Even before the events of NJPW’s Sakura Genesis event, Katsuyori Shibata was famous for his headbutts. I spent part of my Thanksgiving dinner explaining the bootleg Shibata t-shirt I was wearing to my mom. It’s a shirt featuring Shibata’s pointed stare with a trickle of blood between his eyes, inspired by a notable headbutt he delivered to Katsuhiko Nakajima during a match from late 2016. The solid thunk created by their collision is one of the most unnerving sounds I’ve ever heard.
After that headbutt, a slow leak of blood winds down Shibata’s face and the fourth wall of pro-wrestling vanishes. There’s no time for tricks, or blades, just the harsh and off-putting noise of two skulls colliding, with immediate, vivid, red proof of their impact. In the world of strong style, it’s a moment that stands apart, providing irrefutable proof of Shibata’s toughness, his ability to absorb and inflict punishment at the same time. The headbutt is also a maneuver with a high cost. Concussions are already rampant in pro-wrestling, and their specter has become only more prevalent in the years since the Chris Benoit murders. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disorder caused by repeated concussions, has been linked to mental illness and suicide, among other symptoms. The fear of CTE also played a part in the early retirement of Daniel Bryan.
Since 2015, Shibata’s been on a hell of a roll. There was a point where the smart money was on him muddling around in the midcard for the majority of his career, a punishment for abandoning NJPW during an hour of great need, a time when they were struggling to mold new stars. Years later, after his eventual return to NJPW, he had a chance to thrive in the vacuum left by Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles. In their absence, his vicious and hard-hitting style has been highlighted more. His work started to resonate with fans, resulting in an undeniable surge in popularity. This ground-swell of support did not go unnoticed, resulting in a push that culminated with a title shot against Kazuchika Okada at NJPW’s Sakura Genesis event.
In the match, Shibata pulled out all the stops to obtain the IWGP Heavyweight title. After twisting his body to remain upright after a forceful clothesline from Okada, he dragged Okada up, and unveiled a staggeringly potent headbutt. Okada immediately slumped to the ground. Shibata stood tall, and shook the resulting blood and sweat out of his eyes. It’s an indelible moment in one of the greatest recent performances of professional wrestling. Despite Shibata’s best efforts, Okada persevered and retained his title. Afterwards, according to NJPW, Shibata was sent to the hospital and diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, blood pooling between his skull and his brain. He went into surgery immediately. This type of injury is life-threatening.
Shibata should be more familiar with the consequences of head trauma than most, as one of his opponents in the New Lion Cup Tournament in 2000 died from a similar injury. Masakazu Fukuda was injured by an errant flying elbow drop of Shibata’s, suffered a brain hemorrhage, and slipped into a coma. He passed away five days later. Shibata’s hospitalization also comes on the heels of accused domestic abuser Tomoaki Honma’s spinal injury. While there was speculation that Shibata’s injury might be a storyline injury, confluences like these, and additional reporting from Dave Meltzer has nearly conclusively placed this into legitimate territory. Nothing’s 100% in wrestling, but all signs point to this being very serious damage.
In response to the reports of Shibata’s surgery, Gabe Sapolsky, booker of EVOLVE, tweeted that wrestlers need to “Protect the head in 2017.” “I’m concerned if stupid stuff gets over online that upcoming talent that wants to get over will replicate it,” he went on to say, a heartening thing to hear from someone in a position of influence in the wrestling industry. Of course, two tweets later, he was plugging an upcoming Last Man Standing match with Ethan Page and noted daredevil Darby Allin, a wrestler with a reputation built almost solely on risky stunts.
Looking at my t-shirt now, I feel that same sort of cognitive dissonance that one can see in Sapolsky’s tweets, a desire for the people we care about to be safe, but also the acknowledgement that there is a desire for ever escalating violence. I own an article of clothing celebrating an action that ended a man’s career. We all know wrestling is predetermined, a performance of combat, but reality resonates. Pain and violence and blood resonate.
At EVOLVE 82, in their Last Man Standing match, Page hit Allin in the elbow with a shovel. Allin’s now on the shelf for a while as the shovel severed muscle and shattered his elbow. It’s clear that wrestling promoters need to move beyond platitudes designed to placate concerned wrestling fans. It’s beyond time to retire such risky offense from the lexicon of pro wrestling. When intentional bleeding was banned from the WWE, there was fan outcry, but it’s lessened dramatically as wrestling fandom has grown accustomed to the current product. It’s got to be possible to create engaging and impactful wrestling that doesn’t destroy the future of wrestlers.
At a recent NJPW show, fans hung a banner that read “Katsuyori Shibata—We Will Wait for You.” I hope we wait forever. I hope that Shibata never returns, in the same way I hope that Daniel Bryan never returns. I hope these performers that I love to watch stay safely retired, removed from the style they seem to be unable to abandon, even in the face of permanent damage, or death. “Wrestlers should look back and think about dangerous moves they do and the risks they take,” said Shinsuke Nakamura in a recent interview with Yahoo! Japan (translation courtesy of Chris Charlton). If the King of Strong Style can recognize a need for change, hopefully the rest of the wrestling world will be able to follow suit.
Ed Blair is a writer and zinester currently writing out of Chicago. They run the Holy Demon Army Zine Distro, and can be found regularly contributing to the Atomic Elbow, No Friends, and Entropy. You can find them on twitter at @ourcityburning.