“The loving people are with you!” a hype man shouted over the intercom at Peshawar’s sports complex on Dec. 5. “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 rather, 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 former 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 was a judo champion before he took to fighting the likes of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Ric “Nature Boy” Flair. Today he no longer physically trains his proteges but said he inculcates in them “a spirit and a mentality” rooted in the 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 The Greatest.
“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 before 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 and 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.