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#6 Giant Baba
If this list was solely comprised based on the respect garnered by their fellow wrestlers, than Shohei "Giant" Baba would be number one; without question. According to Stan Hansen, who worked for Baba for nearly two decades, he never heard a single complaint uttered about Baba. Considering Baba was a promoter for over 25 years; that kind of respect is unheard of in the professional wrestling industry. Baba guided his All-Japan Pro Wrestling promotion through some of the most profitable periods in history, expertly deciding on when to push himself as the top star, but also possessing the foresight to phase himself out when wrestling was going in a different reaction. More than that, Baba filled a void in wrestling, rescuing the industry in Japan from disaster and turning into one of the most culturally relevant forms of entertainment in the country.
Baba grew up in Sanjyo, Japan, and was afflicted with a growth disorder not dissimilar to the same condition that plagued Andre the Giant. He eventually would end up at around 6'9" and 270lbs, which was truly enormous when compared to the average size of a Japanese man, which is generally smaller than their western counterparts. Baba would first use his immense size in the field of athletics, starring as a baseball pitcher in high school and eventually dropping out of school at age 16 to pitch for Yomiuri Giants, the New York Yankees of the Nippon Professional Baseball League. He played mostly in the minor leagues but did make a couple appearances for the main team before being released in 1959 when he was injured. To this day he remains the tallest player in the history of the NPB.
His size lent itself to many career options, as Japanese TV and film producers lined up to try and capitalize on Baba, believing that his height could make him a star. At the same time, Japanese wrestling kingpin Rikidozan began to believe that he needed a successor in the industry and targeted Baba as a potential star. Unlike the other entertainment options, Baba believed that pro wrestling could make him famous while preserving his own dignity, not just turning him into a sideshow act for viewers to marvel at. He began training with Rikidozan in April of 1960 where he met another promising trainee, a student who had just returned from living in Brazil named Kanji Inoki.
He made his debut for Rikidozan's own promotion, the Japanese Wrestling Association in the fall of 1960. Rikidozan, even today, is the biggest star in Japanese wrestling history and Baba arrived at a time when Rikidozan was the biggest hero in the entire country during a time when the Japanese desperately needed one. Matches against American's like Lou Thesz, Classy Freddie Blassie, and "The Destroyer" Dick Beyer drew record television ratings in Japan and immortalized Rikidozan as a hero for all of Japan. Needless to say, there was tremendous pressure on Baba to succeed as the first ever trainee of the great Rikidozan.
Following his debut in Japan, Baba was sent on an excursion to the United States. At the time, the Japanese heel was a very popular character in post-World War II America. Almost all of the heels relied on classic heel tactics and throwing salt into their opponent's eyes. Because Baba was so uniquely large for the Japanese wrestler, he immediately broke that mold and was pushed as a dominant, giant heel. His sheer size turned him into a box-office star in the United States, and his dominant booking paved the way for another enormous import, Andre the Giant, during the following decade.
By 1964 Baba was one of the biggest heels in the United States. During a one month span he challenged for three separate world championships. First he wrestled Lou Thesz for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in Detroit, and followed that with a title shot against Bruno Sammartino and the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship in Madison Square Garden. However, his best stint in the United States took place in Los Angeles and the Worldwide Wrestling Associates. There he was met by Beyer, who knew Baba was going to be a star in LA during his first match when the ringside area was packed by Japanese-Americans.
Beyer wisely gave Baba most of the match, only successfully defending the WWA World Heavyweight Championship by getting himself disqualified right when it appeared Baba was going to win the title. Soon the matches were being filmed and broadcasted back in Japan and since Beyer was known in Japan as one of the top enemies of Rikidozan, watching Baba dismantle him turned him into a major star in Japan despite not even wrestling on Japanese soil.
In 1963, Rikidozan was murdered by the Yakuza due to a relationship with the mob that went horribly wrong. Not only was the death of the nation's favorite hero a devastating blow to the JWA, the connections with organized crime threatened the entire wrestling industry in Japan. Since Rikidozan was presented as being the ultimate hero, the fact that he was involved in illegal crime rings destroyed the trust the public had in wrestlers. The JWA was nearly destroyed and was barley clinging to life when Baba returned from the United States.
Probably the main reason that Baba ranks this highly on the list is because he saved professional wrestling in Japan. Without a wrestling star who was as infallible in real life as they were presented as in the ring, wrestling in Japan likely would have never taken off to the degree that we see it today. The difference between wrestling being a popular fad and a cultural institution in Japan is Giant Baba. His return to Japan as a hero who had succeeded in America completely changed the downward trend that puroresu was heading, and since then wrestling has remained one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the archipelago.
