January 23rd would have been All Japan Pro Wrestling Co-Founder and three time NWA World Heavyweight Champion Giant Baba’s 80th birthday.
To celebrate the Japanese legend and to wash the taste of an extremely disappointing 25th Anniversary Raw out of our collective mouths, we thought we’d take a few moments to remember the man they first called Giant.
1. He Has An Origin Story Like A Superhero
Shohei Baba was born on January 23rd, 1938 in Sanjo, Japan; the second son of a severely ill fruit and vegetable trader. Following the death of his older brother in WWII at Guadalcanal, Shohei’s mother was forced to take over the family business, and young Baba was pressed into service as a delivery man when he was in the 5th grade. For seven years, weighted down with an overstuffed backpack, he rode 12 kilometers (nearly seven and a half miles) to the Nagaoka Market before dawn so he could still attend school.
Reports are iffy on whether or not he rode both ways uphill and in several feet in snow, but wrestling has never trucked with embellishment so let’s go ahead and assume it is true and not kayfabe. Frankly, Giant Baba’s story really doesn’t need it anyway.
Quick side note: That same Nagaoka Market was turned into a burning field by a sh*t ton of American B29s in 1945 and the Baba family watched the whole thing happen from a rice hut about 500 yards away from their home. If that isn’t a superhero origin story, I don’t know what is. Jeez, at the age of seven, I was still trying to figure out why Skeletor couldn’t find any better henchmen.
2. He Was A Professional Baseball Player
Preceding Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson by nearly half a century, Shohei Baba was a 6’10 pitching prospect for the Yomiuri Giants, which is a foreshadowing move that probably only happens in the life stories of wrestlers and feature film scripts about wrestlers. He made it out of the minors for only three games with the Giants and had a record of 0-1, but you find me another wrestling legend that took the mound for the Yomiuri Giants and then maybe we can debate the impressiveness of his record.
(I will admit that as a Cubs fan my team loyalty is locked forever but a strong 1A would be for any team whose starting massive pitcher uses The Undertaker’s entrance theme. You’ve been notified, MLB.)
3. He Got His Start On The Very Same Day As Another Japanese Legend
In April 1960, Baba began training in Japanese Wrestling Association owner Mitsuhiro Momota’s dojo, along with a fellow student by the name of Kanji Inoki. Both students made their professional debuts in September 30th, 1960 with Baba winning his bout and the newly re-christened Antonio Inoki losing his own match.
That’s right: the founders of All Japan Pro Wrestling and New Japan Pro Wrestling went to pro graps school together. That’s like Superman and Batman both having mothers with the same name. That’s cra — [checks notes] Wow.
Baba and Inoki only went on to form a tag team that won the NWA International Tag Team Belts from Bill Watts and Tarzan Tyler in 1967; no big whoop. It’s just like if Vince McMahon and Ted Turner were also The Mega Powers at the same time. Big deal, amirite? WHO CAAAAARES.
4. He Was A Wrestler’s Wrestler
In the early 1960’s, Giant Baba challenged both Buddy Rogers for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship AND Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship. That alone would put Baba in the history books, but the guy who had been wrestling for three short years wasn’t done there.
Here is Baba in his prime tearing it up with Bruno in 1967.
He not only became the first NWA World Heavyweight Champion from Japan by beating Jack Brisco, he also was the first former NWA World Heavyweight Champion to be beaten by an up-and-coming nobody by the name of Ric Flair. Baba’s willingness to put over new talent didn’t stop there, either.
Known to be one of the most — if not the most — honest promoters in wrestling history (his handshake was your contract and he always kept his word), Giant Baba recognized his own deteriorating skills as he grew older and gracefully placed himself in the mid-card. A new generation of who’s-who in Japanese wrestling history (Jumbo Tsuruta, Genichiro Tenryu, Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Akira Taue and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi) were pushed to the main event, resulting in future live events at Budokan selling out the same night of the current Budokan event. This dude successfully unmasked a wrestler (Tiger Mask II) and then made him an even bigger star.
Quick side note: Several wrestling legends from America and Japan have conducted shoot interviews over the years giving a ton of credit to “Mrs. Baba” Motoko Kawai as being as equally business savvy as Baba himself and deserving a lot of the consideration for AJPW being as successful as it was during their run. If anyone in the comments would like to start the Kickstarter for that documentary, I certainly won’t stop you.
5. He Loved Wrestling To The End
On January 31st, 1999 Giant Baba died from complications due to cancer. He had his last match on December 5th, 1998. Confined to his hospital bed, Baba watched Toshiaki Kawada defeat Mitsuharu Misawa for the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship on January 22, 1999 — the day before his 60th birthday, and nine days before he passed away.
To end on a slightly happier note, check out this commercial he did with Andre The Giant in 1990 and see for yourself how much joy he still had for the wrestling business, 30 years after he started in it.
Happy 80th Birthday Giant Baba. You truly were “The Giant of The East.”