On the night of April 9th 2017 a stoic silhouette, a projection accompanied only by the strumming of docile guitar chords, stole the collective consciousness of thousands inside the famous Tokyo Sumo Hall. Shot from the rafters, a sprawling crowd shot cut to a small patch of fans; one of them proudly raising a commemorative towel in support of their favourite wrestler. The cloth was pitch black with the exception of two words printed bold and screaming white – “THE WRESTLER”.
The towel’s amateurish simplicity was mirrored in the attire of the man it represented – black hair, black boots, and black trunks, a Japanese flag in the one corner. The utter embodiment of the two words emblazoned on the fabric came storming through the curtain. Dozy acoustic guitars gave way to triumphant electronic ones. A venue this man had never before headlined chanted his name – “Shibata! Shibata! Shibata!”.
Moist eyed, our hero pointed briefly skyward before tilting his head down, chin on chest, eyes closed. For a few brief moments in a smouldering sea of adoration Katsuyori Shibata, “THE WRESTLER”, was vulnerable.
Return & Struggle
Gesturing and pacing restlessly, Shibata awaited the sound of a coin drop – the beckoning of his greatest challenge. The obstacle was “Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada, the IWGP Heavyweight Champion on a conquest 294 days long. During this time the champion had bested in spectacular fashion the likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito, Kota Ibushi (under the Tiger Mask W mask), Hirooki Goto, and Kenny Omega.
Parading down the ramp, posturing and posing all the way, Okada symbolized a monumental artistic challenge for Shibata. But, for as much as the champion stood as a new mountain to climb, for Shibata the champion’s presence brought the past into sharper focus. On his four year path to this night Shibata had accumulated a mound of slain political demons – ghouls of circumstance once just as formidable as his current foe. It was Shibata’s first IWGP Heavyweight Championship match since his 2012 return; and that fact is far from anecdotal.
At the behest of then New Japan president Tikaaki Kidani, the duo known as Laughter7, Katsuyori Shibata and Kazushi Sakuraba, were invited back to the company. Shibata hadn’t been seen in a NJPW ring since departing for MMA and other projects in 2004, whilst Kazushi Sakuraba hadn’t featured since the UWFi vs. NJPW feud of the mid-1990s.
As Hiroshi Tanahashi emphasized in his 2015 autobiography, Shibata left when the company was on a steep decline, returning only in 2012 when they had already begun a resurgence. In Japanese pro-wrestling, where company loyalty is sacrosanct, this was viewed as a betrayal – a mutiny of sorts. For the first time in seven years Shibata stepped into the New Japan lockerroom – and he was dripping in ill-will.
Trust in Kidani plummeted. He had signed the two shooters in secret at a time when the company was only beginning to prosper after close to a decade of Inoki-ism (*). Resentment towards Laughter7 only escalated in the lead-up to the first Tokyo Dome show of the Okada-era on January 4th 2013. Kidani, ignorant to the sensibilities of the industry in which he found himself, spoke of desires to become the Eric Bischoff or Vince McMahon of Japanese wrestling. After the 2013 Dome show he resigned as New Japan president. (**)
Even before his biggest backer was recalled, Shibata was in major booking trouble. At WrestleKingdom 7 he lost unexpectedly to years long mid-carder Togi Makabe. It was made manifest that Shibata, whilst often successful in the mid-card, would have his career capped several rungs below the likes of his contemporaries Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura. Apart from token victories over Tanahashi and Nakamura in the 2014 G1 Climax tournament – a tournament wrought with 50-50 booking decisions – Shibata lost most every other bout he had opposite a top star over the next three years. Gedo and the lockerroom had made their declaration – Shibata was welcome as a New Japan star, but not as one of THE New Japan stars.
(*) – Under the misguidance of company founder and national martial arts legend, Antonio Inoki, New Japan would sink to all-time lows in the mid-2000s. His poisonous emphasis on martial-arts legitimacy from a bygone era is, loosely speaking, referred to as “Inoki-ism”.
(**) – Kidani remained on in his role as Bushiroad CEO (New Japan’s parent company), however. He can still be seen at the commentary desk for the majority of the company’s biggest shows.
