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Shohei Baba (Baba Shōhei, January 23, 1938 - January 31, 1999) was a professional wrestler and co-founder of All Japan Pro Wrestling. He was also known as Giant Baba. Baba, along with Antonio Inoki, became one of the most famous Japanese wrestlers of his era, with a popularity in Japan comparable to Hulk Hogan's in America. He was also a 3 time NWA Champion.
Professional baseball career
Before entering professional wrestling he had been a professional baseball] pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants, and was signed at the age of 17. Baba, who was issued jersey number 59, was a member of the organization for at least five years. It appears however, he spent most of his time in the minor leagues. He appeared in only three games with the Giants, and recorded a record of 0-1.
It was around this time when national wrestling hero and owner of the Japanese Wrestling Association Mitsuhiro Momota - better known as Rikidōzan - began to feel the time was right for him to start grooming a successor in order to keep business strong. Truthfully, Baba was only 6 feet 7 inches. He weighed in at 275 pounds.
Professional wrestling career
Japan Wrestling Association (1960-1972)
In April 1960 Baba began training in Rikidōzan's dojo along with fellow student Kanji Inoki. The two trained together under Rikidōzan and made their debuts on September 30, 1960 at the old Daito Ku Gymnasium in Tokyo where Baba beat Yonetaro Tanaka and Inoki, renamed Antonio, lost to fellow Rikidōzan student Kintaro Ohki. The period 1967-71 is best remembered by Japanese wrestling fans for the Baba and Inoki tag team that first won the NWA International Tag Team Titles on October 31, 1967 beating Bill Watts and Tarzan Tyler, and would go on to hold the belts four times, a record that Baba would break later with another partner, Jumbo Tsuruta.
Baba had wrestled for Vincent J. McMahon in the United States in the early 1960s, unsuccessfully challenging NWA champion Buddy Rogers for the world title, and returning to face Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF title in 1963 in Madison Square Garden. Bruno retained defeating Baba.
All Japan Pro Wrestling (1972-1999)
Main Event Superstar (1972-1984)
In October 1972, with JWA on the decline and several months after Inoki had formed New Japan Pro Wrestling, Baba formed his own promotion, All Japan Pro Wrestling, with the backing of Nippon TV. All Japan eventually took over the JWA's spot in the National Wrestling Alliance after its collapse, and under Baba's strong business acumen, the rest of the NWA's talent enjoyed an amazing run in Japan. Baba became the first Japanese wrestler to ever hold the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, defeating Jack Brisco in a 2 out of 3 falls match on December 2, 1974 in Kagoshima, Japan. He would hold the championship on two more occasions, but his reigns were short and limited to Japanese territory. Baba was additionally the first former NWA World Champion to be defeated by Ric Flair, as Flair was becoming a top contender to the title.
Phasing out (1984-1993)
By 1984, Baba began phasing himself out to give rise to the next generation of wrestlers, led by Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu. He voluntarily became a "curtain jerker", as he moved slowly and won only against mid-card talent. Under his leadership, All Japan Pro Wrestling became arguably the number one wrestling company in the world during the 1990s from a match quality standpoint. Following the formation of the quickly doomed SWS (Super World of Sports), established talent such as Tenryu, Hara and Great Kabuki left All Japan and Baba was forced to push younger talent, such as Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Akira Taue and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi up the card to replace them. The biggest move Baba made at this time was taking the mask off Tiger Mask II and giving Mitsuharu Misawa the push as the biggest new singles star by pinning Jumbo Tsuruta in one of the most emotional matches in company history on June 8, 1990 at Budokan Hall. The show was close to a sellout and Misawa was immediately catapulted to main event status because of his victory over the legend Jumbo. Budokan Hall became a hotbed for pro wrestling with a string of sellouts in the building lasting for several years, which validated Baba's insistence on clean finishes in matches (not a Baba invention, but rather a reaction to the popularity of shootwrestling at the time; before that, major matches often ended with double count-out finishes). With the Triple Crown Championship as the focal point, All Japan sold out more than 250 consecutive shows in Tokyo throughout the early the mid 1990s, routinely drawing houses in the $1,000,000 range eight times a year at Budokan Hall. At the peak of the company, tickets for the next Budokan show would be sold at the live event and completely sell out that night. Baba finally agreed to run the Tokyo Dome and despite it being a few years since the company peaked they still drew 58,300 paid fans.
Final years and death (1993-1999)
Baba's last "comeback" was during the World's Strongest Tag League in 1993, when he teamed with old rival Stan Hansen in hopes of winning the Double Cup. The duo made it to the finals, but were defeated by Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi. His final match occurred on December 5, 1998 at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, prior to being confined to a hospital bed, where he teamed with Rusher Kimura and Mitsuo Momota to take on Masanobu Fuchi, Haruka Eigen, and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi. On January 22, 1999, Baba saw his last wrestling match, as Toshiaki Kawada defeated Mitsuharu Misawa for the Triple Crown Championship. Nine days later, Baba died of cancer.
Another Japanese pro-wrestler, Hiroshi Nagao from HUSTLE, takes his ring name ("Giant Vabo") from Giant Baba (and Volleyball, his weapon). He once used Baba's theme music and ring attire for a "Legends Tag Match" (His opponent, "Koinoki", imitated legendary Japanese pro-wrestler Antonio Inoki).
Finishing and signature moves
- "The Giant of the East"
- "The Vince McMahon of Japan"
Championships and accomplishments
- All Japan Pro Wrestling
- Japan Wrestling Association
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated
- PWI ranked him #10 of the 100 best tag teams during the PWI Years - with Jumbo Tsuruta in 2003.
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards