Still Alive: Katsuyori Shibata Interviewed (1/2)

Katsuyori Shibata on returns and the future

Katsuyori Shibata’s surprise grappling exhibition with Zack Sabre Jr. at the Nippon Budokan during the G1 Climax final will inarguably be one of the enduring highlights of 2021. The Wrestler’s appearance understandably sparked a wave of speculation and rumour, as well as bright hopes for the Shibata’s future four and a half years removed from his last pro-wrestling match with Kazuchika Okada. To talk everything out, we sat down with the man himself. 

Taking what I could do and everything into account, Zack was the right opponent


–So we have to talk about the elephant in the room, and that grappling match. 

Shibata: Truth is, I’d actually those shorts for that match made for both of us. Of course, if Zack had made the G1 finals, it wouldn’t have happened, but it all lined up. 

–So all along it had to be Zack?

Shibata: Well, taking into account what I wanted to do, and what I can do, it all led to him being the best opponent. He and I are about the same size, so I went to my usual gear makers and asked for two sets of shorts, one white with a British flag on there. 


Shibata: So I got a bit of a weird look asking for a British flag (laughs). I managed to get the shorts to him indirectly, but whether he would wear them, that was up to him. Then when he came out not just in those shorts but with that same old ring jacket he used to wear as well, it was like ‘ah, he got the message!’. It was a bit of telepathic communication. 

–So how did everything come together?

Shibata: I’d suggested to the company what I wanted to do, and they made the connection to Zack, so it was a bit circuitous. But he’d been bringing my name up in his comments backstage, and at any rate, from when I first got hurt and started thinking about what I could do, I figured the best way would be to start with something that didn’t involve any strikes. Not just for me, but for the people watching as well. 


Shibata: What you saw with the grappling rules thing, that was a step forward. A big step forward, like something went from zero to 1 in my mind, but a step forward. And it took me four and a half years to get to that point; not a two steps forward one step back thing, but the culmination of a ton of effort and inching forward to that point.

You could call those five minutes the antithesis of modern NJPW

–It was a tough journey. 

Shibata: I think the most stressful part about it is hearing the constant talk, and all the questions about coming back. It sucks not having an answer, not having anything to say. I figured that if I got myself to the US, the questions would stop, but people kept asking there as well. 

–That’s understandable. 

Shibata: But the difference with America compared to Japan is people would be more direct and straightforward. They’d be saying ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you back in the ring someday!’ and I could deal with that pretty cheerfully ‘I’m doing the best I can, thanks for waiting!’. Always a positive, easy exchange. Japan, things would be a little different, more nuanced. But either way, people were looking out for me, showing support and that’s a good thing, for sure.

–Obviously, our fans want to see you back. 

Shibata: Right, but responding to that kind of comment or question, I’ve found I have to be really careful with my choice of words. There’s differences in opinion, and then you have people taking things in different ways. I never want to cause any misunderstanding.

–There are fans that want you back, but at the same time, there’s concern over your wellbeing. 

Shibata: So I feel it’s been best to be positive and just thank people for their support. That way everyone’s happy.

–There was this incredible reaction from the crowd when they realised what was going to happen that night in the Budokan.

Shibata: It was the same at the announcers’ desks (laughs). But that was because it was organic, right? That ring is a surreal place, but this was something real and raw. You know, I never just want to keep up appearances when it comes to wrestling. 

–I see. 

Shibata: I think there’s a will and an emotion that’s been missing in a lot of NJPW matches in Japan of late.  You might say what you saw in that five minutes was the antithesis of recent NJPW. 

–So there was a message to that?

Shibata: Look, I’m not throwing anybody under the bus at all. Every single one of the wrestlers are busting their asses every night and I absolutely understand that. But there’s an essence, something very important about NJPW that’s been chipped away at. I can’t really put it into words, but I think there are fans that feel without this X factor, it isn’t quite NJPW, or isn’t quite the NJPW that resonates with them, and that’s been really hampered in this COVID era.

It doesn’t end here 


–So you’re standing in the ring in the Nippon Budokan, and that bell is about to sound. What was going through your mind at that moment?

Shibata: Just ‘oh, hey, this is what I used to do!’. It was like something was reawakened within me that had been in a coma for four and a half years. The spotlight, the feel of that mat under my feet. I don’t think medical science can explain it. 

–The power of professional wrestling. 

Shibata: It’s a real thing, it really is. It’s nice to have the comments from the fans that tell you that what you do meant something to them, but really, it’s for me as much as for them. Just being in that ring fills you with this energy.

–So what was it like being out there in front of a crowd again?

Shibata: They aren’t allowed to raise their voices, but I definitely felt the energy in the room. I wouldn’t say I was nervous, it was just a kind of cool, collected excitement. After the match I got out the ring, then got back in and took a bump; I’m still not sure why (laughs).

–That bump got a reaction from the crowd though.

Shibata: I think it was an easy thing to overlook, but in the match you can see me doing a headstand as well. That was all part of the confidence I’d built; it’s been this long since I had surgery, and my skull is completely healed up and hardened now.

