Prodigious Promoters: Giant Baba, the Promoter to Look Up to
Interested in the history of wrestling? Interested in promoters? Or just wanting to read something different? If the answer is yes to any of the above, join me as I explore a true giant of pro wrestling, Shohei "Giant" Baba. I will look through his life and then analyse how his experiences helped to make him a great promoter.
This is part of my series on Prodigious Promoters. What can make a great promoter? I aim to discover lessons for any promoter whilst at the same time celebrating the success and acknowledging failures of these promoters.
If you have any suggestions for promoters to be covered in the future, feel free to suggest them.
This is a bit long, but I hope that doesn't detract from this piece. If it helps, you don't have to read it in one go. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this...
Whoever has enjoyed RVD, get down on your knees and pay your respects to Giant Baba.
He was the man who had the idea of giving him colourful airbrushed clothes when RVD was touring in AJPW. The idea worked exactly as Baba intended: it helped RVD to stand out as truly, "One of a Kind."
RVD was not a major figure in AJPW. Still, Baba didn't neglect him and managed to prompt a lasting change which has proven to make RVD more memorable, however one feels about him.
That's the kind of man Baba was and this is one of the traits of this great promoter.
When we think of promoters, Shohei "Giant" Baba towers (literally and figuratively) over almost every other promoter.
He was truly something, one of the greatest promoters there has ever been.
For someone his size, he was a great wrestler and he was easy and enjoyable to watch, just as his promotion was.
On Jan. 23, 1938, Shohei was born in Sanjo City, in central Niigata Prefecture in Japan.
He died at 4:04 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 31, 1999, in Tokyo, aged 61.
Over his 40-year career as a pro wrestler and promoter, he kept puroresu, (Japanese pro wrestling) alive.
A high school dropout, his first passion was baseball. He became a professional pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants in 1955 (an extremely apt team for him) and briefly with the Yokohama BayStars.
Back in the day, they were known as the Tokyo Giants (which they are still unofficially known as by Western audiences) and the Taiyō Whales, respectively.
He was released from the then-Tokyo Giants in 1959 due to a lackluster performance and shoulder injury.
His frame made baseball difficult for him to play professionally and he was unable to adapt in the time he pursued it.
He gave up baseball and turned his eyes to professional wrestling due to the influence of Rikidōzan.
Fortunately for pro wrestling, Baba brought passion with him to his pro wrestling career.
At the time, Rikidōzan, the Father of Puroresu and the man in charge of the sole promotion around in Japan until 1966, the Japanese Wrestling Association, was looking for a successor in order to keep the business strong.
Just under 7 feet at 6 foot 10 and ¾ inches (209 cm), Baba made an immediate impact on Rikidōzan, who entered into his dojo in April 1960.
Now 22, Baba debuted as a wrestler at Taito-Ward Gym in Tokyo on the 30th September, 1960. His opponent was Yunetaro Tanaka.
From the outset, you could tell Baba has what it took to succeed. He had charisma and he moved well for someone his size.
His execution of moves was sometimes lacking, but he knew a lot and performed rather crisply for a big man most of the time. As Dory Funk Sr., a great NWA World Heavyweight Champion, trainer and technical wrestler who spent a considerable period of time in Japan, commented:
"His knowledge of wrestling was so great and I try and teach some of the techniques he used when I teach young people today,''
Also, as Billy Robinson, a British catch wrestling trainer and noted wrestler who also worked for quite some time in AJPW, remarked before Baba's 3000th match:
"Well, I gotta say first firstly, Baba has proven himself to be one of the leading wrestlers in the world, in any style, which is amazing, firstly, just because of his size. Most big men in sports...last a very short while."
"Baba is a different man, he's a man who has got a lot of technique, he's got a lot of knowledge, a tremendous amount of ability and has the respect of not just myself, but my peers, around the world, in all the countries that have pro wrestling."
Baba didn't have the winning streak Andre had, but developed a reputation as a highly dangerous wrestler by rarely losing. When he lost, it was a big deal.
As was the tradition at the time, every loss by a main event wrestler had significance, but Baba was later to take this further when pushing younger talent.
He made an initial team with another big student of Rikidōzan's, Kanji Inoki, later known as Antonio Inoki, who would go on to become the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling, as well as a gifted wrestler. They were known as the B-I Cannon.
