MMA Pioneer Series: Kanji "Antonio" Inoki

UPDATED:  The Inoki vs Ali video has been updated with a much better highlight and a meeting between the two, 30 years after the fight.  Ali can also be seen, post-fight with a leg cast due to the damage Inoki inflicted with his kicks.


Just who is Antonio Inoki and why should we care?  For those who find his name unfamiliar, I’m sure that you have at least a passing knowledge of Kanji Inoki. 


Inoki via


He is perhaps best known to the casual MMA fan for his appearance in a viral video with current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, Lyoto Machida (see below).


Legend has it that a slap from Inoki (know as Tokon, or Fighting Spirit slap) is a high honor and blessing, which bestows great courage and fortune upon the recipient (Apparently, Inoki knew long ago that The Dragon was destined for future greatness).

Although his viral intrigue is his current claim to fame, Inoki’s importance and value to Mixed Martial Arts runs much deeper and extends farther than many know.

Born to a privileged family in Yokohama Japan in 1943, Antonio was a natural athlete.  He practiced and participated in many sports and disciplines during his childhood and adolescence including karate, track & field, and basketball.

Years later, he would immigrate to Brazil with his family, where he continued to excel as a high school track & field star, winning multiple regional and national titles.

At the age of 17, Kanji’s life would forever be changed by a chance encounter with Mitsuhiro "Rikidozan" Momota in Sao Paulo Brazil, in April 1960.  Momota (a renowned professional wrestler, and the founder of the Japanese Wrestling Association) offered Antonio the opportunity to return to Japan under his tutelage, to become a professional wrestler.  Inoki accepted the offer and began on his road to greatness. 


Photos of Mitsuhiro "Rikidozan" Momota


Antonio tirelessly perfected his new craft under the watchful eye of Mitsuhiro until his untimely death in 1963.  From 1963 thru 1972, Inoki competed for several wrestling organizations such as Tokyo Professional Wrestling, Japan Wrestling Association, and the New Japan Pro Wrestling.  During that time, Antonio would also make multiple excursions to the U.S., where he faced many notable American wrestling greats.  Inoki ‘s exploits would see him grow into a Japanese national treasure, as he won dozens of nation, team, and world wrestling championships.

In 1972, Antonio’s destiny would again be altered.  In his first match under the New Japan banner, he faced the internationally celebrated Karl  "Karl Istaz" Gotch.  Gotch, a former Belgian Olympic wrestler, was also a master practitioner of Pelwani (an Indian Martial Art based on wrestling, submissions, and throws).




Following their wrestling match, Inoki and Gotch forged a strong friendship.  As a result, Karl began instructing Antonio in a hybrid style of catch and submission wrestling, which would evolve to become modern Hook & Shoot.

Through countless hours of practice, Inoki adapted the skills learned from Gotch into his own style of fighting known simply as "Strong Style."  It was Inoki’s ultimate desire to test his new system of fighting against the best fighters of all disciplines.  Accordingly, he began seeking out top competitors in the arts of Judo, Karate, Ju-Jitsu, and Boxing. 

Over the course of his Mixed Martial Arts exploits, Antonio compiled a record of 16 – 1 – 3 (with dozens more undocumented contests), against world-class athletes and champions such as:  Muhammad Ali (yes The Muhammad Ali), Karl Mildenberger, Chuck Wepner, Leon Spinks, Willem Ruska, Willie Williams, and Shota Chochishvili    


Muhammad Ali vs Kanji "Antonio" Inoki via

Prior to agreeing to face Inoki in 1976, Muhammad Ali and his team attended one of Kanji's matches, where they gained great respect for his submission grappling skills and powerful leg strikes.  This led Team Ali to stipulate that they would only face Inoki if he agreed to only utilize his leg strikes with one knee touching the ground.  This rule put Kanji at a severe disadvantage, but he agreed nonetheless.  Kanji would go on to battle Ali to a 3 - 3 draw.




Inoki is a true forefather of modern MMA and should be celebrated in in the same respect as other notable practitioners.  One of the key figures in the history of Japanese wrestling and submission wrestling, Antonio Inoki is among the most respected men in sports-entertainment, and a bona fide living legend in his homeland.

Following his retirement from active competition, Inoki remains active in the development and promotion of MMA and pro wrestling, both in Japan, and around the world. 

Later this year, Kanji is scheduled to be inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame during the 2010 Wrestlemania festivities.


Antonio Inoki via


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