Like Wrestler Like “Son”: Katsuyori Shibata Interviewed (1/2)

The Wrestler talks Ren Narita’s return and the state of the LA Dojo

With his first match since Wrestle Kingdom on AEW Rampage recently, and LA Dojo product Ren Narita in the finals of the NJPW World TV Championship tournament at Wrestle Kingdom 17, Katsuyori Shibata has had a busy autumn. We sat down in the middle of that autumn to discuss Narita’s return, the status of the LA Dojo and more. 

It isn’t about the path less travelled, it’s the one nobody’s ever been down at all

–So first of all, let’s talk about Ren Narita’s return on October 10 in Ryogoku.

Shibata: If I’m honest, there was still a lot I had to teach him, and I think he’s still a work in progress. But I guess he was fated to return now, and I’m not one to stand in the way of that. 

–When you say you had a lot to teach him, would there be a message you’d want to express to him here in this interview?

Shibata: When you’re young it’s not just OK to screw up, it’s important to. Antonio Inoki had that whole poem about taking a step on the path, and it becoming the path. To not feel lost. But I feel like if you don’t get lost and learn from it, you’ll be a young boy forever. It’s important to keep moving, and look for the right path as you do. 

–I see. 

Shibata: If you’re doing that, well, I think that if you’re always lost then you’re never lost. The easiest path is the worst; in my opinion I don’t want him to go down the path less travelled, I want him to go down the path nobody’s ever travelled before. What that takes is completely up to him, and it isn’t for anyone to decide on his behalf. 

–So that experimentation is key. 

Shibata: Exactly. He should be thinking. He should be troubled. He should be lost. Wrestling is just the same as anything in life; there aren’t any easy answers. We think therefore we are. The people that take shortcuts and take a road already carved out for them never grow and never amount to anything. That Inoki poem isn’t about having confidence in a framework, it’s about finding yourself in the process. 

–What were your thoughts on Narita’s re-introduction? 

Shibata: Honestly I think he was done dirty. He went on excursion for two years, came back and was right back where he started (in the first match). I think it’s a short list that were treated worse on their return. But that’s the hand he was dealt; it becomes a matter of moving up from there and changing those perceptions. 

–You want him to rebel against the system a bit.

Shibata: I do. I went through a similar thing when I came back to NJPW, and it became ‘OK, I have to rail against all of New Japan’. That’s the attitude I brought with me to the ring. What we’ll see now is just how far he can live out Narita’s vision for NJPW. 

Of course it won’t always go well

–Did you speak to Narita after his return? What advice did you offer him?

Shibata: He isn’t really one to wear his heart on his sleeve. I told him not to worry about getting heat from anybody above him, and just let all his anger and energy out.  You can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.

–So he should have courage in his convictions.

Shibata: What he needs to have in his mind is his own image for this company. I got a lot of heat when I was younger (laughs), but that’s important, and it cultivates that image. You look at (Yuya) Uemura, I think he has a clear idea of what he wants his NJPW to be.  

–To get into the nuts and bolts a little; I know before the Korakuen Battle Autumn events you were working with Narita on his elbow strikes. 

Shibata: His elbows in (the Ryogoku) match were the s*its, so I basically pulled him aside and said ‘I hit them like this’. I used to have the same issue of being able to do something fine in practice, and it coming apart a bit in my matches. 

–Oh you did?

Shibata: When I was in Makai Club, yeah, heh. When I was wearing a mask in that whole deal, I felt I could do anything, and then when I was wrestling with the mask off I stank up the joint. Kantaro Hoshino (Makai Club manager/leader) would yell at me all the time- ‘Masked Makai #4 is great, and Katsuyori Shibata sucks’. I think everyone goes through those confidence issues, and it’s up to you to fix that yourself. 

–So it’s something Narita has to figure out on his own. 

Shibata: Narita was the golden child in the Noge Dojo, a model student. Then when he came to LA, he really struggled. It was the first time in his wrestling life that he couldn’t just instantly pick something up, and that changed him as a man. When we knew he was going back to Japan, he and Uemura sparred on his last day in LA. They beat the p*ss out of one another so badly he could barely stand. 

–So you think you’ll keep training with Narita when you are in Japan?

Shibata: I don’t want him to forget the pain… yeah of course, I’ll train with him if he wants to. If I’m there in the venues, I’ll watch his matches and give him feedback, because I know he’ll come and ask for it. But yeah, whenever we can train together we will.. as long as he doesn’t get mixed up with Suzuki-Gun or BULLET CLUB or something (laughs). 

