63. JUSHIN “THUNDER” LIGER
Real Name – Keiichi Yamada
Aliases – Flying Fuji Yamada; Jyushin Liger; Jushin Kishin Liger
Hometown – Hiroshima, Japan
Debuted – March 3, 1984
Titles Held – Britain World Heavy-Middleweight (2x) ; New Japan IWGP Junior Heavyweight (11x) ;
WCW World Light Heavyweight ; Michinoku Pro British Commonwealth Junior Heavyweight (2x) ; WAR International Junior Heavyweight Tag Team (with El Samurai); NWA World Welterweight; UWA World Light Heavyweight; UWA World Junior Light Heavyweight ; WWA World Junior Light Heavyweight; WAR International Junior Heavyweight: New Japan IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team (4x, partners were Great Sasuke, El Samurai, Minoru Tanaka, and Koji Kanemoto); Osaka Pro-Wrestling Tag Team; Pro Wrestling NOAH GHC Junior Heavyweight; Dragon Gate Open the Dream Gate; G1 Junior Tag League (with El Samurai)
Other Accomplishments – Winner of the 1995 Super J-Cup; Winner of the 2000 Super J-Cup; inventor of the Shooting Star Press; Named Top of the Super Juniors in New Japan in 1992; Named Best of the Super Juniors in New Japan in 1994 and 2001; Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame member 1994; Winner of Wrestling Observer Match of the Year award in 1990; Winner of Wrestling Observer Most Outstanding Wrestler award in 1990, 1991, and 1992; Winner of Wrestling Observer Best Technical Wrestler Award in 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1992; Winner of Wrestling Observer Best Flying Wrestler award 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993; Wrestling Observer Rookie of the Year 1984 (tied with Tom Zenk); captained Team Japan in TNA’s World X Cup in 2006
Keiichi Yamada had wrestling dreams early in life. After amateur wrestling in high school, he applied to join the New Japan school of wrestling. He was rejected because at 5’7Ã¢â‚¬Â, he did not meet their minimum height requirements.
What a difference a few years makes.
Undeterred, Yamada headed to Mexico for training. While doing so, New Japan officials found him nearly starving. They took pity on him and brought him back to Japan for training. His first match was in December of 1984. During this time Yamada also began studying martial arts, which resulted in the creation of his famed Rolling Koppu Kick.
In 1986 Yamada headed to England, where he was billed as Flying Fuji Yamada. His tenure was not long as he soon returned to New Japan with a new finishing maneuver, the Shooting Star Press. Apparently Yamada had been reading the Fist of the North Star manga and had come up with the move.
In 1989 Yamada’s travels took him to Calgary, where he competed as Keiichi Yamada for Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, as well as training sessions in the infamous Dungeon.
Later in the year Yamada returned to Japan. New Japan had contacted him due to wanting someone to appear as the title character from the Jushin Liger manga. New Japan had previously seen enormous success with placing Satoru Sayama under the mask of the lead from Tiger Mask.
To say the gimmick was successful would be a huge understatement. As can be seen above in Liger’s list of awards, once Yamada donned the brightly-colored gear of Jushin Liger, the world began to take notice. Liger also soon rose to the top of the New Japan light heavyweight ranks.
In 1991, the high-flying Liger made his US debut for WCW, where he faced Brian Pillman. In an odd coincidence, Liger vs. Pillman would also be the first match ever aired on WCW Nitro’s debut program four years later.
On Christmas of 1991, Liger defeated Pillman to become the second WCW Light Heavyweight champion. Pillman recaptured the gold the following February at the second Superbrawl.
In 1994, Liger began making plans for a 16-man junior’s tournament that would become known as the Super J-Cup, which was eventually hosted by New Japan. Liger did not win the tournament that year. He defeated Hayabusa and Ricky Fuji before he was eliminated in the semifinals by the Great Sasuke.
Liger was undeterred and won a bye to the quarterfinals in the 1995 tournament, hosted by WAR. There he defeated Gran Naniwa, Ultimo Dragon, and Gedo to win the tournament in an event that helped to establish his dominance in the Japanese pro-wrestling scene.
The next year Liger was diagnosed with a brain tumor. While he recovered, he did lose the hearing in one ear. Liger also began to change his wrestling style after the diagnosis. Liger had always been known as a high flyer, but now he began to utilize more ground-based maneuvers to ease the strain on his body.
1996 was also notable for the debut of a new Liger persona. While Liger’s name had evolved with the character in the Jushin Liger manga (from Liger to Fire Liger to Thunder Liger), this change was remarkable. Liger was facing the Great Muta on October 10 of that year when Muta tore off Liger’s mask. Liger tried to fight back while still keeping his face shielded from view. Muta left the ring and grabbed a chair. When he returned, Liger stood up, revealing that his face was painted totally white and spit mist into Muta’s face. Liger then tore his suit open to reveal that his chest was painted as well and fought in a more aggressive style for the remainder of the match. This version of Liger would come to be known as Kishin Liger.
2000 saw the return of the Super J-Cup, now being promoted by Michinoku Pro. In this tournament, Liger defeated Tiger Mask IV, Men’s TEIOH, Gran Hamada, and CIMA to win the tournament for the second time.
Liger entered the world of shootfighting in 2002. He faced off against Minoru Suzuki for Pancrase in a match after Suzuki’s original opponent pulled out. Liger missed a Rolling Koppu kick, which allowed Suzuki to mount him. Suzuki rained down blows on Liger before switching to a choke, which forced Liger to tap out less than two minutes into the first round. This was Liger’s only MMA-style match.
2004 saw Liger return to American shores for Ring of Honor. In his first match he defeated Bryan Danielson. The next night Liger teamed with Samoa Joe to take on Danielson and Low-Ki. Liger pinned Danielson with a Liger Bomb.
At the 2005 Bound for Glory pay-per-view, Liger made his TNA debut in a losing effort against Samoa Joe. Liger was scheduled to take on Christopher Daniels at the 2006 Lockdown but pulled out after learning that it would take place within a steel cage, which was an environment that Liger was unfamiliar with. Many suspect that Liger pulled out because he was unfamiliar with the cage and was concerned he would put on a poor match.
Liger returned not long thereafter as he led Team Japan in the 2006 World X-Cup tournament. He wound up pulling out Japan’s only win in the tournament as he defeated Team Canada’s Petey Williams at the Sacrifice PPV.
In 2007, Liger headed to Dragon Gate, where he defeated Don Fujii to win the Open the Dream Gate title on March 25th. He held the title until July 1, when he lost the belt to CIMA.
Liger is currently also still competing in New Japan, where he leads the CTU (Control Terrorism Unit) faction which consists of Hirooki Goto, Minoru Tanaka, Black Tiger IV, Gedo, Jado, and Prince Devitt. James Gibson (WWE’s Jamie Noble) was also a brief member.
At age 43, Liger is still one of the most respected Junior Heavyweights in the world. Liger helped to push the Japanese light heavyweight style into the public eye in the late 1980’s, and helped popularize it in America during the 90’s by competing against top-level competitors like Pillman, Rey Misterio Jr., and Ricky Steamboat. In addition, his creation of the Super J-Cup has helped many young puro wrestlers make their mark on the Japanese wrestling scene. For all of his accomplishments, Jushin Liger has definitely earned his place on this list of the top 100 wrestlers of the modern era.
The entire Top 100 Wrestlers feature can be found here.
Tags: Puroresu, WCW