Japanese pro-wrestler turned politician Kanji “Antonio” Inoki waves as he arrives at the Sunan International Airport on Aug. 28, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin, File)

By MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) — A popular Japanese professional wrestler and lawmaker Antonio Inoki, who faced world boxing champion Muhammad Ali in a mixed martial arts match in 1976, has died at 79.

Inoki brought Japanese pro-wrestling to fame and pioneered mixed martial arts matches between top wrestlers and champions from other combat sports like judo, karate, and boxing.

Inoki, who was battling a rare disease called amyloidosis, died earlier Saturday, according to the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co., of which he was the founding president.

He rose to global fame in the sport in 1976 when he faced Ali in a mixed martial arts match at Tokyo’s Budokan hall, an exhibition match that Japanese fans remember as “the fight of the century.”

To many of those outside Japan, however, the match was seen as unprofessional and not taken seriously. Inoki was mostly on the mat and kicking at Ali’s legs as the boxing champion circled around him.

Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki kicks the back of Muhammad Ali’s leg during their boxing-wrestling bout at the Budokan hall in Tokyo, June 26, 1976. (AP Photo, File)

He was the first in his sport to enter politics. He promoted peace through sports and made more than 30 trips to North Korea during his time as a lawmaker in hopes of forging peace and friendship.

Inoki was upbeat and in good spirits, even as he was fighting the disease. With his trademark red scarf dangling from his neck, Inoki last appeared in public in August on a TV show, in a wheelchair.

“As you can see, I’m pushing myself to the limit, and I’m getting power as I get to see you,” he said.

Born Kanji Inoki in 1943 in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, he moved to Brazil with his family when he was 13 and worked at a coffee plantation. Inoki won local fame in the shot put as a student and debuted as a professional wrestler at 17 while on a wrestling tour in Brazil where he captured the attention of Rikidozan, known as the father of Japanese pro wrestling.

Inoki made his pro-wrestling debut in 1960 and gave himself the ring name Antonio Inoki two years later.

With his archrival and another Japanese legend, the late Shohei “Giant” Baba, Inoki made pro-wrestling a hugely popular sport in Japan. Inoki founded the New Japan Pro-Wrestling in 1972.

Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki clamps leg hold on boxer Chuck Wepner of Bayonne, N.J., during the sixth round of a bout at Tokyo’s Budokan hall on Oct. 26, 1977. A popular Japanese professional wrestler and lawmaker Antonio Inoki, who faced a world boxing champion Muhammad Ali in a mixed martial arts match in 1976, has died at 79. The New Japan Pro-Wrestling Co. says Inoki, who was battling an illness, died on Oct. 1. (AP Photo, File)

Inoki entered politics in 1989 after winning a seat in the upper house, one of Japan’s two chambers of parliament, and headed the Sports and Peace Party. He traveled to Iraq in 1990 to win the release of Japanese citizens who were held hostage there. He also staged a pro-wrestling match in North Korea.

Inoki built a personal connection with North Korea over the years and visited the country repeatedly to help resolve Japan’s longstanding issue of past abductions of Japanese nationals to the North.

He retired as a wrestler in 1998, but remained active in politics until 2019.

An outpouring of tributes were posted on social media.

“A huge star has fallen. An era has come to an end,” tweeted Atsushi Onita, also a wrestler who once served as lawmaker. Onita called Inoki “the great father of pro-wrestling” and added, “Thank you Inoki-san. I express my condolences from the bottom of my heart.”

Yoshifu Arita, a journalist and former lawmaker, praised Inoki for his effort to resolve the abduction issue with the North.

“Another important route with North Korea is lost,” Arita tweeted, as he criticized other former Japanese leaders for relying on “useless” connections and making no improvement. “Thank you for your hard work, Mr. Inoki.”

Wrestler Antonio Inoki and world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali shake hands after a 15-round boxing- wrestling fight on June 26, 1976, at Tokyo’s Budokan hall. A popular Japanese professional wrestler and lawmaker Antonio Inoki, who faced world boxing champion Ali in a mixed martial arts match in 1976, has died at 79. (AP Photo, File)

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