When Antonio Inoki retired The Great Antonio from wrestling on December 9th, 1977, it almost cost the famed eccentric strongman his life.
When a worked wrestling match turns into a shoot (or real fight), anything can happen and usually does. We look back to 1977 when Antonio Inoki retired The Great Antonio from wrestling.
Great Antonio vs. Antonio Inoki Goes Wrong
In 1972, Antonio Inoki and his newly formed promotion New Japan Pro Wrestling did not possess a needed television deal aimed to make a big splash quickly. Fortunately, Inoki bolstered his thin roster with imported talent thanks to his relationship with Karl Gotch.
On October 4th, 1972, he faced Gotch in front of 10,000 with special guest referee Lou Thesz. The match took place at a sold-out Kuramae Sumo Hall and was set to determine the "real" heavyweight champion. Inoki won by countout, which left it open for future matches with Gotch.
Bringing in foreign talent to bolster a weak gate and infuse revenue into a promotion is a tried-and-true formula that has been used in Japan repeatedly throughout the years.
His mentor Rikidozan started this trend in 1954 when he brought in the Sharpe Brothers (Ben and Mike) to face him and Masahiko Kimura, to the delight of the Japanese people who wanted to see their heroes thwart the invading foreigners after being thwarted themselves at the end of WWII.
Recommended article: Rikidozan – The Life and Murder of The Father of Puroresu
In 1973, Antonio Inoki began an embittered feud with Tiger Jeet Singh. It started when Inoki and his wife were shopping in Tokyo, and Singh slapped Inoki’s wife in the face.
A wild brawl commenced in front of the general public, and the publicity stunt soon catapulted Singh to main event status. He’d face Inoki many years thereafter, and it’s a feud still talked about today amongst many Japanese fans.
On June 26th, 1976, Inoki faced Muhammad Ali in what was supposed to be a "worked" exhibition between the two, but Ali’s injured legs after the match say otherwise.
Then, on December 8th, 1977, there was hope that The Great Antonio could capture the fans’ imagination like the Singh vs. Inoki matches had just some years before.
The Great Antonio – Who Was He?
Antonio Barichievich made Montreal, Quebec, his home but was born on October 10th, 1925, and moved to Canada from the former Yugoslavia by his late teens.
Curiously, as early as age six, he claimed to have worked with a pick and shovel, and then at twelve; he was uprooting tree stumps out of the ground with a cable around his neck.
Once in Canada, he entered strongman competitions, and his popularity grew rapidly.
Some of the feats of strengths the famed strongman was purported to have done included pulling a 433-ton train almost 20 meters along its tracks, which is recognized in the 1952 Guinness Book of Records, pulling four buses full of passengers along Montreal’s St. Catherine Street, and in 1956 dragging a Chevrolet attached only by his long mangy hair.
Not to mention, he could supposedly eat at least 25 chickens in one sitting, and he owned the world’s biggest rocking chair at the time. During training, he claimed he ran into trees head-on after sprinting distances of 60 meters!
"Butcher" Paul Vachon, in his self-published book entitled When Wrestling Was Real, recalls that The Great Antonio was “truly a character in a business that by nature is full of unusual characters.”
"Antonio started his career as a scrapyard worker, a scavenger, and a resident. Here was a guy, 6-foot-4, 450 pounds, that worked not only in a scrapyard but lived there in a shack that he made for himself out of old planks, cardboard, cement blocks, and the hood of a junked car.
"The owners let him stay there in exchange for the work he did moving scrap iron around," Vachon wrote. "Nobody ever really knew his origins, but he spoke in a mixture of French, Italian, English, and Russian, and I think a little Hungarian was thrown in the mix."
The Great Antonio Drew Crowds in His Early Wrestling Years
Before Antonio Inoki brought him into NJPW in 1977, The Great Antonio had already been through a bittersweet experience with Inoki’s mentor Rikidozan in 1961, as related in the book Japan: The Rikidozan Years written by Haruo Yamaguchi with Koji Miyamoto and Scott Teal.
"Great Togo did a good job as a booker for Rikidozan. A huge crowd of people gathered to see the 6-foot-4, 400-pound Great Antonio’s arrival at the Haneda Airport. At midnight on April 27th, he showed up with Togo and Mr. X.
"Soon after he shook hands with Rikidozan, Antonio began to play the role of a monstrous creature. He scattered fans and reporters by growling and lifting heavy chairs. His violent behavior resulted in sensational articles written in newspapers.
"The next day, Antonio gave a demonstration of pulling four loaded, two-ton city buses at Jingugaien in Tokyo. Though he could not move the buses over as long a distance as the crowd had expected, the exhibition of his strength caused quite a sensation."
Yamaguchi continued, "Antonio appeared at the little people’s show in Tokyo. Togo led Antonio to the ring with a chain length around his neck as if he were leading an uncontrollable, wild animal.
