411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2007: Antonio Inoki
Antonio Inoki was born Kanji Inoki on February 20, 1943 in Yokohama, Japan. Inoki was the sixth son of a large family, and the second youngest child in a family with seven boys and four girls. He was the son of a Japanese businessman and politician Sajiro Inoki. However, he never got to know his father too well because Sajiro died when Antonio was 5 years old. Inoki attended Higadashi Grade School and showed that he was made for athletics. One of his older brothers taught him karate in 6th grade, and started Inoki’s interest in combat sports. By the time Inoki was in 7th grade, he was almost six feet tall. With that height at a young age, Inoki would play basketball. However, Inoki would quit basketball to join the track and field team as a shot putter. He won a championship at the Yokohama junior high school track and field championship.
Living in post-World War II Japan was not easy for many families. With the father passed away, the Inoki’s were no exception as they went through hard times. In 1957, the Inoki family decided to leave Japan and immigrate to Brazil. During the trip to Brazil, Inoki’s grandfather passed away. Once the Inoki family made it to Brazil and settled, Antonio continued participating in track and field. He won regional championships in the shot put, discuss throw and javelin throw. He even won the All Brazilian Championship in the shot put and discuss throw.
It was Inoki’s time in Brazil that changed his life forever. At the age of 17, he met with Rikidozan who was the father of Japanese Pro Wresting. Rikidozan was able to bring Inoki back to Japan on April 10, 1960 to train as a pro wrestling for the Japan Wrestling Association. A day later, Shohei “Giant” Baba joins the JWA and the careers of two of the biggest Japanese legends started on back-to-back days. Inoki and Baba were classmates in the JWA dojo. Both men made their pro wrestling debut on September, 30 1960. Baba won his debut match against Yonetaro Tanaka. Inoki lost his debut match, but he was given a much tougher opponent in South Korea’s greatest wrestling legend in Kintaro Oki. Kanji Inoki started calling himself Antonio Inoki as a tribute to pro wrestler Antonino Rocca.
During Inoki’s early years as a pro wrestler, he was in the shadow of his classmate Giant Baba. After Rikidozan’s death December 1963, Toyonobori took over as president of the JWA. However, Toyonobori resigned as JWA’s president in January 1966 and had disappeared for a bit. JWA expelled Toyonobori in March 21, 1966 and announced that Antonio Inoki had cancelled his participation at the annual round robin tournament. It seemed that something was up with them. There was a meeting between them when Toyonobori had met with Inoki during his trip in Hawaii. A month later it was revealed that Toyonobori and Antonio Inoki would form a rival company to the JWA called Tokyo Pro Wrestling.
Tokyo Pro Wrestling had their debut show on October 12, 1966 at the old Sumo Hall, Kuramae Kokugikan, in Tokyo. In that show, Inoki scored his biggest victory to date when he defeated Johnny Valentine. It was clear that Inoki was going to be the young star of Tokyo Pro Wrestling. Inoki and Valentine feuded over the United States Heavyweight Title. This feud established Inoki as someone who will take on anyone, anywhere. Tokyo Pro Wrestling did not last long as they shut down in a little over six months from the debut show. Most of the Tokyo Pro Wrestling roster went to the newly created International Wrestling Enterprise. However, Inoki was welcomed back to the JWA on April 6, 1967 as the promotion saw him as one of the few bright stars that emerged from Tokyo Pro.
With Inoki’s return to the promotion, he and Giant Baba formed a tag team called B-I Cannon. They dominated the tag team ranks of the JWA. They won the NWA International Tag Team titles on October 31, 1967 from Bill Watts and Tarzan Tyler. This was the first of four titles reigns that Baba and Inoki had with the belts. The Baba and Inoki team made both men big stars. JWA, with Inoki and Baba as the top two stars, was getting so popular that they were airing on two different network TV stations in Japan. They were already on Nippon TV, but NET (now known as TV-Asahi) also wanted JWA to air on their network. The two networks even made an agreement that said that Nippon TV was not to air Inoki’s match and NET was not to air Baba’s matches. A deal must have been made in regards to when Inoki and Baba teamed up together.
