Last month, we told you about the career of Katsuyori Shibata and how his winning the New Japan Cup was a sign of change in the company toward a man who worked hard to get back to a place he should have been for years. Last Sunday, he wrestled against current IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada in a 40-minute classic that told an excellent story. You didn’t even need English commentary to tell you what these two were trying to do in the ring, if you can find it I recommend you watch it in full from the mat wrestling at the start to the grueling and sweaty ending. As you know from previous discussions, Japanese pro wrestling is treated like a real sport and many of the participants fight in “strong style” where many of their hits connect harder than they should for realism. About five minutes before the match ended, Shibata gave Okada one of the sickest headbutts you’ll ever see and hear. How sick? THIS sick!
The visual alone, all the way to the blood trail… it is amazing and disturbing at the same time. Shibata would end up losing to Okada, and as he exited the ring on his own power, you could see something wasn’t right. Reports say when he got to the back he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital where he was diagnosed and received treatment for a subdural hematoma from that headbutt, which caused temporary paralysis on his right side (as he was seen limping to the back with his arm just dangling). Or at least, that’s the report coming from NJPW as Shibata is resting in a hospital. Dave Meltzer, one of wrestling’s most trusted (if not the biggest) reporters who writes about the real-life events behind the show couldn’t get confirmation on certain details that should be easy to obtain for a real injury. Which has now raised speculation: is this a legit injury that people are keeping quiet on, or a “worked” injury for a wrestler who has become one of NJPW’s most popular names to make a comeback and win the title?
If this is entirely a work, kudos to NJPW and both performers for giving us a hell of a story. However, it doesn’t really wash away that sickening thud you hear when Shibata and Okada’s heads collide. As a fan, three names come to mind when I hear the word headbutt: The Dynamite Kid, Chris Benoit, and Daniel Bryan. The first man was put in a wheelchair before he was 40, the second ended tragically and we best not speak on it, and the third was forced to retire early before he ended up like the first (even though he may try to come back when his WWE contract is up). What we’re getting at here is that stiff workers who put their heads and bodies on the line in the most extreme ways are almost destined for lifelong injuries that end careers early. And as much as I enjoy watching Shibata perform and would love to see a title around his waist, I can’t help but think that I’m slowly watching a guy destroy himself. Would I like to see the man simply known as “The Wrestler” wearing the IWGP Championship once in his career? Absolutely. Would I like to see him do it in a wheelchair as he vacates the title? Not at all, and neither would you.
If Shibata does come back and everything was for show, I’ll breathe a sigh of relief. But even he has to know at 37-years-old, the track record for men who fight like him does not have a lot of happy endings. If it is real, then he’s about to experience his own ending as his career is surely over in every athletic field in the world as a performer. But regardless of the outcome, on a grander scale, Shibata may be the first and biggest example in the current boom for NJPW for all of the talent to take a better look at “strong style.” It may be time to decide whether that extra bit of power to the chop or pressure on the kick is really worth it to you and your opponents in the ring.
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