Last week, New Japan Pro Wrestling, one of the most prominent professional wrestling companies on the planet, held its "G1 Climax 31 Final" event inside the legendary Budokan Hall in Tokyo, Japan. Included in this show were several preliminary multi-man tag team matches featuring some of the best wrestlers on the planet, and culminated with the final match to crown this year's winner of the G1 Climax tournament, and thus an opportunity to challenge the promotion's world champion at next year's Wrestle Kingdom 16. Kota Ibushi, who is most well known in the west for taking part in WWE's Cruiserweight Classic in 2016 took on the great Kazuchika Okada, who is often considered by many to be the face of professional wrestling in Japan.
But after the show concluded in the wee hours of the morning here in the United States, no one was talking about the final match, or it's less than satisfying conclusion when Ibushi dislocated his right shoulder in a freak accident. No, the thing everyone was talking about was the seismic return of one of New Japan's favorite sons, Katsuyori Shibata. And today, as an excuse to write my first post surrounding the wonderful world of pro wrestling, I decided that there was no better topic to cover than this.
Before we take this dive, here's a little background for those of you who might be uninitiated. Katsuyori Shibata was once one of Japan's most exciting wrestlers thanks largely due to his stoic personality and his shoot fight style. Shibata was most well known for his strong strikes, particularly kicks and slaps, and his penchant to head butt anything that moved. Speaking for myself, Shibata was one of my favorite wrestlers when he was at the peak of his power, so much so that I would follow him along as he competed in other companies around the world like Revolution Pro Wresting in England and Ring of Honor here in America. His brutal affairs with other hard hitters like Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto, and the Murder Grandpa himself, Minoru Suzuki made him instantly memorable for first time viewers of the product and a fan favorite for long-time viewers.
Unfortunately, Shibata's life was severely altered on April 9th, 2017 after he suffered a catastrophic career-ending injury during his iconic match against Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship inside Tokyo's Sumo Hall. During a key sequence in the award-winning clash, Shibata struck Okada with one of the most GHASTLY head butts you'll ever see. While Okada folded on the ground in agonizing pain, Shibata stood there, not moving, as a stream of blood trickled down his unflinching face. Following the match, a match that Shibata ended up losing, the 37-year-old collapsed backstage and was rushed to the hospital where doctors found that he had suffered a Subdural Hematoma, which is a type of internal bleeding that is generally associated with a traumatic brain injury. Essentially, Shibata had built up a pool of blood on the surface of his brain, and there was a very real chance that he could have died.
Thankfully, Shibata underwent emergency surgery, and doctors were able to stabilize the multiple injuries to his head, and likely saved his life. Aside from his Subdural Hematoma, Shibata also reportedly briefly lost the sight in one of his eyes and lost feeling on the right side of his body. The fact that he was able to make it out the other side with minimal residual effects (that we know of) is frankly a testament to his physical fitness and the fortitude of the numerous doctors and physical therapy professionals who nursed Shibata back to health.
If you were to talk to anyone in the know at the time, you would be told that there was no way that Shibata would ever wrestle again, and quite frankly given the circumstances, we were all okay with that. Shibata was kept employed by New Japan, but instead of being cleared to fight again, he was instead sent to Los Angeles where he would work as the head coach of New Japan's LA Dojo, a place where up-and-coming trainees, otherwise known as "Young Lions", were sent to learn the New Japan style and prepare for their future within the company. Instead of being the lone warrior he was in the past, he would become an unlikely mentor for several western wrestlers who had likely seen his clashes and decided to follow his footsteps.
Barring a storyline he was a part of in 2019 where he introduced former Pro Wrestling NOAH superstar KENTA back to Japan, all for KENTA to turn on Shibata and join the dastardly BULLET CLUB faction, Shibata was all but relegated to being the figurehead on the American side of the company. Yet thanks to Shibata being a cornerstone of New Japan's hottest period, he always received mammoth reactions from both American and Japanese crowds.
All of this neatly takes us to the day in question, October 21st, 2021. Following a match that ended when KENTA challenged Hiroshi Tanahashi for the IWGP United States Championship, the show went into a brief intermission. Following that intermission, Zack Sabre Jr., one of New Japan's best in-ring technicians, came out dressed to compete. The thing was that ZSJ, who had recently become the first man to win six matches in the G1 via submission, wasn't listed to have a match that night. So, seeing him dressed to wrestle certainly raised a few eyebrows both inside the Budokan and around the world.
All of a sudden as fans were trying to interpret what was going on, the first notes of Shibata's entrance music blared out of the arena's PA system, and the crowd that is mandated to "scream within their hearts" instead of verbally because of the pandemic, all gasped in a moment of pure ecstasy. And just when they thought it couldn't get any better, the man appropriately known as "The Wrestler" started his walk down to the ring to do what he hadn't been able to do for over four years.
The gravity of the situation was not lost on anyone, the least bit with Shibata himself. If you watch the clip, you can see him start to break down for a moment. Just like when he came down to the ring in August 2017 to announce that he was "alive", both wrestler and crowd formed a symbiotic relationship, and I'm sure if the cameras could capture it, you'd probably see people sobbing at the thought of seeing this warrior appear again.
One of my favorite things about all of this has to be the English commentary, done incredibly by Kevin Kelly and Chris Charlton. Neither of these guys were told that this was going to happen, so they were just as shocked as the fans. Their pure excitement and joy was totally genuine, and I struggle to not smile when I hear them freak out.
Once Shibata made it into the ring, and everyone's jaws had finally returned from the floor, the announcement was made that both he and ZSJ were to have a five-minute grappling match, where strikes of any kind were disallowed. If there was anything I could complain about, it's that five minutes was way too short. The work that Zack and Katsuyori put in during this five-minute span was absolutely wonderful. You could see Shibata start to get tired toward the end, but he still brilliantly kept up with his opponent. Even if you aren't a fan of wrestling, I implore you to experience this match. I won't ruin what happened at the end, you could frankly find that anywhere, but what I can say is that the result was the last thing on my mind. The journey to get to this point was paved with uncertainty, but the destination was as sweet as anything in sports.
Time will tell if Shibata will make it back to the ring again, but if it was up to the man himself, this exhibiti blared out of the arena's PA system, and the crowd that is mandated to "scream inside your hearts" instead of verbally because of the pandemic, all gasped in a moment of pure ecstasy. And just when they thought it couldn't get any better, the man appropriately known as "The Wrestler" started his walk down to the ring to do what he hadn't been able to do for over four years.
So while the wait might be difficult to stomach, I'm ready to wait as long as it takes just to see Shibata compete against the very best in company and show the new generation of New Japan fans why he's as beloved as he is.
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