Heading into Ryogoku April 9, Shibata seeks to take the fight to Okada, and to NJPW itself!
–Let’s start by talking about your IWGP title challenge on April 9. When you won the New Japan Cup (NJC), you said you hadn’t really considered which title to go for but there was someone you made a promise to. That led to you going for Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship.
Shibata ‘When it came to the point of “OK, choose a belt”, it was the only choice. I hadn’t forgotten what happened three years ago.’
–Three years ago, February 11 in Osaka. You stood opposite Okada after he defended against Hirooki Goto. Okada said ‘if you really want to challenge me, go and win the NJC’.
Shibata ‘I went and did what he said. I had to. Until that moment Okada, as far as I was concerned, was untouchable.’
–You certainly haven’t met often in the ring. At the press conference, the word ‘overprotected’ came up…
Shibata ‘I don’t know whether the company wanted to protect Okada, or what it was. But for the last three years, the words ‘Okada’ and ‘IWGP’ never crossed my lips. Hell, I didn’t get as far as ‘O’ or ‘I’. That’s how divorced from that scene I felt, I was guilty of backing away from it myself.’
— Like you just now came in range?
Shibata ‘Right. But that said, I was always aware of him as champion. When I had the NEVER belt last year, that was only the third Championship of my career, but to me, that title run was something I could use to be in that conversation.’
‘I’m not a cog in the New Japan machine. There’s still a part of me that’s opposed to the company.’
–You said that the idea of taking on any challenge anytime should be at the core of everyone in New Japan.
Shibata ‘Yeah. “If you won’t do it, I will”. That’s the mentality I had as (NEVER) champion. Spiteful almost! Pause. I really believe New Japan is the best promotion in the world. I honestly think it’s fantastic. But that mentality I talked about is something we really have to be careful not to forget. It’s what’s in my blood, and what I brought to every defense.’
–This is the first IWGP title shot you’ve had since returning to New Japan in August 2012 with those famous words ‘I came here to pick a fight’. Has it felt like a long time to you?
Shibata ‘… It’s felt long, yeah. I think this conflict I have with New Japan is still going on. Last March I said that I wanted to fight here, but I’m not a cog in the New Japan machine. There’s still a part of me that’s opposed to the company.’
— Last March you signed your contract with New Japan saying ‘there have been too many goodbyes this year. I’m not going to leave’. That said, you still have a mentality of you versus New Japan.
Shibata ‘I do. My stance hasn’t changed. I think it’s that stance that brought me to this point. Without it I wouldn’t make it to the start line.’
–So is the IWGP title of big importance to you, given that anti New Japan view?
Shibata ‘It comes along with it ultimately. And Okada being champion now as he was three years ago, it’s all come together. If someone else had that belt I wouldn’t be able to make good on that promise. laughs’
–You seized your opportunity.
Shibata ‘It took a while, but I did what he challenged me to do. And then on the other hand, Minoru Suzuki came back and he did get his shot just by standing across from him and calling him out. You might think “why couldn’t you tell him what you told me?” but then maybe it’s because I am who I am that he said it.’
‘I watched that last match with Okada back, and said to myself “That isn’t what I want to do”’
— But with things as they are in New Japan, with such a competitive space and everything being so fluid, it’s extremely rare for a match to be three years in the making.
Shibata ‘Or it’s all reasoning I was able to piece together, heh. I’ve only been in a few tags with Okada so there hasn’t been the chance for us to touch.’
— You just had the one singles match in the 2013 G1 Climax.
Shibata ‘That video is out there, so after I won the NJC, I went home and watched it back.’
— And what did you think?
Shibata ‘Ah, Okada was young! Laughs. I was a lot more brash. But I said to myself “that isn’t what I want to do”.’
— It was a different kind of match to the one you want to have now?
Shibata ‘Yeah. I mean, last year, I defended the NEVER title, I wrestled abroad a lot, and that formed who I am today. Okada is a different guy from three years ago as well. So I want this to be a match between the two of us in the present.’
— Certainly Okada’s presence and visibility has grown over the last three years. From a wrestler’s perspective, how has he changed in your opinion?
Shibata ‘Well he was voted, what, fourth best wrestler of all time, right? Laughs.’
— On the Pro Wrestling General Election TV special, yes.
Shibata ‘He has that resume, and he has that exposure. But to me, what makes a great wrestler is more than results, and it’s more than hearsay. It’s something you feel in your skin. It’s pain, it’s strength, it’s something you can only find out being in the ring with someone. That’s why I’m so excited for this match.
‘All that’s left is to show an Okada we’ve never seen before. And to beat him.’
— You haven’t felt this excited for a match for a while?
Shibata ‘Not for a long time. This kind of anticipation. I’ve always brought a challenger’s mindset to the ring. Even as NEVER champion, I approached each match as if I was chasing. But now I won the NJC, I’m chasing after the brass ring.’
— You finally have the Okada match you wanted and finally have the title match you wanted.
Okada ‘Okada and I never touched, and so it’s all come down to perfect timing. If I hadn’t won the NJC, who knows when an opportunity like this would come up again?’
— It’s appropriate that it happened around the 45th anniversary as well. There aren’t any wrestlers around the company now from that day in March 1972, but your father was a part of that event, and it’s fitting that his son should challenge in such a significant year.
Shibata ‘It’s interesting to think about it that way… this is my chance to etch my name in that history.’
— You said you were born and raised in New Japan.
Shibata ‘Right. It’s in my blood, I can’t change it.’
— You also said you wanted to change the perception of the same people challenging for the IWGP title.
Shibata ‘I’m not the only one who gets sick of the same people cycling in and out of the main events. I think there’s a lot of people that think “how about something different? How about this?” And I think that day has finally come.’
— You can feel like times are changing.
Shibata ‘I felt it in the reaction from the fans when I won the NJC, and when I said Okada’s name. All that’s left now is to show an Okada we’ve never seen before. And to beat him. That’s all.’