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Famed Japanese wrestler turned politician Antonio Inoki dies aged 79

<i>Etsuo Hara/Getty Images</i><br/>Former Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki has died aged 79
Etsuo Hara/Getty Images
Former Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki has died aged 79

By Emi Jozuka, Jake Kwon and Mayumi Maruyama, CNN

Former Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki has died aged 79, according to his organization.

Inoki – who was one of Japan’s most well-known wrestlers – famously faced boxing great Muhammad Ali in a mixed martial arts match in 1976.

The New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) — an organization promoting Japanese wrestling that Inoki founded in 1972 – tweeted Saturday that it was “deeply saddened at the passing of our founder, Antonio Inoki.”

“His achievements, both in professional wrestling and the global community, are without parallel and will never be forgotten,” the tweet added, saying the organization’s thoughts “are with Inoki’s family, friends and fans.”

Born Kanji Inoki in February 20, 1943, in Yokohama, a city south of Tokyo, he moved to Brazil with his family when he was 13 years old, according to a NJPW statement. In Brazil, he met his mentor and pro-wrestling star Rikidozan, who scouted him.

Following his debut in 1960, Inoki became one of most well-known wrestlers in the world, and would go on to fight Ali in a rare match between a wrestler and a boxer in a contest that, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) said in a statement, “paved the way for the advent of Mixed Martial Arts, which would explode in popularity decades later.”

WWE inducted Inoki into its hall of fame in 2010.

Inoki was the first in his sport to enter politics and was elected as an upper house Diet member — Japan’s national assembly — in both 1989 and 2013, Japan’s public broadcaster NHK reported Saturday.

He also promoted peace through sports and made multiple trips to North Korea during his time as a lawmaker to improve relations between Pyongyang and Tokyo, NHK added.

He organized a wrestling match in Pyongyang in 2014, involving American professional wrestling stars. The trip came at a time of thawing relations between Japan and North Korea over the issue of abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s.

CNN was invited to the event which saw the stars of the show — including former NFL star Bob “The Beast” Sapp — join arm-wrestling and tug-of-war competitions with the Pyongyang locals.

Inoki had battled a rare disease called amyloidosis – which affects the body’s organs – before his death, according to NJPW.

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