Maeda entered the New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) dojo in 1978 and debuted the same year. Like many other New Japan stars before and after him, Maeda embarked on a foreign tour to the United Kingdom, where he adopted the Kwik-kik-Lee moniker. In 1983, he participated in the first International Wrestling Grand Prix tournament, won by Hulk Hogan. He was one of three Japanese entrants to the international tournament, alongside Antonio Inoki and Rusher Kimura.
In 1984, Maeda, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, and other New Japan defectors formed the Japanese UWF. It was during his time in the first incarnation of the UWF that his willingness to show his displeasure in the ring became known; he quarreled with Satoru Sayama (the original Tiger Mask) over the direction of the UWF, as Maeda wanted the promotion to feature wrestling and grappling holds, while Sayama (a kickboxer before he went into wrestling) favored kicks. Some in the UWF were also reportedly resentful of Sayama's booking himself to win all his matches, where others, Maeda included, "jobbed" in the worked matches. The promotion folded a year later, and Maeda returned to New Japan, where he became one of the promotion's biggest stars.
Maeda became involved in a real-life feud with New Japan booker and top star, Antonio Inoki, refusing to work with him in what could have been a huge moneymaking program. In April 1986, he was involved in one of the most surreal moments in wrestling history during a match with André the Giant; neither man could agree to losing the match. Andre appeared drunk and started no selling Maeda's moves. Then Maeda proceeded to shoot kick André's legs and repeatedly take him down. After 30 minutes of this, André voluntarily laid down to be pinned (in spite of being assured that Maeda would lose the match), but Akira refused to do so. Inoki eventually came to the ring and demanded the match to end, much to the bewilderment of the audience. On November 19, 1987, during a six-man tag team match, as Riki Choshu was putting his opponent, Osamu Kido, in a Sasori-gatame, Maeda delivered a legitimate kick to Choshu's face, breaking his orbital bone. The resulting injury would sideline Choshu for well over a month, and Maeda was immediately suspended for his actions. In February 1988, the final straw came when Maeda was fired by New Japan for refusing to go on a training excursion to Mexico.
In 1988, Maeda formed Newborn UWF with Nobuhiko Takada and others, this time as its number one star, using the notoriety he gained in New Japan to draw large crowds. Maeda's UWF became the first promotion to hold a show at the Tokyo Dome, drawing 60,000 to watch Maeda defeat Willy Wilhelm in the main event. In December 1990, Newborn UWF dissolved due to disagreements over the direction of the company.
Maeda would go on to form Fighting Network RINGS in 1991, while Nobuhiko Takada formed Union of Wrestling Force International with most of the Newborn UWF roster. Fighting Network RINGS would no longer bill itself as wrestling in 1997, after the collapse of UWF International. In 1999 he retired from active competition after being defeated in a match against three-time Olympic Gold medalist Alexander Karelin, drawing an incredible gate of $2.5 million. The match gained widespread media coverage, including mentions in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated.
Following Maeda's retirement, he switched his promotion's style from shoot-style to competitive mixed martial arts fighting. The new Rings held two King of Kings tournaments, which introduced such mixed martial artists as Fedor Emelianenko, Dan Henderson, Randy Couture, Jeremy Horn and Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira to the Japanese audience. RINGS folded in 2002, due to the growing popularity of PRIDE.
When K-1 wanted to start a new MMA brand after their previous attempt with K-1 Romanex, Fighting and Entertainment Group hired Maeda as a consultant for Hero's. However, FEG retired Hero's in February 2008 to team up with former PRIDE staff to create DREAM. Maeda's new project was called The Outsider, an amateur MMA series that uses Hero's rules. RINGS brand was revived for The Outsider series and several events have been held since March 30, 2008.
On January 22, 2012, Maeda decisively resurrected the Fighting Network RINGS brand with Battle Genesis: Vol. 9, the continuation of the Battle Genesis series the last event of which was held on September 20, 2001. The event was sanctioned by ZST.
Maeda's interest in martial arts developed as a schoolboy while watching the Ultraman television series. By the time he was in high school, his only interests were motorcycles and karate.
Maeda was a third-generation Zainichi Korean prior to naturalization.Finishing moves
Bridging capture suplex
High speed roundhouse kick to the head of a seated or kneeling opponent
Arm trap single leg Boston crab
Multiple kick variations
Repeated stiff shoot to the opponent's chest and legs
Soccer to the opponent's face
Multiple suplex variations
Rear naked choke
"Dunbine Tobu" by MIQ (NJPW)
"Captured" by Camel (UWF/UWF Newborn/RINGS)
European Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
Fighting Network RINGS
RINGS Battle Dimensions Tournament (1993–1996)
New Japan Pro Wrestling
IWGP Tag Team Championship (2 times) – with Osamu Kido (1) and Nobuhiko Takada (1)
Greatest Wrestlers (Class of 2009)
Pro Wrestling Illustrated
PWI ranked him #40 of the 500 best singles wrestlers during the "PWI Years" in 2003
PWI ranked him #13 of the 100 best tag teams during the "PWI Years" with Nobuhiko Takada in 2003
Best Bout (1986)- vs. Tatsumi Fujinami on June 12
Effort Prize Award (1981)
MVP Award (1989)
Special Grand Prize (1988)
Technique Award (1983)
Universal Wrestling Federation
UWF Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
World Wrestling Federation
WWF International Heavyweight Championship (1 time, final)
Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards
Promoter of the Year (1989)
Wrestler of the Year (1988)
Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (Class of 1996)