Japanese wrestler and politician Antonio Inoki has died at the age of 79

TOKYO (AP) – A popular Japanese professional wrestler and lawmaker Antonio Inoki, who faced world boxing champion Muhammad Ali in a mixed martial arts match in 1976, has died at age 79.

Inoki brought Japanese pro-wrestling to prominence and pioneered mixed martial arts matches between top wrestlers and champions from other combat sports such as judo, karate and boxing.

Inoki, who had been battling a rare disease called amyloidosis, died earlier Saturday, according to New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co., of which he was the founding president.

He rose to global fame in the sport in 1976 when he faced Ali in a mixed martial arts match at Tokyo’s Budokan, an exhibition match that Japanese fans remember as “the fight of the century”.

For many of them outside of Japan, however, the match was considered unprofessional and not taken seriously. Inoki was mostly on the mat kicking Ali’s legs as the boxing champion circled around him.

He was the first in his sport to enter politics. He promoted peace through sports and made more than 30 trips to North Korea during his term as a lawmaker in hopes of forging peace and friendship.

Inoki was optimistic and cheerful, even as he battled illness. With his trademark red scarf hanging from his neck, Inoki made his last public appearance in August on a television show, in a wheelchair.

“As you can see, I push myself to the limit and gain strength every time I get to see you,” he said.

Born Kanji Inoki in 1943 in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, he moved to Brazil with his family when he was 13 and worked on a coffee plantation. Inoki gained local fame in shot put as a schoolboy and debuted as a professional wrestler at age 17 while on a wrestling tour in Brazil, where he caught the attention of Rikidozan, known as the father of Japanese pro wrestling.

Inoki made his pro wrestling debut in 1960 and gave himself a ring name Antonio Inoki two years later.

With his arch-rival and another Japanese legend, the late Shohei “Giant” Baba, Inoki made pro wrestling a hugely popular sport in Japan. Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972.

Inoki entered politics in 1989 after winning a seat in the Upper House, one of Japan’s two houses of parliament, and headed the Sports and Peace Party. He traveled to Iraq in 1990 to win the release of Japanese citizens held hostage there. He also organized a pro-wrestling match in North Korea.

Inoki has built a personal relationship with North Korea over the years and has visited the country repeatedly to help resolve Japan’s long-standing issue with the North’s past abductions of Japanese nationals.

He retired as a wrestler in 1998, but remained active in politics until 2019.

An outpouring of tributes was posted on social media.

“A huge star has fallen. An era has come to an end,” tweeted Atsushi Onita, also a wrestler who once served as a lawmaker. Onita called Inoki “her great pro-wrestling father” and added, “Thank you Inoki-san. I express my condolences from the bottom of my heart.”

Yoshifu Arita, a journalist and former lawmaker, praised Inoki for trying to resolve the abduction issue with the North.

“Another important road with North Korea has been lost,” Arita tweeted, as he criticized other former Japanese leaders for relying on “useless” connections and making no improvement. “Thank you for your hard work Mr. Inoki.”

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