April 24th 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of one of the most influential pro wrestlers of all time. His longevity, creativity and persona have solidified him as a true legend, and a master of his craft. As his career finally winds down to an end over the next year, it’s time to celebrate the junior heavyweight icon that is Jushin Thunder Liger.
In the early 1980’s, a young Keiichi Yamada fresh out of high school began pursuing his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. Unfortunately for Yamada, this was during a time before the rise in popularity of junior heavyweight wrestlers in NJPW, so when he applied to New Japan Pro Wrestling’s dojo, he was turned away due to not meeting their height requirements. Like many Japanese talents have done when faced with rejection over the years, Yamada took the brave step of heading to Mexico to train, where size wasn’t as big of an issue at the time.
Luckily for Yamada, when NJPW staff visited the country and saw the effort he had gone to just to get the chance to wrestle, including practically starving himself while in Mexico, they took pity on him and invited him back to the Japanese dojo to train. In March 1984, Yamada made his debut under his own name as one of New Japan’s young lions, a black trunk wearing rookie with a limited moveset (click here for a guide on New Japan’s young lions).
Over the next few years, Yamada took the typical young lion journey by competing both domestically and internationally in order to broaden his pro wrestling skills. Most notably he wrestled in Canada for Stampede Wrestling, and even competed on Britain’s World of Sport TV show, making him the only wrestler to actively compete during the original run of the show all the way up to the WOS reboot series in 2018.
It was during these early years that Yamada innovated a move which is still used widely to this day, and practically defies all logic with its physics: the Shooting Star Press. The idea came from a technique used in the popular Fist of the North Star manga series, and when you first see it, it’s hard to believe it is real life. It’s a backflip that somehow also goes forward: the perfect move for an anime character come to life.
And speaking of that anime character, it would be a couple more years before Yamada would first put on his iconic mask. During that time, Yamada would compete in New Japan’s junior division and go back and forth to Canada to wrestle the likes of Owen Hart. Although he didn’t climb to the top of the division, Yamada continued to work hard and show that work ethic he had during his training, which is most likely why he was selected to be involved in an exciting opportunity.
In the early 1980’s, NJPW experimented with the idea of transforming a fictional character into an actual pro wrestler. First published in 1968, the Tiger Mask manga strip was about a feared heel wrestler turned good guy who was constantly being hunted down by the leader of a villainous organisation named Tiger’s Den. By the early 80’s, the manga had evolved into both a movie and a television series with great success, so much so that New Japan Pro Wrestling saw value in bringing the character into their ring.
And what a great decision that would turn out to be. Tiger Mask was a huge hit, and practically brought the company’s junior division into a new level of popularity, thanks in part to the talent of the man behind the mask, Satoru Sayama. The junior division became known worldwide for innovative, high quality action, receiving critical and commercial acclaim, including the first-ever five stars from WON for a match between Tiger Mask and Davey Boy Smith.
Tiger Mask as a character was so successful that it still remains in New Japan today, spawning villains to feud with and new variations along the way. It’s thanks to the triumph of this fiction to real world transition that Jushin Liger was ever able to become a realisation. If it wasn’t for Tiger Mask, the idea of bringing Jushin Liger to New Japan may never have been brought forward. But unlike Tiger Mask, this anime character has only been portrayed by one person during the last thirty years.
The Jushin Liger anime series debuted in 1989 on the TV Asahi channel, proving to be very popular in its native Japan. To capitalise on this popularity, New Japan Pro Wrestling, another TV Asahi product, were given permission to give the Jushin Liger character to one of its wrestlers. Thanks to his work ethic and innovative in-ring ability, Keiichi Yamada was chosen to don the mask.
Not long after the anime series was first broadcast, the real life Liger made his debut inside the Tokyo Dome. At least with Tiger Mask, that was an already long-established brand before it was turned into an NJPW character. With Liger, this was a relatively new property they were playing with. It was risky and really shouldn’t have had much longevity, but as you can guess, the character quickly caught on and became a fan favourite.
Throughout the 90’s, Liger would become synonymous with New Japan’s junior division, gaining fans around the world thanks to his quality bouts, unique look and jaw-dropping finishing move. His early matches with the likes of Naoki Sano, AKIRA and Pegasus Kid gained him the reputation of being one of the company’s best in-ring workers. In 1992, he would win the Top of the Super Juniors tournament, having a five-star match against El Samurai in the finals which became a favourite amongst tape traders (click here for my top Liger matches).
Despite Liger originating away from the ring, Yamada developed the character into his own as the years went by, adding unique layers and quirks to separate the persona from its anime counterpart. Arguably one of the most unexpected yet awesome developments made to Jushin Liger since his inception is the addition of his secret alter ego. You see, masks are sacred in professional wrestling, maybe none more so than Liger’s. Show the mask the biggest sign of disrespect possible by ripping it off, and you may be greeted by the demonic side to this NJPW icon: Kishin Liger.
