411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2008: Shohei Giant Baba
Shohei “Giant” Baba was born at Sanjo City in the Niigata Prefecture on January 23, 1938. He was a unique figure in the history of Japanese professional wrestling with him being 6’10” and around 300 pounds. He was nicknamed “Touyou no Kyojin” which translates to “Giant of the Orient” in English. His physique did not look imposing on the surface. However, he possessed a lot of strength that gave him plenty of victories in his career. He beat his opponents using many of his trademark moves that included the Russian Legsweep, 16 Mon Kick (boot to the face), Overhead Chop and a version of the lariat takedown that he called the Running Neckbreaker. As impressive as Giant Baba was physically, it is the impact he made in the entire professional wrestling industry that makes him a member of any professional wrestling Hall of Fame. This is a biography of a man who helped saved professional wrestling in Japan and built All Japan Pro Wrestling into one of the biggest wrestling organizations in the world. This is Giant Baba.
Before Giant Baba entered professional wrestling, he was a successful baseball pitcher for Sanjo Jitsugyo High School and showed the potential to be an important player for a professional team. Baba decided to pursue a professional baseball career early by dropping out of high school. He signed with the Yomiuri Giants, whom are considered to be the New York Yankees of Japanese professional baseball or “Japan’s Team”, at the age of 17. With his extraordinary height, Baba was one of the tallest men to ever play Japanese professional baseball.
Giant Baba started out the Japanese baseball equivalent of the minor leagues called the ni-gun. He went 12-1 for the Kawasaki Giants in 1956 and named the Eastern league pitcher of the year. In 1957, Baba won 13 more games in the Eastern league and was called up to play for the Yomiuri Giants during the season. He pitched in three games and had a 0-1 record with a 1.29 ERA. Injuries would hamper Baba’s professional baseball career when he first had to get brain surgery to remove a mass in 1958. Later on, Baba fell while leaving his bathtub and injured his pitching hand. Even with a move to the Taiyo Whales (now known as the Yokohama BayStars) later on, Baba realized the injuries he had suffered meant that he could no longer play baseball on a professional level and decided to move on.
Rikidozan, the father of professional wrestling in Japan, saw the potential that Baba had and viewed him as a potential successor. Baba was interested and joined the first professional wrestling organization in Japan known as the Japanese Wrestling Association (JWA). Baba entered Rikidozan’s dojo for training on April 11, 1960. His classmate in the dojo was a man whom became a partner and rival throughout his career in Antonio Inoki. He and Inoki made their professional wrestling debuts on September 30, 1960 at Taito Ward Gym in Tokyo. Baba was successful in his debut match against Yonetaro Tanaka.
Rikidozan sent Giant Baba to the United States to further training under Fred Atkins and The Great Togo from 1961 until 1964. This excursion gave Giant Baba knowledge of professional wrestling that he would have never received if he stayed back home in Japan. With the connections his American trainers had, Baba was able to wrestle all over the United States and Canada during his excursion. Baba’s height helped him become an immediate attraction in the United States and made a lot of money for the promoters that booked him. Promoters put him in the same ring as many of the top wrestling stars of the early 60’s like Bruno Sammartino, Freddie Blassie, Antonio Rocca, Bobo Brazil, Johnny Valentine, etc.
During his stay in the United States, Giant Baba holds a very unique distinction of challenging for three recognized World Heavyweight Titles in the same month. He challenged Lou Thesz for the NWA World Heavyweight Title on February 5, 1964 in Detroit, Michigan. He went to New York City to challenge Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Heavyweight Title on February 17, 1964. Three days later, Baba went to Los Angeles to challenge Freddie Blassie for the WWA World Heavyweight Title in a match that went to a draw.
When Giant Baba returned to Japan in 1964, the pro wrestling industry in Japan was in a huge crisis because of Rikidozan getting stabbed to death in December 1963. There was serious concern that pro wrestling in Japan would die with Rikidozan. Rikidozan had scouted for a successor, as he did with Baba and Inoki, but there was no one whom he had felt could follow in his footsteps by the time of his death. With his success in the United States, Baba was the one whom the JWA felt had the best chance of succeeding in a post-Rikidozan era of pro wrestling. He was immediately put in the position of being the top star and save pro wrestling existence in Japan.
Giant Baba had plenty of things going for him that made it easier for him to fill Rikidozan’s shoes. He had the strength, size, knowledge and prior success in the United States that gave him the credibility with the fans in being the nearly unbeatable figure that Rikidozan was inside the ring. Baba also had a charming personality and charisma that made him a beloved figure with fans. All of these traits made Baba an instant draw and successful in saving professional wrestling in Japan.
Giant Baba won his first major singles championship when he defeated Dick the Bruiser in Osaka to win the NWA International Heavyweight Title on November 24, 1965. He was the third champion in the belt’s lineage as it was previously held by Lou Thesz and Rikidozan. The championship had remained vacant for nearly the two years after Rikidozan’s passing. Baba’s first reign as champion lasted over two and a half years. He had successful title defenses against Lou Thesz, Bruno Sammartino, Freddie Blassie and Killer Kowalski. Baba fought Gene Kiniski on August 14, 1967 in a special challenge match where the NWA International Heavyweight Champion took on the NWA World Heavyweight Champion. 25,000 fans attended the match at Osaka Stadium, which saw the two champions go to a 65-minute draw.