Antonio Inoki made his first challenge for the NWA World Heavyweight Title when he faced Dory Funk Jr. on December 2, 1969. However, Inoki was not successful in winning the title as the match had gone to a 60-minute time limit draw. It was not the last time that Inoki and Dory were on opposite sides of the ring. Inoki and Michiaki Yoshimura, who were the All Asian Tag Champions, took on Dory and Terry Funk on July 27, 1970. The significance of that match was that it was the first time the Funk Brothers had teamed up in Japan. Six days later, Inoki and Dory had a rematch for the NWA World Heavyweight Title. Once again, the match wound up going to a 60-minute time limit draw. Inoki did score a major singles title on March 26, 1971 when he defeated John Tolos for the NWA United National Heavyweight Title in Los Angeles, California.
Antonio Inoki requested for a title shot at Giant Baba’s NWA International Heavyweight Title to the Japan Pro Wrestling Commissioner on May 20, 1971. However, the commissioner told Inoki that was JWA’s decision to make. Inoki made his appeal to the JWA, but they refused on May 29. They felt it was too early. Inoki & Baba lost the NWA International Tag Team titles for the final time to the Funk Brothers on December 7, 1971. This was a significant match because it was the last time Inoki wrestled for the JWA. Six days later, Inoki was fired from the JWA for attempting a takeover of the promotion. Inoki had to vacate the NWA United National Heavyweight Title from this.
After Inoki got fired from JWA, he married famous Japanese actress Mitsuko Baisho in 1971. The JWA was suppose to pay for the wedding, but refused after they fired Inoki. Inoki and Mitsuko have a daughter by the name Hiroko. Hiroko married a man by the name of Simon Kelly. In something that is not done much with marriage, Simon added his wife’s last wife to his. Now, he is referred to as Simon Inoki. Currently, the son-in-law of Antonio Inoki is the President of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Antonio Inoki was also very close to his brother-in-law Tetsuo Baisho. Baisho is a very rich man who worked in New Japan’s front office and helped financed them. Inoki and Mitsuko divorced in 1987, but it seemed that it was not a bitter public divorce like a lot of celebrities have because they still greet each other kindly in public.
As a result of being fired from the JWA, Antonio Inoki formed New Japan Pro Wrestling. The debut show for New Japan was on March 6, 1972 at Tokyo Ota Ward Gymnasium. He faced Karl Gotch in the main event, but lost to a man whose philosophy on pro wrestling that Inoki would follow in the years to follow. While New Japan was starting to grow, the JWA was falling apart when they broke a contract with Nippon TV to let NET air a Giant Baba match. Nippon TV doesn’t air JWA anymore, and Baba leaves the company to eventually form All Japan Pro Wrestling. The final nail of the coffin to the JWA was when their stars were joined Inoki’s New Japan or Baba’s All Japan. From this, NET was airing New Japan matches on their network and Nippon TV was airing All Japan matches.
Antonio Inoki would finally defeat Karl Gotch on October 4, 1972 to win the “Real World Heavyweight Title”. However, Gotch would regain the title six days later in a rematch. That title victory was the first of many championships that Inoki won in New Japan. Antonio Inoki defeated Johnny Powers On December 10, 1973 to win the NWF Heavyweight Title for the first time. The NWF Heavyweight Title served as New Japan’s top singles title until the International Wrestling Grand Prix concept was created and the title was abandoned. During the NWF Heavyweight Title’s existence in New Japan from 1973 until 1981, Inoki was the dominant champion with four reigns as champion. The only other men that were able to hold the title during that time were Tiger Jeet Singh and Stan Hansen.
