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This Day in Wrestling History (Feb. 20): Happy Birthday Antonio Inoki!

Today’s TDIPWH is presented in two parts. The first focuses on the events of the day, including Ricky Steamboat winning the NWA world title. This part will focus on the career and life of the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling, Antonio Inoki, who turns 74 today.

It’s a happy 74th birthday of Kanji Inoki. Known today as Muhammad Hussain Inoki, he's best known to wrestling fans as the legendary Antonio Inoki.

Born to a large affluent family in Yokohama, Japan, he was one of eleven children (seven boys and four girls; Inoki was the second youngest of the boys). His father, a businessman and politician, died when he was just five. As a young boy, he took up karate, basketball, and track and field, specifically the shot put. Following World War II, the family, falling on hard times, immigrated to Brazil, but Inoki's grandfather died on the way. Inoki continued to excel in track and field events, winning and regional and national championships in shot put, discus, and javelin throw.

At age 17, Inoki met Japanese wrestler Rikidozan. He returned home to Japan as his disciple for the Japan Wrestling Association and often teamed with his dojo classmate Shohei "Giant" Baba. Inoki left the promotion briefly for an excursion to the United States in 1966, then returned as the featured star of Tokyo Pro Wrestling. He primarily feuded with Johnny Valentine there, and it was that feud that led him to national prominence. He never got to enjoy his stardom there, as Tokyo Pro would shut down in 1967.

He would return to JWA as the tag team partner for Giant Baba. Together as "B-I Cannon", they were the most dominant duo in the promotion at the time, winning the NWA International Tag Team Championship four times. In 1971, Inoki secretly planned a takeover of JWA, but was found out and subsequently fired. His firing, along with Baba quitting the promotion a year later, virtually led to the end of the Japan Wrestling Association.

In 1972, Inoki formed New Japan Pro Wrestling. While Baba's All Japan Pro Wrestling, which would be formed about ten months later, emphasized talent working exclusively for them, New Japan would hook up with outside organizations from all over the world, including the NWA, WCW, WWF, WAR, and CMLL.

Matches for New Japan empahisized many styles, including boxing, judo, karate, and shoot wrestling. Some of Inoki's early bouts are seen as a precursor to today's MMA. His most famous bout came not against a wrestler, but a boxer: Muhammad Ali in 1976. Though both sides came to an agreement in principle on the bout, a major rule change was added just two days before the bout: a kick could only be thrown if one of his knees was on the ground. The "worked" bout was seen as a major disappointment: Ali, a world champion boxer, landed a total of six punches, and Inoki stayed grounded virtually the entire match, kicking away at Ali's legs. The leg injuries Ali suffered would affect him for the remainder of his boxing career.

In November 1979, Inoki defeated Bob Backlund for the WWF Championship. Backlund would win it back just a week later. The rematch was declared a no contest due to interference from Tiger Jeet Singh. Inoki refused the championship, leaving it vacant briefly before Backlund won it in a Texas Deathmatch (this reign is not officially recognized by WWE).

In 1989, Antonio followed his father's footsteps as a politician when he was elected to the Japanese House of Councilors as a member of his own Sports and Peace Party. The next year, he traveled to Iraq for an "unofficial one-man diplomatic mission" and successfully negotiated the release of 141 Japanese hostages just before the outbreak of the Gulf War. It was while he was in Iraq Inoki converted to Islam. The public did not know of his conversion until 2012. He was re-elected in 1992, but a bribery scandal and his alleged connections to the yakuza cost him re-election in 1995.

In 1990, New Japan and WCW co-promoted a two-day wrestling festival with cooperation from the Japanese and North Korean governments. The event, named Collision in Korea in the States, holds the record for the largest attendance for a pro wrestling event ever (anywhere from 160,000 to 340,000 depending on who's telling the story). In the event's featured bout, Inoki defeated Ric Flair.

Antonio began to wind down his career in 1994 with the "Final Countdown" series of matches. One of them was for WCW, defeating Steven Regal at Clash of the Champions XXVIII in a non-title match. In April 1998, Inoki defeated Don Frye by submission in his final match.

Inoki would spend the early part of the 2000s promoting MMA events, including NJPW: Ultimate Crush, and annual Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye events on New Year's Eve pitting New Japan talent against mixed martial arts fighters. Antonio's influence in New Japan declined around this time, especially following video game developer Yuke's buying a majority stake in the company in 2005. Inoki would essentially be forced out of the company and start his own (again), the Inoki Genome Federation.

In February 2010, WWE announced that Antonio Inoki would be inducted into their Hall of Fame. He was inducted at Wrestlemania XXVI by Stan Hansen, who had quite a bit of success in Japan. In 2013, Inoki was elected to the House of Councilors as a member of the Japan Restoration Party. Late in the year he was suspended for 30 days for an unauthorized trip to North Korea. He has made more than two dozen visits to the country. He joined a new party in 2015, the Assembly to Energize Japan.

Inoki, who has a cameo in The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, is not only a member of the WWE Hall of Fame; he's a member of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (1996), the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (2009), and the New Japan Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame (called Greatest Wrestlers, 2007). The 2001 Observer Promoter of the Year has won over 50 awards, championships, and tournaments in his career.

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