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Wrestler, Statesman, Hostage Negotiator, Legend: The Life of Antonio Inoki

How the storied Japanese professional wrestler went on to influence diplomacy with North Korea, Iraq, and Pakistan — and fight Muhammad Ali and Ric Flair along the way

One of the best ways to appreciate the full glory of Antonio Inoki, the legendary Japanese professional wrestler, WWE Hall of Famer, and three-term member of his country’s parliament, is to Google image-search the phrase アントニオ猪木ビンタ (“Antonio Inoki bitch-slap”). You will see Inoki bitch-slapping the Japanese ambassador to Pakistan, a Cuban Olympian, a Japanese pop idol and member of the girl group SKE48, a man standing shirtless and in shorts in the snow, a 55-year-old female Japanese politician, the nationalistic former governor of Tokyo, a young Pakistani child, a man cradling an infant, a comedian, and scores of others.

Fans, politicians, pop stars, and children from all over the world line up to receive his famed bitch-slap in the belief that it will invigorate them and transfer some of Inoki’s “burning fighting spirit.” But Inoki has a rich history of trading blows with much greater purpose. He fought Muhammad Ali at the 14,500-seat Nippon Budokan in Tokyo in 1976 in what was one of the first mixed martial arts contests. Three years later, he took on Jhara Pahalwan, who came from a family of legendary wrestlers and was once called the “Pride of Pakistan,” in Lahore. He stomped and kicked 450-pound strongman the Great Antonio in 1977 in one of the most infamous cases of a wrestling match gone off script. He drop-kicked “Nature Boy” Ric Flair in front of hundreds of thousands in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 1995.

Inoki has a massive, muscular jaw that extends diagonally from his long, broad face. When he smiles, his eyes crinkle into slender, avuncular folds, but his glare can be unnerving — an expanse of cheekbones and jaw.

Iconic in Japan for the tiny black shorts that clung to his blocky 6-foot-2 frame and the trademark red scarf or towel that he draped over his shoulders as he marched into the ring over his almost 40-year career, Inoki’s public profile has expanded since he retired in the late ’90s. Antonio is his stage name (he was born Kanji Inoki), but his wrestling, political, and commercial careers bleed together so that fans, politicians, and the media alike all call him Antonio Inoki. He has starred in commercials for everything from energy drinks to water filters to the Heiwa chain of Japanese pinball parlors. Meanwhile, as a statesman, Inoki has tackled some of the most dangerous conflicts and diplomatic disputes in the world. Dressed mostly in a suit and tie for his public appearances these days, the 71-year-old Inoki, still sturdy and loud, brings his “burning fighting spirit” — Inoki’s motto — to deal with everyone from the North Korean dictatorship to Pakistani officials in the struggle against the Taliban.

But with higher stakes comes greater scrutiny. These days, not everybody cheers Inoki’s every move. In November 2013, he returned to North Korea, his 27th trip to the reclusive nation since the mid-1980s. This trip was different, however, because four months earlier Inoki had been elected to Japan’s parliament. His trip was unauthorized and he was expressly denied permission to visit. Upon his return to Tokyo, Inoki was met by an anxious throng of reporters at Haneda Airport, all of them jostling to record his explanation for defying government orders.

Inoki stepped off the plane and then raised his fist. “Genki kaaa?!” he bellowed (“Are you all doing well?!”), echoing the call he had been making to wrestling fans for decades. The reporters were shocked by the wrestler turned politician’s ringside demeanor. Did he not know the mood he had left behind in Tokyo? Or did he simply not care?

Japanese lawmakers were enraged by Inoki’s flagrant breach of protocol — imagine a U.S. congressman unilaterally holding talks with Cuba or North Korea. But they were also cautious. Japan has an ugly imperial history in the Korean Peninsula dating back to the late 19th century, which culminated in official annexation from 1910 to 1945. Over the past few decades, tensions have seesawed, at times receiving boosts from popular Korean TV dramas, Japanese anime, and even Emperor Akihito’s reference to an ancient chronicle that traces an eighth-century imperial ancestor to the Korean Peninsula. But relations between Japan and both North and South Korea are now at a post-WWII nadir, with disputes over a variety of issues, including the contested islets called Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea, as well as Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s moves to successfully reinterpret the Japanese Constitution and effectively change Article 9, which set the terms of Japan’s pacifist postwar constitution. All this is punctuated by Japan’s recent refusals to apologize for imperial violence and cabinet members’ visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors millions of Japanese war dead, including 14 “Class A” World War II war criminals. To compound this historical bitterness, North Korea kidnapped Japanese citizens during the ’70s and ’80s. The government of Japan confirms only 17 cases of kidnapping by North Korea (North Korea says it kidnapped 13 individuals), although the real number could be much higher. Some kidnapping victims were repatriated to Japan, but according to North Korea, others committed suicide or died of heart attacks and traffic accidents. The Japanese government has labeled these deaths “unnatural” and accused North Korea of failing to provide evidence that the hostages died at all or in the ways that Pyongyang claims. Japanese pressure groups suggest that there may be more than 100 kidnapped Japanese citizens. The hostage situation is a national wound for Japan that shows no sign of healing soon.