Inoki had a very brief run as WWF Heavyweight Champion in 1979. Inoki defeated Bob Backlund for the title on November 30, 1979. Backlund won a rematch a few days later, but WWF President Hisashi Shinma declared the match as a no contest due to Tiger Jeet Singh’s interference. Shinma gave the belt back to Inoki, but Inoki refused to accept a title that he knows he was pinned for. Backlund regained the title in New York on December 12, 1979. An interesting note is that WWE has never recognized Inoki’s brief run as champion. Instead, they list Backlund as winning the title in 1978 and keeping it until that fateful day at MSG on December 26, 1983 when he lost to the Iron Sheik.
Inoki was also very successful in the annual tournaments held in New Japan. New Japan created their first annual singles round-robin tournament called the World League that lasted from 1974 until 1977. Inoki won the tournament in both years that he participated which was 1974 and 1975. He defeated Karl Krupp in the finals of both years to win it. After the World League, the MSG League replaced it as the singles round-robin tournament for New Japan. This lasted from 1978 until 1982. Inoki won the tournament for the first four years. He defeated Andre the Giant in the 1978 finals and Stan Hansen in the 1979, 1980 and 1981 finals. Inoki might have won the 1982 tournament as well, but an injury prevented that from happening.
After the MSG League was done, New Japan decided to use the IWGP League as the new annual singles round-robin tournament. This was a prelude to the IWGP Heavyweight Title. This tournament lasted four years from 1983 until 1987. The first year saw what many consider a huge turning point in wrestling history. Hulk Hogan defeated Antonio Inoki to win the 1983 tournament when Hogan knocked out Inoki with an Axe Bomber off the apron and sent him crashing onto the floor for the countout. Many wonder if Hogan did legitimately knock out Inoki with the Axe Bomber or if this was an elaborate work to build up Hogan’s value so that Inoki can gain his revenge later. No one will deny that Hogan’s victory over Inoki was the building block for the era of Hulkamania that would dominate the world of pro wrestling starting in the mid-1980’s. Hogan’s popularity was growing so much that Inoki’s eventual revenge victory over Hogan in the 1984 IWGP League finals was treated as an afterthought. Inoki would win the 1986 IWGP League when he defeated Dick Murdoch in the finals. Inoki would win the final IWGP League in 1987 when he defeated Masa Saito in the finals. It was after that tournament when the IWGP Heavyweight Title was created and Inoki became the first ever champion.
Inoki’s dominance in annual round-robin tournaments was also in the tag team division. New Japan created the MSG League for tag teams as well from 1980 until 1984. Inoki participated in all of the final matches and won each year except for 1981. In 1980, Inoki teamed up with Bob Backlund to defeat Hulk Hogan and Stan Hansen in the final. In 1981, Inoki teamed up with his protégé in Tatsumi Fujinami to face Andre the Giant and Rene Goulet. However, they lost when Andre pinned Fujinami. In 1982, Inoki and Hogan teamed up to defeat Killer Khan and Tiger Toguchi. Inoki and Hogan repeated their tag success in 1983 when they defeated 3rd place team Dick Murdoch and Adrian Adonis, who replaced Andre the Giant and Stan Hansen due to Hansen’s injury. In the final year of the tournament, Inoki and Fujinami found their success as a team when they defeated Murdoch and Adonis in the finals.
One of the things that separates Inoki from other wrestling legends was his challenges to established names from other combat sports, With New Japan’s motto being “King of Sports”, Inoki felt that it was his duty as top star to show that pro wrestling was the strongest sport in the world. They would bring in fighters like Olympic gold medalist in judo Willem Ruska, Willie Williams from Kyokushin Karate, the man who inspired the Rocky movies in boxer Chuck Wepner and Leon Spinks.
