Learn about the history and origins of the For Your Consideration series at voicesofwrestling.com/2021/11/30/for-your-consideration-2021-introduction
SPECIAL EXHIBITION MATCH 5 MINUTES LIMIT – GRAPPLING RULES
Katsuyori Shibata vs. Zack Sabre Jr.
NJPW G1 Climax 31 Final
October 21, 2021
Watch: NJPW World
Emotion, I write about that a lot when talking about pro wrestling. I talk about how important and significant it is for wrestling to be successful. Whether it be that uplifting moment when you finally get what you’ve been desiring, or that heat-shattering experience when your hero falls short of your expectations or wants. Maybe it’s the tug of the heartstrings you feel on a perfectly executed heel turn, or that endorphin high when that man you’ve been wanting to cheer finally turns to the side of good?
Emotion is the key to unlocking another level of fandom. It is critical and important, at least that is what I’m always harping and preaching. Without emotion wrestling can’t hit that next level, and we can’t feel it the way it is meant to be felt. Adam Page’s recent win after an over two-year journey against Kenny Omega to achieve the AEW Championship is a recent example. How about Randy Savage and Elizabeth reuniting as a classic WrestleMania moment? I love some emotion in pro wrestling.
If I’m to stay true to my opinions and thoughts, I have to offer Katsuyori Shibata versus Zack Sabre Jr. ‘s exhibition match from the final night of the G1 for your consideration as match of the year. I have to offer it, but I also have to sincerely mean it. And I do. If I’m going to go on about emotion in wrestling, NOTHING impacted me as much as realizing Shibata was about to compete once more. Yes it was an exhibition, yes it was only five minutes, yes he was careful not to take any bumps. None of those are negative to me, none of those things delude the reality, the truth, the absolute emotional rollercoaster that was the build-up and then the moment of seeing Shibata perform once more.
You all know the scenario, you all know the story. Shibata’s career came to an end after an erroneous headbutt to Okada in one of the greatest matches ever. Since then many of us have clung to a fading hope, a fading want to see him perform again. To be clear, I would rather him be healthy and take care of himself, and if that means not step in the ring so be it. The desire to see “The Wrestler” perform again is an admittedly selfish one, but one I won’t pretend isn’t there.
But it faded and reality settled in by 2021. I wanted Shibata to perform again, others wanted Shibata to perform again, SHIBATA wanted to perform again. All the wants in the world do not conquer reality I’m afraid.
As 2021 arrived I had made peace with the fact Shibata would never wrestle again. It was an uneasy peace. A peace that did not take well in my heart. All it did was exasperate my desire to see him overcome the odds that were stacked against him and be in the ring once more.
Then we arrived at the day of the G1 Finals after a very middling tournament to many. Things felt cold, uncertain, distant. Perhaps the most I have ever felt detached from NJPW since 2012 when I started to follow nearly religiously. I only watched out of routine, out of wanting to complete the tournament really. I was burned out, and tired over a tournament that while I enjoyed more than most, still was lacking compared to previous efforts. As I sat in my chair and heard Zack Sabre Jr’s music play I thought to myself “what does he have for us?” he was dressed to compete and the commentator’s made it clear he wasn’t supposed to compete that night. Later I realized that wasn’t them playing up a story, they didn’t know either. Them not knowing kept me from getting any hints of what was to come. I only knew one thing of importance, something was up. That something was Shibata. The masked crowd gasped as his music played and I felt myself sit up straight, but it took a moment for what was to come to sink into my heart.
Katsuyori Shibata wrestles Zack Sabre Jr. in New Japan ring NOW!!
Check it out on New Japan World!
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) October 21, 2021
Truth is, I was admittedly angry when Shibata first stepped out. NJPW has done this before, dangled the carrot, teased us with the possibility of improbability. So I groaned at first, and as my mind wandered to who it was Shibata was getting ready to introduce. I noticed one important detail. Shibata was ready to compete. My heart began to tug and I felt my breathing change. This is the moment I went from observing, to being part of. I dared to let myself dream, let myself believe. Then the announcement, a five-minute exhibition. It was only an exhibition, it was only five minutes, it was UWFi rules. Who cares? We were about to give five more minutes of Shibata than we ever thought we were going to get.
The wrestling smooth, the transitions beautiful, the submission attempts as to be expected. For five minutes, for five glorious minutes I have watched over and over again, Shibata did what he did best, what he loved most. He wrestled inside of a ring. He grappled, he twisted, he escaped. It was beautiful, magical, and emotional. Five minutes that both went slow enough for me to appreciate, and too fast for my desires all at the same time. Five beautiful minutes that hit me harder and impacted me more than a plethora of 30 minute + “classics” that have been thrown at me this year. Nothing hardly compares, very little comes close to what this match achieved and meant to many, especially Shibata, in those five minutes. Five minutes many of us thought we’d never get. Five more minutes than we thought was possible. Five minutes we all clutched to and wished never ended, but things of course always end.
Shibata made it clear in his post-match speech that the next time he was in a NJPW ring it would be to wrestle a proper match. I cheered in my apartment. Of course, I cheered, this man was determined to get back in the ring. We can discuss all aspects of that another time, the grip it took hold of on me, the breath that escaped my lips when he made that determination, what emotion that came forward from me. This was a moment in pro-wrestling that I wish I could capture in a bottle and release bit by bit when I needed that motivation, that determination to get me through something.
Yes, I shed tears, I’m not ashamed. You know that by now. This was the best five minutes of wrestling this year from an emotional and significant standpoint. Sure, it’s not five stars from a workrate standpoint, but what is workrate against the sheer force of Shibata doing what he loves one more, and perhaps final time? There is no guarantee he’ll ever wrestle a full match again despite his and our desires. There is no guarantee he’ll ever get back in that ring and go ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, beyond. What we did get were those five. Those five wonderful minutes I still clutch to. If I never get anything more from Shibata, I will always treasure those five final minutes. Five more minutes than we ever thought we would get again. That’s special.
Shibata is the wrestler, it is in his nickname. That’s all he wants to do, that’s all he strives to do once more. It will be difficult, and it may be impossible, but he fights till the end to do just that. He fought and in the end he was rewarded with five minutes. Five minutes more than we thought we’d get, perhaps countless hours less than what he wants, but he took it. He received and he shared and gave it to us. I’ll never forget that. This is one of the most important and best matches of the year due to the moment, due to the significance, and due to the emotion. Spare me it was an exhibition, spare me it was only five minutes, spare me it had no conclusion. For it was something better than all of that.
It was hope, and these days a little hope is needed by all of us.