How do you capture light?

I had asked myself this often, watching Ibushi’s matches. A part of me had kept note of these musings, a diary of scribbles in my head and in digital memory that was just a more verbose way of saying “aah” and “wow”. But I never had the courage to take my words out into the world.

Then October 21st rolls around. I’m watching the G1 Climax finals live, excitedly chatting with friends over the phone as Ibushi climbs the turnbuckle for a Phoenix Splash—a move emblematic of the Golden Star if there ever was one—and misses. No big surprise, it happens, right? But he doesn’t get up again. People rush into the ring and they don’t leave. The match ends, Okada is declared the victor. I feel like all the air has been sucked out of me.

It wasn’t the first time Ibushi had been injured in the ring, it wasn’t even the first time he had been injured during a “big match” like the finals of a tournament or a title bout. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time he had dislocated his shoulder. But it devastated me like the first time nonetheless. Maybe it was my unrealistic expectations finally crumbling under the weight of reality, maybe I was thrown back to all those other times Ibushi had to vacate titles or miss opportunities near to his heart because of ill fortune.

Whatever it was, it gave me the impetus to finally finish this piece. It is, first a foremost, a love letter to the Einstein of professional wrestling, filled with all the incentives I could find to convert you to his cult. It’s not an Ibushi 101, and the matches I have chosen to highlight story or character beats don’t make a comprehensive list by any means, especially since so many landed on the cutting room floor (see the Further Reading list at the very end of for those).

With all that said, I hope you’re strapped in for the ride, because this is going to be a long one.

(use the links in this list to jump to specific chapters)

All Roads (Don’t) Lead to DDT

I don’t think Ibushi needs a formal introduction, not in the traditional sense anyway. Even if you remain doubtful of his self-proclaimed status as capital G God, his accolades speak for themselves: he’s a decorated kickboxer and karateka, multi-time G1 finalist and winner, a multi-time recipient of one of the most prestigious pro wrestling awards in Japan and internationally, New Japan Cup and Best of the Super Junior winner, holder of every belt there is to win in New Japan with the exception of the US Heavyweight title, and a two-time actor. He’s been described as a global superstar, the complete package (eat your heart out, Gedo), the perfect wrestling specimen, and a statue hewn out of granite. But we aren’t really here for the spiffy descriptors and accolades. We’re here for the man behind the titles, the Phoenix behind the Splash, the Star behind the Golden.

And how to best describe that person? Who is Ibushi Kota, aside from a list of achievements?

In a little documentary New Japan did with Ibushi before the G1 CLIMAX in 2017, the year that saw him return to the company and its fans for the first time after a year-long absence, he declares that he leaves his wrestling up to his feelings. He wants to win the G1, of course, but first comes doing things his way. The little text at the end proudly sums up him up: Following his feelings when it comes to eating, training, and wrestling. That’s Ibushi Kota. As we shall see, treading his own path wherever his feelings lead him is a red thread throughout his entire career, but of course there is more to a person than just their feelings.

So, others have tried to define Ibushi in terms of his athleticism. They like to speak of this once-in-a-lifetime talent as though he were “born to wrestle” (most of the time with a snide undertone of some perceived unfair advantage), as though he were already molded before birth and then merely placed in the cradle of the world like a polished chess piece. And maybe there is such a thing as karmic predetermination. But personally I find that viewpoint detrimental to my enjoyment of wrestling. To me, it’s just so much more inspirational, and real, to see artists as the changing, stumbling, imperfect people that they are, and Ibushi is no exception.

As Ibushi himself notes in his autobiography, he was born prone to allergies and sickness. He was also restless and unable to concentrate in his first years in school. Indeed, he was so easily distracted (unless it was about wrestling) that he only made it through the calligraphy class his parents stuck him into because the teacher knew he was a lost cause and allowed him to pass with, shall we say, additional help. He entered the rugby club in high school on the sheer basis that it reminded him of wrestling (he has confessed that he more than once injured other players by throwing them in a German suplex), and he never seriously considered it as a career path.

His mother, herself a track-and-field athlete, had seen on TV a famous Olympic competitor who grew up on eating sashimi (cuts of raw fish), and started feeding Ibushi the same as soon as he could digest proper food. I’m sure this contributed in some way to the development of his physique, which was already above-average impressive by the time he graduated elementary school, but it was his unrelenting urge to compete, often with children twice his age and height, and his complete and utter devotion to wrestling, that would pave the way for the shining star we know today. Ibushi was born to do whatever he set his one-track mind on—and as it happened, that thing was pro wrestling.

Yet it was difficult for him to navigate his desires for a long time. As a young teen he had secretly taken bumps in his room (so much so that there was a hole in the tatami mats and a dark discoloration from his sweat), but he gave up on wrestling after his confession of wanting to move to Tokyo and join New Japan made his parents cry. After high school, he meandered through various options, seeking out and giving up on Dragon Gate (Tôryûmon at the time), KAIENTAI DOJO, amateur wrestling and even martial arts. While working at the airport in Narita, he had parted ways with wrestling completely—for good, he thought—and focused with grim determination on kickboxing for a time.

Then he watched a couple of DDT shows near where he lived, and upon seeing their top talents like KUDO, who were of similar slim build to him, thought he could make it there. He could rise to the peak of the mountain, easy. He could become DDT’s pride and breakout star. And, well, not to spoil anything, but he went on to do exactly that.

Taking Flight (2004–2008)

Although Ibushi’s “true” debut would be on July 1st, 2004, technically the first time he set foot in a DDT ring outside of practice was a month earlier, on June 6th, when he appeared in KUDO and Takagi’s corner as a mysterious masked helper. His costume was reminiscent of the HERO! character (the ! is part of the name, thank you very much) that sometimes appeared in DDT and was variably played by different wrestlers. He wouldn’t really wrestle that night, more so interfere on behalf of his team and otherwise linger around the ringpost, but I bring this up because I find the choice to frame his “debut” around the HERO! character very telling.

As a child, Ibushi grew up in love with the tokusatsu style of TV series and movies (think Ultraman, Power Rangers and the 80s Godzilla movies). He cites the realization that wrestlers were like real life tokusatsu monsters and heroes, inhumanly fast and strong and animated, as one of the first times he truly fell in love with pro wrestling. Once you bring this knowledge into the equation, it illuminates a lot of Ibushi’s style, like the calculated expressiveness of his movements and the emphasis on kicks to tell the story of a crucial moment in a match. And also, stepping out in costume before revealing his true self foreshadows something that happens way later down the road.

1/7 2004: KUDO vs Ibushi Kota (DDT Audience 2004)

The first Phoenix Splash. In his debut match. Mad lad.

