Inoki: Wrestling’s Great Innovator

Antonio Inoki has passed.

There’s a phrase in the UK, used for those people who we think lived to an old age; it’s ‘had a good innings’.

And this cricket term is used by me too with my 93-year-old mother, we’ve always used it. But I always think, to carry on the cricketing feel, what about the innings is good?

You could be batting for 3 hours, play defensively and score 40. Or you could be at the crease for an hour, take chances, score 6’s and 4’s with huge swiping shots, and make 100. It’s not the time, it’s what you do with it.

Antonio Inoki passed at the age of 79. Considering the physical demands in a wrestling ring and the many examples of grapplers who pass earlier than expected, that age could be said to be a good innings.

But was it a good innings? Oh yes, because Antonio Inoki thought differently.  It wasn’t just about wrestling, it was about what wrestling and wrestlers could be. Inoki led the way.  In so many ways.

No Inoki, No UFC

Or MMA, for that matter. OK, we can argue that the UFC and mixed martial arts would have emerged anyway, it was an idea that needed to be followed.

But that idea, it could be argued, started with an idea to mix styles. In 1976, he accepted the reigning WBC and WBA Heavyweight champion and entertainment icon Muhammad Ali’s offer of a match.

Ali even came over to Japan for the fight, apparently offering $6 million for the fight. As the Guardian said;

‘It was a hell of a sales pitch for a fight. The two would be contesting the title of toughest man on the planet.’

There was concern that Ali may have been injured in a wrestling match and although the boxing icon trained with storied wrestler The Sheik, others were worried that the match would be a disaster, a sham, as some called it.

Putting aside the purity of boxing and wrestling, the match was seen in 34 countries to an estimated audience of 1.5 billion – who could get within dreaming distance of those figures now?

Vince McMahon Sr had rights to show the match on closed circuit TV and that wasn’t the only MMA match that night, there was a card in Showdown At Shea that also boasted Andre The Giant v boxer Chuck Wepner.

There is some discussion about whether the match was booked as a shoot or a work and who agreed, but it seems certain that renegotiations of the original rules were had, leading to restrictions of throws, grappling, and kicking for Inoki. Others denied this, saying Ali’s entourage wouldn’t allow their man to be hurt.

Inoki v Ali
Credit; New York Post

It certainly led to a boring match. Inoki lay on his back for 15 rounds mostly, only really getting up to kick and lay down again. It was a draw and not surprising. And the crowds in the Budokan and at close circuit events didn’t like it either, some riots occurred.

In a way, the action didn’t matter. Adjusted for today’s money $100 million in revenue did, as did the legacy which saw the founding of Pancrase, which inspired Pride, which was purchased by UFC.

Inoki started a big ball rolling. Ali made the offer, but Inoki ran with it, made it into an event, and understood the possibilities now and in the future.

No Inoki, No NJPW

This one is easy. After all, he formed New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972 and owned it for 35 years, only selling to video fans company Yuke’s in 2005.

35 years is amazing. And Inoki even responded to the burgeoning appeal of MMA by trying to incorporate more shoot styles into NJPW work in association with K-1. It didn’t work, but Inoki tried new things, reading out to other worlds, NJPW was a member of the NWA and even worked with WCW.

No parochial offer from Inoki, he saw the value in wide-ranging partnerships.

No Inoki, No Wrestling Hollywood Stars

OK, this is more of a stretch. But you know that push, that desperate wish to make wrestlers and therefore wrestling legitimate? That happened with Inoki.

Antonio Inoki
Credit; The Hollywood Reporter

Whilst ex-wrestlers like Dwayne Johnson, Dave Bautista, and John Cena achieve legitimacy through Hollywood, Inoki went into politics, achieving election to the Japanese House Of Councillors in 1989. With his party. He didn’t jump onto someone else’s work, he did it by forming his own Sports And Peace Party.

Not only that. He went to Iraq, negotiated with Saddam Hussein, staged a wrestling event there, and brought back to Japan 36 or 41 prisoners. That’s so impressive.

Hollywood Reporter commented;

‘He was the first in his sport to enter politics. He promoted peace through sports and made more than 30 trips to North Korea during his time as a lawmaker in hopes of forging peace and friendship.’

And although he lost his seat in 1995, he won again in 2013 and stayed until 2019.

That’s legitimacy. That’s what so many in US wrestling want. That’s not the wild and wonderful world of entertainment, that’s staid politics. And that’s impressive.

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