Over the weekend the news began to spread that not only were Katsuyori Shibata’s injuries following his match with Kazuchika Okada not a work, but that they could potentially put an end to his career. According to Dave Meltzer, the combination of that now horrifying headbutt and dehydration led to Shibata’s subdural hematoma, and he was temporarily paralysed down his right side. While he is now communicating and recovering in the hospital, it is believed that the chances of him ever being cleared to wrestle again are low.
All of which is slightly terrifying. Not necessarily because Shibata won’t fight again, – although as a huge fan that it is, of course, sad – but because for the second time in a matter of months a New Japan star has been injured in a way that could destroy their quality of life. Honma and Shibata’s injuries aren’t the kind you bounce back from. They’re the kind that leaves you in a wheelchair.
Which leaves me with a horrifying feeling of guilt. For not only do I love Shibata, but I love it when he hits people really fucking hard. Not long ago I wrote an article for WhatCulture highlighting the hardest hitting wrestlers in the world for that exact reason. Stiff wrestling is what I pay to see, and when Shibata headbutted Okada and that trickle of blood made its way down his forehead, I flinched, but I also cheered. I’m part of the problem.
The obvious counter-argument to that is that these are grown men. Shibata knew exactly what he was doing, and it was a risk he chose to take. Others wrestlers work stiff styles but in a much safer way. When Tomohiro Ishii headbutts someone, it looks like it hurts, but when you look at it closer, he’s very rarely headbutting a hard part of the body. Shibata has made the decision to do these things, and that’s his choice.
Or maybe you point the finger at New Japan. You can say it’s their fault for not clamping down on these moves. That behind the scenes Gedo should be telling them to stay away from these sickening headbutts and that if they do them – much like in WWE – a hefty fine will come their way. It’s a point that certainly can be made, and even Shinsuke Nakamura has spoken up and questioned whether things need to change.
But the company don’t allow it to happen for the sake of it. I’m sure Gedo and Jado would rather have a fit and healthy Shibata dishing out three-star matches without the stiff blows than that one five-star match and a broken down Shibata sitting at home. I doubt they’d think twice. I can’t imagine anyone would. So why don’t they enforce it? Why take these risks?
Because it’s what the fans expect which is where we come back to that guilt. I can’t talk for the rest of the world, but I can for myself, and when I tune into New Japan Pro Wrestling I want to see things I can’t see in WWE. And most of those things, are dangerous. From Takahashi’s sunset flip powerbomb to the outside to Shibata’s blows, they set the wrestling apart. But they also hurt people. They take years off careers, and I revel in it, so why wouldn’t I feel bad?
This isn’t restricted to New Japan either. Ever since I set my eyes on Matt and Jeff Hardy leaping off ladders, I have been in love with daredevil wrestling. The TLC matches are still some of my favourites of all time and in many ways are directly responsible for wrestlers taking more and more risks. How much longer would Edge and Christian have been able to wrestle without them? And will wrestlers like The Young Bucks one day have to step away because of the leaps they’ve taken?
Then there’s Nigel McGuinness and Daniel Bryan, the two wrestlers who first introduced me to the world outside of WWE. Their battles in ROH opened my eyes to so many things, and that love of stiff wrestling I spoke about? It stems from there. Yet, sitting here, however many years later, both of them are retired. In Bryan’s case directly stemming from concussions which you can’t help but link back to those matches. While McGuinness saw his dream to sign for WWE shattered, partly down to the discovery he had hepatitis B which he believes was caused by blading in bloody matches. Two more careers hurt by men going the extra mile to provide entertainment to people like me.
Of course, none of this even touches on the countless other injuries and bumps. Mick Foley’s broken down body or Stone Cold’s surgically repaired neck. Christ, how many wrestlers have succumbed to drug addictions? Caused by the need to self-medicate a life of throwing yourself onto your back. All of these men and women have done this to entertain wrestling fans.
It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of guilt about these things, but it’s equally as easy to dismiss it. It’s no different to any other sport; football players, gymnasts and rugby stars all put a strain on their bodies. Wrestlers are handsomely paid, it’s a two-way deal. They do it out of passion. The love I feel for this sport is the same love they feel, and they do what they do because they want to. All those arguments have a basis in fact, but they also miss out so much.
As wrestling fans, we can’t bear responsibility for every freak accident. If Jinder Mahal catches Finn Balor with a dodgy elbow or someone slips at the wrong time, no one’s to blame. However, we can’t dismiss our role in it either. We demand more, and if we keep getting it, people are going to get hurt. Katsuyori Shibata’s injury is horrific, and it’s not my fault, but the motivation behind it comes from a culture that I helped to grow, and maybe it’s time that we all step back and think about whether that’s the future we want for the thing we love.