori won successive championships at the JWA’s annual World Big League events and also matched Rikidozan’s status as a holder of the World Heavyweight Championship defended in the WWA organization of Los Angeles, which was embodied by a world title belt that physically resembled both the NWA World Heavyweight Championship belt held by Lou Thesz and the cherished NWA International Heavyweight Championship of Rikidozan. However, Toyonobori was ousted from his position as the JWA’s ace when his penchant for gambling—and the embezzlement that fueled his pastime—was discovered by the company’s board of directors. Giant Baba was inserted into the position as the JWA’s ace, and cemented that role by winning the NWA International Championship, which was under the direct control of the JWA, and which had been held vacant for two years following Rikidozan’s death.

In January 1966, the JWA’s board of directors formally moved to oust Toyonobori from the presidency, although the move was publicly presented as a resignation. From there, Toyonobori moved quickly and arranged a meeting with the 23-year-old Antonio Inoki in Hawaii in March 1966. Inoki’s arrival had been planned for some time, as he intended to train with Baba in Hawaii in anticipation of his triumphant return to Japan after a long overseas excursion. In reality, Toyonobori could not have timed things any better, as Inoki was feeling slighted by the JWA due to the absence of a media presence for his arrival in Hawaii, and the fact that the organization hadn’t booked a hotel room for him. It was there that Toyonobori famously told Inoki, “Even if you go back to Japan Pro Wrestling, you’re still second to Baba. If you come to my organization, I’ll make you the president’s ace.”

Inoki advertised as “Japan’s Boy Wonder,” February 21, 1966
‘The Honolulu Advertiser’

As a direct result of what became known in puroresu circles as “The Plunder of the Pacific,” Inoki accompanied Toyonobori back to Japan as the star attraction of the newly formed Tokyo Pro Wrestling company. In the rings of TPW, the sight of the slick and now seasoned Inoki routinely out-wrestling and emerging victorious over established American stars—most frequently Johnny Valentine—quickly affirmed the ace credentials of the inbound star, who now freely acknowledged that he was born in Yokohama, Japan, and not in São Paulo, Brazil, as had been announced for years.

Though Tokyo Pro Wrestling gave Inoki a boost with his initial foray as a headliner and as Tokyo Pro’s U.S. Heavyweight Champion following his conquering of Valentine, the ill-fated organization was not long for this world. Toyonobori’s fondness for gambling had not subsided. His latest gambling debts essentially became the burden of Tokyo Pro Wrestling, and the organization was unable to ink a television deal to supply it with reliable revenue to offset inadequate ticket sales. This culminated in an event that would come to be known as “The Itabashi Incident.” After being told that the wrestling event scheduled for that night would not be taking place, likely as a result of the American wrestlers refusing to perform unless their pay could be guaranteed, several of the 2,000 enraged fans that gathered inside of Itabashi-ku Shimura High School decided to riot and set the ring ablaze.

When Tokyo Pro Wrestling went out of commission after only three months, Inoki migrated over to International Wrestling Enterprise until his return to the JWA could be mediated. Upon his return to JWA, and after nearly four years wrestling for other promotions on both sides of the Pacific, Inoki received immediate acceptance as a star, albeit one occupying a plainly subordinate position to Giant Baba’s in the pecking order. Anyone doubting the disparity need only check the match results: Inoki suffered defeats in all 16 of his singles matches against Baba. When not competing against one another, the pair formed the “B-I Cannon” tag team, and spent the better part of four years dominating the NWA International tag titles.

In the grand scheme of things, there were far worse roles Inoki could have played in comparison to playing second fiddle to Baba. With Baba bound by an exclusive deal that kept him as the JWA’s star on the Nippon Television Network, Inoki was afforded the opportunity to be the JWA’s alternative star with a similar deal on the NET TV (now TV Asahi). To boost the appeal of the fiery Inoki, who was known as the “Young Lion,” the JWA purchased the rights to the NWA United National Heavyweight Championship from the NWA’s Los Angeles–based territory and quickly fastened it around Inoki’s waist. This move provided Inoki with a signature championship belt of his own.

