An article by Mike Mooneyham
Published Feb. 7, 1999
The death of Shohei (Giant) Baba last week at the age of 61 sadly marked the end of an era in professional wrestling.
Baba, a larger-than-life figure in Japan, passed away Jan. 31 at the age of 61 of liver failure. Longtime owner of the All Japan promotion, Baba had been hospital ized since a bowel operation on Jan. 8.
Very few men in the history of wrestling affected the industry as Baba did over a period spanning four decades. He was one of the most influential figures in the wrestling business dating back to the ’60s when he teamed with another Japanese legend, Antonio Inoki, who made his pro debut on Sept. 30, 1960, ironically on the same show with Baba.
To say Baba was as revered a celebrity in Japan as Michael Jordan is in the United States would not be an overstatement. Baba’s far-reaching influence extended to sports, politics and the mainstream media, and in a tradition-steeped country such as Japan, he was considered a national treasure and a cultural symbol.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“He was Japanese wrestling,” said Jerry Brisco, who along with brother Jack, toured Japan many times working for Baba’s promotion. Brisco and fellow WWF official Bruce Prichard were in Japan for Baba’s last birthday celebration and said his passing came as a shock.
“He looked fantastic,” Brisco said. “The tradition in Japan is when one of those guys has a birthday, they get in the center of the ring and everybody in the audience passes by and shakes their hand and gives them a gift. They had a big crowd that night. It must have taken an hour and a half or longer or all of them to pass through, but Baba stood there and shook every one of their hands and bowed to all of them. When they left the ring, it was like they touched the president.”
Giant Baba’s size alone (6-9, 300 pounds) made him unique by Japanese standards. But Baba, who had the distinction of being the tallest man ever to play major league baseball in Japan, had the innate ability to connect with the Japanese fans and to successfully bridge two distinct generations of wrestling.
“He was one of these big guys with a personality deluxe and the charisma that it takes to be a star,” said Brisco. “Baba transcends all eras. No matter which era it was, he would be the top guy. Certain guys are like that, and he was certainly one of them. It’s a great loss to our industry, not only ring-wise, but business-wise as well, for the country of Japan. I’m sure he’ll be given a burial over there that’s worthy of a king.”
A private funeral was held Tuesday for Baba. A public ceremony is planned later for Tokyo’s Budokan Hall, site of many of Baba’s famous matches, and more than 15,000 people are expected to attend. More than 100,000 letters of condolence were sent to the All Japan office last week, and Japan’s Nippon TV was scheduled to air a prime-time 90-minute special today.
A former NWA world champion, Baba also enjoyed great success in the United States.
“He was a tremendous draw when he came to the States,” said Brisco. ” I had the pleasure of seeing Jack go over and lose the strap to Baba (in 1974) and win it back a week later. The reception that Giant Baba received after he won the title was just tremendous. He was absolutely revered.”
Baba, a successful businessman who accumulated vast wealth from a number of real estate holdings in Japan and Hawaii as well as through the wrestling business, also was one of the industry’s most respected promoters who fashioned a style which became unique in the wrestling business. Baba’s philosophy centered around a rugged and stiff work-oriented approach to the game that catapulted American grapplers such as Stan Hansen, Bruiser Brody, Steve Williams and Vader to superstardom.
“Baba could take a program that was hot in the United States and bring it over there with four Americans and make it draw big, as he did with the Funks and the Briscos. Baba always treated everyone first-class when they came to Japan. During the time when I was traveling over there, he was the man to work for. He was a first-class guy, and his wife was a very nice lady as well. He was always a man who kept his word on his guarantees. You never had to worry about a thing. In those time we didn’t sign contracts; it was a handshake. If Baba promised you a trip a year and a half later, you could rest assured you’d be receiving your ticket a year and a half later. He was a great businessman who never backed down from an offer.”
Perhaps Baba’s greatest accomplishment in the wrestling business, however, was a mind-boggling streak that most likely will never be duplicated. From the time of his debut in 1960 until 1984, a period spanning more than 4,000 matches, Baba never missed a scheduled appearance for any reason.
Baba, who formed the All Japan promotion in 1972 with backing from a loyal American contingent that included NWA president Sam Muchnick, Dory Funk Sr., The Destroyer (Dick Beyer) and Bruno Sammartino, wrestled until late last year when it was reported that he had taken ill as a result of a severe cold. His in-ring activity had been relegated to mid-card bouts in recent years, giving the main-event spotlight to the promotion’s younger lions who would routinely deliver some of the most highly regarded matches in the business on a worldwide scale. Baba, however, remained the patriarch of the All Japan promotion and a focal point of the wrestling world in that country.
“He made Japan wrestling what it is today,” said Brisco. “All these other guys, from Inoki down to the current regime, owe that man a vote of gratitude because of all he’s done for wrestling in Japan.”