Antonio Inoki, NJPW Founder and Japan Wrestling Legend, Dead at 79

Antonio Inoki, the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling and an icon for professional wrestling, has died according to a report from Yahoo Japan. Tributes and praise for the wrestling legend quickly flooded social media, honoring a name that stands among the pillars of the pro wrestling industry.

Inoki was a disciple of the legendary Rikidozan by the age of 17, training at the Japanese Wrestling Association dojo under Karl Gotch and other greats. Rikidozan was murdered in 1963, leaving Inoki to move forward without the legendary pro. He would then found NJPW in 1972, cementing a legacy and building legends upon it.

Details of his career could fill books, his personal life a few more, including his entrance into politics in the late 1980s and his work to free Japanese hostages in Iraq before the outbreak of the first Gulf War. He also converted to Islam during the time.

In the ring, he was an unofficial WWE champion, won countless titles in Japan, and used his fame to attempt to build a bridge with North Korea inside the ropes. Famously he faced Muhammad Ali in a massive event in 1976 that laid the groundwork for mixed martial arts today. While the fight between Ali and Inoki was not a thrilling contest, it was a must-see event that sold out the Nippon Budokan arena and was viewed by 1.4 viewers worldwide, with two million PPV buys in the United States alone. It was a huge undertaking, even if it was also considered an embarrassment.

Inoki retired from professional wrestling in April 1998, returning to politics in 2013 until retiring in 2019. Recent reports alleged that Inoki's health had taken a bad turn in recent years, with photos showing the legend in a wheelchair. According to an interview with Tokyo Sports back in 2021, Inoki revealed he was diagnosed with systemic transthyretin amyloidosis, a disease that affects circulation throughout the body. He was hospitalized in 2020 but stressed that he was fine despite the new struggles.

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"I was hospitalized repeatedly... It's strange that I'm here now, but I've been pushed into a very strange situation. I couldn't take salt in my meals. It makes me swell up. I really can't take in more than a handful. But the people around me take care of me, and I enjoy the food. I don't get to go outside much, so I've never been hot or cold. Well... in other words, it's been a good year (smile)," Inoki told the outlet.

The best way to honor Inoki is to read about his life and look up some of his moments. He helped to set a standard for professional wrestling in and outside of Japan. Rest in peace.

Muhammad Ali Fighting Antonio Inoki
(Photo: Bettmann)