Hello, and welcome to another edition of Slammer Jabber, which is usually your weekly look at all things professional wrestling from the past seven days. However, this week we're doing something a bit different.
I began writing this week’s column with a look at the news, TV, Wrestle Kingdom and all the usual things that the weekly wrestling cycle tends to throw up. However, after New Japan’s run of three huge nights in Tokyo last weekend, I find myself at a point where it feels more fitting to eschew that concept for this week and instead take a look back at one of the greatest of all time, who hung up his boots this week. I am, of course, referring to Jushin Thunder Liger.
For well over three decades Keiichi Yamada has been a professional wrestler, which is incidentally the entirety of my time on this planet thus far. The man-man-who-would-be-Liger spent time in Mexico at the beginning of his career before returning to the New Japan Pro Wrestling dojo training alongside such luminaries as the late Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono and Keiji Muto AKA The Great Muta. That last one is especially interesting when you consider the paths both men would take later on and the huge rivalry in which they would become embroiled in the 1990s. However, most interesting of Yamada’s pre-Liger days, or at least from the perspective of someone living in England was his excursion to Europe. Yamada had a pretty memorable run with All-Star Wrestling (which is still going today, remarkably) which included some classics with Mark “Rollerball” Rocco who would likewise have a memorable run in NJPW as Black Tiger. It was a path well-trodden with Saturo Sayama AKA Tiger Mask having previously done the same under the now particularly culturally insensitive moniker of Sammy Lee (no, not the former Liverpool and QPR midfielder turned coach), in a take-off of the successful actor Bruce Lee. He would return to New Japan under a mask as a licensed character from a popular anime series, which would also be the route for Yamada, although the future-Liger would also take a diversion via Stampede Wrestling in Calgary in order to round out his wrestling education.
Upon his return, Yamada would wrestle under his real name for some time, even competing in the Best of the Super Juniors before his big debut as the iconic Jushin Liger, based on the amine of the same name. This is the character that he would maintain through the rest of his career right up until January 5th 2020. However, that doesn’t mean the persona didn’t develop. Liger’s initial run in NJPW featured gear that differed massively from his famous “horned god” mask, but in time he was re-christened Jushin “Thunder” Liger and gained a new look that matched the evolution of his namesake within cartoon. This would be the famous look that he would more-or-less be known for during his NJPW tenure, the classic red and white bodysuit with the iconic horned red mask. Of course, the anime disappeared years ago, but Liger's career spanned five decades right into 2020.
We could simply cover his career from this point onwards in this column, and I would happily do that. However, I truly believe that plenty has been written about Liger over the past few weeks that covers his career history in great detail. Instead, I’d like to go through my own personal history as a fan of one of the greatest junior heavyweights of all time.
The first time I clapped eyes on Jushin Thunder Liger, was on Eurosport. Here in England, in the early 1990s, WWF was naturally a big deal. World of Sport was no more, I appreciate WOS is used to describe the period and style of wrestling that is emblematic of the British scene in its heyday, but I always find that catch-all problematic due to the fact that World of Sport was in fact a more Grandstand-esque show which featured a number of events on a Saturday afternoon and not just wrestling. Still, it shits on The Indoor League, but I digress. British wrestling had all but disappeared, and the only thing anyone was interested in was bodybuilders who looked like Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior doing flashy moves. Larger than life superheroes with unattainable physiques. The usual story. WCW was available sporadically on ITV, although you got the impression that while Turner was very happy getting themselves on national TV, ITV was very much half-arsing it with episodes of Worldwide. Sometimes episodes were on a Saturday afternoon, sometimes late on a Saturday night, sometimes shown out of order and always on massive delay. The shows were edited to within an inch of their lives and it did WCW no favours. Wrestling was still very lucrative here, even if it was about to come to a grinding halt a year or two later.
Eurosport had picked up the rights to something called World Pro Wrestling, which featured NJPW matches and the voices of Gordon Solie and Oliver Humperdink as well as a good number of notable WWF talent past and present due to a sizeable delay between the matches happening and the airings on Eurosport (think NJPW on AXS a few years ago but on a much bigger delay). However, I knew nothing about Japanese wrestling, so as a child the contrasting nature of the arena, the crowds and the style was mesmerizing. I loved it instantly, and this would kick off a feeling of connection to NJPW and Puroresu that continues even now. Liger stood immediately as something that as an eight-year-old I could get behind. His mask and bodysuit made him seem like an alien from another planet. He just looked so different from anything else I had ever seen. His moves, his intensity, it all made a huge impact on me.
I am convinced to this day I watched Liger vs Owen Hart on one of these shows and Liger gave Hart a hurricanrana. The matches I have seen featuring the pairing have no such spot, but I will concede it is fully possible that something from nearly three decades ago might be a slightly foggy memory. I certainly remember Hart and Liger having a match that I saw on that show, even if it was only in highlight form. Of course, we all got more familiar with the terrific in-ring skills of Hart, but Liger for a while disappeared off my radar as Eurosport ceased airing the programme. This was unfortunate, but not uncommon in the 1990s, especially as a kid. Despite his earlier appearances on WCW (more on that shortly), it was some time later that I was made aware of his work with Brian Pillman. This was chiefly to do with Turner Home Video cutting his fine work on PPV from the VHS releases in order to save money and Liger did not feature on Worldwide when I was a semi-regular watcher on ITV.