They even reunited on Aug. 26, 1978 to the delight of the fans. Inoki and Baba were initially great friends, but gradually grew apart as they headed separate promotions.
Still, they allowed the occasional interpromotional matchup even though their companies were competitors in the same market.
Baba was a conservative promoter, not allowing with wrestlers to work with other promotions, but he recognised the benefits interpromotional matches would bring.
He may not have used a variety of match types, but the matches that did occur made that unnecessary, though it would have improved the product when used properly.
Baba was able to put aside the differences he had with others if it was better for the company.
In fact, the very practice of not allowing his stars to also appear in other promotions secured their association with the AJPW brand and this further added to the impact of the few interpromotional matches that happened.
It was simply, something you wouldn't otherwise see. It came across as truly special and memorable.From 1961-64, he was sent to an extended training tour with Fred Atkins and The Great Tojo in the US.
Fred Atkins was from New Zealand and had held championships in Australia before moving to America.
The Great Tojo was one of the earliest Japanese wrestlers to appear and succeed internationally, in North America.
Immediately upon his arrival, he was renamed Ishope Baba. Fred Atkins also became his manager.
He developed his skills and eventually became a big star. He was helped by the connections Fred Atkins and The Great Tojo had.
He faced the World Champions and big names around at the time, wrestling with such greats as Bruno Sammartino, Bobo Brazil, Antonio Rocca, Lou Thesz, "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers and "Classy" Freddie Blassie.
Baba thus came to have a deep understanding of American pro wrestling and the style there in addition to his close knowledge of the puroresu styles.
He also developed close relationships with a number of promoters, which paid dividends for him as a promoter as it allowed to utilise big name international talent in a way nobody else in Japan could.
When Baba returned, Rikidōzan was dead.
The industry in Japan was in turmoil.
There was doubt that without Rikidōzan puroresu would even survive.
Rikidōzan himself thought prior to his death that none of his pupils was yet ready to take his place, hence his not retiring. He had initially planned to retire earlier, which would have been prior to his demise.
Luckily, Baba was able to hold things together. Inoki was secondary to Baba in the wake of Rikidōzan's death but after a year with Tokyo Pro Wrestling, he took on a bigger role, nearly on a par with Baba.
B-I Cannon dominated the tag team circuit. Following disputes with management of the Japanese Pro Wrestling Alliance, he founded All Japan Pro Wrestling at Machida Gym on the 21st October, 1972.
He was greatly supported by his friends, including Dick Beyer, better known as The Destroyer, Bruno Sammartino and the Funks. Television station NTV (Channel Four) provided their support with a timeslot.
I believe Baba to have much in common in Cal Ripken Jr., ironic, considering Baba's first love.
For those that don't know him, Cal was a baseball shortstop who was larger and taller than any of his peers at the time.
He showed that the larger guys could be successful shortstops. He was slow, but compensated for this through increasing his knowledge and refining his technique.
Both are considered to be very skilled, especially for their size. Baba perhaps isn't one of the greatest wrestlers to have stepped foot in the ring, but in terms of entertainment value and the style of the time, Baba was one of the best around.
He certainly seems to warrant consideration as one of the best big men to wrestle.
Also like Baba, he wasn't flashy but had highly developed fundamentals and was renowned for his reliability in showing up during his entire career, despite any injuries he had.
Baba only ever missed one match and that was due to injury.
International support was what greatly benefited AJPW. AJPW stood out with extensive use of international wrestlers, mainly from the United States, known as gaijin.
His strong relationship with the NWA culminated in his becoming NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
Baba was enormously popular and he appeared on mainstream programming. Quiz shows, commercials, variety programs, Giant Baba was there.
Baba began phasing himself out of the main-event scene when he turned 45 in 1984.
He continued to wrestle, but now only won against mid-card wrestlers, barring the occasional come-back to the main event.
Participating in many tag team and six-men tag team matches in the undercard, he gave the newer generation the spotlight.
This generation was led by Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenyru. Later, another generation emerged, led by Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Akira Taue and Toshiaki Kawada.
The crowd continued to love Baba in the ring, regarding him similar to El Santo in Mexico and Ric Flair in the United States.