But in North Korea, Inoki isn’t just another Japanese politician. His wrestling ties to the country run deep. Kim Il-sung, the country’s “Eternal Leader” and the current leader’s grandfather, established a collection of gifts received from world leaders, which are on display in the North Korean tourist destination Myohyang-san. The treasures include the Mercedes-Benz that once belonged to Rikidozan, a wrestler of North Korean origin who mentored Inoki; a crystal glass from Jimmy Carter; and, displayed in a place of pride, a Japanese single-lens reflex camera from Antonio Inoki.

Decades before Dennis Rodman started playing exhibition games in North Korea and singing “Happy Birthday” to Kim Jong-un, Inoki had been cultivating a communication pipeline with two generations of the country’s secretive, brutal, and erratic leaders. In one of his highest-profile trips, Inoki traveled with Muhammad Ali and Ric Flair to Pyongyang in 1995 as part of Collision in Korea, a two-day show orchestrated by North Korea, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, and New Japan Pro Wrestling. The event drew a reported 380,000 attendees.1

Inoki’s recent diplomatic efforts in North Korea have endured some hiccups. During his November 2013 trip, Inoki was hosted by Kim Jong-un’s uncle and second-in-command, Jang Song-thaek. A month later, Jang was arrested on charges of threatening the state, then demoted and ordered to be executed by his nephew Kim. The world shuddered, but Inoki remained unfazed.

In an interview shortly after Jang’s execution and preceding Inoki’s 28th trip to Pyongyang, Inoki responded evasively when a reporter asked about the execution of his onetime host: “I can only say that I was really surprised. But when I think back on it, he wasn’t so well when I saw him last. When I met him previously he had stood up straight, but when I saw him in November, he slumped in his chair a little, and seemed exhausted.” The statement didn’t address Jang’s state-sanctioned killing, and it sounded oddly reminiscent of the way Inoki might size up a wrestling opponent. Presumably, Inoki decided to ignore the ghastly turn of events to preserve his relationship with Kim Jong-un’s regime. For Inoki, diplomacy means keeping open the door of communication, no matter how gruesome his counterpart.

“I am doing things that the Japanese government cannot do, and it is not that I want to interfere [with the Japanese government],” he said in a January 2014 interview with Gendai Business magazine.

Inoki was ultimately punished for his unauthorized trip to North Korea. The Japanese Diet2 suspended him for 30 days and his own Japan Restoration Party leveled a 50-day suspension against Inoki. But some of his fellow politicians quietly wondered: What if Inoki actually managed to solve a decades-long hostage situation? It seemed possible that his renegade tactics might succeed where seasoned politicians and traditional diplomacy have failed. After all, he successfully negotiated with Saddam Hussein in 1990 by holding a “peace festival” in Baghdad, where Inoki’s intervention was critical in securing the release of hundreds of Japanese nationals held hostage during the first Gulf War.

Could it be that a little “burning fighting spirit” was all that the world needed?

inoki-antonio-ali-muhammad

AP Photo

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s in Japan, Inoki was everywhere — in commercials hawking energy drinks, in the news freeing hostages in Iraq, in the ring sweating in tiny black wrestling shorts. Inoki has been engaged in his singular blend of sports, commerce, and diplomacy for decades. A political and religious chameleon, Inoki has long expressed a vision of “world peace through sports.”

When Inoki was first elected to the Japanese House of Councillors in 1989, it was through the “Sports and Peace Party,” which was established largely around him. Even then, his political party was premised on a sports-infused takedown of the political status quo. The party’s catchphrase was “An Octopus Hold [manji-gatame] on the National Diet, a jumping roundhouse kick to the back of the head [enzuigiri] on the national consumption tax.”

Less than a year after he began life as a politician in 1989, more than 100 Japanese families living in Iraq were arrested and held by Saddam Hussein as human shields during the first Gulf War. Hussein hoped to forestall military retaliation for his August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and detaining foreigners in Iraq seemed like it might prevent the bombardments that would later be called Operation Desert Storm. At this time, Inoki was serving in the House of Councillors, or upper house of the Diet.

