The world of combat sports lost one of its divine figures last week with the passing of Antonio Inoki. While he had been in ill health for some time, his death still came as a shock, as many did not think he could possibly die.
His importance cannot be underplayed. Vincent Kennedy McMahon is undoubtedly the most important figure in pro wrestling for the last fifty years, but Inoki would be a strong number two. The company he founded, New Japan Pro Wrestling, arguably was the number one promotion in the world for a time, with ticket and merchandise sales through the roof as well as great TV ratings. He became popular at a level that few in the industry could ever hope to achieve.
Inoki was positioned for importance from the beginning, when he as scouted in Brazil by the essential founder of modern Japanese pro wrestling Rikidozan. Rikidozan knew that his time at the top was limited, and in order for his promotion to prosper in the future, he needed to groom young talent who would eventually replace him. His top prize pupils were former Yomiuri Giants pitcher Giant Baba, Korean Kintaro Oki, and Inoki, debuting in 1960. A gradual ascension of new talent coupled with the phasing out of Rikidozan was not to be, as Rikidozan was murdered by a gangster; this, along with subsequent revelations about the business practices that Rikidozan had undertaken, nearly killed the company. Eventually, Giant Baba became the top star, having gained popularity not only in Japan but also the US.
Inoki was frustrated in not being in the top slot. He was never treated nearly as well as Baba on foreign tours. Inoki was briefly lured away from the JWA promotion to head an upstart, but that quickly failed. However, Inoki’s star power was enough that he was the number 1A talent; Baba was the perennial International champion, Inoki the United National champion. Together they were the unstoppable tag team the BI Canon. Two major networks, NTV and NET(later TV-Asahi) carried their wrestling in prime time (imagine both CBS and ABC featuring the same promotion in primetime every week).
However, the JWA was crumbling from mismanagement, and Inoki was fired due to fears he would lead a coup against the top brass. The joke was on them, as NET agreed to back Inoki for his own promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling, in 1972. Baba would also break away, forming All Japan Pro Wrestling, and JWA soon folded. Inoki was finally positioned as the top star.
Unfortunately, reality started to rear its head. Baba had a great relationship with the NWA promoters, so he was given a membership, which meant he was allowed use of nearly all of the top US and Canadian talent. Since much of Japanese pro wrestling up to that point was Japan versus the World, not having access to top foreign talent was a hindrance. Inoki had to find some way of distinguishing New Japan.
Inoki had become a disciple of Karl Gotch, a feared legitimate wrestler (or shooter), and had impressed on Inoki the importance of actual wrestling. Inoki ran with that concept, calling his approach Strong Style, the idea that pro wrestling was the strongest martial art. This wasn’t just hot air; much like the Gracies in Brazil, the New Japan dojo issued a challenge to any martial artist, be they boxers, kickboxers, judoka, or even street fighters to show up and prove that Strong Style was fake. Just as with the Gracies, New Japan never lost a dojo match.
This would be the genesis of the mixed martial arts matches, a term coined by New Japan two decades before it was coined by UFC’s Jeff Blatnick and Joe Silva to describe their sport. Inoki would face various fighters of different disciplines under mixed rules, and he would always be triumphant. Of course, these matches were no more legitimate than the standard pro wrestling matches, but they were different enough to convince the public of Inoki’s fighting strength.
Not to say that Inoki didn’t have legitimate skills. He faced Pakistani wrestling legend Akram Pahalwan in what was supposed to be a working match, when Akram decided to shoot on Inoki. Inoki defended himself and won the match by snapping Akram’s arm. In another incident, the giant strongman the Great Antonio refused to sell for Inoki and wanted to clown. Inoki had had enough, and Great Antonio was willing to throw down. It was no contest, as Inoki pulverized the big man, leaving him face down in a pool of his own blood.
Of course, the most famous of the mixed matches was against Muhammed Ali. When the Bruce Lee inspired martial arts craze was hitting America, Ali was asked about facing an Asian fighter. Ali, never one to shy away from publicity, indicated he would, not figuring that any would take him up on the challenge. Inoki saw a golden opportunity, and after many back and forth negotiations, Ali agreed to the match for the then astounding price of six million dollars, far more than Ali had ever made. The match was shown around the world via closed circuit, and history was made on June 25, 1976.
