Sunday, 16 July 2017

The Ballad of Katsuyori Shibata (Okada/Shibata Review)

I wrote quite a bit about what ended up being my MOTY last year, and while I haven’t been watching quite as much wrestling this year so far, I recently came across a match that for me stands far and above the field. In case it ends up being my MOTY this year, I wanted to write about it while it was still fresh in my mind so that I did not forget any of the layers that particularly thrilled me in the future. The match I am talking about is Kazuchika Okada vs Katsuyori Shibata from NJPW: Sakura Genesis for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
First, a few asides about the context of the match, both generally and personally, that cannot be expresses with reference to the match content.
I am not a huge fan of Kazuchika Okada in 2017. That is not to say I think he is a bad wrestler or that I dislike everything he has ever done, but I have a lot of problems with his recent work. I connected with his rise in NJPW and in particular found his feud with Hiroshi Tanahashi to bring out the best in him, and in January 2016, following an absolute classic story ending match, I considered him the best wrestler in the world. Since then he has ascended fully to his acedome, and we have gotten to see “Kazuchika Okada’s NJPW,” I am not impressed. Emboldened by the success of his pet project finally doing well for business, Gedo has felt comfortable pushing hot hands like Tetsuya Naito to the backburner. Furthermore, Okada’s influence on the main event style is evident; NJPW main events have never been short, but the substance-less and over-long main events of NJPW seem to be growing month on month.
All this said, there’s no doubt he has some world class qualities. The business of NJPW has without question benefited from the Rainmaker, although Los Ingobernables de Japon seems to me to be a bigger influence on that metric. Nonetheless, it is evident when Okada wrestles that he is seen by the audience as a big deal, the biggest deal, and the presentation of the act is still absolutely excellent. Okada is also a fine offensive wrestler, brought down by comparison to the rest of the NJPW roster due to their excellence in this area. It’s obvious though when he gets to do what he does well, that being over-thought reversal sequences, that he is a very, very exciting wrestler. Additionally, his micro-selling is top notch. This point may come as a surprise considering many have criticised his match-long macro selling, and for good reason. However, when asked to sell a submission hold or get across the effects of an immediate strike, the sense of pain is obvious and suburb.
I love Katsuyori Shibata. Easily a top 5 in the world worker over the last few years for my money, the man is excellent at professional wrestling. He is a world class offensive wrestler, able to make everything look nasty, and cool in the world of pro wrestling. His selling, while not for everyone, absolutely fit’s my preferences, not selling every little move allows for matches to flow so much better, but he never loses track of the pain he has absorbed and offensive he has taken. Katsuyori Shibata is excellent at being “worn down,” and he has purer babyface fire than anyone in the business today. Finally, he has an uncanny ability to tell stories in the ring, and his work with Yuji Nagata last year, where he sold a man learning so much from professional wrestling, was some of the greatest story telling in a long time.
Finally, Katsuyori Shibata suffered an extensive injury during this match, it is not evident during it, however it has had catastrophic impact on his career and his life. He collapsed afterwards, and was later diagnosed with a brand injury that has, among other things, led to some paralysis on the right side of his body and effected his eye sight. My basic knowledge of this injury did not affect my enjoyment of the match, and I have not re-watched it since gaining more knowledge afterwards. I’d like to enjoy the match despite the horrific consequences it has had, because I imagine that’s what Katsuyori Shibata would want me to do if he has any idea of my existence. Nonetheless, the trials of Katsuyori Shibata are a wrestling tragedy, and I wish him the absolute best in recovery. Honestly, I hope I never see him in a wrestling ring again.
With that said let’s get to one of the greatest matches I’ve seen recently. There are a number of layers at play here. Firstly, the match opens with basic, non-limb based technical wrestling, with Shibata moving from mount to mount. The idea early on seems to be to show Shibata’s technical, and fundamental prowess. Shibata is, in kayfabe, one of the strongest wrestlers in the company and the early going tries to show a dominance in pace and style of Shibata over Okada. In a lot of ways this match is positioned in way to succeed over other NJPW main event outings, one of those ways is that this is the first meeting between these two since 2014, which allows them the typical NJPW feeling out process without it feeling contrived. It’s also very clever, with both men not wanting to go all out early in the knowledge that their opponent may well be as explosive as they are.
There’s also character eminence right from the start with the stark contrast with how Shibata and Okada handle breaks. Okada’s usual shtick is to cleanly break, but with a brash and cocky taunt to go with it. Here, Shibata is the first to use that break taunt, following a full mount, instantly signalling that he’s here in the main event scene for the first time since his return, he is not intimated by the Rainmaker and he is here to stay. That of course doesn’t sit well with the ace, and although Shibata is many years his senior, Okada can’t help but begin to viciously bite back at the plucky challenger. Okada spends much of the match holding on to submissions and mounts for much longer than is usual, gaining the ire of the crowd in the process. In contrast, Shibata breaks almost instantly for the rest of the match, faster than I think I’ve ever seen anyone break for an extended period of time.
