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5-Star Match Reviews: Kazuchika Okada vs. Katsuyori Shibata – NJPW Sakura Genesis 2017

Many wrestling fans have called this one of if not the best pro-wrestling match of the 2010s. It was one of the most brutal, intense, hard-hitting matches ever seen. It took the concept of ‘the wrestler vs. the entertainer’, gave it a strong-style New Japan spin, and cranked the stiffness up to eleven. And it was controversial because it included one of the most unnecessary and dangerous moments in modern wrestling history.

The match we’re looking at today took place four years ago and was, at the time, considered the best match in then-champion Kazuchika Okada’s career. Even now, after all he has done, many people see this match as being better than all of his matches, including his legendary matches with Kenny Omega and Hiroshi Tanahashi. Let’s look back and see if this match is really as good as everyone says it is.

Today we revisit the singles match between Kazuchika Okada and Katsuyori Shibata from NJPW Sakura Genesis 2017.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

Two weeks earlier, Shibata won the New Japan Cup (a single-elimination tournament) and earned the right to challenge Okada for his IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Okada accepted this challenge and was determined to beat Shibata just as he had beaten everyone else during his historic fourth reign as world champion.

This match-up was a huge deal for many people because Shibata was seen as the perfect opponent for Okada. Shibata’s gimmick was simply ‘the wrestler’ (and not the Mickey Rourke kind); he was a straightforward grappler that also happened to have a KENTA-level penchant for stiff strikes. Seriously, Shibata was absolutely brutal in his in-ring style. He hit immensely hard, and when his opponents fought back he’d willingly expose himself to take their attacks and then hit back even harder. In the span of five years, Shibata had managed to wash away all the stink of his MMA failures and regained the fans’ appreciation thanks to his awesome matches.

If Shibata won, it would be an incredible redemption story for him. Despite being immensely popular upon his return, he rarely achieved much title success beyond the NEVER title (a midcard belt) and a tag title reign with his childhood friend Hirooki Goto. If he won the world title, he’d be able to redeem himself after having a lackluster early-2000s career his departure to MMA that made a lot of people in New Japan hate him for leaving them when they needed him most.

For Okada, beating Shibata would be an enormous deal. Shibata represented the old Strong Style more than anyone else on NJPW’s roster. He was far more dangerous and legit than any of Okada’s previous opponents, including Tanahashi. If Okada could somehow beat Shibata, it would be a major feather in his cap and he’d convince many more people that he really was the best champion in NJPW history.

The match

This match originally took place on April 9th, 2017. That’s four years ago today.

This is for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. The bell rings and the crowd is overwhelmingly behind Shibata. The match starts off slow with some amateur chain grappling. Shibata ends up on top of Okada and taunts him. Okada remains on defense to avoid getting taught in any submission holds and Shibata smacks Okada’s chest mockingly to get under Okada’s skin. They separate and Shibata goes to the mat and opens himself up, taunting Okada to try and get him. Okada looks for any kind of opening but Shibata is just too quick and agile and counters Okada easily. Shibata wrestles into an armbar on Okada’s main lariat arm but Okada holds on to prevent Shibata from applying it fully. Okada fails and Shibata gets a shoot-style armbar in, but Okada quickly gets to the ropes and escapes the ring.

Back in the ring, Okada gets a hammerlock but Shibata counters easily and gets his own armlock on Okada’s other arm. Okada counters into a heel hook, but Shibata quickly counters into a headlock with some clever transitions. This guy really knows his amateur wrestling. Shibata escapes a neck scissor and gets his own heel hook in but Okada escapes and we get another standoff. Now the crowd is a bit more split than they were before.

Okada goes for an armlock but that quickly turns into another countering exchange that, unsurprisingly, Shibata wins. Shibata applies a deep headlock and does this amazing job of making it hurt more by rolling his hands together, causing his forearm to dig into Okada’s face. I love the little things like that which make something look more credible and painful. Okada shoots Shibata into the ropes and ducks down but Shibata sees this coming and goes right back to the headlock. This has been tremendous thus far.

Okada tries to power out of Shibata’s headlock but Shibata keeps it cinched in. he finally gets Shibata into a corner and unloads with some stiff forearm shots. The crowd boos that and Shibata charges out of the corner and boots Okada down, which gets loud cheers. Now Shibata does the same to Okada with corner forearms. Shibata runs to the opposite corner for a running attack but Okada chases him and hits him hard. Okada turns to charge and Shibata follows him to the middle of the ring, shaking his head. Forearm exchange. Shibata gains the upper hand and Okada slumps to the mat. Shibata snapmares Okada and punts him hard in the back. Wow, that sounds brutal.

