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Antonio Inoki, wrestling legend who famously faced Muhammad Ali in mixed rules fight, dies at 79

Antonio Inoki Talking Event Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Antonio Inoki, the Japanese professional wrestling legend and mixed martial arts pioneer, has died at the age of 79.

News of his passing was confirmed by Yahoo Japan after a battle with health problems for several years, which eventually resulted in Inoki being confined to a wheelchair.

An athlete all his life, Inoki took up wrestling while training under another Japanese legend in Rikidozan, as well as catch wrestling icon Karl Gotch, which eventually led him to professional wrestling. He rose to fame through his matches in the 1960s and 1970s while often blurring the line between what was scripted and what was reality.

Inoki was one of a group of performers who learned catch wrestling from Gotch and adapted that into a style that allowed them to face martial arts practitioners across numerous disciplines, including boxing, judo, karate, and kung fu.

The most famous mixed rules match that Inoki ever participated in took place in 1976 when he faced multi-time boxing heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in Japan.

The bout was promoted as boxer against wrestler with limited rules put in place for both athletes to prevent either of them from having an overwhelming advantage. Judo legend Gene LeBell served as referee for the 15-round match, which saw Inoki consistently fall to his back and kick at Ali’s legs without much engaging outside of those brief exchanges.

Ali reportedly landed just six punches the entire fight, with Inoki reserved to mostly kicking off his back until the bout was eventually declared a draw.

Following his retirement from active competition, Inoki was still a mainstay in both the professional wrestling and martial arts scene in Japan.

He promoted MMA fights as part of New Japan Pro Wrestling — the organization he founded in 1972 — with mixed cards that featured both fights and professional wrestling matches. Inoki also famously promoted the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye shows that traditionally took place on New Year’s Eve, which featured a number of high-profile fighters including Mirko Cro Cop, Don Frye, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.

Inoki also briefly served as an ambassador for the now-defunct International Fight League, where he represented a team of fighters from Japan.

In addition to his career as both an athlete and a promoter, Inoki was also deeply rooted in Japanese politics, being elected to several different offices over the course of his career.

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