Pakistan welcomes back a flamboyant Japanese hero of the ring

 

PESHAWAR, Pakistan

A motorized glider circled the stadium, dropping shiny shards of confetti. Male dancers from the fearsome Mehsud tribe whipped their long black hair to-and-fro in a celebratory frenzy. Boy Scouts released a balloon-bedecked "Wrestling for Peace" banner into the sky.

It was all to honor Muhammad Hussain Inoki, the Japanese professional wrestling great, who returned like a lost king last week to greet his Pakistani subjects by the tens of thousands.

"The loving people are with you!" a hype man shouted over the intercom at Peshawar's sports complex on Wednesday. "And Inoki is with us!"

The acclaim for the sharp-chinned retired grappler, still known in Japan as Antonio Inoki, takes some explaining. To start with, he is famous in the pro-wrestling world for having fought — or at least kicked — heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali to what was judged a draw, in a 1976 match in Tokyo.

Later, Inoki would accept challenges to battle fierce Pakistani foes in nation-riveting matches broadcast on state television. In 1984, his last time in the ring here, he also raised money for Afghan refugees.

Now he has returned to help establish a government-backed wrestling academy, celebrate 60 years of Pakistani-Japanese relations and promote peace through sportsmanship.

"Very nice people and country," he said in an interview. He also described himself as both a Muslim convert and a Buddhist, a spiritual feat in itself, but no matter: Heroes are hard to come by in Pakistan, where terrorist bombings exact a near-daily toll and the economy is in ruinous decline.

Since a deadly militant attack on a Sri Lankan cricket team's bus in Lahore in 2009, Pakistan has been visited by few international sporting figures, although the public craves soccer, cricket and hockey contests.

Inoki brought a 10-man team of flamboyant young Japanese wrestlers — one sporting cornrows, another with a dull orange 'fro-hawk — to stage free exhibition matches that packed stadiums in the northwestern city of Peshawar and, earlier, in Lahore in the east. Organizers said American wrestlers had been lined up to participate but had pulled out because of security concerns.

Pakistani officials are eager to offset their country's typically grim image abroad — and give a war-weary public at home a welcome diversion.

"We are making entertainment for people, to make them happy, to enjoy life," said Inoki, looking fit at 69 and draped in his trademark crimson scarf.

Inoki and others say they also hope to revive long-faded forms of wrestling, once a respected athletic endeavor that enjoyed the financial patronage of royal families throughout the subcontinent.

"It was a traditional sport, very popular in the olden days, when princes, nabobs and even kings were involved," said Sajjad Azim, a longtime friend of Inoki and ex-board member of the World Wrestling Federation. "The real wrestling was a skill. . . . They did not ram and slam."

Today, of course, chest-thumping theatrics and phony grudges dominate pro wrestling, although Azim, 69, points out that success requires considerable training. "You have to learn how to fall, how to take a beating, how to do flying kicks and somersault into your opponent," he said.

Inoki once performed with the likes of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Ric "Nature Boy" Flair. Today he no longer physically trains his Japanese protégés, but said he inculcates in them "a spirit and a mentality" rooted in martial arts.

A huge flying-kick photo from his bout with Ali dominated banners throughout the Peshawar stadium. That unusual matchup, which earned both men millions, went 15 rounds — during which Inoki stayed low to the mat, the better to escape punishing blows from Ali.

"The glove was like iron, iron," he said, rapping his hand on a glass and wooden table in the hotel where he stayed. "Very dangerous."

Inoki, a former member of Japan's parliament, is also known for launching an unofficial one-man diplomatic mission to Iraq in 1990 to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the successful release of Japanese hostages prior to the Persian Gulf War.

It was then that he was invited to make a pilgrimage to Karbala, the Shiite holy city, and then that he converted to Islam, in his telling.

"They said, 'You become a Muslim,' and I couldn't say no," he recalled.

In Iraq, Antonio Inoki was bestowed with the Islamic moniker Muhammad Hussain, but he now says he is "usually" a Buddhist.

He also noted that Pakistan is a "very strict" place when it comes to drinking, then could not contain a laugh.

Earlier in the week, at a glamorous, open-bar reception for Inoki in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, the showman with legs of steel demonstrated another skill: "magnetic" hands that are said to impart "energy" to those he slaps in the face.

Fans lined up gratefully to be smacked - among them Mio Yokota, who works for a Japanese development agency.

Did it hurt?

"Definitely he hit me," she said. "He made a big sound."

Yet, oddly, she felt no pain.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballStriker in talks over £17m move from Manchester United
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
boksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor