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On April 19, Katsuyori Shibata had finally come all the way back. Originally pegged as one of the "new" Three Musketeers, along with Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, Shibata had travelled down an uncertain path while his cohorts flourished and in many ways saved New Japan Pro Wrestling. With Nakamura gone and Tanahashi taking a slight step backward, the door was opened for the 37 year old Shibata to finally seize the spot on the card that had been in his sights since his debut in 1999. With the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship on the line in front of a remarkable crowd, Shibata had a chance to breakthrough to elite status; but the greatest night of his career would soon end up being the very worst.
The original Three Musketeers was a nickname for a trio of talented wrestlers who NJPW pegged to be big stars in the early-1990s. Keiji Mutoh (The Great Muta), Masahiro Chono and Shinya Hashimoto all become big draws for NJPW and led the company to its greatest financial success during the mid-1990s. By the early-2000s, that group was getting old so NJPW decided to create a new batch of stars. The "new" Three Musketeers consisted of a muscular amateur wrestler from Gifu, a lanky striker with a martial arts background, and Shibata, the son of a respected mid-card wrestler. Things started slow for the new Three Musketeers, Nakamura got a super-push and the crowd didn't really respond all that well to the rookie that was suddenly the world champion, and Tanahashi and Shibata waded in the mid-card.
In 2005, Shibata unexpectedly walked out of the company, famously saying that he didn't want to be a "salary man" for a company like NJPW. He wrestled for various other companies as a freelancer and also tried his hand at MMA, which he was often overmatched in his fights. His poor showing in MMA fights would hurt his status as a wrestler, since his image was of a no-nonsense tough guy with a legit fighting background and his consistent losses in MMA showed that Shibata's image was not necessarily indicative of the reality.
Shibata eventually returned to NJPW in 2012, but he started at the bottom, teaming with former MMA fighter Kazushi Sakuraba and working mostly tag team matches. The fans hadn't fully forgiven him for walking away and his losses in MMA were still fresh in everyone's mind. Meanwhile, his co-horts had achieved the anticipated success, with Nakamura shaping to a charismatic wonder and Tanahashi emerging as the best Japanese wrestler of the new millennium.
Slowly Shibata began to climb the later. The issue with dismissing Shibata was that he was just too damn good, too unique in the ring to be ignored. A hard-hitting striker who almost exclusively did "real" fight style moves and submissions in the ring, he evoked memories of champion worked-shoot stars like Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada. He had epic matches with fellow hard-hitters in Tomhiro Ishii and Hiroki Goto and established himself as a champion mid-card wrestler, capturing the NEVER Openweight Championship on three different occasions. In 2016, Nakamura and imported ace AJ Styles departed the company, opening up spots in the main event. In February of 2017 Shibata won the New Japan Cup, earning a shot at the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship the following month.
At Sakura Genesis, over 10,000 fans came out to the Sumo Hall in Tokyo to watch Shibata challenge Kazuchika Okada for the world title. The attendance was the largest, non-G1 crowd for the building in years, and considering other top names such as Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito and Kenny Omega were working in non-descript tag team matches that night, it is safe to say the crowd had accepted Shibata as a main event contender. Okada and Shibata had an amazing, dramatic match that saw Okada retain the title in a 38-minute classic. Even though Shibata had been defeated, the crowd and the match was so great that it was clear that an IWGP World Heavyweight Championship reign was coming down the line. He may have lost the match, but after years of climbing the ladder, nothing was going to stop Shibata from reaching the top.
The most memorable spot of the match came towards the end, when Shibata delivered a nasty, sickening headbutt to Okada's forehead that split Shibata's forehead open. The collision of skulls sent an echo throughout the arena, like a melon being dropped onto the pavement from a three-story building. The headbutt had been done before on occasion by Shibata and despite the bleeding, he looked no worse for the wear and finished the match. However, backstage following the match Shibata collapsed and was rushed to a nearby hospital. According to reports, he was suffering from a subdural hemorrhage in his brain, essentially blood was leaking into the inner layer of his brain. Emergency brain surgery was performed on Shibata and while he is no longer in grave medical danger, his career in wrestling is uncertain and some, such as Dave Meltzer, have speculated that he will never be cleared to wrestle again.
Why did Shibata, who was having a stellar career and an amazing match, have to resort to using a headbutt? It was a dramatic moment in the match, but the match would have been great regardless of the spot. Shibata has earned the reputation for being a tough guy in the ring, and nothing makes him look tougher than throwing a sickening headbutt, something that is by all intents and purposes a "real" move and it definitely had REAL repercussions.
I'll be very blunt about this; the headbutt should never be used in professional wrestling. We have seen the damage it can do with guys like Daniel Bryan, Chris Benoit, Shibata and countless others. Moves like the piledriver have been banned from companies because of the danger it possesses, but you know what? If a piledriver is executed exactly how it is designed, it is safe move that doesn't even involve a lot of wear and tear on the knees or back. The headbutt, especially a cracking one, is by design extreme harmful. By its very nature, a headbutt requires someone to smash their head against their opponents, potentially causing serious long-term injury to both wrestlers. To fans it might look cool, but really, what does a headbutt accomplish that something like an elbow strike couldn't?
I don't want to come across as a blogger that is telling wrestlers how they should work; if a grown adult wants to take those kind of risks with their body they have the right to do that. As a fan though, I never want to see a headbutt again. As a society we have come too far in understanding brain trauma and the long-term effects of concussions to continue to accept the barbaric punishment that a headbutt can have on the human brain. Shibata is a great wrestler; he never had to throw that heabutt. Hopefully nobody will find themselves making a similar decision.
Payback was exactly what I thought it was; a show that had good, solid wrestling but without a ton of hype going into the event, a lack of a world champion and some questionable finishes that seemed to have come out of nowhere, the show will go down as being largely forgettable. The RAW and SmackDown ratings are expectedly sinking like a stone after WrestleMania, and WWE really needs to start putting together notable programs with their current roster and not just rely on the nostalgia of former stars coming back.
Roman Reigns vs Braun Strowman: ***
This wasn't a bad match by any means. For WWE standards it was exactly what it should have been, with Strowman dominating most of the match and Reigns fighting from underneath and trying to battle the monster. Strowman got the win nice and clean using his finisher and I thought the post-match angle was really well done with Reigns selling internal injuries and Strowman looking like a psychopath. I really like Strowman's promos now; he is the kind of guy where the scripted promos actually work because they come up with a couple lines of snappy monster talk and his look and his face sells it really well.
Bray Wyatt vs Randy Orton: -**
I shouldn't say that Payback wasn't memorable, because it did feature one of the worst matches to take place in WWE in the last decade. The problems with the "House of Horrors" match were evident right from the beginning. Orton got out of the limousine and the way the match was shot and the creepy music and the lighting made it feel like a bad horror movie. It didn't feel like we were watching wrestling anymore. To me it came across as something that Impact would try because it would be different and edgy, but I'm not sure they ever produced something this bad.
With wrestling, the fans know that it is a mock-contest, but as a fan you want to at least see it presented as real. What is presented in a match you would like to think could theoretically really happen. I'd compare to watching a movie; the reason drama's are popular is because we can conceive of them happening in real life; the audience understands that it is a movie and fictional, but the drama comes from the belief that it could theoretically really happen. The same can be said for pro wrestling. When you start adding in elements of science fiction and fantasy, the audience no longer has that belief that it could really happen, and so you lose most of the emotion the audience may be feeling towards the match. With Wyatt vs Orton, we were watching a B-level horror film, not a battle of strength and perseverance between two human beings. From a curiosity standpoint it is relevant, but as a wrestling match it sucks.
Bayley vs Alexa Bliss: **½
The crowd was really hot for Bayley in her hometown, so of course WWE beat her. Even worse was the finish was pretty lame for the fans live, since it wasn't really sold that Bayley had injured her shoulder going into the post which was why the DDT from Bliss was able to finish her off. That led to the crowd not reacting at all to the finish. Bliss is a talented heel and the match wasn't really that bad, but I'll never understand why they take wrestlers who are popular in front of an audience and try and kill off that kind of a reaction.
Samoa Joe vs Seth Rollins: ***½
Maybe the best match on the show all things considered. Rollins' knee has become like Shawn Michaels back, or Kurt Angle's neck, in that it is going to be worked over as a weak-point for the rest of his career. The match was carried by Rollins' selling the injury really well, which is easier when you are in the ring with Samoa Joe because of how great and stiff his offense looks. The finish was kind of a fun old-school roll-up spot, a good babyface finish and something that Ricky Steamboat would have done to defeat a stronger, more aggressive opponent. The finish also protected Joe because he didn't have to do a clean job, but Rollins still showed fighting spirit in eeking out the win.
The Hardys vs Sheamus and Cesaro:***
Good back-and-forth match with a good heel turn at the end. The Hardys did a good job selling for their bigger opponents and made a good comeback and there were some good near-falls. Sheamus really needs to get his act together though as he really cracked Jeff Hardy in the face with a stiff kick. Jeff is lying prone on all-fours and Sheamus is delivering a simple kick to his sternum, a basic wrestling move that a 15 year veteran should be able to deliver with their eyes shut. His shin ended up smashing Jeff in the face and knocking out a tooth and could have caused even more damage. Maybe the fact that he legits injures people should be a part of his new heel character?
Neville vs Austin Aries: **¾
I had high-hopes for this match considering the talent in the ring and it really looked like they were headed towards the best match of the evening until the lame finish that saw Neville toss the referee aside to avoid submitting, leading to a weak disqualification. The athleticism, speed and selling is top-notch in this feud but eventually Aries is going to have to win a match cleanly.
Kevin Owens vs Chris Jericho: ***¼
Despite the fact that this was a feud that had been built for months and months, it didn't really feel like a blow-off match that pulled out all the stops. That is likely because the match went on first and they had a lot of spots saved for the later matches. During my preview last week I guaranteed Owens would win the match, so I will eat crow on that prediction. Jericho lost the title on Tuesday night proving that sometimes WWE just does random finishes to remain unpredictable.