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#4 Antonio Inoki
No modern wrestler committed himself more seriously to making the profession look legitimate than Antonio Inoki. His dedication to promoting himself, and by virtue his promotion and the business as a whole, as the premier combat sports athlete in the world was unmatched, and the result is that to this day, long after the death of kayface, professional wrestling in Japan is still viewed by many as a sport and not as a carnival sideshowóthe status it has mainly been relegated to in the United States.
Inoki cannot be discussed without comparing him to his longtime friend, tag team partner, business rival and fellow icon, Giant Baba. Baba and Inoki would both reach immeasurable heights of popularity through wrestling, but their appeals to the Japanese people would be different. Baba came across as goliath carrying the Japanese flag, an unstoppable titan who slayed challengers from across the globe. Inoki was not as physically dominant as Baba, in the wrestling world his size was relatively pedestrian; but he tirelessly promoted himself as a champion and as an unbeatable force who also defeated challengers from all over the world. Baba may have been dominant, but that was because he was so outrageously big, Inoki was dominant because he was the best.
Kanji Inoki was born to a large wealthy family in Yokohama in 1943, but the family fell on hard times following the destruction of much of Japan's economy towards the end of World War II. His father died when Inoki was only five years old and when he was a teenager the family immigrated to Brazil. Inoki would become a standout amateur athlete in high school, excelling in track and field and won national championships in both the shot put and the discus. On a chance encounter, Inoki met Japanese wrestling legend Rikidozan, who was doing a tour of South America in 1960. Impressed by the youth's athletic background, Rikidozan recruited him to work for the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance and began training Inoki in April of 1960.
Inoki quickly became a stand-out trainee, and Rikidozan had high hopes for him as well as another recruit, a towering former baseball pitcher named Shohei Baba. While Baba originally garnered attention because of his tremendous size and marketing appeal, Inoki stood out because he was a fast learner and proving to be a swift wrestling technician. In September of 1960 both Inoki and Baba made their debuts for the JWA, with Inoki adopting the first name Antonio reportedly after the Argentinan high-flyer Antonio Rocca, by far the most famous South American wrestler in history. They would prove to be an effective pair for the JWA. In singles matches against each other Inoki could carry Baba to good matches and when teaming together, Inoki could sell a lot until making the hot tag to Baba. This also was the beginning of a tenuous relationship between the two, as naturally Inoki resented Baba for getting a lot of promotion and publicity while Inoki did most of the work.
When Rikidozan was murdered in 1963, wrestling in Japan hit a low period as fans and sponsors were shocked to realize the underworld connections that were a part of the JWA. At the time Inoki was working in the United States, mostly in the Amarillo territory under the ring name Tokyo Tom. Inoki (as well as Baba) continued to work in the United States, mainly in Texas for the World Class Wrestling Association under his real name, before coming back to the JWA. When they would return the JWA chose to promote Baba as the new face of the company, and despite still being a relative novice in the ring it proved to a game-changer. Baba's appeal inside the ring was matched with his class outside of it and it quickly turned things around for the JWA and wrestling was re-born in Japan. Inoki, while not as heavily promoted as Baba, proved to be every bit as valuable to the promotion; mainly as Baba's tag team partner who worked extremely hard to make sure the big guy shined. Still, Inoki felt that he was being unfairly treated by the JWA and grew increasingly uncomfortable in his role there.
In 1966 Inoki befriended Tokyo businessman Hisashi Shinma and together they founded their own pro wrestling outfit, Tokyo Pro Wrestling. Inoki immediately became the top star of the promotion and established himself as a major name in wrestling when he defeated Johnny Valentine, a legendary heel who had made his name as a villain in Japan by wrestling Rikidozan and Baba. Although TPW would fold within a year, Inoki's performance in the promotion impressed JWA officials enough that he was given a bigger role when he was brought back into the company in 1967. His best success as a singles star came in 1969 and 1970, when he wrestled then-NWA World Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk Jr. to a pair of 60-minute draws.
It was as a tag team partner however that Inoki would have his greatest success in the JWA, teaming up with Giant Baba for many high-profile bouts. The pair would become the dynamic duo of Japanese wrestling, vanquishing all sorts of foreign teams and winning the NWA International Tag Team titles four times between 1967 and 1971. Some of their most famous bouts came against the Funk brothers, and they also were challenged by the likes of Danny Hodge and Wilbur Snyder, Danny Hodge and Harley Race, and Bruno Sammartino and Dominic DeNucci.