This character beat is top notch, because as the match goes on and he keeps breaking, no matter how much nasty work Okada puts in or how close Shibata gets to the title, the sense of honor and pride keeps rising. Shibata becomes this paragon of puroresu fire: determined to show to NJPW that he is the guy, he is the wrestler and he can win this match through wrestling. The strength of Katsuyori Shibata is so evident throughout this match, refusing to work in any other style that brash and unapologetic wrestling. He urges Okada to hit him, to play at Shibata’s game, not only because that’s where he’s strongest, but because he wants Kazuchika Okada, the chosen one, the ace, to throw everything he has at him, he wants to take the Rainmaker’s best shot and show that through his strength, through his fire, he can overcome it. It’s not just about the title for Shibata, it’s about validation.
He came the long way ‘round. When he was positioned as amongst the top of NJPW, he chased another dream and went to MMA, many in the company never forgave him for that, and although he gained a lot from that experience, he was set behind his peers (and even the next generation) when he returned to NJPW. He arrived back at NJPW and saw a promotion of characters, guys like Shinsuke Nakamura and Kazuchika Okada, the whole stable philosophy of CHAOS, was that force of personality was stronger than raw wrestling. To make matters worse, the ace, the guy, Hiroshi Tanahashi was on top of the world with hybrid strong style, not the hard-line style Shibata has respected. Shibata hit NJPW like a train, his headstrong and brutal style acting as a culture shock for many, and when he hit a roadblock, such as Yuji Nagata, he was able to show the strength of will to learn how to overcome it.
But still, he wasn’t the guy, and in Okada’s brash words, he wasn’t even on the radar of the guy. He had to prove himself time and time again, having an amazing NJ Cup, beating the old (Minoru Suzuki), the new (Tomohiro Ishii) and the shit (Bad Luck Fale) of his style to finally earn that shot at toppling the project.
So here he is, having overcome every obstacle before his, facing off against the current personification of everything he dislikes about NJPW and he’s determined to show that his path is the correct one. He’s not going to sink to Okada’s level, he’d rather learn on the British circuit than adapt anything from CHAOS. If Okada wants to win, he has to at least wrestle Shibata at his own game, the correct game. This refusal to become what he hates is the next prominent story beat that his me in this match, Okada hits a corner dropkick, aping Shibata, and when Shibata seems to be going for the Rainmaker’s signature lariat, he instead slaps the taste out of his mouth and defiantly stands there, his own man.
Shibata works on the leg early, with a sensational sequence trying to lock Okada in an Indian deathlock but Okada’s Rainmaker arm being too strong to allow him to do it, before Shibata’s sheer force of will wins out. However, as was shown when Okada was able to sustain leg work from one of the greatest and most vicious submission artists of the era in Minoru Suzuki, you have to keep at it with Okada, lest you allow the raw fury in his veins to recover. Indeed, Shibata is unable to keep up the assault on the leg and Okada takes it to the outside flinging The Wrestler around ringside before draping him across the guard rail and bringing him down for a sickening DDT; introducing us to perhaps the most tragic theme of the match.
We talked earlier about Shibata’s journey, and it really was a long one. This match makes it very obvious that this is the pinnacle of the man’s career, from being a match for one of the biggest titles in the world to dominating the ace in the early going, there’s no doubt that the feeling of “this is it” for Katsuyori Shibata is palpable. The heartbreak in this match (confined to kayfabe, lest we let tragedy sink in) is that for all the success he shows, for all he manages to retain during the match, the chance for him to actually cross the Rubicon and claim the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, is taken away by his own body. As he struggles to get back into the ring following the outside DDT, you see a man whose fire and mental strength is being let down by the body they inhabit. You can bet Katsuyori Shibata would have wanted to fire back after that DDT, get straight back in the ring and fire back at Okada with righteous fury, but he just can’t.
That decision to go to MMA when he did had more and more consequences the longer his career goes on. He got back into NJPW, fought against political adversity, fought against the rise of a style he hated and was finally able to make it to the top, but the damage he sustained because of that style, something he was never going to give up, was his undoing.
Indeed, that brings us to the finish of the match, after Katsuyori Shibata has absorbed multiple rainmakers in some of the greatest sell sequences of all time (well, as good as they can be considering he’s essentially “no selling” the rainmaker, depending on your preferences) Okada lifts Shibata up and forces him to stare down the barrel of another lariat. Does Shibata go down like many before him without a fight? without fire? without defiance? Of course not. Shibata cocks his arm aloft and prepares to fire back at Okada, interrupting the Rainmaker like he did earlier in the match and continue the assault. But his reflexes are too slow. He’s taken too much damage. His body lets him down.
I’m not going to call the violence of this match “romantic” as some have, and to oversell too much the effectiveness of Shibata’s all too real physical trauma wouldn’t do server to the actual tragedy of the man’s career. However, I’ll be damned if this match wasn’t emotional, and some of the best work of either men’s career. I could talk way more about this match, from the imagery to the moment the match kicked into overdrive, with Okada slapping Shibata and The Wrestler firing back with a monstrous big boot, and how both things serve the characters and the story so well. But I’ve spilled my guts too much on this match already. It’s a classic, one I’ll remember for a good while, I have my nitpicks with the match structure that mean it's not quite on the same level as the all-timers, but not enough to really ding it, and it mitigates them far better than most NJPW main events.