First discovered during a match against The Great Muta in 1996, Kishin is the far more violent, uncaged side of a Liger, sporting white, black and red face paint like the singer of a heavy metal band. Kishin spits mist, utilises weapons, and unleashes a rush of aggression that is hard to contain. It’s a complete shift in demeanour, appearance and wrestling style when Kishin is summoned, which makes it all the more awesome. When he first appeared, nobody was warned in advance, making the unveiling all the more iconic.
In the span of thirty years, Kishin Liger has only appeared on three occasions, with only one being announced beforehand. The legacy of Liger is only increased further by this awesome aggressive alter ego that is kept so protected. The sight of Kishin is so rare that many newer fans aren’t even aware of his existence, making him all the more of an enigma. If Kishin is to make a final appearance before Liger hangs up his boots for good, it would set the world alight.
Along with stellar matches and a hidden demon beneath his mask, one of the ways in which Liger managed to gain such a worldwide reputation prior to the days of the internet was his willingness to work for promotions all around the world, something which he has continued to do well into his career. He is the only man to have competed in NJPW, NXT, WCW, RevPro, AAA, CMLL, Stampede, wXw, WCPW, ROH, NOAH, NWA, Michinoku Pro, All Japan, PWG, DDT, TNA, Dragon Gate, CZW, CHIKARA, Big Japan, and many other promotions. That is one hell of a list…
Many Western fans became aware of Liger thanks to his battles in World Championship Wrestling. Thanks to New Japan’s working relationship with WCW, Liger would regularly come to the States to compete, where he put on a series of classic battles against one of his greatest opponents, Brian Pilman. At the 1992 Starrcade, these two put on a show-stealing match which is still heralded to this day (click here for my top Liger matches). Thankfully for Liger, he would continue to wrestle there as WCW gained popularity during the Monday Night Wars, competing on Nitro until 1999, and becoming even more well-known globally.
If it’s not obvious by now, Jushin Thunder Liger hasn’t taken it easy in his decade spanning career. Between becoming a record-setting eleven-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, a six-time IWGP Junior Tag Team Champion, competing around the world, and winning multiple other titles and tournaments, Liger certainly racked up a lot of time in the ring. This was highlighted in a stat which went viral last year thanks to Twitter user EvanDeadlySinsW, who highlighted the fact that July 2018 was the first calendar month in just under 23 years where Liger didn’t have at least one pro wrestling match (he was on commentary duties during the G1 Climax, hence why he didn’t get in the ring).
Think about that: 23 years straight without any extended time away from the ring. That is incredible. No major injuries, no time off to heal up nagging pains, an ironman streak that lasted longer than many people’s careers do, which didn’t even start until he had already been wrestling for 11 years! Liger truly takes longevity to a completely different level with dedication like that. And what’s even more astounding is that during the early days of this marathon run, Liger went through a very serious procedure which in modern times would sideline him for months.
Jushin Thunder Liger had a brain tumour removed in September 1996, and still managed to wrestle that same month, along with several matches leading up to it.
That is ridiculous. That is a level of power only an anime character could possess. Thankfully, these days I doubt anybody would be allowed to get in the ring so soon after such a major surgery, and for very good reason, but Liger’s willingness to get back to performing so soon after freaking brain surgery is a level of commitment that you have to respect.
Although Liger was at his height of popularity during the 90’s, a time in which he even got his own live action movie, Liger carried on performing at a high level around the world into the new millennium. As well as continuing a successful career in New Japan with many titles and tournament victories along the way, Liger wrestled for many US, Mexican, UK and Japanese promotions throughout the 2000’s, both major and independent, including a lengthy heel run in Pro Wrestling NOAH which displayed a new heel side to this well-established character. He even had a match at an NXT TakeOver whilst still being contracted by New Japan, which still to this day is rather surreal.
One of the more interesting yet head scratching career choices made by Liger during his entire career was his decision to step into an MMA ring…. against Minoru Suzuki no less. Suzuki’s original opponent for a Pancrase show, Kensuke Sasaki, pulled out not long before the fight due to injury. So, at the last minute, despite having no MMA experience at all other than being a proficient amateur wrestler during high school, Liger accepted the fight. Unsurprisingly, he lost within less than two minutes, but for being willing to take the match in spite of all the obstacles facing him, that speaks to his toughness and dedication that got him through over thirty years of pro wrestling.
Jushin Thunder Liger has got to be one of the most diverse performers in pro wrestling history. He can step into an MMA ring, he can be silly, he can be serious, he can be violent, or he can stick his thumb up Tommaso Ciampa’s butt (yes, that happened). Regardless of what he does, nobody questions it because it’s Liger. He’s crafted a character which is capable of doing practically anything and it being okay, and that’s part of the secret of his longevity.
For thirty years dedicated service to professional wrestling, we owe so much to Jushin Thunder Liger. For the dozens of performers he’s inspired across generations, and the millions of fans he’s inspired, he has got to be considered one of the greatest of all time, regardless of weight class or nationality. Liger was an innovator and pioneer the likes of which are rarely seen in a profession, that managed to turn an idea that shouldn’t have lasted more than a few years into one of the longest running characters in wrestling. As one hell of a career winds down to a close, we all should be required to say: Thank You, Liger.
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