On the 19th of February 2019, all the major men’s wrestling companies in Japan gathered to celebrate the life and times of Shoei Giant Baba at Sumo Hall. James Truepenny looks at the legacy of Baba in this three part series to shine a light on a long since passed legend who influences everything we watch today.
Baba was a true genius of pro wrestling. He was there from the birth of the modern mat game in Japan and helped shepherd it to where it sits today. Like all great stars, he moved beyond the limitations of the sport and into the public consciousness. However that journey to greatness had several phases and false starts, but the long term effect was a style of pro wrestling that has filtered into the DNA of Puroresu and become a benchmark of how to make money as a wrestling promoter.
Baba did not start out as a wrestler, born with Gigantism he became a towering spectacle of the aptly named Yomiuri Giants professional baseball team at the age of 19 in the late fifties. Around this time, Rikidozan was revolutionising the way wrestling was presented in Japan and Baba was recruited into the early classes of the JWA Dojo. Alongside Antonio Inoki, he would become one of Rikidozan’s key protégé. Forming teams with Inoki, Seiji Sakaguchi, Toyonobori, and Misaki Yoshimura he would be a perennial tag champion. However his greatest success would come as a solo wrestler taking the NWA International Heavyweight title three times and the World Big League, an early forerunner of today’s G1 and Championship Carnival Tournaments six times.
He was the rising star of the company set to take over from Rikidozan upon the senior wrestlers’ retirement. That moment came quickly, with controversy and tragedy. Seemingly having slighted a Yakuza, Rikidozan was stabbed at a nightclub and would later die from his septic wounds. Japan Wrestling Association, the company that had been a vessel for Rikidozan’s meteoric rise was rudderless, and a power vacuum was created with top stars Inoki and Baba most likely to take the hot seat.
Inoki would try and take over in the early sixties but it was a failed coup, he went off to the Japanese Indie promotions. JWA would go on for a decade with Baba as it’s leading star but by 1973, the writing was on the wall as Inoki and Baba formed New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling respectively. Baba was still a vital star for the fledgeling promotion, but he also took a lot of the talent associated with JWA, as Inoki did with NJPW. That loyalty would become a Baba trademark. He was loyal to you so long as you looked after him. He could be forgiving and understanding if it didn’t interfere with his business, but in the coming years the biggest crime in Baba’s book was staring up in opposition to Baba himself.
The company grew under his stewardship. With the end of the JWA, the NWA chose Baba, who was close with the US promoters at the time, as the represented territory in Japan. A fact that would drive Antonio Inoki in the early years of New Japan. The cards of that time also had a large American influence. They did not look unlike the TV products of the Texas promotions, the company was strongly related to Big Time Wrestling out of Dallas and the Amarillo office run by Dory and Terry Funk. By the mid-seventies, Terry and Dory were taking on a large selection of AJPW rookies for their excursion tours.
The result was highly competitive matches that would become the Baba hallmark. Gaijin talents flourished too, men like The Destroyer and Abdullah The Butcher would become big draws, Billy Robinson would bring a scientific aesthetic to All Japan too, but the main draw would still be Baba. He would also become an NWA Champion too taking the belt from his close friend Harley Race, though he dropped it back before the end of the tour, it solidified Baba as a World Stage player that helped the All Japan cause no end.
Baba also cultivated younger stars. Noted amateur Jumbo Tsuruta joined the stable and grew exponentially in the late seventies and early eighties. Former Sumo Genichiro Tenryu would join the company and young High School Dropout Atsushi Onita would become his assistant. All three would find success over the long haul, but as he worked his way through the eighties, Baba realised things would have to change. New Japan was the place to be by then. A hot Junior Division headed up by Tiger Mask and The Dynamite Kid was blowing roofs off of buildings, moving up from the Juniors the charismatic Tatsumi Fujinami was proving to be an heir to the Inoki thrown and all-around badass Riki Choshu was providing an alternate look for what the Ace of Japanese company could be.
Baba decided that it was time for wholesale change. The first major change came from Ricki himself. As he left New Japan with his own stable to form a new company, Baba saw the potential in a cross-promotion with the former New Japan stars and so began one of the first Invasion angles in Japanese wrestling. It would become the blueprint for how to handle cross-promotion on the large stage.
Once the draw from that had died down and Choshu and his group had either moved back to New Japan or dissipated around All Japan. Baba pulled up the drawbridge. He forsook his relationship with the NWA by the late eighties. New Japan was happy to pick up the endorsement, he then concentrated his efforts on a homegrown roster of talent matched with hand-picked Gaijin’s that could work Baba’s style. The company coalesced around Tsuruta, Tenryu and Stan Hansen in the main event. Announcing that the companies three major titles would be unified into what would become known as the Triple Crown. With Tsuruta, Tenryu and Hansen in the title picture, it established All Japan in a decidedly different direction.
Match quality became the thing that you could rely on with AJPW, a loaded roster that Baba kept adding too judiciously, enabled high-quality matches from the top to the bottom of the card. While all this was going on and Baba began to transition to the next generation of stars, there was tension at the top. Stan Hansen was secure in his place as lead Gaijin, and Tsuruta had re-invented himself from the stable charismatic grappler of the eighties to an unparalleled workhorse in the early nineties. Tenryu had gone in a different direction, forming the stable Revolution he became neither face or heel, but still hugely popular.
Business was brisk as the fans sensed and then saw something special happening in All Japan but where the fans saw an opportunity, Tenryu saw a dead end street. He felt he had been an architect of All Japan but wanted more, with equally frustrated Great Kabuki by his side for creative help, and backed by a large optical firm he began his own company Super World Sports. Co-promoting with Vince McMahon this would become the first exodus which will look more closely at in the second part of this series.