Translation of the feature that Inoue Takahiro did on Ibushi for Number PLUS in 2017. As always, my annotations are in [], and additions by the original publication are in ().

Original text and image © Bungei Shunju, Mae Kôsuke.

NOTE: Pull quotes may differ from the actual quotes. This is part of the editing in the original.

He is of magnificent skill and doesn’t balk at fighting until the sparks fly, either. A wrestler with an unusual stye is returning to the main stage: the Golden Star, whose head is taken by a pro wrestling fever 24/7 and who remains popular as ever. What will the future of pro wrestling as he envisions it be like? What will his own future be like?

It sometimes happens that a completely new idea surpasses all value systems. There is a man who is trying to do such a thing in wrestling right now. Actually, last year, such an urban myth traveled like a rumor through the world of pro wrestling.

In February 2016, Ibushi Kôta terminated his double contract with DDT and New Japan Pro Wrestling and became a freelancer, while he was de facto signed with the “Ibushi Research Institute”. At a certain promotion’s show, he wrestled unpaid matches in order to evaluate if he could put his whole being into matches even if he received no compensation.

“It’s true. Who knows if it was in the name of research, though (laughs). At that time, [they] made me an offer more than once and I turned them down again and again. Even so, they remained keen on making me an offer, and told me, ‘Your pay will be such and such’. I felt like that was a really high fee for me, and so I said, ‘Okay, got it. I’ll appear [at that show] but I don’t need to be paid’. It really [was] zero [pay]. If anything, I paid for the traveling expenses myself.”

What he wants isn’t money, but to [know] how much he’s wanted, how much his worth is measured in numbers. It’s a story that seems like you understand it, but don’t really. Ibushi himself doesn’t understand the line between the decisions of accepting an offer or rejecting it. This is probably one of the parts that make Ibushi’s actions so hard to understand.

“However, what I can stress is that I don’t want to wrestle for a place, no matter how much money I’m paid, just because they allow me to have matches. I’m judging this purely on how much I’m needed by the promotion and the fans.”

In the unseen systems that exist still in the world of pro wrestling, you can’t make it in the mainstream unless you settle down in some promotion or another. Ibushi, who despite this chose the path of a free agent, and moreover flatly rejected the many offers for matches, is usually seen as a strange person.

“I do wish to show [the fans] a lot of matches, but no matter how much I want to show, sometimes my body doesn’t want to do it. I guess this means there is a part of me that thinks this is [the] wrong [approach]. I leave everything to my instincts. I never want to mass produce my matches, and that leading to people not being able to see my greatest performances.”

The genius wrestlers who’s in his prime age of 35 had no more than four matches in the months of March and April in 2017—when he wasn’t disguising his real identity with a mask. Two for England’s XWA, one for DDT, one for K-DOJO. Whatever is he doing normally? When we asked him that, he laughed at us and said, “Of course I’m training”.

“In the past, it seems it was easy for media to pick up on the impression that even in practice I was playing around, or that I was experimenting and joking around with someone. I understand people are looking for that kind of character, but ever since I’ve become a pro wrestler, I’ve practiced hard [and earnest].”

Before his debut, he met via a contact in his part-time job with OPG (Oretachi Puroresu Dantai), a collective of working pro wrestling [enthusiasts]. OPG had been organized by adults, and they had built their own ring and dojo in the Chiba prefecture. Directly after he entered DDT as a trainee, Ibushi began doing his own solitary training in that dojo, and has done so ever since. One man has continuously visited Ibushi’s training location in order to overcome a heart disease and make his comeback match after a long absence.

“Ibushi’s training is [based on analyzing] the science of wrestling matches over and over. Suppose you’re doing a hypothetical 30 minute match, then what you need for that are muscle strength, explosiveness and stamina. [He] constructs a plan for [his] training that calculates all of these in. A wrestler’s training is divided into time segments; if you’re doing bumps then you’re doing bumps, if it’s rope work then it’s rope work, if you’re doing weight training then you’re doing weight training. But Ibushi mixes all of these up in a single circuit [training], and repeats them at high speed. He himself has said that it’s a crossbreed between the training of medium-weight kickboxers and MMA [fighters], the strength [training] of American Football and the training methods of Karl Gotch.
What I found most absurd was, that after he has run out of breath from the harsh circuit training, he endlessly repeats backwards bumps carrying a 25 kg barbell plate. He says this is in case he’s taking the opponent’s lariats or dropkicks during the climax of a match, or a possible [scenario] where he can’t [move] his arm freely cause it’s being grabbed [by the opponent]. Me? There’s no way I could keep up with such a training (laughs).”

(Super Sasadango Machine)

Continuously evolving pro wrestling, and a new style of wrestler

Ibushi’s training methods are mainly updated via YouTube. He searches for keywords like “athletic training” or “Tabata” and then systematically digs up the related videos. These days, it’s said that a high-speed interval training called “HIIT” is the hardest one, and of course he has put that into his training.

“It’s a training approach of [both] a martial arts [fighter] and an athlete. WWE is doing a training like that these days too, with UFC[-like] training in there. When I was with WWE last year, I visited the Performance Center, and WWE has the newest cutting-edge training equipment. There are expert trainers, and they are instructing UFC and NFL athletes as well. Everyone over there does athlete training.”

He suspects that wrestling as a whole might change, not just in the ways of training, but that it might change towards what the individual actively does. In other words, towards a style where the wrestlers carefully select the promotions and amount of matches, and thus constantly offer high grade matches. He is strongly convinced that in an ever-evolving wrestling, it’s obvious [the wrestlers] will become unable to handle the modern number of shows [per year].

Wrestlers from 20 years ago ad wrestlers from today are understood to be completely different, and the expression that modern wrestling is “speedy” is too simplified. In a good sense and a bad sense, it’s becoming a highly competitive thing. The wrestling from 20 years ago is a completely different competition.

There’s merit in enduring hard training, but first and foremost it’s a matter of feelings [for Ibushi], and he practices so much because he’s afraid he’ll loose his confidence in putting on good matches. In his wrestling style, what he’s scared of the most is himself.

There are a lot of wrestlers who employ high-flying moves like myself. But for me, my goal isn’t to find out how high and beautifully I can jump, it’s that I want you to feel just how much I’m putting my life on the line for this. The spirit that says, “There’s a risk in this. But if even one person is there to watch it, I’ll do it”, that’s the fighting spirit, right?

Ibushi wrestles so that he can elevate his own position together with that of wrestling as a whole.

For that purpose, I have to show [the people] the best pro wrestling, the best Ibushi. In order to show [the world] the best things, I have to limit the number of matches I do, and do harsh training.

He’s constantly receiving offers for matches, within the country and from abroad. Maybe this is a sign that the future wrestling style as Ibushi calls it has already come through.

I wonder myself if it has already come into effect, though. I guess I’m doing things that would have been unforgivable in the old wrestling business, or that would have caused me to become an outcast. (laughs)
At the very beginning of being a freelancer, I had no mental worries at all, but after about half a year, around the time when I appeared for WWE, I started wondering if this was going to end well. Because the pay in WWE was by check and not by wire transfer, as I went to cash the check in, I suddenly felt the reality of me living match to match, receiving only the paycheck per each match. However, after that, I think I returned to my usual state of mind of not accepting pay, because I’m convinced of the future of wrestling as I see it.

This summer, he surprised everyone by making an electric entry in the G1 CLIMAX 27. Surely there’s great meaning in this, since Ibushi, whose aim are high-spec matches, has chosen [to appear in this tournament]. What might this guy be trying to “research” by throwing himself into what is said to be the world’s most grueling battle for the third time?