In his twilight years, he was even slower and he could not compensate for it, but thanks to his booking himself mostly in tag team and six-man tag team matches, it wasn't as bad as it could have been.That was Baba's career as a wrestler. How has these experiences affected him as a promoter? What makes a great promoter?
There is no single answer as great promoters do not all act alike.
The case study of Giant Baba, however, showcases some of the factors involved.
Baba's approach was simple and straightforward, but nonetheless extremely effective.
Baba is perhaps the best person to start with for an investigation into what can make a great promoter.
Great promoters bring out the best their company and talent has to offer with what they have.
Resources mean little unless employed and developed effectively, which great promoters do.
Baba as a promoter knew what the American style could bring to Japan. After his death, gaijin have continued to be used, in many promotions.
The gaijin helped AJPW appeal to viewers by offering diversity not only with the wrestling itself, but in storylines.
The gajiin gave AJPW a range of different personas, not just a range of different wrestlers.
Gaijin may have been a great resource, but Baba's strength as a promoter was in his astute approach to talent management and character development.
This allowed the gaijin to have the impact they did. Baba's All Japan Pro Wrestling is renowned for the match quality, especially in the 1990's.
The quality of the matches in Baba's AJPW seems to derive considerably from Baba's management.
This supports the theory that talent management is an important factor for any promoter in getting the best out of his talent and employees (talent are not employees, but independent contractors).
Likewise, the case study of Giant Baba seems to indicate that proper character development is important in enhancing the quality of a promotion.
Giant Baba was a very likable and caring man and a mainstream star.
People evidently must have liked him as a person to invite him into their homes not just on a weekly basis through AJPW, but on a more regularly basis. This helped the fans to support the company.
Baba was and is so popular that in the Top 100 Historical Persons in Japan survey, which asked people to rate their favourite greatest person in history (not the most influential), with a third of candidates not being from Japan and mostly covering historical figures, Giant Baba came in at 93.
That doesn't sound like much, but it means a lot. This was a ranking of who was considered to be their favourite person, period. Just being on such lists is a huge achievement.
In another list, with the same concept, Baba came in at number 63.
There are big variances in these polls, which indicates that just being in one of them means you will variously be ranked from the top end to the bottom end. Anne Frank, was number 65 in this survey, but was number 16 in the one mentioned above.
Giant Baba was truly loved and respected and that was due to his actions and personality.
Great promoters may recognise that they are part of the identity of their promotion. If they make a favourable impression, it helps the company to get more viewers and a more positive response.
It is interesting to contrast this with Vince McMahon, who has had confrontational public appearances, and how the controversies promoters have been involved with have affected the wrestlers who will work with them and the level of support the fans give.Baba's personality helped with the backstage environment. It helped motivate wrestlers to do well.
Nobody wanted to let him down.
Baba knew what people wanted to see, due to his experiences as a wrestler and a very popular one at that.
Also due to his being a wrestler, he knew how he wanted to be treated and so treated them as he would treat himself.
It has been said that a handshake agreement with Baba meant more than a written contract with many other promoters.
Great promoters are trustworthy, which indicates that promoters should take care to avoid controversy.
Great promoters should also honour their agreements and reach an amiable conclusion to end it if all goes awry, rather than acting hastily to save face.
It is better to be embarrassed than to appear to have betrayed someone.
His caring for the welfare and career of those working for him engendered loyalty. Gaijin in particular were gratified by Baba's caring for them. As Frank Dusek, who had went on two tours with AJPW, said shortly after his death,
"You didn't have to worry about being a foreign wrestler who didn't speak the language when you traveled for Baba. He always made sure we had what we needed and were treated well. He made sure even little things were taken care of, like being able to find an English movie theater when we had time off."
His paying particular attention to the finer details was influenced by his experience in the United States.
He learned how being in a foreign country can make a huge difference. He realised there were language and cultural barriers and that he would get the most out of gaijin by removing these barriers as fully as possible, which led to some of these gaijin to live and work full-time in Japan.
Less stress means talent were better able to focus on their work. Baba and other staff went out of their way to put aside time to help their talent on such a level, and it paid dividends.
