The sport of professional wrestling has endured for so long and is so beloved by fans is because it is unique. Watching professional wrestling is like seeing a comic book come to life as well as the colourful characters that grace comic book pages. Wrestling is filled with larger than life characters that earn a special place in each fan’s heart. With the passing of New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 14 we closed the book on the outstanding career of one Jushin Thunder Liger.
The word legend is thrown around far too often in the world of wrestling, but with a career spanning nearly 40 years and having wrestled all over the world, Jushin Liger is one of the few individuals who has truly earned the moniker. But before we celebrate the wrestler, we must first take a look at the man underneath the mask.
Keiichi Yamada began his career in 1984 where he would initially apply to the NJPW dojo, but he would be rejected due to his small size, not uncommon in the time for wrestling. Undaunted, Yamada would start his training in Mexico nearly starving himself for years as he honed his craft. His dedication to the sport was apparent and so impressive that NJPW officials finally accepted him into the dojo as a young lion, the starting point for most New Japan careers.
Yamada would go onto compete in several tournaments including the Young Lion and Super Junior tournaments before rounding off his training with excursions to Europe and Canada, spending time at the heralded Dungeon of Stu Hart. Yamada would return to Japan in 1989 and finally adopt his iconic Jushin Thunder Liger persona based on the popular anime of the same name. Whether performing as the fearsome Kishin Liger, (his more deranged form akin to Finn Balor’s Demon persona), Battle Liger or as his colorful Jushin Thunder Liger form, he has never failed to put on a thrilling performance. With his flashy attire and innovative offence, one of his most famous creations being the Shooting Star Press. It would see Liger go on to revolutionize the world of professional wrestling and change the outdated vision of what a wrestler should like. In short, without Jushin Thunder Liger, there is a possibility we would not get to enjoy the athletic matches of Daniel Bryan or Kushida on as big a stage as WWE.
The end of his career would see Liger wrestle in every major promotion of the last 20 years as well as several significant independent promotions across the world amassing multiple titles and accolades, competing in WWE, WCW, TNA, NJPW, CMLL, ROH, and PWG. Holding the IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship a record eleven times and holding the longest reign with the title with the reign of 628 days, winning the Super Junior tournament a total of three times and Super J cup twice, winning multiple Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards including Best Flying Wrestler (1989-1993), Best Technical Wrestler (1989-1992), and Most Outstanding Wrestler (1990-1992) in various years.
Throughout his career, he would put on classic matches with a litany of well known and future stars including Brian Pillman, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, Owen Hart, Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe, Adam Cole, Jay Lethal, Minoru Suzuki, Tyler Breeze, and Christopher Daniels. For his breadth of accomplishments over the length of his career, Liger would be cemented as the greatest junior heavyweight wrestler of all-time.
But honestly speaking, many wrestlers traverse the globe to perfect their craft across multiple promotions, win a multitude of championships, and have lengthy title reigns. But what was it that made Jushin Liger so special? We talk about that intangible it factor in individual wrestlers that make them stand out, and while Liger certainly has the it factor, I believe it is something more profound than that. While many would point to the flashy moves or the costume, and you could make an argument for both what truly made Liger so special, it was simply character; not just his wrestling persona but the individual himself. To fully encapsulate how in one article would be inadequate but I shall attempt it nonetheless.
Jushin Thunder Liger is that intangible essence of wrestling. If one were to boil down the perfect wrestler and career, it would come down to a synchronous relationship between ability, character, and surprisingly humility. These three focal points highlight Ligers’ journey as a wrestler and the development of his connection to fans.
Throughout the annals of wrestling there have been many great mystical characters to grace the ring. From Undertaker, Kane, and Abyss to The Fiend, and Finn Balor’s Demon. Liger’s Kishin Form has cultivated the same aura of mystique since his first appearance in 1996. During a fierce match-up with rival The Great Muta, the two would push each other to their limits in an effort to claim victory over the other in the NJPW dream match. Frustrated that he could not put his rival Liger down for the count Muta would unmask Liger to reveal Kishin Liger to the world for the first time and it left a lasting mark on the New Japan audience. They were witness to the birth of a more brutal, sadistic, and fearsome side of Liger that had never been seen.
The word Kishin can be translated either as Fierce God or God of the Oni demons, and it carries with it the idea of “powerful latent ability.” Kishin was the perfect name to represent the alter ego that would emerge when Liger would be under great duress or disrespected by an opponent. An appearance from Kishin was so rare that it only happened 4 times in his 35 year career. The genius of this is that Liger prioritised quality over quantity when it came to the appearance of his Kishin form, which made each occurrence thrilling and memorable.
