The larger context is what makes this especially troubling. Katsuyori Shibata, the man who, both in storyline and real life, is credited as bringing his friend KENTA into NJPW, retired almost two and a half years ago after suffering a subdural hematoma during a main event world title match. He had delivered a thudding head butt, the type that exists only to be impressive in pro wrestling while being much more dangerous than any head butt that would be used in a real fight.


When KENTA turned heel a few weeks ago, what would have been a fairly standard pro wrestling storyline was given added gravity when an enraged Shibata, in a carefully controlled segment, hit the ring to get physical for the first time since sustaining the brain bleed. This is all made eerier by the fact that, nearly 17 years before the match that retired him, Shibata was in the ring with Masakazu Fukuda when the latter suffered his second cerebral hemorrhage in six months. Fukuda died days later.

On the English commentary feed for Saturday’s bout, announcer Kevin Kelly tried his best to make sense, in canon, of what was happening, saying that the match would have been stopped if there were technical knockouts in pro wrestling. That it should have been stopped was the elephant in the room, and any real fight probably would have been stopped as soon as KENTA slumped over on the attempted power slam. Kelly and color commentator Gino Gambino were put in an awkward position, as their job is to make sense of what’s happening, while only addressing the storyline side. They had to more or less ignore what was obvious to everyone watching.

(I reached out to some NJPW staff not empowered to speak publicly to ask if there’s currently an English-language spokesperson who could comment officially, but that search came up empty.)


NJPW, at least in theory, has a concussion protocol. In practice, that protocol doesn’t appear to mean much. Not only was the match not stopped, but KENTA is returning in just two weeks off to main event the Destruction in Kagoshima card against Kota Ibushi. Coming back so soon sounds bad enough on its own, but if it’s anything like his previous match with Ibushi—or Ibushi’s past main events against anyone else—it’s likely to be strike-heavy and/or full of unusually risky moves.

Saturday’s debacle was further proof that referees need the specific training and promotional blessing to put the wrestlers’ safety first, but what happened in London on Saturday also casts a great deal of doubt on NJPW’s ability to deal with the modern realities of brain injuries. Given the promotion’s harrowing past experiences in that realm, this latest failure seems simultaneously shocking and sadly unsurprising.


David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heel subscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at