At any rate, there isn’t a whole lot to say about his debut match, aside from the glimpse of brilliance shining off Ibushi. It’s a little awkward and unsteady and it’s over before you really know what happened, but it’s worth talking about nonetheless because of the reaction from his colleagues and superiors it received at the time. Takagi notes that pretty much everyone in the back was aggressively telling him how ridiculous it was, full of moonsaults and swirling kicks that have no place in such matches. He shrugged and stuck by the skinny wayward kid that had stumbled into his promotion. Even back then, there was something about Ibushi that made the seniors of DDT tell him he was special, if underhandedly so.

After his impressive debut, he spent his first year in DDT tagging a lot with Takagi, and when you watch him in his first matches it’s not hard to understand why the boss was personally taking the young talent under his wings: even as green as he was, he displayed unparalleled athleticism and tenaciousness that eclipsed everyone else involved, and it wouldn’t take long until his moniker of “Golden Star”, that he carries to this day, was known inside and outside of DDT as a name to be watched.

Incidentally, Ibushi’s rise within DDT would sort of mirror KENTA’s meteoric rise in NOAH’s junior division a few years earlier. KENTA had gone through a number of gauntlets to prove he was worthy of the sensation his trainers and superior made him out to be, and in DDT Ibushi went through similar trials that directly parodied the “7 Match” structure of KENTA’s gauntlet. Fate would have it these two would later clash again and again (and sometimes be on the same team), in a pretty underrated rivalry that spanned various promotions.

By 2006 then, Ibushi was already the established junior ace of DDT, so much so that Takagi trusted him with, among other things, wrestling him in a series of matches in bookstores to commemorate the publication of Takagi’s autobiography. The matches would be a hit with fans and gain cult status fairly quickly, but the important thing was that Takagi had been proven correct in his trust. It didn’t matter if it was in front of fifty people or two-thousand, it didn’t matter who his opponents were; Ibushi could be relied upon to put forth two-hundred percent no matter what, and to always invest his entire being into his matches (and sometimes, for lack of a better word, things that transcend the word “match”).

“We fight in a four sided ring, but there’s nothing stopping it from being a circle, or a triangle. It’s different to any other sports, it has more potential than any other sport.”

Ibushi Kota, December 2019

If he had been a prodigious newcomer up until the end of 2007, he takes off like a firework rocket in an explosion of confidence in 2008. His footing for the Phoenix Splash in his debut was shaky and hasty, but now the guy that fights with the turnbuckle is gone. He would also fairly quickly broaden his horizon into all sorts of outside-the-ring experiences: into the greenery of the mountains of Yamanashi, into department stores, onto the asphalt in front of shops and houses, onto live stages at conventions, bars and amusement parks, on top of cars and vending machines. He wouldn’t just confine himself to Japan either: at the beginning of 2008 he made his debut for ROH and, to no one’s surprise, was lauded with chants begging for his return to a North American ring.

But anyway, wherever Ibushi went, what was always striking was the seriousness with which he approached non-traditional wrestling. That isn’t to say he was stuck up—on the contrary, I think it’s very easy to see just how much fun the guy is having when you watch just one second of any of those matches—but rather, that he approached them the same way he approached a big title match: utterly focused, bearing himself like a confident challenger and champion. Whether it was towards a ring surrounded by a hundred people, while wading through the sand of a beach or while passing rows of books in a shop clerk’s apron, Ibushi always made it feel like he was walking down the ramp in the Tokyo Dome.

I feel like I’ll quickly run out of ways to say “he’s a glorious idiot”, so I’ll just let this speak for itself.

These adventures drew eyes in Japan and internationally, and since we have at least one well-documented record of someone uprooting their life to fight him be closer to him, I think it’s safe to say that he had quite the impact on the wrestling world, even in his early years. His match with Kenny Omega in August of 2008 during DDT’s Beer Garden week cemented this impact further, but to keep things focused on Ibushi, I can only mimic what has already been said about this match. It’s a fascinating close-up record of two people finding out in real-time that they are clicking instantly. It’s scary and beautiful. It’s the beginning of a love story and a part of wrestling history.

Unfortunately, Ibushi would end the year in the middle of a shoulder injury that forced him to rest from wrestling for roughly three months. It’s a grim herald of things to come: his shoulders, particularly the left one, will give him trouble again and again from here on, and as his career path becomes longer, so does the list of ailments that haunt him.

A New Star Rises (2009–2011)

Despite the early injuries, Ibushi overtakes everyone else in the promotion with alarming speed. Five years after his debut, top stars KUDO and HARASHIMA are struggling to keep up with him, and Ibushi is already dipping his toes into competing for other promotions such as Noah, CHIKARA and New Japan, who are all panting for the young, agile high-flyer with his more than solid shoot fighting credibility.

In 2008, he had declared he was burned out and running after the wind in the hopes it would blow an opportunity his way to cherish his work again. So he goes on a little bit of a “falls count anywhere” excursion in the aforementioned parks and book stores. I cannot emphasize enough how fun these are, and how rewarding it is to fall head over heels in love with these matches when you’ve spent the majority of your life being injected with a poisonous idea of wrestling’s identity. However, I also have to point out that, as much as they are crafts of great happiness, they are filled with a subtle, silent sadness. It’s visible to the naked eye that Ibushi’s on the hunt for more, that he yearns for many things at once and doesn’t quite know yet which way to turn his head.

In 2009, Ibushi enters the prestigious Best of the Super Juniors tournament for the first time in his life. He would lose in the semifinals to ascending star Prince Devitt, but his performances against fellow juniors from all over the country made him an undeniable talent in the eyes of New Japan, and they would allow him to wrestle on their cards with increasing frequency. But most importantly, the sweet scent on that wind told Ibushi of gold in his future. Ever since idolizing Hashimoto Shinya in his childhood, Ibushi had dreamed of becoming IWGP Heavyweight champion one day. The Junior belt can be his stepping stone towards fulfilling this dream.

But though his nose is turning the way of gold, his heart still beats in DDT. And while he’s chasing his dream, why not have a bit of fun on the way there?

10/25 2009: Yoshihiko vs Ibushi Kota (Welcome to Neverland 2009)

Look. A lot has been made throughout the decades of different styles in wrestling, of comedic and serious streaks in matches, and how much they should or shouldn’t mix. If you see the Yoshihiko matches merely as comedy, then you miss the amount of exceptional talent and conviction it takes to structure a fight with an inanimate object, and throughout it never lose the audience both in the illusion and the entertainment. I’m not going to sit here and pretend Yoshihiko matches are the insurmountable pinnacle of all wrestling ever achieved on this planet (well, maybe I won’t), but I will tell you that it takes the right juggler to not merely wrestle a broom, or a (former) sex doll, but to make it a spectacle to behold.

