Superstar Spotlight: Jushin 'Thunder' Liger
When wrestling fans think of legendary Cruiserweights, a few names stand out more than others. Rey Mysterio is usually the first because his name is synonymous with the Cruiserweight division in WWE. Older fans might look to Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho and Juventud Guerrera from the days when WCW had a thriving junior Heavyweight division.
But as good as all of these wrestlers were and are, when it comes to Cruiserweight wrestling and its influence on the wrestling business, none of them compare to Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger.
Liger is essentially the embodiment of not only Cruiserweight wrestling as a style, but also what it stands for. This is a man who was signed by New Japan Pro Wrestling out of pity, only to become one of their most revered wrestlers of all time.
He proved that you can achieve big things, even if you’re a small wrestler. In essence, Liger’s career serves as the template for what every Cruiserweight is and should be.
The man behind the mask, Keiichi Yamada, started wrestling in 1984. He had originally wanted to wrestle for NJPW but was turned away. The reason for this was that they had a height requirement that Yamada did not meet.
Yamada stood at 5’7, which is quite average for Japanese society but not for Japanese wrestling. Undeterred, Yamada went to train in Mexico instead, which is where he learned about the high-flying Lucha libre that would become a key component of his style for years to come.
But life was not easy for Yamada in Mexico. By his own accounts, he starved while training there, and the NJPW officials finally decided to hire him after seeing him in this plight. Whether it was pity or an appreciation for his determination to succeed, we’ll never know.
But what matters is NJPW signed Yamada after which he began wrestling for their junior heavyweight division in 1984. But it wouldn’t be until five years later that his career would be launched into the stratosphere.
Just like they did with Satoru Sayama and the original Tiger Mask, Yamada was given a gimmick based on a popular anime around at the time, Jushin Liger. Yamada had already proven himself a skilled technical wrestler before being bestowed with that gimmick but it was this character that made him a pro wrestling icon.
Rise to superstardom:
The anime tie-in gave Liger a newfound popularity that led to him becoming one of the most iconic wrestlers in Japanese wrestling history. He used this newfound popularity to become an immense draw not just in New Japan, but internationally as well.
He became an instant hit during the 1990s in WCW, becoming an integral part of their growing Cruiserweight division. There, Liger had legendary matches with such wrestlers as Brian Pillman, Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio, Chris Benoit, among others.
But it was in his native Japan that Liger’s career really became legendary.
Throughout the 1990s, Liger was the premier junior Heavyweight wrestler in all of Japan. He possessed the ideal combination of strength, technique, agility, and ring psychology to put on an outstanding match with anyone that entered the ring with him.
Liger had many outstanding matches over the years, including this gem of a Cruiserweight match against fellow high-flying legend The Great Sasuke:
Or this masterpiece of a match against El Samurai in 1992:
It was through these outstanding Cruiserweight matches that Liger became synonymous with Cruiserweight wrestling. His Championships and accomplishments are further proof of that. He’s one of only five men to have held the J-Crown, a collection of eight unified Cruiserweight Championships (meaning that he had eight different championships at once).
He has won numerous Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards over the years, including Best Flying Wrestler (1989-1993), and Most Outstanding Wrestler (1990-1992). But most importantly, he has won the NJPW Junior Heavyweight Championship a record 11 times, more than any other wrestler.
Now, you might look at this and think, ‘it’s just a Cruiserweight championship, it’s not on the same level as a world championship’. Well, you’d be wrong. NJPW and many other promotions have a clear and distinct division between the Cruiserweight and Heavyweight divisions.
In fact, if someone’s a cruiserweight in NJPW, they cannot even challenge for the Heavyweight Championship.
To that end, the Junior Heavyweight Championship is, essentially, a Cruiserweight world title. That means that Liger has won 11 (cruiserweight) world championships in NJPW alone. That is an astonishing record akin to Ric Flair’s 16 world title record in North America; it’s something so incredible and difficult to have achieved and it speaks volumes of Liger’s skills as a wrestler.
Still wrestling long after so many years:
Not only has Liger made a career out of being a technical wizard and soaring through the air like a bird, but he has also shown incredible endurance and tenacity. Liger debuted as a pro wrestler in 1984…and he’s still wrestling now.
Liger has not stopped wrestling since he debuted over thirty years ago. His passion for wrestling is incredible. Regardless of the pain that he puts himself through, he still keeps going. This was proven in 1996 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Though it was benign, he still needed surgery to have it removed, and returned to the ring as soon as he was medically cleared to do so.
Of course, being a high-flyer can cause serious long-term damage to one’s body, especially the knees. But Liger’s as smart as he is popular; he knew he couldn’t do his aerial moves forever, so he adapted his style in the 21st century to find a way to keep wrestling in high-quality matches without putting his body through more punishment.
Though he had invented the Shooting Star Press in the late 80s and early 90s, he developed a more power-based wrestling style by the end of the 1990s and focused more on storytelling as opposed to high-flying. Despite his small stature, Liger’s match quality didn’t falter whatsoever without his penchant for flying through the air.
These days, he spends most of his time in multi-man matches, mainly due to the fact that he’s 52 years old and his body is incredibly worn down. But that still doesn’t stop the crowd from jumping to their feet and roaring with excitement whenever his entrance music plays.