Giant Baba lost the belt to Bobo Brazil on June 25, 1968 in Nagoya. It was a short reign for Bobo because Baba regained the title two days later in Tokyo. Baba’s second title reign nearly lasted as long as the first one. His second reign came to end on December 3, 1970 in Osaka when he lost to Gene Kiniski. Baba quickly won the belt back for a third and final time during a trip to the United States when he defeated Kiniski at the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium on December 19, 1970. Baba would successfully defend the title ten times before vacating it on September 2, 1972 due to his departure from the JWA.
Giant Baba’s singles domination was also present in a round robin tournament the JWA held every spring called the World League. He won the tournament three years in a row, starting from 1966 to 1968, with victories in the final matches over Wilbur Snyder, The Destroyer and Killer Kowalski. A draw with Bobo Brazil prevented Baba from winning again in 1969. From 1970 to 1972, Giant Baba did another three-peat of winning the World League. He defeated Don Leo Jonathan, Abdullah the Butcher and Gorilla Monsoon in the finals of those tournaments. His win over Gorilla Monsoon in the 1972 final was the last World League the JWA held. Baba’s six tournament victories in the World League had exceeded the five that Rikidozan had won.
Along with singles success in the JWA, Giant Baba was also able to gain lots of success as a tag team wrestler. The first title he won since returning back to Japan was the All Asian Tag Team Titles on May 29, 1964. He won the belts with Toyonobori, whom was Rikidozan’s old tag team partner, from Gene Kiniski & Caripus Hurricane. The team had two reigns as champions until Toyonobori left the JWA in 1966.
After Toyonobori’s departure, Giant Baba found a new tag team partner in Michiaki Yoshimura. They would win those belts from Eddie Graham & Killer Karl Kox on July 1, 1966. They vacated those belts a few months later when they moved up in status by winning the NWA International Tag Team Titles from Fritz Von Goehring & Mike Padosis on November 5, 1966 in Tokyo. They enjoyed an 11-month reign with those belts.
Giant Baba’s greatest success as a tag team wrestler in the JWA came when he and former dojo classmate Antonio Inoki formed a team known as B-I Cannon. B-I Cannon won their first of four NWA International Tag Team Title reigns by defeating the team of Bill Watts & Tarzan Tyler, whom defeated Baba & Yoshimura 25 days earlier, in Fukuoka on October 31, 1967. B-I Cannon helped the JWA thrive as they drew great attendances and TV ratings for the four-year run they had as a team.
The popularity of B-I Cannon team created an interesting dilemma where NET, now known as TV Asahi, announced that JWA would have a weekly timeslot on their network. JWA already had a timeslot with rival network Nippon TV. Nippon TV was not happy that they were no longer the exclusive network for JWA matches. JWA had to make compromises with the two networks including one where Nippon TV could not air matches featuring only Antonio Inoki and NET could not air matches featuring only Giant Baba.
With Antonio Inoki’s popularity starting to match up with Giant Baba’s, he requested a shot for Baba’s NWA International Heavyweight Title in May 1971. However, he was turned down by the Japan Pro-Wrestling Commission and the JWA. The JWA felt that Inoki was not ready to challenge Baba for his title. B-I Cannon had their last match as a team on December 7, 1971 when they lost the NWA International Tag Titles to the Funk Brothers. That match was Inoki’s final match in JWA because he was expelled from the promotion six days later for planning a coup. Inoki’s departure led to the formation of New Japan Pro Wrestling a few months later.
After Inoki left, JWA decides to break the compromise made with Nippon TV by allowing NET to air a Giant Baba match on April 3, 1972. Even though Inoki was gone, but the agreement JWA made with Nippon TV about exclusivity with Giant Baba matches was still there. Nippon TV was very upset about this and canceled broadcasting JWA cards on May 15, 1972. Giant Baba was also very unhappy with the decision made by the JWA because he and Nippon TV had developed a very strong relationship. Along with being a wrestling star, Nippon TV would make Baba a mainstream celebrity by letting him appear on commercials, variety programming and quiz shows.
This fueled the notion that it was time for Baba to leave the JWA and create his own wrestling company like Inoki. Giant Baba had his last match with JWA on August 18, 1972. After refusing a challenge from Kintaro Ohki, Baba vacates the NWA International Heavyweight Title and officially leaves the JWA on September 2, 1972. Baba’s departure from the JWA also meant that he and Seiji Sakaguchi had to vacate the NWA International Tag Titles. Baba’s departure was another crushing blow for the JWA with the promotion finally shutting down on April 20, 1973.
With the help of Nippon TV, Giant Baba had created All Japan Pro Wrestling right after his departure from JWA. All Japan held their first card on October 21, 1972 at Machida City Gym in Tokyo. Five days before the first All Japan show, Rikidozan’s family would present Baba with Rikidozan’s old NWA International Heavyweight Title belt. With that belt, Baba used it to create the PWF Heavyweight Title that is still used by All Japan. This gesture showed the strong relationship that Baba would have with Rikidozan’s family. Rikidozan’s two sons would help Giant Baba create All Japan Pro Wrestling. Mitsuo Momota was a wrestler and worked in the office. Yoshihiro Momota also worked in the office and did ring announcing during the early years of All Japan. The family viewed Baba as Rikidozan’s successor and not Inoki.
