Jushin Thunder Liger: The career of a wrestling legend

Ahead of his final set of matches this weekend at Wrestle Kingdom 14, Grant McRobbie looksback at the career of the great Jushin Thunder Liger.

Jushin Thunder Liger

As we approach Wrestle Kingdom 14 there are many moments to discuss that will go down as historic including the double gold dash and the return of Hiromu Takahashi from the devastating neck injury he received last year. One moment that isn’t quite getting the same attention but really should is the retirement of the legendary Jushin Thunder Liger. 

I’ll leave that discussion for another time but let’s take a look at the 30 year history of the innovative Liger and the legacy he leaves behind.

Born Keiichi Yamada on November 30 1964, he made his debut for New Japan in 1984 under his own name and didn’t actually receive the Liger gimmick until 1989.

His beginnings were tough as he did not get into the New Japan dojo originally for not meeting the height requirements. Yamada went to Mexico with the intent of fulfilling his dream as a wrestler and was found by New Japan officials over there starving.

This resulted with New Japan deciding to take him in and his training began properly before his debut in March 1984 against Shunji Kosugi.

As is custom for New Japan’s training system, he was sent on excursion and the destination was Europe. In particular is was All Star Wrestling in England under the name “Flying” Fuji Yamada. He had some success even having a match televised on ITV. This was only one location for excursion as he also got the chance to wrestle for Stu Hart’s Stampede wrestling and trained in the infamous Hart Dungeon. His brief time there led to him being quoted to saying Hart was a “very,very tough man”.

His excursion came to an end and he returned to Japan in August 1987 showing off with the debut of his Shooting Star Press in a match with Masakatsu Funaki. The next 2 years brought Yamada some more experience including shots at the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship against both Owen Hart and Shiro Koshinaka in 1988. These opportunities showed the faith that New Japan had in the future Liger. He took a second excursion to Canada which was cut short when he received  call to return as they had a new gimmick for him.

Birth of a Legend

Taken from a Japanese Anime, Yamada was given the new gimmick of Jushin Liger where he finally donned the full body suit and mask he is now renowned for. His debut came on the grand stage of the Tokyo Dome with a great match against Kuniaki Kobayashi. As the character in the anime underwent changes and powered up, they reflected these in his character including adding the “thunder” middle name in 1990. Ligers rise was so high that from the period May 25 1989 til December 6 1999, he captured the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship a total of 11 times as well as many other titles and accolades. There’s enough in there to do a book on them but I’ll leave that level of detail to the much more knowledgeable than myself.

As Liger his style began like many popular Juniors, as a high flyer. Something he would do full out until after he received surgery for a brain tumour in August 1996. He began to bring in more power moves and grappling to tell his stories in the ring to help reduce the stress on his body. Despite all this Liger continued to have a successful in ring career and debuted another side to himself only a few months later. A monster only ever seen 4 times.

The Demon Within

Allow me to go slightly outwith chronological order here to discuss one of the most fascinating elements of Ligers character. The demon Kishin Liger, a side reserved for Ligers most intense and heated rivalries. The first appearance is a thing of beauty. On October 20 1996, Liger faced off against the Great Muta in a very hard hitting match where Muta resorted to his dirty underhanded tactics to get the upper hand over Liger. Muta ripped the mask off Liger after many attempts but Liger refused to let anyone see his face dropping to the mat. Muta saw this as an opportunity to grab a chair but before he could strike a decisive blow Liger stood up to reveal a face painted white with red writings and sprayed a foul mist into the face of Muta (a gimmick Muta himself was famous for). Liger then proceeded to tear off his bodysuit revealing a painted chest and attacking with a new found aggression never before seen from Liger. Despite this he was on the losing end of the match but it’s a moment that lives on in wrestling history to this day.

It would be just short of 10 full years before the demon would appear again. While not as dramatic an unveiling this time the gimmick still looked incredible. The simple story this time was that Liger’s rival Bad Boy Hido had cut a piece of Ligers revenge and Liger transformed into Kishin to obtain revenge. He done in suitably brutal style with a devastating brainbuster onto a steel chair.

Again another few years would pass before he would reappear again briefly when the young Taichi tore his mask to pieces and brought the wrath of Liger upon him.

The final appearance and one many of us will be most familiar with was against the intimidating Minoru Suzuki. After numerous insults, taunts and beatings by Suzuki including the theft of his mask, Liger finally had enough and brought the fight to Suzuki. At the Destruction in Kobe event Liger’s mask was again removed but this time Kishin was waiting. Spraying a foul mist at Suzuki he then attempted a full out murder by running at Suzuki with a turnbuckle spike. The moment was terrifying and Liger chased Suzuki all the way backstage looking for blood. This led on to what I feel is one of the best matches in 2019. The one on one match between these two built on there histories in New Japan and also meeting in a legit MMA match in Pancrase. The bad blood brought out Battle Liger who unfortunately fell to The King. The respect after the match where Suzuki bowed to his fallen opponent was brilliant. If you have not seen the match I really recommend it!

The Veteran Liger

As  his career rolled on Liger became one of the Junior Divisions veterans and as the age old story goes with many veterans, this led to an eventual spell as a heel. Liger headed up the CTU stable from 2004 (that’s Control Terrorism Unit sorry 24 fans). This stable featured some amazing talent such as Hirooki Goto, Minoru Tanaka and one Prince Devitt to name a few. This stable wreaked some havoc for the time that they were together but anyones time at the top is always limited and the stable ended 2007.

