Fighting Spirit: Remembering Antonio Inoki

Brian Damage

The term iconic is thrown around a lot pertaining to certain professional wrestlers. In the case of Antonio Inoki, iconic is just the tip of the iceberg for this former wrestler, mixed martial artist, trainer, promoter, politician and ambassador. Today on the blog, we look at the extraordinary life and career of the iconic Antonio Inoki.

He was born Kanji Inoki and began his pro wrestling career in 1960 under the tutelage of ‘The Father of Puroresu’ Rikidozan at the young age of 17 years old. Inoki began training alongside another Rikidozan disciple in former baseball player Shohei Baba. After Rikidozan was murdered in 1963, Inoki grew tired of wrestling in the shadow of Baba and left Japan to wrestle overseas to make a name for himself. Inoki took the first name of ‘Antonio’ as a homage to the great Argentine wrestler named Antonino Rocca. Inoki returned to Japan to wrestle for the rival promotion to the late Rikidozan’s Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance called Tokyo Pro Wrestling and remained there until that promotion folded in 1967. He would return to JWA and reunite with his friend Giant Baba and form a successful tag team.

Eventually, Inoki was fired from JWA after attempting a hostile takeover of the company. The failed takeover led both Inoki and Baba to form their own promotions in 1972 with Baba forming All Japan Pro Wrestling and Inoki founding New Japan Pro Wrestling. These former friends and tag team partners now became bitter rivals. While both promotions grew in popularity and success in Japan, Inoki still had a burning desire to become a big crossover star in the United States. He would work with the National Wrestling Federation (NWF) based in Buffalo, New York and Cleveland, Ohio and win their version of the world title. Inoki would initially use the NWF title as New Japan’s top championship before the IWGP title was created.

New Japan was considered the number two organization in Japan behind Baba’s All Japan and that infuriated Inoki. He managed to gain membership with the NWA, to gain more power and recognition for New Japan. This of course angered Giant Baba , who was already a longstanding NWA member. The NWA felt that there was room for two Japanese promotions in the NWA and that the competition would be beneficial to all involved. While Baba gained most of the foreign talent, Inoki looked for other ways to put New Japan on the map.

One of those ways was challenging boxing great Muhammad Ali to a worked shoot fight match in 1976. The match gained a ton of worldwide publicity and that scared Ali (who was scheduled to lose) to change the way the match was originally set up. It all resulted in a disastrous legit shoot contest, with Inoki repeatedly striking Ali in the legs from the kneel position. Antonio Inoki earned the nickname “Moeru Toukon” which translates to “The fighting spirit that burns.”

In 1978, Inoki went into a working agreement with the WWF and was awarded the WWF’s World Martial Arts Heavyweight Championship upon his arrival in the company. The title was exclusively made for Inoki and was defended in Japan. A year later, Inoki challenged then WWF world champion Bob Backlund for the title in Japan. Inoki defeated Backlund for the belt and defended the title in a rematch a few days later losing it back to Backlund. The WWF never recognized Inoki as the champion, reportedly due to Vince McMahon Sr, not wanting to tarnish Backlund as world champion back in the United States.

Inoki continued to build and grow New Japan into a major force by bringing in talent like Tiger Mask, the Dynamite Kid, Tiger Jeet Singh, Hulk Hogan and training future New Japan stars like Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada. Inoki is also credited for taking a former football layer turned wrestler named Leon White and bestowing him with the Big Van Vader gimmick making Leon White an international superstar.

Antonio Inoki decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter politics in 1989. Using his tremendous popularity in his country, Inoki created The Sports and Peace Party and won election into the House of Councillors. He would continue his wrestling career while a politician and was credited for negotiating the release of several Japanese hostages in Iraq in 1990. It was during that trip where he converted to Islam and renamed himself Muhammad Hussain Inoki. He never revealed that until years later in 2012.

Inoki would often combine his political power with his wrestling notoriety to create “super shows” to advocate world peace. The first attempt was a show in North Korea entitled ‘Collision in Korea’ in which he partnered with World Championship Wrestling in 1995. The two day event, saw record attendance rumored to be about 355,000 people combine for those two days. While Inoki saw Collision in Korea as a monumental success to try and bring peace between North Korea, Japan and the United States…fellow Japanese politicians blasted Inoki and the event a “political sideshow.”

Despite the overall criticism, it would not stop him from attempting another super show in the name of world peace. In 1996, Inoki booked a show called the World Wrestling Peace Festival in Los Angeles, California. The show was not as successful as many hoped it would be, but Inoki continued to plan for more Peace Festivals in places like Cuba and Mexico…but they never came to fruition.

Inoki political career was derailed, when reports began to surface that he had multiple dealings with the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia). This of course hurt him in terms of popularity and he eventually lost his seat in the government. In his numerous dealings with international leaders like Saddam Hussein and Kim Il-sung…Inoki reportedly met with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and bought a deserted island from the communist leader after being told it had buried treasure on it. The wrestler/politician renamed the island…Inoki Friendship Island and unfortunately for him…did not turn up any treasures of any kind. While on the subject of islands…Inoki once wrestled Masa Saito on the Japanese island of Ganryujima. No fans were in attendance for this “Island Death Match” that lasted over 2 hours.

In the early 2000’s the waning popularity of New Japan became quite evident with Inoki incorporating more and more legit MMA fighters into the organization. He even tried to be outlandish by bringing Joanie Laurer fka Chyna to wrestle a tour in his company. With attendance and ratings at all time lows, Inoki sold his controlling 51.5% stock in New Japan to a video game company called Yukes. That didn’t end his desire to be a promoter, because two years later in 2007…he founded a new promotion called Inoki Genome Federation (IGF) and booked Brock Lesnar versus Kurt Angle for the main event.

Aside from pro wrestling and politics…Antonio Inoki dabbled in a few other outside ventures. He appeared in the movie The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, various Japanese TV shows and movies and opened his own restaurant called Sakaba Shinjuku. Inoki was also famous for his slaps across the face. The slap symbolized Inoki transferring his “fighting spirit” to others. He was inducted into WWE’s Hall of Fame in 2010.

Inoki would return to politics in 2013 and remained in office until 2018…when he fell ill with heart issues. Inoki was diagnosed with a rare disease called amyloidosis, which essentially attacks all of the body’s organs. Kanji ‘Antonio’ Inoki died from the disease on October 1, 2022 at the age of 79.

4 thoughts on “Fighting Spirit: Remembering Antonio Inoki

  1. A god of pro wrestling. There will never be another Inoki. He was one of a kind. Despite some of the bad shit he did in politics as well as what he did to New Japan in the 2000s that nearly killed the company. What he did for pro wrestling can’t be equaled as well as what he did for Japanese pro wrestling as he will be missed.

    I know there’s a lot of people that don’t think highly of The Bad News Bears Go to Japan as it is the weakest film of that original trilogy. Yet, I have a fondness for it. Mainly for Inoki who not only wrestled an entire little league baseball team but took a splash from a young black kid and put over Tony Curtis. Not that Tony Curtis needed to be put over since he is a legend in his own right. Domo arigato Inoki-san.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: This Week in Wrestling 2022 Week 52 | Ring the Damn Bell

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