Giant Baba established strong ties with many wrestlers and promoters. The National Wrestling Alliance accepted All Japan Pro Wrestling as a member on February 3, 1973. All Japan was able to bring in big name foreigners from the various NWA territories in Amarillo with the Funk family, Dallas with Fritz Von Erich, Mid Atlantic with the Crockett family, Georgia with Jim Barnett and Florida with Eddie Graham. The NWA would send their World Heavyweight Champion to defend the title a couple of times during tours of All Japan. Wrestlers like Jack Brisco, Terry Funk, Harley Race and Ric Flair would defend the title in All Japan rings against stars of All Japan and the NWA. The relationship ended in 1990 as WCW had already absorbed the NWA and decided to work with rival New Japan Pro Wrestling instead.
Giant Baba also developed a very strong relationship with other big name foreigners like Bruno Sammartino and the Destroyer. Even though All Japan and WWWF had no formal working agreement, Sammartino would do tours for All Japan and defend his WWWF World Heavyweight Title. Sammartino had a lot of respect for Baba as a promoter and a man. He has said many times that if Baba was ever in financial trouble, then he was willing to work for free. The Destroyer volunteered to work full time for Baba’s All Japan in 1973. He would become the first ever-foreign star to make a full time commitment to a Japanese promotion. He stayed full time for All Japan from 1973 to 1979.
The Destroyer became a late night television personality during his stay and helped grow All Japan Pro Wrestling through those appearances. With The Destroyer’s popularity growing, Giant Baba felt the idea that all foreign wrestlers should be booked as heels was waning away. He successfully promoted The Destroyer, Mil Mascaras and the Funk Brothers as foreigners who were loved by the Japanese fans. They would team up with Baba, Jumbo Tsuruta and other Japanese stars to fight the foreigner heels.
Giant Baba also needed native stars to fill out the roster for All Japan. When the JWA folded, nine of their former stars joined the All Japan roster. The biggest native star Baba found during All Japan’s infancy had happened ten days after the first show. Baba scouted and signed Japanese Olympic amateur wrestler Tomori “Jumbo” Tsuruta. He saw Jumbo as the man who was going to succeeded him as All Japan’s top star. Baba had Jumbo go through a similar path that he experienced a decade earlier. He sent Jumbo to Dory Funk Jr. in Amarillo for an extended learning excursion so that he could receive further training. When Jumbo returned to Japan, he would immediately become Giant Baba’s regular tag team partner and receive many opportunities to win various championships that include the NWA World Heavyweight Title.
Before Jumbo was deemed ready to take over as All Japan’s top star, Giant Baba remained the top native star of All Japan Pro Wrestling during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. He won plenty of championships and tournaments during that time. His first title in All Japan came from when he was awarded the PWF Heavyweight Title, the first of four reigns, on February 27, 1973. He won the right to wear the title from his success in a 10 match series. He had eight wins and two draws from this series. The draws came from Bruno Sammartino and Wilbur Snyder before facing them in rematches and winning. His other victories in the series came against Terry Funk, Don Leo Jonathan, Pat O’Connor, Abdullah the Butcher, Bobo Brazil and The Destroyer. Baba’s first reign as PWF champion lasted for over five years and succeeded in defending the title 38 times. His most famous defense during this title reign was a double title match between him and WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Bruno Sammartino on May 9, 1975 that went to a draw. Baba finally lost the title to Tor Kamata on June 1, 1978.
Giant Baba won the most prestigious championship of his career when he defeated Jack Brisco to win his first of three NWA World Heavyweight Titles on December 2, 1974. Baba became the first Asian to win the title. Baba would successfully defend the title against Brisco in a rematch three days later in Tokyo. However, he lost the belt back to Brisco on December 8. Baba would win the NWA World Heavyweight Title two more times in 1979 and 1980. Both of those wins were over Harley Race, but Baba’s two reigns lasted a combined 12 days. Race quickly regained the title from Baba both times.
The old JWA World League continued in All Japan when the promotion created their annual tournament called the Championship Carnival in 1973. Giant Baba was able to dominate the Championship Carnival like he did with the World League by winning the tournament seven times from 1973 through 1982. The only other men who had won the tournament during this time were Abdullah the Butcher (1976 & 1979) and Jumbo Tsuruta (1980). Giant Baba might have won a few more Championship Carnivals had the tournament not been discontinued from 1983 until it was finally brought back in 1991.
Another tournament that All Japan created was the Real World Tag League in 1977. It was a round robin tournament that was held in November and December of each year. Unlike the Championship Carnival, the Real World Tag League has never been discontinued since it started. The first tournament was significant because the Funk Brothers won and it officially marked them as heroes to the Japanese fans. It was another progressive step towards ending the idea that all foreigners were heels in Japan. Giant Baba found success in the tournament when he would win the tournament two times with Jumbo Tsuruta in 1978 and 1980.
Most of Giant Baba’s tag team success in All Japan came from winning the NWA International Tag Team Titles a total of six times with Jumbo Tsuruta. The first time they won the belts was when they defeated the Funk Brothers in San Antonio, Texas on February 5, 1975. After that victory, those belts had become exclusive to All Japan Pro Wrestling. Baba and Jumbo made another trip to America to win the Detroit territory’s version of the NWA World Tag Team Titles on June 28, 1980 from John Bonello and Rand Scott. They were the last champions of those tag titles because the promotion closed on October 1980.