To borrow a few words from Ibushi himself, if he the wrestler isn’t having fun, how can he expect the audience to have fun? And conversely then, if he is having fun, and that spark jumps from him to the audience, does it really matter that he’s not facing a “real” opponent? If someone is moved by my painting, does it really matter what kind of paint I used to draw it?

In an interview in 2014, Ibushi confesses that in the beginning, when he was play wrestling with his friends on the school premises, he liked taking moves more than he liked doing them. Something about being on the receiving end of the release of that raw power got him more excited and fired up than the reverse, especially if the move was dangerous (which could be said of all the moves back then, because they were done on the hard grassy ground by very inexperienced people). Perhaps this is where part of that reckless streak of his comes from; a certain wish to test his limits that only got stronger and stronger the closer his opponent was to his level. And who can be closer to your level than yourself?

You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame.”

I feel like this schoolyard memory shapes Ibushi’s confrontations with Yoshihiko quite a bit. Of course it’s a privilege to witness his risky offense, to see him achieve a perfect pose mid-air or nail the brutality of a lariat, but more than anything it’s in his delightful selling that I find that reckless, childlike spirit of Ibushi, the one that made him run around with his friends on the beach or hurl himself off a cliff into the foaming waves below (only a little bit safer now, thank God). Ibushi sells like a trickster spirit let out of his woodland prison for the first time in a thousand years, like a young lion tumbling around in the sand with his siblings. It’s contagious and addicting, and due to the nature of the Yoshihiko matches, they are one of the best places to go see that side of his.

As mentioned, Ibushi came into 2009 already burned out, and after going on an unrivaled tag run with Kenny in DDT and New Japan, the mental and physical weight becomes too much for him. He takes three months off in the beginning of 2010—with sporadic appearances—not due to any acute injury, but just to rest his body and reconsider his approach. In his first matches after his return the refreshment this has brought him is obvious, but unfortunately, it doesn’t last long: he fights his way to the finals of the next Best of the Super Juniors, loses again to his rival Devitt, and then has to pull out from all action for three more months due to dislocating his left shoulder.

However, in 2011 he will get his revenge. Once again he competes on a New Japan mat in the Best of the Super Juniors, and this time, he bests everyone, including Devitt’s tag partner and rival Taguchi, earning himself a right to challenge the Junior champion.

6/18 2011: Prince Devitt vs Ibushi Kota (Dominion 6.18)

Although his dream, his true goal, is the Heavyweight belt, Ibushi knows that he has to work his way up to it first. He will slowly put on weight over the next years to prepare his eventual ascension into the heavyweight division, but he’s not quite there yet, so for now the Junior belt is the object of his desire. With determination and that spontaneous grace of his, he beats Devitt at Dominion the same year, and finally wears his first singles belt in New Japan around his waist.

“(Not) in lone splendour hung aloft the night

Now might be a good opportunity as any to talk about the Phoenix Splash. Although it would later be replaced by the Kamigoe as his “true” finisher, it will stay with Ibushi throughout his entire career, from his debut to the big matches in the Tokyo Dome, Osaka-jo Hall, Ryôgoku and Budokan. It’s the Phoenix Splash that brings him win after win as a rising Junior.

More importantly, it’s the move that best exemplifies Ibushi to me: it’s risky and difficult, requiring an unparalleled fine-tuning of the body and absolute focus of the mind, and as great as its damage is in kayfabe, it’s often a ringing of the knell as well. Having your back turned to the ring and your opponent is like throwing yourself into the world blindfolded. You can hope that others will be there to cushion your fall, but in the end, you have to trust yourself and only yourself, even if it’s scary. And after you land face-first in the dirt, you have to pick yourself up after, no matter how much it hurts. As we have already seen, Ibushi is nothing if not the master of burning up and rising from the ashes a hundred times over.

If Ibushi had hoped for a gust of change in 2008, I’d say 2011 was the whirlwind he wasn’t quite prepared for. Winning the Junior belt and proving himself in New Japan with the tag matches against Apollo 55 (which he to this day cites as his favorites from his time as a junior heavyweight) are huge steps for him, but so are the setbacks: at the end of the year the shoulder curse returns to plague Ibushi in the form of yet another dislocation. He’s out until May of next year, and what’s worse to him, he has to vacate all the titles he holds at that time, including the New Japan Junior belt.

But what makes him come back again and again? What keeps him sane on his hunt for himself and gold? In my opinion it’s having one foot in the serious, pompous atmosphere of the Noahs and New Japans of the world, and one foot in the, well, different outside world.

8/24 2011: Ibushi Kota vs Irie Shigehiro, Thanomsak Toba, Brahman Bros and many more (Ibushi’s Apartment Complex Wrestling)

Where do I even begin with this video, aside from gushing about how it’s one of my favorite things on the planet? The premise is easily conveyed, despite the potential language barrier: landlord twins ask Ibushi to evict the rowdy inhabitants of their apartment complex by any means possible. Chaos ensues.

But as simple as the stipulation and the narrative of “protagonist in a video game haunted house uses his entire body and some props to complete quest line” sound, they don’t capture the spirit of this video. It’s a strange, honest, utterly engulfing cocktail, part Noroi, part immersive Polly Pocket experience, part midnight comedy special that you only stumble upon while zapping through the channels, with a heavy dash of half-naked violence thrown in to balance the other parts out. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at people who harbor an unquenchable thirst to come up with, perform and show off incomparable wrestling.

Being a pro wrestler is hard work.

The magic in here doesn’t come from the match-ups, or the way they’re structured, or the story being told. Well, it kind of does, but the magical dust on top of the extravagant cake comes from Ibushi himself. The whole thing might as well be a Golden Star exhibit: we get a string of quirky characters so we see the bemused but nonjudgmental way he treats them all the same, we get tight, winding corridors so the camera has “no choice” but to film his physique in close-up, and we get the rooftop finale so he can be stupid and launch himself off the top of the little staircase leading outside. If the Phoenix Splash is the manifestation of Ibushi the wrestler, then this unusual gauntlet is the manifestation of Ibushi the person.

From Golden Star to Superstar (2012–2014)

Since things will go a hundred miles an hour from here towards a big change in Ibushi’s life, this is the last time we will see “classic” Ibushi for a while. It’s not the last time he did an unconventional match, and it’s certainly not the last time he will metaphorically come back to those childhood days of play wrestling, but starting in 2012 his dream has manifested so strongly within him that he can no longer ignore the pathway of opportunities in front of him. It’s a golden pathway. It will take a lot of sacrifices to follow.

The first step he takes on it is a big one: he doesn’t participate in the Best of the Super Juniors in 2013, but instead in what could be very reasonably called the premier pro wrestling tournament in not just New Japan, but the world: the G1 CLIMAX. The winner of the G1 has the right to challenge the person standing at the very top of the mountain. Not the Junior champion, but the IWGP Heavyweight champion. That scent on the wind returns. Ibushi doesn’t win this G1, but he will face a very special opponent in there.