As negotiations between the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the Iraqi government were slow to produce any results, Inoki took the lead in reaching out to the Iraqis. It was on the basis of his reputation as a sportsman and popularity as a performer that Inoki rose to the forefront of negotiations. Despite being an elected MP, Inoki didn’t lead a delegation of diplomats or negotiators. Inoki’s unique status as both an MP and a popular wrestler, negotiating on behalf of the Japanese people — not the Foreign Ministry or military — afforded him a creative negotiating space. He presented himself as an ambassador for peace, not as an instrument of the state.

The crisis lasted months, and Inoki traveled to Iraq three times between September and December 1990 as part of his attempts to free the hostages. There were 141 Japanese men held as of August 23, 1990. Women and children — mostly the wives and children of the men held hostage — were released and returned to Japan on September 2. The family members petitioned Saddam Hussein and repeatedly sent letters requesting the release of the remaining detainees, to no avail. Japanese news broadcasts of Inoki’s September 1990 visit showed him wearing tiny white shorts and a tight white T-shirt cheerfully jogging through Baghdad and waving to a guard manning a security gate before suiting up for meetings with Uday Hussein.

But that was just the beginning of the spectacle. Inoki was apparently the first Japanese politician to be admitted to the mosque at Karbala, and news segments showed him standing in the mosque with his hands raised and palms facing skyward in prayer. Two sheep were sacrificed for him. Inoki’s hosts taught him to pray and demonstrated the process of becoming a Muslim. It was during his visit to Karbala that Inoki was given the Muslim name “Muhammad Hussain.” And just like that, Inoki’s character gained a new facet: Islam. In Japan, Inoki’s Karbala episode was perceived as an instinctive diplomat’s PR move to understand the culture of his host country. A Japanese newsreel from the time shows him touring around the shrine complex in Karbala, explaining that Inoki “experienced what a conversion ceremony to Islam would entail,” noting that in Iraq this makes Inoki popular as “a politician who understands the heart of Islam.”

Former Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who had left office in 1987, visited Baghdad in November that year and negotiated to free some of the Japanese hostages, but dozens remained in Iraq. Inoki took a different approach. He traveled to Baghdad with 46 family members of the hostages on November 30, the day after the U.N. Security Council voted to use military force. There would no be guarantee of safety — just faith in Inoki.

A few days later, Inoki organized a “peace festival” in Baghdad, featuring matches by Japanese professional wrestlers, traditional taiko drummers, a rock concert, soccer, basketball, karate, and judo exhibitions at Saddam Arena. Inoki estimated that 35,000 people attended.

“I think we were able to bring here [to Iraq] the voices of the world that hope for peace,” Inoki said as he stood in Saddam Arena, as the wrestling grand finale was about to begin. Inoki begged off of participating in the event due to a foot injury and intermittent meetings with Iraqi officials.

“In order to defeat the enemy called war, they have fought for peace!” an announcer on Japan’s TV Asahi exclaimed at the end of the multiday festival. But news footage of the event showed the hostages’ family members weeping as they watched the exhibitions. They knew they had to return home soon, and the “peace festival” made no concrete progress in arranging the release of their loved ones.

On December 4, Inoki was scheduled to return to Japan, leaving in Iraq some of the 46 family members who chose to stay with the men still held hostage. Then, as Inoki traveled to the airport, a letter he had written made its way, through intermediaries, to Saddam Hussein. A Japanese attaché rushed to the airport to ask Inoki to stay in Iraq a while longer. Inoki agreed.

The next day, Inoki, the hostages, and their families met Saddam’s son Uday, then Iraq’s minister of sport. Inoki and his “peace festival” had untied a diplomatic knot that the Foreign Ministry had failed to untangle. Uday announced that according to a special order from his father, the final 41 Japanese hostages would be freed. Remarkably, Uday apologized for holding the Japanese for so long. News footage from that time showed family members and Inoki joyously exclaiming “1-2-3-Daaaa!” one of Inoki’s signature wrestling calls to rile up the crowd.

The following day, Saddam Hussein announced that all of the approximately 5,300 foreigners in Iraq without permission to leave would be released. The Gulf War began the following month, on January 17, 1991.

Flash-forward to 2012. The war has moved to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The enemy is now a loose coalition of extremists, warlords, and militants. No Japanese citizens are caught in the conflict, but Inoki is there once again, trying to march to the front lines.

Garlanded with a Pakistani version of a lei (a haar) in December 2012, Inoki visited Peshawar, arguably the most dangerous city in the country. Inoki announced his plan to establish wrestling academies in Peshawar and Lahore and brought a 10-man team of Japanese wrestlers who performed in Inoki’s “Wrestling for Peace” festival. It was a hit.

