The aptly given moniker of “The Wrestler” is a testament to Katsuyori Shibata’s in-ring career. Straightforward, poignant and definitive. He was not interested in having an extravagant entrance or colourful ring gear, he simply wanted to wrestle. But the history surrounding his decisions outside the ring is anything but simple. Shibata’s story is complex. A story interweaved with betrayal and redemption. A story that reached the highest of highs and lowest of lows simultaneously, when his crowning moment would be his last. A story that is almost Shakespearean.
The potential in Shibata was noticed very early on in his career. As part of the New Japan Dojo, he became known as one of the “new Three Musketeers,” alongside Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, even though he was still a rookie. Together they were set to take New Japan to new heights as the original Three Musketeers did, Keiji Mutoh, Masahiro Chono, and Shinya Hashimoto.
Tanahashi would become something greater than any could have imagined. He bore the weight of the New Japan resurgence and brought about a new era that lifted the company from the “dark days” of the difficult and confusing 2000s. Tanahashi was NJPW’s saviour. Nakamura would become the youngest IWPG Heavyweight Champion in history and be synonymous with the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, bringing what was a secondary title to the forefront and raising the prestige to the point it headlined Wrestle Kingdom 8. Whilst it was with sadness that Nakamura left New Japan, he had worked exceedingly hard to build a better New Japan alongside Tanahashi. They were both instrumental in making NJPW the beacon of light is it today.
As for Shibata, he left the company in January 2005 to be a freelancer for other promotions, including rivals NOAH, and to focus on his MMA career, stating “I’m not going to be a white-collar (yes-man) wrestler.” He garnered immense criticism for his decision. New Japan had the highest of expectations for Shibata and he left them in their time of need. NJPW was voted the worst promotion of the year in 2004 and 2005 and Shibata chose that time to bet on himself.
Other than a one-off match in January 2006, Shibata would not compete in a New Japan ring again until August 2012. He was abhorrent with how New Japan was when he left and upon his return was still unimpressed. He was back “to pick a fight.” Judas had made his return to New Japan and he was unconscionably arrogant. In a culture in which the foundations start and end with respect, Shibata was not interested in suppressing his thoughts and his uphill struggle began. Fans and wrestlers alike rightfully questioned his convictions given the timing of his return coincided with New Japan’s recovery. A man of few words, Shibata let his actions speak for him as he began to earn back confidence and trust through what he does best, wrestling.
Wars were waged against Hirooki Goto, a high school classmate, and Hiroshi Tanahashi, now the unprecedented Ace. Even in defeat, Shibata would often be victorious. Despite losing to Goto at Wrestle Kingdom 8 he regained a good friend and together they would become IWGP Tag Team Champions.
During the G1 Climax in 2013, Shibata would declare “I’m starting to enjoy pro-wrestling” which drew the fiery rage of Tanahashi: “Of course you’ll enjoy wrestling in front of a full packed hectic crowd!”. Tanahashi never strayed from his path, wrestling in front of small audiences as he grew the New Japan brand on his own shoulders, and now Shibata was attempting to reap the rewards for Tanahashi’s incomparable work. After a series of matches that finished with Tanahashi victorious, a humble Shibata bowed numerous times to show his respect and understanding was made. With the Ace on his side, it helped cement his place among the roster.
At Wrestle Kingdom 10 Shibata won his first singles title in New Japan, defeating Tomohiro Ishii for the NEVER Openweight Championship, and in March 2016 Shibata officially signed a contract with New Japan, ending his 11-year stint as a freelancer.
What would come next is poetic and symbolic of Shibata finally belonging in New Japan, as The Third Generation set their sights on the NEVER Openweight Championship he held. Yuji Nagata, Satoshi Kojima and Hiroyoshi Tenzan were the stars in the “dark days”. The stars when Shibata abandoned ship. Now Shibata had to wrestle with his past, figuratively and literally. Intertwined with the disrespect Shibata would force onto these opponents there was also begrudging respect that would culminate in them becoming allies and teaming together to take on the invading forces of NOAH. After going to battle with his past, Shibata now had a clean palette and had found redemption for his past transgressions. Trust and respect had been earned. Dedication and perseverance had been shown.
In March 2017, Shibata would achieve his biggest success by winning the New Japan Cup in 2017 and earning the right to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
On April 9th 2017, Shibata wrestled the most high profile match of his career in an attempt to gain the IWGP Heavyweight Championship from then-champion Kazuchika Okada. It is widely regarded as the best match of Shibata’s career (this or his G1 2013 match with Ishii). When the match finished it was clear that something special had taken place. Even though he lost, the match solely belonged to Shibata. It was a match that only Shibata is capable of delivering. A match that painted a portrait of an unrelenting resolve attempting to reach the mountaintop. A match that showed a body breaking but the spirit refusing to give in. Even though Shibata fell short, he still found success in proving himself entirely worthy of sitting on the New Japan throne, he just wasn’t able to knock the crown off the current king. This was his redemption and it put him on a pedestal among the upper echelon of New Japan. He was not a Musketeer, instead, he carved his own inconceivable path to the top.
This would be the last match Shibata would wrestle.
Pictures and video courtesy of njpw1972.com