Months ago, fans had Saturday circled as one of the wildest pro wrestling days of the year: All Elite Wrestling’s All Out pay-per-view event would get the bulk of the American attention, but that day also featured dueling events from New Japan Pro Wrestling and WWE in the UK. There was so much going on, in fact, that what was arguably the most noteworthy occurrence of the weekend didn’t get the attention it deserved, at least at first. Some of this may have owed to the fact that the NJPW show was inexplicably a pay-per-view event despite hitting the promotion’s subscription service two days later, on Monday. The rest may be because the thing itself, in which a beloved star absorbed serious head trauma in the ring and was allowed to continue, is not much fun to talk about.
But let’s talk about whatever the hell happened to KENTA—real name Kenta Kobayashi, but better known to western fans by his WWE name of Hideo Itami—in the NJPW match where he won the NEVER Openweight Championship from Tomohiro Ishii. Perhaps because he was supposed to win, this match kept going after KENTA got his bell rung so severely that he couldn’t do simple wrestling moves.
The sequence in question starts at the 1:58:35 timestamp on NJPW World’s English language version of Saturday’s Royal Quest event. KENTA hits a big boot to the face of Ishii, who hulks up and tries to fire back with a clothesline. KENTA ducks and counters with a back suplex, only for Ishii to pop back up and hit his own suplex at 1:58:49.
KENTA gets up in short order from that one, but there’s clearly something wrong. He immediately tries a spinning “discus” clothesline, but it’s noticeably in slow motion with zero explosion. Ishii responds with a headbutt—from the video, it’s difficult to tell if it’s one that made legitimate contact—and hits the ropes to set up KENTA countering by scooping him up into a rotating power slam. But KENTA doesn’t have the strength, dexterity, or body control to do it, and instead collapses in the midst of a power slam motion; he doesn’t come close to grabbing Ishii. This is bad.
And then the match keeps going, which is worse. Ishii continues with a series of clearly “working” head butts—not only pulled, but making light contact with his own hand instead of KENTA’s head—before they go back into a strike exchange. Referee Marty Asami talks to KENTA at least once during all of this, but does not appear to be close to stopping the match at any point.
At this point, KENTA seems to be getting back into the swing a bit, physically, even hitting a double foot stomp from the top rope. Shortly thereafter, though, at 2:01:25, KENTA has noticeable trouble lifting Ishii into a fireman’s carry for a tease of his Go 2 Sleep finishing move, although that could have been by design since Ishii escapes and counters. The next bit, when Ishii lifts KENTA up in the air, perpendicular to the ground, for his signature brainbuster move, is clearly not preordained—KENTA is unable to keep himself vertical, and instead falls down in a heap on Ishii’s head.
If it wasn’t obvious before, this is the moment where it became 100 percent obvious that KENTA was legitimately concussed. Before that point, when KENTA’s difficulties were all on offense, and there could be an argument made in those moments that he was selling. But when KENTA couldn’t stay up for the vertical suplex he was physically having trouble taking a cooperative move from Ishii, and there’s no way where that would make sense as an in-match storyline. The next couple minutes of the match take place almost entirely on the ground, with a seated exchange of slaps and KENTA going for a rear naked choke from his knees before his dastardly new Bullet Club stablemates, the Guerillas of Destiny, run in to set up the end of the match.
Even in a vacuum, this is an indictment of NJPW and whatever protocols they do or don’t have in place to keep wrestlers safe. Continuing at all when KENTA, who later tweeted that he went to the hospital, was clearly in no condition to perform was not just a danger to him but also to Ishii, who was putting his safety in KENTA’s hands. That the match still featured a lot of headshots after the concussion—mainly slaps, but still legitimate shots to the head—just makes it worse.
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 BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.