In what has been a pleasant surprise coming out of a polarizing G1 Climax 31 Final, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) legend, Katsuyori Shibata, made an in-ring return in an unannounced five minute exhibition bout against Zack Sabre Jr. Long-time NJPW fans will remember Shibata as the hard-hitting, mixed martial artist and puroresu master who was forced into premature retirement in 2017 following diagnosis of a subdural hematoma – a potentially deadly brain injury believed to be caused by his extensive use of a headbutt as a finishing move.
The five minute bout was a throwback to the Shibata of old – with him being one of NJPW’s most notable and recognized faces of the 2010s. Whether or not it leads to more, it was nice to see Shibata – who has been a head coach for NJPW in the New Japan Dojo in Los Angeles, California – back in the ring doing what he does best.
Katsuyori Shibata wrestles Zack Sabre Jr. in New Japan ring NOW!!
Check it out on New Japan World!
— njpwworld (@njpwworld) October 21, 2021
Potential Long-Term Return?
In shocking scenes last night in the Budokan, KENTA turned his back on a close friendship with Katsuyori Shibata, and joined BULLET CLUB.
— NJPW Global (@njpwglobal) August 13, 2019
Ever since the career-ending injury in 2017, there have been plenty of teases of a Shibata return. In recent years, he has accompanied Hiroshi Tanahashi to the ring for high profile matches against Kota Ibushi. Perhaps most notably, he has been teasing a feud with BULLET CLUB member KENTA – who had been introduced to the company in mid-2019 by Shibata himself. With aligning with the BULLET CLUB, KENTA turned on Shibata; beating him down to the ground with his new comrades. This moment was notable for being the first time we had seen Shibata get physical in the ring since his injury, as many believed he would never be able to do so again. Between that moment, and Shibata’s five minute exhibition bout today, it is clear that something has gone on behind the scenes for Shibata to be cleared for at least minimal in-ring action. However, the potential for a more major return is there and should he indeed be cleared to compete full-time – something deemed impossible by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer, as “there is no way doctors would let him be cleared” – then NJPW might just have one of its biggest names back once more.
At the end of the exhibition match, Shibata spoke on the microphone, stating that “the next time you see me in a ring, it will be in a match.” It might just be a matter of time before Shibata returns.
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