Kings of the Doldrums
Seemingly every year subsequent to his return, in the build-up to the annual G1 Climax tournament fans would tout Shibata as a favourite to win the entire competition. And yet not only did the coveted title of G1 Climax winner elude Shibata, he never appeared in a final and rarely, if ever, was alive in tournament contention heading into the last few nights.
Nevertheless, Shibata – and the rest of the brutes brawling about New Japan’s NEVER Openweight title division – left an indelible mark on the tournaments of the era.
At the Bodymaker Coliseum in Osaka on August 4th 2013, NJPW put on one of the greatest shows that 21st century pro-wrestling has thus far seen. It was the fourth night of the 23rd G1 Climax, a night on which Shinsuke Nakamura and Kota Ibushi battled for the first time. One match down on the card, Katsuyori Shibata and Tomohiro Ishii had the first and greatest of their many singles performances together – stealing the show in the process.
It was an all out fire-fight, more parts Frye vs. Takayama than Fujinami vs. Choshu – a match almost entirely divorced from the main event canon of the era. What began with an out of control flying knee to Ishii’s face continued with vicious backdrops, fierce elbows, and ear-rupturing slaps running the length of the wildest 12 minutes one is likely to see this decade.
Almost a year later to the day, on August 3rd of 2014, Shibata would steal the G1 spotlight again, not with Tomohiro Ishii, but with Tomoaki Honma in arguably the best match of that year.
Roads to the Rainmaker
Other than the NEVER Openweight Championship, all singles titles evaded Shibata in his second outing with the company. When abroad for Rev-Pro in the final weeks of 2016, however, he captured the British Heavyweight Championship from Zack Sabre Jr. The move came as a shock to many. Shibata was thought to have been brought in as a sporadic guest of the British super-indie at best. Far from a one-and-done, the title stayed with Shibata through four title defenses. He eventually lost the belt back to Sabre on a New Japan show in March.Ironic for a man who built his career upon blow-away matches year after year, the final rungs on Shibata’s climb to his career zenith can be characterized as “mostly disappointing”. After losing the British Heavyweight title back to Sabre, Shibata toppled name after name en route to the top of the New Japan Cup. First fell fellow black trunks shooter Minoru Suzuki, then American up-and-comer Juice Robinson, heated rival Tomohiro Ishii, and finally Bad Luck Fale in the finals.
The mediocre tournament that Shibata and the rest of the company trudged through in March was of little consequence by April’s once Invasion Attack show now rechristened Sakura Genesis. On the night of Apri 9th – as he was at the crescendos of his matches with Honma and Ishii in years prior – Shibata felt like the most molten hot body in the company.
Dealing with Domination
In the classic style of heavyweight championship Japanese wrestling, working heel is more about mean-spirited subtleties than the nefarious tactics and dastardly underhandedness of traditional American wrestling. An unclean break, slap to the back of the head, or overly vicious and unforgiving limb work can inject even the most beloved babyface into the role of bully overdog. Hiroshi Tanahashi constructed his championship legacy on performances of this sort, and upon seizing the torch from the former ace, Okada learned to do the same.
As heel heat is often in this way purely a function of in-ring work, rarely do we hear Okada out of favour with audiences at the first sounding of the ring bell. April 9th was different. It felt different. It sounded different. From the moment his silhouette flashed on screen, Sumo Hall was besotted with Katsuyori Shibata. Without Okada having so much as pressed a finger to his challenger’s chest, Ryogoku was all in.
Okada crouched forward, anxiously awaiting Shibata to break out with a running knee or cutting elbow as we had all seen against Ishii or Honma. Instead the champion was met with a sight as formidable. Shibata’s eyes – now bone dry – were piercing through Okada from across the ring. Shibata was an obelisk, frozen. The rising and falling of his hairy barrel chest lingered as the only sign of life.
There was movement. The duo circled and eventually locked up. With inhuman efficiency Shibata’s hands worked up Okada’s arms. Instantly the champion knew – as did everyone else in Sumo Hall – he was out of his depth in the clutches of an elite grappler.
Ryogoku erupted as Shibata took Okada down and mounted him. Knowing the danger that lay atop him, Okada scooted desperately to the ropes. Shibata, arms outstretched, stared downward as if to say “what you gonna do now, champ”? Rope break. Okada was back on his feet, mildly flustered. Shibata playfully dropped to his back, legs spread, welcoming Okada into his guard. Even a character as brash and cocky as the Rainmaker had to recognize that Shibata would be just as deadly from the bottom.