The JWA survived with Baba by reigniting the Japan vs American feuds that were so successful during Rikidozan's peak. Baba won the NWA International Heavyweight Championship, the championship that had been synonymous with Rikidozan and vacated after his death, in 1965 when he defeated Dick the Bruiser and would hold the championship for the majority of the JWA's remaining existence. He defended it against top foreigners like Bobo Brazil and Gene Kiniski. An August 14, 1967 bout against then NWA World Heavyweight Champion Kiniski saw the two battle to a 65-minute draw in front of 25,000 fans at the Osaka Baseball Stadium.
How big of a draw was Baba? He dominated television ratings in Japan like no other entertainer except for Rikidozan. In January of 1968 he had a televised title defense against American Wrestling Association standout The Crusher, which was run in direct opposition to a Thesz vs Danny Hodge match that was being broadcasted on a rival network. Despite Thesz being a huge name in Japan, the Baba match destroyed the Thesz match in the ratings, generating a 48 rating compared to the 26 rating the Thesz match garnered.
Although he defended his title numerous times, the Baba-led JWA era is best remembered for his teaming with Inoki. The pair began working together in 1967 and quickly became the top drawing act in the JWA, even greater than Baba singles matches. They captured the NWA International Tag Team Championships from Bill Watts and Tarzan Tyler and made defending them their top priority. Throughout the rest of the decade they traded them with Danny Hodge and Wilbur Snyder as well as Dick the Bruiser and The Crusher.
In 1971 backstage politics began to unravel the JWA. The company had been fiscally mismanaged and was in complete disarray. As the top two stars in the promotion, Inoki and Baba decided that the JWA would be in better hands if they were in charge and attempted a coup of company leadership. The bid failed and the JWA decided to blame Inoki, firing him from the company. While Baba and Inoki were believed to be mutually responsible, the fact is the JWA needed drawing stars and they decided to choose Baba over Inoki. Inoki did not take this snub kindly and it would affect their relationship for the rest of their careers.
In March of 1972, Inoki took matters into his own hands and formed his own company, New Japan Pro Wrestling. Seeing the writing on the wall, Baba announced that he would be leaving the JWA to form All-Japan Pro Wrestling, forever putting him on a course to be rivals with Inoki.
It was at the formation of AJPW that Baba's shrewd business sense would flourish. His first key move was signing a deal with Nippon TV to broadcast AJPW, a crucial deal since Nippon TV had been home to the JWA for years and Baba was the network's biggest star. His next step was aligning himself with the Funk brothers to bring in the best foreign talent. The Funks had wrestled in the JWA and also played big roles in several American territories, included the West Texas and Florida territories, meaning they worked with some of the best American talent in the business and they negotiated deals to get that talent over to AJPW. Lastly, Baba traveled to St. Louis and met with Sam Muchnick, securing NWA recognition got his promotion, making sure that the NWA World Heavyweight Championship would make its way to Japan for big title defenses. He also effectively froze out NJPW from the NWA, another critical strike in a promotional war that would last for decades.
While those aspects helped AJPW succeed, the real reason the company thrived was because it employed the nation's biggest star. Baba's size, charisma and attitude had effectively filled the void that was opened when Rikidozan was murdered. While never a great worker, Baba was adequate in the ring and similar to Andre the Giant, has the misfortune of having most of the tape of his matches coming from the twilight of his career, when his body was ravaged by arthritis. In his prime Baba was extremely capable of having a good match given the right opponent, and his offense really got over with the Japanese fans. His toughness was never questioned and the image of a bloodied and bandaged Baba having his hand raised in victory is an enduring image in Japan.
The first event in company history took place in October of 1972 and saw Baba team with Thunder Sugiyama to lose to the ace American team of Terry Funk and Bruno Sammartino. Quickly, Baba established his own championship, the Pacific Wrestling Federation World Heavyweight Championship. Baba made himself the first ever PWF champion when he won a ten man round-robin style tournament to win the title. Baba's relationship with the NWA and other top promoters was already paying huge dividends, as the tournament included the likes of Sammartino, Beyer, Snyder, Brazil, Terry Funk, Pat O'Connor and Don Leo Jonathan. He officially won the championship in February of 1973 and would hold it for more than five years, eventually dropping it to Hawaiian wrestler Tor Kamata in June of 1978.
In January of 1974, Jack Brisco became the first NWA World Heavyweight Champion to defend his title in AJPW, wrestling Baba to a draw in a double-title match that saw Baba put his PWF championship on the line. In December of that year, Baba would defeat Brisco to become the first Japanese NWA World Heavyweight Champion in history. Baba would drop the championship to Brisco a week later in what would become a favorite booking pattern of Baba's. The NWA World Heavyweight Champion would come for a tour of AJPW and Baba would defeat the champion on the first night, only to lose the title on the final night of the tour. This meant that he could not only promote himself as a former NWA champion, but fans would pour out to see a Japanese wrestler holding the most prestigious belt in wrestling. Baba would win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship on two more occasions, in 1979 and 1980, swapping the championship with Harley Race both times.