Antonio acted as if he had gone mad when he lifted the ring announcer off his feet and tried to attack Rikidozan, who was sitting at the ringside as a TV commentator.
"Those exhibitions contributed greatly to an increase in the number of people who bought tickets the following week. In many cases, Antonio faced several mid-level wrestlers in a handicap match to show off his superhuman strength."
Watch the Great Antonio in action against Rikidozan in 1961:
The Great Antonio Gets an Attitude Adjustment
Unfortunately, with all the press that The Great Antonio was receiving, he reportedly began having a conceited attitude, and it rubbed the other wrestlers on tour the wrong way. On May 18th, 1961, Ike Eakins decided to teach him a lesson and humbled Antonio in the ring with his fists.
The night before in Osaka, Hercules Romero stretched Antonio during their match. In Okayama, Bill Miller and Karl Gotch also gave Antonio a beating nobody would desire on their worst enemy.
It is said that Rikidozan and his booker Great Togo overlooked this behavior because they were aware of Antonio’s boasting and selfishness.
Supposedly, Antonio complained about the food, drank way too much, and constantly demanded bonuses. Rikidozan was fine with what they did to Antonio as long as it didn’t go too far because they would soon face each other.
Did you know? Karl Gotch and Bill Miller did something similar 15 months later to Buddy Rogers in Columbus, Ohio. Before Rogers was set to wrestle Johnny Barend, Gotch, and Miller "roughed him up in the dressing room and slammed a door on his arm."
This incident made national headlines after Rogers filed for assault and battery, and promoter Al Haft had to refund a good portion of the gate with Rogers unable to compete.
Eventually, The Great Antonio was fired from the tour. In stark contrast to the many people who saw him arrive in Tokyo 40 days before, nobody saw him off at Yokohama port. He also competed briefly in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in Canada, often in handicap matches (Antonio vs. more than one opponent), battle royals, and even wrestled the famous wrestling bear, Terrible Ted.
Antonio Inoki Turns out to Be Greater Than The Great Antonio
On December 8th, 1977, the man who boasted about having the strength of 10 horses and could wrestle 18 men simultaneously was brought in by Antonio Inoki as a monster heel to face him.
The Great Antonio was never a stellar grappler but was still a great attraction. Nine thousand fans in attendance at Tokyo’s Sumo Hall were in for a night they wouldn’t soon forget, but for all the wrong reasons.
In the U.S., showmanship often went a long way to disguise limited athletic ability, but not in Japan, where wrestling skills were held at a premium. The Great Antonio was 6’4" and hovered around 450-465 lbs but was already in his mid-’50s by this point.
Although his feats of strength were generally well-documented, this did not necessarily translate well to the squared circle against Inoki, who was a proponent of "Strong Style" and had learned from legit fighters like Karl Gotch.
Many fans seem unaware that this match was not a one-time deal. Three weeks prior, to build heat for the December 8th confrontation, The Great Antonio, during this tour, had been booked to win many three-on-one and five-on-one handicap matches.
Inoki even lost to Antonio by getting disqualified on November 29th, 1977, in Hiroshima, Japan. The stage was set for the blow-off match, also called a rubber match, on December 8th, 1977.
Antonio Inoki vs. The Great Antonio
The match between The Great Antonio and Antonio Inoki is an infamous and embarrassing affair. In typical wrestling fashion, after an awkward staredown between Inoki and the very out-of-shape Antonio, fans began to see, unfortunately, some of the weakest-looking headlocks you will ever have the displeasure of witnessing.
Meanwhile, the announcers strived to sell the disastrous trainwreck as translated from the original Japanese to English by Kenji Nakayama.
"Inoki said Great Antonio is weak under the pressure! Nothing will work no matter where Inoki hits except Great Antonio’s face."
The announcers continue, "Great Antonio’s gut looks loose and fat, but punching his body is just like punching a big piece of raw rubber wall. Great Antonio seems to be head-locking Inoki without effort, but it is much stronger than you would think…"
At the three-minute mark, Inoki launched himself and performed a dropkick, but The Great Antonio decided to no-sell. Not only that, he acted like Inoki had not even made the move, let alone act like it didn’t hurt. He baited Inoki into striking his ample and, until now, "indestructible" belly.
While coming off the ropes, Inoki shoulder tackled Antonio only to bounce off his girth and fall to the mat, seemingly surprised but now a bit peeved.
At 4 minutes and 30 seconds into the match, the strongman began clubbing Inoki’s back, but maybe because of his sloppiness, he started landing repeated stiff blows to Inoki’s neck instead. This was when Inoki seemed to have had enough and went on the offensive against his hapless opponent.
It was the beginning of the end of the match and The Great Antonio’s wrestling career. Allow David Shoemaker, author of The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling, to take you through the details.
