Now that I’ve managed to trick people into reading about my thoughts on nonsense like “literature” and “art,” I can now move onto the true medium for storytellers: Professional Wrestling.
Ok, I know nobody actually cares about what anyone has to say on pro wrestling – and honestly more power to you for not caring about this stupid garbage – but hear me out here. Sometimes wrestling can be both good and cool. Like in an unironic way.
Take for instance the man who was so dedicated to pro wrestling that he nearly paralyzed half of his body.
Let me start this story from the beginning.
“The Wrestler,” Katsuyori Shibata, is a Japanese professional wrestler who has made a name for himself in New Japan Pro Wrestling, the current largest federation in Japan and one of the biggest in the world. Born in 1979, Shibata is the son of former professional wrestler Katsuhisa Shibata and competed as an amateur wrestler – that’s the real version of wrestling – throughout his youth.
In 1999 he made his debut in New Japan Pro wrestling, having his first match in October. During this time Shibata, along with fellow rookies Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi, were referred to as the “New Three Musketeers” due to their potential.
The original “Three Musketeers” was composed of Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono and Keiji Muto who was also known as “The Great Muta” (and who has only recently announced his retirement even though he’s a soon to be 60-year-old). All three of them were generational stars in Japan and held championships all across the country and with Muto, all across the globe.
So, you can understand why calling these three young guys, who had just debuted maybe a year earlier, the “New Three Musketeers” was high praise and with even higher expectations. And for the next few years, Shibata, Nakamura and Tanahashi – a lot of Tanahashi – put their all into making sure they could carry the future of the company and uphold its legacy. That is until 2005 when Shibata decided to leave the company.
See, at this point in the aughts, New Japan wasn’t doing too hot. Coming fresh off of the heels of Japan’s “Lost Decade” – a period of significant economic slowdown in the late 90’s – as well as the booming new MMA market, wrestling in Japan had been taking a significant hit. Most wrestling companies were downscaling by putting on smaller shows in smaller venues but New Japan founder (and certifiable crazy person) Antonio Inoki had a different, bolder idea.
Inoki had long held a belief that pro wrestling should be seen as a legitimate martial art that could be used in a fight, just like any other. He had coined this style of professional wrestling as “Strong Style” which focused on realistic strikes and submissions. In his youth in fact, when he was still an active wrestler, he had faced multiple Russian martial artists as well as former world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in what where billed as “real” fights. And while none of them were very good, they had stuck with Inoki leading to the creation of “Inokism.”
Inokism was the idea to treat professional wrestling as a real fight and have pro wrestlers fight real MMA fighters. Safe to say, this led to many losses on the wrestling side which ended up severely damaging the image and credibility of New Japan and the sport as a whole.
Still, there were a few success stories to come out of this crossover. Shinsuke Nakamura transformed himself into a relatively successful MMA fighter under Inoki and Kazuyuki Fujita, having taken the company by storm, brutalizing many of his opponents in real MMA fights.
Back to Shibata, he had decided that New Japan was too unstable. The company was losing money fast thanks to Inoki’s antics so Shibata decided to pursue new ventures. And those ventures would be… MMA. Which he was only mediocre at.
During this stint as a mixed martial artist, Shibata also joined rival company pro wrestling NOAH for a few shows before hanging up his boots to focus on MMA.
After a few years of mild success, Shibata returned to the ring for a stint in the IGF, Inoki Genome Federation. The company was founded by Antonio Inoki after he had sold his shares in New Japan in order to focus on his pro wrestling/MMA hybrid sport.
By 2012, Shibata had found his way back to New Japan. After 7 long years and multiple major shifts in the company, however, Shibata was relegated to lower spots in the company, only wrestling occasionally in tag team matches.
Shibata leaving the company had turned many of the diehard fans against him, seeing him as a traitor who couldn’t stick with New Japan through its hardships. For the next two years or so, Shibata would spend his time fighting to regain the crowd’s approval. And fight he did, mostly facing veteran wrestlers in New Japan to prove to the audience as well as the wrestlers backstage that he belonged in the company.
This would culminate during the 2013 G1 Climax, New Japan’s annual round robin wrestling tournament and the biggest tournament in pro wrestling. Here Shibata would have one of the most important matches in his career against Tomohiro Ishii.
Now a bit on his opponent: Tomohiro Ishii was originally a wrestler for smaller promotions before working his way into signing a contract with New Japan. By the time he signed, he was already a near 15-year veteran and was approaching his 30’s. Even up till 2013, he had only had small amounts of success, usually acting as a fill-in for bigger matches with bigger stars.
Naturally, Ishii’s story mirrored Shibata, who was already a featured star in his youth and was given many opportunities to shine before leaving on his own accord. This dichotomy between the two would create one of New Japan’s most talked about matches.
Before the match even started the difference between the two was obvious. Shibata was a well-built young athlete over 6 feet tall with a full head of hair. Ishii was a stout, barely 5-foot 7-inch-tall bald man with no visible neck. The two stared each other down before the match began with an intensity unlike any of the matches beforehand. Shibata had a chance to win his block if he managed to beat Ishii while Ishii had only one match win under his belt.