In 1973 Baba also founded one of the premier concepts in wrestling, the Champions Carnival. Based on the World League, a tournament from the JWA, Baba introduced the Champions Carnival first as a single-elimination tournament and later as a round-robin tournament, which remains its current format. The Champions Carnival mixed the Japanese heavyweight wrestlers with gaijins and would become the foremost series of events on the puroresu calendar. It was the inspiration for many other tournaments of the same nature, most notably the G1 Climax, and Baba would win the first three tournaments, defeating Mark Lewin, Mr. Wrestling and Kiniski in the finals each year.
The first time Baba would lose the Champion's Carnival when he was shocked by Abdullah the Butcher, who would end up being his most durable rival. Abdullah's unconventional in-ring style meshed well with Baba. It was extremely easy for Abdullah to get heat on Baba, because Abdullah was known for using foreign instruments to maim his opponents, and doing it to a revered name like Baba was a license to get booed out of the building. His matches were also notably short, rarely going past 15 minutes, which made it easier for Baba to work main event matches without having to go 30+ minutes.
In October of 1978 Abdullah defeated Billy Robinson for the PWF World Heavyweight Championship. Baba would chase him for the championship and eventually regained it at an American Wrestling Association show in Chicago. Baba was an icon in Japan, but his ability to draw in the United States was probably an underrated aspect of his career. Unlike a lot of Japanese wrestlers who come over to the US early in their careers and work on the undercard, Baba was a main event level draw, contending for numerous top championships and even defending his own championships in the United States. In fact, Baba probably has as good of a case as anybody for being the most successful Japanese wrestler in American wrestling history.
Following the Antonio Inoki vs Muhammad Ali debacle, business began to lag in Japan as both AJPW and NJPW began to lose business. In an attempt to slow the slide, the two sides agreed to do a joint show, called "The Dream Card" at Budokan Hall in Tokyo. The show was main-evented by Inoki and Baba teaming up for the first time in nine years to defeat Tiger Jeet Singh and Abdullah the Butcher in a dramatic reunion of the most popular tag team in wrestling history.
In the early 1980s Baba would continue to dominate AJPW while also making headlines in the United States. After over a three year reign as PWF champion, Baba dropped the championship to NWA superstar Harley Race. Similar to when he dropped the title to Abdullah, Baba would regain the championship not in Japan, but in Race's home territory of St. Louis. During that same tour he traveled to the Georgia territory and defended the PWF championship against Terry Gordy, who impressed Baba enough that eventually Gordy would be brought in as one of the top heels in AJPW.
In the spring of 1981, Inoki lured Abdullah away from AJPW, reportedly offering him double what he was making in AJPW, which would have been one of the most lucrative contracts in the history of wrestling. Since Abdullah had been the top opponent for Baba for years, Baba was left scrambling and was forced to aggressively pursue other talent. Once again displaying a keen business intellect, Baba stole Inoki's top heel tag team of Tiger Jeet Singh and Umanosuke Ueda.
His biggest coup would happen in December of 1981, when Stan Hansen accompanied Bruiser Brody and Jimmy Snuka to the ring during the finals of the 1981 Real World Tag League. Hansen had been the top heel in NJPW before Abdullah was brought in and had decided to jump to AJPW. A mere two days after completing his final tour with NJPW, he appeared at ringside with Snuka and Brody and then savagely attacked Baba in a post-match brawl. Hansen's arrival marked a turning point for Baba and AJPW in the war against NJPW, reigniting business in Japan and presenting Baba once again as the country's premier hero.
Hansen effectively replaced Abdullah as Baba's main foil and he would run roughshot over the AJPW roster. In September of 1983 he defeated Baba for the PWF championship and held it for more than a year. Hansen was a much better worker in the ring than Abdullah, and his constant, fast paced style made it easy for Baba to sell his offense until making his big comeback later in the match. At this point in his career Baba began to really slow down in the ring; never known for his outstanding agility, years of hard matches and consistent arthritis zapped whatever athleticism he originally had. Hansen would later say that Baba was one of the toughest wrestlers he had ever had the opportunity to work with, and although he was extremely creaky backstage and even sitting down in a chair could cause him pain, he never complained and always worked his hardest in the ring. Despite his limited athleticism, Baba still had immense name value and respect in Japan, and even if he was not consistently having good matches, his star power was enough to make them feel very dramatic.
He captured his final PWF World Heavyweight Championship from Hansen in July of 1984 and held it for about a year before dropping it back to Hansen. Baba scored another coup for AJPW when he signed Riki Choshu away from NJPW, and also bringing in other notable names including Masa Saito, Animal Hamaguchi, Yoshiaki Yatsu and the British Bulldogs. The move firmly put AJPW ahead of NJPW in the race to box office supremacy and the introduction of Choshu and his invading force of wrestlers changed the storyline direction of AJPW.