I became more familiar with WCW Nitro in 1996, but Liger didn’t really feature during that period, and especially not on the cut-down version of the show that aired on TNT after Cartoon Network went off the air on a Friday night. However, I do recall seeing highlights of him taking on Brian Pillman on the first Nitro being shown on some sort of retrospective (I imagine on a week where the tape had gone walkabout, again something that happened more often in the 1990s than you’d imagine). It was blow away stuff, and frankly one of the best matches I had ever seen, and that wasn’t even on the level of those matches in the early 90s. When I eventually did get an opportunity to take in the Liger/Pillman classics that defined the brief existence of the WCW Light Heavyweight Title, I was stunned by not only how crisp and fast-paced the bouts were, but also how unique they felt against the backdrop of the Jim Herd/Kip Frey/Bill Watts era WCW.
My biggest gateway into Liger’s body of work came from Power Slam magazine and the classifieds section. This was an entranceway into tape trading and for a time in the early to mid-00s it became possible to find pretty much anything from NJPW, AJPW and beyond. Here I was able to sample some of Liger’s greatest moments and I was hooked from there.
In terms of Jushin Thunder Liger’s spectacular run in NJPW, it is an understatement to say that there are definitely certain things that stand out. Moments that will live on forever. His matches with Brian Pillman, Owen Hart, Shinjiro Otani, Black Tiger (pretty much all of them), Chris Benoit, Naoki Sano and just about any other top junior heavyweight of the past thirty years have all provided bonafide classics that make up a body of work that will likely never be equalled. Liger was influential as a high flyer, but he would later adjust his style to compensate for his age (as well as a brain tumour in the 1990s) which allowed him the sort of longevity that eludes the vast majority of junior heavyweights. As a result, Liger was also able to exert his influence beyond the usual strict parameters of promotional boundaries in creating The Super J Cup that in 1994 and 1995 essentially hosted all of the world's leading juniors in one place resulting in two of the greatest nights in wrestling history.
For me, Liger’s ability to transform himself was always part of the appeal. The bodysuit and mask have kept the man behind them ageless but there have been other moments where different personas have emerged. Kishin Liger is perhaps the most famous and the moment, with his reveal after The Great Muta ripped his mask of a darker, more aggressive identity making for an excellent character evolution. Kishin is a rarity in professional wrestling in that it was used sparingly and to maximum effect for the Liger character as a last resort when circumstances called for it. That feud with Muta was a sight to behold for me, and I enjoyed that it existed in an almost supernatural realm of storytelling without ever venturing into the cheesy or cringe-worthy. It helps that Liger and Muta are two of the greatest of all time, but still, it’s quite the feat. The appearances of the Kishin Liger character against Bad Boy Hido, Taichi and finally Minoru Suzuki all had their own individual story, and each appearance felt special and distinctive, but still tied to the Liger mythology.
Jushin Thunder Liger had quite the career. There is no doubt that he is among the most legendary junior heavyweights of all time. I always enjoyed his ability to adapt to the style of his opponent, and despite the restrictions of his wrestling gear, he was always able to emote effectively using his body language and his sheer ability between the ropes. To some, selling with a mask and full bodysuit would be a disadvantage, where Liger used his superb command of the art form to make it strength within his arsenal. He also adapted his look over the years, with the bodysuit and mask altering at points to green, gold, black and various other combinations, eve incorporating leopard print. You could never look at Liger and see complacency, something helped by how wild his look was to begin with.Comedy is not always the thing you associate with Jushin Liger, but it is certainly something that played a part in his style and why he was so well-loved for so many years, although perhaps not so much during his heel runs. Whether it was kicking over Big Van Vader’s intimidating mastodon helmet, or appearing in the fan-education videos for New Japan World with Ryusuke Taguchi, Liger always had a sense of fun and mischief about his work which only serves to add further layers to his legend.
Thirty plus years in the wrestling business as an active competitor shows a longevity that is rare in the modern era. The Undertaker, The Great Muta, Ric Flair and a handful of others have managed such a feat and kept going on a fairly regular basis, but Liger has still been able to compete at the highest level in arguably the hardest-hitting, most physically taxing division of the most demanding, labour intensive companies in the world right up until his retirement. It really is quite the feat. Liger wrestled all over the world, with successful runs in Mexico and even a match in WWE (against Tyler Breeze at NXT: Takeover Brooklyn) in 2015.
Jushin Thunder Liger as a performer has been an ambassador of goodwill in wrestling and a whole lot of fun in the process. He has certainly brought plenty of joy to my heart, and for that I will forever be grateful. After he announced his retirement I got the classic Jushin Thunder Liger Mask tattooed on my arm (excuse the blood, the photo was taken just after the bandage came off), as a constant reminder of one of my biggest inspirations in wrestling, but also one of the all-time iconic, seminal figures within the industry.
Arigato, thank you, and enjoy your retirement Jushin Thunder Liger.
Well, that is it from me for this week. I will be back at the same time next week with a look at Raw, Smackdown, NXT, AEW and anything else that breaks in the next seven days. Until then, keep it locked here at Screenjabber for all the best movie, Blu-ray, DVD and video game reviews, as well as all the latest news, podcasts and more. Until next time, so long folks.
Images courtesy of WWE/NJPW/ROH/Troy Teague (ShutterTroy)