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)

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