When he returned to Pakistan in 2013, Inoki offered to lead peace negotiations between the Pakistani government and the Taliban. “I feel bad seeing Muslims fighting against each other, which is why I decided to travel to Pakistan and offer my services in facilitating talks,” Inoki said at the National Press Club in Islamabad. Inoki also expressed his desire to meet with the Taliban: “If someone wants to fight, he should do it inside a ring.” Inoki’s bizarre gesture wasn’t entirely dismissed. A former minister from the federally administered tribal region, a Taliban stronghold, joined Inoki at the press conference.

Inoki has been a larger-than-life figure in Pakistan for the better part of 40 years. Since his Karbala trip in Iraq, he has been known in Pakistan as the converted Muslim wrestler. It’s a far cry from his image in Japan, where he has gone on television to describe his love of the no-longer-manufactured premium Nikka Whiskey (alcohol is forbidden in Islam). Like a wrestling character who adds new dimensions to his character and backstory over his performing career, Inoki acquired the reputation of a Muslim along with the name Muhammad Hussain, and the Islamic world has embraced him as such. The Pakistani press presents Inoki as a Muslim, consistently referring to him as Muhammad Hussain Inoki. In Pakistan, Inoki often swaps his trademark red scarf for a green one — the color of the country’s flag — and the local press refers to him using the Muslim name Muhammad Hussain Inoki.  

Inoki’s sporting roots in Pakistan run deep. He traveled to the country in December 1976 to challenge local legend Akram Pahalwan, who descended from a well-known wrestling family in Punjab province. The two engaged in a six-round match in the 34,228-seat Karachi National Stadium. Akram was billed as the strongest man in the world. His last name, “Pahalwan,” means “wrestler.”

For the fight, Pahalwan wore a pair of tiny, shimmering pink briefs on which colorful swirls bloomed below his barrel of a belly. As the match began, cries of “Allahu akbar!” (God is greatest!) pierced the din of the cheering.

“This match was such a big deal that we had to agree to show the broadcast of the match at my wedding reception!” a retired high-ranking civil servant in the Punjab government told me in Lahore. “We had to have several TVs put into the hall where we held our wedding reception, because otherwise no one would have showed up until the match ended.”

Even though this was ostensibly the staged spectacle of professional wrestling, Akram-Inoki was a brutal fight. In later commentary about the match, Inoki described how both wrestlers accused the other of employing illegal moves in the second round. Akram said Inoki had gouged his eyes and Inoki blamed Akram for jabbing his throat and biting his wrist.

During the first round, Inoki bent Akram’s left arm backward and dislocated his shoulder. Watching it later, he noted that Akram’s arm should have snapped: “He is double-jointed, otherwise it shouldn’t have bent so far.” Shouldering the nation’s expectations on that winter night, Akram soldiered through the first five-minute round and then the second, nursing his aching left arm. Then, seconds into the third round, Inoki positioned himself on the mat and continued to bend Akram’s left arm. Akram collapsed into a heaving pile. Inoki jumped up and triumphantly cried, “I broke it!” After 1:05 the doctor stopped the match. Akram lay in the center of the stadium, defeated and humiliated.

In a post-match interview on Japanese television, Inoki gave his verdict on the match: “He’s known as a real hero here, so I think the result of this match is a real shock for the people of Pakistan. I feel like I didn’t have to go so far, but my opponent was desperate, and even when his arm when grrrrrrrrkh, he refused to quit, so I came down on it [his left arm] a second time … So this probably won’t heal. But I am really happy that I was able to meet everyone’s expectations.”

In another interview, Inoki said: “Akram has incredible fighting spirit and resilience. But I wish that he would just admit defeat when he’s defeated. If anyone is dissatisfied with this result, I’m happy to fight anyone from this family. I’ll battle them right here right now.”

This set up what was perhaps an even bigger revenge match, remembered as one of the greatest in Pakistan’s long wrestling history. It also allowed Inoki to practice his brand of athletic diplomacy and exercise his knack for self-promotion.

Akram’s nephew, Jhara Pahalwan, nursed the nation’s unexpected humiliation for three years and took up Inoki’s invitation to avenge his uncle’s defeat. When Inoki and Jhara Pahalwan finally wrestled on June 16, 1979, Pakistanis flooded into Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore. Inoki was 36. Jhara was 19. “His boyhood was devoted to revenge,” Jhara’s brother, Abid Pahalwan, told the Japanese news channel NHK World.

