The legacy of Giant Baba
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SLAM! Wrestling Guest Column
By CHRIS SCHRAMM -- For SLAM! Wrestling
Giant Baba, left, and Antonio Inoki. Photo courtesy the excellent Puroresu Dojo
No one had any idea on September 30, 1959 what was going to happen. It
was just a normal Japanese Wrestling Association card featuring the same
old wrestler the fans saw each week, but this card was just a little
different. Shohei Baba and Antonio Inoki made their debuts on this card.
Baba would go on to defeat Yonetaro Tanaka that night. Baba and Inoki
went on to dominate Japanese wrestling over the next twenty years.
Baba was no everyday man. He stood 6'10" and almost 300 lbs. He was born
on January 23, 1938. Baba had to take a serious role only four years
into his career, though. His size needed to be two-sided after the death
of Japanese star Rikidozan in 1963. He role needed to fit his height to
keep Japanese Wrestling Association alive, and he did. He led the charge
of the organization through the 60s and into the early 70s.
The death of Rikidozan saw the vacancy of the NWA International title.
Two years after Rikidozan's death, Baba would win the title by defeating
Dick the Bruiser in Osaka, Jana. It was the first major title Baba would
hold. Antonio Inoki and Baba were best friends in the business, and
they used their friendship to take some tag team titles along the way.
They took their first of four NWA International Tag Team titles in 1966
when they defeated Bill Watts and Tarzan Tyler.
In 1972, Baba started All Japan Pro Wrestling after a dispute with JWA
officials. Baba had quit the organization he dominated by winning six
JWA World League tournaments. The move would be a wise one, as All Japan
would go on to become one of the biggest organizations over the next few
One of the first moves by Baba was the growth of international stars
visiting his company. The first major event took place when Baba
defeated The Destroyer on December 19, 1972. The win had a stipulation
that The Destroyer had to become a full-time wrestler in Japan for five
years. The Destroyer marked the first U.S. wrestling star to wrestler
full-time in Japan.
The United States would begin hearing more about Baba starting in the
early 70s as result of him brining stars to his company. Nicknamed
"Touyou no Kyojin" in Japan which means "Giant of the Orient," he
received the nickname "Giant" in the U.S. The Destroyer, Bruno
Sammartino and the Funk Brothers, who were all often visitors to Japan,
began to help Baba gain acceptance in the U.S.
During a 1974 visit to Japan, NWA World titleholder Jack Brisco would
lose the title to Baba. Brisco would regain that title just seven days
later in Tokyo, but the exchange stated that All Japan and Baba had
became a good partner for the NWA. Baba would go on to win the title a
couple more times later in his career, and he was remembered as the
first NWA World champion not only from Asia but also the first to win
the title outside North America.
Just one year earlier, Baba took the PWF heavyweight title. It was the
major title of the newly formed All Japan organization. The title would
go on to be a cornerstone of the All Japan Triple Crown. The belt was
awarded to Baba after a series of ten matches that are still talked
about today as legendary and classic. The matches took place in one
night on February 27, 1973. He won eight matches, lost zero and two went
to a draw. He beat such stars as Bruno Sammartino, Terry Funk, Abdullah
the Butcher, Pat O'Connor, Bobo Brazil, Don Leo Jonathon, Wilbur Snyder
and The Destroyer. That night saw Baba prove to most wrestlers and fans
that he was the number one wrestler in the world.
Sammartino would return to Japan in 1975 to put his WWWF World title
against Baba's PWF heavyweight title. It marked the first time the WWWF
title was defended in Japan, and the match saw the two men wrestle to a
Baba and Inoki had grown apart over the years. The two were heading up
rival promotions (Inoki was in New Japan Wrestling), and the two were
often competing for talent and fans. On August 26, 1978, however, the
two put aside their differences and tagged up for a match against Tiger
Jeet Singh and Abdullah the Butcher in Tokyo, Japan. The match saw four
of the most popular international names in one match. Inoki and Baba won
The two would start their feud again when Baba signs Stan Hanson from
New Japan in 1981. The signing would cause Inoki to cause a long
dissention between himself and Baba. All-Japan would later bond with
Japan Wrestling Promotion, and New Japan would continue to suffer more.
The joint venture saw All-Japan gain such stars as Riki Choshu, Kuniaki
Baba's life was mostly behind the curtains in the 1990s. He worked very
little in the ring because of his aging body, but when he did it would
guarantee a sell out. Baba's career would even last past Inoki's. Inoki
retirement in 1998 did not stop Baba. He wrestled till his death.
January 31, 1999, marked a dark day in wrestling history. Just days
after celebrating his 61st birthday, Baba would die after complication
from bowel cancer.
Chris Schramm is from Lawrence, KS, and can be emailed at cschramm@UKANS.EDU
He has written two other historical columns for SLAM! Wrestling:
Oct. 5: Twenty-eight years was the reign
Nov. 19: The origins of today's WCW-WWF war
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