Noob Japan: Tragic Tide Takeover

This blood is fickle,
And tears can feign truth
But sweat never lies

Katsuyori Shibata is a wrestler. His character is a wrestler.

Normally when given that description, wrestling fans roll their eyes and ask for more. But see, that is the essence of Shibata. He is stubbornly, defiantly and tragically, a wrestler. You can even hear it in his song, as the smooth guitars build into a cavalcade of wails and cries so beautiful that the tears are choked within your throat. 

If you’ve been following along with me as I discover the world of Japanese professional wrestling, or my journey in general, you’d know I missed out on a lot, not just the eastern side of wrestling. Punk vs Cena, Nakamura vs Zayn, it goes on and on.

As always, I’m a bit bitter about it, because there’s so much good wrestling out there that I wish I had seen before, seen as it happened and lived through it with other fans. But that’s the wondrous thing about discovery. You get to experience it in a way others haven’t before and you get to see it through your own eyes. As others read the story as the pages are written, I get to read the whole damn book. 

Join me as I open the front cover, as my eyes dart from word to word, paragraph to paragraph. Join me as I learn why The Wrestler is beloved.

What I Know
I hadn’t heard of Shibata until the final night of G1 Climax 29 in 2019, when NJPW fans clamored in jubilant and tearful excitement as he engaged in physical wrestling for the first time since he was forced to retire in 2017. The reason? He was disappointed and enraged that KENTA, a man he brought into the company after the exodus of Hideo Itami from WWE, had joined Bullet Club, the villainous stable that had been terrorizing NJPW for the better part of a decade. 

Then I heard about him again after his battle against past rival Zack Sabre Jr. at G1 Climax 31 in 2021 and it was announced soon after that he would be having a return match at Wrestle Kingdom 16 in 2022.

But the first time I ever saw Katsuyori Shibata was his surprise appearance in Chicago during AEW and NJPW’s Forbidden Door event where he saved Orange Cassidy from Will Ospreay and his mates in the United Empire. His music captivated me and his look with the red towel around his shoulders instantly instilled the knowledge that this was a big deal, that he is a big deal.

In the voice of fans, there is reverence and love for Shibata and I want to understand it and breathe in it. In the way that puro does, I want to get lost in the beautiful song of combat.

Katsuyori Shibata, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Shinsuke Nakamura vs Yuji Nagata, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, and Manabu Nakanishi, October 1, 2004 (NJPW: Dangerous Dream Night)
Out of context, this is a hilarious match. But it perfectly puts someone like Shibata into context. This is the story of those who do not wish to cooperate nor play well with others.

As the New Three Musketeers stand in one corner, there is hope for the future to shine brightly tonight. With youth on their side, you’d think Shibata would coexist with his teammates given their shared experiences training in the New Japan system, but that was not the case tonight.

Tanahashi would start the match with Manabu Nakanishi before Hiroyshi Tenzan would tag himself in. For some reason, Nakanishi doesn’t like it and kicks Tenzan’s shit in. Nakanishi is already at odds with his partners, and I don’t know why; I just know that I’m laughing.

Credit: NJPW

Eventually Nakamura is in the ring and the soon to be crowned King of Strong Style stands across from Yuji Nagata and had they been left to their own devices, they’d deliver a classic. Unfortunately, Nakanishi doesn’t like classics and now he’s beating Nagata’s ass. He’s beating up Nagata! Why, Nakanishi, why?!

Eventually Nagata is back in the ring. He’s a tough son of a gun and he’s about to give the business to Hiroshi Tanahashi until another interference; now Shibata wants to deploy friendly fire, for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Shibata needs some team training, apparently. How else is he going to win? Sit down and relax, whippersnapper!

Shibata then tags himself in and deals some damage before he soundly returns to his teammates. Even then he still doesn’t work with Nakamura and Tanahashi. Tanahashi fights back, as Tenzan and Nagata do against Nakanishi, while Nakamura is doing nothing but minding his own business and even he’s a victim of the chaos. He still doesn’t do anything about it. Come on, Shinsuke, stand up for yourself! Please? Please, bro?

Just when Nagata and Tenzan were making some headway and gaining an advantage, Nakanishi breaks it up again. Dude, calm down! Goodness.

