Japanese professional wrestling, Puroresu, has a long standing tradition of flashy characters. Based on historical significance, culture, tradition, and even pop culture such as anime or live action television, Japanese fans have been treated to some pretty spectacular characters over the years. None have been more spectacular though, especially not for as long, as Jushin Thunder Liger.
Born in 1964, Keiichi Yamada was an amateur wrestler during high school who made it to the national finals. After losing the match and graduating school, Yamada applied to the New Japan dojo with dreams of becoming a professional wrestler. He was denied entrance originally though, as NJPW had a height requirement for new wrestlers and Yamada, all of 5ft 7in tall, did not meet it. Determined to make it despite his small stature, Yamada went to Mexico to train in the Lucha Libre style. By his own admission, his training there was hard and because of circumstance, he was virtually starving and unable to work as hard as he wanted. Fortunately for him, and NJPW quite honestly, a group of representatives from NJPW were visiting the Mexican territory to explore working partnerships. They saw Yamada, took pity on him, and invited him back to Japan to train. Yamada's training class included future all stars such as Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono, and (personal favorite) Keiji Mutoh aka The Great Muta.
Yamada took to training rather quickly and was sent on a tour of Europe. (It's traditional for japanese wrestlers to be sent to other territories to learn new styles and skills that will benefit their home organization) He competed for All Star Wrestling in England, capturing their Middleweight Championship in both 1986 and 1987 under the moniker of Flying Fuji Yamada. He would then go on to Stampede Wrestling in Canada, the legendary promotion run by Stu Hart. Yamada, wrestling there under his real name, would not only compete for Stampede but would also train in the fabled Hart Family Dungeon. The Dungeon is notorious for being one of the most brutal training grounds a professional wrestler could have possibly learned in. The list of names to come through there however is incredibly impressive. A quick overview includes names like Tyson Kidd, Edge, Superstar Billy Graham, Chris Jericho, Dave Boy Smith, and of course Owen and Bret Hart. Yamada's experience in the Dungeon lead him to refer to Stu Hart as, "A very, very tough man." (that is about the nicest thing ever said about stu hart) His time in Stampede wasn't long however as NJPW called him back home to fill a new gimmick they wanted on their shows. Just as they had done with the Tiger Mask character, NJPW wanted to capitalize on the extreme popularity of a manga property. Jushin Liger, created by Go Nagai, was an insanely popular manga and anime in 1989. And while the popularity of the show waned after about a year or so, (43 episodes were aired), the popularity of Jushin Thunder Liger never wavered. Yamada was given a full body suit, the theme music from the anime (it's amazing), and the coolest mask to ever grace the squared circle. It was the perfect combination of talent and gimmick and launched Yamada as an international superstar.
Two years after his re-debut, Liger would head stateside in 1991 to compete for WCW. It was here that I first saw him and here that I became a full fledged Liger mark and interested in the broader scope of Japanese wrestling and culture. As an eleven year old kid who grew up on a steady diet of 80's cartoons, comic books, video games, and Kung Fu movies, how could I not be instantly drawn to this guy? He was a superhero come to life, a martial artist, an oddity from Japan like some of the stranger games on the NES, and looked like some of the cartoons I watched but didn't know much about like Robotech, Tekkaman, Dragon Ball, and Akira. I was completely captivated by him. I watched as much as I could during the two years he wrestled for WCW, watching him win and then lose the Light Heavyweight Championship to Brian Pillman. His matches introduced me to a style I was unaccustomed to due to the proliferation of big, steroid fueled monsters so prevalent at the time. He was small, sure, but he was fast and did things I had never seen before. The first Shooting Star Press, and inverted somersault from the top rope to a downed opponent I saw, was done by Liger. Many of the moves I had only seen on randomly televised AAA or CMLL Lucha Libre cards were now all over WCW. It took what I knew of American professional wrestling and turned it on its head. For the three years he was away from WCW, I was only able to keep up with him through wrestling magazines. I would read about what sounded like incredible matches between Liger and The Great Sasuke, or Black Tiger, or El Samurai, or Ultimo Dragon. He would return to WCW in 1995, take part in the first ever match on WCW Nitro (from the mall of america) and go on to have some really great feuds with the stacked cruiser weight roster WCW had in the late 90's early 2000's. The best part for me as a fan though, was that by that time the internet had become much more commonplace, it became much easier to follow the career of a guy in Japan and see some of the matches I had missed. I was able to keep current with one of my favorite wrestlers and see his matches in, for the most part, real-time. He has had some truly phenomenal matches in Japan and has continued to be one of the most over performers in the history of Puroresu. He has innovated inside and outside the ring and is without question a living legend.
Liger would return to the Americas numerous times over his career. He has wrestled for Canadian companies, Mexican companies, and most of the major and minor American wrestling promotions barring one. Jushin Thunder Liger, as of this writing anyway, has never competed for WWE. That glaring oversight will be remedied on 08/22/15 at NXT Takeover Brooklyn. Liger will have a match against Tyler Breeze. He is not the competitor he once was. He is older now, slower. But he is still Jushin Thunder Liger and I will still mark out hard. Watch the matches below. (presented in order of awesome to awesomest) They are some of the finest examples of in ring work you could hope to find. Follow me on twitter, @geekadedan, and let me know your favorite Liger matches.