Inoki’s most famous opponent was boxing legend Muhammad Ali on July 26, 1976. With Japan’s most popular pro wrestler facing one of the most popular athletes ever, the Nippon Budokan easily sold out for this match. With Ali involved, Inoki and New Japan would gain worldwide publicity for this match. The match itself did not even come close to living up to the hype. This was held under 15 3-minute rounds with limited rules that said Inoki could not use any suplexes or submissions. It was believed that the match was going to be worked, but Ali’s camp felt that Inoki was going to double cross him and they had to make it a shoot with those limited rules. The result was one of the most boring matches in history. It was 15 rounds of Inoki going on his back and throwing leg kicks. Ali connected with only six punches in the entire match. The match was declared a draw, but both men were considered the loser. After the match, Ali’s had to be hospitalized from the leg kicks taken in the match. It was not just Ali’s legs that were damaged because his reputation took a hit as well. Inoki almost caused New Japan to go to bankruptcy for expenses paid for this event.
While there were short term negative effects from the Ali match, but the mystique surrounding that fight did succeed in making Inoki an International superstar. Ali showed Inoki a lot of respect when he let Inoki use Ali’s Bom-Ba-Ye battle cry, which is what the fans chanted when Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire, as his theme music. Inoki’s popularity made New Japan Pro Wrestling eventually became, for some time, the most successful wrestling promotion in the entire world. Inoki was able to promote New Japan shows in different countries. New Japan was able to hold shows in their company’s history in the United States, Italy, Palau, Taiwan, China, Soviet Union, Pakistan, Iraq and North Korea.
One of Inoki’s most famous trademarks is his Toukon Slap. It became popular after a visit to a school in the 1980’s. A student punched Inoki in the stomach, and Inoki responded with a slap to the face. The student was an Inoki fan. He bowed and thanked Inoki for the slap. The clip aired many times on TV. It gave people the feeling that getting slapped in the face by Inoki gave them courage and fighting spirit to face life’s difficult challenges. Various people, from celebrities to common folk, want Inoki to slap them in the face so that they can have fighting spirit.
When the 1980’s was winding down, Inoki decided to focus on a political career. He established the Sports and Peace Party. Inoki wins a seat in the House of Council, the Japanese equivalent of the US Senate, on July 24, 1989. This was a historic moment because Inoki became the first pro wrestler to be elected as a legislator in a country. He was able to use his political status to have Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein release Japanese prisoners before the Gulf War. He also tried to help out political relations between Japan and North Korea, which was the home country of his mentor Rikidozan, through a wrestling peace festival which saw him face Ric Flair in front of 170,000 fans. Muhammad Ali was in attendance for the match. Inoki’s political career would end when he lost reelection in 1995.
Despite his new political career taking off, Inoki would still wrestle the occasional matches. Inoki celebrated his 30th anniversary as a pro wrestler at the Yokohama Arena on September 30, 1990. He teamed with old rival Tiger Jeet Singh to face Vader and Animal Hamaguchi. Inoki had many guests show up for his match including Lou Thesz, Nick Bockwinkel, Billy Robinson, Johnny Powers, Hiro Matsuda, Stan Hansen, Andre the Giant and Willem Ruska.
With his wrestling career winding down, Antonio Inoki announced on February 24, 1994 that he would participate in an 8 match countdown to commemorate his career. This countdown would span from May 1, 1994 until April 4, 1998. Inoki’s first match was against The Great Muta at the Fukuoka Dome. Similar to many of Muta’s matches, it had a bizarre feeling to it. However, Inoki got the victory. Inoki would face old rivals like Willem Ruska, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Gerald Gordeau and Willie Williams in his countdown. He also faced Sting at the Tokyo Dome on January 4, 1995 as part of his countdown. In what had to be a dream match for 1980’s New Japan fans, the two most popular stars of the early 1980’s in Inoki and the original Tiger Mask Satoru Sayama met for the first time ever in a match on April 12, 1997. All of those men went down to Inoki.
