In 2016, the NEVER Openweight Championship became synonymous with Katsuyori Shibata. The title was defended 11 times throughout that year, and Shibata was either the champion or challenger in every single one of those matches. The wars that Tomohiro Ishii and Togi Makabe had throughout 2015 laid the foundations for the hard-hitting, no-nonsense style that would become the hallmark of the NEVER title, and it was upon those foundations that Shibata built his own legacy and elevated the prestige of the title.
The NEVER Openweight Championship can be defended across weight classes (Openweight, geddit?), but rarely has that been the case. Of the 72 times the title has been contested since its inception in November 2012, only 7 of those matches have involved a junior heavyweight, and of the 32 different reigns the title has seen, the only junior heavyweight to have ever been NEVER Openweight Champion is Will Ospreay.
In 2020, Shingo Takagi tapped into the lifeblood of the title by defending it against SHO and El Desperado, two tremendous bouts that gave the juniors a chance to glow in the flames of the Dragon. However, it was during Shibata’s stunning 2016 run that the title truly met its true potential, fusing the ferocity it had become known for with the openweight possibilities that had seemingly been forgotten. That fusion beget two classic matches that are widely remembered as the NEVER division being at its finest.
Shibata defended his gold in consecutive title defences against reDRagon, Bobby Fish and Kyle O’Reilly. In the span of a month we saw a punishingly beautiful and brutal glimpse of what the title could be. Throughout both matches the weight classes felt non-existent; it was never a junior challenging a heavyweight, but a warrior fighting a warrior.
The first match took place on September 17th 2016 at Destruction in Tokyo, the first chance in Bobby Fish’s career to win NJPW gold. It was a Shibata clinic: absorbing the unrelenting abuse dished out by his opponent, including a diabolical DDT that forced Shibata’s head and neck into themselves, to the shock of the Japanese commentary team who justly lost their minds. The turning point would be a sickening headbutt, the thud enough to make any man wince in horror (this man, me, I wince every time). Immediately locking in a deep sleeper-hold, the everlasting visual of blood seeping down his face whilst doing so, Shibata drained the life out of Fish and forced the soul out of his challenger with a final PK.
Ready to pick up the pieces, Kyle O’Reilly quickly entered the ring to challenge Shibata for the title next, looking to do what his tag partner couldn’t. A man of few words, the twisted appeal of Shibata has always been his seriousness, so when O’Reilly handed over the mic, Shibata retorted with a swift boot to O’Reilly’s chest. You didn’t need to speak English or Japanese to understand that Shibata had accepted the challenge.
October 10th 2016, emanating from the famous Ryogoku Sumo Hall and with prominent placing on the card for one of New Japan’s biggest shows of the year, O’Reilly and Shibata delivered arguably the most memorable match of O’Reilly’s NJPW career.
Heavily influenced by MMA from the off, both men grappled for better positioning, a battle eventually won by O’Reilly when he locked in an arm-bar, causing Shibata to instantly clamour for a rope break. There was a very real sense of urgency in the ring from both men, the atmosphere scarily intense. O’Reilly succeeded where Fish failed, consistently keeping the upper-hand through a series of submissions and suplexes, even avoiding Shibata’s deadly headbutt.
Instead, it was a sinister slap that stunned O’Reilly as history began to repeat itself. A sleeper-hold and PK later, Shibata had victory sealed. But rather than go for a pin, Shibata wrapped himself around O’Reilly’s broken body and locked in a crushing choke-hold, forcing the life out of O’Reilly, as he did to Fish. Unwilling to give up, the referee stopped the match when O’Reilly’s mouth-guard fell out of his mouth having lost consciousness. Standing over his fallen foe, Shibata offered a hand to help his worthy adversary to his feet, and also extended a handshake to Fish. Mutual respect forged in the fires of war between three warriors.
There were no losers in either of these matches. Representing the junior division, Fish and O’Reilly took one of the toughest modern day wrestlers to his limit, a fact that Shibata himself acknowledged post-match. It sparked a new flame that hadn’t been seen for some time: true competition between the different divisions, and everybody was better for it.
These two epics are quintessential examples of what the NEVER title can be, but it’s something that we rarely see. The risk of repetitiveness with the NEVER title is very apparent, given the expectation that any defence be a meaty hoss-fight, whether that be another match between Shingo Takagi and Tomohiro Ishii or Hirooki Goto or EVIL. It’s something that has changed since Tanahashi won the title, now insistent on making his own mark on the title’s legacy, as only he can.
The addition of challenges from juniors has only ever benefited everybody involved. Fish and O’Reilly gained instant legitimacy, and had they stayed with New Japan for longer, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see them challenging for the IWGP Tag Team Championships. A jump to the heavyweight division was entirely plausible, the NEVER title serving as a launching pad. Not only was it possible, it was realistic. Who could argue after they both took Shibata to the limit?
The juniors are constantly making their claims of being equal to the heavyweights, and the NEVER title is their best chance at proving that, but rarely is the opportunity provided. However, history is the clear indicator that when they are given that rare chance, it will always provide something wondrous.