Japan wrestling legend Antonio Inoki dies at 79: media

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In this file photo taken on September 13, 2017, wrestler-turned-politician Kanji 'Antonio' Inoki displays his signature pose during a press conference at the Foreign Correspondent' Club of Japan in Tokyo | Photo: AFP

Tokyo: Flamboyant Japanese professional wrestler turned politician Antonio Inoki died Saturday aged 79, local media reported.

Public broadcaster NHK said he died of heart failure.

Standing 1.9 metres (six feet three inches) tall, Inoki was a pioneer of mixed martial arts in Japan, and shot to fame in 1976 for taking on world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali in a zany wrestler-versus-boxer bout in Tokyo.

In 1989 he was elected as an upper-house lawmaker for the now-defunct Sports and Peace Party.

He travelled to Iraq prior to the 1990 Gulf War to gain the release of Japanese hostages.

Inoki lost his seat in 1995 and retired as a wrestler in 1998, but was re-elected to the upper house in 2013 as a member of another opposition party.

Having built a strong personal connection with North Korea over the years, Inoki travelled there dozens of times to help resolve the issue of Pyongyang's abductions of Japanese citizens during the Cold War, before ending his political career in 2019.

The wrestler -- whose birth name was Kanji Inoki -- said he wanted to "contribute to world peace through sports" and had arranged martial arts and wrestling festivals in North Korea, often meeting high-ranking officials during his visits.

Japanese officials dismissed the trips as a sideshow.

Asked about them at the time, the then chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga pointedly reminded journalists that Tokyo had a travel ban in place for North Korea, urging the politician to "act appropriately".

However, Japanese television news provided blanket coverage of Inoki's trip and the visits continued to prompt interest, given the lack of details leaking out about life in North Korea.

Inoki, unmistakable from his outsized chin and trademark tie and red scarf -- even in summer -- also forced the government to take an official position about aliens when he tabled a question in a budgetary committee in 2017, saying he had seen a mysterious flying object disappearing over the horizon.

In 2020, Inoki said he had been diagnosed with heart disease.

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