On the 19th of February, all the major men’s wrestling companies in Japan gathered to celebrate the life and times of Shohei Giant Baba at Sumo Hall. Baba was a true genius of pro wrestling. He was there from the birth of the modern mat game and helped shepherd it to where it sits today.
In the previous part of this series, we looked at the work of Giant Baba mainly as a promoter. At the start of the nineties, he was about to make an unprecedented run of success not just in match quality, but also in long term storytelling and where it matters most in the wrestling industry – at the box office. There were however pretenders to the King’s Road throne.
As previously mentioned, Genichiro Tenryu had begun building his own promotion with a cash injection from Megane Super, Japan’s leading commercial opticians and the booking help of Vince McMahon. His new company built on the All Japan traditions, putting a greater emphasis on factions, which of which was put together via background or long term associations and was built around big name matches. Their first foray to the Tokyo Dome involved a Tenryu vs Hulk Hogan headlining match which sold out the building. The help from the WWF as it was then beefed up the roster with The Undertaker, The Rockers and The Hart Foundation making regular visits.
The big match dynamics couldn’t last forever and by 1995 SWS, Megane Super pulling their funding amid a recession. Wrestling and Romance or WAR, as well as a host of smaller promotions, took its place. Modelled on the SWS approach and keeping the WWF association, WAR may have been a smaller scale production but it had a more consistent presence in Puroresu. It also innovated many new ideas to Japanese wrestling. Tenryu had been an NWA Six-Man Tag Team Champion with The Road Warriors in the Mid Atlantic region early in his career and instead WAR Six Man titles that favoured the faction heavy gang warfare storytelling style of Tenryu. It gave a lot of wrestlers a platform on a bigger stage. Two of which currently hold the most powerful positions in Japanese Pro Wrestling.
Gedo and Jado came to WAR as a journeyman junior tag team that had found each other in New Japan and set of on a journey where they never outstayed their welcome in W*ING, UWA and a host of Indies in Japan and Mexico. Forming a formidable alliance with former All Japan mid carder Hiromichi Fuyuki, they would become perennial six-man champions and contribute heavily to an incredible Junior Division. Headed up by Ultimo Dragon, the division was so strong it could support a tag team title, a first that was soon copied by every major promotion in Japan. Working with the other companies in an era defined by elite Junior Heavyweight wrestling it would become a major drawing card for the promotion.
Eventually, cross-promotion, especially with New Japan would become the companies forte until it winked out of existence as Tenryu made his way to the IWGP Heavyweight title and couldn’t spare the time to promote. The roster didn’t dissipate, it became part of Tenryu Project, a company that leaned even more heavily on dream matches as Tenryu did the unthinkable and headed back to All Japan after the death of Giant Baba, something that would be unheard of if Baba had lived.
WAR was not the first startup promotion by a former All Japan star. Atsushi Onita would have that distinction. Onita had found his place in All Japan as a charismatic Junior Heavyweight Ace in the early eighties but mounting injuries curtailed his ability to fly. In the era of Tiger Mask and The Dynamite Kid, he saw this as too much of a boundary to the companies and his own development and stood down. He returned to wrestling working some of the first indie dates New Japan ever saw in 1989, the positive response of the fans at Korakuen Hall led him to believe there were possibilities of a long term return. He became obsessed with the Shoot style that had enveloped the wrestling world, thanks to Akira Maeda and the UWF, and leant back on his roots as a southern brawler during his excursion days.
He was a former AWA Southern Tag Team Champion in Memphis. Applying the Jerry Jarrett/Jerry Lawler mentality to his King’s Road base and with the help of high profile Martial Artists like Masashi Aoyagi, he founded Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling. Japan’s first mainstream mixed gender company that built its cards around violence and a needs must talent roster. The early days of the company had a heavy MMA influence, but when Onita added Barbed Wire to the mix it caught the fans imagination. Slowly the limits to what you could do with a wrestling match were re-evaluated; what if you electrify the barbed wire? What if we add barbed wire boards? What if we hold a battle royal on a pontoon in the bay and the eliminated wrestlers have to swim ashore? The possibilities seemed endless.
They weren’t, but it shook the business and FMW went from not filling K Hall at its first attempt to put 36,000 into Kawasaki Baseball Stadium in under five years without television exposure. Onita would quietly add another All Japan stand out, Tarzan Goto as his second lead Babyface and on off opponent, giving an even deeper King’s Road cut to the company.
Despite the success, Baba did not approve. He considered FMW garbage wrestling. Even though he himself had been reliant on blood and brawling in the seventies with Fritz Von Erich and Abdullah The Butcher as big stars for the Tokyo Office, he had moved on to a much more refined aesthetic.
The exodus to SWS, WAR and to a lesser extent, FMW had an unintended consequence for All Japan. The clearing out at the top of the card meant that Baba had to redefine the company quickly and effectively. He started the 90s pushing Terry Gordy and Doctor Death Steve Williams first in the tag ranks as The Miracle Violence Connection and concurrently as singles. They would be perpetual Triple Crown Challengers. As Jumbo Tsuruta slowed down and eventually retired due to cancer that would take his life, and with Stan Hansen getting to the end of his productive run, Baba called on four young talents to fill the void. Babyfaced Akira Taue, perpetual underdog Kenta Kobashi, former Revolution member Toshiaki Kawada and the man who by the early 90s looked anything like an heir apparent Tiger Mask II Matsuhiro Misawa.
Misawa had been tasked with becoming the second Tiger Mask when All Japan bought the rights to the Anime character once New Japan’s licence had passed. While not as aerial as the original Tiger Mask Satoru Sayama, he was innovative and transcended the character, but in the story and in real life he wanted more. On May 14th, 1990, he commanded his tag partner Kawada to remove his mask making a bold statement in front of a rabid crowd. Moving up to Heavyweight a near decade long run of growth both artistically and financially for the company began as Baba expertly fed the four wrestlers into each other. They would become the Four Pillars of Heaven and King’s Road would reach its zenith.
A style of wrestling built on precise storytelling where your position in the company dictated your approach to the match. A less experienced wrestler would have to logically apply a longer series of moves to finish off a more experienced opponent. Moves would not be repeated because if they didn’t work the first time why would you use them again? Moves came from the traditional wrestling playbook, not shoot based offence; big suplexes, DDTs and piledrivers. Necks would become thick in anticipation of these deadly moves. It would also become a wonderful platform for non-traditional promotions as its reliance on the story of the match enabled more drama, ideal for big spot barbed wire matches where tension was key. Pay was good, great even, if Baba thought you could contribute he kept you around, with retainers and bonuses to make sure you didn’t leave.
It was wrestling heaven, but its leader was not long for the world by the end of the decade. Giant Shohei Baba died a victim of cancer in 1999. The wrestling world mourned, but his legacy as a leader, booker and creative thinker had only just begun.