Antonio Inoki, a Japanese professional wrestling star turned politician, widely known for his match with Muhammad Ali and ties to North Korea, has died at the age of 79, after years of battling a rare disease, media reported on Saturday.
Inoki became one of the biggest names in Japan’s pro-wrestling’s circuit in the 1960s. His fame went global in 1976 when he had a mixed martial arts match with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, billed as “the bout of the century”.
The renowned performer entered into politics, winning a seat in the upper house of Japan’s parliament in 1989. He made headlines the next year going to Iraq during the Gulf War and intervening on behalf of Japanese hostages, who were subsequently released.
He developed close ties with North Korea because his mentor, early pro-wrestling superstar Rikidozan, hailed from North Korea but could never go home after the peninsula was divided by war.
Inoki made numerous visits to Pyongyang as a lawmaker and met high-ranking officials, saying Tokyo could play a role in mediating with its nuclear-armed neighbour.
On his YouTube channel, called “Antonio Inoki’s Last Fighting Spirit,” he was shown going in and out of the hospital in the last few years, raising a clenched fist as he went for treatment of systemic amyloidosis, a rare ailment involving a buildup of a protein called amyloid in the organs.