Katsuyori Shibata was not meant to be a coach. He was not meant to be living in Los Angeles, surrounded by aspiring pro wrestlers. He was not meant to be a name that elicits sadness and longing. Shibata was one of the Three Musketeers (with Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi) that was going to renew New Japan’s dominance in puroresu. He was the bridge between the shoot style that Antonio Inoki fervently opined for, and the modern New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) style. Katsuyori Shibata is called The Wrestler because he epitomizes what it means to be a master of this wonderful intersection of sport and entertainment.
After all, he has been around the block. His career is a mountainous path with many twists, turns, and dips. He began wrestling as a NJPW Young Lion in 1999. Six years later he left the promotion that he’s had roots in since its very first show on March 6th, 1972, where his father, Katsuhisa Shibata, wrestled.
Risking his reputation and political standing within NJPW, Shibata began freelancing around Japan. He wrestled in a plethora of promotions, most notably Pro Wrestling NOAH and Big Mouth Loud. By 2006, Shibata decided to make another jump, this time into mixed martial arts (MMA). While New Japan was suffering what some would dub “The Dark Ages”, Shibata was racking up a wealth of experience (and a mediocre 4-11-1 MMA record).
When Shibata came back to New Japan in 2012 there was no denying certain tensions that existed.
Shibata was one of the chosen ones of NJPW (queue the Obi Wan Kenobi memes), but instead he punched his ticket and ran around Japan. He may be New Japan’s prodigal son, but many didn’t welcome him back with open arms. He had to scratch and claw his way to a respected position within the company.
Whatever Shibata was or wasn’t meant to be, whatever his destiny was, all changed on April 9th, 2017 at NJPW Sakura Genesis, where Shibata challenged for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. I’m not going to rehash the significance and importance of having Shibata finally get the main event spotlight with Kazuchika Okada. Kelly Harrass wrote an excellent piece on the career and character of Shibata leading up to this fight. It is what happened after the now-legendary match that redirected the course of Shibata’s career.
On his way to the back after the grueling 38-minute battle, Shibata collapsed. Blood was pooling and creating pressure around his brain. This rare injury, a subdural hematoma, was threatening his vision, his brain, and ultimately his life. He was experiencing an impaired field of vision and partial paralysis, and had to have emergency surgery.
The world impatiently waited for any sliver of information regarding Shibata’s condition. They were only given brief insights via blog posts. For those who didn’t speak Japanese or subscribe to this blog, these tidbits came in the form of translations posted on Twitter.
Big blog update from Katsuyori Shibata looking back at his appearance at the G1 Climax finals: pic.twitter.com/ygDdMrlf1G
— STRIGGA (@STRIGGA) August 16, 2017
Katsuyori Shibata updated his "REAL TALK" blog yesterday: pic.twitter.com/jYG1594gRn
— STRIGGA (@STRIGGA) August 3, 2017
On 12/27 Katsuyori Shibata updated his blog and talked about his probability of survival back in April. pic.twitter.com/PtyEKFteaF
— STRIGGA (@STRIGGA) January 1, 2018
Shibata was slowly recovering, but it was believed by many that his in-ring career was over.
At the 2017 G1 Climax Finals, as intermission was about to take place, “Takeover” (Shibata’s theme) began playing. The crowd erupted. A teary-eyed Shibata came to the ring and proclaimed, “I am alive! That is all.”
Months came and went, and updates were scarce. Shibata was alive, but what did that mean? In March, it was announced that Shibata would man the helm of the new Los Angeles Dojo. While he may not be able to serve New Japan as an IWGP champion, he could lend his heart, body, and mind to this new venture in the U.S.
In NJPW’s latest documentary, “California Dreamin’”, Shibata spoke of his decision to move to LA.
“I just wanted to start something new. I didn’t want to keep myself as an injured one. I hated myself considered as wounded. My hands and legs are mobile, what can I do? … Another reason I came here is that I was tired of being asked about my injury in Japan. I’m here because I don’t want to be questioned. I am seeing the whole world different now. I am feeling alive now, actually.”
The migration to the Golden State was the perfect move for Shibata. Throughout the documentary, Shibata is candid about how his injury affected his mood. What happens when The Wrestler cannot wrestle? He felt useless. His entire life and identity was rooted in being a warrior who possesses immeasurable fighting spirit, and can take down any foe. When the foe is your own body, however, it is not so easy to overcome. If Shibata can’t compete in the ring, the next best thing is imparting his knowledge and skills to others who can.
It may seem like a hurdle, teaching a group of guys who all speak a different language than you. Shibata stated that he uses a dictionary to look up words to communicate with. Pro wrestling has shown time and time again that speaking the same language isn’t a necessity, though. There are constantly matches that are constructed by people who share no terminology outside of the standard pro wrestling jargon. This magical, universal language of pro wrestling holds true in training, as well. What he can’t vocalize with words, he conveys with action. He does all of the drills with his students. If they collapse, he collapses. It keeps him motivated and in shape. It keeps him feeling alive.
Shibata said, “What I want to teach them here is the spirit and discipline. That’s what is important. I want them to understand that what I’m teaching is the very core of being a wrestler.”
He reduces his training philosophy to three pillars: heart, body, and technique. One would be at odds to try and name a better wrestler that characterizes those three attributes than Katsuyori Shibata. The LA Dojo may be a little less involved than the NJPW Dojo. It resembles more of a training camp, and less of a boarding school for young grapplers. But that doesn’t stop Shibata from doing what he always does and putting his entire heart into every second that he is mentoring.
Shibata may be carving a path for himself as a trainer, but his sights are always set on the future. At the conclusion of the second installment of Shibata’s documentary, the narrator asks Shibata what lies ahead. He replied,
“Future…well…I can’t reveal my thoughts now. I’ll let you know later. Because nothing is certain now. I don’t like to speak out for nothing. I need to take an action first. Actions speak louder than words.”
As always, Shibata stays tight lipped. However, the narrator of the documentary utters a closing line that adds a modicum of hope that the world may one day see The Wrestler in action again.
“WHILE HE PREPARES FOR A COMEBACK after he suffered a big injury, LA Dojo launched like it meant to be, Shibata might be the key person to bring New Japan Pro Wrestling into global stage.”
He may become one of the most revered pro wrestling instructors. He may return to Japan to work in the office. He may lace up the boots again and step back in the ring. Whatever destiny he forges for himself, it will be one that is remembered.
Waiting has always been an element of the Shibata story. As we had to wait for him to return to the promotion where he began his career in; as we had to wait to see him ascend to the top of said promotion; as we had to wait to hear the extent of his injury; as we had to wait to discover that he was named head coach of the LA Dojo; so we must wait for the next chapter in his story. It was noted by Chris Charlton that a banner was hung in Korakuen Hall that stated “The Wrestler Katsuyori Shibata – We’ll wait for you”.
— めだまやき🍖 (@medamayaki888) April 22, 2017
And we will.