In addition, AJPW became known as a good place to work, if one could get a spot there. This reputation helped gaijin and native wrestlers to come to AJPW in the first place.
Promoters are busy people and so a number of promoters don't create enough time to ensure talent are without stress and as happy as possible.
Baba was known for his dedication to pro wrestling.
Even with a hectic schedule of wrestling as well as being charge of a large promotion, he made sure he had the time to look after others. He was willing to put whatever time was needed into AJPW.
Promoters don't always engage with talent and employees on a deep enough level to help propagate a friendly, positive and active atmosphere as well as loyalty.
Making the effort, though, is worthwhile. Doing so helped Baba to become an inspirational leader.
Having enough social interaction and coming off as a good person motivates talent to succeed and to be in the promotion.
It helps them to feel they can do great things or continue to improve. We all want to feel like we are worth something and are making a difference. Pro wrestlers are no exception.Character development seems to have been a crucial element in the success of Baba's AJPW. Big matches and big stars were the result of effective pacing and consolidated storylines with layers of meaning.
Effective character development appears to have kept characters fresh, the fans happy and interested and assisted match quality by providing atmosphere and significance.
Of course, character development starts at the beginning.
Giant Baba is known as having been a patient teacher.
He would get his teen-age students to perform chores such as tying and untying his shoes and carrying his belongings and messages, so they would never forget they got where they were (for those that succeeded and become pro wrestlers) due to hard work.
This is a very important lesson for pro wrestlers and Baba was wise in teaching it. He was a not just patient, but a fine teacher.
This extended past helping wrestlers backstage to getting comfortable with their roles to assisting with training wrestlers and improving their in-ring skills. Naturally, his experience as a wrestler assisted in this regard.
His being a high school dropout and not succeeding at baseball also helped to mould Baba.
He had faced adversity and he had made some tough decisions.
He understood that talent is constantly developed. He understood that people developed at different paces.
His experiences taught him not to be too hard on anyone and to give people chances to improve.
Again, this helped inspire loyalty and by contributing to the improvement of his talent, he helped the promotion stay strong.He always thought before he decided. This extends to all the decisions he made. Baba's AJPW had storylines that were clear and multi-layered, even though they simple.
They were just well-thought out, an approach Baba took to all of his decisions and is a major reason why Baba rarely made decisions and came up with ideas that failed to be a hit.
He had a no-nonsense attitude, not getting distracted by any particular wrestler. That has helped many of the careers in Baba's AJPW for they all received attention and not all in the same way.
I recall Baba once gave a rookie a boost by getting him to lose all of his matches.
He impressed the crowd with his perseverance and his unmitigated drive.
By the end of the year, he was fairly popular and through popular vote, received some sort of award. It was a Rookie of the Year award, if I recall correctly.
Backstage politics weren't prominent when Baba was in charge.
He was a clear leader and because he had the respect and faith of everyone in his promotion, people followed him.
When people left AJPW for other promotions, it was due to factors such as international commitments and being lured away by promises and/or money (especially those that left for the Super World of Sports) rather than disappointment with the creative direction.
Baba's consistency led to established characters that changed but lost none of their integrity.
They didn't lose when inconsistent for their characters. There weren't swerves. This meant that when stars where being put over, they received maximum benefit because their wins held greater significance.
Even going toe-to-toe and keeping up with the big stars in the ring helped build stars even without winning, because it was properly built as a difficult feat.
This was partly, however, the way things worked in Japan in general at the time. Rising stars got bigger pushes when they beat main-event level stars because the bigger stars just didn't lose to the younger talent easily.
This was shown best when Mitsuharu Misawa defeated Jumbo Tsuruta on June 8, 1990, at the Nippon Budokan in a very emotional match.
Tsuruta was reportedly shocked at being asked to lose to Misawa, as he was the top star and Misawa had yet to break into the main event.
Pro wrestling in Japan was quite hierarchical then- you just didn't see anyone not move up the ladder one step at a time- until this match, which transformed AJPW and would lead to one of the greatest periods of wrestling.
Baba's experience as a wrestler developed his instincts. He understood what the fans wanted and did that even when it was against convention at the time.
When Mitsuharu Misawa and Shiro Koshinaka had a match, one of the wrestlers was to be sent on a tour of Mexico. Since the match was so impressive, he sent both, even though that was against the original plan.