Rating: ****3/4
Match: (subscription required, and recommended)

Saturday, 11 February 2017

A New Beginning? NJPW Kick Off 2017

(All star ratings and general content of this article is of course just my opinion. I rate on a scale of 0-5. I don’t rate/watch every match on every card, and if a rating doesn’t appear it means I either did not watch it or wasn’t paying close enough attention to rate fairly.)

It’s been a while since I wrote something here, since last year’s G1 Climax actually. A lot has happened in NJPW since then: Kenny Omega built to his first January 4th Dome main event against Kazuchika Okada; Kamaitachi returned to NJPW from his various excursions to massive hype in the Junior division; NJPW and RPW connections grew closer as Katsuyori Shibata won the RPW heavyweight title and on the recent show, which we’ll be discussing to some degree today, defended it in NJPW. There’s much more of course, but what I’ll say to sum it up is that NJPW continued to play up faction warfare between CHAOS and Bullet Club to close out 2016, and the staleness of that feud led me to sour heavily on the product. A few recent injections of talent at the start of 2017, however, have been a much-needed breath of fresh air, and although the core problems continue to exist, opportunities for undercard talent to have sensational matches, like KUSHIDA and Katsuyori Shibata did last year are also plentiful.

The New Beginning in Sapporo – 05/02/2017
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Suzuki-gun (El Desperado & Yoshinobu Kanemaru) def. Hirai Kawato & KUSHIDA
Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Satoshi Kojima & Yuji Nagata def. Henare, Tomoyuki Oka & Yoshitatsu       
CHAOS (Gedo, Jado and Will Ospreay) def. Jushin “Thunder” Liger, Katsuyori Shibata and Tiger Mask
YOSHI-HASHI def. Takashi Iizuka (with El Desperado)
Dragon Lee, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Manabu Nakanishi, Michael Elgin & Ryusuke Taguchi def. Los Ingobernables de Japon (BUSHI, EVIL, Hiromu Takahashi, SANADA and Tetsuya Naito)
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship: Roppongi Vice (Beretta and Rocky Romero) (c) def. Suzuki-gun (Taichi and Taka Michinoku)
NEVER Openweight Championship: Hirooki Goto (c) def. Juice Robinson
IWGP Tag Team Championship: Chaos (Tomohiro Ishii and Toru Yano) (c) def. G.B.H. (Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma), K.E.S. (Davey Boy Smith Jr. and Lance Archer)
IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kazuchika Okada (c) def. Minoru Suzuki ***3/4

