Antonio Inoki, a major star in Japanese professional wrestling who fought Muhammed Ali in 1976 and later became a respected politician in Japan, died at age 79, a statement by his company New Japan Pro-Wrestling said on Saturday.
Inoki died of a rare disease, amyloidosis, the report said. “His achievements, both in professional wrestling and the global community are without parallel and will never be forgotten,” the group read.
“Antonio Inoki was among the most respected men in sports-entertainment and a bona fide legend in his homeland,” WWE wrote in a statement. “This passion for competition earned him the nickname “Moeru Toukon” amongst his peers, which translates to ‘The fighting spirit that burns.'”
He spent most of his childhood in Brazil where he developed a passion for professional wrestling and adopted the name Antonio.
Precursor to MMA
He was a pioneer of a new form of fighting that became known later as Mixed Martial Arts, which led to his famous bout with Ali that ended in a draw.
At one point, he had one of the first MMA training academies in Los Angeles where some of the first early MMA fighters were trained.
He is generally seen as the first Japanese WWE champion, although that title is not yet official within the organization.
Inoki also worked to bring about peace through his sport. He brought two high-profile tournaments to North Korea and worked to get 30 Japanese hostages released from Iraq in 1990.
One of the North Korean tournaments was said to draw 380,000 spectators and may be the biggest pay-per-view event in history.
He retired as a wrestler in 1998, and the WWE inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2010.
He was elected as an upper house Diet member – Japan’s national assembly – in 1989 and 2013.
He is the first in his sport to transition into politics.