After his war with The Great Muta, Kishin would reappear to face off against Bad Boy Hido in 2006 after Hido cut off some of Ligers’ hair and he vowed revenge. Then again against Taichi and Taka Michinoku in 2012 and finally against Minoru Suzuki in 2019. Once pushed to the breaking point to where Kishin broke free, it was always a memorable affair, with his massive departure from Liger’s usual manner. Face covered in ritualistic paint markings, spraying dangerous mist into the air and on his opponents, or attempting to drive a spike through someone’s head. While Kishin was rarely seen, it always left an enduring mark on the audience. Kishin Liger exemplifies perfect storytelling and character work with Liger crafting a persona that kept its mystique and potency for over thirty years.
Liger was well known for having excellent matches with opponents with a variety of styles. Liger has had many great rivalries over the years such as with technical battles with Naoki Sano, ariel wars with Brian Pillman, or his hard-hitting fights with Pegasus Kid (Chris Benoit), or El Samurai resulting in a coveted five-star match rating from Dave Meltzer. Liger proved he could go with the best of the best. But what put the stamp on Liger being the greatest Junior heavyweight wrestler of all time was his fantastic run in the 2001 Tournament which saw him go undefeated, something that was unheard of at the time.
The final match in the tournament had come down to Jushin Liger vs Minoru Tanaka, both men were desperate for a victory, and it showed in their fierce clash. Ultimately, Liger would secure the victory and end the tournament with a perfect 10 point record. The 2001 Trophy win cemented Liger as the best super junior in the world. This was a testament not only to Liger’s ability in the ring but the faith the company had placed in him, something he fought hard to attain. The performance Liger displayed in the tournament showed that he was on another level when it came to ring psychology, his mastery of moves, as well as his ability to sell and get the crowd invested in his matches. It also spoke to his capacity as a true craftsman of wrestling. Liger had such a dominating performance that he would be the sole individual to accomplish a perfect record in a junior tournament until more than a decade later when Prince Devitt (Finn Balor) would achieve the same feat in 2013.
At the end of every career comes the time to unlace the boots and step out of the ring they have called home and made a career in for decades. At this moment, much about an individual is revealed. A common adage in wrestling is that you leave on your back, doing the favour to build up the future generation. While some wrestlers can be reluctant to think outside of themselves, in his time Jushin Thunder Liger did more than his fair share of helping build towards the future, not just in his final months but for the span of his career.
Liger broke down several international doors and perceived biases of the notion of a wrestler that allows so many to live out their dreams. With his final match, a tag team contest, teaming with long rival Naoki Sano against Ryu Lee (Dragon Lee) and Hiromu Takahashi (a story in its own right after his career-threatening neck injury) produced an instant classic that saw the Legend fall to the rising star.
Liger not only passed the torch to Hiromu but also wrestlers like Will Ospreay, Bandido, Jonathan Gresham, Marty Scurll, Dragon Lee and so many others. The following night a celebration was held to commemorate the retirement of Liger, and again it was a testament to how much the industry respected the icon, surrounded by titans of the past and present where legends in their own right such as Hiroshi Tanahashi wept openly at Liger’s retirement. Jushin took time to thank his wife and son for allowing him to experience his dream of wrestling and his colleagues for helping him have a once in a lifetime career. Following words from Antonio Inoki, a ten bell salute, a ring full of wrestlers and an audience of thousands clapping along to his iconic theme, the journey was complete. From being initially being turned down by NJPW, he would be leaving the same organisation as one of the best to ever come through its doors.
It can be said that the accurate measure of an individual is how others speak of them. Finn Balor described Liger as timeless. His innovation, accomplishments, and reinventions of not only his wrestling character but the sport of professional wrestling itself is evident enough to prove Balor’s words true. In my years of watching wrestling, I have witnessed plenty of retirements. Kurt Angle, Batista, Mick Foley, Edge, Shawn Michaels, and Ric Flair. All men who established stellar careers in the squared circle to be celebrated. But with the retirement of Jushin Thunder Liger, I saw something as unique as Liger was himself. A retirement that made the wrestling world as a whole take a moment to appreciate their contributions to the industry. It is no wonder to see why Liger has inspired and touched so many performers. The outpouring of love and support he has received from colleagues, fans, and even Arby’s is well deserved.
Every so often the conversation of who would be the faces on wrestling Mt.Rushmore come up. The cream of the crop of wrestling. The veritable tier of wrestling gods among legends. The usual names that come up include Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Ric Flair, and The Rock, all deserving individuals. Jushin Thunder Liger is not only a first-ballot entry into any Hall of Fame, but he has certainly earned the distinction to be added to that list as well. We will never see another like him.
For everything, you have done, and all of the fantastic memories: thank you, Liger.
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