Shibata goes for a figure-4, but Okada uses his free hand to block Shibata’s leg from cinching the hold in fully, so Shibata answers by cranking Okada’s other ankle even more. Amazing psychology and logic by Shibata. Okada lets go and the Figure-4 is fully applied. Shibata drags Okada to the middle of the ring and wrenches both legs as hard as possible. Okada fight and fights and eventually gets to the ropes. The hold is broken, but the damage has been done.

Shibata doesn’t give Okada time to breathe as he puts on a type of Muta Lock that damages Okada’s legs even further and then switches to a bow and arrow hold. Shibata whips Okada into a corner and lands a yakuza kick, but Okada counters and places Shibata on the top turnbuckle and dropkicks him out of the ring. Shibata lands hard and Okada gets some critical time to try and recover.

Okada whips Shibata into the barricade and then boots him over it. He follows with a Randy Orton-style draping DDT off the barricade. Shibata returns to the ring at the count of sixteen and eats a swinging neckbreaker for the first two-count of the match. Okada follows with his Deep In Debt reverse chinlock submission hold and starts targeting Shibata’s neck to weaken it for his Rainmaker finisher. Shibata reaches the ropes, but Okada takes his time letting go, which gets boos from the crowd. He’s clearly frustrated that Shibata has had his number thus far in the match.

Okada snapmares Shibata and lands his running basement dropkick then lands some corner elbows, but Shibata nonchalantly walks out and gets in Okada’s face like a boss. Okada lands a forearm and Shibata asks for another. Okada obliges and Shibata asks for more. Shibata continues to ask Okada to hit him harder and harder, and then drops Okada with one super-stiff forearm. Talk about badass. Okada falls to the mat and Shibata starts to falter but stays on his feet. Finally, someone that understands Kawada-style delayed selling.

Shibata lands a pair of corner yakuza kicks and unleashes more forearms, followed by an explosive running corner missile dropkick. Not satisfied, Shibata does the same thing onto the steel barricade and gets a two-count in the ring. Shibata applies an abdominal stretch; and when Okada reaches the ropes Shibata knees him hard in the gut. Shibata goes for a German suplex but Okada grabs the ropes for safety, only for Shibata to kick his arm so hard that Okada slumps down in pain. Shibata lands more stiff strikes and charges but Okada lands a desperation big boot to knock him down. Okada lands a corner elbow followed by a DDT and then kips up Shawn Michaels-style. I guess he has now fully recovered from that earlier Figure-4.

A running uppercut gets Okada a two-count then goes to the top rope. Shibata gets up and charges so Okada rolls down and then counters Shibata’s charge into a Tombstone. But Shibata counters into a sleeper. No wait, Okada counters and sends Shibata into the ropes and hits a flapjack. Diving elbow drop. Rainmaker pose. Okada goes for the Rainmaker lariat. Shibata counters into an STO sweep. Awesome counter.

Both men get to their knees and start trading forearm shots. They go back and forth with neither man relenting, then get to their feet and do the same. Shibata hits so much harder because you can hear the loud ‘thud’ with each strike he lands. Shibata wins this exchange and gets loud applause from the crowd. Then Okada gets a sudden burst of energy and lands some big uppercuts. Reverse neckbreaker. Diving shotgun dropkick by Okada for another two-count. Not only does Shibata kick out but he counters into a grounded armbar out of nowhere on Okada’s right arm. he looks like he’s going to break it at any moment. Okada pulls himself with all his might to the ropes and gets a break. And as soon as he gets to his knees Shibata punts his arm with incredible force.

Shibata’s in full control as he taunts Okada to get up and lands more brutal kicks to Okada’s weakened arm. growing ever cockier, Shibata rubs his foot on Okada’s head and then bitchslaps the top of his head, which angers Okada. They go nose-to-nose. Shit is about to go down.