While business was still very good for the JWA in 1971, Baba and Inoki became frustrated with management and attempted a coup to take over the company, which failed. Inoki was fired from the company in December, while Baba was welcomed back with open arms by the JWA. This blatant show of disrespect would prove to drive a wedge between the two wrestlers, inciting one of if not the greatest promotional rivalry in wrestling history. With the help of Shinma, Inoki successfully launched his second promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling and held the promotion's first show in March of 1972. In the main event, he booked himself to be defeated by Karl Gotch, a suave move that would pay dividends down the road for Inoki.
Gotch was a Belgian-born wrestler who represented the country at the 1948 Olympics in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. He also trained in various forms of martial arts and conditioning practices, most notably the Indian martial art of Pehlwani, which Gotch used to introduce some innovative moves to professional wrestling, most notably back-bridges. After debuting in Europe, Gotch became known for being a feared shooter, perhaps the best in wrestling history, and that reputation followed him to Japan where he became known as "Kamisama" which translates literally to "God of Wrestling."
Inoki was enamored by Gotch's reputation as the best "real" wrestler in the world and therefore began heavily promoting him as such, building early NJPW shows around him. Inoki created a championship, the Real World Heavyweight Title, and booked a big match between himself and Gotch for October, which saw Inoki defeat Gotch via count-out, which was intentionally booked as a fluke victory for Inoki. This was proven a few days later when Gotch defeated Inoki for the championship. It would become a promotional philosophy for Inoki to present his wrestlers (mainly himself) as not just puroresu stars, but as a legitimate athletes, similar to the way MMA organizations promote their stars today. The only difference is that Inoki's promotion was still promoting fixed wrestling matches, but even if they were fixed and the fans knew that they were fixed, Inoki remained so dedicated to promoting things as real that inevitably many fans began to believe that while the fights were fixed, the wrestlers competing in the matches were legit fighters. This new style of wrestling was dubbed Strong Style by Inoki and became the staple of not only Inoki, but countless other wrestlers since its creation.
As Giant Baba left JWA shortly after Inoki was fired and founded AJPW, he struck a deal with the National Wrestling Alliance to gain recognition for his promotion, which also froze Inoki and AJPW out of the NWA. As a result Inoki bought out the National Wrestling Federation, a small regional promotion that promoted mainly along Lake Erie in the US. He became the NWF World Champion in 1973 and that title would become the main championship for NJPW. While in comparison to the NWA the NWF was a miniscule promotion, most fans in Japan did not know that and the result was a lot of fans were under the impression it was very important to gain recognition from the NWF.
Inoki would defend the NWF World Championship until losing it in December of 1975 when it was vacated and then won by Tiger Jeet Singh. Singh would prove to be one of the greatest enemies for Inoki, as he was a cagey nemesis who knew how to take advantage of every rule in the book and bended those rules to his advantage in taking victories over Inoki. Inoki would regain the championship from Singh in June of 1975 and hold it for nearly five years, defending it against all sorts of foreign challengers, such as Andre the Giant, Stan Hansen, Jack Brisco, Ken Patera, Pat Patterson, Ivan Koloff and Billy Robinson. Despite not gaining recognition from the NWA, Inoki's tireless promotion and business acumen allowed him to bring in all of the top names associated in the NWA. It did not matter that much that he didn't have the NWA banner to promote NJPW under because he still had all of their top stars.
In 1976 Inoki also began promoting a different type of match, one that he would become famous for and would become the backbone for several other promotions in the future. This was the fake-shoot match. An extension of the matches that he had with Gotch, these matches were promoted in advance as being completely legitimate contests of skill. The style of the match would be much different from normal professional wrestling; instead they would be replaced with a style similar to what MMA matches look like today, or better yet, the way wrestling matches were worked before the 1920s. There were not a lot of flying headscissors or irish whips in these matches, but rather focused on amateur takedowns and submission holds.