Tanahashi decides enough is enough and that it’s time for a change, so he breaks up his own partner Shibata’s pin after giving Yuji Nagata a penalty kick, but Nagata and Shibata clash once more, trading slaps like they’re Pokemon cards… until Tenzan joins Nagata to bring Shibata through the several layers of hell and crushes him… until Shinsuke Nakamura and Hiroshi Tanahashi come in to save the arrogant and disobliging Shibata. Still, the battering is more than enough as Hiroyoshi Tenzan soundly trounces Shibata with a series of a headbutt and his patented Tenzan Tombstone Driver for the victory.

Had either team been on the same page, the result would be different, but on this October night, Shibata and Nakanishi chose violence and that their own partners were also the enemy. Anything is the enemy. Maybe you are the enemy. Don’t look behind you, lest Shibata or Nakanishi be glaring over your shoulder and you are not safe.

All jokes aside, this is a great primer for Katsuyori Shibata, someone who is a lone wolf for the most part. You will see that he’s a man who just wants to kick another man’s ass and get the win. Such is the way of the wrestler.

Katsuyori Shibata vs Jun Akiyama, August 4, 2005 (Wrestle-1 Grand Prix)
On the dusk of 2005’s summer, notoriously brutal fighters went to battle. Katsuyori Shibata, the lone wolf with stiff strikes and no regard for others, against a veteran of equally brutal measure in Jun Akiyama. Akiyama is colloquially known as the unofficial fifth Pillar of Heaven from AJPW, who carried an impressive pedigree before he even signed with Giant Baba’s promotion, a near-Olympian and amateur wrestler.

Would anyone else have stepped up to Akiyama, this match would have a foregone conclusion, but Shibata’s young reputation precedes him, and for the unknowing, they were about to be made very aware.

Shibata enters, filled with disrespect, angst and determination. The perfect primer as to what to expect. Akiyama strides in with a casual demeanour, as though this were simply another day at the office.

For someone like Shibata, the only thing that matters as a wrestler is the time it takes from bell to bell to get the job done. From the instant the match starts, he shoots off like a bullet, ready to tear through flesh. He is fire, unrestrained and thirsty to envelope everyone and everything in its blazing path. It is from the get-go that Akiyama realizes he is the blanket that must smoulder and suffocate this flame.

Shibata draws first blood with some mocking kicks, bursting Akiyama open as he pours claret onto the canvas. Akiyama takes a moment to recuperate outside, and though Shibata invites him back inside, he refuses. If Akiyama won’t come to the fight, the fight will come to him, as Shibata makes a grim mistake. Akiyama batters Shibata and even tosses him into the Wrestle-1 Realm, toppling over chairs and scattering the ground floor crowd. He is pissed, and he brings more than his own brute force as he uses chairs as his ally.

Shibata is resilient, fuelled by adrenaline and the desire to win. As he exchanges holds with Akiyama, a penalty kick smooths things into his favor as he strikes the force of Hell into his senior opponent, now wearing Akiyama’s blood as war paint, baptized by the essence of another fighter.

The referee of this match knows he must step in, as the two are mixing like water and oil or acid and basically anything else. Eventually the younger of the two competitors breaks free and gets a solid workout with his legs, giving Akiyama knees and kicks many times over until the elder dips out of the way and Shibata connects with the ring post. It might as well have tasted like candy to him though, for he reacts naught.

Jun Akiyama endures the leg work some more before delivering Shibata through the announcer table – without even clearing it off. Equipment and technology and wood all crumble at the crash of Shibata. Akiyama is not done with Shibata out here though, no. He smashes Shibata’s leg with another chair and rips up the ringside mats, exposing the cement concrete that he would suplex his junior onto. If that wasn’t enough, Akiyama brings the gift of chair shots to the head and shoulders of Shibata. It is not enough that he earns victory; Shibata has to die.

The song is near its climax, and the heat is still rising. The two men are in the ring again exchanging violence like they were bartering for goods and services, with two-count pins aplenty. This is the angriest part of the match, the kind that leaves your heart beating out of your chest and your ears throbbing with the humming of rage and vitriol. Your body shakes and that uncomfortable warmth goes in and out through your pores. That’s what is going on between Shibata and Akiyama.

Akiyama snares Shibata in for a cross-face, leaving the rookie to scramble for his life. The benefit of experience and hatred in Akiyama’s soul and knees speak for him; knee lift after knee lift, Akiyama breaks down Shibata until he rises to the Pillar and the two slap each other silly. Akiyama returns to knee-based offense until Akiyama suplexes Shibata into the ether and gets the pin for the win.