By this time, in late 1971, both Baba and Inoki had also achieved executive ranks behind the scenes in JWA. It is also at this time that reports about precisely what happened in the offices of JWA vary. In his autobiography, Inoki spoke of wanting “to correct the wrongdoing of the management team.” Baba’s own autobiography confirms as much, stating that Inoki had a takeover plan in mind with an aim of improving the management of Japan Pro Wrestling. However, Baba went on to state that he questioned the wrestler Umanosuke Ueda, who reframed the move as an overt attempt by Inoki to acquire control of the JWA for himself and install himself as president. When Inoki’s motive was revealed, Baba reportedly removed himself from the attempted coup. Ueda’s message was then relayed to the rest of the executives, and Inoki was officially booted from Japan Pro Wrestling in December 1971.

Within one month of the ink drying on Inoki’s formal expulsion notice, he had legally filed to create New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Inoki was joined by several fledgling JWA stars who were loyal to him and who had trained alongside him, such as Tatsumi Fujinami and Osamu Kido, and he even coaxed Toyonobori out of retirement to make appearances in support of the new wrestling venture. However, the most important defection in the early months of New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s existence would be Karl Gotch. Since 1968, Gotch had been working steadily with Inoki, and many of the other JWA wrestlers, to ground their style in realism, and to help them project the legitimacy and lethality of professional wrestling to their viewers.

Not only did Gotch benefit Inoki as the first in-ring threat he would have to surmount as he kicked off his latest in-ring venture—also enabling Inoki to briefly capture his first “world” title by winning the red-, white-, and blue-strapped “Real World Championship” off Gotch (it was actually the world heavyweight championship belt that was physically used in the defunct American Wrestling Alliance of Ohio)—Gotch helped Inoki to lay the foundation of what would become known as “strong style.”

In his autobiography, Inoki described “strong style” as a wrestling form that blended the offensive and defensive wrestling techniques of Gotch with the fierceness conveyed in Rikidozan’s preferred form of professional wrestling. In a world where the concept of authentic and realistic submission grappling wasn’t established anywhere in the mainstream, Inoki’s strong style concept—which sought to merge realistic joint manipulation methods with whatever striking was permissible within pro wrestling’s rules—was meant to manifest a variety of wrestling that would rightly enable its practitioners to believably defeat the most practiced masters of all other popular combat forms. Hence, New Japan’s logo—a roaring lion representing the eternal presence of the Wakajishi Inoki—would present strong style wrestling as the “King of Sports” even more prominently than it presented the name of the company.

Throughout the 1970s, Inoki would devote equal measures of effort to confirming his wrestling style was superior to Giant Baba’s, to affirming the credibility of his wrestling company as being on par with Japan Pro Wrestling and then Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling once the JWA folded, and finally to casting himself as the most dangerous creature on two legs. To accomplish the former, Inoki and New Japan purchased an ownership stake in the National Wrestling Federation of Buffalo, New York, in 1973, along with the rights to control its world heavyweight championship. Inoki promptly defeated NWF world champion Johnny Powers to win the world title of what was then an active promotion, but when the NWF folded one year after Inoki claimed its championship, the NWF title became a vestigial belt, albeit the belt that would become the most representative emblem of Inoki’s time as the most popular wrestler in Japan.

Realistically, the dissolution of the NWF as a going concern in America didn’t matter; when Inoki convincingly defeated the former International Wrestling Enterprise ace and IWA World Heavyweight Champion Strong Kobayashi in a head-to-head matchup, the NWF championship was afforded all the credibility Inoki would ever need it to have in Japan.

Inoki predicts that Ali could wind up seriously hurt (and Josh Gross’s book on the subject suggests Ali did indeed suffer blood clots from Inoki’s kicks), May 19, 1976

Then there was the matter of validating the superiority of strong style as a deadly martial art. To accomplish this, Inoki would engage in a series of prototypical, precursory mixed martial arts matches against world-class combatants, beginning with Dutch judoka and Olympic gold medalist Willem Ruska in February 1976. When Ruska’s corner threw in the towel after their emissary had endured three consecutive backdrops from Inoki, the first illustration of strong style’s superiority had been publicly displayed, even if the affair obviously had been a worked contest.

