I have two Styrofoam replica championship wrestling belts in my possession. One of them is the “Spinner” WWE Championship and the other is the “Big Gold” World Heavyweight Championship.
A few years ago when I was still living at home, my older sister Lindsay came to visit. She had been living in New York City at the time and was working as a teacher. At one point Lindsay asked me if I still had my wrestling belts. I replied that I did. She told me that one of her students was a big wrestling fan and asked if I would give her the belts so she could give them to him. I refused. Why? Because I’m a cold, heartless bastard who hates seeing other people be happy.
Okay, that’s not true.
The real reason was because I could not see myself giving up those two belts. I know that sounds strange given what they are. We’re not talking about Grandma’s fine china here. These are cheaply made replica wrestling belts constructed out of Styrofoam and plastic. Big Gold is practically falling apart at this point; the Velcro that closes the belt has to be held on with masking tape and the gold paint on its front plating has worn off in spots. I can’t even wear either of them around my waist anymore, they won’t fit! So why do I still keep them? Why haven’t I thrown these things out years ago?
To me, these belts are not just things. They mean so much more to me. We all have items in our lives that may seem like ordinary objects to outside eyes. A blue shirt, a pen, a hairbrush. But to us those same objects are not ordinary. They are reliquaries for our memories, our emotions, and the stories of our lives. We look at those objects and see history staring back at us.
I went to two WWE Raw house shows when I was in my adolescence, both of them at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. The first one was in 2005, main evented by John Cena vs. Edge for the WWE Championship. My mom took me, I was ecstatic, and I actually got to go backstage to meet Cena. (I also met Chris Masters. He was shirtless.) The icing on the cake was that my mom bought me the World Heavyweight Championship replica belt after the show. And I cherished that goddamn belt. I would parade around my bedroom with it, raising it above my head to the thousands of imaginary fans in attendance. The nameplate had “Andrew Rich” written on it in black marker. I had this life-size stuffed Mickey Mouse (life-size for an 8-year-old) that I would pummel with wrestling moves. Well you can bet that during some of these matches, I would smash that belt into Mickey’s face like a dastardly heel and pin him for the win. Jim Ross’ commentary would ring out in my mind. “Aw, that no good son of a bitch Andrew just hit Mickey with the title. Not this way, dammit. Not this way!” And of course Mickey would kick out at 2.999 and I would act shocked. Needless to say I had a lot of fun.
The next year, Raw returned to Cohasset with another main event of John Cena vs. Edge for the WWE Championship. This time my dad took me. And at the end of the show, I once again managed to get my grubby little mitts on a Styrofoam replica belt. It was the Spinner belt. Did it spin? Barely. But that didn’t matter. I held it in just as high regard as Big Gold and played it with just as much. Plus I was a double champion! None of my friends could claim that.
Years passed. I grew up. Life happened. High school, college, new friends, the death of my mom, getting a job, moving out. And throughout all of that, those belts have stayed in my possession. Even though I haven’t played with them in years, they remain special to me. They bring me back to a time when happiness didn’t require a paid subscription. When I could goof off for hours without having to worry about taxes or rent or shaving. Those belts are a monument to my youth.
An actual pro wrestling championship belt should ideally fulfill the same task. It should serve as an icon, a physical memorial to the wrestlers who fought for it and the auras surrounding their matches. Some people consider belts to merely be props. I don’t. Belts are symbols and a symbol can wield a lot of power when it’s properly built up.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Wrestle Kingdom 12, specifically the Hair vs. Hair match for the NEVER Openweight Championship between champion Minoru Suzuki and challenger Hirooki Goto. When the match was first announced, a lot of us groaned, including myself. Sure, there was the novelty of it being Hair vs. Hair, but we had already seen Suzuki vs. Goto for the NEVER belt twice and it didn’t knock our socks off. Give us Ishii, we grumbled. Then the match happened and it shut us all up. Suzuki and Goto had an outstanding, physically intense Fight with a capital F. I was so happy to be wrong.