Back then, Jhara had a teenager’s mustache and a small head perched atop a heaving oil drum of a torso. Inoki and Jhara spent whole minutes circling the mat with their arms locked around each other’s heads, occasionally breaking their meaty dance to knee each other’s chests. When Jhara delivered a swift, side-sweeping kick to Inoki’s left ankle in the fifth round, it sent Inoki stumbling to the mat. Jhara repeated the move seconds later and Inoki fell once more. Both men grappled defensively through the rest of the round, trying to wait out the clock.

After the five-round match ended without a clear winner and tens of thousands of Pakistani fans were about to return home, unsatisfied and unfulfilled, Inoki decided to make his move. As the wrestlers embraced for a moment of post-match respect, Inoki smoothly raised Jhara’s left arm. Inoki then gave the audience two quick subtle nods.

Jhara and his cornermen began jumping around the ring, thumping their arms in victory as onlookers poured into the ring, started dancing to bhangra, and jumped up and down with their fingers pointed to the sky. The stadium erupted in a volcanic burst of noise and before long a policeman with a wooden stick appeared in the ring, rhythmically hitting men in a halfhearted attempt to clear the area, which had become a mosh pit.

While the stadium erupted in celebration, Inoki was nowhere to be seen. His job was done. In conceding the match, Inoki gave a redemptive arc to the Pahalwan family’s story: The young cousin devotes his childhood to avenging his uncle’s humiliation, and his efforts are ultimately rewarded. Inoki was aware of the nationalistic hopes that rested on the long-awaited revenge match. In conceding defeat, he won the hearts of the audience and long-lasting fame throughout Pakistan.

Thirty-five years later, Inoki hoped he could leverage that diplomatic capital to help solve the 13-year war between the Taliban, Pakistan, and the United States. While Inoki might have spotted an opening, it was clear that he was never a plausible negotiator with the Taliban. He has a gift for talks with dictators like Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, but he has no experience negotiating with a loose network of extremists and warlords. It was little surprise when Inoki’s offer to broker a peace went ignored, and the whole affair reeked of spectacle.

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Jun Sato/WireImage

Does Inoki care about being left out? It’s hard to say. As is almost always the case with professional wrestlers, the line between performance and real life gets blurry. Is Inoki a hard-drinking, hostage-freeing, Buddhist Japanese politician? Is he a Muslim convert named Muhammad Hussain? Inoki’s political and diplomatic activities are so dispersed throughout the globe that he’s seen as a different man in almost every country he visits. He glides through his separate realms like a wrestler with a patchy backstory moving from one loosely connected match to the next.

In recent weeks, major shifts have occurred in Japan–North Korea relations. Pyongyang agreed to open a new investigation into the Japanese abductees, which Japan rewarded by revoking some of its unilateral sanctions against the regime. Inscrutably, North Korea then test-fired two Scud-type missiles into the Sea of Japan, but bilateral relations still seem to be warming.

How much of this is because of Inoki’s efforts is hard to say, but the Japanese government granted him formal permission to travel to North Korea earlier this month. Kim Jong-un seems keen for a reboot of the 1995 Collision in Korea wrestling extravaganza, and Inoki’s stated reason for the trip is to co-organize a pro wrestling festival scheduled for the end of August in Pyongyang.

Both Inoki and the Japanese state played down his July visit as a personal tour, even though Inoki traveled with a team of fellow lawmakers and met with a North Korean diplomat. “We understand that Mr. Inoki and other lawmakers are visiting North Korea for their own reasons,” said the chief cabinet secretary. Sticking to the script, Inoki demurred, “We have no intention of getting in the way of what the Japanese government is doing right now.” The choreographed exchange had all the theatricality of a WWE matchup.

Despite Inoki’s liaisons with North Korea, the former wrestler has not been included in the official group established to repatriate Japanese hostages from North Korea. In fact, he declined membership in the task force, claiming that he would rather act in a personal and individual capacity. For a man who spent decades fighting scripted stories in the ring, Inoki the politician does not like to play by the rules.

“I’m past 70 now, so I’m prepared to receive ‘the final call,’ whenever my time comes,” he said in January, before he left for North Korea. “In the future, even when I’m not around anymore, I hope that the steady exchange with North Korea will not be extinguished.”

Inoki will be fanning the flames of his “burning fighting spirit” in this world and the next. 

Mimi Hanaoka is a professor of religious studies at the University of Richmond. She is writing a book about the history of Middle East–Japan relations.

Filed Under: professional wrestling, Antonio Inoki, Ric Flair, North Korea, Japan, Politics, Diplomacy, Iraq War, Saddam Hussein, Taliban, Pakistan, Muhammad Ali

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