Ric Flair and the Scott brothers predict Inoki will “kill” Ali, June 20, 1976
‘The News and Observer’

For his next MMA-themed endeavor, Inoki would shoot for the moon in a match that would broaden his international appeal. On June 26, 1976, Inoki challenged the unified WBA/WBC world boxing champion Muhammad Ali, an athlete in the conversation for being the most significant sports figure of the 20th century. In an event co-promoted with the World Wide Wrestling Federation, Inoki and Ali participated in a tedious, 15-round draw refereed by fellow MMA pioneer Gene LeBell in which Inoki spent prolonged stretches of time on the mat kicking Ali’s legs. To many observers in the United States and elsewhere who were watching on closed-circuit television, this was perceived as a sign of Inoki’s cowardice, emblematic of a phony wrestler not wishing to authentically engage with the greatest heavyweight fighter the world had ever known. Even in Japan, Inoki was besieged by ridicule that he had opted to lie fecklessly on the mat “with his legs spread like a prostitute.”

Unbeknownst to most viewers but described in considerable detail in Josh Gross’s book Ali vs. Inoki: The Forgotten Fight That Inspired Mixed Martial Arts and Launched Sports Entertainment, a set of rules had been negotiated for the bout that would have resulted in Inoki’s disqualification if he’d resorted to any forms of “tackling, grappling, throwing or chopping.” Essentially, any form of offense favorable to a shoot-style grappler was negated. Had the contest proceeded as a rules-free affair, the end result likely would have been similar to that of the bout between Royce Gracie and boxer Art Jimmerson that was held roughly 17 years later at the inaugural UFC event, as the skills of traditional boxers are often soundly negated once they’re dragged onto their backs by practiced grapplers.

In the fallout from the disappointing contest that failed to offset the debt incurred to promote it, Inoki lost his presidency in New Japan while still maintaining his position as chairman, and his partner Hisashi Shinma was also demoted. Inoki immediately sought opportunities to rehabilitate his image. In December, he defeated Akram Pahalwan of Pakistan, who was a student of the legendary Great Gama, and occasionally a shooter. Inoki dislocated Pahalwan’s arm with a kimura in what several wrestlers present at the time, including submission specialist Yoshiaki Fujiwara, have continued to assert to have been an authentic MMA affair.

In August of the following year, Inoki was able to salvage and restore a further portion of his reputation as a dangerous grappler by defeating world karate champion “the Monsterman” Everett Eddy with what was effectively a powerbomb and leg drop in an obviously predetermined match.

Inoki vs. Everett announcement, July 28, 1977
Associated Press

The bout was advertised in the Associated Press as a precursor to a rematch with Muhammad Ali, but no clear evidence has been produced that such a rematch was ever being negotiated. In fact, Ali’s bout with Inoki was often cited as contributing to a reduction in Ali’s legendary mobility, as Inoki’s ground-based leg strikes had resulted in undeniable damage to Ali’s legs. Instead of a rematch with Ali, Inoki would defeat Eddy with a ground cobra twist on June 7, 1978, in another predetermined contest. By this time, a partnership between New Japan Pro-Wrestling and the World Wide Wrestling Federation had been in effect for years, and Inoki was awarded with recognition as the WWWF World Martial Arts Champion in December 1978.

By 1979, Inoki had certainly supplanted Giant Baba as the most convincing, active, and popular of Japan’s mat stars, and he had taken the opportunity to challenge Giant Baba to one-on-one encounters in the press, which Baba always declined. Realistically, the chances were slim that such an event could ever happen to the satisfaction of the fans; a draw was the likeliest outcome of a negotiated wrestling match, whereas Baba would have been effectively helpless had Inoki ever opted to shoot on him in the ring, and Baba had too much to lose to allow that to happen. When the Tokyo Sports newspaper proposed the 20th Anniversary Pro Wrestling Dream All-Star Match, a bout between Inoki and Baba was discussed, but inevitably discarded in favor of a reunification of the duo’s B-I Cannon tag team. The pair dispatched the villainous tandem of Abdullah the Butcher and Tiger Jeet Singh in just over 13 minutes.

