Retro Review: Giant Baba vs. Harley Race
Big men will always have a place in professional wrestling. From Andre the Giant to Paul Wight to Omos, there no quicker way to establish someone as a threat than to have them tower over their opponent. The majority of the time though these performers have excelled at being big, but it’s the minority that learn how to actually work a match. Today’s match features Giant Baba, a legendary performer from Japan as he takes on Harley Race for the NWA Heavyweight Championship on February 15th, 1981. (Special thanks to ProwrestlingTees for the inspiration for this match as my latest merch order contained a mystery shirt that turned out to feature Harley Race).
Shohei Baba already had an incredible life before he stepped foot into a wrestling ring. His gigantism was in full affect by the time he was in high school reaching 190cm (over 6’2”) by age 16. He was recruited by the Yomiuri Giants baseball team right out of high school and had a successful pitching career for them, playing for five years. It was during this time that a brain tumor was discovered in Baba, luckily a successful surgery removed it. Baba’s introduction to professional wrestling included a tag team with Kangi “Antonio” Inoki. Now reaching 6'10", he was an instant draw wherever he went. He toured the world facing top competition. By 1972 Baba was starting his own league when he created All-Japan Pro-Wrestling. All-Japan had a working relationship with the National Wrestling Alliance and Baba had won the NWA championship on three separate occasions, twice from Harley Race.
Harley Race has a history where being a professional wrestler feels like the only natural conclusion. After being expelled from high school for attacking the principal (in retaliation for a knee to the head I should add) Race found a new direction in life. He was trained by the Zbyszko brothers in Missouri. He was a driver for Happy Humphrey who was a pro-wrestler that was so large (over 400 lbs/180kg) that he couldn’t drive himself. Race had an early moniker of “Handsome” Harley Race when he started wrestling. This nick-name would not follow him into his career. What would stick with him would be his championship caliber matches. He won the NWA title numerous times and was the current champion heading into this match against Baba in 1981.
Their championship matchup is best 2 out of 3 falls and takes place from Korakuen Hall in Tokyo. This was featured on Day 5 of the All-Japan Pro-Wrestling Excite card.
During the wrestler’s introductions we get the honorary tossing of streamers which I always enjoy. The bell rings and the first segment is all Baba. In doing these reviews rarely have I seen such a lopsided affair. Race quickly sells the threat of Baba as his selling can best be described as “cartoonish”. Baba lands a strike which results in Race throwing his arms out and doing a full pirouette before falling. There’s lots of headlocks during this first segment which slows down the pace considerably. Neat spot however when Baba has a headlock on Race with both men laying down on the mat. Baba then proceeds to stand up via almost a bridging motion keeping Race locked in. It was a neat piece of physicality that I wasn’t expecting. Baba wins the first fall with what I believe was a running neck-breaker (it was kind of sloppy and I thought it was a double knock-down at first).
The second segment finally sees some life out of Race as he takes Baba to the outside and delivers the match’s only weapon attack, a light chair shot. Race wins the second pinfall after suplexing Baba from the ring apron into the ring. While not a fancy move, suplexing a man of Baba’s size is impressive. One thing with these giants of pro-wrestling is that simple moves are all the more impressive for both the giant and their opponent. A enzuguri is pretty basic, but you have Kane do one and the crowd gasps. A body-slam is as straightforward as a grapple comes, but Hogan delivers one to Andre and you have a story that Hogan can leech off of for 40 years.
Race keeps his momentum going from his previous pinfall for a moment but by the 3 minute mark he’s got nothing left. Baba takes over in offense and looks like he’s on his way to a regaining the NWA title. Race cuts this hope short with a low blow and a disqualification, retaining his title. It was disappointing seeing a DQ finish and at least one audience member agreed with me as a lone roll of toilet paper makes its way into the ring, mocking the opening streamers that we started with. It was poetic.
Strike=1pt, Weapon=2pt, Strikedown=3pt, Grapple=4pt, Dive=5pt, Submission=1pt/5sec, Finisher=10pt
Harley Race would go on to hold the NWA Championship a record eight times. Feuds with Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, and Dory Funk Jr. would come to define his career. As his in-ring action slowed down, Race transitioned to the role of a manager helping talent such as Lex Luger, Vader, and Steve Austin. Sadly a car accident in 1995 resulted in Race needing hip replacement surgery which ended any full time role within wrestling. The last few years of his life were filled with surgeries, most related to the numerous bumps he took during his in-ring career. While in rehab he continued to promote his local World League Wrestling fed (Missouri) and sending talent to NOAH. Race died from lung cancer in 2019.
Shohei Baba by all accounts was one of the nicest and most gentlemanly figures in professional wrestling. It can sometimes feel like this business is filled with con men and scum bags. It’s refreshing to write about someone that was well liked and who’s influence can still be felt today. Like other giant wrestlers it’s clear that his size is both a blessing and a curse. Baba was married for over 27 years yet never had children as he was concerned that he would pass on his gigantism to them. He died in 1999 due to complications from colon cancer.
Anyone who inspires a statue like this has reached legendary status.