One of the most influential figures in the sport of mixed martial arts, Antonio Inokidied last weekend at the age of 79. Inoki’s death has mixed martial arts fans around the world reflecting on the impact he has had on combat sports in general.
Although he has spent much of his career in the professional wrestling world, Inoki has always identified himself as an athlete, first and foremost. He played basketball in college, then joined his school’s track team where he got a taste for the shot put. When his wealthy family fell on hard times in the late 1950s, Inoki moved to Brazil where he continued his high school pitching career on the track team. While living in Brazil, Inoki met his future mentor Rikidozanwhich brought him back to Japan to become a professional wrestler.
While Rikidōzan had a background in sumo, Inoki’s other mentor, Karl Goch, introduced the youngster to the fight against capture, a legitimate style of self-defense. Inoki took a liking to Gotch’s teachings and began to incorporate hooking and shooting into his professional wrestling style. This led to Inoki participating in worked pro wrestling matches which served as the precursor to modern MMA in look and feel. The matches took on the appearance of a real fight without compromising a sporting presentation. While the matches were scripted, Inoki had an unparalleled ability to mask this. For this reason, Carlson Grace once called Inoki “one of the greatest fighters” he has ever seen despite coming from the professional wrestling world.
NJPW founder and wrestling legend Antonio Inoki dies aged 79 https://t.co/QT901bIiZT pic.twitter.com/IxCsg8vvdy
– NoDQ.com: WWE and AEW news (@nodqdotcom) October 1, 2022
Inoki took control of New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972, a company he founded after being fired from JWA, his former employer, for attempting to stage a coup. Inoki introduced the “Strong Style” to Japanese wrestling fans, the official name of Inoki’s rigid and legitimate wrestling brand. As booker, Inoki led with “Inokism”, which refers to his style of booking as the leader of NJPW. He had already married professional wrestling once to what would become modern mixed martial arts when he faced Mohamed Ali in the famous 1976 fight. Inoki sought to prove his brand of pro wrestling was the world’s premier fighting style, a concept that bears similarities to the roots of the UFC which sought to do the same.
The fight itself was nothing out of the ordinary, but proved important to what was to come. “Hybrid fighting” took off in the mid-80s as the thirst began to grow for shoot-type fighting without predetermined outcomes. In the early 90s, Japan’s top organizations such as PRIDE FC and Pancrase began to form and quickly gained popularity across the country.
The Japanese MMA boom might not have happened without Inoki bringing global awareness to his shooting style of combat. With Japanese MMA booming in the late 90s, Inoki attempted to capitalize on the boom by modeling his NJPW product after PRIDE. He began bringing in some of the biggest names in MMA to defeat his classically trained professional wrestlers, which was not well received by fans due to their failure to grasp the concept of “work”. Likewise, he attempted to make MMA fighters professional wrestlers, many of whom weren’t natural fighters like himself. Many have taken their pieces, but wrestlers who have found success in MMA, such as Shinsuke Nakamura and Tadao Yasudareceived a major boost for their efforts despite a lack of commercialization of professional wrestling.
By 2003, Inoki had retired from professional wrestling and purchased his shares in the company four years later. He then formed a new promotion, Inoki Genome Federation, which aimed to continue the NJPW founder’s vision for a hybrid MMA and professional wrestling society.
Antonio Inoki has lived a full life, leaving his mark on the world through innovation. The concept of mixed martial arts hadn’t even been a passing thought until he fought Ali at the Nippon Budokan arena. Agreed-upon rules and the clash of styles eventually gave birth to MMA, as fight fans now know. Additionally, Inoki’s imprint on the world transcends both professional wrestling and mixed martial arts, as he was much more than just a martial artist or athlete. He was also a distinguished business owner and mentor to some of the biggest names in Japanese combat sports, such as Masahiro Chono, Tatsumi Fujinami and Riki Choshu.
Inoki also tried acting at different times in his life and had a 30-year political career in his native Japan. He also helped his home country as a diplomat, hoping to smooth Japan-North Korea relations through professional wrestling.
His legacy is that of a man who succeeded in all facets of his industry and then went above and beyond to raise the bar for future generations. As he attempted to add martial arts to professional wrestling, professional wrestling would one day be added to mixed martial arts. Concepts such as fighter commercialization, long-term storytelling, and trash talk have become paramount to fighters’ ability to earn a healthy living in sport, and this boomerang effect would not have happened without the influence from Inoki.
Today, mixed martial arts is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, not to mention combat sports. For that and more, fight fans have the great Antonio Inoki to thank.