I don’t think I have to tell you that pro wrestlers are a generally mercurial bunch. You pretty much have to be in order to exist between the real and unreal worlds where pro wrestling resides, that blurred-line known as Kayfabe*. Of these profoundly odd men and women, though, there’s one wrestler whose persona and behaviour is the most fascinating but opaque and the least-explainable, and that’s Japanese wrestling legend and Hall of Famer even at his young age, Kota Ibushi.
When I wrote about Minoru Suzuki, my favourite wrestler, a few months ago, it got me thinking about Ibushi as a kind of counterpart to his energy. Where Suzuki’s wrestling persona is a cold, calculating villain, Kota Ibushi is a chaotic but pure-hearted crowd-favourite and wrestling savant. Where Suzuki is happiest taking you to the mat and twisting you into inextricable knots, Ibushi prefers to take to the sky to strike in physics-defying ways. Unlike Suzuki, whose real-life persona is charming and fashionable, Ibushi’s out-of-the-ring persona is aloof and somewhat withdrawn.
Ibushi debuted in 2004 in Japan’s wackiest wrestling promotion, Dramatic Dream Team (DDT). DDT is an enigma of a promotion, featuring a heavy emphasis on comedy wrestling that is unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere in the industry. For example, its Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship has been held by two different blow-up dolls (allegedly siblings), a cat named Bunny, an invisible man, a pint of beer, a pork bun, and several other inanimate objects. DDT also features some of the most innovative pure wrestling that the art form has to offer, and its atmosphere of unbridled id is where both Ibushi and longtime friend and partner Kenny Omega, already phenomenal wrestlers, developed their characters and a mastery of the art.
It’s impossible to talk about Kota Ibushi without mentioning Kenny Omega, his partner in the promotion-spanning tag team The Golden Lovers. Omega started off as Ibushi’s rival, but formed such a powerful and personal bond through their matches with one another that it resulted in an electric chemistry. They petitioned the DDT management to put them together as a team, forming The Golden Lovers in 2009. The pair quickly won DDT’s KO-D Tag Team Championship and their matches immediately put them in contention to be one of the best teams in the business at the time. The Golden Lovers went on to compete in Japan’s largest and most prominent organization, New Japan Pro Wrestling, where they would bring their graceful and deadly wrestling style to the Junior Heavyweight Tag Team division. He and Omega would ultimately win the DDT KO-D tag titles another three times.
The Golden Lovers are a team so defined by their love of wrestling and, in turn, each other that the careers of Ibushi and Omega remain inextricably linked. Outside of the ring, it was rumoured that the pair were romantically involved, but it’s equally possible that this was kayfabe again and part of their wrestling personas. It’s still not known whether their bond extends past friendship or not, and frankly it’s none of our business. But it can’t be argued that Omega and Ibushi have an unmatched synergy that only the best tag teams have, where you can sense that each knows what the other will do before they do it, whether they’re teaming or facing off as opponents. Ibushi and Omega both ended up back in NJPW but in separate singles divisions, with Ibushi moving up to heavyweight and Omega remaining a Junior Heavyweight, which meant that they didn’t really interact much. Ibushi found singles success in the prestigious G1 tournament, but Kenny took a little longer to catch on and joined the dastardly foreign heel group, the Bullet Club. When that group imploded, Ibushi came to Omega’s rescue once again:
Ibushi is so fixated on wrestling, often at the expense of everything else. He’s been known to be an esoteric figure outside of the ring, and frequently gets lost on the way to arenas, like he did when he traveled to the US back in 2018.
You get the sense that wrestling is Ibushi’s whole existence, that he internalizes his in-ring struggles so completely that nothing is off-limits. I’ve seen matches where Ibushi has launched himself from the roofs of buildings, balconies, and other high places, and even shot fireworks at himself and others. But it’s not just recklessness. Kota Ibushi has a deep desire to push wrestling forward as an art form, to do things that no one would imagine.
“On the 5th, or I guess it was the small hours of the 6th, 3,4 in the morning, I just randomly burst into tears. It just flooded me, I guess. Not happiness, something else. I just cried my eyes out for about two hours. There was a lot; how tough the matches were, keeping the belts, the fact we were just able to do the two nights in the Dome in the first place. It all caught up to me, all at once. “Kota Ibushi
Clearly at home in what Ibushi would likely call creatively-fulfilling, but what others might deem ‘nutterbutters’ environments like DDT, Kota also found a home with similarly-wacky director Minoru Kawasaki (Executive Koala; Monster Seafood Wars). Ibushi co-starred with Minoru Suzuki in Kaiju Mono (2016) where he plays a super-sized transformed version of the main character (Suzuki plays yet another, naturally more villainous version of the same protagonist). Donning a pair of high-tech wrestling trunks, mild-mannered lab assistant Yoide Nitta (Syuusuke Saito) turns into the very buff Giant Nitta (Ibushi) in an effort to battle a giant monster. It’s only when Nitta’s powers aren’t enough and he needs to turn to his darker side that Ibushi is swapped out for the mean-mugging Suzuki. It may not be the biggest reach for Ibushi to be wrestling monsters while looming over a city, but I think it’s safe to say that he and Kawasaki are pretty well made for each other.
The above match between Ibushi and Yoshishiko, a blow-up doll, in DDT was the first match of Ibushi’s I ever saw, and as you can see, it’s immediately captivating. It shouldn’t be possible to wrestle a match against an inanimate object, but here’s Kota Ibushi out here giving himself piledrivers and hurricanranas.** In only a few minutes, it tells you everything you need to know about Ibushi as a performer; that he’s someone that is not only willing to attempt something so ridiculous on it’s face, but who has the capability to pull it off. There can only ever be one Kota Ibushi, but the world could sure use some more.
*Kayfabe means to acknowledge and accept the staged nature of professional wrestling, more or less the suspension of disbelief applied to wrestling specifically.
Sachin Hingoo has never wrestled: two sticks of yakitori, a trash bin, a pair of chopsticks, a bus, or a Hello Kitty doll.