Giant Baba was the founder of All-Japan and a 38-year veteran of wrestling and is considered one of the greatest ever in puroresu. His popularity in Japan is said to have been comparable to Hulk Hogan’s popularity in the US, and he was one of the most famous Japanese wrestlers along with Antonio Inoki.
Before entering professional wrestling he had been a professional baseball pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants. It was around this time when national wrestling hero and owner of the Japanese Wrestling Association Mitsuhiro Momota Sr.-better known as Rikidōzan-began to feel the time was right for him to start grooming a successor in order to keep business strong. In April 1960 Baba began training in Rikidōzan’s dojo along with fellow student Kanji Inoki. The two trained together under Rikidōzan and made their debuts on September 30th, 1960 at the old Daito Ku Gymnasium in Tokyo where Baba beat Yonetaro Tanaka and Inoki, renamed Antonio, lost to fellow Rikidōzan student Kintaro Ohki. 1967-71 is best remembered by Japanese wrestling fans for the Baba and Inoki tag team that first won the NWA International Tag Team Titles on October 31st, 1967 beating Bill Watts and Tarzan Tyler, and would go on to hold the belts four times, a record that Baba would break later with another partner, Jumbo Tsuruta.
In October 1972, with JWA on the decline and several months after Inoki had formed New Japan Pro Wrestling, Baba formed his own promotion, All-Japan Pro Wrestling, with the backing of Nippon TV. All-Japan eventually took over the JWA’s spot in the National Wrestling Alliance after its collapse, and under Baba’s strong business acumen, the rest of the NWA’s talent enjoyed an amazing run in Japan. Baba became the first Japanese wrestler to ever hold the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, defeating Jack Brisco in a 2 out of 3 falls match on December 2, 1974 in Kagoshima, Japan. He would hold the championship on two more occasions, but his reigns were short and limited to Japanese territory. Baba was additionally the first former NWA World Champion to be defeated by Ric Flair, as Flair was becoming a top contender to the title.
By 1984, Baba began phasing himself out to give rise to the next generation of wrestlers, led by Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu. He voluntarily became a “curtain jerker”, as he moved slowly and won only against mid-card talent. Under his leadership, All Japan Pro Wrestling became arguably the number one wrestling company in the world during the 1990s from a match quality standpoint. Following the formation of the quickly doomed SWS (Super World of Sports), established talent such as Tenryu, Hara and Great Kabuki left All-Japan and Baba was forced to push younger talent, such as Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Akira Taue and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi up the card to replace them. The biggest move Baba made at this time was taking the mask off Tiger Mask 2 and giving Mitsuharu Misawa the push as the biggest new singles star by pinning Jumbo Tsuruta in one of the most emotional matches in company history on June 8, 1990 at Budokan Hall. The show was close to a sellout and Misawa was immediately catapulted to main event status because of his victory over the legend Jumbo. Budokan Hall would became the hotbed of pro wrestling with a string of sellouts in the building lasting for several years, which validated Baba’s insistence on clean finishes in matches. With the Triple Crown as the focal point, All Japan sold out more than 250 consecutive shows in Tokyo throughout the early the mid 1990s, routinely drawing houses in the $1,000,000 range eight times a year at Budokan Hall. At the peak of the company, tickets for the next Budokan show would be sold at the live event and completely sell out that night. Baba finally agreed to run the Tokyo Dome and despite it being a few years since the company peaked they still drew 58,300 paid fans.
Baba’s last “comeback” was during the World’s Strongest Tag League in 1993, when he teamed with old rival Stan Hansen in hopes of winning the Double Cup. The duo made it to the finals, but were defeated by Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi. His final match occurred in 1998, prior to being confined to a hospital bed, where he teamed with NJPW’s Masa Saito, Mitsuharu Misawa and ECW’s Tracey Smothers to take on Akira Taue, WCW’s Psicosis, Hiroshi Hase, and a wrestler billed as El Santo II, who turned out to be long-time Baba friend and kayfabe rival Erik Watts wearing the legendary El Santo mask. Baba pinned Watts after a tomahawk chop from the second rope. On January 22, 1999, Baba saw his last wrestling match, as Toshiaki Kawada defeated Mitsuharu Misawa for the Triple Crown Championship.
Baba died on January 31, 1999 of cancer, just 8 days after turning 61 and 9 days after the match mentioned above. After his death, ownership of All-Japan was transferred to his widow Motoko, and Mitsuharu Misawa was named President of the company, a position he held until leaving with most of the roster’s talent to form NOAH. After that Keiji Muto took over and remains president today.
“The Giant Of The East” was posthumously inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame in 2008 in the International category for wrestlers who competed primarily outside of North America. He was a giant in the ring and will always be a giant in puroresu lore and remembered as one of the sport’s greats of all-time.
Stats & Info:
Real name: Shohei Baba
Died: January 31, 1999
Age: 61 (at time of death)
Weight: 330 pounds/150 kg
Experience: 38 years
Finishing move: 16-Bun Kick/Big Boot, DDT, Dropkick, Overhand Chop, others
Current affiliation: N/A (Deceased; Founder of All-Japan)
1-time All-Asia Heavyweight Champion
3-time All-Asia Tag Team Champion
3-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion
3-time NWA International Heavyweight Champion
12-time NWA International Tag Team Champion
1-time NWA World Tag Team Champion (Detroit Version)
4-time PWF Heavyweight Champion
1966, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972 World League
1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1981, 1982 Champions Carnival
1975 Open Championship League
1978, 1980 Real World Tag League
Ranked #10 In 100 Best Tag Teams Of PWI Years In 2003 (with Jumbo Tsuruta)
1 Wrestling Observer Newsletter 5 Star Match
1989, 1990, 1991 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Booker Award
1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Promoter Of The Year Award
1990, 1991 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Worst Tag Team Award (with Andre The Giant)
Inducted Into Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall Of Fame In 1996
Inducted Into Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame International Category In 2008
1974 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Distinguished Service Prize
1975 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Most Valuable Player Award
1976 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Special Popularity Prize
1978 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Best Tag Team Award (with Jumbo Tsuruta)
1979 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Best Bout Award (with Antonio Inoki vs. Abdullah The Butcher & Tiger Jeet Singh)
1979 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Most Valuable Player Award
1980 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Best Bout Award (with Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Dory Funk Jr. & Terry Funk)
1980 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Best Tag Team Award (with Jumbo Tsuruta)
1980 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Distinguished Service Prize
1980 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Special Grand Prize
1981 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Best Bout Award (vs. Verne Gagne)
1982 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Best Bout Award (vs. Stan Hansen)
1982 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Best Tag Team Award (vs. Jumbo Tsuruta)
1983 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Special Grand Prize
1988 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Popularity Prize
1990 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix 30th Anniversary Special Service Prize
1993 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Special Prize For Breaking 5000 Matches
1999 Tokyo Sports Grand Prix Special Service Prize (Posthumous)