Can good offence hinder a match?
In the ying/yang that were these pair of shows, this was definitely the down swing for me personally, large swathes of the card did not interest me, and most of the matches that I wasn’t really looking forward too didn’t seem to overly impress. (Although I did hear that Juice/Goto overdelivered, and what I saw certainly warrants a full watch at some point.) The one match I though had serious potential to excite me was the main event, we haven’t seen Minoru Suzuki grace NJPW with his presence for a while, and the last few times we have we’ve seen some top-notch performances from him. His match especially with AJ Styles helped AJ become the recognised top star he was in Japan, and may well be my favorite AJ Styles match of all time, no mean feat! Suzuki is just nasty, a modern-ish incarnation of the Taue/Kawada side of the pillars, just likes to hurt people and make it look painful. His offence is up there with some of the best on planet at the moment in terms of actually looking painful, and the way he can do so much with so little puts him ahead of guys like Fred Yehi who do so much. Yehi has so many creative ways of punishing an opponent, but Minoru Suzuki kept me invested in a 40+ minute match with give or take around 3 variations of a knee submission.
That’s the main thing I can say to this matches credit, it kept me invested, and did not suffer at all really from the NJPW main event bloat. Could/should it have been half the time? Very much so. But did it keep me invested and have pretty solid content throughout the entire match? Yea, it actually did. I really do enjoy watching Minoru Suzuki wrestle, because it’s almost like a culture shock, he’s one of the few people out there that looks like he’s genuinely hurting his opponents badly, and can get you invested in it. But herein lies a problem that this match really demonstrated for me, and it’s a problem I’ve had to a lesser degree over the past few years with other matches. I had a discussion with some other wrestling folks last year surrounding the Aries/Nakamura match from an NXT show. The jist of my argument was that I didn’t mind the Nakamura selling performance on that show (I didn’t like the match, but for other reasons) because the offence Aries was putting in didn’t justify an over the top or even above average sell job. It’s something the Hero/Riddle series does well, Riddle is a world class seller, Hero’s offence is probably the best on the planet, it meshes.
In most Okada matches, while I’m not his biggest fan, the selling doesn’t really bother me. This is because most of his matches fall into the category of “fighting spirit” archetype stories. Offense is distributed pretty evenly throughout the body as both men fight to inflict as much general punishment on each other, and use their fire (or “fighting spirit”) to demonstrate them fighting through the pain to continue battling. He does these alright, like I’ve said I’m not his biggest fan, but when he’s in there with someone charismatic and over like a Naito or a Tanahashi it can really pull together into something great. This match, however, was different. Because Suzuki’s offense looks so good, so brutal, and because Suzuki was clearly trying to build a limb story, the shoddy selling really stood out to me, and that detracted from the match.
This is a really curious issue, because Tanahashi and Naito both do considerable amount of leg work in their matches, and yet I preferred their work with Okada to this. Which is why I ponder the above question, if the partner they have to work with is a little light on their selling acumen, can amazing offense, such as that of Minoru Suzuki’s legwork exhibition t New Beginning, detract from the match, because it raises the expected level of selling? It’s a question I can’t really answer in full, but I find it really interesting, all I can say is that I didn’t like this as much as many of the Okada matches from last year. Suzuki’s offense was fascinating, Okada’s finishing sequence was flashy enough, not quite up there with the Styles or Naito counter fests, but his fire was pretty enjoyable, more so than usual actually, but there wasn’t enough there for a 40 minute encounter for me personally, and I felt spots like a deadlift German suplex and a jump to the top rope took away from everything after he had done such a good job to sell the offense while it was actually occurring.
Also, on one final note, props to Gedo, for all the shit I give him, for adding a ton as a manager here. His towel-throw teases with great and the strained cries for Okada to reach the ropes really sold the bromance.

The New Beginning in Osaka – 11/02/2017
Osaka, Japan

Taka Michinoku def. Henare
Tencozy (Hiroyoshi Tenzan & Satoshi Kojima) def. KUSHIDA & Yoshitatsu
Juice Robinson, Jushin Thunder Liger, Tiger Mask & Yuji Nagata def. CHAOS (Gedo, Hirooki Goto, Jado & Yoshi-Hashi)
Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki, Taichi & Yoshinobu Kanemaru) (with Taka Michinoku) def. CHAOS (Beretta, Kazuchika Okada & Rocky Romero)
NEVER Openweight Six Man Championship: Los Ingobernables de Japon (Bushi, Evil & Sanada) def. Taguchi Japan (Hiroshi Tanahashi, Manabu Nakanishi & Ryusuke Taguchi) (c)
RPW British Heavyweight Championship: Katsuyori Shibata (c) def. Will Ospreay ***3/4
IWGP Tag Team Championship: Chaos (Tomohiro Ishii & Toru Yano) (c) def. G.B.H. (Togi Makabe & Tomoaki Honma), Suzuki-gun (Davey Boy Smith Jr. & Takashi Iizuka)
IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: Hiromu Takahashi (c) def. Dragon Lee ****1/2
IWGP Intercontinental Championship: Tetsuya Naito (c) def. Michael Elgin ****

