Recently, Takaagi Shingo’s been raising the NEVER Openweight title’s prestige through phenomenal title defenses against SHO and El Desperado, and igniting a feud with Minoru Suzuki. This belt has a history of brutal, hard-hitting title matches, and Hirooki Goto vs Shibata Katsuyori at Wrestle Kingdom 11 is certainly no exception. The two men had gone to high school together. They were tag team partners and best friends in New Japan, until that friendship gave way and exploded into a heated rivalry. This match was the vicious climax of their relationship.
Before this match, Goto and Shibata’s singles record against each other was 2-2-2. What’s important to note here, is that the last 2 are not time limit draws, nor DQs, but double knockouts. Knowing that there’s a ⅓ percent chance that the match will end with both men incapacitating each other gives the story a brutal undertone.
Who better to compete in a strong style, heavy hitting match than Katsuyori Shibata? He fights like a machine programmed only to continuously destroy his opponents. This is partially why he made an exceptional NEVER champion, as the belt gradually earned itself a reputation with the roughest, most brutal matches in NJPW.
Goto, on the other hand, is more contemplative. He takes time to meditate, and thinks carefully about every decision he makes. To Shibata, this comes across as aloofness and inaction. Shibata had grown fed up with Goto and his inability to make big strides in his career, and honestly, many of Goto’s fans were beginning to lose faith as well. Goto was in a slump, and couldn’t capture “the big ones.” The most prominent example in fans’ minds this night was a few months prior, when Goto lost in the G1 Finals to Kenny Omega.
This title match against Shibata held great significance for Goto; not only was it against a man whose career is intimately intertwined with his own, but the match was perhaps the last shot he’d have to prove to himself and the wrestling world that he is capable of capturing “the big ones.”
The match starts with a sharp kick from Shibata, directly to Goto’s thigh. It’s a great indication of what’s to come: Shibata attacking head-on, per usual, while Goto gets caught up in his own head. Then the pair do a brief series of slow paced grappling, wherein they feel each other out and get a sense of what they’re in for. Goto quickly feels overwhelmed and goes to the ropes, while the ref calls for a break. Shibata pauses and looks at Goto grimly before delivering a brutal overhand chop to Goto’s chest. Kevin Kelly explains:
“Shibata was quoted as saying Goto’s matches make him angry. He thinks ‘are you alright?’ It’s just hard to tell whether he cares, whether he’s all there in the ring or not. Perhaps that overhand chop was just to make him— to say— ‘let’s get in the moment here.”
After that, Shibata remains firmly on the offensive. Goto struggles to get a move in, as he is swiftly and repeatedly countered again and again. He retreats to the outside of the ring, only to be met with a hard penalty kick and pulled back into the ring once again. As Goto rolls in and finds his footing, Kevin Kelly takes time to explain further divisions between the two former IWGP tag team champions:
“The reason why Shibata says he gets so frustrated with Goto is because Goto is not like Shibata. And he doesn’t understand that; it’s his machine mentality. Why don’t you think like me? Why don’t you fight like me?”
Indeed, Shibata is fighting this match like a machine. There’s tape covering his knee, right shoulder, and upper back. Despite his building injuries, the NEVER champion continues to fight like a member of the undead, just as brutal as ever. He continues to deliver kicks and submission holds to Goto until the Fierce Warrior manages to escape to the ropes once again.
This is where the momentum begins to shift. After a stiff European uppercut by Shibata, he goes to the ropes for momentum. Goto follows him, and counters with a strong lariat. It’s the first major offensive move from Goto in the match. The crowd bursts to life; they, much like the commentators, don’t want to hate Goto. They just need a reason to believe in him.
Goto follows up with a series of stiff forearms to Shibata’s chest and neck before he whips him into the corner. He charges in, only to be met with Shibata’s feet colliding directly to his sternum. Shibata, ready to take the momentum back, fires his own series of forearms to Goto’s collarbone; these feel much more brutal, as viewers can hear the slaps of each shot. He runs to the corner, but Goto keeps up, and delivers a muramasa to Shibata’s face. Shibata counters with a knee drop to Goto’s skull, but Goto doesn’t stay down for long. He stands and executes a devastating saito suplex to Shibata.
Shibata lands on the back of his head, and immediately clutches the back of his neck. This is the first time Shibata’s shown any sort of weakness during the match. It’s a long awaited opportunity for Goto, and not one that he’ll pass up. He goes to the outside and jumps from the top rope to deliver an elbow drop to Shibata’s midsection, and earns his first near fall of the match.
Goto then delivers a sharp penalty kick to Shibata’s chest. The Wrestler falls back, only to roll back up a moment later. His stone faced expression is back, and it seems as though Goto is back to square one when it comes to breaking Shibata’s machine-like will.
Shibata is quick to seize the offensive stance once again; he brings Goto to the canvas with one stiff uppercut, and whips him into the corner for a series of stomps and kicks to Goto’s chest. He ends the sequence with his signature dropkick. The crowd is awestruck, as they usually are with Shibata’s corner dropkicks, and the viewer senses that the momentum is back in Shibata’s favor.