His next run was as part of Masahiro Chono’s legends stable which was again a 3 year run until Chono departed the company. This period of Liger’s career was a twilight period as many other new juniors were rising up hungry to take the top spot. It wouldn’t be the end of his good times though as in the following years he teamed with fellow veteran and good friend Tiger Mask and having a rather short reign with the Junior Heavyweight Tag Belts. As the years went on Liger went further into the background of the card but he did go for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship two more times. One against Kushida at Wrestling Dontaku 2016 and at New Japans 47th Anniversary event against Taiji Ishimori in an absolute belter of a match. It was the day after this loss that Liger announced he would retire on 5 January 2020 at the Tokyo Dome.

Best of the Super Juniors

Outside of this main summary of his career I feel a mention should be made of Ligers record in New Japan’s prestigious Junior tournament. Liger has 3 wins in the tournament (a feat only one other wrestler, Koji Kanemoto has done) with 2 of those wins being under the current name BOSJ and one under the tournaments original name Top of the Super Juniors. The TOSJ win came very early in his career in 1992 and the two BOSJ wins came in 1994 (the first BOSJ tournament under that name) and 2001 at BOSJ 8. Liger has been involved in every single one of both the TOSJ and BOSJ tournaments barring 2 (1995 and 2000) until he wrestled in his last one in 2017. This meant he wrestled in a total of 26 Super Junior tournaments and a mind boggling amount of matches just from these.

It’s not just the BOSJ tournaments that have given Liger success. He has also had success with 2 wins in the tournament he himself came up with, the Super J-cup. It was created by Liger as a cross promotion tournament designed to showcase the best Junior Heavyweights around the world. Liger tasted success in the second Super J-Cup by pinning Gedo in the finals and in the 3rd edition with a win over CIMA. These accolades cement Liger as one of the most influential and successful Juniors ever to grace wrestling. Add to this that no one has held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship as many times with his 11 reigns, the longest ever reign so far at 628 days and a combined reign total of 2,245 days and 31 defences To give an idea of comparison the closest after him for combined days is Prince Devitt with 1,010 days, Minoru Tanaka with 20 defences and the number of reigns a joint 2nd place for Kushida and Tiger Mask with 6 each. No one has come close to Ligers records in the junior books for New Japan.

With such an expansive resume in New Japan we can go on to mention his exploits outside of New Japan as Liger has made appearances in some of the worlds biggest promotions and even had a shot in MMA. The most well known one in the modern day being his one off appearance for WWE in 2015 where he surprisingly went over Tyler Breeze at NXT Takeover. This is probably the last time a working relationship was seen between New Japan and WWE which is a shame as the match was fantastic. Prior to this though Liger did also appear in a WWE/AJPW/NJPW co-promoted event in 1990 at Wrestle Summit in the Tokyo Dome.

Liger has also made several appearances for WCW, with runs in 1991-92 and 1995-1999. The second run being a bit more controversial as it featured Liger dropping and regaining his Jr championship in a way that New Japan officials saw as embarrassing and did not officially recognise until 2007 resulting in Liger being referred to as a 10 time champion for a while instead of the true 11 times.

Another promotion to enlist the talents of Liger was Ring of Honor who headlined their 2 Weekend of Thunder shows back to back on November 5, 2004. The first night featured an incredible one on one match between Liger and Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan) then a dream tag match on night two where Liger chose ROH champion Samoa Joe as his partner to face Bryan and Low Ki. These matches are fantastic to watch if you can get a hold of them.

Not to be left out, even TNA recruited Liger during 2005-2006 (a topic for someone with more TNA knowledge than I) and multiple tours with regular NJPW business partner CMLL in Mexico give Liger a hugely expansive resume all over the world.  Perhaps one of the most infamous appearances being in PWG involving the 10 man butt conga line spot (honestly just search it on youtube, its a who’s who of amazing top talent in one of the funniest spots ever recorded).

Outside of this Liger has had one professional MMA fight in a quick 1:48 loss to Minoru Suzuki by rear naked choke but I suppose even the best of the super juniors can’t be the best at everything!

A final little good point on his record is a win at the British J Cup for New Japan’s British partner company Rev Pro who were lucky enough to host Ligers last match in the UK as a surprise instead of him appearing at New Japan Royal Quest. Regardless of the promotion he has appeared at Liger has a huge list of championships that is extensive and shows how great he really is. He’s also credited by many of the best current Juniors as an inspiration for them and surely he will be missed when he calls an end to his long and illustrious career.

The Last Matches Of Liger

Liger has completed his last matches everywhere now with only Wrestle Kingdom left to go before his retirement ceremony on January 6 at New Years Dash. The first night featuring a star studded 8 man tag with a variety of wrestlers who have all had some hand in Ligers career. Liger will head the team of Tiger Mask, The Great Sasuke and Tatsumi Fujinami vs Ryusuke Taguchi, Tetsuhito Takaiwa, Shinjiro Ootani and Naoki Sano. Each team has a corner man with El Samurai with team Liger and Kuniaki Kobayashi with team Taguchi. This is a veteran affair and even for myself this will be a first time seeing some of these guys. For many casual and newer fans this may be an educational affair and prompt some diving into the deep archives of New Japan World. I expect this opening match to be fun and interesting.

As for night two we have a totally different affair. While many hoped for Liger to have a one on one for his last match we instead get a rather special tag when he teams with Naoki Sano against the, what some may call odd, pairing of Ryu (Dragon) Lee and Hiromu Takahashi in a generation vs generation match. This one should be special and might even feature the Junior Heavyweight Champion if Hiromu can overcome Ospreay on night one.

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