The second the match started, both men charged at each other to deliver a rousing flurry of forearm and elbow strikes. The pace of the match was kept at a high, each wrestler taking every opportunity to knock their opponent as hard as they could. For 12 minutes, the action was kept fast paced and violent until the biggest shocker of the tournament occurred; Ishii managed to beat Shibata.
The crowd was shocked. This was probably the biggest win in Ishii’s career – either this or his previous G1 victory over Hiroshi Tanahashi – and it came against Shibata. What’s more is that even after the match, both men looked like they were going to continue fighting, a rarity in Japanese wrestling, especially for two wrestlers who were considered “good guys” or faces.
This match, along with his long-term feuds against childhood friend Hirooki Goto and his future matches with Ishii, would reset Shibata in the eyes of the New Japan audience. All of these matches demonstrated Shibata’s strong style of wrestling perfectly, making him seem like the star he was always meant to be.
After the match, both men’s careers were on the rise. Ishii becomes a gatekeeper of sorts. Anyone who wanted to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, the biggest championship title New Japan had at the time, had to prove themselves against Ishii. If they won then they could prove their toughness. If they lost… well they should have wrestled harder.
Shibata quickly won his first singles championship after that in the Never Openweight Championship. He only held this title for a short period of time though, before eventually winning the New Japan Cup. The New Japan Cup was the single elimination spring tournament where the winner could challenge for a title shot.
He fought his way through the tournament before facing Ishii in the semifinals. They had another fantastic match of course, though not as good as their first encounter. Shibata won, just like every other match they had after the first and just like every other match they had, both men continued fighting even after the bell rang.
After this match, Shibata would go on to win the New Japan Cup which led him to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at the 2017 Sakura Genesis show. This would be the definitive match of his career for many reasons.
The champion at the time was a young prodigy named Kazuchika Okada, the “Rainmaker” of New Japan. In many ways, Okada paralleled Shibata. Both were tall, well-built athletes who were chosen by the company to carry the future of the company. Unlike Shibata, however, Okada carried himself like a superstar. Shibata wore simple black trunks and boots to harken back to his strong style roots. Okada dressed in golden robes and trunks and came down to the ring adorned in necklaces and, most importantly, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship title.
When the match started, Shibata took to the offense immediately and Okada, realizing he couldn’t out wrestle the challenger, decided to play the coward for most of the match. By the last 5 minutes, however, both men were trading strikes with Shibata having the clear upper hand. That is until one fatal error.
Shibata decided to perform a headbutt on Okada, a move he had done probably hundreds of times before. This time however, Shibata managed to headbutt the champion so hard that his head began to bleed. While this isn’t the first time this had happened, it also dazed him to the point where he could no longer dodge his opponent’s offense.
Okada hit his finisher – yes, wrestling is goofy with a bunch of signature moves like a video game – the “Rainmaker” short-arm lariat. Shibata took the move full on and refused to go down. Okada proceeded to hit a second Rainmaker before pinning Shibata for the win. Shibata would shakily walk to the back, a sign of a hard-fought match.
Except when he got backstage, he collapsed. The right side of his body was completely unresponsive and he was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. He had headbutted Okada so hard that he nearly paralyzed himself permanently. Most doctors were unsure whether he would be able to walk again.
Several months passed and at the G1 Climax finals in the summer of 2017, Shibata would be seen for the first time since the match with Okada. He entered the ring to massive applause, multiple members of the audience in tears from seeing him again. He stood in the middle of the ring and fell flat on his back before announcing to the audience “I’m alive! That is all!”
Many were happy that the man was okay and that he could walk again. What’s more is that he was made the trainer at the New Japan Dojo at Long Beach, California. Pretty much everyone was content with this. Shibata would be able to participate in the wrestling business without having to actually wrestle. He could keep himself safe and that was all that mattered.
Except Shibata himself was unsatisfied. He felt like he still had more to give so he trained his body hard while working the next generation of wrestlers.
Fast-forward to 2021. It’s October and the G1 Climax is being held off season due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is the first G1 climax held in front of a pandemic crowd and due to Japanese law, the events were held in near complete silence to prevent any possible spread of the virus.
On the final night the crowd were given a special surprise; an impromptu match between English wrestler Zack Sabre Junior and Katsuyori Shibata with special rules that only allowed for grappling. While the match was short, the crowd ate it up and Shibata seemed confident he would wrestle again.
Now. The 4th of November, 2022. Shibata wrestled for American company All Elite Wrestling in his first match on American soil in over six years. This would also be the first time one of his matches would be shown on American TV (not counting rebroadcasts of Japanese footage).
He faced Orange Cassidy, a primarily comedy wrestler, with special guest Mike Tyson on commentary. Truly a strange twist in the story, but apparently Shibata requested the match himself so good on him I guess.
I don’t really know how to end this since Shibata’s story is still ongoing, but I hope anyone that has bothered to read this is at least a little more interested in the idea of wrestling.
See, wrestling lives in this weird state where it’s both real and fake. Every match result isn’t an actual contest. Most rivalries aren’t real (unless your Hulk Hogan, in which case they’re all real, brother). But the people performing are real and put their bodies through legitimate torture to tell the strange mix of vaudeville performance art and mat-based grappling.
It really is a unique form of storytelling as long as you acknowledge that, yes, this is fake but I’m going to lose myself in this anyway.