On paper, you could look at the match as simply being a great match. But as I thought about it more and more, I came to realize that Suzuki vs. Goto was the culmination of a two year story. This story was not built around your standard “Hero vs. Villain” arc. Instead it was built around a championship belt becoming a powerful symbol, its corruption, and its eventual salvation. That belt was the NEVER Openweight Championship.
The story began in 2016 with “The Wrestler” Katsuyori Shibata. Shibata spent the entirety of that year involved with the NEVER Title. He won the belt against Tomohiro Ishii at Wrestle Kingdom 10, successfully defending it against Ishii, Satoshi Kojima, and Hiroyoshi Tenzan. Shibata lost the belt to Yuji Nagata at Wrestling Dontaku but regained it at Dominion. In his second reign he defended it against Tomoaki Honma, Bobby Fish, and Kyle O’Reilly. He lost the title to EVIL at Power Struggle, but won it back for a third time just ten days later.
When you watched a NEVER Openweight Championship match in 2016, you were watching the same type of match. Not in terms of structure but in terms of aura. When Katsuyori Shibata wrestled, it felt honest. It felt real. You were watching one man fighting another man, warrior vs. warrior. There was no interference, no gimmicks, no bullshit. Everything was straightforward with Shibata’s matches. I’m going to hit you hard. You can hit me hard too. But just know that I’m going to hit harder and last longer and that’s why I’m going to win, pure and simple. Oftentimes he did win. Sometimes he lost. But he always came to fight no matter what. And when you wrestle matches in that style, when you wrestle such brutally honest, straightforward contests—warrior vs. warrior, strength vs. strength, soul vs. soul—and you continually do so for a championship belt? You are going to associate that style, that aura, with that belt.
The NEVER Openweight Championship wasn’t just some title around Shibata’s waist. It wasn’t just a hunk of gold and leather. In 2016 Shibata turned that belt into a symbol. It came to represent Katsuyori Shibata’s undying fighting spirit. Anyone who wrestles for that belt should come to fight and anyone who wears that belt should wear it with pride because that belt is physical proof that they are a warrior, through and through.
Which brings our story to Wrestle Kingdom 11. NEVER Openweight Championship on the line. Katsuyori Shibata defending against Hirooki Goto.
Goto and Shibata have always had a tumultuous history with one another. They went to high school together and years later they wound up sharing a locker room in New Japan. They were often heated opponents, clashing in hard-hitting matches that ended in double knockouts and a litany of bruises. Other times they were trusted tag partners, combining their forces to stiff the shit out of their enemies. They even won the IWGP Tag Team Championship at Wrestle Kingdom 9.
Two years later, Wrestle Kingdom 11 saw the two classmates on opposite sides of the ring once again. This was Shibata’s twelfth match for the NEVER Openweight Championship in a year. His name and that belt were synonymous at this point. Goto’s 2016 was not as successful. He lost an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match to Kazuchika Okada at The New Beginning in Osaka, then he lost in the finals of the New Japan Cup to Tetsuya Naito. He then joined Okada’s stable CHAOS, effectively ending his tag team with Shibata (who remained part of the New Japan Sekigun, the roster members who are not part of any stables). Despite this shakeup, Goto failed to make any headway. He lost in the finals of the G1 Climax to Kenny Omega, then fell again to Omega in a rematch at King of Pro-Wrestling.
Goto’s next step was to challenge Shibata for the NEVER Title at Wrestle Kingdom. In the days leading up to the event, Shibata was asked about his thoughts concerning his former partner. His answer was a few miles south of Pleasantville.
“Goto, he had his ups this year. New Japan Cup finalist, G1 finalist. Though the G1 finals was more of a gift spot. A present from Tanahashi. Nobody remembers Goto in the G1 finals. They remember Kenny for winning, but if you asked “Who did Kenny face to win the G1?” You’ll get a lot of blank looks.
