In wrestling, confidence is the most important skill a performer can have. Confidence enables a wrestler to believe that they can make it in the unique, uncontrollable industry. Confidence allows talent to feel like they can continue to improve and confidence is a consistent motivator that things can always be better in your career. In the history of wrestling, no performer seemed to have more confidence than Antonio Inoki.

Earlier this weekend, following the death of Inoki at 79, a Twitter account @FatherofPuro, uploaded a picture of Japanese wrestling icon Rikidozan, and a very young Antonio Inoki.

Inoki, who was only a teenager when the photo was taken, is iconic in the photo. He’s so distinctive looking that even at a young age, he looks EXACTLY the same and there is no mistaking that it is him in the photo. More importantly, Inoki is brimming with confidence in the photo, flexing in his tights while Rikidozan, a national hero in Japan, stands by and gives him a pat on the chest.

What did Inoki have to be so confident about? Born into a wealthy family, his father died when he was five years old and after that his family fell on hard times, eventually migrating to Brazil where a teenage Inoki worked in a vegetable stand. He wasn’t exactly on top of the world when he met Rikidozan on a complete chance encounter, with Rikidozan traveling to Brazil at the height of his fame.

Inoki just had it; he thrived in athletics as a kid and that athletic background attracted Rikidozan when he was introduced to him by the manager of his vegetable stand. He was confident enough to flex and smile for the camera after Rikidozan got a look at him. He traveled back to Japan and had the confidence to thrive under likely brutal training from Karl Gotch and other accomplished martial artists to mold the young Inoki into a hardened fighter.

When he first debuted as a pro wrestler, his youth and athleticism made him an instant stand-out as the public began to wonder who would be the next major star to follow Rikidozan. He debuted in September 1960, the same month as Giant Baba, and the two would be intertwined forever as tag team partners, business rivals and icons in Japanese sports.

The Inoki and Baba relationship is largely defined by the way they were originally seen by Rikidozan and the Japanese Pro Wrestling Alliance (the biggest promotion in Japan at the time). Baba and Inoki were both hand-picked by Rikidozan to be the next big stars in puroresu, but Baba was the one who was really groomed to inherit the role of Rikidozan as the ace of the promotion, something that would come to fruition following Rikidozan’s shocking death in 1963.

Inoki’s confidence would continue to shine when he befriended businessman Hisashi Shinma, who helped Inoki break away and fund his own pro wrestling company, Tokyo Pro Wrestling. Only a few years into his career, Inoki had the ambition to start his own promotion and break away from the established order and the JWA. Tokyo Pro Wrestling folded within a year, but the JWA remained impressed by Inoki, brought him back into the fold, and wanted him to work alongside Baba.

The pair were put in a popular tag team, B-I Cannon, and drew some of the biggest ratings in pro wrestling history for their blockbuster tag matches. Still Inoki longed for more; he was confident that he could be a bigger star than Baba, in fact he KNEW he could do it. Like so many people in entertainment, Inoki felt like he was the more talented and capable performer, but due to his tremendous size, Baba was deemed more marketable and thus got the glory spots, while Inoki was relegated to playing second fiddle.

After a failed coup of JWA in 1971 (which Inoki attempted to do alongside Baba) Inoki was fired from the company. Completely unfazed by both his firing and the previous failure of Tokyo Pro Wrestling, Inoki and Shinma worked together to launch New Japan Pro Wrestling. Now Inoki would have his own domain to be king.

Inoki was driven by proving that pro wrestling was the strongest form of martial art, and that as the preeminent wrestler in the world, Inoki was therefore the greatest fighter. The method to doing this was often absurd; frequently promoting and paying accomplished martial artists from other disciplines to lose to him in matches that were openly promoted as being “real.”

To do this, Inoki had to basically acknowledge that all other wrestling matches were fake, which makes no sense from a promoter’s perspective, but Inoki wasn’t that concerned about that. He had the confidence that he could pull off the spectacle and he was right. He defeated Dutch judoka and former Olympic gold medalist Wim Ruska in 1976 in a match that did brisk business. He booked himself to go over Muhammed Ali, in a match that turned into a farce, but none of it really stopped Inoki.

