On the Mount Rushmore of Japanese wrestling, there is always a spot for the iconic Giant Baba.
January 31st 1999, the shining lights of the wrestling world were dimmed when Giant Baba died. More than just a wrestler, Giant Baba was a cultural icon and as co-founder of All Japan Pro Wrestling, his legacy still lives on today. AJPW’s huge success in the 1990s and the inimitable stories and matches created throughout that decade are owed to Giant Baba who was booker and promoter.
His death impacted the wrestling world so deeply that multiple memorial shows were held in his honour. In 2001 the Giant Baba Memorial Spectacular took place at the Tokyo Dome and included inter-promotional matches involving AJPW and NJPW talent. 2002 All Japan held the Giant Baba Memorial Cup and the Giant Baba Memorial Six Man Tag Team Tournament. In February 2019 AJPW held another memorial show to mark 20 years since his passing.
The first of the memorial shows to take place was on 2nd May 1999. With the wrestling world mourning the loss of a hero, the only venue big enough to accommodate such an event was the Tokyo Dome. A reported 55,000 attended the show to pay their respects to Giant Baba and the wrestlers who competed at this event are something to marvel at. Names including Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Hayabusa, The Great Sasuke, Stan Hansen and so many more.
At almost 5 hours it is a very long watch but there are a wealth of moments worth waiting for. The opening match includes a very young Naomichi Marufuji, who isn’t even a year into his wrestling career and already competing in the Tokyo Dome. In the second match, current Suzuki-Gun member Yoshinobu Kanemaru is in tag team action representing the Burning stable. However it is the fourth match were the action really begins to boil: a six-man tag match with Hayabusa, The Great Sasuke and Tiger Mask IV all teaming together! The unpredictable and erratic Hayabusa and Great Sasuke show their prowess throughout and it’s a very clear reminder of where the Junior division we know today got its roots from. The 6 men involved in this wild match work the crowd into a frenzy with a show of high-flying and beautiful suplex combinations that make you think the end is inevitable numerous times and only leaves you aghast at the eventual ending.
After this match, a very fitting tribute is paid to Giant Baba. The Destroyer, Bruno Sammartino and Gene Kiniski head to the ring to offer their thoughts before vacating to allow Baba’s wife, Motoko, to put Baba’s boots in the middle of the ring for the 10 bell salute.
The next tag match has Stan Hansen and Steve Williams in the same corner, a truly frightening combination if put against most wrestlers. But the No Fear combination of Takao Omori and Yoshihiro Takayama is anything but your usual wrestlers. Admittedly this match doesn’t reach the heights that the competitors are cable of, but thankfully the next match is Toshiaki Kawada versus Hiroshi Hase. The opening minute of this match is a peek into what these two men can deliver but unfortunately what follows doesn’t live up to its opening. A large portion of the match is kept to the mat, with Hase locking Kawada into a variety of submissions in an attempt to keep the vicious striker off his feet. This is nothing unusual for the time period and the norm would be intense action after they have done their damage to each other on the mat. Once the men do get to the feet the intensity is palpable with Kawada trying to drop Hase but Hase refusing. A horribly devastating urinage is unleashed in this match and a crushing brainbuster to finish things off.
The penultimate match has Hakushi teaming with Burning members Kenta Kobashi and Jun Akiyama to take on The Road Warriors and Johnny Ace (John Laurinaitis). For those who only think of Ace because of “People Power”, prepare to have your mind blown! He is the brother of Road Warrior Animal and was a mainstay in AJPW throughout the 90s, even challenging Mitsuharu Misawa for the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Unlike previous matches that saw Ace earn a 5-star rating on two separate occasions and even match of the year in 1996, this contest is almost entirely forgettable.
The Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship was on the line in the main event with then-champion Vader looking to retain the Championship against Mitsuhara Misawa. The unrivalled support the crowd has for Misawa makes this match special. The screams coming from the audience whenever Vader prepares to pounce, fearing for the punishment Misawa is about to endure and then the roars of support when Misawa manages to gain the upper hand. Every move Misawa hits is met with pure adulation from the crowd, peaking when Misawa hits an extremely impressive German suplex on the much larger Vader. The crowd reactions alone make this match worth watching but the in-ring action entirely warrants the rapturous responses. Easily the stand out match of the night.
This show is a time capsule into the success AJPW found throughout the 1990s that were very much due to the enduring work of Giant Baba. A 9 match card that included 7 tag matches and only 1 Championship match and yet it had a crowd of 55,000. That is a testament to a time we may never see again in Japanese wrestling. A time when multiple promotions would hold events inside the Tokyo Dome, not just NJPW. A time when events would be held in the Tokyo Dome more than once a year and were capable of drawing giant crowds. A time when the legacy of a single man warranted not only holding an event to commemorate his life and death but the only venue capable of holding that event had to be the Tokyo Dome.
- Naomichi Marufuji & Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs Gran Naniwa & Makoto Hashi
- Satoru Asako & Takeshi Morishima vs Burning (Kentaro Shiga & Yoshinobu Kanemaru)
- Giant Kimala, Haruka Eigen & Jun Izumida vs Masao Inoue, Mitsuo Momota & Rusher Kimura
- Johnny Smith, Masanobu Fuchi & Tamon Honda vs Team No Respect (Gedo, Koji Nakagawa & Yukihiro Kanemura)
- Hayabusa, The Great Sasuke & Tiger Mask vs Untouchables (Masahito Kakihara & Yoshinari Ogawa) & Maunakea Mossman
- Akira Taue, Stan Hansen & Steve Williams vs Gary Albright & NO FEAR (Takao Omori & Yoshihiro Takayama)
- Toshiaki Kawada vs Hiroshi Hase
- Johnny Ace & The Road Warriors (Road Warrior Animal & Road Warrior Hawk) vs Burning (Jun Akiyama & Kenta Kobashi) & Hakushi
- Triple Crown Title Match: Vader (C) vs Mitsuharu Misawa
You can find me on Twitter @CiaranRH. Thanks for reading.