The headbutt nearly killed Katsuyori Shibata.
It is a cautionary tale for anyone ever considering lacing up a pair of wrestling boots. The dashing Shibata, a physical specimen, used the headbutt, hitting opponents in the ring with his head. But that is a maneuver where the brunt of the blow falls on the one delivering it.
With each headbutt damaging his brain, Shibata collapsed four years ago. He had just wrestled the match of the night at New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Sakura Genesis in April 2017 against Kazuchika Okada, a 38-minute clinic that emphatically signaled his arrival in the main event.
Yet it was destined to be short-lived.
As Shibata lay on the floor backstage at Ryōgoku Kokugikan, he was suffering the damaging effects of subdural hematoma. Internal bleeding caused significant damage to the left side of his brain, causing temporary paralysis on the right side of his body. Once the future of New Japan, Shibata faced an entirely new challenge, greater than any opponent he ever faced in the ring.
Shibata fought for his life.
“It was such a long, bleak process,” Shibata says through a translator. “It felt like a tunnel without a light at the end. But I took solace in feeling my pain. It caused all sorts of struggles, but that pain was my reminder that I was still alive.”
Amid the sorrow and despair, Shibata never lost his fighting spirit. He was carried by the thought—or, more appropriately, the prayer—that he would one day recover and return, in all his glory, to a New Japan ring.
“I just kept believing with all I had that I would be back in the ring,” Shibata says. “I never stopped believing that.”
In two days, on Jan. 4 at the Tokyo Dome, Shibata will have his prayer answered. He will wrestle a mystery opponent at Wrestle Kingdom 16, a match that promises to generate watery eyes for those watching.
Shibata tested out his strength while taking part in a five-minute grappling match in October. That took place during the final night of the G1 Climax when he stepped into the ring with Zack Sabre Jr., displaying a refined grapple-based approach. Shibata’s match at Wrestle Kingdom will take place under “catch wrestling” rules, with stretches and submissions valid, but no strikes. It is a framework that Shibata believes will allow him to have a future in pro wrestling.
“The potential is definitely there,” says Shibata, who is excited to start a new chapter of his career at 42. “I think a lot of today’s wrestlers are very focused on big, flashy moves, and modern wrestling has gotten away from the fundamentals. Those fundamentals and that base are what is most important to New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and that is what I am constantly looking to further.”
Ever the optimist, Shibata even believes that plenty of positives have emerged from his injury.
“If I had not been injured, the L.A. Dojo would not have come about,” said Shibata. “I was not able to have a match, but I was wrestling in spirit with all the L.A. Dojo boys. That kept me strong, and it will bring new opportunities for so many who love New Japan Pro-Wrestling. So a lot of good has come from this.”
An icon of the industry, Okada once stated that pro wrestlers are superhuman. If that truly is the case, Superman no longer emerges from a phone booth, but instead walks to the ring with a black towel delicately draped around his neck.
“I heard what Okada said, talking about superhumans,” Shibata says, his boyish grin returning to form. “He was probably referring to me, right?”
The wrestling world forever loses a piece of its beauty when permanent injuries occur. Yet, this time, a miracle occurred. Shibata is healthy and well. Naturally, there is only one place for him to celebrate.
“I am going back where I belong,” Shibata says. “On Jan. 4, people will understand. They will feel why I want to be in that ring.
“It will be something completely different to anything else on that card. When I wrestle, people will see exactly what I have been waiting so long to express.”