As the 1970’s was coming to a close, Tokyo Sports Newspaper was going to put on a dream card at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on August 26, 1979. They had gotten the major three organizations at the time of All Japan, New Japan and IWE to cooperate and have interpromotional matches. The main event of that show was Giant Baba & Antonio Inoki reuniting their B-I Cannon team for the first time in eight years. They faced their top rivals from their respective promotions in Abdullah the Butcher (All Japan) & Tiger Jeet Singh (New Japan). B-I Cannon was victorious in their reunion when Inoki pinned Singh with a backslide in 13 minutes and 3 seconds. This partnership led to a temporary truce between the two promotions and hopes for more co-promotion in the future. It did not happen and the rivalry got heated again when Abdullah the Butcher jumped from All Japan to New Japan on May 8, 1981. All Japan responded by getting Tiger Jeet Singh to jump from New Japan almost two months later.
In 1980, Giant Baba formed another strong partnership with an American pro wrestling organization. This time it was with Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. The working agreement between the two companies lasted throughout the 1980’s. It was similar to the NWA relationship in that the AWA World Heavyweight Champion would do tours of All Japan and defend the title a few times. It was this new relationship with the AWA that gave Baba an idea for his 3,000th career match. He would face Verne Gagne on January 18, 1981 in a double title match. Verne would put up his AWA World Heavyweight Title and Baba would put up his PWF Heavyweight Title. Both men retained their titles because the match went to a double countout.
There was an AWA World Heavyweight Title switch that took place in an All Japan ring. It happened on February 22, 1984 in Tokyo when Jumbo Tsuruta defeated Nick Bockwinkle with a backdrop suplex hold. Special guest referee Terry Funk made the three count. The fans were ecstatic that Jumbo finally won a recognized World Heavyweight Title like Baba did nearly a decade earlier. Jumbo lost the title nearly three months later to Rick Martel. It was during Martel’s reign as AWA World Heavyweight Champion when Giant Baba used his influence with the AWA and NWA to book a double title match between Martel and NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair. It took place on October 21, 1985. Just like the double title match with Baba and Verne Gagne, the match went to a double countout and both men retained their respective titles.
When Giant Baba convinced Stan Hansen to jump from New Japan to All Japan in late 1981, he had plans on immediately making Hansen the top foreigner heel in the company. Hansen made his first appearance in All Japan during the finals of the 1981 Real World Tag League when the Funk Brothers faced off against Bruiser Brody & Jimmy Snuka. During the match, Terry Funk was sent to the floor and Stan Hansen would knock him out with a vicious Western Lariat. It gave Brody & Snuka the opportunity to isolate Dory Funk Jr. and eventually win the match. Stan Hansen continued his attack of the Funk Brothers after the match. Giant Baba & Jumbo Tsuruta ran into the ring to fight Hansen and save the Funks. Hansen’s rivalry with the Baba, Jumbo and the Funks started before he even had a match in an All Japan ring.
The first singles match between Giant Baba and Stan Hansen took place on February 4, 1982 for Baba’s PWF Heavyweight Title. It was a chaotic fight that went to a double countout. This rivalry would continue for many years as both men would fight each other for titles and pride. Hansen had challenged for Baba & Jumbo’s NWA International Tag Team Titles with partners such as Bruiser Brody and Ron Bass. Hansen & Bass ended the three and a half year reign of Baba & Jumbo on April 12, 1983. However, Baba & Jumbo quickly won those belts back for a fifth time in a rematch that happened five days later.
Stan Hansen ended Giant Baba’s third reign as PWF Champion on September 8, 1983. The rivalry between the two men was so fierce that Baba’s consecutive match streak ended at 3,711. It happened when he & Dory Funk Jr. lost the finals of a tournament to determine the first ever PWF Tag Team Champions against Stan Hansen & Bruiser Brody on April 25, 1984. Giant Baba had suffered a neck injury from this match. The fallout from this injury was Baba & Jumbo ended their sixth and final reign as NWA International Tag Team Titles by vacating the belts. As a result, it was time for Jumbo to find a new partner and be the leader of his own team.
The injury was not too serious as Giant Baba returned to the ring a few months later. Baba challenged Stan Hansen for the PWF Heavyweight Title at the final All Japan show held at the old Sumo Hall in Tokyo on July 31, 1984. It was a happy farewell show for All Japan because Baba won the title back for a fourth time. Baba held the belt for a year and successfully defended it many times. His biggest title defense was against Rusher Kimura in the main event of the Nippon Budokan show in Tokyo on June 21, 1985. It was the first time the Nippon Budokan was used in over a decade. After successfully defending the title against Rusher, Giant Baba lost the belt back to Hansen on July 30, 1985.
As strong of a rivalry Giant Baba and Stan Hansen had inside of the ring, they had a very good relationship outside of the ring. After Hansen’s initial contract with All Japan ended, the strength of the agreement that Baba and Hansen had consisted of only a handshake. Giant Baba would give Hansen guaranteed work for the rest of his career, paid him very well and booked him as the strongest foreigner in his company. In exchange, Hansen gave Baba his loyalty for the rest of his career. Hansen was still loyal even after Giant Baba’s death.