While he might not be the high-flyer of yesteryear, he’s treated as a treasure by wrestling fans nonetheless.
Influence on the wrestling business:
Jushin Liger is one of the most influential wrestlers of all time, period. Both his popularity with the fans and his innovativeness have impacted the wrestling business in enormous ways.
There were times throughout the 1990s that Jushin Liger got the biggest reaction on the card, even more so than Heavyweights who had always been thought of as the biggest draws. Liger, with his awesome look and daredevil style, challenged this mentality and dropped it on its head.
You see, in Japan, the bigger guys had always been the most important stars, partly due to sumo wrestling’s influence on Puroresu in its early days. So for a very long time, smaller, quicker wrestlers were seen as lower in value when compared to the Heavyweights.
While Tiger Mask I and the Dynamite Kid challenged this mentality with their own great bouts in the early 1980s, the big change in mentality towards junior Heavyweights didn’t begin on a major scale until Jushin Liger Shooting Star Pressed his way to the main event.
Liger managed to change the approach to junior Heavyweight wrestling both in Japan and in the United States. In his native country, the junior heavyweight division was NJPW’s ace in the hole in its perpetual rivalry with All Japan.
While AJPW might’ve had more classic, NWA-style matches, it was NJPW and its Cruiserweight division (led by Liger) that led to NJPW becoming the most financially successful wrestling promotion in Japan.
But Liger wasn’t only a marvellous wrestler, he also proved to be a masterful booker as well. He was the mastermind behind the first-ever Super J-Cup, a one-night cruiserweight tournament that sought to determine the best junior wrestler in the world.
The first edition, held in 1994, was once called ‘the most incredible single night of wrestling ever’ by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer.
Liger booked the tournament to make its participants look as much like big stars as possible, and he succeeded. The two finalists, The Great Sasuke and Wild Pegasus (a.k.a. Chris Benoit), both came out of the show looking like true main-eventers worthy of carrying any show they were on.
In the United States, Liger’s influence was arguably even more pronounced. Not only did he invent the Shooting Star Press (which has been emulated by wrestlers from Billy Kidman to AJ Styles), but his spectacular matches with the lighter wrestlers of WCW created that same change in the mindset of the WCW fandom as it did in Japan.
Throughout the 1990s, Liger had many outstanding matches with several smaller wrestlers that made up WCW’s lower card: Chris Benoit, Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, the list goes on.
After having matches with Liger and then having the same kind of high-quality matches with each other as they did with him, these wrestlers, who have been referred to as ‘the Vanilla Midgets’, became symbols of pure natural talent being underappreciated due to backstage politics in WCW.
So when these wrestlers left WCW for WWE, their reputations went with them. And when these wrestlers started having excellent grappling matches that began stealing the show on a nightly basis, fans started warming up to them like never before.
By WrestleMania XX, two of these so-called ‘vanilla midgets’, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, stood victorious as World Champions in WWE, a company that, very much like NJPW, had always prized the heavyweights at the expense of the smaller workhorses, but could no longer do so because those smaller Cruiserweight wrestlers were far more popular with the audience.
You can even see Liger’s influence in more recent WWE storylines. Finn Balor called him ‘timeless’ in a promo to build up Liger’s first WWE appearance in 2015:
Daniel Bryan’s main event ascent in 2013-2014 was based on his look and small stature hindering him from being a top star in WWE’s management’s eyes, yet he reached the top due to his own hard work and unyielding fan support (both of these things happened to Liger in the late 1980s and early 1990s).
Even today, when you look at the stars that get the most praise for their hard work, it’s usually the more versatile and smaller guys: AJ Styles, Sami Zayn, Neville, Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, just to name a few. All of these wrestlers have been influenced by Jushin Liger in one way or another.
A true legend:
If you want to know what true Cruiserweight wrestling is or could be, go watch any Jushin Liger match from the 1990s. The man was the personification of the perfect junior Heavyweight and set the bar incredibly high for virtually all wrestlers that came after him.
He could literally do it all in the ring (and outside of it): power moves, storytelling, submission holds, chain grappling, and of course, aerial moves.
Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger’s impact on the wrestling industry as a whole cannot be overstated. This is a man that was told that he was too small to even train in NJPW’s dojo even before his career started. Less than a decade later, he was out-drawing and out-wrestling almost everyone else in his company, and elsewhere in the world.
If there was ever a wrestler that really looked and moved like a superhero, it was Liger. His abilities were far ahead of anyone else when he was in his prime, and he proved his wrestling savvy when he booked the 1994 Super J-Cup.
There’s no denying it: Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger is the best junior Heavyweight wrestler of all time.
- 11-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion
- 8-time Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion (between NJPW, WAR & Pro Wrestling NOAH)
- Won the J-Crown
- Booked the 1994 Super J-Cup tournament, one of the best technical wrestling shows of all time
- Won the 1995 and 2000 Super J-Cup tournaments
- Wrestling Observer’s Most Outstanding Wrestler (1990-1992), Best Flying Wrestler (1989-1993) and Best Technical Wrestler (1989-1992)
- Created the Shooting Star Press
- Has been wrestling virtually nonstop since 1984, despite suffering a brain tumor.
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