With Choshu introducing a faster, more athletic style in the company, Baba saw the writing on the wall and began to phase himself out of the main event picture in AJPW. The plan had been in place for quite some time, as Baba had already been grooming his successor, Jumbo Tsuruta as the secondary babyface in the company for years. Tsuruta, who had quickly become one of the best wrestlers in the world, effectively replaced Baba as the hero of AJPW, wrestling Choshu, Hansen, Bruiser Brody and Tenryu in main event matches. Baba's lack of ego allowed AJPW to flourish well after his prime had passed, something that many wrestlers-turned promoters cannot claim.
By the late 1980s, Baba's career as a singles wrestlers was mostly over. Although he still wrestled very frequently, it was mostly in tag team matches with a younger partner. It was a symbiotic relationship, as the young wrestler would take a lot of the bumps and do most of the match for Baba, and in return they would receive a big boost in popularity by being the friend of the iconic Baba. One of the early beneficiaries of this rub was Tiger Mask II, who would later become the company ace wrestling under his real name, Mitsuharu Misawa.
Into the 1990s Baba remained a fixture in the company. He had mostly devolved into a comedy style wrestler working on the undercards, but remained a pivotal wrestler in the company. Baba's decline is a textbook model for how any aging wrestler should book themselves; he was still on the card and using his legendary status to sell some tickets, but he was also wise enough to know that the future of the company was in the hands of others, and Tsuruta, Misawa, Hansen, Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada were having classic matches in the main event. So many wrestlers allow their ego and pride to get in the way of smart business decisions, but Baba was the exact opposite; his selfless career management elevated other wrestlers into prime spots and it was the younger wrestlers who carried the company to terrific heights in the 1990s.
He occasionally did however crack the main event. In January of 1994 he took part in a six man tag team match that saw him team with Misawa and Kobashi against the team of Kawada, Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi. The match received a perfect five star rating from the Wrestling Observer and although Baba did very little in the match, it still goes on his resume even if a 56 year-old Giant Baba has to be the worst wrestler in history to have a five star match.
In 1998 he kept chugging along, but the now 60 year old Baba's health began to fade. Things began to look bleak when he missed two shows in December; which was remarkable because Baba never missed bookings (he reportedly wrestled over 4,100 consecutive matches between 1964 and 1984 without missing a single date). He returned to the ring and later that month and had a comedy match with one of his partners being Mitsuo Momota, the son of Baba's trainer Rikidozan. Unfortunately, it would be the final match of his career as he was diagnosed with cancer shortly thereafter. After undergoing a pair of surgeries his health rapidly began to decline and he passed away on January 31, 1999, just nine days after his 61st birthday.
For a perspective on just how big of a star Baba was, look at how monumental his death was in Japan. It was the biggest story in the country and major network television stations quickly began airing marathons of his best matches. Millions of dollars' worth of videotapes were sold in a matter of days following his death and by the end of the week over 100,000 letters of condolences had arrived at the AJPW offices. Reportedly the demand to send telegrams to the offices of AJPW was so great that there wasn't enough telegraph paper in the entire country to handle the requests. His public funeral took place in April at Budokan Hall and saw 28,000 fans pour into the arena to pay their respects. The following month the Giant Baba Memorial Show was held at the Tokyo Dome and drew over 60,000 fans to the arena.
Was Baba a great in-ring performer? Not by any means, but wrestling is so much more than workrate; it is about storytelling, presence, strength and expression, being able to wrestle well is only the most useful means to get to those ends. So yes, Baba was not a very good wrestler, but he was such an enormous and influential star to so many people that it didn't matter that he wasn't a technical genius. In 2006, Nippon Television aired a documentary that asked Japanese people who their favorite person from history was. The results were then compiled into a program titled The Top 100 Historical Persons in Japan and although it was a Japanese list, people from other countries were represented on the list, such as Thomas Edison, Mother Theresa and Napoleon. Baba was the only athlete to crack the list, at 93. Accurate or not, years after his death the people of Japan still felt that Baba was one of the 100 most important people to ever live and if that isn't a testament to wrestling greatness, what is?
Lastly, Baba is the only wrestler I know of that has a legitimate giant statue of himself german-suplexing a car. When Hulk Hogan has one of those let me know.
Next week #5 will be revealed, perhaps the greatest babyface of all-time and a brawler who defied the odds to reach superstardom.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi
13. The Rock
12. Jumbo Tsuruta
11. Stan Hansen
10. The Undertaker
9. Verne Gagne
8. Terry Funk
7. Mitsuharu Misawa
6. Giant Baba