The One Who Went Too Far: Katsuyori Shibata

Two years after the retirment of "The Wrestler" we analize what we miss.

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Wrestle Kingdom 14 will be a show that we will remember in a long time, we have Kota Ibushi in a mega meeting against Kazuchika Okada, Naito vs. White finishing a feud that extends for a year now, but, something feels different, the event does not have “The Wrestler”, Katsuyori Shibata.
For some unaware of New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), Katsuyori Shibata was the star with the highest ascent alongside Kenny Omega in 2017. The man is the complete expression of the term “Strong Style”, with Shibata not selling punches, giving the strongest kicks off the entire world and bringing an aura of legitimacy to the ring. When someone wants to know what the Strong Style fight is, just show him a Shibata match, he will immediately capture the style presented.
Katsuyori Shibata – now 37 years old – is the son of the famous New Japan Pro Wrestling ’70s wrestler, Katsuhisa Shibata. Shibata began his career practically at the beginning of the 2000s. He was seen with high hopes, along with Shinsuke Nakamura and the “ace” of New Japan, Hiroshi Tanahashi.
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From Left to Right: Katsuyori Shibata, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura in the mid-2000s.

At that time, NJPW was going through difficult times, partly with the bad practices of someone who at one time elevated the company and was its founder, Antonio Inoki. Called “the dark time of New Japan Pro Wrestling,” the company went from being pure wrestling to mixing in legitimate MMA battles. Wrestlers of the promotion were pushed to fight in real  MMA fights, damaging in the process the legitimacy of their stars, given that the pure fighter always beats the wrestler.

At that time, Nakamura, Tanahashi, and Shibata – the new Three Musketeers – were pushed to be the saviors of New Japan Pro Wrestling, but, the story took an abrupt turn.

Katsuyori Shibata, following in the footsteps of his hero, Inoki, followed him in the sport of mixed martial arts and leaving New Japan behind when Inoki left the company. Shibata fought in front of people like Jason Miller, Ralek Gracie and exalted to the UFC hall of fame, Kazushi Sakuraba. His record in the process left much to be desired, with this having only 4 wins and 11 losses. Shibata fought primarily at IGF – from Inoki – and NOAH. He only returned to NJPW when the company was in a better economic state in 2012.

His return to New Japan was seen with negative eyes in the dressing room, especially by Hiroshi Tanahashi, who, in the absence of Shibata, had the load of the company and return it to its economic status before the 2000s. Tanahashi did not like to see Shibata, now when the company had recovered. At the same time, he did not understand the rough style of his former partner. At some point in his book, Tanahashi said: “I see no future in a style that escalates violence to high levels in full struggle.”

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Shibata applying an epic kick at the start of a match, in his famous rivalry against Tomohiro Ishii.

Shibata was a heat magnet at the beginning, he did not sell his opponent’s attacks and hit the strongest power shots of the promotion. On his scale again in New Japan, Shibata threw classics before his best friend, Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii and Zack Saber Jr. The struggles he had for the NEVER Openweight Championship against Ishii cemented Shibata as a rising favorite and which by 2017 could capture the most important belt of the company, the IWGP Heavyweight championship.

The reason we will not see the so-called “The Wrestler” in Wrestle Kingdom 14, is due to a time where everything would change for Katsuyori Shibata forever. He won the New Japan Cup, in the process of winning an opportunity against the current NJPW monarch, Katzuchika Okada for the event at Sakura Genesis.

With the IWGP heavyweight championship at stake, both men displayed a wrestling classic that at that time raised both men in the process. It was all that one wanted to see, Shibata abusing of his speed and power before Okada; while the latter found ways to counteract and return key moves. The public that night was directly attracted to Shibata, it seemed that the man would dethrone the historic reign of Okada. He threw the best of his repertoire, open slapping, power kicks, MMA keys and a legitimate header that would later cost dividends. In the end, Okada threw a “Rain Makers” barricade that ended with Shibata, but both men had a standing ovation, with people loving Shibata even more. But, as we would have indicated, what would come next was another story.

24 hours after the classic, which was reviewed by Dave Meltzer as five stars, it was reported that Shibata collapsed in the dressing room. Later it was known that Shibata would have part of his body paralyzed and that he could hardly see, having several surgeries in the brain. When it was checked that it was what would have caused this, it was clear … The infamous headbutt to Okada would have damaged regions of Shibata’s brain and in the process, it retired him from wrestling.

It was something we took with terror and sadness, but not surprise. For Shibata, it was normal these power headbutts, some fans always feared for the worst. Shibata himself would know the dangers of this, since, in his year as Young Lion, he faced Masakazu Fukuda, who came from a serious brain injury and 6 minutes after starting the fight, he suffered an internal cerebral hemorrhage upon receiving a basic nudge by Shibata himself.

Now, two years ago, all we can do is ask ourselves: “What would have happened?” Shibata was the best hitter in the company and without a doubt a key piece in New Japan’s rise. He was loved, adored, and treasured when he finally made peace with NJPW and put all of his motivation in the company. A clear example of this was in the final of the G1 Climax, in the intervention of the show, Shibata’s music sounded and an aura again covered the arena that once saw the deadliest headbutt in the history of New Japan. People cried with happiness and melancholy flooded the Sumo Hall. To see that, despite the tragedy, Shibata could at least walk, talk and feel. Looking back, it is as if Hiroshi Tanahashi’s words were an omen of what would happen: “There is no future.” Basically, the premonition that the future that was not there was not for Shibata’s style, but for Shibata’s own life as a wrestler since he can never wrestle again (for now). In Sakura Genesis, Shibata went very far and today, within hours of one of the most important Wrestle Kingdoms of the company, the “Wrestler” will be absent.

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This essay was originally published two years ago in the Spanish magazine for wrestling, Impacto Estelar. Some modification has been done to present it for this year’s Wrestle Kingdom 14, but the changes remain minimum. All rights are reserved for Emmanuel Figueroa Rosado and impactoestelar.com.

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