A few months later, Inoki would pin WWWF Heavyweight Champion Bob Backlund to win the championship. This title change was likely executed as a favor to Inoki, as Baba had begun his second short reign as NWA World Heavyweight Champion in late October, only to quickly drop the title back to Harley Race in early November. Permitting Inoki to win the WWWF title would empower him to demonstrate that he was likewise capable of landing the top strap of an active, prominent American-based organization. Moreover, Inoki was able to concoct an excuse for not losing the championship by professing to be dissatisfied with the nature of the rematch, thereby allowing him to hand the belt back to Backlund without having to absorb a loss in front of Japanese fans, as Baba had been forced to do every time he had surrendered the NWA championship back to its long-term American holder.

For that brief period of time, Inoki was the unified holder of the NWF Heavyweight, WWWF Heavyweight, and WWWF Martial Arts championships. Inoki then began the 1980s by dueling to a draw with karate fighter Willie Williams in another worked match for the martial arts championship of what was now known simply as the World Wrestling Federation.

While New Japan had managed to backdoor its way into NWA membership and recognition by the late 1970s, Baba’s strong relationship with the NWA precluded the possibility of the NWA champion appearing in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. To this, Inoki reportedly addressed his business partner Shinma with a statement that translates roughly into, “You’ve joined the NWA, but the champion won’t come. If you can’t bring in the NWA championship, it’s OK if you create it.” This eventually culminated in the creation of the International Wrestling Grand Prix. Inoki had originally envisioned the IWGP as a multinational membership promotion much like the NWA, where all of the members had local IWGP champions, with the world championship residing with him in Japan.

To underscore the future significance he would attach to the IWGP title, Inoki would abandon his NWF Heavyweight Championship—the internally managed “world” championship that Inoki had held for all but about five months since he’d first acquired it in 1973. He then vowed that he would pour all of his efforts into winning the future IWGP throne. What transpired during the intervening period is emblematic of many of the frustrations that loomed behind the scenes during Inoki’s dominance.

The first IWGP Heavyweight Championship was awarded at the climax of a traditional league-style wrestling tournament, without the IWGP ever having established member promotions in a manner mirroring that of the National Wrestling Alliance. The failure to create a prominent championship was corrected when the WWF bestowed its International Heavyweight Championship on New Japan, which was immediately presented as the championship for which younger stars entering their primes—like Tatsumi Fujinami and Riki Choshu—would compete.

To some observers, the elevation of Fujinami and Choshu to a level equivalent to Inoki was overdue, considering they were both either in or approaching their early 30s. While the two traded the WWF International title, the belt was tainted by Inoki’s disinterest, as he was still clearly the ace of the organization, but disregarded the championship as a secondary bauble compared with the forthcoming IWGP crown.

Also, while Inoki would occasionally allow foreign foes to appear mildly threatening to him, he wasn’t nearly as generous with native opponents; the flagbearer for the King of Sports could never position himself as the champion of that style if he wasn’t even the unquestioned champion of his own organization (the Great Antonio, an extremely obese Canadian wrestler billed as a legitimate strongman, had already learned this to his detriment in 1977, when Inoki stomped a mudhole in him for failing to sell his offense). This is epitomized by a particular 1982 stretch; as Choshu and Fujinami were routinely dueling one another to veritable stalemates, Inoki was outwrestling the inbound members of International Wrestling Enterprise—Rusher Kimura, Animal Hamaguchi, and Isamu Teranishi—in three-on-one matches.

When the final match of the IWGP League 1983 transpired between Antonio Inoki and Hulk Hogan, Inoki received an Axe Bomber lariat from Hogan which sent him crashing to the floor outside the ring, causing him to be counted out. Several reasons have been proposed for Inoki not winning the first IWGP championship event, including the desire to build intrigue toward a future bout with Hogan. However, the likeliest cause for this was the backstage turmoil in New Japan.

Inoki had invested much of New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s money in his own failing business enterprises, and his position at the top of New Japan had grown increasingly tenuous. Between scandals, attempted coups, wrestler dissatisfaction, and upheavals, New Japan would lose Choshu, Akira Maeda, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, the original “Tiger Mask” Satoru Sayama, Kuniaki Kobayashi, and Yoshiaki Yatsu, and several others over the next few years. Shinma would also depart, which would lead to the formation of the original Universal Wrestling Federation. The creation of this entity, along with Sayama’s “Shooto” organization, would have major ramifications in the worlds of professional wrestling and fighting in the following decade and beyond.