New friends, old problems
This show was great. I caught most of the undercard on this one and even those throwaway tag matches had some really fun stuff in them. For example, Taguchi Japan being a knock off cosplay stable of LIdJ, and then the ensuing match containing some pretty great work as the LIdJ tags tend to do. Where it really shone, though, were those top 3 singles matches that showcased exactly what there is to be really excited about with NJPW in 2017: new talent in positions where they deserve to be, great wrestlers being given chance to have great matches, and previously wrote off talent benefiting from a post gaijin-glass ceiling Japan. The Osaka show is usually the bigger of the two, and often gets the IWGP Heavyweight title match, not this year. We got Tetsuya Naito, hugely successful last year despite the brass not getting behind him as heavily as they probably should, taking on a hugely talented foreign star in Michael Elgin, doing absolutely the best work of his career in Japan. It’s a good sign for NJPW business wise, because LIdJ are taking off in a big way and have been for quite some time, and while a lack of real main event spotlight for Naito might eventually lead to them cooling, it’s obvious with spots light this that his success is forcing their hand in some ways.
Hiromu Takahashi, the former Kamaitachi, has been a revelation in NJPW, the man is one of the biggest potential stars on the planet right now, there’s no doubt in my mind. He’s got the looks, the star quality and the presence that makes him noticed in absolutely every company he’s been a part of. Add that to the ability to have crazy, fast paced, ridiculously over the top matches that do not lose sight of the story and heart they convey, and you’ve got my early pick for Most Outstanding Wrestler front runner. His rivalry with Dragon Lee last year and the year before are contenders for feud of the decade, and this match proved why. They escalate like nobody else can, continuing to do more and more crazy spots while still retaining what makes the feud work: they really convey hatred. When you look at Dragon Lee and Hiromu Takahashi it is obvious that these characters absolutely hate each other. Thus, when they throw crazy move after crazy move, and occasionally ignore the previous one so that they can keep up a high pace, it feels like two people willing to die to defeat the other one, rather than two people doing nonsense for no reason. They also for the most part keep the pace pretty good, some selling mixed in after every series of spots with the spots getting faster and faster as the match goes on. This one may be my favourite in the series, it’s absolutely up there, Kama finally getting revenge for Lee taking his mask a few years ago by ripping it off was a great moment, and put him across as a true rudo in typical Kama style, and some of the crazy spots like the sick apron powerbomb and senton to the outside into the guard rail rank up there with some of my favourite they’ve ever done.
This match was a legit MOTYC for me personally, and I recommend anyone to give it a look, Hiromu Takahashi gives me so much hope for the next few months, and I am salivating at the prospect of him in Best of the Super Juniors or an escalated feud with KUSHIDA.
The main event was pretty great, but I did feel like it suffered a bit from the NJPW main event bloat. The story of Michael Elgin clearly having the edge if he was able to hit the powerbomb, and the babyface fire of him getting stumped by the ungovernable one at every turn had some real heat to it. Furthermore, the monthly return of “Naito Hates Knees – Power Hour!” was as enjoyable as ever, especially with Elgin doing a fine job of selling the leg on offense. There was a spot were Elgin hit a big boot, and while planting his foot, it completely gave way. Stuff like that coming together with an urgent pace in a 20-25 minute match would have made for a legit high end MOTYC for me, but I felt with the match going 35+ minutes and a good chunk of it being slower or just lacking substance, I felt the strong storyline threads lost pace and it wasn’t as fun a watch as it could have been. That said this match was awesome! Both guys did great work and have fantastic chemistry together, I’m looking forward to them getting a non-main event slot at Invasion Attack, Dominion or the G1 and hopefully getting a sprint or just a match that keeps its identity a little better. Wishful thinking I know!
Shibata/Ospreay was super fun and well worked. This was the best Young Will has looked for me since Invasion Attack last year in his excellent match with KUSHIDA. I kinda love Ospreay’s selling sometimes, and while this match wasn’t as suited to showing it off as it could have been, Shibata’s offence being what it is, we went in a different, very interesting direction. The story of this match was Shibata trying to wrestle his match, and often getting caught out by Will Ospreay’s creativity and speed. My mind started racing as soon as this thread started to develop: NJPW very rarely let Juniors get one over on the Heavies, it’s often the case that Juniors have a long, proving period where some interesting match stories revolve around them having to evolve. I thought they may end up going the other way here, with Shibata clearly rocked having to work against a guy who’s style is a little different than he’s used to. Last year Shibata had an astonishing feud with Yuji Nagata where we suffered a setback and was forced to evolve to continue his rise. It would have been pretty dope, and it still could be, if he once again had to evolve because Will Ospreay got the better of him. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case, since those threads never really came together and the match turned into a fun little sprint at the end, where Will absolutely held his own in a traditional Shibata brawl-sprint. Was fun, well worked, laid some seeds, but didn’t really pull together it’s storytelling threads.
Overall thoughts

An interesting double salvo of shows from NJPW, Osaka was a lot of fun with some great matches at the top of the card while Sapporo was mostly barren with an interesting main event I think some people are going to really dig.