To Shibata, the match isn’t over and he grabs and clutches for Akiyama, but Akiyama has had enough. He’s upset and wants to go home and celebrate. Shibata is defeated and his head hurts. Not as much as his pride, as he disrespects everyone on his way out.

Katsuyori Shibata vs Tomohiro Ishii, August 4, 2013 (NJPW G1 Climax)
I’m not sure what the career of Tomohiro Ishii was like prior to the 2010s, but in this decade, I know that he could be relied on to put on incredible matches as he excelled in absorbing punishment and dishing it back out, looking absolutely incredible doing so. A short yet tough man, Ishii became a force to be reckoned with and if you were in the squared circle with him, you knew you would be in for a tough, tough battle.

Katsuyori Shibata had returned to NJPW the year prior after a time in MMA, resuming his post as a professional wrestler. There was a tough legitimacy to him, adding already to his immense aura as a fighter with stiffness and merciless style.

What resulted was the match of the G1 tournament, a massive burst of action that would draw out the excitement and hype and urgency from the Osaka crowd in the Bodymaker Colosseum, ten years after Shibata’s war with Jun Akiyama.

This match is purely a conversation between two men expressed through the means of battle. It is an exemplary specimen of Ishii’s career as he and Shibata tear the roof off of the Colosseum in gladiatorial exhibition.

Immediately following the starting bell, Shibata and Ishii are engaged in the act of destroying one another – elbow after elbow after elbow. It is only when they break away that the action truly starts. Chasing one another from corner to corner, the firm deadly war commences as they finally collide in the center of the ring and they collapse, only to rise again and return to the same strikes the match started out in.

Credit: NJPW

As they wind down after all the pain each man requested of one another, Ishii chops the tree of Shibata and then kneels. He kneels, welcoming the kicks of Shibata and Shibata demands the same of Ishii’s vicious chops. This is puro at its best; the test of endurance and asking for more agony like it were a second plate of food, just to see who can be left standing at the end. Neither man flinches, nor winces. They survive on the business of struggle.

Ebbing and flowing, rising and falling, these sequences come and go but the drive remains. Eventually, Ishii crumbles and falls into the sanctuary of the turnbuckle. Cornered, Ishii screams defiantly as Shibata relentlessly unleashes successive elbows until Ishii is shaped like an L on the turnbuckle. Shibata takes this second for the finest running dropkick I’ve ever seen, giving a middle finger to Isaac Newton along the way. Ishii is now flat, looking like an alcoholic tortoise who just came home from a bad day at work.

Ishii musters enough air to go back on the assault, diving into the danger zone, only for Shibata to kick the ever-loving piss out of Ishii, some of which Ishii personally asks for in earnest. He tastes so much abuse that the pot boils over and he is red hot that he finally stands and delivers a belly-to-belly suplex that completely halts the momentum and the world stands still. It takes a lot out of both wrestlers.

When brute force doesn’t do the job, when you can’t punch your way to heaven, you take all that you can with you through the seven layers of hell and that’s what Shibata aims to do with a Boston Crab and a Crossface, but Ishii’s fighting spirit disallows this – he must survive. All that he has done in his climb hinges on this victory.

He survives a German suplex by Shibata and delivers one of his own, followed by an insane lariat that leaves both men horizontal. They get back up, of course, because that’s what wrestlers do. They repeat this deadly dance and desperation guides their movements in perfect cadence. Any devastation they could wring out, they used to multiple failed pinfalls. In one instance, Shibata pulls the Stone Pitbull into such a tight sleeper that Ishii looks guaranteed to be unconscious. He’s losing body autonomy, gushing out drool and spit as they have nowhere else to go, but he manages to survive. 

Tomohiro Ishii, after two lariats, dives into a devastating power move that has demolished many wrestlers during the history of its use in wrestling, one he has honed to perfection throughout his career, the vertical drop brainbuster. Ishii covers Shibata for the pin and actually gets it! That’s it, it’s done. Worn down enough to make the most important three seconds count.

Katsuyori Shibata vs Kazuchika Okada, April 9, 2017 (NJPW Sakura Genesis)
Following a successful win of the New Japan Cup, Katsuyori Shibata would challenge one of the biggest talents in NJPW, a man who had set the wrestling world ablaze after he built himself in the lion-crested company. That man is Kazuchika Okada, and he was already on a blazing year with bouts against Kenny Omega and Hiroshi Tanahashi to put a feather in his cap. He’s a wrestler several times over in his career and is considered one of the best wrestlers of all time. 

