Staab: Okada Masterful at Sakura Genesis, Shibata Takes ‘Strong Style’ Crown

Jesse Staab reviews the main-event match at New Japan's Sakura Genesis.

Expectations can either make you or break you. For every LeBron James, there’s a handful of players like Michael Olowokandi. Remember him? Probably not, my point exactly.

Katsuyori Shibata, who was once labeled as one of the “New Three Musketeers” along with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, has in most regards failed to live up to those lofty expectations. After leaving New Japan Pro-Wrestling for nearly six years, Shibata has had to witness his fellow Musketeers reach the uppermost echelons of wrestling superstardom. Despite all of that baggage, since returning to NJPW in 2012, he has worked his way back up the ladder and stood in the ring at Sakura Genesis with the backing of a crowd desperately eager for him to walk away with the sport’s most illustrious prize, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

His opponent, the face of NJPW and reigning champion Kazuchika Okada, walked into the ring knowing he’d already put on one of the greatest matches in professional wrestling history earlier this year. The problem with that though is if you do it once, people expect it all the time. Personally, however ,I didn’t even entertain the idea that any match could get near the six-star classic. In fact, this mixture of expectations floating around the ring — for Shibata to finally reach his full potential and for Okada to continue his unheard of level of brilliance — could have weighed down both men and left us as fans severely disappointed in the end product.

When it was all said and done though, saying that this match lived up to those loftiest of expectations can’t even begin to do it justice. My choice for Match of the Year is now very much in question.

In the beginning stages of the match, Shibata took a full-mount position and stared at Okada with a look that screamed, “You and I both know I’m better than you.” Shortly thereafter, he invited Okada into his guard only to take his back and attempt a submission. Once Okada denied Shibata a clean break, which the crowd was happy to register their disgust over, the match heated up and a rollercoaster of brutality ensued. As the match progressed towards its climax, just like Okada proved he could withstand the leg locks of Minoru Suzuki, he again showed us all he can hang with the true King of Strong Style. At one point, Okada even sat down to trade blows with Shibata, to as guest English commentator Kevin Kelly said, “Prove he could beat him at his own game.”

Like the best of what New Japan has to offer, this match felt like a fight.

Ultimately in this fight, Okada prevailed. But only barely after hitting a Rainmaker just before Shibata could ram yet another forearm into his face. For those 40 minutes, I fully believed these two men would do anything to walk out as champion. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Shibata did and it could be why we remember this match as something more than the five-star classic that it was.

According to NJPW and the Tokyo-Sports newspaper, Shibata suffered a subdural hematoma and successfully underwent surgery. Included in the Tokyo-Sports article were quotes from a Doctor expressing hesitation about whether or not Shibata would ever wrestle again. On the flip side, comments from Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter — while neither confirming nor denying the legitimacy — have caused some to wonder if we’re all being worked. While I don’t subscribe to this theory, I just know that I really love watching Katsuyori Shibata wrestle, and after this masterpiece, I really hope I get to see it again.