After the Ali match went bust and NJPW teetered on the brink of financial ruin, Inoki struck a deal with the WWWF and Vince McMahon Sr. to create the WWWF Martial Arts Title, which served as a “real” fighting championship that Inoki would defend against karate experts and judokas in “real” matches. Business began to turn around and in 1981, Inoki gambled on doubling Abdullah the Butcher’s salary from AJPW, which created a legendary rivalry between Abdullah and Inoki.

The cycle would continue to repeat itself; whenever Inoki managed to get himself into a tight squeeze, he always had the confidence that as long as he put the Inoki name on the top of the card and had a half-way decent opponent, things could turn around, and they almost always did.

Following a disastrous end to the 1984 IWGP tournament, that saw fans riot and set small fires inside Budokan Hall following a non-finish in the final match between Inoki and Hulk Hogan, Inoki’s business would rebound when he poached Bruiser Brody from AJPW and booked himself in a series of wild matches against Brody .

When Inoki refused to put over his understudy, Akira Maeda, which ultimately led to Maeda getting fired from NJPW for unprofessional behavior, costing NJPW its hottest young star, Inoki once again bet on himself, bringing in Russian judoka Shota Chochishvili for a Tokyo Dome main event that produced a world-record $2.7 million gate. Fans could get burned by Inoki time-and-time again, but Inoki always figured he had enough charm and star power to turn things around.

That confidence extended well beyond the ring; his “diplomatic” efforts in Iraq and North Korea are well documented, and he also spent time in Japanese congress, before failing to be re-elected due to issues involving tax evasion. He lost power in NJPW following an embezzlement scandal, but still the lore of Inoki remained. During his incredibly self-serving retirement tour, which lasted years and featured mainly short, worked-shoot style matches, Inoki continued to pop business numbers and his final match, against Don Frye at the Tokyo Dome, drew a $7 million gate, a record that stood until 2011.

The confidence that shined through the young Inoki working at the vegetable market carried him to all of that success and fame. Inoki did not always make the correct decisions; his mistakes were almost all self-inflicted and often motivated by selfishness and an unwillingness to share the spotlight. He was a massive egoist that always convinced himself that what was best for Inoki would be what was best for the company, and while he was often correct, it also created one of the most tumultuous careers in wrestling history, where nobody was every sure just where the con ended and reality began.

As he got older, he took on an almost mythic quality. Fans will remember him “slapping” members of his IGF fighting promotion as a way to “transfer his fighting spirit” to the person he was slapping? Was Inoki really so arrogant that he thought he could really do that? Or was he just confident enough that people would believe that he was doing that?

In today’s multi-cultural zeitgeist, it’s hard to think of someone in wrestling achieving the cultural cache that Inoki did in Japan. Thanks to his relationship with Rikidozan, the explosion of television interest in Japan during his career, the role that pro wrestling played on the Japanese self-image, and his fame from his encounters with the likes of Ali, Inoki achieved true historical status as an athlete in Japan.

His true cultural contemporaries, Baba, Rikidozan and El Santo, have been dead for decades. For a generation, only Inoki remained as the true icon in professional wrestling; sure Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin might have more global name recognition, and The Rock is a big movie star, but none approached the kind of cultural impact domestically as Inoki. Inoki was the last artifact from a wrestling culture that carried a ubiquity in society that was lost a long time ago.

In the last few years, as his health waned and his public appearances became extremely limited, it was hard to imagine Inoki, now more legend than man, making a comeback. Riddled with disease, Inoki appeared frail and almost unrecognizable from the man with the prominent chin and jet black hair who would run seven miles a day just to stay in shape. The confidence in his ability to turn things around was waning, and this time he wasn’t going to be able to bet on himself and draw another big house. He’s gone now, and with him goes a legacy that stretches back to the very roots of wrestling in Japan.

In the latest episode of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@JesseCollings) is joined by Phil Strum of Under the Ring: Pro Wrestling Conversations and the USA Today Network to discuss the current state of the wrestling media. Phil and Jesse go over the history of wrestling media, the differences between news reporters and pundits, the problems caused by social media, and how WWE and AEW handle their media relations.