The end of Giant Baba’s fourth run as PWF Heavyweight Champion also marked the end of Baba’s participation in major singles matches for All Japan. Even though his popularity was as strong as ever, Giant Baba felt that his body was breaking down. Heavyweight matches were starting to move at a faster pace due to Riki Choshu’s rise in popularity in the 1980’s. Baba could not compete with the younger wrestlers whom were moving with that kind of speed.
As a result, Giant Baba voluntarily started to take himself out of the main event picture for All Japan. He felt it was time for Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu to carry the promotion into the future. Most of that time had Baba wrestling in comedy undercard matches with fellow past their prime veterans and inexperienced stars. The quality of these matches did not matter to the fans because they were just happy to see Giant Baba presence in the ring. Every one of those matches he participated in made fans feel nostalgic and gave them an appreciation about the achievements he had both in and out of the ring.
Giant Baba did have some serious matches past his prime. He would re-ignite old feuds with Rusher Kimura and Abdullah the Butcher for singles matches on undercards of major Nippon Budokan shows during the late 80’s. He continued to participate in Real World Tag League tournaments until 1995. He would form teams with dream partners like Dory Funk Jr. & Andre the Giant, old rivals like Rusher Kimura & Stan Hansen or undercard stars that could use Baba’s name to boost their own like Tiger Mask II (Mitsuharu Misawa), Hiroshi Wajima, Kenta Kobashi & Tamon Honda. A lot of these teams were very competitive in the tournament, but none of them won.
During the 1980’s, Giant Baba had to be as strong of a promoter as he was a wrestler. All Japan and New Japan had a fierce rivalry. The two companies had bidding wars over foreigners. Abdullah the Butcher, Tiger Jeet Singh, Stan Hansen, British Bulldogs and Bruiser Brody had accepted better deals to jump to the rival company. New Japan had an edge over All Japan because of them having a strong Jr. Heavyweight division starting with Tatsumi Fujinami as the top star. It was the original Tiger Mask, Satoru Sayama, which impressed the fans with his agility and speed. Tiger Mask helped New Japan attract younger fans and gave the promotion more popularity through the fast paced action of their Jr. Heavyweight division.
Giant Baba felt that All Japan could also achieve that same success with Jr. Heavyweights as New Japan. He started a Jr. Heavyweight division to compete with New Japan’s. He made Atsushi Onita, a man whom would later become famous for his deathmatches, the top star of the All Japan Jr. Heavyweight division. He found a rival for Onita when he got Chavo Guerrero Sr., a former rival of Tatsumi Fujinami, to join All Japan. They would feud over the NWA International Jr. Heavyweight Title in Japan, Mexico and United States. The matches between Onita and Chavo Sr. were good, but they could not live up to the standards the New Japan Jr. Heavyweights had set out. Onita’s time as the top star of All Japan’s Jr. Heavyweight division was not long because his high flying caused him to blow out his knee in 1984 and eventually force him to retire for a few years.
Giant Baba still wanted to make something out of All Japan’s struggling Jr. Heavyweight division. After Satoru Sayama left New Japan out of frustration from pro wrestling politics, Baba bought the rights to the Tiger Mask gimmick. He put a young wrestler by the name of Mitsuharu Misawa under the mask to try to recapture the magic that Sayama started. Baba brought in Dynamite Kid and Kuniaki Kobayashi to feud with the new Tiger Mask and reignite the same rivalries they had with Sayama. They had good matches, but it was clear to the fans that this Tiger Mask was just trying to live off what Sayama had accomplished in New Japan. Misawa was moved up to the heavyweight division and still had the mask on until 1990. Baba kept the Jr. Heavyweight division around, but it was a very thin division.
For most of its existence, Giant Baba’s All Japan was always behind New Japan in terms of popularity. New Japan’s ability to take more risks with their promotion made it easier for fans of all types to get into than Giant Baba’s conservative booking. However, there was a period from 1985 through 1987 that shifted the balance of power and helped All Japan claim the top spot. The reason was that very popular New Japan star Riki Choshu and members of his Ishin-gun left New Japan on September 21, 1984 to form Japan Pro-Wrestling. Giant Baba realized that a lot could be gained for his promotion by getting Choshu and his guys to face off against All Japan stars. Baba formed a partnership with Japan Pro-Wrestling. All Japan would give full cooperation for whenever Japan Pro-Wrestling had shows. In return, All Japan gets Choshu and his Ishin-gun as regulars on tours.
In late 1984, Riki Choshu started attending All Japan shows. Choshu would get into confrontations with Genichiro Tenryu and Giant Baba. The rebellious nature that made Choshu a star in New Japan was already present in All Japan. Matches were finally made with Choshu and his army against All Japan. Throughout the rivalry, the matches were of high quality with fans very passionate about the action going on. However, the early matches did not air on television. This was due to a prior contract with New Japan and TV Asahi that did not allow Choshu and his guys to wrestle on Nippon TV until January 1985. Choshu’s army faced All Japan’s top stars in dark matches that got crowds buzzing.
When they were finally allowed to wrestle on Nippon TV, this feud was a ratings hit with because the network aired Jumbo Tsuruta, Genichiro Tenryu & Takashi Ishikawa vs. Riki Choshu, Masa Saito & Killer Khan on a live TV special. It would have been easy to immediately put Riki Choshu directly into a feud with Giant Baba or Jumbo Tsuruta. Baba saw things differently because he felt that he could use Choshu’s popularity to elevate someone from the mid-card to an instant main eventer. Baba chose Genichiro Tenryu as the man to feud with Choshu. During the early matches of All Japan vs. Choshu’s army, the focus was Tenryu vs. Choshu.
