Editor's Note: Every day this week, we'll take you back to one of Dave Meltzer's top-rated matches of the past year, starting with No. 10 and going through No. 1. What follows is an edited version of Dave's writeup of that match from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
Dave's review of this match was written before it was known that Katsuyori Shibata's injury was legitimate and would end his career. Shibata has chronicled his recovery in blogs, made an appearance at the G1 Finals in one of the best moments of the year, and has an autograph signing set for next week's fan festival prior to Wrestle Kingdom 12.
IWGP Champion Kazuchika Okada vs. Katsuyori Shibata
NJPW Sakura Genesis | April 9th
Kazuchika Okada retained the IWGP heavyweight title over Katsuyori Shibata in 38:09
They returned to doing the video before the match where they showed the images of everyone who had ever held the IWGP title. This is such a great idea for setting the mood to the prestige of the title and I don’t know why other promotions don't do that. As soon as the bell rang, the place popped like they were all here just for this match and it had the “big fight feel” thing that is said about ten times more than it really happens.
After the Omega vs. Okada match, I watched a Misawa vs. Kawada match from 1994 and the two were entirely different. However, they had their similarities and this one came off like a brutal fight with great psychology, intensit, and all kinds of twists and turns. The crowd was hot in wanting to see Shibata win the title to the point Okada was booed early on. As the match went on, they cheered more for the match and still wanted the title change, but weren’t booing Okada.
Okada was booed like crazy early when he didn’t break clean. Shibata then killed him with forearms and a hard kick to the back. Shibata used the figure four, but Okada got a rope break and was selling the left knee. Okada dropkicked him off the top rope to the floor, whipped him into the guard rail, and gave him a running kick over the guard rail. He followed with a draping DDT. Okada used a reverse kravat submission and Shibata made the ropes. Okada kept it on before breaking to get the heel response. Shibata then told Okada to throw his best shot and Okada started throwing elbows but Shibata dropped him with a counter. Shibata continued to work him over with elbows and a running dropkick into the corner. Shibata used a running dropkick into the guard rail. Shibata used hard kicks to the arm and chest. Okada came back with the Savage Elbow 60% of the way across the ring. Both were on their knees trading elbows. Okada used a missile dropkick but Shibata then got an armbar out of nowhere. Shibata used sick kicks to the right arm and a chop to the top of the head. They traded super hard slaps while on their knees.
Okada used Shibata’s trademark running dropkick into the corner, so Shibata came back and used an Okada style dropkick to the shoulder and threw kicks to the head. Shibata went for the penalty kick, but Okada got up and hit a dropkick. Okada used some German suplexes and set up the Rainmaker. Shibata kicked him in the face. Okada then hit a weak Rainmaker, and that’s when Shibata hit the sick headbutt, splitting his own head open. Shibata used the octopus and continued to work on the shoulder. He got a choke and then hit a choke suplex. Shibata was slapping the hell out of Okada and threw a sick kick to the chest, but Okada came back with a desperation Rainmaker, and then hit another Rainmaker for the pin.
When the match was over, Shibata and Okada both collapsed. The idea is that both men gave everything they had in a war that lasted 38:09. Had it not been for Okada’s match with Kenny Omega, this would have been a strong favorite for match of the year. The idea is both gave it everything they had. Okada won, but it was a battle of attrition and by the time it was over, neither had anything left. As Shibata was being helped out of the ring to the back, he lost his balance and fell to his knees more than once.
The match was among the best held anywhere in the world in the past few years, but there was the one spot more memorable than any. Okada, who had his arm weakened during the match, finally connected with the Rainmaker. Shibata not only didn’t go down, but responded with a sick headbutt that immediately split his head open.
It sounded terrible watching it at the time, but the one thing about Japanese wrestling is that as hard hitting as the matches seem on television, television greatly mutes the actual sound and impression. That's why Japanese bouts are generally so much more impactful live and move emotions more. One person who was at ringside watching noted to me that it sounded like a baseball bat hitting hard wood and that the sound literally turned his stomach. The match was universally praised and the spot was praised in some circles because it was the single most indelible memory of the match. But, it was decried as well because that type of stuff shouldn’t happen in the ring. You shouldn’t mess with the head.
In fact, the entire match had questions about it. Okada, the guy whose role it is to carry the promotion for the next decade or so, took incredible punishment. You simply can’t get hit that hard and that many times and not develop injuries. Injuries in wrestling are the killer to longevity as well as the killer to longevity in being able to produce the kind of matches that are the current standard to headline big shows in Japan.
This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon, especially when it comes to the protection of the long-term star performer. There are tradeoffs in the sense there is an emphasis on having great matches that move the audience, particularly in Japan when there are so many companies and the standard is so ridiculously high. But, careers shouldn’t be sacrificed for one night pops.
Backstage, Shibata collapsed again, motionless. Well, almost motionless. It was reported he couldn’t move, but that actually was not the case. The doctors were checking him and said there was internal bleeding and he was rushed to the IUHW Mita Hospital. It was said that Shibata was fully conscious and coherent at the hospital, but he was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma and was said to have undergone emergency surgery.
Dr. Shunji Asamoto, who performed the surgery, stated, “There is no medical evidence, but it is said it can easily recur. If he still wants to be a professional wrestler in the future, strict examinations will be necessary. I am not optimistic at all.”
So the big question is: is this real or was this a way to sell and make the match even more legendary, give Shibata time off (and it’s possible with all the injuries he’s been working through that he needed it) and have him come back as an even bigger star? There is no answer.
From communicating with people there, the belief is that this was an intricate work. Certain evidence was presented to me as to why. A few things are notable that unfortunately can’t be discussed here, but aren’t necessarily proof either way. The obvious aspect is that it does fit into a potential great long-term plan for all involved (provided Shibata returns. If he doesn’t, it’s very clear this was real) and that Gedo is a great booker. Of course, having a great booker doesn’t mean something that fits into a great long-term story is necessarily not real.
Still, one person noted he’s gotten stories that are polar opposites, and another said that it’s seemingly a subject they can’t discuss. Most are taking it as it being real. It could be. Some of the talent believes it is. Some don't, but in pro wrestling, you are taught not to believe anything. Even one person who said he believed it was a work and had evidence conceded the possibility it wasn’t and that evidence would lead one to believe it was a work but it wasn’t proof enough.
It is certainly being portrayed as a potential career ending injury, coming right on the heels of the situation with Tomoaki Honma, which is an even more likely career ending injury. As a booker, does that mean the Honma timing would enable the public to believe it more and thus makes it a better time to do it, or would the timing be you wouldn’t want to do anything that reminded people of it? In wrestling, historically the former would be used in the thought process more than the latter, but to many, the latter would also be used.
That Shibata and Honma were the two guys in the promotion, along with Tomohiro Ishii, who would take stiffness to a different degree is probably a telling tale about limitations of what a human body can take. The reality is that the modern style is going to lead to more injuries because of the bigger bumps and higher flying moves. It’s somewhat tempered by the guys who work this style doing much fewer matches than their predecessors and generally being smaller, but I’m not confident of the long-term prospects.
The long-term prospects of the older generation, for the most part, wasn’t good. The long-term prospects of the All Japan stars in the Misawa and Furnas era was downright horrible, although some of that was bad luck like Steve Williams, Kobashi and Gary Albright that wasn’t necessarily ring related. Others, like Misawa, absolutely was. With Doug Furnas, it probably was as well.
For now, Shibata is off all shows. In time, it will be very clear what was and wasn’t real.