Throughout the self-inflicted turmoil that Inoki was contending with, Baba had willingly and publicly stepped aside as the ace of All Japan Pro Wrestling, and bequeathed that title to his handpicked successor Jumbo Tsuruta. With the arrival of Choshu and Kobayashi in AJPW, coupled with the internal elevation of Genichiro Tenryu, All Japan rapidly became the place where the new generation of Japanese wrestlers could be appreciated without being obligated to remain subservient to Inoki in all aspects of performance.

Through it all, Inoki remained in New Japan, and went through the motions of elevating a member of the next generation by allowing Tatsumi Fujinami to pin him at the conclusion of a tag team match in 1985. All the same, Inoki remained dominant in singles matches and won successive iterations of the IWGP League Championship before converting it into a defendable heavyweight championship in 1987. This would be the final year that Inoki would be depicted as the undeniable ace of the company he founded.

In 1987, Inoki would be challenged by Big Van Vader after being previously worn down in a match with Choshu. Inoki was manhandled and pinned in under three minutes, which touched off a riot. Later that year, he would finally lose a one-on-one match to a native New Japan star by pinfall when he succumbed to a surprise lariat to the back of the head from Choshu. Inoki’s in-ring vulnerability mirrored the fragility of his personal life; his divorce from famous actress Mitsuko Baisho was finalized that same year, having been induced by Inoki’s infidelity.

Then, in early 1989, Inoki was permanently felled from his perch atop New Japan in memorable fashion. Choshu finally pinned Inoki after six consecutive lariats, prompting Inoki to weep after the match. Ironically, the anointing of the 37-year-old Choshu as the new ace of New Japan Pro-Wrestling was fulfilled just in time for Choshu to turn around and rapidly prepare the next generation of stars—Keiji “Great Muta” Muto, Masahiro Chono, and Shinya Hashimoto—to share the spotlight. In a sense, it placed New Japan at least half a decade behind All Japan with respect to a recognizable torch-passing event.

In the meantime, the seeds sown by the original hemorrhaging of talent from New Japan in the early-to-mid-1980s would culminate in the creation of a slew of organizations that were clearly adorned by Inoki’s fingerprints, and which went further than ever to affirm Inoki’s vision of pro wrestling as the King of Sports, even without his direct involvement. As Inoki’s in-ring career took an obvious backward step, Shooto and the original UWF had given rise to Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi, Rings, Union of Wrestling Forces International, and Pancrase. While varying in their authenticity, all of these organizations went to great lengths to eliminate any semblance of pro wrestling that could be dismissed as staged or phony, while sustaining all elements that could inflict identifiable harm in a verified fight.

As Inoki’s own career in the ring came to an end, his legacy continued to loom large over NJPW, the growing sport of MMA, and even Japanese and world politics. In his final years with NJPW—which concluded in 2005 when the video game company Yuke’s bought his controlling share of stock in the company—he attempted to bring the sport further in line with MMA, which enjoyed considerable popularity in Japan on account of Shooto, Pancrase, and PRIDE. The “Different Style Fights” he promoted highlighted the supposed real-life combat skills of men such as Naoya Ogawa, Kazuyuki Fujita, and Shinya Hashimoto, enabling them to compete in matches against MMA fighters such as Don Frye, Dave Beneteau, and Brian Johnston that were reminiscent of the bouts Inoki had participated in following the Ali superfight. However, the matches weren’t always the most viewer-friendly, and some promising careers were damaged, as when Ogawa was pressed by Inoki to shoot on the chubby but nimble Hashimoto, leaving Hashimoto a bloody mess and damaging the reputation of one of the country’s most popular pro wrestlers. Moreover, for every Kazuyuki Fujita or Yoshihiro Takayama who didn’t completely embarrass himself in MMA contests, many other wrestlers who tried their hand in PRIDE or even Inoki’s 2007-founded Inoki Genome Federation were found sorely wanting—a major blow for a man who believed that pro wrestling was the strongest martial art and whose final pro wrestling match in 1998 was against Don Frye, as legitimate an amateur wrestler and brawler as one could find at the time.