He was not perfect, however. He did bury talent which arrived from other promotions, which is justifiable upon arrival but not so justifiable as time goes on.
Baba also occasionally fell prey to his feelings, but for the most part of a sensible, sound promoter doing what was best for the company, not merely what was best for himself.
He was dedicated to the business, as shown by being able to work together from time to time with NJPW and the sheer amount of time he put in to the business.Part of Baba's success as a promoter can be attributed to a particular policy: clean finishes. Giant Baba insisted on them and this worked.
From 1990 until his death in 1999, AJPW had nothing but clean finishes. Before this time, there were a few matches here and there that didn't have clean finishes, but this was used sparingly and only when it would really help the product.
Not only did it keep storylines simple and understandable, but it also meant that if no matter which wrestler won, the effort of the losing wrestler was better appreciated.
The established star remained strong and the rising star got more respect out of it.
You would also be more inclined to get behind them as they came closer to the main event, making steady progress forward.
As they were built up and you became fans of a wrestler, you wanted them to take on the bigger stars, Nothing happened too quickly: fans always had time to get behind the younger talent.
Pace was truly something Baba mastered.
Since nobody was given too much to do, there was always more to be done as long as they were wrestling.
Time wasn't wasted and this is partly why AJPW was as successful as it was at its peak; along with the clean finishes and clear, logical storylines with consistent, motivated characters.
AJPW had consecutive sellouts for many years and subsequent shows would be sold out in the same night the tickets were released at.
These shows would also routinely earn close to and over, a million dollars.
That is very profitable. There were still a very high attendance of 58,300 at the Tokyo Dome show that occurred a few years after their peak.
AJPW maintained a consistently high quality and you were guaranteed to see a solid show. This generated high consumer confidence which in turn led to continued financial success.
The Baba era of AJPW, between 1972 and 1999 had its ups and downs, as with any product, but was quite consistent.
It was a reliable source of quality entertainment.
It arguably was simply the strongest product around in the 1990-1992 period and was among the best the world had to offer at other times during the Baba era.
Baba's strengths drew from his experiences as a pro wrestler and his personality, which was shaped from his early life and onwards.
You do not need to be a wrestler in order to be a great promoter. Wrestling gave Baba his knowledge of the business and understanding of it, but there are other methods that are equally effective.
Knowledge and understanding of the business, the fans and other wrestler's appears to be the most crucial aspect in Baba's success, as without it he wouldn't have been the trainer or the wrestler he was.
He wouldn't have had the wisdom he had in using talent and caring from them in the amount he did. He also wouldn't have had the great resource that was gaijin or his links with the NWA.
Baba was passionate, caring and dedicated, traits that any promoter should do well to develop. Baba was a public figure and led his company, rather than just making decisions.
He paced all the storylines and made sure everyone had something to do at any time. Everything had layers of meaning. He spent time with those working with him and was approachable, pragmatic and friendly.
Baba's approach indicates that a great promoter must know the product and those working for him. Great promoters need to be passionate and dedicated.
Great promoters need to understand the challenges and the stress pro wrestlers have and help them to bring out the best they have to offer.
Great promoters have to consider those around them and cannot be selfish. They have to listen to the fans and not just themselves and their circle of friends.
They have to be willing to put the spotlight on others and refrain from focusing too much on favourites.
Even if these favourites have the skill, overexposure is a dangerous threat. Familiarity breeds contempt, as WWE fans can testify about certain wrestlers.
Promoting isn't just about being a good businessperson and good with ideas; it is also about the human factor, being able to lead, motivate and keep morale high.
One approach to effective promotion is to have the traits of any effective leader or boss.
Promotion is about addressing the needs of those working in that promotion, whatever the capacity. It is also about addressing the wants of the audience, as with any form of entertainment.
Some promoters get too distracted with what they want personally and some neglect the human side of pro wrestling.
As these series continues, there will be investigation as to the effect of backstage politics. Is it unavoidable? To what extent does it hurt promotions and to what extent can it help promotions? In addition, further factors and alternate approaches will be explored.
If you wish to be updated when new additions in this series come out, let me know. If you would like to be updated on my new articles in general, let me know that too. Thank you for reading!
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