Let’s start at the end: On April 9, 2017, Katsuyori Shibata wrestled Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in the main event of Sakura Genesis. He hasn’t wrestled since. After the match, he collapsed backstage and was rushed to the hospital, where he underwent surgery for a subdermal hematoma, the result of a solid year of headbutting people square in the forehead, skull on skull, for the better part of the year.
The aftermath of Shibata’s headbutt is the worst injury I’ve seen live. Writing about it now, I can hear the sound his skull makes against Okada’s, which is different than the sound it makes against Tomohiri Ishii’s or Yuji Nagata’s or Tomoaki Honma’s—rather than signalling a change over the course of a wrestling match, it’s the sound of a life changing forever.
It’s disgusting. It’s perfect. It’s weird, probably, that I watch this match as often as I do, but I have been watching wrestling for the majority of my life, 25 years or so, and, as a result, I’ve cultivated a strange relationship towards death (which happens too often in wrestling) and catastrophic injury (which happens more often). The truth of Shibata vs. Okada, at least my truth, is this: Katsuyori Shibata and Kazuchika Okada wrestled a perfect match, and wrestling hasn’t had the same flavor to it since.
What’s remarkable about Katsuyori Shibata’s decade is that he was a full-time wrestler for five years of it, his 2012 return to New Japan Pro Wrestling coming after five years where mixed martial arts was his focus. I started watching NJPW regularly starting in 2015, where, at Wrestle Kingdom 9, he and Hirooki Goto won the IWGP Tag Team Titles from Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows. I thought nothing of it, because that’s how the tag team titles work in New Japan, but the advent of NJPW World made it easier for me to watch him in the settings where he thrived: the New Japan Cup and G1 Climax. I fell in love. Listen to the sound his kicks make. Look at how lush his hair is. How could I not?
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At Wrestle Kingdom 9, he beat Ishii for the NEVER Openweight Championship. From February 2014 to June 2018, the NEVER Openweight Championship was the most important title in wrestling, the one folks were kicking and punching each other in the head really hard over. Shibata’s victory happened right around the halfway point of this run, and the violence of his association with it is as beautiful as it is horrifying. His matches against Ishii for that title make me cry. His feud against Yuji Nagata over it, ostensibly about Shibata maturing into the star he was marked as when he graduated from the New Japan dojo with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura in 1999, is one of my favorite storylines of the last five years.
And yet, my mind keeps drifting back to Sakura Genesis, the small trickle of blood running from his forehead, the way the match keeps going after it, the kind of grim miracle that I love wrestling for and that I hate myself for loving. I have spent two years trying to articulate why I love this match and its participants, and I think the reason I’ve struggled to do so is discomfort with the fact that one of the things that keeps me coming back to wrestling is the thrill of watching people produce art that may kill them. I think there’s some element of this in most spectator sports, but for the most part narrative in sport is something that’s applied after the final whistle or buzzer. Wrestling is unlike other sports because it’s designed against anti-climax—even at their most complicated, a narrative in wrestling, both in long-term storylines and individual matches, rises, peaks, and falls.
Katsuyori Shibata exists outside of this paradigm. Imagining a Sakura Genesis or a year without a shoot headbutt, it is easy to picture him continuing his ascent, maybe capturing the IWGP Championship from Okada or Tanahashi or Jay White, someone perpetually in the mix, doing something. Instead, he’s the head trainer of New Japan’s Los Angeles Dojo. Instead, we get the occasional glimpse of him seconding a friend like Tanahashi or Kenta. Instead, we get a man who can captivate an audience—see his appearance at the 2017 G1 Climax where he said “I am still alive, that is all,” or his appearance on the last night the 2019 G1 Climax, where he stormed the ring to take on the Bullet Club and his former friend KENTA all by his damn self—only tinged with the knowledge that he probably can’t and certainly shouldn’t be doing what he was doing at an unparalleled level a mere two years ago.
But god, few matches have the dramatic arc of the one he went out on. If wrestling is a craft practiced in the shadow of death, then Katsuyori Shibata was straddling the line between shadow and sunlight at Sakura Genesis. The match is a microcosm of everything that made his run incredible—his confidence, his viciousness, the way he wrestles like he’d rather die, literally, than lose. The fact that he nearly did is incidental—Okada’s reign as champion, the longest, most successful run in the history of the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, was in its infancy, and Shibata’s last shot at the title, his only shot at the title to that point, was in 2004, thirteen years prior. The ace against the prodigal son. That kind of story always ends in tragedy.
More End of the Decade:
- Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Top 10 Horror Films of the Decade
- Danielle’s Top 10 Franchise Movies of the Decade
- Danielle’s Top 10 Movies of the Decade (That Aren’t Franchises)
One of my chief concerns before joining the crew here at Fanfyte was that I didn’t know how to think about wrestling anymore, having witnessed perfection and the price it exacts. I was worried that getting back into one of the great passions of my life would have me chasing and failing to capture the high of the last year and a half of Katsuyori Shibata’s career. As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry—in 2019, nobody is wrestling the way Shibata did, and no single story made me feel the way watching him fight the Bullet Club made me feel. I don’t think I’ve named that feeling in this piece. I don’t think I can. That’s why I’m giving him the decade. Even though he hasn’t wrestled in two years. Even if I hope he never does again.