Current WWE superstar Shinsuke Nakamura, who joined NJPW in 2002 after a strong collegiate wrestling career in Japan, found himself pushed into an MMA style of presentation and even into an MMA side career in which he used his grappling and submission skills to amass a 3-1 record. In his autobiography King of Strong Style, Nakamura recalled speaking with Inoki a few weeks prior to his MMA match at the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye (so named because it, like Inoki’s actual theme song, referenced Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” fight with George Foreman) supercard on New Year’s Eve 2002: “Inoki said to me, ‘Nakamura, if you were going to fight [enormous super heavyweight MMA fighter] Bob Sapp, how would you defeat him?’ So I said, ‘I guess I’d do a takedown and get a choke on his neck.’ And he was like, ‘Guess so. I was thinking along those same lines.’”

Nakamura also sparred on the mats with Inoki as the latter entered his sixth decade, recalling that the legend used to tell him to “train for grip strength, strengthen your wrists, be flexible.” He also used to approach Nakamura and ask to spar, sometimes rolling around with him for 30 or 40 minutes. “I’d get him in an armbar, pull a sleeper hold … but Inoki refused to tap out, from pride or something,” Nakamura recalled. “The guys training with me, they’d be watching too, and I’d give them a signal like, ‘This is funny, take a picture.’ And they’d shake their heads … they knew Inoki would never allow a picture like that. And in the end, I realized it too: ‘Right, Inoki can’t lose.’ I put my leg out, and he’d use an Achilles lock on me, and I’d tap out.” Even if Inoki’s favorite wrestlers often lost in MMA, Inoki himself was unbeatable.

But by this point in his life, Inoki’s thoughts and ambitions had gone further than mats and rings—he had been engaged, for the better part of a decade, in various attempts to change the world through pro wrestling. “He did talk a lot about big things like world peace, like he was reaching for the stars,” Shinsuke Nakamura wrote of his time with Inoki in the 2000s. Inoki’s most notable accomplishments on this front came during his time in Japan’s House of Councilors as a member of his own “Sports and Peace Party.” First, in December 1990, he went to Iraq and negotiated for the release of Japanese hostages with dictator Saddam Hussein (a noted wrestling fan for whom later WWE manager “Sheik” Adnan Al-Kaissie, an amateur wrestling standout and high school classmate of Hussein, organized pro wrestling shows) while staging a pro wrestling “Sports and Peace Festival” that featured NJPW talents such as Hiroshi Hase, Masa Saito, and Choshu. Inoki’s negotiations led to the release of 36 of the 41 hostages.

Perhaps most significantly, Inoki made numerous trips to North Korea, trying to maintain a dialogue of sorts between Japan and that notoriously closed-off country. As he had in Iraq, Inoki organized two wrestling supercards—one in 1995 and another in 2014—held in Pyongyang that gave stars such as Ric Flair and Scott Norton a white-knuckle inside look at life in North Korea. Although no softening of relations occurred between Japan and North Korea as a result—the North Korean missile tests and sword-waving still occur as a matter of course—the first event, dubbed “Collision in Korea,” drew close to 400,000 government-mandated spectators, thus setting an attendance record that even the industry-leading WWE, sometimes accused of inflating its own attendance figures, could never hope to match.

Business missteps and booking decisions aside, few wrestlers in the 20th century more fully embodied the message of Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto”: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Inoki, a man whose chin was so big that noted wrestler and wrestling trainer Hiro Matsuda claimed it would get stuck on people’s backs during German suplexes, grasped for a larger-than-life vision for the sport of pro wrestling. And though the master of the Royal Octopus submission never achieved total dominance, his legacy—as Shinsuke Nakamura learned in the training room—remained unbeatable.

Ian Douglass is a journalist and historian who is originally from Southfield, Michigan. He is the coauthor of several pro wrestling autobiographies, and is the author of Bahamian Rhapsody, a book about the history of professional wrestling in the Bahamas, which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter (@Streamglass) and read more of his work at

Oliver Lee Bateman is a journalist and sports historian who lives in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter (@MoustacheClubUS) and read more of his work at