Like many people, I grew up on an impoverished diet of WWE and WWE only, and took a break from watching wrestling entirely when their product could no longer coast on the fame it had raked up in the late 90s. I tried coming back to it when I was searching for something that would reward my long-term investment, but aside from a brief flirt with the Shield, I didn’t find it in WWE, and so said goodbye to American mainstream wrestling. I chose the greener pastures of puroresu and lucha libre continents away, and in Japan, I found Nakamura (or did he find me? I’m pretty sure the wrestling chooses the fan). It’s to him I owe the change from merely interested to invested. His soulful tenacity and sprawling rivalmance with Tanahashi were the lightning bolts that opened my eyes to the art in wrestling, and everything that can encompass.

8/4 2013: Nakamura Shinsuke vs Ibushi Kota (G1 CLIMAX 23)

So, even in such a capricious collection as this, it feels like a crime not to include Ibushi’s first clash with the King of Strong Style. It’s everything your friends and wrestling elders have probably told you it is. I was speechless the first time I watched it, and on multiple rewatches I always found something new to be amazed, and rattled, by. Like the Beer Garden fight five years earlier, it’s brutal and breathtaking, with a nail-biting sharpness to it as it ramps up in its second half.

It was chosen as that year’s Best Bout by Tokyo Sports, the 2nd in Ibushi’s repertoire after the phenomenal 2010 tag match against Apollo 55 together with Kenny. If there was anyone in the audience who was still for some godforsaken reason skeptical of the Golden Star, I imagine they changed their mind after the G1 match.

“He’s laughing. Must be the nerves.”

The two had a rematch for Nakamura’s pride, the Intercontinental title, at Wrestle Kingdom in 2015, and even though Ibushi would once again lose against the King, the post-match shows Nakamura kneel down and offer Ibushi his fist. Ibushi doesn’t hesitate, and the two fist bump to the thunder of the crowd, a huge portion of which had held out hope for Ibushi until the very end. When I saw this moment for the first time, I cried for reasons I didn’t quite understand yet. I had to turn the video off, and it wasn’t until years later that I would open it back up.

It wasn’t a handshake or a hug. In a strange way, a fist bump felt so much more intimate, so much more understanding of who Ibushi was in his essence. Nakamura wasn’t just congratulating him on his effort, he was telling him had seen something of himself in the young star. Like the Kôrakuen Hall bout, this was not a bitter loss by any means. On the contrary, Ibushi had earned something arguably more valuable than a belt: the utter respect of his first god, and of the 36,000 odd people in attendance that day. Put a pin in that.

Near the end of 2013, the big change in Ibushi’s life I told you about arrives in the form of a double contract. It’s the first time in the history of Japanese wrestling that anyone has ever held two contracts with two promotions at the same time. A year before, Ibushi had been offered a transfer to New Japan, but had declined it because he loved DDT too much and didn’t want to leave his family behind. He makes a point in the double contract to ask for Nakazawa as his second for all of his matches, and it’s not just to bring a bit of home with him into this new kingdom.

I don’t think anyone can say that he ever stopped loving DDT. There’s too much of a playful shimmer in his eyes whenever he does return to the wackiness of a DDT “ring”, and even today you can see the spark and blood of the “cultural wrestling” (DDT’s brand of wrestling philosophy and antithesis to the shoot fighting-imitating style of the Japanese mainstream) pulsing inside him. But he still has that dream, a dream he can only fulfill in New Japan. He knows that in order to truly bring pro wrestling to the next level of both popularity and possibility, he has to take the reigns at the top of the third biggest promotion in the world.

As 2014 unfolds, Ibushi turns his focus from his god Nakamura back to his rival Devitt. For a while now he’s tried to ignore the shadow of a choice looming on the horizon. It might have been easier to ignore in 2011, but now as double-contractor, with his workload growing and growing, it’s no longer just a choice between shows and events, but also a choice between being the streetfighting champion of Japan together with the young Canadian who’s fallen in love with him, and the object of his childhood dreams, the IWGP Heavyweight belt.

Judgement day comes. Ibushi finally has to make the choice. He looks at the belt around Devitt’s waist, once again his ticket to greater heights. He chooses himself. He challenges Devitt and is promptly granted a match on the biggest stage of them all, Wrestle Kingdom.

1/4 2014: Prince Devitt vs Ibushi Kota (WRESTLE KINGDOM 8)

Three years before this, Ibushi had faced Devitt at the Dome for the first time (it was also Ibushi’s first Tokyo Dome, ever), and at that time, he had not only his Lover in his corner, but a whole family from DDT to give him courage: Ohka, Nakazawa and Matsunaga were all there clutching the apron and watching him spin through the air in reverence. In 2014, only Nakazawa is in his corner, while the zombie nightmare formerly known as Devitt has the whole platoon of the Bullet Club around him, virtually itching to interfere, holler, taunt and beleaguer Ibushi on his behalf.

“He’s going to drag [Devitt] back into the world of the living.”

But it’s not just Devitt who has changed in the three years between the two Dome matches. The Ibushi who stands to face Devitt in 2014 is a completely different person from his 2011 self, and it shows not just in his moves and ability. Although he fights back tears right before Devitt’s entrance, he looks empty and focused by the time the Bullet Club leader has made it into the ring. You can tell he had to shed part of his humanity in order to get to here.

Ironically, despite the turned tables, Ibushi emerges the victor in the 2014 match, winning the IWGP Junior belt and, arguably, the feud between him and Devitt. Like in 2011, he captures the final pinfall via a Phoenix Splash.

A couple months after Wrestle Kingdom, Devitt would leave New Japan and rebirth himself once more overseas, but Ibushi stayed behind, trusted with the top of the junior division in New Japan. He does his best to carry both the responsibilities of DDT and NJPW on his his shoulders, but a concussion before the G1 CLIMAX forces him out yet again. It’s the first crack in the facade he has tried his damnedest to keep up.

To Finish, Just Add Sparklers

Many things end in the next two years. Kenny’s hesitant betrayal at Invasion Attack drives the last stake into the heart of the Golden Lovers that both parties had let bleed out for years. Ibushi spends the remainder of 2015 in tag matches for DDT and New Japan. He takes part in the G1 CLIMAX once more, an expected and normal thing now that once seemed so far away for his junior self. But he doesn’t even come close to reaching the finals. He unsuccessfully challenges for the NEVER belt and then has to go out for over half a year on the depressing note of a cervical disk herniation and subsequent spondylolisthesis.

In 2016, things become too much. Or rather, they have been too much for a while now. Ibushi is visibly overworked, broken and struggling to maintain a balance that won’t compromise either his health or his spirit. I spent those days grinding my teeth, worrying hour after hour.