At Sakura Genesis, stakes were high for both men in Ryogoku Kokugikan’s halls. For Shibata, he had yet to wipe off the stink of his failed MMA career prior to his return to pro wrestling, winning against the current top gun of NJPW would absolve him. For Okada, he’s on track to becoming the most successful IWGP Heavyweight Champion of all time, cementing himself as the greatest with unquestionable facts.

When the order of perfection clashes with the chaos of stiffness, who wins out?

The starting bell rings, the aura is palpable. The kind that leaves the hairs on your arm standing on end; it feels like a quake in the universe. Shibata the wrestler and Okada the star. Yet, contrasted with the past matches of Shibata’s covered here thus far, he doesn’t dart out and unleash hell – he simply stands there, stoically. Okada is crouched over, hanging on the rope, ready at a moment’s notice.

The two men slowly glide across the ring, circling each other as they grow closer and apprehensively lock up. Always the grappler, Shibata keeps Okada down, and eerily, both men seem calm, the former in particular very much so. Try as he might, Okada isn’t able to wriggle out. Eventually, Shibata relents and taunts Okada, tapping him softly before getting off of him before laying down on the mat, inviting Okada into his house. It’s a scene reminiscent of Antonio Inoki vs Mohammad Ali at almost fifty years prior to this moment.

Of course, Okada reluctantly and eventually takes the bait, and he bites hard; Shibata closes in on him with a series of holds, all of which lasts a minute or more, the fear and desperation in Okada bubbles to the surface as he fights to escape it. The closest he’s getting to overpowering Shibata is when he’s pushed to the turnbuckle, yet Shibata seems to allow this.

Realizing that the outcome was going to be the same no matter what, Okada absconds with holds and submission manoeuvres and instead elbows Shibata repeatedly, stepping into the world that Shibata is king. The crowd does not like this. In body language that screeches out “now this is what I’m talking about!” Shibata rocks Okada and the fans in Ryogoku welcome this wholeheartedly. Okada is out of his depth no matter what he tries.

Shibata levels Okada back to the mat for a figure-four leglock and various other leg-based holds. Better to slash the tires than to batter the doors and windshields. This cripples Okada. Soon enough, Okada gains enough leeway to send Shibata outside, where barricades and tables are his ally before returning his rival to the ring.

It’s time for Shibata to swallow his own medicine. Okada clutches him in a chinlock and elbows him in the neck repeatedly to soften him up. Shibata does make it out and Okada relents, albeit in frustration. Why can’t I get past him? What can I do? It’s as though Shibata has Okada’s number.

Okada stiffs Shibata with an elbow, to which the latter requests more and more like a child at a candy store. Shibata returns these favors in kind with a harsh forearm that collapses Okada; Shibata staggers himself after the bruises he’s endured. In this match, Shibata sells very little until it takes its toll on him, speaking to his shoot genius in his kayfabe performance.

Kazuchika Okada stops Shibata with a boot to the face and a running forearm before he readies his patented Rainmaker lariat, which on any other night, against any other competitor, would spell doom. But this is Katsuyori Shibata, he counters with an STO. Both men are spent, but like the moon calls to the waves of the ocean, they rise. There is hope in Okada’s movements and there is assuredness in Shibata’s strikes, there is no inch they won’t take nor give.

The Rainmaker takes further damnation until he invites Shibata to strike him, taking a stroll into Shibata’s domain again. When last Okada tried this, it served him ill – but as Kevin Kelly wonderfully states, “in order to beat Shibata, you’ve got to take his best”. The two sit cross-legged, exchanging slaps. Okada cleverly directs his towards Shibata’s neck. Seemingly staggered, Okada’s feigning leads to a quick whip to the post and an attack on Shibata’s neck, tenderizing it like he has throughout the match to set up for the Rainmaker. The referee has to drag him away, but he adopts Shibata’s sprinting dropkick while he’s still down.

Later, Shibata would return the favor with a dropkick of his own, and Okada gives it back again in full, diverting the audience’s chants to the Rainmaker. 

Credit: NJPW

Okada sets up a Rainmaker, Shibata staggers him, only to be hit with the lariat anyways – yet it doesn’t even wobble the Wrestler. Incredibly pissed, Shibata grabs Okada’s head and headbutts it with an audible crack that pierces through the universe. It is so painful and gross and migraine inducing. The grisly sight of blood trickling down Shibata’s face is one that can never be erased from a wrestling fan’s mind – this is the length that one will go to in order to prove the value of their name in the here and now. 

