I’ve been lucky in death. It wasn’t until the early morning hours of Sunday 11th August 2019 that I first truly felt that dark despair, when my Grandad passed away. For 26 years I luckily avoided the inevitable.
That week was one of the most challenging in my life. On the Wednesday, my partner and I were set to pick up the keys to our first home together…only to receive a call that my Grandad had been hospitalized. On the Saturday, we spent our first night in our new home…only to be woken up by that unavoidable and dreaded call. Maybe my Grandad was just fucking with me with his timing, I like to think so.
As fellow NJPW fans will remember, around the aforementioned time G1 Climax 29 was nearing its end, and of course I was still watching the shows. A few hours after my Grandad passed away the final night of B Block took place, Jay White defeated Tetsuya Naito in the main event and the final was set for the following day: Kota Ibushi vs Jay White.
Alone for the first time since my Grandad was hospitalized and then passed away. Alone in the first apartment I had ever purchased, that I had only spent two nights in. A misaligned set up of garden chairs whilst we waited for our sofa to be delivered and the TV barely fitting on a temporary table, alone I found myself watching the final night of G1 Climax 29.
I don’t remember the match between White and Ibushi, so sublime it earned a 5.5 star rating from Uncle Meltzer. I don’t remember Minoru Suzuki picking up a shock win to pin the then IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada in a tag match, earning himself a title shot in the process.
I remember KENTA turning his back on his tag team partners Tomohiro Ishii and YOSHI-HASHI mid-match. I remember KENTA aligning with Bullet Club. I remember Katsuyori Shibata marching to the ring, performing wrestling moves for the first time since he almost died in the ring more than 2 years prior. Deciding that words were not needed, Shibata simply laid his former friend KENTA out with one clean forearm and his signature corner dropkick. Shibata was in a wrestling ring. Shibata was performing wrestling moves. I was losing my fucking mind.
Alone, I found myself jumping around my new living room, tears of joy at Shibata’s actions quickly replaced by seething rage at Bullet Club having the gall to attack Shibata, the pure disrespect from KENTA to pose atop Shibata’s broken body. I called my partner crying, I had to share the experience, the moment. Shibata tried his best to kick the life out of KENTA, but unbeknownst he was simultaneously kicking the sadness out of me.
Despite getting teary eyed embarrassingly easy when watching films, I seldom cry. Yet, when Shibata had the unannounced 5-minute grappling match with Zack Sabre Jr. at G1 Climax 31 I cried the entire time. This man, a man who decided his nickname is The Wrestler and none of us questioned it, the personification of toughness, seemingly holds the key to turn me into a weeping mess.
I have always gravitated towards Katsuyori Shibata since the first time I saw him wrestle, but not for the reasons we tend to gravitate towards our favourites. Often we see ourselves in our favourites, fighting their inner demons and striving to get better. In Shibata, I don’t remotely see myself. Shibata is stoic, a badass no-nonsense killer. I am a skinny, speckled geek with Spider-Man and Pokémon tattoos who avoids conflict at any cost. You’ll never catch me trying to correct somebody who says wrestling is fake, conflict successfully avoided. But, unquestionably, Shibata is my all-time favourite wrestler.
My Grandad was my favourite person. I was such a little shit as a child that if we visited my grandparents and I noticed my Grandad’s car was not in the driveway, I would refuse to go in their house. Perhaps I was sitting cross-legged on the floor with my arms crossed in defiance. Every year when the passing of my Grandad arrives, it gets easier to remember the good times rather than focus on the bad, and I think that transition has been made easier for me because of Shibata. Because every year that anniversary rolls around, it means it’s almost the anniversary of KENTA joining Bullet Club, it means it’s almost the moment Shibata accomplished the impossible, it means it’s almost the time my favourite wrestler helped me recover from heartbreak. Katsuyori Shibata will never know the positive impact he has made on my life.
“I’m alive. That’s all!”