Then in February, he announces his resignation from both DDT and New Japan and the founding of his own private “promotion”, the Ibushi Research Institute, that serves as the declaration of his need for reinvention. In the press conference he says he’s done everything he can with the current wrestling style of his, and struggles to find the words to describe his future plans. And although all three involved parties stress that this a “graduation” and not the end of their partnership with each other, Ibushi won’t come under contract for DDT ever again (and will only re-sign with New Japan in 2019). It’s the end of one and the dawn of another era.

“I’d like to leave [my wrestling] to my body’s intuition. I’ve always done everything intuitively. If I think that I’m no good with the same style [as before], then I leave it to [my body to guide me].

Ibushi Kota, February 2016

He took a big risk betting everything on himself. Either I’m going to do things my way or I’m not gonna do them at all always sounds nice when you say it out loud by yourself in your room, but I imagine it took a lot to step away from everything and everyone, especially in such a unique and historically unprecedented situation he had found himself in. I remember being worried I would hate him for turning his back on the past, but in fact I was nothing but proud when word of his decision reached me. So proud of him for having endured what he had endured, and so proud of him for standing at the precipice of darkness and taking a step forward. If he knew nothing else, he knew that he’d be able to fly.

The majority of the handful of matches he has in 2016 take place overseas in America. Of course he would cause waves over there as well, be it with his matches, which for many were the highlight of the 2016 WWE Cruiserweight Classic, or by no-selling the presence of a certain authoritative figure in the North American wrestling entertainment business.

When he returns to the Cerulean Blue in 2017, he will do so not as himself, but as the caped hero Tiger Mask W, complete with a different moveset (though of course Ibushi would accidentally spoil his true identity). As with HERO!, more than just an homage to predecessors (the legendary Tiger Mask lineage of wrestlers), it was a an expression of his self, a return to the tokusatsu-style explosiveness that so set him on fire as a child. He said he needed to reinvent himself, and so he did, in and out of costume.

7/17 2017: Ibushi Kota vs Naito Tetsuya (G1 CLIMAX 27 Opener)

For the G1, he sheds the masquerade. He faces his peer Naito on the opening night, and makes his way to the ring as though he had never left. But unlike before, there’s a pride and dignity to his footing now, a glittering elegance to his jumps and twists and kicks that only confidence can grow. His anger has also deepened when he wants it to, and often his roars and howls can be heard above the crowd noise in the broadcast.

“For the first time in two years I remember, the kind of man Ibushi Kota is.”

After the exceptional clash, Ibushi is carried away from the ring, stumbling and beaten, as the crowd breaks out into applause. The camera cuts to Naito just as he gestures to the young lions to let him go, and when it cuts back, he’s kneeling on the ground with his head towards the ring, the shine from the spotlights bouncing off of his bent back.

I have many moments that still get me choked up whenever I rewatch them, like seeing him jump out from underneath the stage for his Wrestle Kingdom bout with Nakamura (which he himself has elected as his favorite entrance of all time), or the way he jerks the curtain open to come out in his hometown of Kagoshima in 2019, but nothing quite gets me like this one, and it’s a little bit harder to explain why. Something deep inside me clicked when I saw him kneel down in front of the ring that day, with the music blaring and the crowd roaring and the commentators excitedly talking over each other about his triumphant return.

I would never dare compare myself to the athlete Ibushi, and indeed this wasn’t even about finding something of myself in his personality or in-ring style, and yet I thought, Ah, that’s how I am. All of the other wrestlers I loved at the time were part of something; a team or a stable, or at the very least a tightly-knit group of friends. But Ibushi wasn’t. He had come back like he had left: alone and determined.

I have spent my entire life struggling to carve out a line for myself. That line is often dangerously thin, balanced between the reclusive, hateful loner side of the blade and losing myself in the tangles of other people’s lives. Being around people often feels like drowning to me, like I’m tossed around by faces I can’t read, tones in their voices I can’t interpret, colors and letters and words I don’t want to see or be around. And even if I do manage to make connections with people, it’s like playing Russian roulette; I never know when the point comes when I need to crawl back into my hole.

Remember the pin I told you to put into the undefined emotion I felt watching Nakamura vs Ibushi at Wrestle Kingdom 15? Turns out, three years later, that emotion was hope. Not hope for Ibushi, but hope for myself.

Even against everyone’s beloved Naito, the cheers for Ibushi were loud and clear, both before and after the bell. All those years ago, when he had shown an iron will to keep fighting through injuries and setbacks, and come back again and again to prove himself in New Japan, he had earned the undying love of the fans, and that love never went away, in spite of his absence. Seeing Ibushi kneel down so reverently made me realize that being alone and being lonely were two very separate things. It made me think that, if he could achieve such wonders while never giving up his way, maybe, just maybe, so could I.

“For me, pro wrestling is a place where I can express myself the most. A place where I can put out and express everything about my life.”

Ibushi Kota, 2018

Ibushi would not go on to win this G1. He wouldn’t even reach the finals, ranking third in his block behind Tanahashi, the man he had chosen as his deity after Nakamura, but to me the opener against Naito has such powerful emotions and prestige behind it that it often overshadows anything else in that tournament for me, bar the final night.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I don’t think New Japan has treated Ibushi very well. In fact, I’m of the opinion that they to this day prefer to frame their punishment of his quest for freedom as a heartwarming story about perseverance, as though they weren’t the ones who left him cold in the singles and tag divisions for years when he returned. I don’t want to dwell on this negativity too long, but just keep this in mind when he does reach the top of the mountain in 2021.

Draped in Gold, and Silver (2018–2019)

It feels like a massive understatement to say that the coming three years will be a tumultuous time. We’ll go through the whole repertoire of emotions, sometimes over the span of a couple of months, sometimes during a single night. There’s a neat little word for that: kidoairaku (joy, anger, sadness and enjoyment or fun), which encapsulates the spectrum of these emotions that art should strive to create and facilitate. Takagi, Dieno, Tanahashi and Ibushi are just a few of the names who have used kidoairaku or related terms when describing their ideal of wrestling.

Life imitates art. 2018 starts right off with the emotional whirlpool of the Golden Lovers reunion. Through Kenny, Ibushi will become involved with everyone in the BC Civil War drama. Some, like Cody, try to use him like a tool, others, like Hangman, have more personal gripes to settle with him. And yet others, like the Young Bucks, appear caught between the literal ropes, at once condemning his absence and his presence, and at once wanting sincerely to bring him into the fold. In the Golden Comeback documentary Ibushi says he doesn’t want to divide the Elite, and that seems emblematic to me of his whole approach to this complicated situation. It’s too many players he doesn’t know what to do with, so in the end, he resorts to his old mantra: I’ll fight them, wherever, whenever. He doesn’t say it out of malice—it’s merely his way of boiling down all the feelings and thoughts that are too complicated to express outside the ring anyway.

