Monday, July 03, 2006

Antonio Inoki

There are few wrestlers who have ever accomplished as much as today’s inductee to the Inside the Squared Circle Hall of Fame, Antonio Inoki. It’s almost impossible to do justice to the career and life of a figure as incredible as Inoki. Join us as we take you through the highs and lows of one of wrestling’s most important figures for four decades.

Kanji Inoki was born on February 20, 1943. He became a fan of pro wrestling as a child, but he moved to Brazil with his family in 1957. In Brazil he became a track and field star. Rikidozan found Inoki in Brazil in 1960 and brought him back to Japan. He debuted the same night as Giant Baba on September 30, 1960 against another very important figure, Kintaro Oki. He was given the name Antonio to make him seem more exotic and mysterious.

After Rikidozan’s death in 1963 and the scandal that followed, both Inoki and Baba went to the United States. Inoki was nowhere near the star Baba was in the United States. This was a fact that clearly bothered him for decades, and he tried over and over again to make himself a star in the United States, from capturing the WWF Title to wrestling William Regal in WCW to promoting the World Wrestling Peace Festival in Los Angeles. Inoki honed his craft in the United States from 1964-1966, but when he returned to Japan it was obvious Baba was going to be the focus of JWA. Inoki in response formed a long lasting and historically significant partnership with promoter Hisashi Shinma. Together, they created Tokyo Pro Wrestling. While the promotion didn’t even last a full year, Inoki beat Johnny Valentine on multiple occasions during that period, establishing him as a big star when he returned to JWA in 1967.

Inoki’s return to JWA led to a very successful run known as the B1 Cannon period. This period saw Baba and Inoki as co-top stars of JWA. They teamed up to hold the NWA International Tag Team Titles on four occasions, feuding with top teams from America, such as the Funks. Baba was the bigger star, but Inoki was considered the better performer. In particular, Inoki stood out in a famous 60 minute time limit draw with Dory Funk, Jr. for the NWA World Title in 1969. With business booming and the promotion squandering that money, Inoki and Baba planned a coup to take over JWA. When it didn’t work, JWA decided they couldn’t release Baba since he was their top star. Instead, Inoki was made an example of and fired in December 1971. Along with Hisashi Shinma, he would found New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972, and it would go on to become Japan’s most successful wrestling promotion.

Inoki had a fascination over the years with proving himself a legitimately tough shooter. As such, the first champion for New Japan was Karl Gotch, who still has a reputation in Japan as one of the all time legendary tough guys. He beat Inoki at the first New Japan card on March 6, 1972, but Inoki would win the title from him later that year. In 1976, Inoki began bringing in tough guys from other disciplines to feud with him. He would portray the matches as if they would be real, but of course they were not and Inoki would always win. This was one of the real origins of mixed martial arts, which has evolved into today’s very popular Pride promotion. On February 6, 1976, he defeated Willem Ruska, a gold medallist in judo, by technical knockout.

Inoki’s biggest stunt was yet to come. He offered Muhammad Ali $6 million to come to Japan and lose to him in a mixed bout. His plan was to promote the event and broadcast it via closed circuit in both the United States and Japan. Unfortunately, it did not do well in the United States, because boxing fans didn’t believe it was real and wrestling fans didn’t know who Inoki was. The situation became even messier when Ali arrived in Japan. At that point, he decided he didn’t want to lose to Inoki, so the match between the two ironically ended up as a legitimate one. However, it was also very boring, with Inoki lying on his back and kicking at Ali’s legs for 15 rounds. It was declared a draw and fans were furious. This was an utter debacle and Inoki was considered disgraced. However, Ali was hospitalized after the match, and the speculation is that the kicks to Ali’s legs hurt his mobility and shortened his career.

With New Japan in serious trouble, Inoki booked a series of mixed martial arts matches to restore his credibility. He beat such stars as former judo Olympic medallist Bad news Allen Coage, karate stars Eddie Everett and Willie Williams and boxer Chuck Wepner. New Japan also fostered a relationship with the WWF in the late 1970s, and Inoki was crowned WWF World Martial Arts Champion. He then worked out a deal with Vince McMahon, Sr. where he would hold the WWF Title just like Baba held the NWA Title. This led to a very controversial situation. In November 1979, Inoki beat Backlund in Japan to win the WWF Title. However, Inoki double crossed the WWF and did not lose the title back on the last day of the tour as scheduled. Inoki’s plan was to be seen at Madison Square Garden in the United States as WWF World Champion, to cement his reputation in Japan. WWF wasn’t having that, so they decided not to recognize the title switch at all. Inoki wrestled at that show, but not for the WWF Title.

