Headbutt Blues: Katsuyori Shibata’s (Likely) Swan Song

Katsuyori Shibata after headbutting Kazuchika Okada in NJPW Sakura Genesis 2017

Due to his recent self-inflicted injury during his excellent match against IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada, Katsuyori Shibata was hospitalized by a subdural hematoma. The image of blood streaming down his forehead after headbutting Okada will always pop up whenever his name is mentioned from now on. While it’s indeed a testament to how serious he is as a performer, Katsuyori Shibata’s career now hangs in the balance as of this writing.

On one hand, fans lament the sidelining of Shibata and his shining star, with his potential to become this year’s MVP in New Japan. On the other hand, it once again puts into focus both the theatric brilliance and the actual harm of headbutts in pro wrestling.

The Headbutt Heard Around the World


If you listen closely (maybe with headphones), you can hear the bonk over the crowd noise and commentary. The possibility of making blood stream down your forehead with a blunt impact and not from blading in pro wrestling should make you pause for thought. You should also think of how much that hurt Okada as well.

It’s not even the first time he did it so hard that it made him bleed. It’s a signature spot for Katsuyori Shibata, and this Reddit thread discusses how often he does those shoot headbutts.

Those headbutts accumulate, and it most likely culminated in this unfortunate episode. However, the culture of toughness that’s integral to Japanese puroresu is much like that of martial arts and contact sports — suck it up, ice it down, and go at it again in the next show.

The (Wrong) Thing with Headbutts

The Dynamite Kid, Chris Benoit, Daniel Bryan, Tomoaki Honma, and now Katsuyori Shibata. These names shall forever be linked with one of the simplest (and the most maligned) techniques in both pro wrestling and martial arts — the headbutt.

The deliberate act of using one’s own head to hit an opponent’s head both thrill and scare me at the same time. On one hand, the headbutt resonates deeply with me as one of my favorite techniques. As a martial artist, I see elegance in both its simplicity and sheer brutality. On the other hand, I know exactly how dangerous it can be for the user due to the potential of concussions and other self-inflicted maladies. In Shibata’s case, it got him really bad — subdural hematomas are no laughing matter.

There’s a good reason why the headbutt is banned in MMA — it’s really that bad. The problem isn’t only that it hurts, but it also has a lot to do with the mindset of the user. When someone commits to doing full-on headbutts, it’s accepting high risk for high reward. Perhaps the same can be said of hand-to-hand combat in general, but a broken hand or a bruised leg is not the same as a concussion.

To mitigate self-inflicted blunt force trauma to the head while delivering maximum damage to an opponent with a headbutt, it’s all about placement. Prime targets are the nose and chin; either break the nose or stun him by hitting “the button.” They’re softer targets, so the headbutt won’t hurt you as much while yielding better results. With these options in mind, headbutting the forehead seems rather foolish.

In pro wrestling, you’re not supposed to hit the head as much as touch your forehead on your opponent at a certain speed. You can still make it look real, but not real enough to inflict grave injury. You pull it back just before it hits, and it helps to hit anywhere but one of the hardest parts of the body, which is the same crown of the head you’re using a headbutt with. In a way, the same rules to hitting a real headbutt as mentioned above apply with this, except with much less force to minimize damage while still retaining a semblance of realism.

We then get to the diving headbutt, which Harley Race has reportedly expressed regret for innovating. Pro wrestling fans know what it did to Chris Benoit, whose legacy is split between his greatness in the ring and the horridness of his last act on earth. Having the brain of a senior citizen at 40 years old sounds like a clickbait headline, but chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has recently become a serious concern in sports and pro wrestling, and rightfully so.

That concern is the reason why Daniel Bryan — another known user of the diving headbutt — is now relegated to a non-wrestling role in WWE. Just imagine headbutts aided by the power of gravity. That’s crazy, and if you think the common practice of hitting the chest instead of the head makes the diving headbutt any safer, you need to try it out yourself.

Even if you do it to a soft mattress, the impact is still significant enough that doing it regularly can still deteriorate your brain. It’s not the sporadic big impacts, but the regular little impacts that build up CTE. That has now been found to be a common problem in boxing, American football, ice hockey, and other sports where bumps and clashes are common.

(ADDED: 2017.04.20 | 3:15PM) But the most important thing is giving the brain time to heal. Frequent damage to the brain over a relatively short period of time is what leads to severe problems. If getting hit to the head is unavoidable, then fighters should take time away from fights and hard sparring upon suffering a concussion or even just getting hit multiple times to the head, and pro wrestlers should only reserve spots the require the brain to take a beating for only the biggest matches.

May This Not Be the End for Katsuyori Shibata

I first knew of Katsuyori Shibata through his MMA career, having seen his fights in K-1 HERO’s and Dream. When you look at his record, you can see his extensive losing streaks. He only has 4 wins to break up 11 losses. In an MMA perspective, he’s a failure for the most part. But if you look at his resume, he fought against some of the most recognizable names in Japanese MMA right until his last fight in August 2011.

Then again, there’s rarely a prominent Japanese MMA fighter without a somewhat tarnished record. After all, you get cheered there even if you lose, as long as you give a damn good fight. His return to pro wrestling wasn’t without its struggles, but this is by far the best spot he has ever been in throughout his entire career, MMA or pro wrestling-wise.

It does make me think if the damage he took in his MMA fights may have some influence in his current predicament. While you can say that was a long time ago, brain damage isn’t exactly something that heals like a paper cut would.

This match having been a title match for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship belt, it looked like he gave 110% to make it a classic, and it was indeed an outstanding match. But now, it may seem like it’ll be memorable for the wrong reasons.

Here’s to hoping he has a speedy recovery and gets back on his feet. If this was the last time we’d ever see Katsuyori Shibata as a full-time professional wrestler, at least he did it his way.

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