So he expresses them inside the ring. For many people, the Golden Lovers’ match against the Young Bucks counts among the standout performances of their reunited run, and though I love that match dearly, a fun little tag bout directly after it, at the end of 2018, is my personal favorite and serves the purpose of demonstrating my love for Ibushi a bit better.

9/30 2018: Okada Kazuchika and Ishii Tomohiro vs Kenny Omega and Ibushi Kota (FIGHTING SPIRIT UNLEASHED)

All four men participating in the match are exceptionally gifted and captivating performers in my book, but Ibushi sticks out to me as the immaculate bright light that illuminates all other colors of the painting. I love his harpoon-like dropkicks, I love the fluidity and swiftness with which he moves through the fights, I love how the match is structured to give his style ample time to shine in contrast with everyone else’s, and I love how obviously the fun is bubbling out of him in his expressions and the aggressiveness of his moves, especially whenever he can face Ishii in the ring.

“Everything I’ve ever achieved I owe to [Ibushi].”

Though I have been gushing about perfection, in truth I value vulnerability more than anything. It’s the hook that makes me come back to art. As much as I adore the perfect performances from Ibushi in this match, what makes me think about it long after the video has ended are the things that don’t quite click. I love the clash between the junior tandem moveset of the Golden Lovers and Ibushi’s obvious heavyweight training, I love the disconnect of some of the calls and double teams, showing how Ibushi has changed and yet is striving to return to something old. I love whenever he is just a little bit out of sync with everyone, riding his own waves. I prefer to think of this match as the end of 2018 rather than Ibushi’s gruesome battle at Wrestle Kingdom, where he will unfortunately suffer a concussion that takes him two months to heal from.

Like 2011 and 2016 before it, 2019 is a year of change. Lovers part ways once more as their desires drag them into different directions, and Ibushi ends his long tenure as a freelancer. He officially signs with New Japan again, and says this one’s for life, until the day he dies.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit surprised to read those words back then. This was the guy who had always followed his own path idiosyncratically, who was unwilling to compromise his instincts in any way, shape or form. And yet after a while, I thought I understood him. He still had that dream, after all. As IWGP champion he would have the power to change the world, to show what he and wrestling could truly be. Of course he wants to give his inner child the gift of the belt, but what he really wants it making his vision of wrestling come true. Rather than swearing fealty to New Japan, I saw this as him swearing fealty to himself first and foremost. Once again, he chose himself.

Looking back, he should have won the G1 a year earlier in my opinion, but with that determination and loyalty there was no way he wouldn’t win the 2019 one. He overcomes his god and tag partner Tanahashi in a soul-tearing fight, clad in the champagne gold of his old self, and he goes into the finals to face Jay White, the new leader of the Bullet Club, clad in the silvery white of his new self.

8/12 2019: Ibushi Kota vs Jay White (G1 CLIMAX 29 Finals)

As with the Nakamura bout, even I would be remiss not to include this match on my journey through Ibushi’s career. It’s a terrifying, awe-inspiring 30-minute crescendo towards one my favorite Kamigoe finishers of all time, and one of my favorite last ending minutes of any match, period. It has a raw intensity and intransigence to it, as if both men would truly rather die than lose this. And for what it’s worth, I believe them.

Ibushi’s “switch on” moments (colloquially called “Murder Ibushi” in the English-speaking community) are quite famous at this point. If pushed into a corner or standing on their last leg, all wrestlers must reach down and burn up the last fuel in their tanks if they want to win. But for Ibushi these moments don’t usually happen when he’s cutting into the last of his reserves, they happen when his anger glitches out and overflows into something else; a quiet, intimidating harnessing of emotions that allows him to unleash them in a laser-focused, terrifying onslaught.

You are already dead.

The moment this happens near the end of the Jay White match is one of my favorite instances of his switch being flipped. Jay has tried to taunt and drive Ibushi into uncontrolled anger for the entire match, but as Ibushi stalks him into the corner like a half-naked Jason Vorhees and howls for him, Jay gets more than he bargained for. He looks almost afraid to strike him, as if he knows what he’s awoken. His fear was more than justified. Ibushi eats his forearm like a light snack and then cuts him down brutally with a single strike to the awestruck rumble of the crowd.

I knew in that moment that Jay had no chance of winning anymore. Well, as a fan, of course I had to pretend the entire time I knew Ibushi was going to win, but after the switch, I knew. I wasn’t afraid of the SSS or the Bladerunner anymore. It was as perfect as a single panel from a manga, before you turn the page and think to yourself, That’s it. The bad guy’s dead.

More than a victory, it’s a glorious moment, a still image of hardship and a triumph that had for many people, myself included, long been overdue. Everyone has a face they see when they think “G1”, and I see Ibushi. I hear the cathartic, almost jumpscare-like pop from the streamer cannons accompanied by the relieved cry of the crowd. He kneels down with the trophy and the banner of those who came before, silver streamers sticking to him, smiling despite the excruciating pain—and it just looks right. This is how the universe was meant to be.

Well, now he has the goddamn briefcase, and he will keep it until Wrestle Kingdom and thus earn himself a chance at winning the biggest, most prestigious prize in Japanese wrestling. But I said the road to the Olympus would be long and arduous for a reason. He has conquered gods and mortal men alike, but there is one last enemy he must overcome before he can carry the gold around his waist with pride: himself.

Shine of the Past, Glimmer of the Future (2020–2021)

Before I can start talking about some things from Ibushi’s clash with Okada, I need to bring back the thread about being torn in two directions. An interesting twin imagery accompanied that 2020 Tokyo Dome show, largely in reference to the “two nights, two main events” structure, as well as the dash for double gold, that saw Naito capture the Intercontinental title in one night and then the Heavyweight title the next.

However, I was always reminded of Ibushi classic split blue-and-white gear when I saw him approach the niômon (a gate of many Buddhist temples that has one of the twin guardians of the Buddha standing in each pillar) in his VTR. The niô after which the niômon are named literally translates to “two kings”, and the word for championship in Japanese is the same as for “throne”, thus making it appear on the surface as though the whole thing is just referencing the double gold dash again. But for Ibushi specifically, the double/twin imagery has always been there. For the celebration of Ibushi’s 10th wrestling anniversary, the special DVD set released came in two chapters: one DDT side and one NJPW side. His autobiography came in two parts as well: the main one written by him and an interview-based supplement, the titles playing on his reputation as both the best and the most unhinged.