Inoki’s most famous match from that countdown was against his old rival Big Van Vader. Vader’s debut in New Japan Pro Wrestling was on December 27, 1987 against Inoki. After defeated Riki Choshu, Vader showed up to challenge Inoki in an impromptu match and Inoki accepted. However, Vader was too strong for Inoki and managed to defeat Inoki in under 3 minutes. This victory made Vader a star in Japan, but it also caused a riot at the Sumo Hall. The fans were not happy with their native hero losing so quickly. As a result, New Japan was banned from running shows at the Sumo Hall until 1989. Inoki and Vader met for the last time on January 4, 1996 at the Tokyo Dome. Vader gave Inoki a serious beating, including making Inoki’s neck fold like an according from a release German suplex, for most of the match. In the end, Inoki made his huge comeback and submitted Vader to the delight of the 64,000 at the Tokyo Dome.
Inoki concluded his retirement countdown undefeated when he defeated former UFC champion Don Frye in front of 70,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome on April 4, 1998. Special guests in attendance for this show were Muhammad Ali, Bob Backlund, Jeff Blatnick, Riki Choshu, Eric Bischoff, Akira Maeda, Willem Ruska, Kokichi Endo, Animal Hamaguchi, Killer Khan, Seiji Sakaguchi, Genichiro Tenryu, Michiaki Yoshimura and former K-1 World Grand Prix champion the late Andy Hug.
With Inoki retired and MMA starting to gain steam in Japan, he wanted to keep promoting shows that were less pro wrestling and more shoot. At first, he formed the Universal Fighting-arts Organization. It was a worked shoot organization in which his protégé, former Olympic silver medalist, Naoya Ogawa would be the star. Inoki was so determined to make Ogawa a star that he would have Ogawa defeat New Japan’s top moneymaker from the 1990’s in Shinya Hashimoto a few times on major Tokyo Dome shows. Inoki also reached a deal with the NWA that would allow Ogawa to become the NWA World Heavyweight Champion on March 14, 1999 when Ogawa ended the very lengthy reign of former UFC champion Dan Severn. Inoki’s UFO group did not draw well with shows. It resulted in them becoming an office for bookings of Naoya Ogawa more than a wrestling promotion.
Inoki’s direction went from worked shoot to MMA when he made partnerships with PRIDE Fighting Championships and K-1. It also opened the doors to a working relationship between New Japan and the MMA companies. Fighters from PRIDE and K-1 would do pro wrestling matches on New Japan shows. In exchange, New Japan would send wrestlers who wish to do MMA fights in PRIDE and K-1. Unfortunately, this relationship has weakened New Japan’s status as the “King of Sports” because the fans now view MMA fighters as more legitimate than pro wrestlers. It was a reason for New Japan’s business going down.
Inoki was also influential in creating the New Year’s Eve war going on in Japan between PRIDE, K-1 and NHK’s New Years Eve celebration. The first Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye was on December 31, 2000. This was all pro wrestling matches with the main event being a three minute exhibition in which Inoki took on Renzo Gracie. This was significant because it was the first time that a Gracie participated in a pro wrestling style of match. Next year’s Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye was all MMA fights. It continued until 2003 when PRIDE and K-1 decided to hold shows on the same night. Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye could not compete with them. That was the end of the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye shows.
Ever since Yuke’s took ownership of New Japan Pro Wrestling, Inoki has kept himself very quiet. Yuke’s controls Inoki’s bookings and the use of his image in all appearances. Inoki tried to promote a show on September 1, 2006 at the Nippon Budokan called Inoki Genome. This was to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Inoki vs. Ali match. The main event they had planned was an Inoki vs. Ali rematch, but this time with their daughters going at it. They wanted Hiroko Inoki to face top female boxing star Lalia Ali. The show fell through and never took place. He is also helping out the upstart MMA group known as the International Fight League by being the ambassador of the Tokyo Sabres. Recently, a bar in Tokyo opened up on October 25, 2006 in honor of Inoki.
Why Antonio Inoki was selected…
Antonio Inoki’s charisma and ability helped make pro wrestling in Japan so popular from the four decades of his wrestling career. Inoki was also able to make himself and New Japan Pro Wrestling known to wrestling fans worldwide. It is the impact that Inoki made that makes him an easy choice for the 411 Hall of Fame.