Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Giant Baba

As a wrestler, he was one of Japan’s biggest stars. As a trainer, he groomed multiple generations of the world’s best wrestlers. As a promoter, few were more successful and none were more respected. Today Inside the Squared Circle inducts a man who was a giant literally and figuratively in the world of professional wrestling, Shohei “Giant” Baba into its Hall of Fame.

Shohei Baba was born on January 23, 1938. He became a successful pitcher in his youth, and at 16 signed with Japan’s best major league team, the Tokyo Giants. He had the notoriety of being the tallest man ever to play major league baseball in Japan. After his career in baseball did not work out, he went to the legendary Rikidozan, who groomed him to be the next big wrestling star for the future. He trained with Antonio Inoki, and they both debuted on September 30, 1960.

Shortly after his Japanese debut, Baba was sent to the United States to get ring experience. He was immediately a big attraction in the United States because of his incredible 6’10” frame. He toured the United States as a top heel against the biggest American fan favorites, such as Bruno Sammartino, Johnny Valentine, Antonino Rocca and Edouard Carpentier. In 1964, he had the impressive distinction of challenging for three preeminent world titles in the same month, headlining against Lou Thesz for the NWA World Title, Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Title and Fred Blassie for the WWA World Title.

When Baba was brought back to Japan in 1964, the Japanese wrestling business was in serious danger. Rikidozan’s death had brought about great scandal, and many speculated Japanese pro wrestling was going to die. Giant Baba would be one of the most important forces in its revival starting in 1964. He symbolized professionalism, respectability and class, and cleaned up wrestling’s image while gaining new fans. Over the next few years he held Rikidozan’s NWA International Heavyweight Title, and beat the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Lou Thesz, Fred Blassie, Fritz Von Erich, Killer Kowalski, Don Leo Jonathan and Bobo Brazil. The biggest match of the period was his 65 minute draw with Gene Kiniski in an NWA International Title vs. NWA World Title challenge on August 14, 1967.

Antonio Inoki had left JWA, and his return in 1967 brought about a wrestling boom known as the B1 Cannon period. From 1967 to 1971 Baba and Inoki teamed together as JWA’s top stars, and they drew great attendance and ratings. However, over time Baba and Inoki both grew disillusioned with the company. They wanted to start their own companies, and JWA, fearful of a coup, fired Inoki. Baba was still not satisfied, and months after Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling, Baba founded All Japan Pro Wrestling. Baba became the first PWF Heavyweight Champion, which was All Japan’s top title and later became a component of the Triple Crown Championship. He won it in a tournament which saw him go 8-0-2 against the likes of Terry Funk, Abdullah the Butcher, Don Leo Jonathan, Destroyer, Pat O’Connor and Bruno Sammartino.

While Giant Baba gained a reputation as a traditional promoter in his later years, he was quite innovative earlier on. All Japan rose as a company due to a number of his intelligent gambles. He signed judo legend Geesink, starting the mixed martial arts gimmick before Antonio Inoki. He brought in Destroyer as a full time good guy, the first American to ever be portrayed in that manner in Japan, which had previously been based on Japanese vs. geijin, or foreigners. He came up with the idea of selling t-shirts, souvenirs and ring music a decade before the WWF. That became a big money maker.

Baba promoted Mil Mascaras as an acrobatic masked man for the kids a decade before Tiger Mask rose to prominence. In an effort to convince the public that All Japan was superior to New Japan, he forged a working relationship with the NWA and had a brief run with the NWA Title in 1974, beating Jack Brisco. They would re-do the idea in 1979 and 1980, with Baba beating Race for the NWA Title two more times. Baba also brought in Jumbo Tsuruta, who would become one of All Japan’s biggest stars for the next two and a half decades.

In 1979, Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba reached an agreement to work together. However, after one show which featured them teaming together to defeat Abdullah the Butcher and Tiger Jeet Singh, the relationship fell apart. This led to a fierce promotional war in the 1980s between the two companies. After New Japan brought in Abdullah the Butcher by doubling his salary, Baba raided Stan Hansen, who was New Japan’s top foreign star and Inoki’s best opponent. He gave Hansen a lifetime deal, and like so many others, Hansen would stay loyal to Baba for the rest of his career. At one point, All Japan left New Japan in serious jeopardy by raiding a group of wrestlers including Riki Choshu. They led to great business for All Japan, but New Japan was able to convince the group to jump back.

