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Antonio Inoki & Giant Baba’s First Look to the West

2 years ago

Antonio Inoki & Giant Baba’s First Look to the West

By: Fumi Saito

Many Japanese professional wrestlers are currently in the WWE, and I would like to ask you about the
history of WWE and Japanese professional wrestlers.

Fumi: WWE is an organization with a long history. In the WWWF/WWF era, it was an East Coast based
organization centered in New York City, but since Vince McMahon took over in 1983, it has expanded
throughout the United States and is now the world’s largest professional wrestling company.

–Until the 80’s, there were quite a few spot guest appearances by the Japanese stars.

Fumi: Not only men’s wrestlers, but also women’s wrestlers such as Crush Gals and Dump Matsumoto have
participated in the monthly spectacular card at Madison Square Garden (MSG). Also, Jumping Bomb
Angels (Noriyo Tateno and Itsuki Yamazaki) entered the tournament on a six-month contract, and in the
1990s, Bull Nakano also entered the tournament. In the 90’s, Bull Nakano-san was under the multi-year
contract. Her matches with Alundra Blaze (Madusa) became a staple of the card, and at one point, they had
the championship matches 28 times in one month.

–Bull Nakano vs Madusa every day!

Fumi: They had the title matches in every city they toured. For the audience in those cities, it was the first
time to see them live, so they had to show the fans all the moves and what they were capable of doing. But as
an athlete, your pride wouldn’t allow you to do the same routine matches over and over again, so you would
have to change things a little here and there so that you wouldn’t get stale. You change things around to
keep it fresh and exciting and try something new in every match.

–I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to stay motivated if you didn’t.

Fumi: If you go back in the history of the WWE, the first Japanese to work for the company was Giant Baba.
At that time, before WWE was established, Vince McMahon’s father was the promoter.

–Vince McMahon Sr. right?

Fumi: Baba-san went on his first tour of the U.S. in the fall of 1961 (Showa 36), but he didn’t go alone, he
toured with Yoshinosato and Yukio Suzuki (Mammoth Suzuki). That’s when Baba-san made his MSG
debut. According to the record, he had participated in 16 consecutive MSG monthly spectacular from
September 1961 to December 1962. By the way, WWE first formed the following year, in March of 1963.

–Baba-san knows New York before the birth of WWE, doesn’t he?

Fumi: Baba-san returned to Japan to participate in the 1963 World League tournament, and then went
back on a long tour of the U.S. again that fall, but Rikidozan suddenly died. Baba-san didn’t get to see
Rikidozan’s final days because he was on a tour, but he decided not to return home. Baba was a candidate
for the NWA World Championship run, and his manager at the time, Great Togo, advised him to stay in
America. On February 17, 1964, three months after Rikidozan’s death, the WWWF World Championship
match (the root of WWE) between Bruno Sammartino and Giant Baba was held as the main event at

–This would not have happened if I had returned to Japan immediately.

Fumi: After that, Baba-san turned down Great Togo’s invitation and returned to Japan, and there was
speculation that the wrestling business would disappear in Japan after Rikidozan’s death. Baba-san must
have been watching the situation in Japan from across the world.

–If he had stayed in the U.S. like that, the history of professional wrestling would have been different.

Fumi: Baba’s NWA champion reign and the US tour would have been just a year or two, or probably three
or four years at the longest, so I think Baba-san was going to come back to Japan sooner or later.

–In the wrestling world of the Showa era, the NWA illusion was (showa imperial era, 1926-1989) great,
but what was the perception of WWE like?

Fumi: In the late 70’s into early 80’s, the tour name “MSG Series” was very much associated with New
Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual spring tournament. But Japan Pro Wrestling also had the MSG Series
(February 1967), and All Japan Pro Wrestling held it once (May 1974).

–The name MSG itself was a brand.

Fumi: Even though we know that WWE is the biggest company today, it seems a bit distant from
Japanese fans. For wrestling fans in the 70’s and 80’s, the “MSG Series” was held in Japan every year and
New York super stars were coming from the U.S. all the time, so it was closer to them in a different way
than it is now.

–New Japan Pro Wrestling also had a business partnership with WWE.

Fumi: It was May 1974 when Antonio Inoki’s New Japan and WWE announced their business partnership.
At the time, I was a teenage fan, so my anticipation that wrestlers from MSG would be coming to Japan
one after another was greatly inflated. As to how All Japan’s Baba-san reacted to the brand new
association between New Japan and WWE, he went to New York by himself in June 1974 and made a guest
appearance in the first MSG regular match in 10 years. So Baba-san went to New York to find out if the
alliance between New Japan and WWE was real or not.

–It was such an unexpected announcement for Baba-san, wasn’t it?

Fumi: At that time, New Japan’s weakness was the international talent. The top guy was Tiger Jeet Singh,
and Mr. Inoki’s opponent in the first World League finals was the Nazi character, Killer Karl Krupp.

–Compared to All Japan, where top wrestlers from the NWA territories, and all over the U.S. came to
Japan, it was not as glamorous.

Fumi: New Japan’s World League tournament was also a battle of mainly Japanese stars, with Inoki, Seiji
Sakaguchi, Strong Kobayashi, and Kintaro Oki. The Japanese confrontation was worth watching, but then
the partnership with WWE led to a complete change in the image and quality of international superstars
for New Japan.

–So Baba-san is getting impatient, too.

Fumi: The WWE World Champion Bruno Sammartino, who was a good friend of Baba-san, was the only
one who did not tour for New Japan. I guess Senior didn’t want to force Sammartino because he chose to
be friends with Baba. Vince McMahon had a WWE title match in All Japan (May 1975) and teamed up with
Baba to face Jeet Singh and Umanosuke Ueda for the company’s 10th Anniversary show (October 1981).

–The business partnership also meant that wrestlers from New Japan will be making appearances in the
WWE ring.

Fumi: Inoki-san’s first appearance in a WWE ring was in December 1975, the year after the business
partnership was formed, when he made his New York debut against a wrestler named Frank Monty in the
MSG. He took a TV Asahi camera crew with him, and the match was broadcasted on “World Pro

–When it’s televised in primetime in Japan, the audience would feel much closer to WWE.

Fumi: In January 1978, Tatsumi Fujinami became a star when he won the WWE Junior Heavyweight
Championship at MSG. The main event at that time was a title match with Mil Mascaras challenging the
champion, Superstar Billy Graham. Bob Backlund, who would become champion the following month
(February 1978), is also in the prelims. Backlund was in an eight-man tag team elimination match, but
three of the babyfaces teammates lost early, leaving Backlund alone. From there, Backlund beat all four of
the heels.

–That was MSG on the eve of the birth of a new superstar, thus the beginning of the new era.

The business partnership between WWE and New Japan had lasted well over a decade, until Vince
McMahon’s national & world expansion plan.