Shohei 'Giant' Baba: The Pride of Japan
by Steven Verrier
Much like Sam Muchnick in the United States, Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba earned a reputation in Japan as a leading wrestling promoter of his era who showcased some of the most athletic, ‘serious’ wrestling action on the planet. To this day, some of Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling programs of the 1980s and 1990s - featuring such legends as Stan Hansen, Mitsuharu Misawa, Jumbo Tsuruta, Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, and Steve Williams - are remembered for some of the best and most believable pro wrestling ever seen.
But despite the amazing roster of wrestlers Baba developed in Japan or brought in from overseas, none was more important as a headliner or face of the promotion than Baba himself. For over a dozen years, Baba -already established for a decade as a top attraction domestically and
internationally - was the in-ring centerpiece of All Japan Pro Wrestling, which he established in 1972. While Baba briefly held the NWA World Heavyweight title on three occasions during his career, it was the careful promotion of the Pacific Wrestling Federation title - a title Baba dominated for over a decade - that fueled much of All Japan Pro Wrestling’s success. Although Baba wasn’t generally recognized as one of the most graceful or athletic wrestlers of his era, long-time wrestling historian, journalist, and author Koji Miyamoto reports that “Baba [in his younger years] could do every move, including a beautiful flying dropkick and a high-flying crossbody.”
During the first decade of his outstanding career, Baba’s solid and intense encounters against international stars including Bruno Sammartino, Fritz Von Erich, and Gene Kiniski convinced fans throughout Japan that Baba was equal to the best wrestlers in the world, if not in a class of his own—a perception that remained for many years. He was “the pride of Japan,” says Miyamoto.
Baba’s athletic credentials were solid. He was a former professional baseball player—a strong starting pitcher and, for a few years, one of the top prospects in Japan—who embarked on his wrestling career in 1960, under the tutelage of Rikidozan. As Rikidozan had done, Baba (billed at 6’10”/300+ pounds and built to get attention) toured North America to gain valuable experience and exposure before returning to Japan in the early 1960s and enjoying enormous success during that decade and success of epic proportions - in Japan and everywhere he appeared - after establishing All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972.
Baba passed away in 1999 but to this day is remembered as a legendary wrestler on an international scale and an equally legendary promoter and cultural icon in Japan. As Stan Hansen, one of the wrestlers most associated with Baba’s heyday as a promoter, says in the prologue to his autobiography The Last Outlaw, “People use the term ‘legend’ loosely, but if there was a true legend in Japan, Baba most certainly was one”.