Representative Antonio Inoki, the famous Japanese professional wrestler, who faced world boxing champion Muhammad Ali in a mixed martial arts match in 1976, has died at the age of 79.
Inoki brought Jujitsu to fame and was a pioneer in mixed martial arts matches between top wrestlers and champions from other martial arts such as judo, karate and boxing.
He was also the first to enter politics in his sport. He promoted peace through sports and made more than 30 trips to North Korea during his tenure as a legislator in hopes of achieving peace and friendship.
Inoki, who was battling a rare disease called amyloidosis, died earlier Saturday, according to New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co, of which he was the founding president. Inoki was upbeat and in good spirits, even when he was battling illness.
With his trademark red scarf hanging from his neck, Inoki last appeared in public in August on a TV show in a wheelchair.
“You see, I push myself to the limit, and I get strength when I see you,” he said.
Born as Kanji Inoki in 1943 in Yokohama, outside Tokyo, he moved to Brazil with his family when he was 13 and worked on a coffee plantation. Inoki gained local fame as a student, debuting as a professional wrestler at the age of 17 during a wrestling tour in Brazil where he caught the attention of Rikidozan, known as the father of jujitsu.
Inoki made his wrestling debut in 1960 and named the ring as Antonio Inoki two years later.
With his arch rival and another Japanese legend, the late Shohei “Giant” Baba, Inoki made professional wrestling a very popular sport in Japan. Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972.
He rose to international fame in the sport in 1976 when he faced Ali in a mixed martial arts match at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall, a match that fans remember as the “Battle of the Century”.
Inoki entered politics in 1989 after winning a seat in the upper house, one of the two houses of Japan’s parliament, and headed the Sports and Peace Party. He traveled to Iraq in 1990 to release Japanese nationals who were being held hostage there. He also held a pro-wrestling match in North Korea.
Inoki has forged a personal relationship with North Korea over the years and has visited repeatedly to help solve the old Japan problem related to past kidnappings of Japanese citizens in North Korea.
He retired as a wrestler in 1998, but remained active in politics until 2019.