This feud was getting so much interest that All Japan decided to book the Nippon Budokan for the first time in over a decade on June 21, 1985. Giant Baba vs. Rusher Kimura for the PWF Heavyweight Title headlined. Right before that match, Genichiro Tenryu defended the NWA United National Title against Riki Choshu. This show aired on Nippon TV the next day on a two-hour, primetime special. Nippon TV usually aired All Japan one hour a week past primetime during the weekend. Tenryu won the match by DQ, but the most important thing that came out of the match was that Tenryu was now considered Choshu’s equal. Tenryu finally got the payback win for losing by countout to Choshu at a Japan Pro-Wrestling show earlier in the year. Giant Baba successfully made Tenryu a main eventer and kept Choshu strong enough that a feud with Jumbo still had plenty of appeal.
With the build up coming through plenty of tag team matches, Jumbo Tsuruta faced Riki Choshu for the first time in a singles match on November 4, 1985. The match went to a 60-minute draw. After the draw, Giant Baba changed the dynamic of the feud when he booked Jumbo as the heel for attacking the rebellious Choshu after a match and hurting his ribs. The gamble of making his own top star the heel and the rebellious outsider a babyface paid off very well. By switching the roles temporarily, it made the Jumbo vs. Choshu feud different from the Tenryu vs. Choshu feud. This led to a few classic NWA International Tag Team Title matches with Jumbo & Tenryu facing Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu. Choshu & Yatsu won the belts on February 5, 1986 and was showing that they were the better team. The feud with All Japan and Choshu’s Army peaked on March 13, 1986 at the Nippon Budokan when the two sides met in a series of singles matches where names were randomly drawn.
After the Budokan show, Giant Baba shifted the focus away from All Japan vs. Choshu’s Army. It moved towards Choshu’s Army facing other factions for the rest of 1986. These groups included a faction led by Rusher Kimura & Ashura Hara and a Choshu’s army breakaway group in the Calgary Hurricanes. Even though the Jumbo vs. Choshu rivalry was de-emphasized, All Japan continued to grow from the surge of popularity that Riki Choshu gave them since joining. They got more primetime TV specials and ran the Nippon Budokan more often to where it would become All Japan’s equivalent of Madison Square Garden for big shows.
Choshu’s time in All Japan was coming to an end. Jumbo & Tenryu won the NWA International Tag Team Titles back from Choshu & Yatsu on February 5, 1987. Jumbo & Tenryu regained the belts one year to the day they lost them to Choshu & Yatsu. This would be Choshu’s final major match in the promotion as he and most of his army left All Japan on February 23 to rejoin New Japan two months later. With Choshu back in New Japan, Japan Pro-Wrestling shuts down. New Japan regains their undisputed claim as the number one promotion in Japan, but All Japan was still benefiting from Choshu’s stint.
Giant Baba’s booking was changing from various outside forces during the 1980’s. Riki Choshu was the first major outside influence to impact Baba’s booking. The tempo of matches was shifting from a slower pace mat wrestling style during the first decade of the promotion towards a faster pace that Choshu had used. The first sign of this change was during the 1985 Real World Tag League with everyone working much faster than usual. Baba’s use of Choshu also influenced Baba to make emphasize more Japanese vs. Japanese rivalries. The first major rivalry after Choshu’s departure was Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu. It eventually led to the Jumbo vs. Misawa, Misawa vs. Kawada and Misawa vs. Kobashi feuds.
Giant Baba also used a philosophy done by Akira Maeda and his shoot-style UWF during the 1980’s. Maeda had an indirect influence over the finishes to matches in All Japan because he booked shows with all clean finishes that the crowd really liked and drew a lot of money for UWF. As a result, Baba started booking less DQ and countout finishes until they were totally gone from the promotion by 1989. The matches that were bloody brawls going all over buildings was replaced by more athletic matches where the finishes took place in the ring and ended usually with a pinfall.
With All Japan using so many different titles, Giant Baba decided it was time to unify some them. The first titles unified were the PWF Heavyweight Title and NWA United National Title in a match between Stan Hansen and Genichiro Tenryu on March 9, 1988 in Yokohama. Tenryu defeats Hansen to retain the NWA United National Title and win the PWF Heavyweight Title. From there, the NWA International Tag Team Titles and PWF Tag Team Titles were unified on June 10, 1988 in Tokyo at the Nippon Budokan. It was Jumbo Tsuruta & Yoshiaki Yatsu defeating The Road Warriors by disqualification to retain their PWF Tag Team Titles and win the NWA International Tag Team Titles. All Japan was also using the All Asian Tag Team Titles that Baba had won back in the 1960’s, but they were not unified with the PWF and NWA International Tag Team Titles. Instead, the All Asian Tag Team Titles were used for mid-card wrestlers to fight over.
The final unification of championships happened on April 18, 1989. Stan Hansen, who won the PWF Heavyweight and NWA United National tiles from Genichiro Tenryu on July 27, 1988, put up his two titles against Jumbo Tsuruta’s NWA International Heavyweight Title. Jumbo won the match and became the first ever-recognized Triple Crown champion in All Japan Pro Wrestling. Giant Baba kept all the title belts around so that the Triple Crown champion carries three belts and each tag champion carries two. Even with all the changes All Japan has gone through recently, the Triple Crown and tag titles still remain in the promotion.