To further legitimize the concept, Inoki did not plan on wrestling these matches against other wrestlers, but rather trained martial art professionals, who Inoki would of course be paying to come in and lose to him, thus making Inoki look like the true master of combat sports. His first opponent was Wim Ruska, a Dutch judoka who won two gold medals at the 1972 Olympics. Inoki would defeat Ruska in February in 1976 by TKO, and despite the lack of precedent of such a match taking place in Japan, it was a box office success and well-received by fans.
Later that year Inoki set his sights even higher, devising a grand plan to do another worked-shoot fight, this time against the heavyweight boxing world champion and the most famous athlete in the world, Muhammed Ali. Inoki and Shinma originally paid Ali the ridiculous sum of $6 million to do the job to Inoki, in an event that would be broadcasted live via closed-circuit television to arenas around the world. This fully proved how obsessed Inoki was with making himself, and by extension pro wrestlers, look like the toughest guys in the world. If he were to defeat the best judoka and the best boxer in the world, then who could deny that Inoki was the best fighter on the planet? He also figured that it would be a huge box office success, drawing fans from both wrestling and boxing; and leading up to the fight the press attention both in Japan and abroad looked to be proving Inoki right.
Days leading up to the match though, things began to fall apart for Inoki. Although Ali had originally agreed to lose the fight, he began to think otherwise. Ali was as brilliant of a self-promoter as any wrestler has ever been, and he figured that even if he didn't really "lose" the fight; a loss to Inoki would hurt his reputation and therefore his box office down the line. With so much on the line Inoki and Ali agreed to a change of plans, instead of a worked-shoot they would have a completely legitimate shoot-fight. However, they put in a set of rules that made it forbidden for Inoki to kick Ali in the head or for either man to punch each other in the face.
The fight took place at Budokan Hall on June 26, 1976 and because of the rules put in place between Inoki and Ali, quickly turned into the most boring boxing (or wrestling) match of all-time. Inoki was terrified of standing up face-to-face and fighting the champion boxer, so instead his strategy was to lay on his back and try and kick Ali in his shins. Flummoxed, Ali was only able to land six punches throughout the entire fight while Inoki battered his shins. The match ended after 15-rounds and was announced as a draw. The normally polite Japanese fans were disgusted by the lack of action and hurled garbage into the ring, as both Inoki and Ali were embarrassed.
The result of the match nearly sunk New Japan, while they drew a sell-out crowd in Japan, they did not get nearly the support abroad that they thought they did. In addition, the reputation of NJPW went down the drain as the fight was viewed as misleading to the fans, who were unaware of the restrictions during the fight, and business began to slip. AJPW began crushing them in the promotional war and NJPW was on the brink of bankruptcy when Vince McMahon Sr., the owner of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, threw Inoki a lifeline when they brokered a deal together to exchange talent and promote WWWF stars in Japan. In 1978 Inoki traveled to the United States to win the WWWF Martial Arts Title, a championship that was created pretty much exclusively for him. He would go back to NJPW and defend his "real" world martial arts championship against different challengers, including judokas and karate experts.
In November of 1979, WWF Champion Bob Backlund traveled to Japan to defend his championship against Inoki. On the first night of the tour, Inoki defeated Backlund for the championship; with the plan being that Inoki would lose the championship to Backlund at the end of the tour, similar to the way Giant Baba would capture the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from Jack Brisco or Harley Race, only to lose the championship later on the tour. However, Inoki double-crossed McMahon and on the night when Backlund was supposed to regain the championship (the storyline being that Singh interfered in the match to cost Inoki the title) NJPW announced the match as a no-contest, meaning that Inoki was still the champion.
The reason for this double-cross was because Inoki was scheduled to go back to New York next month and the event was going to be broadcasted live back in Japan and he wanted to defend the WWF Championship in the US. Naturally McMahon was livid and refused to acknowledge the title switch at all (something that remains true to this day) so when Inoki came to the US he was never promoted as the WWF Champion, only in Japan was he acknowledged as such and he was written out of the title picture by saying that since he was already scheduled to defend the Martial Arts Title, he had to vacate the WWF Championship.
In August of 1979 AJPW and NJPW called a temporary truce and promoted their own joint supershow, with Baba and Inoki teaming up in the main event for the first time since their JWA days. The truce would be short-lived however, as Inoki pulled the biggest coup of the war in 1981 when he gambled on Abdullah the Butcher, doubling his AJPW salary and bringing him over to NJPW. It ended up paying huge dividends as Abdullah had been for years Baba's biggest challenger and now he was taking on Inoki. NJPW was finally able to dig themselves out of the promotional hole that the Ali vs Inoki quagmire had put them in.
