Katsuyori Shibata: The Wrestler Wrestles Again

Katsuyori Shibata is back. Four words to cleanse the soul.

On what was the final night of a quite gloomy G1 Climax, ‘The Wrestler’ made his remarkable wrestling return. With no build up, promise or even tease, Shibata wrestled once again in an encounter against Suzuki-Gun’s Zack Sabre Jr. This was a long way from the Shibata of 2017, who experienced the most-serious of health scares, paralysis, emergency surgery and the reality that he would likely never wrestle again. However, the ever-defiant Shibata is able to take pride of place in a wrestling ring once more.

Inside of an understandably shocked Budokan Hall, Shibata strode to the ring his traditional non-pompous self before the ring announcer proclaimed a 5-minute UWF Rules exhibition match was about to take place. Shibata’s first wrestling competition since the horrors of his 2017 injury, and his first physical involvement since 2019 and tentative engagements with KENTA.

Zack Sabre Jr. confidently entered the arena as the precursor to Shibata’s instantly recognisable music playing from the speakers. The Brit, off the back of a stellar run in the G1 Climax 31 A Block, came to the ring unannounced wearing all white. The very attire he donned for his previous and only singles match with Katsuyori Shibata. Dripping with fitting imagery, ZSJ placed himself in one corner of the ring. As the crowd waited patiently for what was to come, ZSJ began to stretch (as if to prepare for a match).

Seconds later, the opening charms of Shibata’s theme rang-out and he soon emerged wearing black shorts, trainers and his trademark towel around his neck. The understated nature of Shibata hasn’t changed over his four year absence – he’s still one of the most stoic, pertinent and interesting wrestlers in the world.

The grappling exhibition he put on with Zack Sabre Jr. was as perfect as a 5 minute match could be. A glorious display, which delivered exactly what you would expect from these two back in a wrestling ring even after Shibata’s emotional hiatus.

The incredible progression from the expectation that he would probably never wrestle again in 2017, to his tearful proclamation that “I am still alive! That is all” at the final of that year’s G1 Climax. While recovering, he took on the lead role of the revamped LA Dojo and even introduced the debuting KENTA prior to G1 Climax 29.

At the close of that tournament, Shibata got the closest to in-ring competition since his tragic, yet beautiful battle with Okada two years prior. Reeling from the betrayal of KENTA joining Bullet Club, Shibata raced to the ring and fought his once ally. He was quickly overwhelmed, and endured a bruising attack from KENTA which left him laid out in the ring. 2019’s Power Struggle saw a similar picture, as KENTA once again attacked ‘The Wrestler’.

Of course, swirling around came the rumours, as hopes of Shibata wrestling again flooded NJPW. These soon tempered as it looked set that we’d never see him grace a wrestling ring again. However, out of the darkness the light shone.

Shibata proudly announced following his sportmanly time-limit draw with ZSJ that the “next time I’m in this ring, it’ll be in my [ring] gear!”. Perfectly succinct.

The crowd built with COVID-restricted excitement, as even with the stringent prohibitions of fans cheering, shouting and chanting, a true gasp couldn’t be missed. The buzz energised every inch of the famous building, as it could be felt so vividly even sitting at home watching the show.

From the second Shibata walked down to the ring to the second he left for the back after his match, my eyes were glued to what I was seeing.

Unmissable. Unbelievable. Unpredictable.

Katsuyori Shibata returning to the ring has been a dream for New Japan fans ever since it became the slimmest of possibilities, and now that near impossibility is the brightest of realities.

As much as it’s important to remember this is only the beginning of his return, it’s also crucial that we realise it won’t last forever. Shibata looks in sublime shape, although as the G1 Final itself showed later in the show, injuries can happen very suddenly. All hope is that Shibata can wrestle at his very best and be relieved of any injury concerns. Fingers crossed!

We don’t know how long this run will last, but having Katsuyori Shibata back in a pro wrestling ring for NJPW is beyond amazing. So, no matter how long his return lasts or who he fights in it, it’s undoubtedly one of the most exciting things in wrestling today.

There are a plethora of opponents that New Japan could put up against a rejuvenated Shibata. His thrilling grappling exhibition match was a litmus test for what promises to be a superb in-ring return for ‘The Wrestler’.

He’s back, and he’s back for good.

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