Antonio Inoki, a professional Japanese wrestler turned politician, died at age 79 on Saturday. Through his career in sports, Inoki was credited with boosting the popularity of Japanese pro wrestling. He also had a bout with world boxing champion Muhammad Ali in 1976, which is still remembered as “the fight of the century.

Inoki became the first Japanese wrestler who later turned into a politician. In 1989, he won a seat in the upper house, one of Japan’s two chambers of parliament, and headed the Sports and Peace Party. 

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Antonio Inoki helped free at least 36 Japanese hostages from Iraq during the Gulf War, news agency Associated Press reported in December 1990. Inoki reportedly personally traveled to Iraq to negotiate the release of the hostages. He also met with then-President Saddam Hussein.

Japan’s foreign ministry, however, refused to play any part in the negotiations. Officials said that Inoki’s trip was not in line with their policy because he is giving the impression he wants to make concessions to Iraq, Associated Press reported.

Inoki’s attempt to free Japanese civilians in Iraq was tagged as “an unofficial one-man diplomatic mission” by local media. He retired as a wrestler in 1998, but remained active in politics until 2019.

Inoki built a personal connection with North Korea over the years and visited the country repeatedly to help resolve Japan’s longstanding issue of past abductions of Japanese nationals to the North.

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He promoted peace through sports and made more than 30 trips to North Korea during his time as a lawmaker in hopes of forging peace and friendship, Associated Press reported.

He was born Kanji Inoki in 1943 in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, he moved to Brazil with his family when he was 13 and worked at a coffee plantation. In 1960, he gave himself the ring name Antonio Inoki.