With a new decade started, it seemed the walls between All Japan and New Japan were crumbling. New Japan Pro Wrestling promoted a show at the Tokyo Dome on February 10, 1990 and asked for cooperation from All Japan Pro Wrestling. Baba accepted the invitation. He sent Jumbo Tsuruta, Genichiro Tenryu, Tiger Mask (Mitsuharu Misawa), Stan Hansen, Steve “Dr. Death” Williams and Yoshiaki Yatsu to compete on the show. This was the first time Jumbo, Tenryu and Misawa wrestled in a New Japan ring. All Japan was successful in the show with them gaining three wins, no losses and one draw. The draw came when Stan Hansen’s challenging Vader for New Japan’s most prestigious title known as the IWGP Heavyweight Title. It was a brutal match that went to a double countout, but remembered for Hansen knocking Vader’s eye out.
With All Japan accepting New Japan’s invitation to compete at their Tokyo Dome show, New Japan accepted the invitation to compete at a Tokyo Dome show promoted by All Japan Pro Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation. Deciding not to risk their relationship with World Championship Wrestling, New Japan did not participate in any interpromotional matches. Most of the card had stars of All Japan Pro Wrestling and World Wrestling Federation facing off. The show had Misawa as Tiger Mask go to a 20-minute draw with Bret Hart, Jumbo Tsuruta teamed with former All Japan trainee Haku to defeat Curt Hennig & Rick Martel, Genichiro Tenryu defeated Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan pinning Stan Hansen in the main event.
Giant Baba’s participation on the show was that he formed a dream tag team with Andre the Giant in victory over Demolition. This would not be the last time Baba & Andre teamed up in the early 1990’s. Andre would participate in All Japan tours teaming with Baba in undercard matches and Real World Tag League tournaments in 1990 & 1991. Baba also got Andre to participate in his 30th anniversary card. It was Baba teaming with rival Abdullah the Butcher to face Andre the Giant & Stan Hansen.
Giant Baba was dealt some difficult news after the joint Tokyo Dome show. Genichiro Tenryu decided to leave All Japan on April 26, 1990. Tenryu would sign a contract with Megane Super whom was the second biggest eyeglass company in Japan. Together, they would form Super World Sports. They would sign away many wrestlers from All Japan and New Japan. Baba was upset at everyone leaving, but he was especially mad at Tenryu since he left so abruptly. As a result, he banished Tenryu from All Japan and did not allow him back in All Japan while he was still alive. No matter how angry Baba was, he still had to deal with a big crisis because Jumbo and Tenryu were the only native wrestlers whom were eventers in All Japan. The main event scene in All Japan was down to Jumbo and the foreigners.
With Giant Baba’s popularity always strong, it would have been easy to put himself back in the main event picture and draw with the revival of his career. However, Baba quickly decided that he wanted long-term success and not short term. He kept himself on the undercard doing comedy matches. Instead, he felt this was the time to take a midcard wrestler and give him an immediate main event push.
The man he chose was Mitsuharu Misawa. Giant Baba saw Misawa as someone who could be a top star and was grooming him throughout the 1980’s. He put Misawa under the Tiger Mask persona after he bought the rights to the gimmick from New Japan, and pushed him as the top star of the Jr. Heavyweight division. He went with Misawa to New Orleans, Louisiana to compete in the first ever Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Tag Team Cup that the NWA held on April 19, 1986. He had Misawa challenge Ricky Steamboat for the NWA World Heavyweight Title in 1989. Now, it was time to make Misawa go from challenger to champion.
When the May-June tour started, Misawa voluntarily unmasked during a tag match on May 14, 1990 and started wrestling under real name. Misawa was finished with the Tiger Mask persona and Giant Baba sold the gimmick back to New Japan. From there, Misawa was given a huge opportunity to main event the Nippon Budokan against Jumbo Tsuruta on June 8. Misawa was the huge underdog going into the match and seemed overmatched at times. Jumbo was looking to put Misawa away with a backdrop suplex, but Misawa countered by landing on top of Jumbo for the surprise three count. The fans were elated over the upset victory. Misawa was successfully elevated from being a mid-carder under the Tiger Mask persona to an instant main eventer who scored his first victory over Jumbo in just a month. Baba’s booking protected Misawa during the early 1990’s so that he could be a main event, but not have the fans turn on him for winning so much so soon.
This upset win by Misawa set up the rivalry Baba booked between the Over Generation Army and Jumbo’s Army that lasted throughout the early 1990’s. It helped Misawa become the future leader of All Japan by leading the Over Generation Army in their matches. It also slowly built up future main eventers such as Toshiaki Kawada, Akira Taue and Kenta Kobashi. When Jumbo had to cut his in-ring career short due to being diagnosed with Hepatitis B in late 1992, all of these men had been elevated to the point to where they could carry the promotion by continuously challenging Misawa for his spot as top star. Throughout the 1990’s, All Japan was able to keep increasing the number of Nippon Budokan shows per year to seven, draw sellout crowds and the gates kept increasing.