–Was deliberately getting in there with the submission master in Zack Sabre Jr. again part of showing that confidence?

Shibata: Right. But that wasn’t the end point. There’s more to this.

–So you have a plan?

Shibata: I do, in as much as I think if I don’t have something to work toward, I would be spinning my wheels. Obviously I understand the people that feel I shouldn’t push myself, but at the same time, nobody knows where my body is at better than me. I don’t want to cause the company, or any of the other wrestlers any trouble, or put anybody in a bad position. I know what I’m capable of, and I know best where I can take things.

That’s Katsuyori Shibata’s professional wrestling, and I’m proud of it

–So could we see more of these grappling exhibitions in future, perhaps?

Shibata: I don’t see why not. I’ve actually been sparring a fair bit with (Ren) Narita and (Yuya) Uemura over in the States. Being able to train like that is a big deal to me; if I couldn’t, it would disqualify me as a coach really. They say those that can do and those that can’t teach, but it’s not true- the teacher has to be the strongest one in the room.

–I see.

Shibata: That’s why the LA Dojo is such an ideal environment for me. I really feel I have to put in the work. It’s weird, but as the Coach, I’m training just as hard as everyone else, and we’re all putting in the work together. It’s a strange, wonderful place, heh.

–It’s definitely not usual for the Coach to do exactly the same thing as the athletes.

Shibata: I can’t stand that style of standing by and yelling ‘do this, do that’. It’s one thing if you’re that grizzled old vet; that’s not the way I want to do things ever, and I think you have to teach with pain. Putting in all that work and trial and error over the last four and a half years, this is the result.

–We all have eyes on what you’ll be doing next.

Shibata: Look, that (Budokan) match wasn’t just a big deal for me professionally, but personally. To my whole life. It was something I’d been envisioning for years. 

–It was a goal, or a checkpoint at least you’d set for yourself for a while.  

Shibata: You have to remember, when I started rehab in 2017, I couldn’t even do a single push up- not even from my knees. I can’t tell you how demoralizing that is. So to come as far as I have is a pretty big deal. And a pretty big step to what’s next.

–So there is something ‘next’.

Shibata: Absolutely. You know, it’s all about going bit by bit to get to where I want to be, and it’s something that requires this relationship of trust with the company. I can’t thank President Ohbari enough for OK-ing the whole thing, and really everybody involved with that exhibition.

–So you’ll keep taking those steps toward a comeback.

Shibata:  I mean, Budokan felt like a comeback to me. That grappling match was Katsuyori Shibata’s pro-wrestling. Everything about these last four and a half years was Katsuyori Shibata’s pro-wrestling, and I’m proud of it, all of it. Now whether it counts within some official rules or not, I don’t know, but take from it what you will.

There are a lot more directions for pro-wrestling to go in

–Do you have any thoughts on the rest of the G1 this year?

Shibata: Well, obviously with that exhibition in mind, I had a close eye on Zack. Obviously if he’d have made the final, we’d have had to delay the whole deal (laughs).

–He had an impressive tournament.

Shibata: He was fantastic. Enough to make me nervous. The KENTA match was really the best of both guys. I think with that Tanahashi match (July 24 in Nagoya) there was a bit of me that wanted him to pull his finger out. I thought that with the G1 he might flash back to a past version of himself, where the canvas was a different colour.

–You got involved in that Nagoya match when KENTA took a shortcut too many. 

Shibata: At some point he became the backstage interview comedian. I don’t give a damn about his relationship with a stupid staff. He can go harder than he chooses to.

–Both he and Zack were factors in the G1 right to the wire.

Shibata: Well, I have a little pride about that. I brought KENTA to New Japan in 2019, and (after winning the RPW British Heavyweight Championship) I was the reason ZSJ came to NJPW as well.

–KENTA tweeted about your exhibition with ZSJ, with ‘I’ve been waiting’.

Shibata: I don’t do Twitter, so I don’t know, but I get the sense every now and then there’s this babyface within KENTA trying to get through this heel schtick (laughs). But that’s the thing, I’m seeing people breaking the rules in that ring, and the fans really not coming along for the ride. It really makes me wonder whether those guys are truly wrestling the way they want to wrestle. It feels to me like Naito, Okada, Hiromu, they’re wrestling with conviction and showing their true selves backstage and in the ring, but there are a ton of guys to where I don’t know what they’re truly about and they’re not exactly expressing it. 

–Like it’s going through the motions?

Shibata: Like it’s painting by numbers. Let’s run this playbook from years ago. It’s old, second, third hand photocopied stuff. Look, I had a five minute match, where we were restricted with the moves we could do. But we did a lot with it, and there are a ton of places we could take it if we did it again. Here we have guys with an unlimited palette, every brush at their disposal. Why are they using it to paint replicas? I’d like to think that five minutes showed everybody that there are plenty more directions for pro-wrestling to move in. The operative word is ‘professional’ after all. 

In part 2, Yuya Uemura, Ren Narita, STRONG and more!



photography by Seiji Yamamoto