1/4 2020: Okada Kazuchika vs Ibushi Kota (WRESTLE KINGDOM 14)

And sure enough, Ibushi comes out wearing a split blue-and-white gear reminiscent of the one from his junior days. He himself is still split. Split between his roots and the man he has molded himself into. Split between his wish to show the true width of what pro wrestling can be and the narrow confinement of a New Japan main event talent. Split between acknowledging his feelings and burying them beneath a mute, concentrated anger.

There’s a disquieting edge to him when his switch gets flipped by Okada that wasn’t quite there before, as though he’s slowly teetering towards a darker side. It’s also different from the Jay White match that got him to this point to begin with. In the G1 Climax finals he turned Jay’s plan for control upside down and used his machinations against him with a brutal, beautiful stroke of his inner fire. But here, it feels like he’s staring into the abyss, and he likes what he sees.

“But we sing it anyway”

Ibushi downs Okada with an angry lariat, and, sensing his moment to capitalize has come, tries to wiggle Okada into the Kamigoe position. When that doesn’t work, he digs for his former god Nakamura, and attacks him with a Bomaye, but Okada kicks out at one. So he digs for another emotion, and comes at him with a V-Trigger. Again Okada kicks out. Lured into desperation, Ibushi thinks he’s softened his opponent up enough to go for the Kamigoe after all, but Okada is ready for him: the dropkick he counters with flattens Ibushi into a frozen shame. What am I doing wrong?

The noise the audience makes for these spots sounds like awe mixed with a creeping fear. They know he’s digging for the wrong things, in the wrong places. He seeks the fire that made him a name around the world, but in this state he can only come up with steel. My heart sinks into my stomach every time I rewatch it.

For by steeling himself to reach the top of the mountain, he’s robbed himself of his most crucial 5%: the feeling of the sand against the back of his head, the rumblings of a chuckle breaking his facade as he stares down his opponent, the smell of Ryôgoku’s floor as he kneels down to bow to the ring, to Naito—and the fans. Whose voices were it that awoke him from his murderous intent when he was mutilating Okada in the corner? Whose voices have been cheering for him so loudly throughout the match? A part of him, the part that steering’s his body right now, has forgotten. The 5% are missing.

Of course the Phoenix Splash in this match doesn’t hit. How could it hit, now that he’s gone so far from who he is at his core? Before, he’s close to the right path again: going for the avalanche Tiger Driver that he brought out against Okada while he was masquerading as Tiger Mask W, but there’s no conviction, and Okada can fend him off too easily. Not long after, the bell rings for the three count. It’s a judgment we all saw coming, even if we hoped against hope it would never come.

It’s an ugly loss, too. While Okada’s arm is already raised in victory, Ibushi can barely move his, struggling to open his eyes at Okada’s feet. He covers his face in shame and grief as the fanfare blares, and has to be rolled out of the ring so Okada and Naito can have their moment. And there’s no respite for him either. The next night, he faces Jay White. Ibushi will go into that match already shattered, and he will lose against Jay too, in an even uglier fashion.

All in all, not exactly a great start into the new year for our Golden Star. Japan enters lockdown due to the worldwide Corona pandemic, and for months there are no New Japan shows at all. As soon as touring starts again, Ibushi and Tanahashi lose the tag titles they had won back in February to Dangerous Tekkers in a crushing defeat. Tanahashi vows for revenge, but the next time Golden Ace face Tekkers, they lose again. Ibushi stands there paralyzed in the middle of the ring, an expression on his face not of confusion or dismay, as commentary remarks, but of resignation. Once again, he needs to reinvent. This isn’t working out. None of it is. He’s not who he used to be and a part of him is prouder, stronger now, but he’s also lost something along the way.

“Once something’s thrown away, I never pick it up again. Same goes with something I might give someone, or lending something. I’ve always lent people things, knowing in my heart that they’ll never come back.”

Ibushi Kota, January 2021

Now, as devastating as these two key losses to Tekkers were, tag teams usually don’t disband after losing twice, unless there’s something else brewing underneath the surface. And sure enough, backstage Golden Ace declare valiantly that they’ll become a team again after the G1, but Tanahashi can barely look Ibushi in the eyes as he promises him he’ll get to his level, one day. He’s ashamed his body is breaking down, ashamed he let Ibushi down, ashamed he can’t keep up anymore with the man who once called him a god.

Ibushi does his best impression of the spirited youngster he no longer is, but his eyes aren’t on Tanahashi either. They’re far away, on the golden trophy of the G1. You can see how much more determined he is, how much more ready to bulldoze his way through anything and anyone to finally fulfill his dream. The loud bang on the table with which Tanahashi ends the interview is like the wooden clapper sound at the beginning of a kabuki play. It’s the point of no return.

Once again, he wins the G1. He grasps the flag and smiles brilliantly into the cameras as the streamers stick to his skin. I’m as overjoyed as I was the first time around, even if there’s a soapy film of worry mixing in. Are they finally going to pull the trigger on him and give him the belt he has craved for decades or are they going to let him tumble down the side of the mountain? The pandemic has made it difficult to predict the who’s and what’s of booking, and though as loyal believers we always expect our loyalty to be rewarded, there was no guarantee this was actually going to happen.

Do you give law to God, or does God give law to you?

But it happens. He beats not only his friend and rival Naito on night one, but the specter Jay that has been haunting him (and his briefcase) for years. Their bout breaks the record for longest Tokyo Dome match, was wrestled by at least one person while seriously injured, and again has me make vague promises about proper analysis in the future, because these matches and feuds definitely deserve it. For now, all I can say is: God stands at the top of the mountain he had looked up at since he was a small child, and when we look up with him, it feels right, just like the G1 CLIMAX victories. The Tokyo Dome is bathed in the blue and white lights of his celebration, the air dusty with the breath of divinity. It’s like time has halted for this specific moment.

Unfortunately, again, the time freeze doesn’t last. New Japan forces a title unification through Ibushi as the kayfabe scapegoat, and shortly after becoming the very first IWGP World Heavyweight champion, he loses the shiny new Power Rangers belt and has to start at zero, again. A need for reinvention, again. A chance to rise from the ashes, again.

6/7 2021: Ibushi Kota vs Jeff Cobb (DOMINION 6.6)

Once, Ibushi had been known to bring a solemn dignity to the ridiculousness of wrestling in an amusement park, but what he was lacking now was the reverse: he needed to bring back the amusement park into the solemn dignity of a New Japan ring. And, with being restricted to the squared circle for the foreseeable future, he chose to do that by making his opponent the amusement park.

Ibushi ragdolls his way through this match with an aura of sheer unbridled happiness. There are numerous spots where Cobb will either catch or carry him in preparation for some whirling or another, and each time Ibushi makes a face as if he’s on a rollercoaster (a fact he has referenced himself). Sure, it’s a little scary, but it’s also very fun. It’s as if he’s reverting back to his elementary school self, back to his self of the Yoshihiko matches. It’s pure joy to watch.

