Antonio Inoki in Pakistan: His Controversial, Legendary Visits

Antonio Inoki created a legacy in professional wrestling that transcends borders and generations. However, in 1976, while facing one of the top performers in Pakistan, much controversy followed. Here is how it all unfolded.

Things turned south quickly when Antonio Inoki faced Akram "Iki" Pahalwan in Pakistan in 1976.
Things turned south quickly when Antonio Inoki faced Akram “Iki” Pahalwan in Pakistan on December 12th, 1976.

"After communication in the match broke down, things went south!"


Antonio Inoki: An International Draw

Antonio Inoki has accomplished what is merely a dream for most athletes in a wrestling locker room.

He is a former IWGP Heavyweight Champion, has multiple tournament victories, an unrecognized reign as the WWF Champion, and numerous match-of-the-year awards under his belt. He was also the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling, the biggest wrestling promotion in Japan and arguably the number three wrestling company in the world.

What sets Inoki’s legacy apart is how huge of a mainstream draw he was. Even in an era when most of the world had zero to little access to international media, he was recognized globally.

This can only be further supported by his bouts with the great Muhammad Ali and Hulk Hogan, which received significant attention.

Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki in 1976.
Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki in 1976.

He also appeared on WWWF Madison Square Garden cards and their Shea Stadium supercards.

However, these are not the only Inoki matches with a vast mainstream significance.

In his two visits to Pakistan in 1976 and 1979, the Japanese superstar had the entire nation in the palm of his hands.

Yet, unfortunately, those two bouts of his are not as well remembered.

Wrestling in Pakistan

The people of Pakistan have always had an entirely different perspective of the fundamentals of professional wrestling.

The nation is more accustomed to the freestyle format of wrestling which is usually competed in mud (locally referred to as “Akhara”).

Akram Pahalwan, commonly known as “Iki” or “Akki,” was the most prominent Akhara wrestler. Throughout his long illustrated career, Akram won multiple championships all over South Asia, along with a handful of victories in Singapore and Malaysia.

It is believed that he had been a part of over 280 wrestling events.

Akram Pahalwan was a specialist in the earthen pit and boxing type wrestling. During the late 1960s, he became part of the ‘Bholu Brothers’ tag team, proving himself as one of the best Pakistani wrestlers.
Akram Pahalwan was a specialist in the earthen pit and boxing-type wrestling. During the late 1960s, he became part of the ‘Bholu Brothers’ tag team, proving himself as one of the best Pakistani wrestlers. [Photo: desiblitz.com]

First Visit to Pakistan: Antonio Inoki vs. Akram Pahalwan in 1976

In 1976, when the 46-year-old Akram Pahalwan was well past his prime, his managers, the Bholu Brothers, booked the biggest fight in the country’s history by pitting Akram against Antonio Inoki.

This news sent shock waves throughout the country as the Pakistani fans desperately wanted to watch Akram beat an international megastar.

The match also intrigued many international fans of the sport as a student of the Great Gama was about to go toe-to-toe with a student of the legendary Karl Gotch.

Unfortunately, it all sounded better on paper than it would be.

The Pakistani audience believed they were about to witness a real competition.

Yet the concerned parties had agreed to contest this match under a professional wrestling format, hence the result being pre-determined.

Before the fight, it was announced that the match would be held under “special rules.”

However, due to multiple reasons, such as Akram’s lack of understanding of professional wrestling and the miscommunication between the two competitors, the fight turned from a work into a shoot midway through the match.

Pahalwan apparently bit Inoki on his arm, which led to Inoki responding to this unprofessional attitude by poking his adversary in the eye.

The bout saw an abrupt finish when Inoki locked Iki in the double wrist lock but broke his arm due to Akram refusing to tap out.

The match ended via referee stoppage when this injury seemingly occurred.

According to referee Mr. Takahashi, this finish was not scripted and was fought for real when the match fell apart.

However, with fans gaining more knowledge about the behind-the-scenes operations of the pro wrestling business in later years, many speculate that the finish was meant to protect Akram in defeat as him tapping out in front of his home crowd would have been potentially dangerous.

And, yes, it should be noted that PTV, Pakistan’s only television channel, reported a protest taking place outside the National Stadium in Karachi as the local fans were enraged by the hometown hero’s loss.

After the match, Inoki returned to his home country while Pahalwan peacefully hung up his boots and retired.

Watch the match: Antonio Inoki vs. Ahram Pahalwan in Pakistan on December 12th, 1976

Second Visit to Pakistan: Antonio Inoki vs. Zubair Jhara Pehalwan in 1979

Three years later, due to being heavily impressed by the country’s culture, Antonio Inoki returned to Pakistan to get the bad taste of the last match out of his mouth.

However, this time he was not booked to fight some legend of the country but was proposed a bout against a rising star in the form of Zubair Jhara Pehalwan.

Pakistani wrestler Zubair Jhara Pehalwan faced Antonio Inoki in his home country in 1979.
Pakistani wrestler Zubair Jhara Pehalwan faced Antonio Inoki in his home country in 1979. [Photo: TheReaderWiki.com]
Zubair had only been wrestling for three years and was a mere nineteen. As he was the nephew of Akram Pahalwan, this ended up setting what seemed like a perfect revenge story. And to no one’s surprise, the hype of this bout had the entire country in its grasp.

 

The event occurred in a sold-out Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore with over thirty thousand fans.

This time the match went to its complete twenty-five-minute time limit, but it was pretty evident to the fans in attendance that Jhara had out-powered Inoki through and through.

The judges scored the fight a draw, but in an unusual move, Inoki forfeited in favor of the youngster.

The Japanese legend raised Jhara’s hand as the crowd rushed into the ring to celebrate with their local hero. Experts conjecture that Inoki received quite the payday from putting the youngster over in such a manner.

Inoki and Zubair Jhara would become close friends after their monumental match.

Watch the match: Antonio Inoki vs. Zubair Jhara Pehalwan in Pakistan on June 17th, 1979

Inoki Promotes Pakistan

In 2012, Antonio Inoki returned to Pakistan to hold a couple of wrestling shows under the banner of his new promotion Inoki Genome Federation.

The promotion held two shows which were main evented by the talented Hideki Suzuki.

In 2014, Inoki announced that he would be taking Zubair Jhara’s nephew Haroon Abid under his wing.

Ultimately, Pakistan had the potential to be a market for the professional wrestling industry.

Still, the sheer prominence and popularity of the local freestyle wrestling halted its growth as the audience sadly couldn’t differentiate between the two vastly different sports.

One can only wonder what could have been.

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Aarij Arifeen is a lifelong wrestling fan with a great interest in related literature. He is a moderator for r/AEWOfficial on Reddit, has had bylines on TheSportster.com, and resides in Karachi, Pakistan. He can be reached on Twitter at @itsAAA_Ridge or by e-mail at syedaarijarifeen@gmail.com.