The Art of Wrestling: The Next Liger

The Next Liger?

Jushin “Thunder” Liger is, by common consensus, the very best Japanese Jr. Heavyweight professional wrestler of his generation. He combines athleticism, intelligence, talent, and heart in one amazing package. He has a tremendous knowledge of how to tell a story in the ring, how to pace a match, when and how to sell, when and how to make his comebacks, and how to make any opponent look great. He can fascinate the crowd with deep psychology, or thrill them with daring highspots. He has proven that he is able to adapt to a variety of styles, work around injuries, and communicate with different audiences in different promotions around the world. He came back to wrestling after defeating brain cancer, and adapted his style in such a way that it didn’t really seem that his battle with the disease had ended up limiting him at all. He has influenced countless wrestlers, competed in numerous great matches, and should rank very highly on any reasonable list of The Greatest Wrestlers of All Time.

It is unfair to the point of insanity to compare any young wrestler with the legend that is Jushin “Thunder” Liger. The point of this column is to be extremely unfair to Pro Wrestling NOAH’s junior ace, KENTA.

Last year, KENTA was considered, by almost everyone who thinks about such things, to be the very best Japanese Jr. Heavyweight professional wrestler of his generation. KENTA has athleticism, talent, and heart to spare. When working as an underdog, he has proven that he can pace and structure his matches in such a way that the vast majority of the crowd ends up genuinely pulling for him to win. At his best, KENTA is a master of the art of selling. He is one of only a very few wrestlers who has found a way to make us believe that his opponents are practically killing him, without ruining the illusion by taking things too far. His timing is precise. His body language and facial expressions are subtle and realistic, while still being easy to read. He can draw the crowd into the story being told, or drive them into a frenzy with his high flying, stiffness and speed. In 2004, he wrestled match after match that ranked among the very best of the year. It was only natural that the whispers started: KENTA could be the next Liger.

Nobody was surprised, and many were elated, when KENTA finally took the GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title at Destiny, NOAH’s biggest show of 2005. Was this the first big step in establishing a Ligeresque championship legacy?

Ironically (in the Alanis Morissette sense of the word) it was in assuming the mantle of champion that the first real chinks in KENTA’s armour were exposed. Sadly, the young ace has not yet shown that he is as adept at handling the role of champion as he was at playing the underdog. Prior to his elevation, KENTA had mastered the art of taking a beating and making a spirited comeback. He was able to tell that tale as well as it had ever been told, pacing and constructing matches that, as I’ve already said, drove the fans wild. It would be a gross overstatement to claim that KENTA has devolved to the point where’s he’s relying entirely on stiffness and signature spots, but he sometimes seems lost when trying to tell a different story in the ring. This is, to me, one of the most compelling stories in puroresu this year: Will KENTA find his way as champion, or was his run of greatness in 2004 simply too high a peak for him to ever live up to the expectations that were raised?

Here’s a look back at one of his greatest matches, where he played the role of challenger to near-perfection.

KENTA & Marufuji vs. Misawa & Ogawa

If you want to see KENTA at his best, I’d (once again) recommend getting Golden Boy Tapes‘ Best of Japan 2004. If you don’t feel like getting the whole set, however, but you still feel like checking out some NOAH, then Encountering Navigation ’04 is a pretty good bet. This match got a lot of people’s votes for 2004 MOTY, and it’s not hard to see why. The show also features my personal choice for 2004’s Japanese MOTY, Koabshi vs. Takayama.

I’ve already made my feelings about KENTA clear, I hope. It has become common practice to dismiss his GHC Jr. Hwt. Tag Team Titles partner Naomichi Marufuji as little more than a spot monkey. In a tag team situation, however, when he’s allowed to work his high-end offense while someone else controls the flow and pacing, he brings his share of goodness to the table. Mitsuharu Misawa is a living legend, and my personal favourite Japanese wrestler of all time. His pet project, Yoshinari Ogawa, is talented but lacks charisma and consequently has trouble making a real connection with the audience. Misawa is long past his peak but he can still bring it when, as is the case here, he is working with young guys who will sell a ton for him. In this match, he doesn’t blow any spots and he pulls out some crazy, innovative stuff. That’s all you can ask from Misawa in ’04.

It is a great match that tells a very basic, yet compelling, story. The Jr. Hwt Tag Team Champs are given their chance against the Heavyweight title-holders. Obviously, KENTA & Marufuji are the underdogs, but it end up being Misawa & Ogawa who have to pull out all the stops to hold the younger and hungrier wrestlers off.

Highlights include:

– Misawa blocking the Shiranui on Ogawa and turning it into an Emerald Frosion.
– KENTA pulling out Kawada’s Stepping Kick and Stretch Plum and using them on Misawa.
– Marufuji’s sick, one-man Spanish Fly on Ogawa.

While the highspots and mark-out moments are plentiful in this match, what really makes it work is KENTA’s sublime selling and exquisite sense of timing.

Here’s hoping that, as KENTA grows comfortable in his new role, we’ll see more of those qualities from him as his career progresses.

For now, of course, the reality is that there is only one Liger.

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If you haven’t already, check out Ross McTavhish’s excellent new MMA column, and of course Ditch’s always classy Puroresu Pulse.

And… Thanks for reading!