Tuesday, August 13, 2019

On Katsuyori Shibata, Health, and Concern

How should you feel about Shibata potentially returning? I can't tell you.
Photo Credit: NJPW1972.com
Katsuyori Shibata never really left New Japan Pro Wrestling. Although his last match with the company was an IWGP World Heavyweight Championship opportunity where he suffered a subdural hematoma on a headbutt to then-(and now)-Champion Kazuchika Okada on April 9, 2017, he still was in the orbit during his recovery. He announced that he was "back" although not in a wrestling capacity last year at the G1, and he's taken a sentry position as the head trainer at the Los Angeles Dojo. The way he figured into the G1 this year, both as the guy who brought in KENTA and who whipped Hirooki Goto into shape, it probably should not have been shocking to see him physically involved. That being said, when he fought back against a KENTA who betrayed him by joining Bullet Club, it was further involved than most people would've expected. Watching him do the bombs-away corner dropkick again brought waves of euphoria to a group of fans, myself included, who missed the hell out of seeing him in the ring.

The move raised questions as to whether he's coming back. Wrestlers can do spots in the ring that don't involve them bumping on afflicted areas without being medically cleared. According to Dave Meltzer, Shibata has not been cleared for full ring activity yet, with yet being the operative word. I doubt they would've had the Bullet Club attack him if the plan wasn't to get him back into the ring. Almost immediately, some people, whether or not they were excited to see Shibata do stuff in the ring, started to question whether or not it was a good idea.

This instance wasn't the first time the health of a wrestler coming back from a long absence of injury was discussed at large by wrestling fans, critics, and journalists online. When Daniel Bryan returned, people were skeptical that he'd be able to work without getting hurt. People clutched pearls when he landed on his head in his first singles match back on Smackdown against AJ Styles. He's still wrestling and the edge has come off. Is he still at risk to be hurt? Of fucking course he is; he's a wrestler. It's not a safe industry, and it never will be. Of course, you never stop trying to make it safer and safer, but sometimes, you have to wrestle with the reality that no matter what you do, shit will happen that you can never see coming, and you have to react rather than proact.

Shibata's injuries being more severe in nature than Bryan's is a factor, sure. All reporting said that he was close to dying, that he lost sight in one eye for a short while, and that he probably damaged his brain. Seeing facts like those can be daunting, and it's human nature to be concerned for people you like, even if you don't know them. That being said, the only way that you can be 100 percent certain that a wrestler coming back from a major injury is a bad idea is if you're privy to that medical history, and not just the stuff that's been reported. Much like with Bryan, Shibata may be undergoing treatments that will help him wrestle again. If those treatments work and he shows no signs of whatever injuries befell him after that admittedly ill-advised headbutt, I don't see any reason why he shouldn't go back to the ring.

The linchpin here, however, is that even more than Shibata himself, New Japan has to be incredibly careful with clearing him. They're the people at the center of it, because no matter what Shibata wants to do, no matter what the fans want, it's Bushiroad that is ultimately responsible for his well-being. If they clear him and he gets hurt again worse in ways that could have been easily prevented through medical testing, then they would have broken the trust with the locker room, the fans, and especially Shibata. If the unthinkable happens, then it's not on the fans, it's not on the performer, but it's on the company that is at the top of the power gradient and could let him wrestle or keep him as a trainer at the dojo.

Still, it's not a situation where I think anyone can make a solid judgment either way without knowing a lot more details. It sucks that the only way anyone will find out whether it was a bad call is if something unconscionable happens to Shibata. I don't think you should necessarily trust New Japan Pro Wrestling, but maybe you can trust modern medicine? The whole situation is hairy as hell, and I'm not sure there's a definitive answer for what should be done. It feels like Shibata is about to be cleared anyway, so hopefully, fans can cheer him on without the medical Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.