Throughout its entire existence, the pseudo-sport of pro wrestling’s presence as a subgenre in Japan has been consistently defined by how much harder-hitting it is there than it is elsewhere in the world. Hard hitting can take a lot of forms. It can mean hard shots in safe places; it can mean laying everything in even when you shouldn’t; and, very occasionally, it can include in-ring double-crosses where one wrestler legitimately attacks the other. As the bar was raised starting in the ’90s, a disturbing trend started to take shape: Severe brain injuries, like bleeds and in-ring strokes, became increasingly frequent. Correlation isn’t causation, but it’s reasonable to wonder—as star wrestler Shinsuke Nakamura has—whether there’s a connection here.
The list of brain injuries now includes a subdural hematoma suffered by Katsuyori Shibata during an April 9th loss to Kazuchika Okada in the main event of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Sakura Genesis event at Sumo Hall in Tokyo. (Okada is, for lack of a better quick description, like Roman Reigns if Roman Reigns was beloved by the WWE fanbase at large, the young top star who has become “the man” in the last year or so. In this match Shibata played off against him as the veteran who had never quite become a superstar, though this match was designed to make him one.) While there’s no official word one way or the other, it seems inevitable that the injury will retire Shibata. A specific moment in the match seems to have been the point where Shibata was hurt: When he delivered a thudding headbutt, it was so loud that fans in the building were reportedly literally nauseated. Shibata finished the match with no visible signs of distress, but collapsed as soon as he walked back through the curtain.
The thudding headbutt is something of a regular move for Shibata, who has a 4-11-1 record in MMA competition and works, or worked, an extremely aggressive and physical style as a pro wrestler. That isn’t a personal quirk of his; it comes from a tradition.
There are a few reasons why Japanese wrestlers tend to lay it in. In the grand scheme of things, it comes from wanting to involve fans in their matches without the emotional storylines of American wrestling and, on some level, convince them that what they’re watching is real. Historically, there’s probably some path-dependence involved: Rikidozan, the original Japanese wrestling star, started as a sumo and became popular in large part thanks to his stiff style of work, especially his hard chops, and solidified his legend by double-crossing and beating the hell out of Masahiko Kimura, the judoka-turned-wrestler for whom the double wrist lock submission was named in Brazillian jiu-jitsu.
Over time, the line was blurred more and more. Americans who toured Japan in the past routinely have stories about how the “young boys,” or the preliminary wrestlers who recently finished training, came at you like they were in a real fight. Later, when the UWF family of promotions pushed their more realistic style of wrestling as being “real,” unlike NJPW and its “fake” brethren, there were a few ways in which they accomplished this. The easiest was toning down flashy moves, but there were a couple others. For one thing, the strikes were harder, with an emphasis on kicks. Additionally, portions of some matches would see the wrestlers actually compete; if you saw an opening that wasn’t the planned finish, you were supposed to take it. After all, if you didn’t, it would look like “fake wrestling.”
When the UWF style became more popular, especially in major markets like Tokyo, it had a ripple effect on the rest of the Japanese business. The stiff shots got stiffer, and the influence of the American style on both the in-ring action and the booking of match finishes lessened.
Pittsburgh-based independent wrestler Sam Panico, who worked as Shirley Doe among other names, tells a story to show how wrestlers view the differences between American- and Japanese-style wrestling. In 1995, he says, he worked a show with a major Japanese star who, he quickly learned, spoke perfect English. The star’s American opponent came over to plan the match and, like a boorish tourist, spoke loudly and slowly, explaining, “In this country, we work light. Light. Not stiff. Light.”
The Japanese star told Panico, “Fuck him! I speak English; he could have asked.” After a basic opening sequence, as Panico tells it, the star picked his opponent up, “basically drove him right onto his shoulder, hit a bunch of kicks and that was it.” The opponent’s shoulder was separated in the process.
Of all the active wrestlers who could have their careers ended by a brain bleed, it’s especially notable, and more than a bit eerie, that it’s Shibata. That’s because 17 years—almost to the day—before Sakura Genesis, NJPW wrestler Masakazu Fukuda was knocked unconscious during a match after taking an elbow drop from Shibata. He started snoring due to a cerebral hemorrhage, was rushed to the hospital, and died five days later. This was his second such bleed in six months, having been cleared to wrestle after having ostensibly healed from the first.