Throughout the early-1980s, Inoki's relationship with the WWF began to flourish despite the differences they may have had in the late-70s. Top talent like Andre the Giant and Backlund were brought in for matches with Inoki, but a younger, less established wrestler caught the eye of Inoki and was turned into a star. Hulk Hogan, who was still in the learning stages of his career, began to get over in Japan thanks to his physique and unbridled charisma. Even though he was booked as a heel, the fans in Japan began to adore Hogan and he would become one of the top opponents for Inoki. This was still before Hogan had become the WWF Champion and at this point in his career he was far more over in Japan than he was in the United States.
In 1983 Inoki and Shinma came up with a new concept for NJPW, the International Wrestling Grand Prix. The event was to be a series of matches taking place throughout the globe and wrestlers earning points in a round-robin style format. Because logistically organizing such a tournament would be nearly impossible, Inoki and Shinma decided to just cut that part out and instead of actually HAVING the matches, they would announce that matches in other countries had taken place and that there had been a winner. They would also legitimately have matches in Japan, but they successfully convinced fans that this was a true global tournament, instead of just a NJPW one.
Inoki made it to the finals of the tournament, along with Hogan. Inoki of course was slated to win the tournament, but it turned out that right before the tournament finals, Inoki was diagnosed with an exceedingly high blood sugar level and was going to need to take some time off from wrestling. Since it made no sense to have a wrestler who was going to need time off to win the tournament, Hogan won the tournament when he gave Inoki a clothesline off the apron that rendered Inoki unconscious, giving him the victory by TKO.
Following his return to the ring, a second IWGP tournament was staged in 1984, the story being that Inoki was out for revenge on Hogan for putting him on the shelf last year, and amid much fanfare the two would once again meet in the finals of the tournament. The fans were dying to see Inoki go over Hogan in another epic encounter, but things began to fall apart when Vince McMahon Jr. announced that he did not want Hogan, who by this point was the WWF Champion and the lynchpin to McMahon's plan to take over the wrestling universe, losing to Inoki cleanly on a big stage. This forced plans to be altered at the last moment which saw Riki Choshu interfere and end up letting Inoki win the match by count-out. The fans were furious at a non-finish to such a heavily hyped bout, and they actually began rioting and setting small fires inside Budokan Hall. If things were not bad enough for Inoki later that year Baba swooped in and stole Riki Choshu for AJPW.
Despite these failures, Inoki proved to be a true survivor, rallying NJPW back once again, this time signing Bruiser Brody from AJPW and turning house show business around by working matches with the wild and unpredictable Brody. A lot of stuff can be said about Inoki being a con man, a liar and at times a blundering businessmanóbut it is hard to deny that Inoki was not a tremendous talent inside the ring and a massively important drawing card. Each time Inoki and NJPW were backed up against the wall, he bet on himself and his ability as a superstar to bring the company back, and he was able to do so every times. All he needed was the right opponent and some simple booking and the Inoki name was enough to get fans back invested in the product, no matter how many times they had been burned.
With Choshu off to AJPW, Inoki was forced to promote new talent underneath himself, as he wasn't getting any younger and he needed help to carry the workload in the main event. In addition, the reputation of NJPW having the better in-ring action when compared with AJPW was slipping. While Baba may have been Inoki's equal when it comes to star power, he wasn't nearly the worker in the ring and that ensured that NJPW would often have the better main events. In the 1980s however, Baba began to phase himself out of the main event and promote, younger, better wrestlers like Genichiro Tenryu, Jumbo Tsuruta and Choshu. With the aging Inoki in the main event, NJPW needed to counter with something new, so Inoki began to promote two understudies; Tatsumi Fujinami and Akira Madea. Like Inoki, both men were trained and committed to catch wrestling and different martial arts, and Maeda in particular became known for doing the worked-shoot matches that Inoki had made famous. He also created a new world title, the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship (not to be confused with the tournament from earlier in the decade) and although he was the original champion, he vacated it in 1988 when he fractured his foot and gave it to Fujinami, who established the title over the next several years.