 –You do have that KENTA experience.

Shibata: I hope he’d have the guts to tell me before he did at least. I’ll be honest, after that first match in Ryogoku, I thought he was going to turn there and then (laughs).

I just taught him the bare essentials

–Speaking of BULLET CLUB, Narita’s last match in the States was against Juice Robinson, where he won with the Palo Special. You used that move sparingly in the past; it was made famous by the manga and anime ‘Kinnikuman’.

Shibata: I didn’t think he’d be using that.  Something you might not know- the Kinnikuman artist Takashi Shimada actually gave his approval for me using that move. He said ‘if anybody tried the Palo Special, that’s exactly what it would look like’. So I’m pretty proud of that move.

–Oh wow.

Shibata: One day, Narita came to me and asked me to teach him the hold, but I said ‘not yet’ and then I never did. Thing is, I thought he needed more work on hs kicks and the fundamentals, but he went ahead and learned that move on his own. 

–Narita has used a lot of different routes to success in his matches. He doesn’t seem particularly focused on one finish over another.

Shibata: That speaks to what we were talking about before. He’s still finding that image of himself as a professional wrestler, and he’s experimenting as he goes. He’s actually quite the stubborn type, so his base is his base, but he’s good at trying something while he’s practicing, and thinking that one move or another would suit him in New Japan. 

–Do you think that experimentation is a good thing?

Shibata: Oh, for sure. If you break down the word ‘match’ in Japanese, the kanji mean ‘come together’ and ‘test’. When the brackets for that (NJPW World TV Championship) tournament came out, I told him to really think about how he would face each opponent. When he was tagging against Ishii before their title match, one thing I told him is yelling ‘come on, bring it’… it’s nice to show the fire, but he shouldn’t be coming to you- you should be going to him.


Shibata: When a wrestler stands in the ring and yells ‘bring it on!’ all the audience thinks is ‘well, why aren’t you?’ I think telling him that rattled him a bit. But that’s fine, it’s all growth. How far he grows and in what form, that’s all on him.

–What form would you like him to take, if it were up to you? People see him as your favourite student.

Shibata: Oh, do they now (laughs). I don’t really think about how I’d like him to be, or how he is right now. I’m just excited to see what will happen next. I hope fans feel the same way; less about what he’s like at this or that point in time, but more about the line that connects those points. All I ever instilled in him were the bare essentials, and the spirit. Everything else is up to him, and that growth is going to be exciting to see. 

–Hopes are high.

Shibata: He could be with me forever and I’d still not feel I’ve taught him enough, but I have to let that go, I think. Everybody always says how similar he is to me, but if he really wanted to be like me, he’d have to walk out the company, right?

–Like you did.

Shibata: That’s how hot headed I was. But he can’t surpass me doing the same things I did, and he would have no reason to take things in that direction. It’s a completely different environment, different set of circumstances now to what things were like then. Anyway, he shouldn’t be afraid of screwing up, and keep doing his own thing. 

All these guys coming back should be a major turning point for NJPW

–To go back to Uemura a bit, what do you think of his progress?

Shibata: America really suits Uemura. He’s doing really well, and we’re training a lot together. He’s gotten a lot bigger as well. 

–High praise from the strict sensei.

Shibata: Hey, I can’t tell a lie. I’ve been teaching him some stuff I used to do that would fit with him as well, and it turns into both of us experimenting, connecting moves together. He’s a good training partner for me. 

I really feel when he gets back to Japan, he’s going to be a big, big deal; I’m interested in seeing what Narita does in the meantime. I really think when all these guys are back in Japan, it’s going to spark a major shift in New Japan. 

–How are the non-Japanese LA Dojo members progressing?

Shibata: Kevin (Knight) is great. I want him in japan as much as possible. That dropkick is literally money. People will pay to see that dropkick.

–A match for Okada?

Shibata: It’s a different level, even to Okada. See that live, and there’s no telling people not to raise their voices, heh.

–The DKC made his Japanese debut earlier in the year.

Shibata: Right. That was when Alex Coughlin was scheduled to come, but he had his injury, and DKC went in his place, but he did great. He had fun, but I would have liked to see him in there with another Young Lion so he could show his true colours I think. 

–Hopes are high for Coughlin as well. So, final words of advice for Ren Narita when it comes to the NJPW World TV Championship?

Shibata: I don’t think there’s anything I can say here I haven’t already… Don’t hesitate, just go! How’s that?