TOKYO, Japan – Let’s talk about New Japan, because I hardly talked about New Japan last week right after Wrestle Kingdom 11- their biggest show of the year, their WrestleMania.
By now everyone’s heard of the 6 star Meltzer-rated IWGP Heavyweight Championship match between Kenny Omega (a Canadian) and champion Kazuchika Okada. That’s all well and good, and everyone should definitely go watch that match, but let me warn you now that while it is a true wrestling marvel, it’s also around 45 minutes long. The match had to go that long and resist being abridged in order to get rated that high, and I can’t blame some fans if they don’t have an hour to burn just watching one match, even if it was rated 6 stars.
For fans who only watch WWE for most of their lives (and it’s hard not to when the company puts out more than 6 hours of wrestling every week—and they’re looking to put out even more) they’re going to need something to latch on if they want to try something new. Yes, there are Western wrestlers and WWE alumni that they can watch and get behind, like the aforementioned Kenny Omega and Cody Rhodes, the newest recruit of the Bullet Club. But for those who want to sink their teeth into the promotion by following a Japanese wrestler that’s easy to like, may I suggest one Katsuyori Shibata?
As my title for this week’s column implies, if you’re missing the experience of watching Chris Benoit wrestle, then nobody around the world fills that void in better than Shibata. The Rabid Wolverine wasn’t a great mic guy, but he carried about him the magnetism and charisma of a wrestler who cared for nothing more than cold, efficient brutality inside the squared circle, and that’s what drew people to him—fans who, to this day, will defend Benoit’s body of work after the horrific final moments of his and his family’s lives. (A position I agree with, but I’m not going to argue his inclusion into the Hall of Fame for the same obvious reasons.) Shibata, laconically nicknamed The Wrestler, has that same air about him, and puts it all together in an arguably better package.
Where Benoit can chain-wrestle, power-wrestle, and strike in a way that inspires people to cheer for him, Shibata can do even more brutally. Watching his matches really does feel like watching a Benoit match from last decade. It also helps that the Japanese puroresu style involves a lot of absorbing punishment and fighting through it, so what Shibata does in the ring should come across as even more inspiring. In fact, Shibata’s pretty much the last bastion of the true Strong Style—yes, that exact thing Shinsuke Nakamura is bringing to the States by way of NXT—in NJPW, as everyone else wrestles a mix of the WWE and independent/Japanese styles.
And why should you jump on Shibata’s bandwagon? Truth is, it looks like you’re going to see more of him around the world. He’s getting more and more bookings in other territories as the day goes by and his fanbase grows—in fact, just before Wrestle Kingdom 11, he won Revolution Pro Wrestling’s British Heavyweight Championship from Zack Sabre, Jr. and came into the big event a double champion. His NEVER Openweight Championship loss to Hirooki Goto may be a signifier that NJPW is ready to put him out in the rest of the world. Or he’s ready to venture out, and NJPW’s affiliate promotions are ready to make him a headliner if they can’t get guys like Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, or current IWGP Intercontinental Champion Tetsuya Naito.
Of course, Shibata’s not without controversy as well, like the guy I’m comparing him to right now. Back in his rookie year, he (accidentally) killed a fellow young wrestler after a wayward elbow drop to the poor guy’s forehead. He’s earned the ire of NJPW Ace Hiroshi Tanahashi for leaving the company to unsuccessfully pursue an MMA career, but the two have since patched up their differences. Now, Shibata figures himself in a little personal scandal where he apparently had an affair with another girl, which is a very big deal in the honor-obsessed Japanese culture. While that may very well derail his rising star in New Japan, I have a feeling that he’s amassed enough momentum for his career to be sustained outside the company. That is, of course, if NJPW allows him to wrestle outside its borders after this.
Regardless of where Shibata’s going next, if, at the very least, you need someone to be your entry point into the wild world of New Japan Pro Wrestling, you can’t go wrong with this guy and his work in the past couple of years. His violence and brutality is a work of art in itself, especially for fans who are looking for something to make them believe, once again, that wrestling could be real. That when the right elements are brought together, it could be more beautifully violent than mixed martial arts and boxing. Let’s just hope Shibata’s style doesn’t bring him to a similarly tragic end as Benoit’s.
Do you listen to podcasts? Would you want to listen to a local podcast about pro wrestling? If the answers to those questions – especially that last one – are yes, then you should check out the cleverly-named Smark Gilas-Pilipinas Podcast, featuring Mellow 94.7 DJ and PWR General Manager Stan Sy, wrestling writer and Wrestling God Romeo Moran, and all-around multimedia person and former voice of PWR Raf Camus! This week, Camus returns from Japan and shares all about his live Wrestle Kingdom 11 experience! – Rappler.com