Goto, though, fires himself up again. The two exchange lariats and push kicks in the center of the ring; after one particularly strong lariat, Shibata grabs the back of his head for the second time in the match. Goto notices.
In a moment of calculated desperation, Goto grabs a handful of Shibata’s hair and yanks him down so the back of The Wrestler’s head crashes into Goto’s quad. Shibata lays on the canvas, whiplashed.
This act of the match is extremely pivotal. For once, Shibata, as well as the audience, becomes aware of the fact that this whole time, Goto was never aloof or indifferent. He was lying in wait, observing his opponent to see exactly where the kinks in The Wrestler’s armor were hiding. Here lies the fundamental difference between Shibata and Goto; while the former never allows himself time to think, the latter relies on meditation.
For Goto, the meditation is starting to pay off.
Shibata hits a second wave. He hits Goto with a rapid series of forearms and uppercuts. Goto tries to counter by lifting Shibata into a fireman’s carry, only for Shibata to slip out behind him and trap Goto in a rear naked choke.
Goto crumbles like a tower, as he’s brought to his knee and then has his arms trapped; one is pinned to his hip by Shibata’s leg, and the other is wrapped around his throat; essentially, Goto’s strangling himself. Shibata secures a vice grip around Goto’s throat and midsection. In a last act of desperation, or perhaps pure instinct, Goto rolls on his side and manages to drape a foot across the bottom rope.
The two engage in one last brawl, trading forearms, elbows, and headbutts. Slowly but surely, the light in Shibata begins to dim. He slows down, and his upper body goes limp. Goto seizes the opportunity. He goes down on one knee, pulls Shibata over his leg, and all but decapitates Shibata between his elbow and knee.
Shibata’s stoic facade takes a massive hit as desperation and his ever-present (though suppressed) fear of losing begin to take hold of him. Red Shoes pulls The Wrestler away from his opponent, who’s now got an arm around the bottom rope as well. Shibata retaliates by giving the official a hard shove in the chest, sending Red Shoes to the mat. There’s a wave of gasps from the crowd, as they’re shocked to see Shibata’s stoicism give way to frustration.
Goto refocuses. As Shibata drags him up by his hair, to deliver another headbutt, Goto counters with one of his own. Shibata tries again, with the same result. He then goes for a PK, landing squarely on Goto’s chest. Both men then collapse to the canvas.
The next pivotal move is a devastating ushigoroshi by the challenger. The move is a direct attack on the back of Shibata’s head. It’s clear now that Goto has his strategy; he’s found the kink in Shibata’s armor, and is going to attack it mercilessly. He follows up with a shouten kai and goes for a cover. The crowd shouts along with the ref, “One! Two!–”
Shibata kicks out, all but flinging Goto off of him. Now, the audience is louder than they’ve ever been in the match. The tension is at a boiling point, and the viewer can sense that the end is coming quick.
The crowd and the commentators are close to exploding with excitement. All that’s left is one final blow. Goto sets Shibata up and brings down a brutal GTR. The ref counts three, and the crowd erupts.
Steven Corino exclaims, “Goto wins the big one!”
Both competitors are given ice packs, and the former champion is ushered out of the ring as Corino continues:
“This was the win that he needed. Hirooki Goto becomes the 15th NEVER Openweight champion. But he may have done something even more important. He may have found that little bit of fighting spirit that he was missing.”
The story behind this match is so simple yet effective. It illustrated why Goto and Shibata fell apart, and showed each of their strengths and weaknesses. Shibata’s strengths are his toughness and his striking ability. Goto’s, on the other hand, are his strategizing and resilience. The two are perfect foils; one charges in with no hesitation, while the other thinks of the best course of action. For months leading up to Wrestle Kingdom 11, Goto seemed to have gotten lost in his own head. This match, therefore, was a huge turning point for him. I would go so far as to call his victory for the NEVER belt the saving grace of his career.
This match is often overlooked, even during discussions on the Wrestle Kingdom 11 card alone; after all, it did take place on the same night as a Kenny Omega vs Kazuchika Okada classic. I believe this is a great injustice. This match is the pinnacle of the infamous Strong Style that both Katsuyori Shibata and Japanese wrestling in general are known for. It’s especially momentous for Hirooki Goto, a longtime veteran and a staple of the NJPW roster. This match rejuvenated his career, and showed fans that he was just as capable of winning “the big ones” as he used to be. It was his first title match, and first title win, since joining CHAOS.
For Shibata, this match is equally of note, but for a more somber reason; his loss of the NEVER title to Goto at Wrestle Kingdom 11 remains Shibata’s last Wrestle Kingdom match to date. Just a few months later, Shibata would endure a life threatening injury at Sakura Genesis, and consequently retire from his role as an in-ring performer. This match, then, serves as a fantastic conclusion to Shibata’s Wrestle Kingdom career (at least, for now).