Professional wrestling can turn out some really awesome stories. Some good, some great, some mediocre, and a lot of bad. We're going to step away from WWE content and focus on New Japan Pro Wrestling for a moment, as the company continues to rise in the eyes of North American and European audiences as an amazing alternative to the local status quo. One of the best stories NJPW could possibly tell is slowly coming into focus, and it just took the next step with Katsuyori Shibata winning the 2017 New Japan Cup.
In order to tell this story, we need to wind the clock back a bit. NJPW was formed in 1974 by Antonio Inoki, and slowly became one of the biggest promotions in the country along with All Japan and NOAH these days. Older American fans would know them for their partnership with WCW back in the '90s, which is where Eric Bischoff got the idea for the nWo after seeing New Japan pull a similar story. But Inoki made some bad business decisions in the early '00s, including mixing MMA into the pro-wrestling aspect and made a hybrid that was turning fans off. (Just so you're aware, Japan treats pro-wrestling like a real sport, the same way we treat the NBA and FIFA. So when you piss off fans, you hear about it.) The company was in dire need of a change, and after Inoki sold the company in 2005, new management took charge by returning to normal wrestling, which came with a slow but steady return to Puroresu, aka "Strong Style."
Around this same time, the decision was made to build the company around three specific stars, much like how WWF/E goes through periods of change with certain people leading the charge. The three people who were chosen at the time were Hiroshi Tanahashi (the company's version of Hulk Hogan/John Cena who plays air guitar), Shinsuke Nakamura (the charismatic leader of Chaos who is currently in NXT and about to hit the main roster), and Katsuyori Shibata. The trio were basically the Three New Musketeers behind the scenes and hand-picked to help make the company better again. Here's where things take a slight turn: Shibata wanted little to do with that. He left the company in 2005 to pursue an MMA career between 2007-2011, earning a record of 4-11-1. Not the greatest of turnouts. Shibata returned to New Japan in 2012, after the company had taken itself out of the downward spiral and became the leading wrestling company in the country. A move many in the locker room apparently weren't happy about since he bailed on them during the bad times. And he paid for it, and in some cases is still paying for it… hard!
Shibata's career for a couple of years could be classified as mediocre at best, even though he was basically one of the hardest hitting men on the roster. For over two years the man would fight for titles and lose, compete in tournaments and not make it to the finals, have amazing matches for a few months only to lose three in a row in under a minute. His career got a new boost of energy in 2015 when he and Hirooki Goto won the IWGP Tag Team titles, but lost them within a month. In 2016 at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in the Tokyo Dome, he picked up his first singles title with the company, winning the NEVER Openweight Championship in one of the hardest hitting matches you'll ever watch against Tomohiro Ishii. If you wanna see what Strong Style really is, watch the match below as the two invite each other to exchange kicks and chops to prove they can take a hit harder than their opponent while absorbing the most amount of pain. The disrespect followed by the kicking contest at 5:50 is just brutal.
He held the title three times over 2016, losing it at Wrestle Kingdom 11 to Goto, but his 2016 run looked like he might be poised to do more with the company after what looked like a long return to paying his dues. Over the past couple weeks, NJPW has been holding their annual New Japan Cup tournament, because this is what NJPW does to get talent experience and create new and unique matches. Kind of like how WWE used to do King Of The Ring, except this company does five different versions a year. Today (technically around 4 a.m. Eastern), Shibata won the New Japan Cup after beating Bullet Club member Bad Luck Fale in the finals. The winner of the cup gets a shot at basically any title he wants, and Shibata called out Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. You know, the same Okada that had that immensely popular match with Kenny Omega a few months ago.
Storyline stuff aside, this is an amazing time to be a NJPW fan. Shibata and Okada is a dream match for a lot of people, and we're finally getting it for a title on April 9. But more to the point, it's one of the greatest rise-to-glory stories the company could have produced. They took a guy who didn't want to be there in the bad times, make it look like he had to earn his way back, put faith in him as a champion for fans to cheer as his fanbase has grown to rival other stars on the roster, and now he's taking a title shot. If Shibata does walk away with the title, the potential matches for him down the line could be awesome. And if he doesn't win, he's still now in the main event picture with the fans, which means it's only a matter of time before he does claim the belt.
I would love to see Shibata take the gold, but over the past seven years, the IWGP Heavyweight Title has only changed hands 12 times between seven men. That's a heavily protected belt in terms of modern wrestling. And only 30% of New Japan Cup winners ever win the title matches they ask for, which is a terrible stat when you're the winner in terms of storytelling. Either way, seeing Shibata rise is incredibly awesome, and it would be nice to see the last of the original three finally pick up a title he probably would have won by 2010 if he stayed with the company.