Unfortunately, at the time, the match was near universally panned. It was very boring, with Inoki spending much of the fight on the ground crab walking kicking up at Ali’s legs, while Ali danced around and threw nothing. This was the result of drastic last minute changes to the match. Originally, the match was to be a worked affair. The basic outline of the match was supposed to be something like this: the opening rounds would have Inoki gaining the advantage with takedowns and holds, with Ali making the ropes. Toward the middle rounds, Ali would catch Inoki coming in, causing massive bleeding. Ali would plead with the referee to stop the fight because of the punishment that he was giving, providing Inoki the time to recover, hit a finisher, and pin Ali. Inoki would get the win, Ali would have an out by saying Inoki “Pearl Harbored” him.
For whatever reason, days before the fight, Ali had a change of heart and didn’t want to do a worked match. But a match had to happen as too much money was dependent upon it. Neither man had trained for a shoot. Ali’s handlers, after watching Inoki work out, panicked when the realized what Inoki would do to their meal ticket Ali if Inoki were allowed to do what he could do. So they came up with rules handicapping Inoki from doing anything that could harm Ali, leaving Inoki the only choice but to do the kicking up at the legs, which was not prohibited. Although the match was declared a draw, Ali needed to be hospitalized due to the damage to his legs, and whatever mobility he had was now lost. As the years went by, especially with the rise of modern mixed martial arts, the Inoki strategy was recognized as a sound one.
Away from the mixed matches, Inoki’s popularity for normal pro wrestling continued to rise. He even held the WWF championship briefly, although this was never acknowledged in the US (New Japan and WWWF/WWF would have a working agreement from the mid-1970s through 1986). He was the undisputed top wrestler in the promotion, and as far as popularity, surpassed Baba in the eyes of the Japanese fans. However, trouble was looming.
Unlike with Rikidozan, Inoki seemingly didn’t want to plan for a New Japan without him. Although he had an incredible amount to talent working for him, none were allowed to go above a certain level, creating resentment from some of the very talented and ambitious wrestlers who wanted more. When it was revealed that Inoki had embezzled New Japan money to fund his failing ranches in Brazil, many wrestlers left, nearly killing the promotion in 1984.
They would rebuild; many that had left came back. The ones who formed the original UWF took strong style to the next level, making their wrestling look even more legitimate. When they came back into the fold, the New Japan versus UWF matches were gold. Eventually, many in the UWF faction broke away again in 1988, leading to the golden era of shoot style wrestling which would help lead the way to mixed martial arts.
By the late ’80s, Inoki started to spend less time in the ring and concentrated more on politics, even being elected to the Japanese parliament. He negotiated the release of Japanese citizens trapped in Iraq, and became a proponent of bettering relations with North Korea, going so far as to promote the World Peace Festival in Pyongyang, which was the most attended (170000) pro wrestling show of all time, headlined by Inoki defeating Ric Flair in 1995. He would continue to try to unite adversarial parties through sport for the rest of his political career.
In the ring, Inoki had his retirement countdown tour, culminating in his victory over UFC champion Don Frye at the Tokyo Dome in 1998, which generated a record revenue that would only be surpassed by the biggest WWE Wrestlemanias. Inoki would still run New Japan, and he also became a figure for Pride Fighting Championships, and even promoted his own MMA shows under the Inoki Bom-A_Ye banner. But it was his near obsession with MMA that nearly killed New Japan. Inoki put his top talent in MMA matches that they had no time to properly train for, and the results were mostly disastrous. On the flip side, Inoki would use MMA fighters for pro wrestling, also with mostly negative results, as few of these fighters could actually work. Eventually this became too much for the rest of New Japan, and Inoki was ousted in 2005.
Inoki would start a hybrid pro wrestling/MMA promotion called Inoki Genome Federation, but it never really gained traction, the idea of fighters doing pro wrestling not as novel or appealing to the modern fans. Eventually he gave up the promotion, and retired from politics as well, occasionally making guest TV spots, before his illness kept him out of the public eye.
It could be argued that without him, the combat sports world would be radically different. There would be no New Japan, obviously, so there would be no UWF or its descendants, UWFI, Rings, PWFG, Pancrase, etc, which would not give rise to Japanese MMA titan Pride. Kazuyoshi Ishii would probably not have seen the inner workings of promotion to found K-1. Without the mixed match legacy and the fighters the UWF style would produce, the UFC would be very different, if it would exist at all. Even the WWE may not have existed as it did, as Inoki would be a major bankroller for the first Wrestlemania, jumpstarting Vince McMahon’s rise to complete wrestling dominance.
For all the controversies surrounding him, Inoki will always be a giant figure in the sports world, and his legacy will live on.