At the G1 Climax 31 Finals, fans got a big surprise as Katsuyori Shibata returned to competition. Shibata battled Zack Sabre Jr in a five-minute exhibition that ended in a draw. After the exhibition, Shibata promised that the next match would be for real before taking a back bump.
Speaking to NJPW, Shibata detailed how the grappling bout came to fruition.
"Truth is, I’d actually those shorts for that match made for both of us. Of course, if Zack had made the G1 finals, it wouldn’t have happened, but it all lined up. Taking into account what I wanted to do, and what I can do, it all led to him being the best opponent. He and I are about the same size, so I went to my usual gear makers and asked for two sets of shorts, one white with a British flag on there. So I got a bit of a weird look asking for a British flag (laughs). I managed to get the shorts to him indirectly, but whether he would wear them, that was up to him. Then when he came out not just in those shorts but with that same old ring jacket he used to wear as well, it was like ‘ah, he got the message!’. It was a bit of telepathic communication," he said.
Shibata continued by saying, "I’d suggested to the company what I wanted to do, and they made the connection to Zack, so it was a bit circuitous. But he’d been bringing my name up in his comments backstage, and at any rate, from when I first got hurt and started thinking about what I could do, I figured the best way would be to start with something that didn’t involve any strikes. Not just for me, but for the people watching as well. What you saw with the grappling rules thing, that was a step forward. A big step forward, like something went from zero to 1 in my mind, but a step forward. And it took me four and a half years to get to that point; not a two steps forward one step back thing, but the culmination of a ton of effort and inching forward to that point."
Shibata hasn't wrestled an official match since April 2017 due to a subdural hematoma. He was involved in an angle with KENTA in 2019, but a match never came to fruition. He helps train the young lions at the NJPW LA Dojo.
Speaking about his comeback, Shibata said, "I think the most stressful part about it is hearing the constant talk, and all the questions about coming back. It sucks not having an answer, not having anything to say. I figured that if I got myself to the US, the questions would stop, but people kept asking there as well. But the difference with America compared to Japan is people would be more direct and straightforward. They’d be saying ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you back in the ring someday!’ and I could deal with that pretty cheerfully ‘I’m doing the best I can, thanks for waiting!’. Always a positive, easy exchange. Japan, things would be a little different, more nuanced. But either way, people were looking out for me, showing support and that’s a good thing, for sure."
When it was noted that fans want to see Shibata back, he responded by saying, "Right, but responding to that kind of comment or question, I’ve found I have to be really careful with my choice of words. There’s differences in opinion, and then you have people taking things in different ways. I never want to cause any misunderstanding. So I feel it’s been best to be positive and just thank people for their support. That way everyone’s happy."
While speaking about the crowd and the energy, Shibata also addressed the back bump and gave an update on his condition.
"They aren’t allowed to raise their voices, but I definitely felt the energy in the room. I wouldn’t say I was nervous, it was just a kind of cool, collected excitement. After the match I got out the ring, then got back in and took a bump; I’m still not sure why (laughs). I think it was an easy thing to overlook, but in the match you can see me doing a headstand as well. That was all part of the confidence I’d built; it’s been this long since I had surgery, and my skull is completely healed up and hardened now," he said.
Asked if he has a plan, Shibata said, "I do, in as much as I think if I don’t have something to work toward, I would be spinning my wheels. Obviously I understand the people that feel I shouldn’t push myself, but at the same time, nobody knows where my body is at better than me. I don’t want to cause the company, or any of the other wrestlers any trouble, or put anybody in a bad position. I know what I’m capable of, and I know best where I can take things. I don’t see why (I can't do more grappling matches). I’ve actually been sparring a fair bit with (Ren) Narita and (Yuya) Uemura over in the States. Being able to train like that is a big deal to me; if I couldn’t, it would disqualify me as a coach really. They say those that can do and those that can’t teach, but it’s not true- the teacher has to be the strongest one in the room."
It is unknown when Shibata will return to the ring.
You can find Zack Sabre Jr's comments on the grappling bout by clicking here.