The Wrestling 101 Match #15
IWGP Heavyweight Title
Katsuyori Shibata vs. Kazuchika Okada ©
April 9, 2017
New Japan Pro Wrestling
Ryōgoku Sumo Hall)
On the tragedy of Katsuyori Shibata and the miracle of being alive.
The human condition really is a motherfucker, isn’t it? These days, I often feel like I’m going to spend my entire life screwing up, breaking down, and building myself back up again—only to get knocked right back off my feet the moment I’ve decided I finally have it all figured out.
The past 18 months have brought me a divorce, a layoff, and a handful of devastating friend breakups that have, in their most painful moments, made me question whether it’s worth trying to be close to anyone at all. Depending on whom you ask, each wound was somewhat, mostly, or entirely self-inflicted. Sometimes, we are too much ourselves for our own good.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that you really do need to savor the moments that make you feel like you’re on top of the world: the nervy first elevator ride up to a Hinge date’s apartment, frozen cocktails and fresh gossip on a perfect summer evening, whatever it is that makes you feel like You, But In A Good Way. You have to suck out every last morsel of satisfaction because you never know when you’re going to be back on your ass, licking your wounds and wondering where it all went wrong.
And so, let’s start here: On the night he nearly killed himself with a characteristically reckless headbutt, Katsuyori Shibata was nothing short of magnificent.
It had been four-and-a-half years since Shibata returned to New Japan Pro Wrestling with unfinished business at hand. Once advertised as one of three up-and-comers who would revive NJPW’s failing early-aughts business, Shibata turned his back on the company that had groomed him for stardom—first to join a rival wrestling promotion in 2005, and later to embark on a mostly unsuccessful career in mixed martial arts.
New Japan was back on the ascent when Shibata rejoined the company in 2012, but the wrestlers and fans who’d lifted the company from the muck had not yet forgiven him for abandoning them when the chips were down. Slowly but surely, he earned their respect via a smash-mouth style of wrestling that paired his vicious forearms and running kicks with a superhuman tolerance for pain. A favorite pastime was to sit down cross-legged in the middle of the ring and invite his opponent to sit across from him—this way, they could take turns bashing each other in the face with chops and forearms.
April 9, 2017 was the culmination of Shibata’s redemption arc. He’d wandered, failed, returned, and repented, and finally, he was right back where he was always meant to be: standing across from megastar Kazuchika Okada in the main event of a Sumo Hall show that had drawn more than 10,000 fans.
For most of this 38-minute match, Shibata was on top of the world.
From the moment he walked out from behind the curtain, the crowd was in the palm of his hand, serenading him with “SHI-BA-TA!” chants and cheering desperately for him to win the IWGP Heavyweight title from the massively popular Okada. In the match’s early grappling, Shibata swims seamlessly in and out of holds and wrenches back on them with real torque. As he grimaces wildly while twisting Okada’s foot amid a figure four leglock, it occurs to me that, for such a killer, Shibata really is a remarkably sympathetic babyface.
Later, Shibata shows off his explosive arsenal of forearms, slaps, and kicks—and Okada’s carry plenty of malice in their own right. Once we get a taste of Okada’s signature reversal sequences, the match unfolds into wrestling nirvana: a thrilling, violent bout that feels like a real fight with real stakes. The closing stretch of this match is the good kind of blur that New Japan fans have come to expect of Okada throughout his decade-plus main event run: facewashes countered into dropkicks, German suplex after German suplex, devastating finisher attempts that justmiss hitting their mark.
And then, of course, the headbutt.
As the match began to turn Okada’s way, the crowd only grew louder in urging Shibata on. As the noise reached a fever pitch, Okada sought to capture the victory with his signature Rainmaker lariat. Shibata evaded the move with a series of kicks to Okada’s head, which inspired the champion to respond with a heavy, thudding lariat that landed squarely on Shibata’s chest. As Okada slumped over in exhaustion, Shibata squeezed every fiber of his being, turned to the crowd with an all-time grimace, and somehow remained on his feet.
Then he reared back and slammed his skull into Okada’s, seemingly as hard as he could. Writing in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter two years later, Dave Meltzer reported that someone with a ringside view told him after the match that the impact sounded like “a baseball bat hitting a tree.” Watching at home, it sounded to me like someone had taken the palm of their hand and given a nice little whack to a microphone.
In either case, the headbutt split Shibata’s forehead open, leaving a trickle of blood running down his nose as he smiled and nodded to the crowd—an iconic pro wrestling image of a warrior who was not about to let a little brain blood get in the way of immortality. Somehow, Shibata wrestled for another 7 minutes, ultimately falling to the Rainmaker after a dramatic closing stretch.
It was only afterward that Shibata collapsed backstage and was rushed to the hospital. There, he suffered temporary paralysis in his right side and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, which is what they call it when you get a buildup of blood between your skull and your brain. Shibata received two emergency brain surgeries, and he’d say later that he was given a mere 18% chance of survival at the time. The doctors were all but certain he would never wrestle again.
You might say that Shibata’s headbutt was an incredibly stupid thing to do, and you’d be 100% correct. Certainly, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that it’s not a great idea to smash your forehead into someone else’s when you’re extremely dehydrated and 30 minutes into a grueling pro wrestling match.
But in some sense, the wrestler’s tragic, career-shortening injury feels fitting, if not inevitable. After all, Shibata’s idiotic headbutt was the product of the same violent recklessness that endeared him to fans and brought him to the main event in the first place.
Three years earlier, Shibata’s rival Hiroshi Tanahashi had used his autobiography to vent his frustrations with Shibata’s dangerous style, which Tanahashi felt would only serve to leave fans with a growing thirst for violence that could never be quenched.
“As I pointed earlier when I talked about dangerous moves, fans will seek for more intensity,” Tanahashi wrote. “And the wrestlers have to escalate their violence. And a gruesome scene that you would want to look away will take place on the ring again.”
Sometimes, we are too much ourselves for our own good.
If you’re reading this, you probably know that Shibata eventually returned to the ring in 2021. Even though wrestling had nearly killed him. Even though he spent the months after his injury bumping into walls because his vision was so bad. Even though he was literally in the ring with Masakazu Fukuda when he more or less died during a match after coming back too soon from a cerebral hemorrhage in 2000.
When you watch him now, Shibata isn’t the same guy as he was that fateful night in Sumo Hall. The fire in his eyes doesn’t burn quite as bright, his movement isn’t as explosive as it once was, and there is just a little less oomph on his strikes. Thankfully, he is more careful with the damage he takes to his body than he once was. And in a remarkable testament to his talent, or his resilience, or his stupidity—or maybe some combination of the three—he is still a pretty good wrestler.
Even though I know Shibata really, really shouldn’t be wrestling as a brain-damaged 43-year-old, I have to say I’m rooting for him so long as this is what he wants to do. All we ever do is fall apart, and all we ever can do is try to put ourselves back together.
Reflecting on a big comeback match against Orange Cassidy in November 2022, Shibata told Tokyo Sports that he just couldn’t bear to miss out on the opportunity he still had in front of him.
“I felt that I was back on the battlefield and that the ring is special. Sometimes things go well, and sometimes things don’t go well,” he said. “I really felt alive.”