Katsuyori Shibata vs Kazuchika Okada

The hype for Wrestle Kingdom 12 continues as we move onto the other competitor in the main event of the show, the reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada. I’ve covered Okada’s amazing work on this blog before, but it felt like the right time to speak about a match of his not involving Kenny Omega. Therefore I decided to speak about the outstanding and terrifying match he had at April’s Sakura Genesis against Katsuyori Shibata.

Shibata, for a long time, was known as the toughest man in New Japan. He had a stint as an MMA fighter before returning to NJPW in 2012, and it can be seen in his work. He hits stiff, with almost zero give in his strikes. He’s going in that ring, all business, dead set on either winning or kicking the shit out of you. Okada is the opposite; he’s cocky, arrogant, almost to a fault. He’s flashy and over the top, but he backs it up every time in the ring. But Okada had never faced a competitor like Shibata.

The match is almost entirely in Shibata’s favor for a majority of it. He overpowers and out wrestles Okada near constantly here. Submission hold after submission hold as Shibata feels out Okada and learns how he wrestles. After a time you can tell Shibata is starting to get cocky. He feels like he’s the better man, and it shows in how he carries himself in the match.

Okada eventually regains control of the momentum with one of his trademark dropkicks and begins to work Shibata despite his exhaustion. The two warriors get into a back and forth striking contest. Neither is giving an inch, until Shibata delivers the now infamous stiff headbutt, which busts his own head open hardway. Post-match it would be revealed just how much this actually injured Shibata, but in the moment it was intense and added so much to the match.

Okada of course wins with his signature Rainmaker finisher. It was a hard fought match that not only solidified Okada’s place as the top guy in New Japan, but made Shibata into a true star. Sadly, the Shibata’s headbutt put a stop to any career momentum that might have been. It caused a subdural hematoma which required immediate surgery. Not only that but Shibata was suffering paralysis on his right side. There was a very real fear that Shibata may never wrestle again and that he was in fact lucky to have lived.  Shibata made his triumphant return at 2017’s G1 Climax finals and announced he would be back in-ring, but the sheer damage a headshot did to him should lead to a discussion on perhaps banning them in professional wrestling. But that is a discussion for another time.

This match is absolutely fantastic, in a year full of fantastic matches. If you’re not very familiar with New Japan you may just know Okada and Omega, but Shibata’s back catalog of work is definitely worth checking out. Should he make his return to the ring he will no doubt be a huge star and eventual IWGP Heavyweight Champion.

I give this match a 4.5/5.

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