Antonio Inoki, the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling who became one of the biggest pro wrestling stars in the history of Japan, has passed away.
Yahoo News Japan confirmed Inoki passed away on Saturday morning in Japan. Inoki, 79, had been battling health problems in recent years and had been confined to a wheelchair.
During Friday's SmackDown, announcers Michael Cole and Corey Graves took time to speak on Inoki's death.
Inoki started wrestling in 1960, training under Rikidozan, one of the first popular pro wrestling figures in Japan. Later in the decade, he formed a tag team with Giant Baba in the Japan Wrestling Association, with the team winning the NWA International Tag Team Championship four times. Baba would later form All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972, becoming a direct competitor against Inoki's NJPW.
After being fired from JWA in 1971 for planning a takeover of the promotion, Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling the following year. One of Inoki's more famous bouts during this era was a mixed martial arts match in 1976 between himself and Muhammad Ali, where the match ended in a draw.
Inoki also headlined one of the highest-attended shows in pro wrestling history in Pyongyang, North Korea, where he defeated Ric Flair on the second night of a two-day event. The announced crowds for those shows were 165,000 and 190,000 respectively.
Inoki retired from professional wrestling in 1998, with his final match being a victory over Don Frye. He continued to run NJPW until 2005, when Yukes bought out Inoki’s controlling stock with the company. He later founded a new promotion, Inoki Genome Federation. He was into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010.
Along with pro wrestling, Inoki also had a career in politics, winning a seat in the House of Councilors in 1989. He left politics in 1994 following scandals, but was later elected in Japan’s Upper House as an MP from 2013 through 2019.