Since the inception of professional wrestling, it could be argued that the culture of Japanese wrestling, or puroresu, has existed on a forefront of society that American wrestling could never quite achieve. In America, professional wrestling has always been viewed as a side-act or as a carnival show. In Japan, puroresu events are often covered as legitimate sporting events and the wrestlers themselves are regarded as competent athletes and competitors. This translates to an entirely different projected image on the shows themselves. Puroresu shows often push and promote the most gifted wrestlers based on their in-ring performance first and their character or charisma second. The major American promotions will often book their shows based on the opposite premise of glitz and glamour over the practical application of solid in-ring ability.
These philosophies of booking led to differences in the concept of cross-promoting as well. From the 1980s on through to today, Vince McMahon’s dream was to involve celebrities in matches to help draw for his major events, most specifically for WrestleMania. Celebrities like Mr. T and former pro athletes like Lawrence Taylor were featured in matches with WWE Superstars for the spectacle of the event.
In New Japan Pro Wrestling in the 1970s, however, promoter and wrestler Antonio Inoki envisioned cross-promoting on the purely competitive level. With pro wrestling in Japan being considered more of an actual sport, entertainment celebrities were rarely in the discussion for use in actual matches. On top of which, Inoki was a man with a great amount of training in shooting, hooking, and catch wrestling. In turn, his fascination with all forms of competitive combat led to an idea to combine as many of these avenues as possible with the promotion of both himself and of NJPW. Inoki sought out notable practitioners of boxing, karate, judo and kung fu to hold matches with, as well as any relatable “strong men.” The culmination of this was arguably the first mainstream MMA contest that pitted the wrestler and grappler Antonio Inoki against famed boxer Muhammad Ali in 1976.
(The match was highly controversial and will be featured in a future installment of Psych 101)
In the following year, Inoki would compete against a unique individual that crossed over from the world of strongmen competitions: Croatian Great Antonio.
Great Antonio was quite the character. He was a strongman, but to the untrained eye appeared as nothing more than a large, overweight man that could be promoted as a “monster” in a professional wrestling ring. He claimed that he was able to uproot trees by pulling it with a cable tied around his neck, as well as claimed numerous other hyperbolic feats. He’d arrive in New Japan for a match with Inoki in 1977, with his only notable previous stint being in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, where he was allegedly inciting riots for how unpopular he was. Perhaps against better judgment, Inoki booked the man against himself in a match that now lives in infamy thanks to the advent of the internet and youtube. This edition of Psych 101 shall examine how one of the greatest workers of all time attempts to salvage a match with a green, unathletic, and entirely uncoordinated novice.
After the typical pleasantries at the start of the match (including Great Antonio having to lean against the ropes to allow the ref to check his boots because he cannot balance himself) Inoki begins after the bell with a dramatic roll and then quick run off the rope. It’s clear Inoki is setting up the only logical story for this match: The smaller, quicker wrestler versus the big, lumbering power fighter. Inoki then circles the ring and evades Antonio while the big man haphazardly stumbles and tries to aimlessly grab at Inoki’s head with only one arm. It’s a very awkward motion that is really puzzling in terms of figuring out whether or not Antonio is trying to lock up or not, with Inoki’s body movement seemingly asking the same question.
Inoki’s attempt to cover up this strange motion is to finally clasp hands with Great Antonio and perform a “test of strength” spot, but in an arm-wrestling position. After a few seconds Antonio throws Inoki away, with Inoki making the effort to fall stumbling across the ring to put over the power of the big man. As Inoki circles towards Antonio again, Antonio swats with his one arm in the same manner as before. This time, however, Inoki clearly just slaps his hand away as he’s not about to uselessly perform the same spot again. Both men move to the corner where Great Antonio applies a headlock with the non-traditional right arm. In traditional training, most holds and submissions are performed using the left hand or left side. It’s possible that Great Antonio was taught in a different, right-handed style, however it would make more sense that he just had no idea what he was doing… The ref considers this a choke and breaks it up at a 4 count.
Following the headlock there is then a series of non sequential spots performed by Inoki, including a dropkick which Great Antonio makes no effort to sell, as well as a running shoulder block by Inoki that Antonio again decides not to sell. It’s very possible these were meant to lead to Great Antonio finally bumping. However, with that not being the case, Inoki just appears weak and foolish. The frustration of working with Great Antonio begins to show as Inoki whips him off the ropes and then simply walks away from Antonio as he waddles back. From this point forward, Inoki is clearly fed up with how difficult Great Antonio is being and begins to simply walk around the big man with his hands on his waist, casually looks to engage with the man.
The ending sequence begins with Inoki throwing a palm strike at Antonio, which is again not sold in the least. Both men casually move over to the ropes where Great Antonio proceeds to give Inoki some very stiff forearms to the back, including one that dangerously grazes the back of Inoki’s head. Inoki, now not even bothering with keeping things structured in any way, immediately pops back up and blasts Great Antonio in the face with a couple clean, hard palm strikes. Great Antonio, still being oblivious to what he’s into, continues to try to not sell the blows even though he’s quite visibly been hurt by the strikes. Inoki then performs a go behind and single leg trip and proceeds to kick Antonio in the face until the man lays face down and flat on the mat. From there Inoki grabs the ropes for balance and begins to stomp, heel-first, on the side of Antonio’s head. The traditional style of “stomp” in a worked match is for the foot to be slightly angled so as to break up any direct line of force that may be created, and to hit the other worker with the balls of your feet as opposed to your heel. Hitting with the balls of the feet, again, will destroy any kinetic flow that many be generated from the hip to the foot while performing a stomping motion. Inoki is no longer concerned with “working” Great Antonio.
The Croatian Strongman is clearly dazed and has seemingly been cut open across the face “hard way” by Inoki’s stomps. The ref immediately calls for the match to end and awards Inoki the victor due to Antonio being unable to continue. It’s clear Inoki was likely to go over in the bout anyhow, but it’s also clear that shoot stomping Antonio into next thursday was likely not the planned finish. Inoki had made several attempts to perform some very basic spots with Great Antonio. These spots even involved no real effort on Antonio’s part, aside from perhaps wobbling to fall over or even grimace to sell a shot from Inoki (neither of which occured). Many wrestlers argue that the line that separates a great worker from an average one is the ability for that worker to seamlessly cover up mistakes or think on their feet and fix a match when everything is falling apart. It’s apparent Inoki made his best efforts to keep things moving with Great Antonio, but it seemed Antonio has no clue from step one of what he was actually doing.
The debate then becomes whether Inoki was justified in his actions or if he was taking things too far and taking too many liberties with a man who was not properly trained. Was the mentality of the business during that time period such that it made the beat down by Inoki an appropriate response? Is a shoot like that appropriate at all regardless of time period? Furthermore, do these actions change the opinion of how complete a worker Antonio Inoki was? We’ll explore these topics in Part Two of “Psych 101: Inoki Shooto Edition,” as well as have a feature on Great Antonio in the near future.