However, Inoki would once again become his own worst enemy and lose Maeda. Maeda's charisma and tight technical wrestling got him over to the point that his popularity began to rival Inoki's. The fans were clamoring for a Maeda vs Inoki match, with the idea hopefully being that Inoki would pass the torch onto Maeda as the top shooter in NJPW. However, Inoki refused to put over Madea cleanly, and likewise Maeda refused to work with Inoki if he wasn't going to put him over. Maeda would eventually force his own exit from NJPW through a serious of erratic and controversial actions in the ring and launch his own promotion, the Universal Wrestling Federation, and becoming a massive star on his own, becoming arguably the most popular in Japan and drawing huge crowds, largely as the only true star in the UWF.
With business sagging yet again, Inoki went back to the drawing board. He brought in Russian judoka Shota Chochoshivili, who won a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics, and began to promote a match between himself and Chochoshivili for the World Martial Arts Championship, an off-shoot of the old WWF Martial Arts title. Inoki heavily hyped the match as a "real" fight and tirelessly worked to promote it. Once again, Inoki proved that he could still get it done in the ring and no matter how many mistakes he made; he could still draw a crowd. On April 24, 1989, 53,800 fans (the largest in Japanese history at the time) poured into the Tokyo Dome, paying a world record gate of $2.7 million, and saw Inoki lose his first ever mixed marital arts match, with Chochoshivili knocking Inoki out. Inoki would however win a rematch with Chochoshivili the following month by submission.
With Choshu coming back from AJPW and Fujinami holding the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship, Inoki began to step away from the NJPW. The decision was not necessarily amicable, as Inoki had been jammed up with allegations of the embezzlement of company funds and been mostly dismissed from company booking decisions by investors in the promotion.
But wrestling was a mere plaything for Inoki at this point, as he was elected to the Japanese House of the Councils in 1989, the Japanese equivalent of the US Senate. He continued to wrestle the occasional match while working as a politician, wrestling some big special dome shows throughout the early-90s. However, the same allegations that plagued him in NJPW effected his political career, including tax evasion, which cost him re-election in 1995. However, his dive into politics did pay dividends, mainly allowing Inoki to promote a pair of shows in North Korea with stars from NJPW and World Championship Wrestling. Reportedly over 300,000 fans (nobody really knows the real number, especially because there was no gate since the fans were essentially ordered by the government to attend) came to two different shows during a weekend in April of 1995, with Inoki defeating Ric Flair in the main event of the second show.
Around 1994 Inoki announced that he was planning on retiring from wrestling, and launched a very long retirement tour, one that would last years with no definitive final date. The tour was dubbed The Final Countdown and Inoki continued to wrestle mostly quick matches, often in the worked-shoot format. Inoki finally announced his retirement from professional wrestling and set the final date for April 4, 1998. The largest crowd in Japanese wrestling history arrived at the Tokyo Dome for The Inoki Final, and 70,000 fans watched Inoki defeat American mixed-martial artist Don Frye in a short match.
Following his retirement Inoki remained with NJPW, mostly in a figurehead role but also had a hand in booking talent. He sold his stake in the company to video game company Yuke's and officially left NJPW in 2006. In 2007 he started his own promotion, the Inoki Genome Federation which relied on the worked-shoot format for a majority of its matches.
Inoki ranks this high because he was a top star in wrestling for around 30 years, making his run as a top wrestler longer than most wrestlers' entire career. While he continuously pushed himself on top at the expense of others, it cannot be argued that often times it was the right move, because Inoki proved to be the biggest drawing card NJPW possessed time and time again. In the ring he was very good, and his insistence on making pro wrestling look legitimate and be respected helped solidify the seriousness that Japan takes in pro wrestling. As phony as Inoki proved to be in the real world, there is little arguing that he worked tirelessly to get the image that he was the best into the minds of fans all over the world, and in professional wrestling, fabricated image has often proved superior to reality.
Next week #3 will be revealed, a big-time babyface with some big-time facial hair.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi
13. The Rock
12. Jumbo Tsuruta
11. Stan Hansen
10. The Undertaker
9. Verne Gagne
8. Terry Funk
7. Mitsuharu Misawa
6. Giant Baba
5. Bruno Sammartino
4. Antonio Inoki