Obviously, Katsuyori Shibata’s Return to Pro Wrestling Ruled

In 2019, I declared Katsuyori Shibata a wrestler of the decade. The last six words of that essay were “I hope he never wrestles again.”

I both do and don’t stand by that hope. I do because there’s a heightened awareness of wrestling’s inherent danger when someone like Shibata or Bryan Danielson or Edge or Christian return to wrestling after an injury it isn’t possible to return from. I’m not a particularly cautious wrestling fan—wrestling is an art, wrestlers are artists, and I’m not going to stand between an artist and their means of production; it’s a choice, one that’s really only limited by the rules of the companies that hire these wrestlers to perform. Wrestling is reactionary, so it often doesn’t figure out those rules until they’re faced with tragedy, like how WWE gradually toned down its product, including eventual bans on blading and chairshots to the head, after the 2007 Chris Benoit double-murder suicide, after which Benoit was found to have severe CTE.

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Katsuyori Shibata could died for his art; throwing one of his trademark hard headbutts at Kazuchika Okada during their main event match at Sakura Genesis 2017, he collapsed after the match and was diagnosed with subdural hematoma, which is when blood collects between the skull and the brain. I’m a ghoul sometimes—that match is my favorite wrestling match, something so good that everything else thereafter in wrestling had lost its flavor—but I can’t justify that risk, can I?

I can, because I’m not the one risking anything. I look at it like this: A wrestling match is an agreement between the audience and the wrestlers to let the wrestler tell a story. How that story is told is between the wrestlers, who ideally consent to what’s planned. How that story is received is between the audience, who can cheer and boo and, if things get too disagreeable, leave the venue. My role in the audience is the easy one.

I don’t stand by my hope that Katsuyori Shibata never wrestles again not because he’s already done so, rendering my hope mute, but because in his return to the ring I get to witness something I thought literally impossible—beyond his being my favorite wrestler from an era where I was engaging with wrestling as a hobby, I get to see a man return from near death, for real.

Katsuyori Shibata NJPW 2
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I don’t know where to start. I have notes, but they say things like “wrist control” and “kicks, baby.” As soon as Shibata’s music hit, my brain tuned into his frequency and just went wherever he and Ren Narita wanted to go.

As it turns out, there was a fair amount of wrist control involved. That’s not surprising—the match was advertised as grappling only rules but was changed in-ring by Shibata, and he told Sports Illustrated that NJPW wrestlers had moved away from fundamental wrestling in order to favor flashier moves. So yeah, wrist control. This isn’t a disappointment, either. It’s easy for grappling or chain wrestling sequences to feel rote, there because they’re required to be there. That wasn’t the case here, as Shibata’s smothering Narita served to do two things: prove that Shibata could still go, and establish that the story of this match was teacher vs. pupil.

In the role of pupil, Narita shines. He starts the match off under his trainer’s thumb, getting in the occasional shot, but he’s never mad, never resorts to something underhanded. The match is a progressive slide to Narita cracking, at which point Shibata has lease to break out his strikes.

This is the first time I’ve seen Narita wrestle. I truly enjoyed his work here, particularly on the sell. At one point Shibata has control of his wrist while he’s on the ground, taking the opportunity to nail him with one of his kicks. More than the slap of leg against Narita’s chest, I was taken by the thunk of Narita’s head against the canvas when he collapsed post-kick, throwing his whole body into showing that his teacher’s strikes had lost none of their potency. I also thought the flurry in the corner that marked his change in attitude was great, the spark that set everything he and Shibata had set up in the opening on fire.

But this is Katsuyori Shibata’s match, maybe the most important one of his career. It’s wrestled in such a way that you shouldn’t be able to tell if he’s lost a step, as if it matters. He doesn’t bump, but this isn’t a match where bumping is required. Its escalating action is fundamentals to traditional pro wrestling in the corners to a release of years of energy in a barrage of signature strikes, headbutt excepted.

The biggest pitfall of a match like this would have been to make Shibata feel like the special attraction he is—it’s the trap WWE fell into with Edge. That never once happens. Every move, every kick, every dodge, and every counter happens because Shibata is a man going about his work, putting in a day at a job he is very, very good at. The question of whether he’s lost a step is moot: before his injury he was the best wrestler in the world; what’s a step? His kicks still thunder, his corner dropkick is still beautiful, and the sleeper/PK combo is still perfect.

Katsuyori Shibata isn’t The Wrestler for his flash, but because he’s able to make a symphony out of the small things. What his match against Ren Narita resolved was an absence of that music, something that made wrestling as a medium better. It’s back now, but in what capacity it’s impossible to know. Right now that doesn’t matter. All I want to do is sit back and listen.