Despite being the one damaged and dripping with claret, Shibata manhandles Okada like he is still fifteen minutes into the match. An octopus hold stretches Okada beyond his limits and then some, nearly tapping Okada out, with each successive hold. No matter what direction or movement he makes, Okada cannot wrench himself free of Shibata, twists and turns every which way ensure Okada’s limbs will be rendered useless. 

Surprisingly, as perfect as Okada is, he has stuck his neck through what would break normal men and the crowd is now not on one side or another, nor split – they support each wrestler in equal measure. Unfortunately for Okada, he’s not as invincible as Shibata; he’s weak and vulnerable. No mercy is spared to him. It is his own fault he signed up for a battle against one of the stiffest wrestlers in NJPW history. 

There is still some life in Okada, and he transfers it all into a Rainmaker lariat, followed by another that merely inconveniences Shibata, before a third Rainmaker finally does the job. This is the final nail in the coffin, Okada gains the three-count and wins the match. No longer does he have to suffer. This match, while incredible, is controversial and it is easy to see why.

Katsuyori Shibata is a well-known and beloved wrestler that has shaped the styles of many and remains a bastion of New Japan’s Strong Style to this day. His character is simple, yet effective. A wrestler who lives for the sport, he aimed to bring his brand of fighting to other mediums, yet NJPW is his home. 

The headbutt in the match with Okada was one that would see him out of competition for years, damaging his brain so much he had to have it operated on. So worried were the top brass of NJPW that they didn’t allow him any more matches, for fear of what the next bump could do to him. 

That didn’t mean that Shibata would have to stop contributing to the industry of professional wrestling, however, as he was the top choice to train young lions at the company’s LA Dojo, growing a new crop for the future of NJPW with young and hungry rookies. 

My Thoughts and Feelings
The character of the Wrestler appealed to me, as his garb of a towel around his neck like the late, great Antonio Inoki, while his traditional wrestling gear was simple and to the point. It delivered everything you need to know about Shibata without saying too much.

Shibata is a tragic wrestler, only knowing the art of fighting and living for it. There is nothing he cares about more than the moment between the bells and what he can do in that time, what he can do for glory. He’s not one to stop for anybody. Of course, he’s not a complete loner, he grew into a team player, he now guides those in the LA Dojo, it shows that Shibata grew into a giving man. He left behind the brash young upstart that would attack anything that was in his way.

That’s not the tragedy of Shibata, not in my eyes. It’s what he’s had to give up in pursuit of what was either important to his life or important to his enrichment. 

When he left pro wrestling in 2006 he did not have a successful career in MMA, and though he had multiple incredible matches upon returning in 2012, he had to work hard to wash away the shame and stink of his sins and transgressions. The match with Ishii proved that he still had that fire from his youth, but the match with Okada proved that he was a different Katsuyori Shibata, one who seeks redemption. 

I maintain that headbutts of the nature that are so realistic are not only unnecessary in wrestling, but also inadvisable. So many great wrestlers of our time were lost to the injury of head trauma and brain damage. It is luck that favors him as he should not be able to wrestle, he’s lucky to even be alive, yet he is. Despite my misgivings, I’m glad.

The sentiment of being someone that wants to fix the road they’re on because they took the wrong turn is a relatable one. As Shibata turned a different way with his MMA career, I once decided college wasn’t for me. I thought that I wasn’t smart enough and that the system was rigged against people who wanted to try. So, I figured through physical labor, I’d be able to make my way working ten-hour shifts at a local factory. That wasn’t what I needed. I didn’t feel fulfilled, I returned to college to come out at the other end and this time I succeeded. I found redemption for my weakness and my failures, I learned.

I learned, not just the topics I sought to grow from, but I learned I was destined for things far greater, with the knowledge that I was smarter than what my self-doubt screamed into my soul. For this, I found I was a fighter. And through Shibata’s own stubbornness, I find a kinship. In this, I found myself a fan after writing this article and learning of him. That even if you try to go it alone, you never truly are.

I’m glad he came back. I’m glad it gave me moments like Forbidden Door where he got to make an impression and prove he is loved here in the west. 

His tragedy also proves to be his greatest factor – he is a fighter. He fought against his own body and waited for the right moment to take his place as one of wrestling’s greats, and that is perhaps his greatest redemption.