In 1979, New Japan and All Japan reached an agreement to work together, and Baba and Inoki teamed together on the first card for the first time in many years. It appeared they would become closer, but in fact the opposite effect would occur. The relationship would last for only one card, and the fallout would lead to one of wrestling’s most bitter feuds in the 80s and 90s. Inoki fired the first shot, signing away Abdullah the Butcher from All Japan by doubling his weekly salary. Inoki and Baba raided wrestlers back and forth like the later WWF/WCW promotional war.

Inoki and Shinma came up with the idea for a big International Wrestling Grand Prix tournament in 1983, with matches supposedly being held all over the world. The tournament final featured Inoki against Hulk Hogan, who was at that point one of the world’s biggest draws. Inoki was scheduled to win the match, but Inoki was having health problems leading into the match. Inoki decided to book a “shoot” angle, reminiscent of a legendary Bruno Sammartino-Stan Hansen match. In the middle of the match, Hogan nailed Inoki with a lariat on the ring apron, and Inoki was knocked unconscious falling to the floor. Inoki was out for months, and Hogan was established as a huge star in Japan, which he remains to this day.

While out with an injury, Inoki suffered another blow with an economic scandal. New Japan was embezzling wrestling funds to go into outside business ventures. Think of it as an illegal version of the XFL fiasco. In the aftermath, Inoki, Shinma and Seiji Sakaguchi stepped down from their positions as president, board chair and vice president. Things got worse in 1984 with a match scheduled to have Inoki avenge his loss to Hogan. Unfortunately for Inoki, Hogan was WWF champion by this time, and Vincent K. McMahon didn’t want him to lose to Inoki. Thus, Inoki lost via interference from Riki Choshu. Fans felt ripped off, and they rioted, setting fire to the building. Adding to New Japan’s woes, Riki Choshu and a number of other wrestlers left for All Japan shortly thereafter. Choshu was one of New Japan’s top stars and a major player in its top feud, but was tired of playing second fiddle to Inoki. All of these travails would bring even wrestling’s greatest promoters and wrestlers to their knees. Down and out, Inoki would rise from the ashes yet again.

Inoki attempted to rebuild the promotion with more worked shoot matches. He brought in boxing champion Leon Spinks and beat him in a mixed match. He brought in Andre the Giant, and became the first man to ever make Andre submit. He also feuded with Bruiser Brody and Tatsumi Fujinami. He convinced Riki Choshu to jump back by finally allowing other wrestlers to become top stars of the promotion. Riki Choshu finally beat Inoki by pinfall in 1988, and he would do so on other occasions in future years. This set the company up for a financial boom when Inoki made one of his most shrewd promotional moves in 1989.

By that time, the Cold War was ending, and the opening up of the former communist nations offered tremendous financial opportunity. Inoki jumped on this, and signed a group of Russian athletes to wrestle New Japan’s top stars. The company drew 53,800 fans and a $2.8 million gate for the first card on April 24, 1989, where Inoki lost to Olympic gold medallist in judo, Shota Chochoshivili. It was Inoki’s first mixed martial arts loss, and set up a feud between the Russians and Japanese that drew big money. Inoki, once again on a high, attempted to get out of wrestling and into politics. He was elected to the Japanese House of Councils, the equivalent of the U.S. Senate. He was the first pro wrestler to enter into such political office, and Hiroshi Hase, Great Sasuke, Atsushi Onita and Jesse Ventura would follow. Unfortunately for Inoki, he applied the same ethics he demonstrated in wrestling to politics. His brief political career saw Inoki tap out to tax evasion and political scandal. But, like Vince McMahon, Jr. he would never be convicted of anything, allowing him to return to wrestling.

In 1994, Inoki announced his retirement, and a “Final Countdown” which would allow him to do four years worth of retirement matches against the likes of Great Muta, Willem Ruska, Sting, Vader and Satoru Sayama. One of his most prominent coups of that period was reaching an agreement with the North Korean government to promote a pair of wrestling shows there. With government help, he drew over 100,000 fans on consecutive nights, shattering world wrestling attendance records. An incredible crowd of over 170,000 fans witnessed Antonio Inoki and Ric Flair wrestle the second night. Inoki’s final match came on April 4, 1998 against Don Frye. Inoki has remained involved in the pro wrestling business since then, playing a role in New Japan, Wrestle One, Pride, UFO, K1 and assorted other shows.

Antonio Inoki is an amazing figure, and not simply within the context of professional wrestling. A very clever individual, he understands the value of a big story, and he played a role in countless historically significant feuds, periods, and matches. He turned himself into one of Japan’s most famous figures, and no matter what adversity he went through, Inoki always came back. He is still revered in Japan, and is one of the biggest box office draws in wrestling history.


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