Japan wrestling legend Antonio Inoki dies at 79

Inoki had fought with Pakistani wrestling legends like Akram and Jhara Pehalwan

By: News Desk
Published: 10:18 AM, 1 Oct, 2022
Japan wrestling legend Antonio Inoki dies at 79
Caption: Japanese wrestling legend Inoki.
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Flamboyant Japanese professional wrestler turned politician Antonio Inoki died Saturday aged 79, local media reported. Public broadcaster NHK said he died of heart failure.

Standing 1.9 metres (six feet three inches) tall, Inoki was a pioneer of mixed martial arts in Japan, and shot to fame in 1976 for taking on world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in a zany wrestler-versus-boxer bout in Tokyo.

In 1989 he was elected as an upper-house lawmaker for the now-defunct Sports and Peace Party.

He travelled to Iraq prior to the 1990 Gulf War to gain the release of Japanese hostages.

Inoki lost his seat in 1995 and retired as a wrestler in 1998, but was re-elected to the upper house in 2013 as a member of another opposition party.

First Visit to Pakistan: Antonio Inoki vs Akram Pahalwan

In 1976, when the 46-year-old Akram Pahalwan was well past his prime, his managers, the Bholu Brothers, booked the biggest fight in the country’s history by pitting Akram against Antonio Inoki.

This news sent shock waves throughout the country as the Pakistani fans desperately wanted to watch Akram beat an international megastar.

The match also intrigued many international fans of the sport as a student of the Great Gama was about to go toe-to-toe with a student of the legendary Karl Gotch.

Unfortunately, it all sounded better on paper than it would be.

The Pakistani audience believed they were about to witness a real competition.

Yet the concerned parties had agreed to contest this match under a professional wrestling format, hence the result being pre-determined. Before the fight, it was announced that the match would be held under “special rules.”

However, due to multiple reasons, such as Akram’s lack of understanding of professional wrestling and the miscommunication between the two competitors, the fight turned from a work into a shoot midway through the match.

Akram Pahalwan apparently bit Inoki on his arm, which led to Inoki responding to this unprofessional attitude by poking his adversary in the eye.

The bout saw an abrupt finish when Inoki locked Iki in the double wrist lock but broke his arm due to Akram refusing to tap out.

The match ended via referee stoppage when this injury seemingly occurred.

According to referee Mr Takahashi, this finish was not scripted and was fought for real when the match fell apart.

However, with fans gaining more knowledge about the behind-the-scenes operations of the pro wrestling business in later years, many speculate that the finish was meant to protect Akram in defeat as him tapping out in front of his home crowd would have been potentially dangerous.

And, yes, it should be noted that PTV, Pakistan’s only television channel, reported a protest taking place outside the National Stadium in Karachi as the local fans were enraged by the hometown hero’s loss.

After the match, Inoki returned to his home country while Pahalwan peacefully hung up his boots and retired.

Second Visit to Pakistan: Antonio Inoki vs Zubair Jhara Pehalwan

Three years later, due to being heavily impressed by the country’s culture, Antonio Inoki returned to Pakistan to get the bad taste of the last match out of his mouth.

However, this time he was not booked to fight some legend of the country but was proposed a bout against a rising star in the form of Zubair Jhara Pehalwan.

Zubair had only been wrestling for three years and was a mere nineteen. As he was the nephew of Akram Pahalwan, this ended up setting what seemed like a perfect revenge story. And to no one’s surprise, the hype of this bout had the entire country in its grasp.

The event occurred in a sold-out Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore with over thirty thousand fans. This time the match went to its complete twenty-five-minute time limit, but it was pretty evident to the fans in attendance that Jhara had out-powered Inoki through and through.

The judges scored the fight a draw, but in an unusual move, Inoki forfeited in favour of the youngster.

The Japanese legend raised Jhara’s hand as the crowd rushed into the ring to celebrate with their local hero. Experts conjecture that Inoki received quite the payday from putting the youngster over in such a manner.

Inoki and Zubair Jhara would become close friends after their monumental match.

Having built a strong personal connection with North Korea over the years, Inoki travelled there dozens of times to help resolve the issue of Pyongyang's abductions of Japanese citizens during the Cold War, before ending his political career in 2019.

The wrestler -- whose birth name was Kanji Inoki -- said he wanted to "contribute to world peace through sports" and had arranged martial arts and wrestling festivals in North Korea, often meeting high-ranking officials during his visits.

Japanese officials dismissed the trips as a sideshow.

Asked about them at the time, the then chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga pointedly reminded journalists that Tokyo had a travel ban in place for North Korea, urging the politician to "act appropriately".

However, Japanese television news provided blanket coverage of Inoki's trip and the visits continued to prompt interest, given the lack of details leaking out about life in North Korea.

Inoki, unmistakable from his outsized chin and trademark tie and red scarf -- even in summer -- also forced the government to take an official position about aliens when he tabled a question in a budgetary committee in 2017, saying he had seen a mysterious flying object disappearing over the horizon.

In 2020, Inoki said he had been diagnosed with heart disease.

With inputs from AFP.