This Saturday, at TakeOver, Jushin Liger will make his debut in a WWE ring against Tyler Breeze. Well, a NXT ring actually but same difference. This news was met with enthusiasm, mostly, disbelief, sometimes and controversy, here and there, by the wrestling fans. But why was this news considered so important, and who exactly is this masked wrestler, considered by so many to be one of the most influential, and very best, in wrestling history? Let’s try to undersant all of that by taking a look at some of his best most pivotal or most acclaimed matches.
Ironically, Keiichi Yamada was told he was too small and scrawny to become a wrestler at first. Undeterred he decided to travel to Mexico in order to learn the Lucha Libre style, better suited for arresters of small stature. According to him, he almost starved while over there. NJPW officials found him here and, impressed by his determination and taking pity on him, would invite him back to their dojo. Yamada made his official debut on March 1984 against Shunji Kosugi. He would participate in the first two Young Lion Cup, Losing the first one in the finals (against Kosugi in 1985) and winning the second one (defeating Tatsutoshi Goto in 1986). Traveling all over the world, he would have acclaimed feuds against Marc “Rollerball” Rocco (in England) and Masakatsu Funaki (in Japan). It was against the later (in August 1987) that he would debut his Shooting Star Press. Because let’s set the record straight, Yamada was the innovator of that move and no-one else (and certainly not Billy Kidman). Yamada claims he got the idea while reading the “Fist of the North Star” manga. Let’s take a look at one of those matches against Funaki:
2. The way to stardom:
Improving steadily, Keiichi Yamada would participate in the first ever Top of The Super Juniors (later best of the SUper Juniors), failing to advance to the finals. But by then he was already one of the top Junior heavyweights in japan , even receiving shots at Championship glory, against Nobuhiko Takada, Owen hart and Shiro Koshinaka, most notably. Here is one of those matches against Koshinaka.
3. Birth of a Superhero:
In 1989, while Yamada was on his second tour of Canada, NJPW decided to capitulate on the success of “Jushin Liger”, a manga created by legendary author, Go Nagai. Yamada was chosen for the role and would don the costume and mask for the first time on April 24 1989 against “Tiger Hunter” Kuniaki Kobayashi:
4. Jushin “Thunder” Liger:
Just as the manga character would evolve and “power-up”, so did Jushin Liger. Briefly known as “Fire” Liger, he would soon adopt the definite name of Jushin “Thunder” Liger and know his first championship success. One of his opponents during those early Liger years was none other than Owen Hart, I feel it’s only right to honor such a great wrestler who tragically left us much too soon. This is a match from 1991, considered to be one of the best of their acclaimed series.
Liger’s success wasn’t limited to the states. He embarked on several tours in the states, most notably in WCW. His first appearance over there was marked by his feud with “Flying” brian Pillman. He would made further appearances in 1995 and 1996 against the the likes of Rey Mysterio Junior and Chris Benoit. He also holds the distinction of appearing on the very first Nitro. Sadly, his visits to WCW would end on a sour note, courtesy of one Mr Vince Russo. In 1999, Russo decided that the best way to use the by then 10 times IWGP Jr heavyweight Champion was to book him to loose his title in a five minute match against Juventud Guerrera that ended with a broken Tequila bottle. While Liger would regain his title one week later (against Psicosis, substituting for an injured and arrested for DUI Guerrera), NJPW was enraged that one of their champions and titles was treated in such a disrespectful manner and would refuse to acknowledge the change until 2007 (officially making Liger an 11th time champion). But let’s remember the good times, with the Superbrawl II match for the WCW Light Heavyweight title against another one that left us much to soon, Brian Pillman.
