To watch New Japan Pro Wrestling is to step into another world, one in which nobody really cares that the results are predetermined because there is a willingness from everyone involved to buy fully into the fiction. In NJPW, pro wrestling is a sport, a revered one at that – to the point that the Olympic torch ceremony was to feature the heavyweight champion, Kazuchika Okada, as the symbolic flame bearer in Tokyo this summer. Strong Style, a hybrid of mixed martial arts and pro wrestling as it is more traditionally performed, lends itself to legitimate displays of tough guy bad-assery combined with dazzling feats of athleticism, some gravitating toward one end of that spectrum over the other. In other words, the physicality is more overtly NFL than Hollywood, so even the biggest detractor would struggle to claim “it’s fake” while watching NJPW’s top talents beat the tar out of each other. It is a fascinating and truly engrossing product.
New Japan’s version of WWE’s network-streaming service, njpwworld, offers a treasure chest of amazing matches that hold up with and at times take to the next highest level of the artform the library of classics produced in the mainstream North American wrestling scene during the WrestleMania Era. One that I recently happened upon reminded me a lot of the all-time Top 10 of the Mania Era caliber war between Triple H and Cactus Jack / Mick Foley at Royal Rumble 2000, a match that saw the champion, HHH, have to prove himself by entering the challenger, Foley’s, chosen “Street Fight” environment and exiting victorious with his tough guy bonafides confirmed. The NJPW match I reference is Kazuchika Okada vs. Katsuyori Shibata at Sakura Genesis 2017.
Shibata actually was forced into retirement at the conclusion of this match, a legit headbutt he delivered busting him open during the match and causing a subdural hemorrhage within the hour that followed the final bell. He had emergency surgery on the same night that he wrestled the match of his life. It therefore garners a bittersweet memory, like if Daniel LaRusso’s leg was too injured for him to ever fight again after kicking Johnny Lawrence in the face to win the All Valley in Karate Kid. Shibata played the Foley role against Okada, welcoming the Rainmaker into his realm of hard and relentless strikes. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi at WrestleKingdom 9 might have offered a better and purer example of Strong Style, but that was two specialists – two kings, if you will – of that style going head-to-head. Okada is perhaps the perfect hybrid, arguably the best wrestler of the last twenty years in terms of his body of work, but Shibata made it a Strong Style match essentially, like Foley made HHH fight him at Madison Square Garden seventeen years earlier. Further historical evaluation would be needed for me to claim Shibata-Okada my favorite version of Strong Style overall, so I would safely call it for now the greatest version of a Strong Style savant against a hybrid wrestler. The story told between them was captivating on a level reserved only for the all-timers.
Okada-Shibata was a match that made me miss packed arenas full of invested enthusiasts. Had the same match taken place in the clap-heavy pandemic era in New Japan, which does currently allow masked fans who cannot chant, it would not have been nearly as good. That is not to say that it was Rock-Hogan, a performance largely carried by audience participation, but Shibata’s brand of Strong Style is so strike heavy that one Grappl (a star ratings app) user gave it 0.25 stars. Aesthetically, dozens of New Japan wrestlers I’ve watched in the last few years while becoming a fan of the NJPW product are far superior to Shibata. Okada vs. Omega the Rainmaker’s bout with Shibata was not. It was comparably long yet without the slick sequences Okada, Omega, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Kota Ibushi would employ to give the crowd a jolt of adrenaline. Imagine Daniel Bryan if he only did his striking and submissions; that’s Shibata. A great story is a great story, though, regardless of the devices used to tell it.
It was a war, every bit as dramatic as the 6-star ratings scale-breakers that sandwiched it in 2017. Perhaps the Okada-Omega series has overshadowed the Shibata-Okada masterpiece among the talking heads of the English-speaking language, the victim of an extra star putting an all-too-mythical distance historically between Omega-Okada and its fellow 5-star classic. I wonder, though, if domestic fans in Japan feel differently. Maybe it does not get talked about as much because of the tendency in modern society to dwell on the negative, in this case that Shibata to date has never wrestled again. His legendary performance was akin to Elway retiring after 2 straight Super Bowl wins.
So, Shibata-Okada is basically the Terry Funk vs. Ric Flair “I Quit” match to Okada-Omega’s Ricky Steamboat vs. Ric Flair series in 1989. It just so happened that four of the greatest matches ever wrestled took place within a few months of each other.