Shibata bitchslaps Okada and Okada sits down while asking Shibata for more, pulling a trick out of Shibata’s playbook. Both men sit down cross-legged in front of each other and trade brutal slaps, with Okada having to shake his arm with each because of how hurt that arm is. Shibata lands an exceptionally hard slap and Okada explodes into the corner with a barrage of stomps. Corner shotgun dropkick by Okada once more. Okada goes for a foot choke but Shibata catches his leg, so Okada lands another forearm and charges…but walks into a dropkick from Shibata. Shibata unloads on Okada with brutal stomps and punches. The crowd erupts in Shibata chants. Soccer kick to the back. Shibata charges for the running Penalty Kick, but Okada counters with a standing dropkick. Both men go down.

Okada gets up first and lands a running dropkick but Shibata sits up Undertaker-style as the thirty-minute mark passes. Okada lands another running dropkick that hits hard, but Shibata uses the momentum to get to his feet. Running yakuza kick by Shibata. High-angle German suplex. Okada gets up right away and lands another dropkick. Bicycle kick from Shibata. Shibata charges again. Okada dodges and lands a German suplex. Both men struggle to move as Okada refuses to let go of Shibata. Rainmak—no, Shibata kicks Okada’s arm, and then his head. Okada refuses to go down, and connects with the lariat. But SHIBATA DOESN’T EVEN MOVE. He powers through the impact and stays on his feet. Holy Shit! This is incredible. MASSIVE HEAD-BUTT FROM SHIBATA! Okada goes down! Shibata hits Okada so hard he starts bleeding from his own head!

Shibata remains in control as he applies an octopus hold and tries to stretch Okada’s entire body in unnatural ways. Okada tries to walk to the ropes with all of Shibata’s weight on him but can’t and falls to the mat. Okada looks to be close to tapping but refuses to give up. He tries and tries to reach the ropes but Shibata has the hold cinched in deep. With each move Okada makes, Shibata switches it up into another hold to attack Okada’s limbs. Shibata’s ground game is amazing. Then, after what seems like forever, Okada makes it to the ropes and the hold is broken. I have no idea how Okada has any strength left to move, much less fight.

Shibata maintains control with another big kick to Okada’s chest and applies a sleeper hold. The crowd erupts in cheers, supporting both wrestlers equally. Okada looks like he’s faltering, then gets to his feet, then falls back down to his knees. He tries once more to reach the ropes, but Shibata counters into a Kobashi-style sleeper suplex. Spectacular counter. Shibata waistlocks Okada. Rainmaker SLAP! Okada falls to his knees and eats tons more kicks to the chest and shoulder. He slumps over looking like he’s barely conscious. But Shibata isn’t done. He wants to punish Okada for being born and unloads even more stiff soccer kicks. Shibata prepares to charge, but Okada grabs his arm. Rainmaker lariat! Okada maintains wrist control. They get to their feet and trade kicks to the face. Okada lands another Rainmaker. Shibata stands defiant and then falls forward. Okada nearly collapses on top of Shibata. Rainmaker #3! One, two, three! Okada survives Shibata!

Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 38:09: Kazuchika Okada

Review

I have similar thoughts about this match as I did for the famous Undertaker-Michaels match from WrestleMania XXV. This is a 99%, nearly-flawless match that got tainted by one instance that almost ruined the whole match. And while that Taker-Michaels match was messed up by an accident that wasn’t the fault of either wrestler, this match got messed up by an intentional action on Shibata’s part that was two parts badassery and a hundred parts incomprehensible stupidity.

This match was well on its way to being one of the greatest pro wrestling matches I have ever seen until one specific spot: Shibata’s head-butt. The video I got on New Japan World must’ve been edited because there was no sound of the impact. But when I first saw this match a few years ago, that head-butt landed with such a sickening thud that it made me legitimately uncomfortable. Shibata hit Okada so hard that he made himself bleed. In the moment, it was an absolutely tremendous display of toughness, badassery, and his will to win. But that moment was forever tainted by what happened afterward.

After the match, Shibata collapsed backstage and was rushed to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma. In laymen’s terms, he suffered bleeding in his brain, which was attributed to his repeated use of the head-butt as a signature move. That hematoma, coupled with dehydration, extreme exhaustion, and wear-and-tear on his body, caused Shibata to suffer from paralysis for a short period. For a few months, people wondered if he would even survive. And when he made a surprise return three months later to say that he was alive, there were genuine tears from fans because they considered it a miracle he was even moving. But the consequences were still clear: NJPW would never clear Shibata to wrestle a match again; and to this day he has not actually been in a match since then.

That has effectively made this match Shibata’s swan song, which is both good and bad. It’s good because this is one hell of a great way to end one’s career. But it’s bad because he was forced to retire due to his own dumb decisions.