"[Inoki] starts striking [Great Antonio] in the face. Great Antonio immediately turns around to shield himself. Inoki executes a single-leg takedown — perfect Gotch form — and starts unmercifully unloading with kicks. The announcers play along as if everything is normal:
"‘Inoki is kicking Great Antonio’s face — it seems like big damage to The Great Antonio. He just hit Great Antonio’s chin, and the left kick just hit bones around the stomach.
“Great Antonio’s mouth is ripped and bleeding! Inoki’s stomping broke Antonio’s ear! Great Antonio cannot wake up! He has no energy left. Inoki’s upper kick to Antonio’s chin seemed like the critical hit — his face is now covered with his blood.’"
The referee determined that The Great Antonio could no longer continue and stopped the match after seeing that he was planking and barely moving or responding. Not even using the chain wrapped around Great Antonio’s neck at the beginning of the match could have saved him from this full-on assault by Inoki.
Do you remember the 1995 film Friday and what Debo, played by Thomas "Tiny" Lister Jr. (Zeus in WWF) does to Red? Unfortunately for Great Antonio, he really did get "knocked the fugg out!"
It is scary to see and a somewhat sad ending to what many would call a charismatic performer’s wrestling career. He returned to Quebec and remained a quirky local celebrity but became somewhat of an object of ridicule in some circles later in his life.
Remembering Unique Strongman, The Great Antonio
Most people outside Montreal, if familiar with The Great Antonio, perhaps only remember the Inoki beatdown of him, but that was just a small glimpse into his peculiar and unique life.
During the ’70s and ’80s, with his "gentle giant" persona, Antonio appeared on various popular TV shows like The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan, and in a handful of films.
The most notable production he was involved with was the international hit Quest for Fire (1981), a France-Canada co-production directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. He also had a cameo in the independent film 20th Century Chocolate Cake, where he hauls a station wagon with a chain.
He is also in the low-budget horror film The Abominable Snowman (1996).
During his last years in Quebec, he became destitute and was named "Best Montreal Weirdo" by The Montreal Mirror in 2002. A Dunkin’ Donuts in the borough of Rosemont was known as the best place to leave messages for him.
He could sometimes be seen in a subway station or the park selling self-produced photo collages and artistic postcards of himself, expounding his previous feats of strength for a couple of dollars.
The once Great Antonio had a yellow garbage bag full of newspaper clippings and, if given time, would go into a kind of stream of consciousness relating stories of his life and pulling out pictures of all the celebrities he had met.
Watch an impoverished Great Antonio a year before his passing:
It was never proven or disproven if he descended from extraterrestrials, as he claimed, but he was quoted as saying, "I went to donate blood, and they refused because my blood was too strong. I have extraterrestrial blood!"
People also mention that he sang with a soft, beautiful voice. After allowing his hair to grow for decades, Antonio could braid it into a hard-matted rope, sealing it with electrical tape and rings to swing it to play "hair golf" and perform feats of strength like tug-of-war against many people.
Author and illustrator Élise Gravel published a children’s book on the larger-than-life Montreal strongman called The Great Antonio, and in it (spoiler alert!), she theorizes that his long-matted locks hid alien antennas in his hair which he used to communicate with his people.
It took nine men to move Antonio after suffering a heart attack at age 77 shortly after buying lottery tickets. It is thought that he had underlying and untreated heart problems that led to his death.
Three thousand people paid their respects at his funeral, which was covered through an anonymous donation to the Sun Youth Organization because he had no known family.
According to "Butcher" Paul Vachon, Antonio was "unmanageable" for wrestling promoters who were used to getting their way. "He was a Prima Donna (sic), and when he saw the big crowds, he figured it was all because of him."
In his book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Bret Hart recalls having fond memories of The Great Antonio.
"I collected glossy photos of all the top wrestlers of the time. I was fascinated by the toothless behemoth The Great Antonio, with his long, mangy hair and scraggly beard."
Once, Bret played in the barn with his older brother Dean (whom the family nicknamed "Bizz"). Bret tumbled from the rooftop and smacked his head on the brick floor. In a panic, a tearful Dean promised to give him a picture of The Great Antonio if Bret promised not to tell what had happened.
Even though his parents bothered him for days about how he had gotten the "purple-blue goose egg" on his forehead, Bret’s reward for silence was the prized photo of The Great Antonio pulling a big bus on a chain.
Antonio Inoki did not stop importing foreigners to challenge him even after The Great Antonio debacle. In 1980, he brought in a fellow named Hulk Hogan for several tours over the next couple of years, and the rest, as they say, is wrestling history.
Listen to author Javier Ojst dive further into the life and career of The Great Antonio on the Grappling With Canada podcast alongside fellow Pro Wrestling Stories author Andy Dujlovic (Javier can be heard from the 1-hour, 16-minute mark):
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