Sweeping Inoki-esque leg kicks warded off any attempt at approach. Soon, Okada was in deep trouble. Shibata worked with uncompromising efficiency – from the guard to Okada’s back, and from the back he took the arm. All too often in pro-wrestling, the wrestler defending an armbar will do so by clutching their hands together after the hold is already locked in. This incredulous escape shatters any illusion of struggle the original hold creates – a kind of mat-work deus ex machina. This match was different. An arm extension here spelled mortal peril for Okada. There was no lingering. There was no half-baked escape. Salvation came not from a logical hole, but Okada’s leveraging of the rules of pro-wrestling against the shooter – by grasping the ropes for a desperate break.
They engaged again. Using traditional pro-wrestling holds – head-scissors and wrist-locks – Okada seemingly gained the upper hand. But Shibata had a seamless escape for every hold Okada could work him into. These counters weren’t the ones from his wars with Ishii, Honma, or Goto – stiff forearms and ramming headbutts. Rather, Shibata channeled techniques employed by one of his newer rivals, another masterful grappler in the context of pro-wrestling, albeit one of a very different sort to himself.
Shibata’s British Heavyweight championship rival, Zack Sabre Jr, proficient in traditional British-style mat-work by the standards of 2017, makes regular use of its many slick, outlandish, and creative counters. These old British tricks are as distant from Shibata’s clinical shoot grappling as their countries of origin. Yet, in denying Okada any success on the mat, Shibata utilized precisely these moves. Here was a living, breathing, running, kicking, killing death-machine hand-standing and cartwheeling his way around the most well-protected champion in wrestling today – and somehow it made him all the more terrifying.
Playing the Game
A move as benign as a side-headlock – the overuse of which Randy Orton has been maligned over for more than a decade – becomes an instrument of torture when applied by the likes of Minoru Suzuki or Katsuyori Shibata. Okada experienced this first hand as he screamed out, arms flailing, an octopus on his back, and a meat-grinder clenched up against his face.
Frustrated, Okada pressed Shibata up against the ropes. The audience of thousands and the three men in the ring froze. What would Kazuchika Okada, known for his cheeky and condescending breaks, do when pressured so mercilessly? As onlookers awaited Okada’s now routine pat to the chest off of the break, the champ tore into his challenger with a flurry of vicious elbows. Losing at his own game, Okada decided to try his hand at Shibata’s.
But, the challenger came back quick. Curiously, the man known for his shoot offense busted out the most traditional of pro-wrestling submissions – the figure four leg-lock. With little success in-ring, Okada was forced to change tactics once again getting as grimy on the outside as he could – his strategy bore fruit.
This moment proved pivotal as on this night, against the Rainmaker, Shibata was the quintessential babyface. There is a certain arrogance and self-obsession in Kazuchika Okada – the kind found in Tanahashi too – that not only fuels his superstar aura, but also serves as natural propellant for heel heat when need be. Whether out of desperation, arrogance, or an amalgam of the two Okada would repeatedly attempt to out maul the mauler himself.
In a machismo showcase we’ve grown to expect from collisions between Shibata and Ishii, Honma, or Goto, the pair sat opposite one another cross-legged and began to trade. But, for all the determination Okada had shown as IWGP champion up until this point, he simply didn’t have it in him. His arm was shot from minutes of punishment. He backed out of the challenge and stomp a mudhole in Shibata. He even stole one of Shibata’s running dropkicks in the corner. Sumo Hall was incensed – boiling over the rim – this was heat in the most direct, textured, and visceral form perhaps possible in 2017 Japanese pro-wrestling.
With Hands Clasped
In his WrestleKingdom 10 classic against career rival Hiroshi Tanahashi, Okada introduced a spot that would endure through every major singles match he would have subsequent. Regardless of the degree of the onslaught from his challenger attempting to escape the wrist-clutch prelude to his Rainmaker lariat, Okada would maintain his grip – ultimately ending his opponent with the move. New Japan’s production team introduced novel camera work to accompany the spot, zooming in so deep as to engulf the entire feed with a detail that could go otherwise neglected.