All of Ibushi’s encounters with Cobb are also quite erotic. People often joke about the inherent eroticism of wrestling—what with its exposition of skin and heart, and its intimate, close physical contact —but the jokes are inspired by the perception of reality, not the other way around. Wrestling’s a one-take negotiation of a stunt scene, with a heavy peppering of emotional drama, and the enormous amount of trust it takes to leave the fate of your body and your heart to someone else isn’t unlike the enormous amount of trust it takes to leave the fate of your body…you get the point.

Fasten your seat belts.

After the bell rings, they lay there for several minutes, raveling in the completion of their act. And just like with the Desperado fight three months earlier, the post-match scene sees Ibushi alone, while his opponent is cared for. O-Khan might not be as gentle and comforting as Taichi—he flicks Ibushi’s limbs out of the way with an air of stiff annoyance before stuffing the the United Empire towel in Cobb’s face—but he’s there nonetheless, while Ibushi lies alone to recover from the last exhausting minutes of the match. It’s his choice. It’s the path he chose.

Approaching the G1 CLIMAX of 2021, there was a fire to Ibushi’s attacks, a hitherto unseen form of his anger that cut deeper and sharper than the one he used to bring to the Tokyo Domes of yore. Cobb got under his skin as much as he gave him the fun battle he had been looking for for so long. But misfortune strikes once more. The Golden Star has to rise to the highest highs and fall to the lowest lows. He’s out for two months due to aspiration pneumonia.

When I learned from interviews and tweets how he was feeling mentally and physically upon his return match against Tanahashi, I realized his return should never have happened this early. He should never have participated in the G1 either. Ibushi himself looks overwhelmed when he faces his idol and mentor for the US Heavyweight belt, the only title that’s still escaping him after all those years, fighting with a plethora of emotions that twist his face and surge through his body like a lightning bolt. Though he tries, he can’t hold back his tears, and they fall freely from his face as he gives Unno his best smile.

The questions surrounding people’s fascination with horror have been pondered and remixed for hundreds of years, but the same can said of our attraction to wrestling. Under consent, we like, even love to be scared, and with wrestling we love to be second-hand brutalized. Why do we love it? What makes us love it? Why do we come back to violence again and again? And make no mistake, though we aren’t in the Hellenistic ages anymore, choreographed violence that takes all the precautions to be as innocuous as possible is still violence. Hindsight, the haughty assistant, makes that obvious every time something does go wrong.

It feels like most of the time we all collectively compartmentalize those questions. It’s easier that way, and I get; after all, I do it myself. But at the end of this year I was painfully reminded of the gnarling ugliness of the clockwork behind the sparkling curtains. The way the cameras lavished their gazes on Ibushi’s agonized face and immobilized body, sucking in every last television second for a few cents more in some disinterested investor’s pocket, the way soulless suits were so quick to applaud Unno’s decision to stop the match and pat themselves on their blood-stained shoulders in the process.

To Capture Light (2022 and Beyond)

In spite of the gloomy end to Ibushi’s 2021, I’m filled with hope. As rocky as the ride has been, it was never over when I thought it would be, and it isn’t over now.

I have found out through the years of watching wrestling that what I adore the most are the moments haphazardly scattered throughout—the sly evasion of a single move here, a brilliance in the eyes captured by the camera there—and as frustrating as finding (and re-finding, and re-finding…) these moments can sometimes be, it’s also immensely satisfying to collect and share and discuss them, like unfolding a long satin cloak bedecked with glittering gems and telling a tale around each one.

To return to my opening question, I’d say that by attempting to capture light, you attempt to capture that indescribable glue that ties all these moments together, the current of his energy and self that invariably flows through his wrestling, even as the venues, fans, promotions and partners change.

In the end, to me Ibushi’s story is the story of a man who carries his emotions not on his sleeve, but in his entire body. A man who lets the whole spectrum of joy, anger, grief and fun flow through him like a river without shame, who loves and fears and cries and laughs all at once and with the same intensity every time. The further he strays from this light the more he twists himself into a stale imitation of his old self, into someone others want him to be and who he’s not. But when he lives this truth he’s an unwavering ray of hope for characters in the story, as well as for us characters in the real world.

When I was younger I wanted nothing more than to find validation for my zealotry, to see my favorites (who were often the underdogs and the outsiders) succeed, to see their talent recognized and sufficiently rewarded. Of course, that wish never really changes—it seems to me that the hunger of a fan for more gold and admiration can never really be satisfied—but after a while, when the belts and trophies did come in and with them finally, finally the recognition of the rest of the world, my focus started to shift. I started seeing the changes in their movements and styles, in their faces and bodies, in their manners of talking and the answers they would give to interviewers and fans.

As I grew older, the things I saw in and desired from wrestling also changed, and so did the words about wrestling from others that affected me. Once I was pretending to be oblivious to it, but the subject of time has influenced my look on wrestling quite a lot, and I often find myself thinking of that Masa Kitamiya quote about the finiteness of anything in wrestling. All in it must pass, and make space for something else to start anew. Ibushi himself seems to agree.

I devote a significant amount of my time now to preserve what my gods have achieved, and to be grateful for the decades they have spent mangling their bodies for my entertainment. All of those I have followed for a long time are feeling the effects of those decades now, and while they still may have some fortuitous years ahead of them, I have accepted the fact that the day will come when they will no longer be an endlessly renewing constant in my life. Of course, they aren’t the only wrestlers I love; you always find new ones, young or even old, some fresh talent to fill the holes and kindle the aforementioned hunger. And yet nothing can quite replace the handful of favorites I was so damn lucky to be alive to see. I used to be scared of letting go, but now it fills me with peace to look back and know of all the things they have done, and to see the changes they have left in the world.

Turns out, you can’t capture light—but you sure as hell can sit under the night sky and bask in its glow.

Thanks for reading.

Special thanks to Denali for proofreading this, Maddie for the beautiful pictures, and my two families for their continued understanding and support.

Further reading:
6/16 2009: Takagi Sanshiro vs Ibushi Kota vs Poison Sawada JULIE vs Nakazawa Michael (DDT Hanayashiki Wrestling Inaugural Match)
9/14 2008: KENTA and Kota Ibushi vs Katsuhiko Nakajima and Naomichi Marufuji (ROH The Tokyo Summit)
11/30 2014: Nakazawa Michael vs Ibushi Kota (S-Cup World Tournament 2014)
1/5 2020: Ibushi Kota vs Jay White (NJPW WRESTLE KINGDOM 14)
7/2 2021: Ibushi Kota vs Tsuji Yota (KIZUNA ROAD 2021)
10/9 2021: Ibushi Kota vs Great O-Khan (NJPW G1 CLIMAX 31)