Personally, I think head-butts are stupid in general. You’re hitting someone with your skull, and there’s a very high risk of damage to both the hitter and the person being hit, even if the impact is intended to be minimal. In fact, the diving head-butt was a move that did considerable damage to the wrestlers that used it most. The Dynamite Kid suffered back problems afterward, Daniel Bryan had to retire temporarily due to increasing damage to his head and neck, and Chris Benoit…well, we all know what happened to him.

I understand that pro wrestling has lost a great degree of realism over the past few decades. I understand the need to show as much legitimacy as possible in the ring. I understand that some wrestlers simply wrestle in a stiff style. And I understand that fan expectation has changed to the point that they expect more from wrestlers, which necessitates greater degrees of risk and therefore stiffness.

There’s a fine line between stiff and stupid, and Shibata more than crossed that line in this match. He head-butted Okada so hard he put his own life in serious peril. The only silver lining in this incident is that he didn’t hurt Okada when he did the same move, and that made Okada looked like a tough sonofabitch for absorbing such impact and continuing.

Aside from that glaring mistake from Shibata – and some inconsistent leg selling from Okada, such as landing a dropkick and running around mere minutes after having his legs brutally worked over – this match was absolutely phenomenal. The opening grappling sequences made Shibata look less like an underdog and more like the most legitimate threat Okada had ever faced.

Shibata was in control for most of the match and seemed to be the final immovable object against Okada as the unstoppable force. There was nothing Okada could do to weaken Shibata decisively. Shibata came across as the toughest and most badass wrestler in the world here. Instead of falling down or looking to be pain after eating a forearm, he stared daggers at Okada and basically asked ‘please, sir, may I have some more?’ and Okada was more than happy to entertain Shibata’s requests; but when he did and Shibata either no-sold or beat him up even harder, it shook Okada’s confidence. How could he hope to beat Shibata when Shibata seemed to absorb everything he did without being affected? That turned this match completely upside down. Instead of Shibata being the underdog challenging ace Okada for a title he never won, Okada became the underdog that was desperate to survive a man that, throughout the match, out-grappled and outfought him at every turn.

In that sense, this match reminded me of the famous Kobashi-Akiyama match from 1998. In that match, like here, the title challenger out-foxed the champion and seemed to have his number for the bulk of the match. But the champion powered through and landed enough desperation big moves that he was able to eke out a victory. That’s exactly what happened here. Okada landed some desperation Rainmaker lariats that somehow, somehow were enough to keep Shibata down for the three-count.

But it wasn’t a decisive won for Okada. He was on defense for most of the match and only won by landing a few critical surprise counters and three Rainmakers. That made sense considering how much time and effort Shibata put into weakening Okada’s lariat arm. But still, Okada won, but this was less a dominant win and more of a display of survival. Had Shibata not messed up his career – and his life – in the way he did, you can be sure they would’ve had a rematch at some point.

Final Rating: ****3/4

If it weren’t for Shibata’s stupid head-butt and Okada being a bit inconsistent in selling Shibata’s legwork, I would probably rank this match as not only a perfect 5-star match, but as somewhere in the top twenty matches of all time. Almost everything that happened before and after the head-butt was tremendous. The wrestling, counters, drama, unpredictability and excitement were all off the charts here. And the stiffness here was on an even higher level. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a match this stiff, not even from the 1990s All Japan matches. And by wrestling in such a stiff style, it made both guys look like the toughest men on earth. That was especially true for Okada, who did his best to absorb the unrelenting punishment of a guy famous for hitting people so hard both JBL and Hardcore Holly would ask him to stop.

But Shibata ended his own in-ring career – and indeed, almost ended his own life – because he decided to ignore common sense for the day.

Watching the blood flow down his head like that made me cringe, almost recoil in disgust, because something was very wrong. He was bleeding from the forehead, and it was a steady stream of blood that came down without any hint of blading. While the skin at that part of the head is indeed thin, you still need to put in a lot of force to break that skin the hard way. And Shibata did so, but not by punching himself or by hitting an inanimate object, but another person’s head. While the match itself was awesome, it’s hard to re-watch it without escaping the shadow of what’s to come. Shibata’s brutal head-butt looms overhead like a dark cloud, making it virtually impossible to immerse yourself in the match knowing that move is coming.

Shibata went too far trying to be a strong style wrestler. And in doing so, in my opinion, he forgot how to be a professional wrestler in the first place.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.

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