The idea of the unbreakable grip, whilst innovative on the night of January 4th 2016, became an overused and contrived cliche in the year subsequent. Cheapened by overuse, as a device it lost the emotional cache it once held.
To the story of this war with Shibata however, Okada’s unbreakable grasp would be just as pivotal as when he first introduced it against Tanahashi. At WrestleKingdom 10 Okada’s grip was a symbol of his will to survive, in spite of the depths of the deep waters his senior and career rival up until that point had dragged him down into.
Mid-match, Shibata ate a brutal running dropkick. He gave an Undertaker-esque sit-up in response, staring back at Okada indignantly. Once more Okada charged forth and connected with a second. Rolling through gracefully, standing dead straight, Shibata gave Okada the same stone-faced look of determination he had half an hour earlier – “what you gonna do now, champ?”.
What followed was straight out of Shibata vs. Ishii, when those two sprinted at one another kicking, punching, lifting, and dropping with reckless abandon. Only, unlike in that 12 minute affair, Okada and Shibata were half an hour into an all-out war of their own.
In the melee Okada grabbed hold of Shibata’s wrist. Just as well as anyone, Shibata knew the danger this spelled, fighting with an icy determination to break free. He kicked at the arm and then at the head, but Okada lunged forward with his show-ender – the Rainmaker lariat. Shibata remained standing, his back hunching as he recoiled. Okada, drained, relinquished his iron-clad grip.
Biting down on his mouth piece, with the crowd living and dying with his championship hopes, Shibata looked down and thrust his head forward, bracing for what would be the worst decision of his professional career.
Red Line Running
A bellowing thud murmured through Sumo Hall as Shibata’s skull ricocheted off of Okada’s. Smoldering cacophony petered down to scant chatter. Referee Red Shoes winced – the pained expression on his face seemingly crying out: “what were you thinking?”. Had his scream been audible I don’t know if Shibata would have heard him. Squinting, Shibata surveyed the arena from under his brow, likely dazed from the head injury that would see him hospitalized only hours later. Blood dribbled out from under his fringe with cinematic timing – a sight more horrifying in hindsight than the sickest of 1980s blade-jobs. Shaking his head, he bit down on his mouth piece nodding in brutish self-approval.
Just as he had done in the match’s opening moments, Shibata coiled himself around Okada – this time with the signature hold of New Japan’s patriarch – Antonio Inoki’s Octopus Hold. The champion willed himself to the ropes’ fleeting safety. Even in this animalistic state, contorting his face with passion and agony, Shibara broke the hold immediately after his opponent grabbed the bottom rope.
His prey laying exhausted before him, Shibata locked in a sleeper hold. The champion willed himself to his feet before being dropped back down with a sleeper suplex. Like a wounded animal, confused and injured, he shook his head again. Chants, claps, and screams bled into a kind of blanket roar as Shibata stalked Okada. Tightly, he clutched his championship aspirations in the form of Okada’s wrist. With all his might, Shibata twirled the champion around, as if trying for a rainmaker of his own. Instead he clocked Okada with a slap straight from Hades. Now it was Shibata’s grasp on Okada that remained unbroken.
He brutalized Okada with kicks – yanking him by the wrist and kicking him, one, two…a dozen times. Sensing the end, Shibata sprinted for the ropes and relinquished his grip on Okada in the process. Like a movie-monster coming back from the brink, Okada pealed himself off the mat, and yo-yo-ed his challenger in for a titanic Rainmaker lariat.
One rainmaker can often spell death, two usually seals the deal, and three all but guarantees the end. Surviving the second, Shibata unleashed one last flurry before being shut down cruelly by wicked stomps at the boot of the champion. A third rainmaker landed. For the second time in a single match Shibata took this shotgun round standing. This occasion it was only for a brief moment – our hero collapsed against his opponent’s knees. Exhausted, Okada had already relinquished his grip. Shibata had weathered his final storm.
Okada pulled Shibata back in. The two warriors were sent careening towards one another like a scene from your favourite fighting anime. Having taken this behemoth of modern wrestling to the limit, beating him on every front, Shibata raised his fist for a counter. But in a case of art mirroring life and life mirroring art, our hero’s body failed him when his spirit did not. The fourth Rainmaker connected concluding Shibata’s career with one the most heart-breaking, grand, brutal, and beautiful swansongs the art-form has ever seen.
