The man. The myth. The legend. Over the last 20 years there have been few characters in puroresu as endearing or as legendary as Jushin “Thunder” Liger. The man himself is actually a 26-year veteran of puroresu but has donned the Jushin Liger outfit for the last 20 years and compiled a list of accomplishments that may never be equaled among Jr. Heavyweights…or Heavyweights for that matter.
Originally starting out in wrestling under his real name, Keiichi Yamada, he applied to New Japan in the early 1980s but was rejected due to not being tall enough at the time. He decided to go to Mexico to continue pursuing his dream of wrestling, but by his own account, he was almost starving while studying there, so NJPW officials who were visiting took pity on him and asked him to come back to Japan. While continuing his studies, he had his debut match in March 1984 at the age of 19. He began studying various martial arts styles because he wanted to add something new and different to his wrestling style, which is how he learned his Rolling Koppou Kick. In 1986 he left to compete in England as “Fuji” Yamada but returned in 1987, at which time he debuted a new move called the Shooting Star Press (aka SSP), which he learned by reading the popular manga (graphic novel/comic) “Fist Of The North Star”. In 1989 he left on another excursion, this time to Canada to train at the legendary Stu Hart’s Dungeon and compete in Hart’s Stampede Wrestling. His experiences there led him to refer to Hart as a “very, very tough man.” NJPW called him back to Japan, as they needed him for a gimmick based on an extremely popular anime superhero, Jushin Liger, created by celebrated mangaka (graphic novel/comic book author/artist) Go Nagai. NJPW had done this previously with Tiger Mask, which had become a huge success. Yamada was given a superhero-like full body costume & demonic looking mask, resembling the superhero type featured in tokusatsu (live-action superhero drama TV show or movie) and anime programs. The legend was born.
Jushin Liger debuted in New Japan Pro Wrestling on April 24, 1989, at the Tokyo Dome. In his debut match, he defeated Kuniaki Kobayashi. After using the Jushin Liger gimmick the anime progressed, and as the Go Nagai anime progressed, the hero powered up and changed three times. As the hero changed so did Liger. First to Fire Liger, then to the character gimmick he goes by today, Jushin Thunder Liger. It took just one month for Liger to make an impact, as in May 1989 he won his first IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship, a title he would win an incredible 11 times between 1989 & 1999. He also made frequent appearances in the US in the 1990s, debuting in WCW in 1991 and briefly feuding with the late “Flyin” Brian Pillman (on a side note, one of these matches was the first time I ever saw Liger in wrestling, so he was my introduction of sorts to puroresu). He returned to New Japan in early 1993 but returned to WCW in 1995. He went on to face many top opponents such as Chris Benoit, Pillman, Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio, Jr., and Juventud Guerrera. Liger also won the 1995 Super J Cup tournament during this time. Soon afterwards he was forced to the sidelines due to having surgery for a brain tumor in 1996, and was forced to reduce the stress on his body so he abandoned his high-flying style for a more power-based repertoire. When he returned in October, he debuted a new heel gimmick called “Kishin Liger”. During a match with The Great Muta (Keiji Muto), Muta resorted to his underhand tactics that had become his style over the years. He tore at Liger’s mask and eventually ripped it off, but Liger kept his face down on the mat. After grabbing a chair outside the ring, Muta entered the ring but before he could hit Liger with it, Liger stood up and revealed his face to be painted pale white with red writings and spit mist into Muta’s face (another Muta trademark). He tore off his bodysuit and revealed a painted chest, then proceeded to fight more aggressively the rest of the match. Liger brought the gimmick back for a match in 2006, for a grudge match with Bad Boy Hido. The story was that Hido had cut a piece of Liger’s hair and Liger vowed revenge, so he transformed into Kishin Liger. Liger won the match with a brainbuster onto a steel chair. The gimmick is a variation of The Great Muta gimmick which relies on bloody and evil tactics in a match, using mannerisms and imagery that differ from the person’s normal ways. This gimmick also uses many wrestling moves that are regulars in The Great Muta’s move set, such as the Asian mist (which sometimes is referred to by English-language commentators/fans as the “green mist” based on the commonly used color of the mist). Also in the early 1990s he won 2 mask vs. mask matches, forcing the unmasking of Pegasus Kid in 1991-revealed to be the late Chris Benoit-and also ending the run of Tiger Mask 3 in 1994-unmasking the 3rd incarnation of the legendary Tiger Mask and revealing him as Koji Kanemoto.
In 1997 he pulled off perhaps his greatest feat to that point, reigning for 6 months as the J-Crown champion, a title consisting of 8-yes, 8-different titles unified as one. This included the IWGP Jr. Title, a handful of NWA and regional titles and even the WWF Light Heavyweight Championship although that reign is not recognized by WWE due to it happening before 1998.
