Wrestler’s Road: Katsuyori Shibata Interviewed (2/2)

 Katsuyori Shibata reflects on Antonio Inoki

In the second part of our interview with Katsuyori Shibata, we spoke to The Wrestler about Antonio Inoki’s passing, and on Inoki’s influence over all of wrestling and Shibata himself. 

Being second generation gives me a different connection. Really without him there is no me

In the second part of our discussion with Katsuyori Shibata, The Wrestler shared his memories of Antonio Inoki, and his philoophies on pro-wrestling at large.

Read part one here!

–You recently attended Antonio Inoki’s funeral service. Can you talk a little bit about how the news of his passing affected you?

Shibata: He was always just the living embodiment of life itself. I don’t think anyone expressed an energy quite like him, so as weird as it sounds I really couldn’t imagine him ever passing away. 

–I see. 

Shibata: He was such a bundle of energy that I really thought even as his body was getting weaker that he couldn’t die. I’d just built an image in my head that he’d keep going on forever. Like he always said ‘if you have energy, you can do anything’, and he showed that when that energy goes, life goes with it. 

–What was your relationship with him?

Shibata: It goes back to my dad (former NJPW wrestler and referee, the late Katsuhisa Shibata). I remember hearing from my dad that when he came back from excursion to Mexico, the Boss made the trip all the way to the airport to pick him up.  Then as soon as he started NJPW, he asked my dad to be a part of it. 

–Oh really.

Shibata: A lot of wrestlers can say they were influenced by this company, but I literally exist because of it. Back in the day, my dad was on the road when he met my mom. So it really is the case that if it wasn’t for NJPW I wouldn’t be here. 

–Quite something to think about.

Shibata: If the Boss hadn’t founded NJPW, and hired my dad, literally I wouldn’t even be born. It’s weird to think about, but it’s true. 

–Did you interact much with Inoki?

Shibata: At the Tokyo Dome one time, I can’t remember when, I was sparring with Ishizawa (Tokimitsu, later famous as Kendo Kashin), and the Boss came in and trained with us. He lay on the mat, arms and legs outstretched and he goes ‘OK, try me!’. I really cinched in this Achilles hold on him and he just didn’t react at all. I knew there was a rumour he was double jointed, but I thought ‘wow, it’s really true’. Then he just had no problem escaping from anything Ishizawa had either. That was the image I had of Antonio Inoki until this very day. 

–Quite the story!

Shibata: Oh, and I think I took more than my share of Inoki Slaps (laughs). Back in Sapporo I think it was? The famous town hall thing (February 1 2002). Chono, Nagata, Nakanishi, Tenzan, Tanahashi, Kenzo (Suzuki), they all got whacked. I was a bit ahead of myself, but I thought I should get one, so I hopped in with a ‘please sir’!

–Oh right!

Shibata: Being second generation gives me ties to NJPW that nobody else really has, and definitely without the Boss there wouldn’t be a Katsuyori Shibata.

It’s up to me to pass on strong style, fighting spirit, or it ends with me, Tanahashi and Nakamura

–The memorial ceremony we had on October 10 in Ryogoku seemed to affect you. 

Shibata: A couple of days before Ryogoku, Kevin (Knight) had a match in San Francisco. I’d planned to go there, see his match and then go to Japan, get in early evening. But when I heard we were going to do a ceremony for Inoki san, I felt I had to be there, so I went with Kevin to SF but I didn’t see his match, just went straight on to Japan and arrived at 4AM.

–It was that important to you.

Shibata: I felt I had to be there. It didn’t really feel real until that ceremony. I was in LA when the news of his passing came about, so (Yuya) Uemura, DK (The DKC) and I watched some of The Boss’ matches together. 

–What was his funeral service like?

Shibata: What was strange was carrying the casket, Tiger Hattori was there as well, but just be chance, me, Tanahashi and (Shinsuke) Nakamura were all lined up net to one another. I’d had a dream about the same situation the night before, but I hadn’t known Nakamura would be there. It felt in that moment, with all of us right there next to one another like the Boss had been pulling strings for it to happen. 

–There’s a lot of history for you three. 

Shibata: We went through a lot, but you actually rarely see us together. Whenever we are all in the same place, it’s because of something significant, I think, so it’s really weird we were all together in that dream I had. And I’m not kidding, we were carrying this casket, and seriously, it suddenly got really heavy. There were ten wrestlers holding this thing, but it was still really heavy. (Keiji) Muto said ‘this is him testing us one more time from the world beyond’.

–One last message from Inoki.

Shibata: I don’t know, but that’s the way I chose to take it. 

–To you, what does that concept of Strong Style that he promoted really mean? 

Shibata: I watch Inoki’s matches a lot, all the while thinking what makes them special. I’ll be honest, I can never put my finger on quite what that is. It’s an intangible, but it’s something that other wrestlers and the fans feel and can’t explain. 

–I see.

Shibata: I went through everything I did avoiding the words, but they became associated with me. But i kind of think that it’s something that NJPW as a whole is losing in a sense. 