Liger would win titles almost everywhere he went, but he also participated in some of the most prestigious tournaments in wrestling history. He would win the Best of the Super Juniors three times (in 1992, 1994 and 2001), he would invent the Super J Cup concept (a one night tournament featuring the best Junior Heavyweights in the world) and would win it twice (in 1995 and 2000, the later organized as a two nights event by Michinoku Pro Wrestling/North Eastern Wrestling. He would also hold the J-crown, which was not a tournament, but rather the combination of the eight major Junior/Cruiser/Light heavyweight Championships. Almost impossible to choose a match here, since, for example, the first Supe J Cup is still considered one of the best one-night tournaments in wrestling history, but since this is an homage to wrestling’s greatest talents, I choose the Final of the 1996 BotSJ against Black Tiger II Eddie Guerrero.
7. Kishin Liger:
Jushin Liger would be a babyface for most of his career, but, on some occasions, he would turn to the dark side. For part of the 2000’s he would be the leader of heel CTU stable, Counter Terrorism Unit, alongside Hirooki Goto, Gedo, Jado, Black Tiger IV and Prince Devitt amongst others. But that was nothing compared to the transformation he underwent during his series against the Great Muta. On October 20 1996, Muta would tore off Liger’s mask during a match. At first, Liger protected his face until finally revealing that his chest and face were painted withe with red writings. Kishin Liger was born. Employing a much more brutal style, even turning Muta’s favorite tactics against him (like the Green Mist) this was quite a sight. Liger would revert to this persona only occasionally, most notably in 2006 against Bad Boy Hido and in 2012, at Dominion 6.16, during a tag team match with Tiger Mask IV against Suziki-gun. But, it is his first appearance that remains legendary.
8. Best opponent:
Well, this is subjective, of course, everybody who followed Liger’s career has their own idea’s about what his best matches were. The reason for that is that even now, at the age of 50, Liger seems quite incapable of having a bad match. Even his “average” matches are only so in comparison to his other matches. That’s how good he is. But, in my opinion, there is one opponent who stands out and against which he had some of his very best performances. His name? The Great Sasuke. But I couldn’t choose between two matches so I will simply put both on. The first one is the semi final of the 1994 Super J Cup while the second one happened at NJPW’s Summer Struggle on July 8 1994. Don’t hesitate in telling me which one YOU like best.
During the 2000’s, Liger would continue visiting the United States on occasions. While his appearances in TNA, especially his match against Samoa Joe, were somewhat disappointing, there was one, Russo free, promotion who knew exactly how to book such a legend. ROH. During the 2004 “Weekend of Thunder”, Liger would have an highly competitive and acclaimed match against Mr YES!YES!YES! himself, Daniel Bryan, then still known as Brian Danielson. The second match would see Samoa Joe and Liger team up against Danielson and Low Ki, but it is that first dream-match I’ve chosen to illustrate Liger’s visits to ROH.
10. Finn Balor and Adrian Neville:
While his match against Tyler Breeze will be his first one in a WWE/NXT ring, Liger is no stranger to some of the NXT/WWE competitors. Bryan and Samoa Joe have already been mentioned but Liger and Finn Balor/Prince Devitt have had countless matches before Balor moved to NXT. Neville/PAC is also no stranger to him, so it’s safe to say Liger will see many familiar face during his visit. The Pac match is from 2012 and the Devitt Match is from 2013.
And there you have it. This is by no means a complete history of Liger’s career, just some snapshots in order to introduce one of wrestling’s true legends to those who might not be very familiar with him. But I hope that even fans of Liger will enjoy this small retrospective of one of the most influential and best, if not the best, Junior heavyweights in history. His appearance for NXT will be a huge moment and might herald some sort of closer relationship between NJPW and WWE. Or not. According to Steven Regal this is just a friend appearing on a card because another friend asked him to. And that might very well be the truth. But anyway, that’s for the future, for now expect the NXT audience to give Liger an hero’s welcome to one who certainly deserves it and prepare to see one of the wrestling Greats in action.
To those who have tickets to TakeOver or Field of Honor: I hate you, to those who have tickets to Summerslam: wouldn’t wanna be you, and to all, wherever you are going to be: have fun!
I've been following wrestling for almost 30 years now, and the metal scene for even longer. And let's just say that all that head-banging has left me with some weird ideas that i will share with you from time to time. Aren't you glad?