When people think of pro wrestling, what generally comes to mind is flashy tights, steel chairs and over the top characters, but that is far from all wrestling is.
Wrestling is a world wide passion for millions of people, maybe even billions. Almost every developed country features pro wrestling either on TV or live in person. One country that has stood out over the decades as a place for high quality wrestling is Japan.
Japan has not only churned out some of the world's best pro wrestlers but has also served as a training ground for many other stars from different countries to hone their skills.
Guys like Daniel Bryan, Evan Bourne, Bret Hart, Ric Flair and Chris Jericho have spent significant time in Japan. Former WWE star MVP is currently defending his Intercontinental Championsip in Japan and has said on numerous occasions that he loves it.
The land of the rising sun has certainly helped the world of pro wrestling by providing some amazing talents, but which wrestler stand out as the greatest?
While this topic may be debated among many, there is only one name that stands out to yours truly, Antonio Inoki.
Born Kanji Inoki, he later changed his name to Antonio in an homage to Antonio Rocca, a legend in his own right.
I could sit here and list all of Inoki's accomplishments to prove why I believe why he is the best Japanese Wrestler of all time, but when push comes to shove, he didn't hold as many titles as some others so his records alone will not support this argument.
I will instead focus on the things that made him great both in and out of the ring.
Inoki was first and foremost an athlete. He competed in Track and Field events while in high school and even went on to win his High School Championship in Shot put.
After moving to Brazil in his teen years he went on to win the All Brazilian Championships in both Shot put and Discus Throw.
Upon his return to Japan in 1960 he joined the Japan Wrestling Association with his mentor Rikidōzan. Over the next 11 years Inoki competed with several Japanese promotions including Tokyo Pro Wrestling in the late '60s.
Have you heard of Antonio Inoki before reading this?
Inoki's father was a politician before passing, and like his father before him, Inoki had a need to be recognized as the best.
During his time in JWA he faced off against then WWF Champion Bruno Sammartino in a tag team match. Sammartino has stated that during the match Inoki tried to "shoot" on him, meaning he applied a real submission hold trying to show dominance over the WWF Champion.
Sammartino powered out of the hold, beat Inoki bloody and threw him out of the ring. These claims have never been confirmed or denied by Inoki, but this kind of thing happened far more often back then, so it would not surprise me if it was true.
After being fired for trying to take over JWA Inoki founded the New Japan Pro Wrestling promotion in 1971. His first match in the promotion was against his real life friend and legend Karl Gotch. Gotch later trained Inoki and several other wrestlers to incorporate martial arts moves along with wrestling.
NJPW held events that would see MMA fights on the same card as wrestling matches, and these events were seen as a precursor for todays MMA events, despite the fact that almost all of the MMA bouts were worked or planned in advance.
In 1978, Vince McMahon created the WWF World Martial Arts Heavyweight Championship, and awarded it to Inoki as part of the two brands union. The belt was mainly used in Japan to further expand the WWF brand into the world wide market.
Inoki held onto the belt after the WWF and NJPW severed their ties in 1985, and he eventually lost the title to Shota Chochishvili after having held the belt an incredible 11 years. He gained the title back a month later and eventually changed the name of the belt to the Greatest 18 Championship. This title would be retired by The Great Muta in 1992.
In 1976, Antonio Inoki made a monumental move for his promotion by getting Muhammed Ali to compete in a Boxer vs MMA match in Japan.
Inoki had promised the match would be a work, but Ali and his managers were afraid that Inoki would turn the match into a shoot in an attempt to look like the top fighter in the world. To avoid this, several rules were put in place that limited what moves could be performed.
The bout ended in a 3-3 draw, with Ali leaving the event without a press conference or interview. It was said that Ali suffered a couple leg injuries as a result of Inoki kicking him several times during the match.
Later on that same year Inoki would go on to defeat WWF Champion Bob Backlund for the title in an unprecedented move. The title had never changed hands off American soil at that point.
After a rematch was declared a no contest, Inoki vacated the belt, leaving the WWF with no champion. Backlund regained the title on Dec. 12 in a Texas Death Match with Bobby Duncum. Inoki's reign has never been officially recognized by WWF due to him refusing to keep the title.
Another one of Inoki's standout moments from his amazing career was his attendance record setting event in Pyongyang, North Korea. The North Korean Government and ther Japanese government came to an agreement and held a two-day event in the May Day Stadium.
The two-day event drew 150,000 and 190,000 fans respectively. The second day would showcase the one and only match between Ric Flair and Antonio Inoki. Inoki came out on top and both men have stated that this match was one of the top highlights of their career.
After retiring in 1998 Inoki was inducted into the WCW hall of fame in 1995, the NJPW equivelant to their hall of fame in 2007 and the WWE hall of fame in 2010. Inoki made history by being the first Japanese born wrestler to make it into the WWF's hall.
Inoki has also had an impact in the entertainment industry as well. He appeared as himself in a cameo for the 1979 movie Bad News Bears Go To Japan where he was looking for Ali for a rematch in the story. He has also appeared in the Manga and Anime series Tiger Mask, being the only person to defeat Tiger Mask in the series.
Inoki has been called one of the greatest of all time by many people before, but I would make the argument that he is definitely the greatest Japanese wrestler of all time.
I encourage anyone to go and read more about Inoki because he led an interesting life to say the least.