Giant Baba would attempt one final career revival to the main event in All Japan. It was something that Baba had not planned. When the 1993 Real World Tag League started, Stan Hansen & Ted DiBiase were partners in the tournament. However, Ted DiBiase suffered an injury that sent him into retirement. With DiBiase out, Hansen either had to forfeit the tournament or find a replacement partner. A replacement partner was found and it was none other than Giant Baba in a huge shocker.
It was a dream team that never lost in the tournament. Since the winners of the tournament were determined by points and not a final, Baba & Hansen finished in second place behind Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi. A rematch was made on March 5, 1994 at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. It was there that Misawa scored the pin on Baba and further cement himself as All Japan’s top star. Baba & Hansen teamed again for the 1994 Real World Tag League, but they once again finished second place behind Misawa & Kobashi.
With the consecutive sell out shows at the Budokan during the 1990’s, Giant Baba felt that 1998 was the perfect time to run the Tokyo Dome. All Japan booked the Tokyo Dome for May 1, 1998. It was a huge success with All Japan drawing 58,300 fans. The card had rising star Jun Akiyama defeated very popular ex-New Japan wrestler turned politician Hiroshi Hase. Vader made his All Japan debut in teaming with Stan Hansen against Kenta Kobashi & Johnny Ace in a losing effort. The main event was Toshiaki Kawada finally getting an elusive singles victory over Mitsuharu Misawa to win the Triple Crown.
Giant Baba had to go to the hospital in December 1998. His stay at the hospital made him miss the January tour. Everyone following All Japan was concerned that something was very wrong with him because Baba never misses shows and matches. The concern was further fueled when his wife Mokoto Baba was right by him at the hospital. She was always at the shows too and helping out her husband by taking care of business from within. He went there to get an internal blockage fixed and optimistic that he could be back in the ring soon. Unfortunately, it was not the case. On January 31, a few days after his 61st birthday, Giant Baba passed away due to liver failure.
Giant Baba was an active wrestler when he died. His last match was at the Nippon Budokan on December 5, 1998 when he, Rusher Kimura & Mitsuo Momota defeated Haruka Eigen, Masanobu Fuchi & Tsuyoshi Kikuchi. All Japan had booked the Tokyo Dome on May 2, but now the promotion felt that show was the appropriate time to honor the founder. They decided to make it Giant Baba’s Retirement Show. All Japan did not panic from the time of Baba’s death to the Dome because it was believed that Baba had planned the main event of Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Vader for the Triple Crown well in advance. The company would follow that plan.
At the Tokyo Dome show, 55,000 fans saw the retirement ceremony was held for Giant Baba after the fifth match. Mrs. Baba, Lord James Blears, The Destroyer, former long time All Japan referee Joe Higuchi, Gene Kiniski and Bruno Sammartino were the guests in the ceremony. Baba’s wrestling boots was left in the middle of the ring during the ceremony. In the main event, Misawa defeated Vader for the Triple Crown in what might have truly been final show of Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling. Any decisions made by the promotion after the show was made by someone else.
Mitsuharu Misawa took over Giant Baba’s spot as All Japan’s president on May 7, 1999. During Misawa’s stint as president, he and Mrs. Baba collided on many issues in regards to the direction of the company. A lot of wrestlers said that Mrs. Baba to be the opposite of her husband and considered to be very difficult to deal with. There was already a lot of support for Misawa from within the company. With Giant Baba no longer around to settle issues between the wrestlers and his wife, things would get a lot of worse for All Japan. Misawa was removed as president on May 28, 2000. This was an unpopular decision because most wrestlers and executives resigned from All Japan on June 13, 2000. Misawa formed Pro Wrestling NOAH as a result from this split. Another crushing blow for All Japan came when Nippon TV, whom was loyal to Giant Baba for over three decades, canceled their contract with All Japan and supported Misawa’s NOAH by giving them a time slot on their network.
With Misawa and others leaving to form Pro Wrestling NOAH, it appeared that Giant Baba’s death was going to lead to All Japan’s as well. Mrs. Baba was desperate to keep her late husband’s company alive and did something that he would not have been approved. She allowed Genichiro Tenryu back into All Japan on July 2 to help the devastated company. Tenryu’s returned did help the promotion out, but it was Keiji Muto leaving New Japan to join All Japan as wrestler and president in 2002 that saved the company. For All Japan to be saved, Muto had to change the culture of the promotion by running it his way and not Giant Baba’s. His spirit will always be a part of All Japan, but the influence he left in the company is very minimal now.
Why Shohei “Giant” Baba was selected…
Giant Baba’s career in professional wrestling lasted for over 38 years. He was known for his matches in the ring with Abdullah the Butcher, Stan Hansen, The Destroyer, Harley Race and the list goes on. As much of an impact he had in the ring, it was the impact he made outside of it that defines his legacy. His ability, strength and charisma saved Japanese professional wrestling from extinction after Rikidozan’s death in 1963. Nearly a decade later, he would create All Japan Pro Wrestling. He built All Japan into one of the biggest and most respected promotions in the world. Baba’s reputation as a promoter was someone whom wrestlers wanted to work for. He made a lot of wrestlers into superstars. He paid well and stayed honest with his wrestlers. All he would ask in return from his wrestlers was loyalty. That is why the 411 Hall of Fame class of 2008 is proud to induct professional wrestler and promoter Shohei “Giant” Baba.