Where does this Goto issue start? Well for one there’s the thing of him changing his faction out of the blue in March. Didn’t even talk to me about it. But that’s, whatever. Sudden, but whatever. What I have a problem is the guy just not knowing what he actually wants to do. You want the IWGP title? Then why the hell enter a faction where you have to be his goon? You want to change something about yourself? Then fine. What the hell have you actually changed, really?
It’s just everything he says or does, all that provokes me is question marks. And I think lots of people have that problem with him. I just don’t get him. I hear he gets on great with the CHAOS guys. These are people you fought with for years, and you flop that easily?
He’s “having fun?” I mean that’s nice and all, but for me it’s “that’s enough for you?” I know this is a selfish business but the guy is just surrounding himself with people doing well and hopping on that wagon. It just shocked me, him saying he was having fun. But there you go, the chaotic warrior. Changes in an instant. We faced each other down in December and it was just “do it,” “no you do it.” He said then he’d take out his angst, his anger on me. You just said you were having fun! What are you actually saying?
I’ve been connected to Goto more than anybody else in my career. But I’m done with this constant talk of we were classmates, best friends, comrades in arms. Cut that out. We’re in completely different dimensions now. His matches get me angry. I just think “man, are you alright?” It’s just hard to tell sometimes whether he cares, whether he’s all there in the ring or not. Every time he has a big match he says “this is my revival.” EVERY time. So for crying out loud, when were you at your peak? What are you reviving toward? When were you at your best that now you need a revival? Tell me.” – Katsuyori Shibata (translation credit to Chris Charlton, @reasonjp)
Both men were going into the match with something on the line. Shibata wanted to keep the gold around his waist. There was a lot more at stake for Goto. He needed to prove to Shibata and to the world that he does care. He wasn’t a failure, he wasn’t a joke. He was a fucking fighter. He knew that the only way to do so was to beat the toughest, most resilient SOB and take his belt, a belt that had been established as a symbol of tenacity. Once that was around his waist, Goto would be a laughing stock no more.
The match happened. It was, as the kids say, really fucking good.
Goto hit hard.
— Jocay ?? (@Jocay19) January 4, 2017
So did Shibata.
Shibata with some STIFF kicks followed by a corner dropkick! #NJWK11 pic.twitter.com/XRtPnR6bQl
— Jocay ?? (@Jocay19) January 4, 2017
But in the end, Goto outlasted his former teammate and won the NEVER Openweight Championship. The gold was his, as was all that it symbolized. He went on to have title defenses against Juice Robinson, Punishment Martinez, and Zack Sabre Jr.
Shibata meanwhile advanced up the card, winning the 2017 New Japan Cup and challenging Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship at Sakura Genesis. Shibata lost in what was one of the greatest matches (and performances) of all time, but it was not without heartbreak. The life-threatening and career-ending injuries that Shibata suffered during the match will remain a blemish on its legacy for many years to come. Here was a man who had forged a career on proudly (and oftentimes recklessly) being mightier than the average bear, tragically brought down by his own insistence on being tough. He fell on his shield like any true warrior, that’s for certain. But he still fell. And it sucked.
Shibata fell on April 9. Just eighteen days later, the NEVER Openweight Championship suffered a similar fate. Minoru Suzuki beat Goto for the belt on April 27 when Suzuki-gun member El Desperado interfered and cost Goto the match. It would be a dark omen for things to come. When Shibata had the belt, the matches were one-on-one, no bullshit. The title itself represented “no bullshit.” Goto looked to continue that tradition.
Suzuki, on the other hand, had no such plans. He didn’t care about upholding the purity of the title. He had an army of goons and he was going to use them to his full advantage. So for the rest of 2017, the NEVER Openweight Championship matches were filled with bullshit: ref bumps, constant interference, cheating, gimmick matches.
