On this day, it was the head-butt heard around the world. Four years ago today, New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Katsuyori Shibata wrestled his last match ever. He fought tooth and nail to try and claim the coveted IWGP Heavyweight Championship from the company’s new ace, Kazuchika Okada. But Shibata did something in that match that changed his career forever.
And that’s because he did something that almost cost him his own life.
An Epic match-up
Shibata had come a long way going into this match. He was once pegged to be a future star in New Japan alongside Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura. But that was a decade earlier. After not getting anywhere, Shibata left the company to pursue a career in MMA. Many people felt he had abandoned New Japan during their darkest hour. And when he came back to New Japan in 2012, that stigma was still there. It took many years and lots of hard work for Shibata to be fully welcomed back by NJPW’s fans and its wrestlers.
Fast forward to April 2017. Shibata had spent the prior five years re-establishing himself as one of the top threats in the company. He did this by adopting the most straightforward gimmick imaginable: he was ‘the wrestler’. And that wasn’t some kind of cheesy reference to the Mickey Rourke film. Shibata’s whole gimmick was that he was a grappler, and a dangerous one at that. He parlayed his MMA experience into pro-wrestling, and became one of the most legitimate athletes on the roster. People believed he was dangerous because he combined pro-wrestling theatrics with very real (or at least, realistic-looking) shoot submission holds.
The Head-butt Heard Around The World
Out-grappling and Hard-Hitting
When he wasn’t out-grappling his opponents on the mat, he was hitting them extremely hard. And when he wasn’t doing that, he did something specific that made him an even bigger badass. If his opponent was foolish enough to strike him, Shibata would sit down cross-legged and let his guard down completely. He’d open himself up to take direct hits from his opponents, but then he’d shrug them off like they were nothing. He did this with many people, and he used that strategy to win the 2017 New Japan Cup tournament. In doing so, he challenged then-champion Kazuchika Okada at the nearest show, Sakura Genesis.
For Okada, Shibata was perhaps the most dangerous challenger he had ever faced. Shibata was something like the Brock Lesnar of New Japan, except leaner, quicker, and more comfortable taking the stiffest shots possible from his opponents. Okada would have his hands full; but as long as he could land his patented Rainmaker lariat, that should be enough to win him the match.
The War Ensues
Okada was in trouble from the very beginning. As talented and well-conditioned of an athlete he was, Shibata had a better ground game and wrestling fundamentals. Okada tried and tried to find a different strategy to keep Shibata down, but nothing worked. Not only that, Shibata also started out-striking Okada. When Shibata wasn’t stretching one of Okada’s limbs, he was punting Okada’s back like a football. But Okada didn’t give up. He went toe-to-toe with Shibata and kept bouncing back up, even after taking a savage strike or being trapped in a brutal stretch.
Okada’s perseverance led him to regain control of the match, and then he went for his finish, the Rainmaker. And he hit it. But Shibata barely moved. He had taken an almost-full power lariat and stayed on his feet. Okada had largely been on the defensive up to that point and now his ultimate weapon had failed him.
It was at that point that things went very wrong for Shibata.
Shibata could’ve done anything at that point. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand and looked like he actually might beat Okada. But instead of doing something safe or straightforward, Shibata hit the most dangerous strike in modern New Japan history. He grabbed Okada’s head with both his hands, and he head-butted Okada with all his might. Their heads connected with a sickening thud. It was the most brutal-looking – and nasty-sounding – head-butt in pro-wrestling history.
Okada slumped forward, lucky as all hell that he hadn’t suffered a concussion right then and there.
The camera zoomed in on Shibata, who looked out to the crowd as a trickle of blood poured down his own head. Yes, Shibata hit a man with his own head so hard that he started bleeding. In the moment, it was a sight to behold. Shibata looked like the baddest man on the planet for one brief moment.
But things got much worse from there, and very quickly. Okada fought through the immense pain and somehow, somehow, eked out a victory over Shibata. Actually, it wouldn’t even be appropriate to say that Okada beat Shibata. Rather, Okada survived Shibata. Okada left the match with his hand raised and his title still around his waist.
Shibata left the match and collapsed backstage.
The Head-butt Heard Around The World
A life-changing injury
When Shibata head-butted Okada, the blood wasn’t just from a superficial would in the thin skin on his forehead. When he landed that strike, he also gave himself a subdural hematoma, which means bleeding in his brain. Shibata was rushed to a hospital in order to stop the bleeding and save his life.
But that self-inflicted injury wasn’t all Shibata suffered that day. On April 9th, 2017, Shibata experienced a perfect storm of problems. That hematoma, coupled with dehydration and the cumulative injuries and wear-and-tear on his body, caused him to be briefly paralyzed. In such a short time span, Shibata had gone from being one of New Japan’s top wrestlers to fighting for his life.
There were few reports that came out about Shibata in the coming weeks, leaving many people fearing the worst and hoping for any good sign. Eventually, it was revealed that he was alive and the paralysis had subsided. But his in-ring wrestling career was over. Then, a few months later, Shibata made a surprise return and was met with people literally crying for him. People were in tears because it was a miracle he was even moving. Then, Shibata cut a short but important promo, saying. “I am alive. That is all.”
His promo was met with roaring cheers because people were glad he was ‘ok’. But then reality set in, and those same people realized that Shibata would never wrestle again.
The Head-butt Heard Around The World
A critical mistake
Shibata’ sudden and unexpected retirement was his own doing. He chose to head-butt Okada so hard that he made himself bleed. In doing so, he basically ensured that he would never be cleared to wrestle again. He was still going strong as a wrestler and could’ve continued for at least a few more years. Had he not landed that head-butt, there’s a good chance he would’ve had at least one more match with Okada, which would’ve made sense since Okada’s win here didn’t come across as a decisive ‘I beat you’ situation.
Instead, Shibata forced himself into early retirement and is lucky to be alive. Any kind of bleeding in the brain could be a life-or-death situation, and Shibata ended up in one from his own actions. It wasn’t an accident, but a willful decision on his part to go way too far to one extreme when it comes to realism in pro-wrestling.
‘On This Day’ is a commemorative article series. It is dedicated to specific events, matches, and occurrences in wrestling history. We revisit those key moments and look back at how they went down and what they meant to the wrestling industry. The Head-butt heard around the world is that moment.