All told, in the last 22 years, Fukuda, NJPW dojo trainee Hiromitsu Gompei, MMA fighter-turned-aspiring wrestler Giant Ochai, and female wrestlers Plum Mariko and Emiko Kado have all died due to brain injuries suffered in matches or training. Shibata, junior-heavyweight star Naohiro Hoshikawa, and “death match” wrestler Ryuji Yamakawa were retired by brain hemorrhages, with Hoshikawa becoming a wheelchair-bound amnesiac before making something of a recovery. Yoshihiro Takayama suffered a cerebral thrombosis during a particularly rough match when he was the country’s most popular wrestler in 2005, while NJPW veteran Tatsutoshi Goto suffered a scare shortly after Fukuda’s death that signalled the beginning of the end of his career. Yuji Nagata, whom American fans may remember from his 1997 stint with WCW, once reportedly suffered “stroke-like symptoms” only to return quickly, while female wrestler Yumi Fukawa retired immediately after suffering what was reported as a severe concussion.
It’s impossible for a variety of reasons to do a matched-set comparison to ascertain whether there are actually a disproportionate number of severe brain injuries in Japanese wrestling, but anecdotally it seems that way. In the United States and Mexico, only a few similar examples come to mind. Brian Ong died of a brain injury at California’s APW wrestling school while in the ring with the future Great Khali. Rising Mexican star Oro passed away in Mexico City in 1993 after suffering what’s believed to be a brain aneurysm while taking an exaggerated bump on his head. Chavo Guerrero, Jr. suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 2003 after an errant shooting star press by Billy Kidman got him kneed full-force in the head. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat was 57 when he suffered a life-threatening bleed in 2010 after an errant blow during an in-ring incident, with the hemispheres of his brain actually trying to separate from each other. The other most well-known incident saw Mexican wrestler Sangre India die after a missed dive to the floor.
The seeming disparity here doesn’t mean that there isn’t a brain-injury problem outside of Japan; there absolutely is. But there’s clearly something else going on to cause the more immediately traumatic brain issues that Shibata’s injury highlights. Even Shinsuke Nakamura, the WWE star who came up through NJPW, has raised concerns. “Lately, exchanging dangerous moves has become a trend in Japanese wrestling,” Nakamura told Yahoo Japan. “With serious injuries happening, it might have to change, and wrestlers should look back and think about dangerous moves they do and the risks they take.”
Among NJPW sources, who would only agree to be interviewed on condition of anonymity because they’re not allowed to talk to the press, thoughts were mixed as to whether the Shibata injury was symptomatic of a larger problem. There was agreement that Shibata was described as a safe wrestler who knows where to place his shots, as do most others in the company. (This makes sense; wrestlers who go through the NJPW dojo system are nothing if not technically sound.)
There definitely, though, seems to be an issue with moves like the thudding headbutt, which other wrestlers have done as well. NJPW’s Tomohiro Ishii does it semi-regularly, while aging freelance wrestler Tsuyoshi Kikuchi used to do it with a microphone held up to his head. While the thudding trend never really spread internationally, in the early to mid-2000s, there was a trend of throwing legitimate headbutts. The two wrestlers most closely associated with this were Daniel Bryan and Nigel McGuinness, both wrestlers heavily influenced by Japanese wrestling. Both are now retired. Bryan famously retired due to issues with repeated concussions, though he seems healthy for now, while McGuinness cited a myriad of reasons. He’s downplayed brain damage as a factor in his retirement, but has admitted that he can barely remember his time in Ring of Honor, where he had the feud with Bryan.
“Bret Hart had a great headbutt,” said one NJPW source, noting how it looked great but was completely benign. “Now, I think the guys come up, and it almost like they’re not working with those [veteran] guys. They’re working with each other in this kind of backyard [or] indie mentality, like ‘Yeah, let’s kill each other.’ And it’s a very different business.”
What wrestlers need to understand is that fans, generally speaking, don’t care whether performers are actually hitting each other, and that actually doing so isn’t the same as making it seem you’re doing so anyway. Fans just want something that doesn’t feel overtly performative, and looks credible enough to allow suspension of disbelief. They know that what they’re watching, and even something as deadly real as a career-ending brain injury won’t change what that is.