We will never know if Katsuyori Shibata was destined to be the King, as the pages of the story he was writing were torn to shreds and his life was forever changed. As soon as he got backstage following the fiercely intense IWGP Heavyweight Championship match with Kazuchika Okada, he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital where he required emergency surgery. He had suffered a subdural hematoma, a severe brain injury that can often result in death. Thankfully the surgery was a success, although it essentially guaranteed he would never wrestle again. It was a tumultuous journey unlike any other in wrestling history for Shibata to get to where he was, having overcome his past physically and mentally, both inside and outside of the ring, but now the journey had seemingly come to an abrupt end.
The recurring narrative of Shibata finding victory even in defeat would hold true even when dealt the biggest blow of his career.
Shibata resurfaced 4 months later at the G1 Climax final where he simply and emotionally stated, “I am still alive! That is all.” And that really was all. A further seven months passed and in March 2018 Shibata was announced as the head coach for the brand new dojo set to open in Los Angeles. Shibata would say “This is the best thing I can do right now, and I believe it will benefit the young wrestlers of the next generation and the wrestling world as a whole.” With the success of the LA Dojo has had since its inception and the benefit of hindsight it seems as though Shibata may have been somewhat modest.
Alex Coughlin, Clark Connors and Karl Fredericks would not be the sharp-toothed Young Lions that they are today without the strict tutelage of Shibata. The LA Dojo contingent has proven and are consistently proving they deserve to be an integral part of the New Japan roster. It is said, “you’re only as good as your weakest player.” Shibata has ensured he does not have a weak player. In the summer of 2019, Connors and Fredericks were a part of the G1 Climax tour, competing in tag matches every night and performing in front of a Japanese audience for the first time. They made a quick impression on the faithful fans. In September 2019, New Japan held the sporadic Young Lion Cup and history was made when Karl Fredericks became the first gaijin wrestler to win the Cup. Previous winners include icons Jushin Thunder Liger, Masahiro Chono and Satoshi Kojima. Without Shibata, would Fredericks have found that success that only 12 other men in New Japan history have attained? The 3 Young Lions even competed in the opening match at Wrestle Kingdom 14, teaming up with previous Young Lion Toa Henare for the win.
In 2017 we may have lost the wrestler Shibata, but through the LA Dojo, we gained his disciples. An uninjured Shibata would not have led to him becoming head coach and instilling his wisdom and prowess on his students.
Shibata would be in the corner of Tanahashi during the G1 Climax Final in 2018, further reconciling his past with his present and strengthening the unyielding bond he has created with his former rival, but almost all of Shibata’s time was devoted to his students and he is rarely seen in any other capacity.
In June 2019 his actions would set in motion an unforgettable moment in wrestling history. At the Dominion event, Shibata introduced to the New Japan faithful his former NOAH tag team partner and good friend, KENTA. Recently released from the shackles of WWE that chained him for years, KENTA was going to compete in the G1 Climax and reaffirm himself as one of the most venomous players in the game. A somewhat middling effort in the tournament ended with KENTA finishing mid-table but something far bigger transpired. KENTA shed his old skin and became the biggest villain in all of wrestling.
He assaulted Shibata. KENTA turned his back on his tag team partner Ishii and sided with Bullet Club to help them win and the no-nonsense Shibata was not able to sit idly by. Straightforward as ever, Shibata marched to the ring and unleashed his fury on KENTA. For the first time in two years, Shibata was, to a small extent, wrestling! But the gang mentality of Bullet Club would outnumber him and KENTA would further disrespect his former friend by posing atop of his prone body. If Shibata had not almost died 2 years earlier, suddenly KENTA’s act of betrayal, whilst still treacherous, doesn’t hold the same weight. It is already vile that KENTA would sink his teeth into his best friend who helped him find his way into New Japan, but to do it to somebody who almost died in the ring is unforgivable. Shibata’s in-ring career died to help give birth to the biggest villain New Japan has seen in many years.
There are positives to every negative and negative to every positive. I miss seeing Shibata compete more than I do any other wrestler but I am firmly behind all the LA Dojo wrestlers. I wish Shibata never got injured but KENTA’s actions towards Shibata at the G1 Climax in 2019 provided me with the most memorable wrestling moment I have ever experienced. It’s a miracle that Shibata is healthy and thankfully still involved with the business he loves so much.
When the final pages of Shibata’s story are written it will not be one of sadness or regret. The story stars an intricate anti-hero. It is a story about the intoxicating conviction, of trying to find your place in the world. It is a story wrapped in the inescapable truth of becoming who you were meant to be. It is a story that only one man has lived. It is the story of The Wrestler, Katsuyori Shibata.
Pics and videos courtesy of NJPW