Antonio Inoki is the founder and former owner of New Japan and the founder/promoter of IGF and is considered one of the greatest (and slightly controversial) Japanese wrestlers ever. His career spanned nearly 40 years from his debut in 1960 to his retirement in 1998.
Born in 1943 in Yokohama, Inoki was the 2nd-youngest boy in a family of 11 kids (7 boys, 4 girls). His father, Sajiro Inoki, a businessman and politician, died when Antonio was only 5. Inoki entered the Higashidai Grade School. By the time he was in 7th grade at Terao Junior High School, he was 180 centimeters tall and joined the basketball team. He later quit and joined a track and field club as a shot putter. He eventually won the championship at the Yokohama junior high school track and field competition. Inoki was taught karate by an older brother while in 6th grade, and was scouted for a career in professional sumo while in junior high school. After World War 2, the family fell on hard times and Inoki immigrated to Brazil with relatives in 1957, but his grandfather died during the immigration so it was just Inoki, his mother and his brothers. Inoki won regional championships in Brazil in the shot put, discus throw, and javelin throw, and finally the All Brazilian championships in the shot put and discus.
In 1960, Inoki met the legendary Rikidozan, considered the greatest Japanese wrestler ever, and returned to Japan. He became Rikidozna’s disciple in the Japan Wrestling Association (JWA). After Rikidozan’s death, Inoki worked in the shadow of stablemate Shohei “Giant” Baba until joining Tokyo Pro Wrestling in 1966. Returning to JWA in late 1967, he was made Baba’s partner and the two dominated the tag team ranks as the “B-I Cannon”, winning the NWA International tag team belts four times. He remained in JWA until 1971 when he was fired for planning a takeover of the promotion. This led to Inoki forming New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972.
On November 30 1979, Inoki defeated then-WWF Champion Bob Backlund in Tokushima, Japan but in a re-match on December 6, Backlund pinned Inoki. WWF president Hisashi Shinma, however, declared the match a no-contest due to interference from Tiger Jeet Singh and Inoki still held the title. Inoki refused the title on the same day and it would be declared vacant. Backlund later defeated Bobby Duncum in a Texas Death Match to regain the title on December 12. As Inoki refused the title his reign is not included, nor is it recognized, by the WWE in its official history and Backlund is recognized as having one reign from 1978-1983.
Inoki was amongst the group of professional wrestlers who were tutored in the art of hooking and shooting by the professional wrestler Karl Gotch. Inoki then went on to stage a series of mixed martial arts matches against champions from numerous other disciplines of martial arts. Inoki named his method of fighting “strong style”. This method of wrestling (which was taught to Inoki by Karl Gotch) borrowed heavily from professional wrestling’s original catch wrestling roots. It is one of the most important influences of modern shoot wrestling. Inoki was a pioneer of mixed martial arts and faced many opponents from all dominant disciplines of combat from various parts of the world, such as Akram Pahalwan in Pakistan, Willie Williams of Kyokushin Karate, Olympic judo gold medalist Willem Ruska and WBA and WBC World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali. Though many of Inoki’s matches were dismissed by the skeptics as worked, there has been little or no proof at all to suggest the validity of the worked theory and Inoki’s mixed martial arts opponents have never stated that the matches were “fake”. Most of the skepticism arose from the fact that Inoki was a professional wrestler, which automatically led to an assumption that the matches might have been worked. This has yet to dent the image of Inoki in the eyes of the Japanese fans, where he is still viewed as a very legitimate wrestler. The worked theory also arises from Inoki’s June 26, 1976 match in Tokyo with Muhammad Ali. Inoki initially promised Ali a worked match to get him to fight in Japan, but when the deal materialized Ali’s camp feared that Inoki would turn the fight into a shoot, which many believe was Inoki’s intention. Ali visited a professional wrestling match involving Inoki and witnessed Inoki’s grappling ability. This led Ali’s camp to restrict the fight to striking rules only, with grappling disallowed. The rules of the match were announced several months in advance. Two days before the match, however, several new rules were added which severely limited the moves that each man could perform. A rule change that had a major outcome on this match was that Inoki could only throw a kick if one of his knees was on the ground. In the match, Ali landed a total of six punches to Inoki and Inoki kept to his back in a defensive position almost the full duration of the match of 15 rounds, hitting Ali with a low kick repeatedly. The bout ended in a draw, 3-3. Ali left without a press conference and suffered damage to his legs as a result of Inoki’s repeated leg kicks.
