Human Interest

Antonio Inoki, Japanese wrestling legend and politician, dies at 79

Tokyo, Oct 1 (EFE).- The Japanese Antonio Inoki, a wrestling legend in his country who came to face Muhammad Ali in 1976, died Saturday at 79, after having also made a career in politics and getting involved in dialogue attempts with North Korea.

The former athlete born in Yokohama, south of Tokyo), in 1943 and whose real name was Kanji Inoki, emigrated to Brazil with his family as a teenager and began to stand out in various sports disciplines, including wrestling, thanks to his athletic skills and his 1.90 meters in height.

Inoki adopted the name of the Italian-Argentine boxer Antonino Rocca as a nickname for the ring and began to compete as a professional wrestler at 17 in Japan, where he is credited with the explosion of the discipline in the 1970s, in addition to one of the pioneers of mixed martial arts.

In 1976, he squared off against boxing icon Muhammad Ali in Tokyo, in an exhibition event with global media impact once called “the fight of the century” that ended in a draw and was considered by some to have been staged.

Due to his great popularity, he decided to use his combat pseudonym also for the political career he began with his own formation, the Sport and Peace Party, with which he obtained representation in the Upper House of the Japanese Parliament in 1989.

Inoki traveled to Iraq in 1990 before the Gulf War on an “individual and unofficial diplomatic mission” to organize a wrestling competition and negotiate with Saddam Hussein, which led to the release of 41 Japanese hostages and was considered his first major political achievement.

He established a strong connection with senior North Korean officials thanks to the contacts facilitated by his mentor, the legendary wrestler of Korean origin Rikidozan (1924-1963), whom he met during an exhibition in Sao Paulo.

In his more than 30 visits to Pyongyang, he organized wrestling competitions with boxers from various countries and before a massive audience – in 1995 he reached 190,000 spectators at the Rungrado First of May stadium – and held meetings with high-profile figures from the regime now led by Kim Jong-un.

Inoki remained a professional wrestler until 1998, three years after his parliamentary career was interrupted by a scandal over the illegal financing of his party and his alleged links to the yakuza or Japanese mafia.

He later returned to politics and was re-elected as a senator in 2013 as a candidate for the nationalist Japan Restoration Party, and had since intensified his visits to North Korea, to resolve the complex issue of the kidnappings of Japanese people decades ago by the regime.

Inoki ended his political career in 2019, and in 2020 announced that he had been diagnosed with a heart condition. EFE

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