NJPW: 'Strong Style' and Its Fight with Head Trauma

It was April 9th and I was very excited. 10,000 people were jammed in to the historic Ryogoku Sumo Hall and it was now main event time. After making his stylish entrance, the IWGP champion and New Japan Pro Wrestling’s centerpiece Kazuchika Okada had finally arrived. Opposite him stood “The Wrestler” Katsuyori Shibata. After returning to the company almost five years earlier, Shibata had built an immense fan-base due to his hard-hitting, smash-mouth style. Sure he had a cool aura to him as well but at heart there was a more visceral appeal to the magnetic man. To put it in simple terms his stuff just looked harder, realer and nastier.

I had probably watched over a hundred Shibata matches prior to that day and I’d seen him do some pretty violent things, one obvious example being his love for sickening head-butts that would make even the wildest fan cringe. As I type this it’s obvious to me that I always knew the damage being done by these moments but at the time, I just shrugged it off. No matter how hard that head-butt sounded, Shibata was almost always there for the next show and though at times he may have come with some bandaging, how hurt could he really be right? Either way I had fallen in love with Shibata as a wrestler, he just seemed so fun to watch and considering that, you can imagine my excitement for his title match with Okada.

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It had taken Shibata some time to earn the company’s trust after walking out in 2005 but now he finally seemed set for his run at the top. Whether he’d win the prestigious belt on that night or not, a title run felt imminent and this was undeniably Shibata’s biggest match ever up to that point. When the bell rung he certainly delivered too, as he and Okada went back and forth in a dramatic and enthralling affair. There was a beautiful story behind the physicality also, as Shibata fought frantically, his desperation increasing by the minute. My memory reminds me of the visual of sweat flying off of both men’s body with each strike, clearly there was real contact being made but it didn't put me off because this is pro wrestling right? What’s the worst that could happen?

Then one particular image comes to my mind and along with it a sickening sound. Everyone watching was already invested when suddenly Shibata uncorked a brutal head-butt and a vile thud echoed throughout the arena. It made me grimace a bit but once again, I’d seen it before and everyone had come out fine in the past so my mind quickly moved on as the wild action continued. I was still completely invested up until the end and as the finish came, I sat back and pondered whether or not I’d just watched my favorite wrestling match of all time. As hard as it is for me to believe three months later, that was my honest thought at that time.

Here’s where things in my memory get a little fuzzy though. All I know is that soon after the final bell reports surfaced that Shibata collapsed backstage and had been hospitalized. After some brief talk of it being a work, the reality became clear and whether we wanted to accept it or not, Katsuyori Shibata was in a very bad way and we’d watched the damage take place live. Suddenly I couldn't hide behind the fantasy that ‘real’ harm wasn't actually being done because now all of our fears had come to fruition in graphic fashion. And for what? The match wasn't improved by that head-butt in any way, it was just unnecessary violence. I watched a man destroy himself in front of my own eyes and worst of all, at the time I loved every minute of it.

On live viewing Shibata vs. Okada felt like one of my favorite matches ever but after everything that happened after, I’ve not re-watched it once and frankly, I doubt I ever will. I want to make it clear that I’m not critiquing these men and the choices they make inside that ring because of course, it’s their life and their career. However what I am saying is that whilst the wrestling world explodes in NJPW excitement as the G1 approaches, I’m left on the outside, unsure as to why I can’t be interested like I was just months ago. I’ve tried too, I still watch all of the major matches but it feels different to me now, every risky spot seems a little less fun, even if they aren't as visible as that Shibata head-butt.

When I see Omega and Ishii go flying through a tiny wooden table in California three months after the Shibata incident, I just struggle to get excited. I can’t shake the feeling that there’s probably someone out there flicking channels and scoffing at these two ‘fake’ wrestlers and their ‘fake’ fighting when in reality, these two men are legitimately battering each other and the casual viewer probably doesn't even know the difference. That audience will always deem themselves to be too smart to be fooled by the physicality of wrestling but as history has shown, there’s a proven way around that mentality and that’s entertainment. An entertaining character or personality will make that channel-flicker forget about the ‘fake-ness’ because they don’t care at that point, they just want to see this one person in their element.

Kenny Omega is certainly an engaging personality and Ishii brings an unparalleled aura of toughness but one has to ask the question: if the whole audience watching this match knows that this is scripted so to speak, why are these two men actually damaging themselves so legitimately? By the final stretch of that match Omega and Ishii had people hooked on their every move and as is always the case with elite pro wrestling, they genuinely cared regardless of how ‘fake’ it was. It has to be said though, would we have cared any less without that table spot? Would we have cared any less if those strikes weren't quite as stiff? I don’t know the answer, I’m just considering the question.

To be clear I’m not picking on this match as it was undeniably fantastic and not really a bad offender of the head trauma issue but the point still stands and makes one ponder: what really even is professional wrestling in 2017? Well I guess it depends on who you ask, what they like and where they come from but in this case I can only tell you my view. Writing about wrestling is almost always about just sharing your own opinion but generally, I try to cover a little more ground than that. On this occasion though that’s a little tougher so I apologize but in this case I simply have to explain my own perspective.

To me, in 2017 pro wrestling works better as pantomime than it does as sport. When I watch someone elicit a huge response by doing something completely harmless or simple I smile because to me and maybe me only, that is pro wrestling at its purest. To me pro wrestling is about getting a lot from a little and connecting with people organically, whether it be with a talent to entertain or a more subtle skill to garner an emotional response with everything you do. I reiterate, Ishii and Omega are capable of these things and so are the rest of the NJPW roster but that doesn't limit the amount of hard strikes that we see regularly, most of which are completely unnecessary.

I do understand that it’s mostly because the NJPW product is different and very much built on ‘strong style’ but I just feel like after all we’ve learnt about head trauma, we should have moved past men taking so much damage to the head, especially when there’s minimal precautions seemingly in place. Once again though, it’s up to the wrestlers to perform however they want and I’ll never change that view but I guess my overriding thought is, I just can’t support that attitude anymore. Ignorance is bliss and in my time as a NJPW fan I’d never seen the famed stiffness lead to anything serious but that changed with Shibata, and with it changed my whole perspective.

I’m not educated or qualified enough to approach this topic scientifically so I understand if you don’t take any of this seriously but please know that this isn’t wrote out of spite but instead more out of fear. I sense that attitudes haven’t changed in the approach taken in Japanese wrestling and that scares me. I know it shouldn't but it does and I simply can’t change that. When I watch something that’s entertainment I don’t want to see people severely damaging themselves in such obvious fashion. Everything in wrestling is obviously risky but overly hard strikes don’t seem ‘risky’ but instead actively dangerous. It’s not a question of if they’re doing damage but instead, how much.

It’s heart-breaking to read updates on Shibata’s health three months later and each time I do I’m reminded of all this and how brutal the effects actually were and are. I wholeheartedly understand why people love NJPW and I wish them all the best but I can say that as of this moment in time, I’ve come to accept that I just don’t want to watch it and more than that, I almost struggle to appreciate it. This isn’t supposed to be a damning critique in any way but instead just my own thoughts on something that whether we like it or not, is very serious and even in 2017, still painfully relevant. As always I’m not saying that I’m right, I’m just saying what I believe and right now I believe a lot more in a smart style than I do in a strong one.

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