In 1989, Inoki established the Sports and Peace Party. He was elected to the House of Councillors of the National Diet of Japan. Inoki was the first pro-wrestler in the world to be elected as a legislator of a country. He continued to wrestle and promote while serving as a legislator. He served in the Diet until 1995, when he failed to win re-election, after accusations of Yakuza involvement and bribery lead to a decline in his popularity. During one visit to a school in the 1980s, Inoki was punched twice by a student. Inoki slapped the student across the face, knocking him down. The student, who later turned out to be an Inoki fan, then rose, bowed deeply, and thanked Inoki for the slap. The incident became very famous as the then live clip of the binta (slap in the face) was shown many times on Japanese television. Now various celebrities and even common people in Japan ask Inoki to slap them to install courage or even as some sort of strange blessing. The slap’s name is the “Fighting Spirit (or Tōkon) Slap.” Inoki’s retirement from professional wrestling matches came with the staging of the “Final Countdown” series between 1994 and 1998. This was a special series in which Inoki re-lived some of his mixed martial arts matches under professional wrestling rules, as well as rematches of some of his most well known wrestling matches. Inoki faced Don Frye in the final match of his professional wrestling career. One of the few professional wrestlers whose career lasted longer than 35 years, Inoki established the “strong style”, using stiffness and realistic maneuvers borrowing from professional wrestling’s original catch wrestling roots. Shoot style wrestling arose from Inoki’s “strong style”.
Inoki’s influence in New Japan dwindled after his retirement, culminating in 2005-2006 when he appointed his son Simon (who is also married to Inoki’s daughter from a prior marriage) president of the promotion, then the Japanese entertainment company YUKE’s (Yukes/Yuke’s) purchased his controlling stock in New Japan, which gave the company majority ownership. Inoki, no longer involved in controlling the promotion, formed a new promotion-IGF (Inoki Genome Federation) in 2007 to compete against New Japan. IGF is still active today and promotes wrestling events that also feature current/former MMA fighters like Naoya Ogawa, Yoshihiro Takayama, Josh Barnett & Bob Sapp. He also organized a handful of combination wrestling & MMA events under the “Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye” label. He also was the ambassador for Tokyo’s IFL (International Fight League) MMA team before the promotion closed. Today he remains active via IGF, still making non-wrestling appearances there and he’s still very much an icon in Japan-albeit a still-controversial one.
In early 2010 WWE announced they will induct Inoki into their Hall Of Fame. Inoki celebrated his 50th anniversary in the sport in December 2010 and the milestone was recognized with a 2010 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Special Prize Award.
Stats & Info:
Real name: Kanji Inoki
Weight: 224 pounds/102 kg
Experience: 38 years (as wrestler), 50 years (overall)
Finishing move: N/A
Current affiliation: Retired as wrestler, IGF as promoter/owner
1-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion
1-time WWWF World Martial Arts Heavyweight Champion
1-time WWF Champion (not recognized by WWF/E)
4-time NWA International Tag Team Champion
3-time JWA All-Asia Tag Team Champion
4-time NWF Heavyweight Champion
1-time NWA North American Tag Team Champion (LA/Japan version)
1-time NWA Texas Heavyweight Champion
1-time NWA World Tag Team Champion (Texas version)
1-time NWA United National Champion
1-time UWA World Heavyweight Champion
JWA 11th Annual League
1969 World Big League
1970, 1971 NWA Tag League
1974, 1975 New Japan World League
1978 Pre-Japanese Championship
1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1983 New Japan MSG League
1982, 1983 MSG New Japan Tag League
1984, 1985, 1986, 1987 IWGP League
Inducted Into WCW Hall Of Fame In 1995
Inducted Into Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall Of Fame In 1996
2001 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Promoter Of The Year
Inducted Into 2009 Pro Wrestling Hall Of Fame-International Category
Inducted Into WWE Hall Of Fame In 2010
2010 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Special Prize
Official website (Japanese):
http://blog.antonio-inoki.net/ (Not updated since July ’09)