–You feel that?

Shibata: I think probably us three, me Nakamura and Tanahashi, we were the last. That’s why I feel it’s up to me to pass on that Strong Style, or that Fighting Spirit. I’m not criticising NJPW in terms of the incredible things it does, or the high level that there is in that ring, but I don’t see that same ‘Tokon’, the same Fighting Spirit. 

The foundation of Katsuyori Shibata the wrestler is New Japan Pro-Wrestling

–So what does fighting spirit mean to you?

Shibata: To me, really as it sounds. Right now NJPW has a lot of complex things happening at this tremendously high level, but when I see people who don’t usually use a Cobra Twist go for it, and they’re not trapping the leg, I wince. 

–Those finer details aren’t there.

Shibata: At Inoki’s funeral, one of the pictures at the altar was of him putting that hold on Tiger Jeet Singh. And man, that is the textbook, dictionary definition of that hold. The Japanese manji gatame name is because those bodies are in the exact shape of the manji symbol for a Buddhist temple. That picture used to be hung up in the Dojo, and I have these vivid memories of doing all those squats and pushups while looking at it. Everything in that photo expresses pain, exertion and this drive and spirit. 

Would you say those principles of fighting spirit have had a direct influence on the way you live?

Shibata: I never really thought about it all that much, but if you really psycho-analyse then yeah, I think there’s a ton of influence there. I don’t really think about my roots on a base level, but when you think about it, the very foundation of Katsuyori Shibata, the Wrestler, is New japan Pro-Wrestling itself. 

–I see.

Shibata: That’s why even when I left NJPW, I stayed in the black tights. Deep within, on a base level, I was always representing my idea of what NJPW is; it’s just that I was taking my own path, and left so as not to cause trouble to the company. When I was fighting MMA, I accepted every single fight, even if I had an offer on a day’s notice. That’s the spirit I always kept with me. At the end of the day, I kinda love this place (laughs).

–That comes across.

Shibata: I had carried this idea for a long time that pro-wrestling equals New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and only NJPW. When Genichiro Tenryu and Toshiaki Kawada came to wrestle here, I felt I needed to broaden my mindset about pro-wrestling. So I got to wrestle Jun Akiyama in NOAH, and then met (Masakatsu) Funaki, trained with him, and got the idea to try my hand in MMA. 


Shibata: That wasn’t a case of pro-wrestling, MMA, one being better or more important than the other. It was about becoming a stronger wrestler, I think. I didn’t want to be a wrestler who couldn’t fight. And that comes back to the original question- that is the NJPW mindset to me. What made me want to come to NJPW was the October 9 ’95 Dome card with U-Inter. Ishizawa and Yuji Nagata vs Kanehara and Sakuraba. That’s the kind of wrestling I wanted to do. 

–That famous opening bout. 

Shibata: Then a month after I came into the company was the Boss’ last match (April 4 1998). So I was just here in time to see him come to the Dojo to train before his retirement match. 

I have a really concrete idea of what is and isn’t NJPW

–It’s like fate. 

Shibata: And because of all that, I have a really concrete idea of what is and isn’t NJPW. I don’t bend on that. And yeah, there’s parts of that some might think are old fashioned or stubborn, but I really feel that there’s some things we shouldn’t ever let go of. But I’m not just an old man yelling at clouds here; if you see the guys coming out of the LA Dojo then you’ll know how permissive I’m being (laughs).

–…But there’s something underneath there that you aren’t going to let give way. 

Shibata: It’s hard to cut a long story short, but leaving NJPW, doing MMA, it was all out of a feeling of wanting to be stronger, wanting to be tougher. When Nakamura was doing MMA fights while being part of NJPW, I wanted todo K-1 fights, or strike only stuff as a pro-wrestler. 

–I see. 

Shibata: What got me back to NJPW was the Inoki New Year’s Eve card in 2011, in the Saitama Super Arena. Shinnichi Suzukawa and Atsushi Sawada vs me and Sakuraba. 

–How so?

Shibata: That one match was billed as pro-wrestling. But it was really close to that UWF style that appealed to me. In the end, Sakuraba held Suzukawa back while I hit a dropkick, and I crashed down hard on my arm. Broke it, clean. But afterward, even though my arm was killing me, all me and Sakuraba were talking about was how fun it was, and that pro-wrestling was a path for the two of us.

–Oh, wow.

Shibata: Obviously I was out for six months with a broken arm, but in that all I really felt that if I was going back to wrestling, it had to be with NJPW. So in the end it was Inoki that led me back to that path- even if he asked me to come to IGF first (laughs). I didn’t hesitate and I found my way here.

–Finally, Wrestle Kingdom 17 will be a special Antonio Inoki memorial event. How do you intend to be a part of things?

Shibata: I don’t know how I will be a part of things, but for now I will say I will be at the Tokyo Dome January 4. I won’t let the words fighting spirit disappear from the wrestling world.