In 1990, Genichiro Tenryu, one of Baba’s top stars, jumped to the ill-fated SWS promotion. This forced Baba to starting pushing new stars, and the generation of Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi would lead to All Japan’s best box office period. Budokan Hall became All Japan’s home of sorts, and they had a sellout streak of cards in Tokyo for a number of years. However, All Japan did not do a very good job of finding successors for that group, and when they finally did a Tokyo Dome show on May 1, 1998 it was a last hurrah for Giant Baba as a promoter, drawing 58,300 fans.

While Baba rarely ever lost, he also was willing to keep himself out of the spotlight. Throughout much of the 80s and 90s, he wrestled on the undercard of All Japan shows. He would entertain the fans and have fun wrestling, but allow others to be featured as the top stars. This is something Hulk Hogan and Antonio Inoki were never able to do. He also developed a reputation as the promoter everyone in the world most wanted to work for. He was honest, he paid more, and he got the biggest stars in wrestling to agree to the finishes he wanted. He promoted an athletic style of pro wrestling with clean finishes and gradual progression, in many ways similar to great American wrestling promoter Sam Muchnick.

Wrestlers had incredible loyalty to Baba. For example, Bruno Sammartino once said that if Baba got into a precarious financial situation, he would go to Japan and work for free to help Baba rebuild his company. Given what Sammartino has to say about other wrestling promoters, that is quite the compliment. Baba also built an incredible financial empire. He invested his money in wise real estate and stock investments, rather than aspiring football leagues. As such, he ended up one of the richest men in wrestling.

Giant Baba’s life came to a sudden end. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in later 1998. When he cancelled a few appointments citing a bad cold, a lot of people were very suspicious. After all, Baba had developed a reputation as one of the most reliable and steady wrestlers, who never missed a match or appointment. At first it was thought he would be fine, but the cancer reoccurred in early 1999, and he passed away at the age of 61.

Giant Baba is unquestionably one of the top 2 or 3 biggest wrestling stars in Japanese history. He helped pull it out of a difficult period, and was the driving force behind one of the world’s top wrestling promotions. He was a big draw in the United States and Japan, and many of his ideas were innovative in changing the wrestling business. Finally, in a business full of lowlifes, thieves and liars, Baba epitomized class. ITSC salutes Shohei “Giant” Baba and is proud to induct him into its Hall of Fame.

3 Comments:

Anonymous tyson said...

These are "tremendous", and I enjoy reading all of them. Its rare to get this kind of insight and information and not have to pay for it. Just wanted to say it's appreciated. Could the loss to the Titans have been any tougher to take? I swear to christ it's like Saunders fucks with our heads. The best way to describe his 700 page offensive machine is "stagnant" at best, at the most opportune times too. 14-3 and u can't put it away? I mean 11 more weeks of this and my Superbowl prediction could be out the window. Here's to a turnaround.

7:12 PM  
Blogger Todd Martin said...

Thanks. I appreciate that. Yes, the Titans loss could have been tougher to take. It could have been televised here and then I would be really miserable about it. The Skins have gotten off to slow starts a number of times in recent years and done better in the second half, so we'll see. To me Gregg Williams frustrates me more than Al Saunders. He gave up the attacking pressure style that makes the D work and the results were predictable. I understand he's worried about the secondary's ability to cover, but sitting back and seeming to play a prevent defense for 4 quarters isn't going to win you any games. I also blame Carlos Rogers for a lot of it. He was an awful, awful pick. It reminds me of Rod Gardner. You settle on a position rather than taking the best player, and that's stupid at the top of the draft. They could have had Shawne Merriman there, and it isn't like they were loaded at LB at the time to where that would have made no sense or he went 15 picks later to where you're judging based on information you didn't know. Rogers gets burned constantly and drops any ball that comes his way. I'm half expecting a defensive turnaround with him out of the lineup I'm so down on him. Okay, end of rant.

11:30 AM  
Anonymous tyson said...

I guess hindsight is 20/20 but with all that money locked up in Lavar and Marcus I don't think they could have justified taking Merriman after just trading away Champ. In Carlos they get an excellent tackler and a decent cover man with big ST backing him up. Springs not being around hurts the secondary much more than Rogers and his inablity to make the interception. You're right about the blizting, but the Redskins aren't fast/disciplined enough to play that way with their inability to hide the blitz. Theyre still a young team as far as star power but they need to step up this week.

12:23 PM  

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