He met with controversy in late-November/early-December 1999 while wrestling a short tour in WCW as the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion when he lost the title on WCW Monday Nitro to Juventud Guerrera via a blow to the head from a tequila bottle. Liger regained his title the following week from Psicosis, who was substituting for Guerrera because he broke his arm. However, the scripting of these title changes was very embarrassing for New Japan, so embarrassing that they moved on like it never happened and chose not to release any information, in turn none of the Japanese sports media outlets reported the two title changes. New Japan didn’t recognize Guerrera’s reign until 2007, Liger was also referred to as a 10 time champion until this time. During 2000, as booker Riki Chōshū decided to de-emphasize the junior heavyweight division (a costly decision that diminished its credibility), Liger wrestled heavyweights without wearing the upper part of his bodysuit or his mask horns. During the next couple years Liger also made his first and only foray into MMA, where he faced Minoru Suzuki in Pancrase as an injury replacement for Suzuki’s original foe. Liger would lose by submission in just under 2 minutes. From 1999-2003 Liger also would win 4 IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Titles with 4 different partners.
In 2004 Liger began further expansion into the USA, debuting in the Ring Of Honor promotion. He competed on 2 shows in November 2004, defeating top ROH star Bryan Danielson in a singles match then teaming with Samoa Joe to defeat Danielson and Low Ki, with Liger again pinning Danielson. In addition, Liger also ventured into NOAH and won the GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title, reigning as champion for 6 months. Liger debuted in TNA in 2005, losing to Joe in a match cut short by communication problems. He returned in 2006 as part of Team Japan in the TNA World X Cup Tournament, and also participated in New Japan’s G1 Climax Tournament for the 3rd time. In 2007 Liger returned to Canada for 2 appearances in UWA Hardcore Wrestling and also expanded his Japanese base, competing in Dragon Gate and winning the promotion’s top title, the Open The Dream Gate Championship. Liger also disbanded his NJPW stable, CTU (Control Terrorism Unit), in 2007 after leading it since forming it in 2001, wanting to do so while they were near the top of the promotion. He then joined Masa Chono’s Legend stable. His 5th IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Title reign followed in 2008. Earlier in 2009 Liger celebrated his 20th anniversary in New Japan and his 25th anniversary in wrestling, and although he hasn’t held the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title in 10 years and isn’t racking up the titles like he used to, he always remains in the title picture and continues to further extend his legacy as perhaps the greatest Jr. Heavyweight not just of this generation, but of all time. And he seems to show no signs of letting up into his late 40s. Although he still hasn’t been able to regain the IWGP Jr. Title, Liger did add another title to his impressive collection in May 2010, defeating Mexican legend Negro Casas for the CMLL World Middleweight Championship.
Although he still appears on the majority of New Japan shows, Liger has begun cutting back his New Japan schedule over the last couple years to focus more on his unofficial role as an ambassador for the promotion, which has seen him make more frequent appearances worldwide to help expand the promotion’s reach and fanbase. He has been making such appearances mainly in Mexico, with occasional appearances in Europe and some return trips to the USA. His US appearances have been mainly in conjunction with one of New Japan’s new US indy partners, Jersey All-Pro Wrestling, but sometimes he’s appeared in California for promotions there including Pro Wrestling Guerilla and attending special events like WrestleReunion. Liger’s appearances in JAPW have played a big role in their upcoming events being co-promoted with New Japan in May 2011.
Stats & info:
Real name: Keiichi Yamada
Weight: 209 pounds/95 kg
Experience: 26 years
Finishing move: CTB, Liger Bomb, Rolling Koppou Kick, Vertical Drop Brainbuster
Current affiliation: New Japan
11-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion
5-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion
1-time J-Crown Champion
1-time GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion
1-time WWF Light Heavyweight Champion (not recognized by WWE)
1-time WCW Light Heavyweight Champion
1-time Dragon Gate Open The Dream Gate Champion
1-time Osaka Pro Tag Team Champion
2-time British Commonwealth Junior Heavyweight Champion
1-ime NWA World Junior Heavyweight Champion
1-time NWA World Welterweight Champion
1-time UWA World Junior Light Heavyweight Champion
1-time WWA World Junior Light Heavyweight Champion
1-time WAR International Junior Heavyweight Champion
1-time WAR International Junior Tag Team Champion
1-time CMLL World Middleweight Champion
1991 IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title #1 Contenders League
1992 Top Of The Super Junior
1994, 2001 Best Of The Super Junior
1995, 2000 Super J Cup
1996 Young Lions Cup
2001 G1 Jr. Tag League
2001 Naeba Cup Tag Tournament
1 Wrestling Observer Newsletter 5 Star Match
1984 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Rookie Of The Year Award (co-winner)
1989 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Gimmick Award
1987, 1988 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Wrestling Manuever Award (SSP)
1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Flying Wrestler Award
1989, 1990, 1991, 1992 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Best Technical Wrestler Award
1990 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Match Of The Year Award (vs. Naoki [Takuma] Sano)
1990, 1991, 1992 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Most Outstanding Wrestler Award
Inducted Into Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall Of Fame In 1999