Antonio Inoki, a pro wrestling icon who was also a Japanese politician, has died, WWE and New Japan Pro-Wrestling said Friday. He was 79.
Inoki, born Kanji Inoki in Yokohama, Japan, in 1943, rose to fame as a competitor for Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance in the 1960s and at the height of his fame battled Muhammad Ali in 1976 in what was billed as “The War of the Worlds.” It was also seen as the first modern example of a mixed martial arts bout.
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Inoki founded New Japan-Pro Wrestling (NJPW) in 1972 and was the owner of the company until 2005, when he sold his controlling shares to Yuke’s. NJPW is one of the most successful wrestling promotions in the world outside WWE.
He would be the first IWGP Heavyweight Champion in 1987 after beating Masa Saito in a tournament final.
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Inoki won the WWF Championship over Bob Backlund in 1979, but it was due to outside interference. He would pin Backlund again in their rematch with the help of interference, but the second bout was ruled a no-contest. Inoki vacated the title, and
Backlund would win it again against Bobby Duncum. The WWF never recognized the title reign.
He would faceoff against Ric Flair in Pyongyang in 1995, when the Japanese and North Korean governments came together to promote peace. Inoki came out on top in the match.
The pro wrestling industry paid tribute to Inoki over the weekend.
Inoki entered the political waters in 1989 after winning a seat in the upper house of Japan’s two-house parliament. He headed the Sports and Peace Party and traveled to Iraq in 1990 to win the release of Japanese citizens who were being held hostage there.
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He remained active in politics until 2019.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.