Shibata and Okada battled for 38 minutes and 9 seconds. In that time there were precisely five pin attempts. One of them was the finish. None of them were nearfalls.
Staggering, Shibata waved off a group of young lions attempting to aid him as he struggled to the back. That week news of Shibata’s condition trickled in – reports of surgeries and partial paralysis. In the immediate aftermath only a minority of onlookers took these stories at face value, but as the hours and days wore on these terrifying rumours grew increasingly credible.
Shibata, who had struggled to remain on his feet during the walk to the back, collapsed as he stepped through the curtain, his legs unable to support his weight. He was rushed to hospital.
A headbutt that all but silenced Sumo Hall hours earlier had caused an acute subdural hematoma. Shibata’s brain was bleeding and pressure inside his skull built as a result. He underwent emergency surgery less than 24 hours after his skull had struck Okada’s. It was a major ordeal, five hours in all, with parts of skull removed in order to relieve the pressure. Rumours of worked injuries and elaborate angles faded as facts surrounding the injury began to solidify
The hematoma had brought with it partial right side paralysis, right ear hearing loss, as well as right homonymous hemianopsia – a loss in the right field of vision in both eyes. (*)
On May 2nd Shibata underwent a second surgery, this time to replace the parts of his skull that had been removed weeks earlier. In the ensuing months Shibata would undergo cutting-edge electro-therapy, periodically updating fans with his ‘Real Talk’ blog posts. It wouldn’t be until well after the conclusion of our story that Shibata would reveal just how close he had come death.
Only in the aftermath of the 2018 Tokyo Dome show did Shibata reveal that he had faced an 18% survival rate in hospital. It’s likely that he will never be cleared to wrestle again.
(*) Shibata noted offhandedly in one of his blog posts that he had undergone three major eye surgeries prior to his match with Okada. No dates were given for these surgeries, and so he may have had them before returning to the company. It is unclear if the homonymous hemianopsia resulted from preexisting injuries. This is a medical condition that often occurs due to head trauma to one side of the brain over the other, which seemingly matches Shibata’s case.
On August 13th Sumo Hall hosted the final night of the 27th G1 Climax tournament. A few dozen fans could be seen leaving their seats for an impromptu intermission about a quarter of the way through the event. Casually, an advertisement for WrestleKingdom 12 began playing in the background to a spattering of polite “oohs” and “aahs”
Without warning a familiar silhouette took the screen. Familiar chords lingered in the air, as phantom-like as the ghost they summoned. Seconds of relative silence past before the eruption – a collective gasp. Those who had left their seats continued on their paths, unable or unwilling to process what was happening. Some still sat blank faced, as if in the midst of witnessing some kind of cruel and embarrassing technical snafu. Others stared in disbelief, hands over mouths, eyes wide. Those who had vacated their seats came rushing back, some gathering in the aisleway attempting to get as close to the curtain as possible.
An air of disbelief washed over the crowd. Many looked back and forth confusedly as others began chanting “Shibata! Shibata! Shibata!”. Overcome, some wept as the electric guitar kicked in. A figure stepped through the curtain with unmistakable intensity. Dressed as simplistically outside the ring as inside it, Katsuyori Shibata began a slow walk to the ring, his head tilted downwards. A brief and peculiar calm filled the building. No one reacted – not Sumo Hall, not Shibata. He stepped out from the shadows, suddenly illuminated by the bright lights above him. Sumo Hall erupted in a state of absolute jubilation.
Only then did Shibata get his first wet-eyed look at the crowd. He leaped up onto the apron, leaning back against ropes, gazing upwards at thousands of exuberant faces, hands raised high, clapping, waving uncontrollably.
One flat back bump later and Shibata was sitting cross-legged in the ring. Again they chanted “Shibata! Shibata! Shibata!”. He didn’t have to say a word. This was already one of the most emotionally potent moments I had ever seen in wrestling. But he did. He stood up. He placed his hand over his heart. He blew on the mic and closed his eyes. And with the a recalcitrance upon which a career was built – the fighting spirit needed to grapple death itself – he yelled: