By Liam Byrne @tvtimelimit
Toshiaki Kawada vs Katsuyori Shibata 11/03/04
In 2004, Masahiro Chono was celebrating his twentieth year in the wrestling industry. As befits a man of his stature within puroresu, the show would incorporate numerous outside wrestlers working alongside the talents of New Japan. Across the course of the evening, the All Asia Tag Titles would change hands (Mitsuya Nagai and Masayuki Naruse defeating Genichiro Tenryu and Masanobu Fuchi) and the IWGP Heavyweight Title was defended by Kensuke Sasaki as he beat Hiroshi Tanahashi. Chono took center stage in the main event, teaming with Riki Choshu and going over Yuji Nagata and Hiroyoshi Tenzan.
Being a sporadic watcher of New Japan at this time, I saw none of the matches on this card apart from one.
Katsuyori Shibata, not long before he went freelance, was building a reputation as a no-nonsense striker whose in-ring strategy was to kick anything that got in his way. With other promotions involved, there were few booking ideas that made more sense that putting Shibata into the ring with someone else who had embodied his intensely aggressive style for many years before the New Japan native – Toshiaki Kawada.
Several years before Shibata’s famous wars with Ishii, this was a contest that put him in the shop window for a lot of wrestling fans who had possibly missed action from New Japan ever since the move towards a promotion that sought to incorporate more legitimate fighting contests on their shows. Shibata bridged the gap between legitimacy and entertainment in a way that was engaging for fans of wrestling.
In no way cowed by his more experienced opponent, Shibata rushed Kawada as soon as he entered the ring, landing a snapmare and aiming one of his vicious kicks to the head, a move that Kawada wisely avoided. Rolling out of the ring only saw Shibata follow Kawada to continue the punishment, landing a huge boot to the chest whilst Kawada sat at ringside. The pace at which Shibata had started the contest left Kawada reeling.
However, a momentary pause as Kawada returned to the ring allowed the veteran to regroup, yet a strike exchange saw Shibata come out on top; a delayed sell by Kawada showing the delayed effects of an elbow to the jaw. The impetuousness of Shibata saw him lock on the Stretch Plum before going for a pin, but Kawada kicked out without a count. The decision to hold the back of Kawada’s face and boot him was a step too far, with the former Triple Crown champion battering the relative youngster for his arrogance, including several double footed stomps using the ropes for leverage.
A beautiful backdrop suplex gained Kawada a two count before he locked in the Stretch Plum. Unlike Shibata’s version, Kawada’s torque seemed to have his opponent fading, yet Shibata managed to kick out of the resulting pinfall. A blocked kick led to another series of strikes as neither man was willing to take a backwards step, though once again Shibata came out of the exchange on top. Shibata was fighting Kawada at his own game and winning more often than not.
This wasn’t going to last.
With Kawada kicking out of a PK and then fighting his way out of a sleeper, a raft of kicks and forearms from both men finally saw Kawada drop Shibata with a big right hand to the face. A boot to the back of the head and a kneedrop for good measure were all that was needed to earn Kawada the three count as Shibata lay motionless in the ring, a victim of his own hubris with regards to his ability to give and take punishment.
The following year, Shibata would leave New Japan and have another well received contest with Jun Akiyama before an ill-advised venture into MMA. Had he hung around in New Japan at the time, the sky was the potential limit for a man who was already pushing legends like Kawada to the limit. Whether his body would have been able to take the punishment he put it through in the long run is another question entirely, one that is all too tragic considering his injuries suffered in an IWGP Heavyweight Title Match with Kazuchika Okada in 2017.