Instead of looking forward to NEVER matches, we began to dread them. Instead of holding the NEVER belt in high esteem, we looked upon it as a bane. A symbol is only as powerful as the meaning behind it. Shibata embedded that title belt with one hell of a meaning: The man who wields this championship fights with honor. Take away that honor, you tarnish the meaning. You tarnish the meaning, you tarnish the belt. You tarnish the belt, well… it makes it pretty hard to care about it when it’s on the line. It’s a dangerous domino effect. What made it infuriating was knowing that Suzuki didn’t need the bullshit. He’s a badass wrestler in his own right. We wanted the badass! We didn’t want the bullshit. But the bullshit was what we got and the matches suffered because of it.
Who was to blame? To whom do we point the finger? One could easily accuse Suzuki, but the man is a wild dog. He just sees a car and starts running. No, the blame falls to one man: Hirooki Goto. He was the one who lost the title to Suzuki in the first place. Then he failed to win the belt back at Dominion in a lumberjack match. Goto was the reason we spent three quarters of the year mired in frustrating NEVER title matches. Goto was the reason the belt lost its luster. Shibata had spent so long establishing that belt as something pure, something true, something real. Now the belt was corrupted. One of the final gifts that Katsuyori Shibata gave to New Japan Pro Wrestling was making the NEVER Openweight Championship mean something special and Goto had fucked it all up.
So who better to finally vanquish the monstrous reign of Minoru Suzuki than the man who had lost the championship to him? Who better to restore the NEVER Openweight Championship to its former “no bullshit” prestige than the man who made his bones fighting in hard-hitting, no bullshit matches? Who better to redeem the legacy of Katsuyori Shibata than the man who fought alongside him as a champion and as a friend?
We bitched and moaned when Goto got the title shot at Wrestle Kingdom 12. But looking back, he was the only man for the job. Not Ishii, not Beretta, not KUSHIDA. Goto. He caused this whole mess. He was the one who had to fix it. It was the only way this story could end.
Suzuki wouldn’t make it easy. He choked the life out of Goto at the start of the match.
What a visual. #njwk12? pic.twitter.com/1uTLtzCVRa
— TDE Wrestling (@totaldivaseps) January 4, 2018
Then he beat the piss out of him.
WHAT A DROPKICK!! #NJPW #njwk12 @suzuki_D_minoruhttps://t.co/4ULitIni5Z pic.twitter.com/1T6oXYaeY3
— LARIATOOOO!! (@MrLARIATO) January 4, 2018
#NJPW #njwk12 https://t.co/4ULitIni5Z pic.twitter.com/Knhrh9xozg
— LARIATOOOO!! (@MrLARIATO) January 4, 2018
But Goto is not a victim. He’s a warrior. He had already proved it last year. And when he took all of Suzuki’s punishment and still got the victory with the GTR, he proved it again.
GTR!!! #NJPW #njwk12 @510njpwhttps://t.co/4ULitIni5Z pic.twitter.com/VpDfNCCZbA
— LARIATOOOO!! (@MrLARIATO) January 4, 2018
Goto was once again the NEVER Openweight Champion. The Suzuki reign of terror was over. It was not just an example of a babyface triumphing over a heel. It was more than that. It was salvation. Goto had let Shibata’s legacy fade when he lost to Suzuki in April; he had let the title lose its meaning. Him reclaiming the belt meant that he could now give that meaning back. A hunk of gold and leather? Maybe during Suzuki’s reign, but not on Goto’s watch. He wants the NEVER Openweight Championship to be more than a thing. He wants it to be what Katsuyori Shibata made it: A monument for the warrior. That’s his mission now.
Goto wants to bring back Shibata's violent flavour to NEVER title matches. https://t.co/eMUesryTEI
— chris charlton (@reasonjp) December 28, 2017
Goto will no doubt defend the NEVER Openweight Championship proudly, honorably, and violently. Just as Shibata would have wanted. His first defense will be against EVIL at The New Beginning in Osaka. One story ends. Another begins.