One of wrestling’s greatest legends retired this week, the masked innovator known as Jushin Thunder Liger. After losing his two retirement matches at New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 14 event, the company paid tribute to Liger‘s career with a ceremony the next night at New Year’s Dash. Leading up to this however, New Japan polled 5000+ fans on the subject of his best-ever wrestling matches. It didn’t turn out like some were expecting, as his recent encounter with Minoru Suzuki topped the poll. While there’s no denying it was a really fun match, it’s an easy list to nitpick because so many classics were completely absent from the top 20.
While I’m not going to rank them, I like to think the following is a better representation of the quality matches Jushin Liger worked in his prime. It can be argued that two matches against The Great Sasuke (& others) should be included, but I wanted us to have different opponents for each entry. I’ve also arranged it in chronological order, so if you do watch each video in order you’ll get to witness the evolution of Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger’s performances. Credit to By Beyond Gorilla for the display image.
#1: vs. Naoki Sano – NJPW New Spring Gold Series 1990
We open with Liger’s first big rival. Naoki Sano is credited for helping to get Liger over, and was thus given the honor of being the only man involved in both retirement matches at Wrestle Kingdom 14. Before the match could start, Liger showed blatant disrespect as he refused a handshake and slapped Sano in the face. There’s serious heat here! As it becomes more of a fight than a wrestling match. Sano retaliates with some brutal piledrivers and rips a big hole in Liger’s mask to the point you can sometimes see his face. As the crowd looks on in anticipation, Sano dominates Liger to the point he doesn’t look like he can make a comeback.
Liger’s selling is on another level, as the crowd shows their support by willing him on. Due to him always wearing a mask it’s rare to see him bleed, but this is one of those occasions. And then he makes a comeback! A beautiful somersault plancha over the top wows the audience. He keeps it going with a surfboard stretch, but Sano rakes his bloodied forehead to escape. Sano further targets the head as the mask is pretty much hanging by a thread. There’s some brutal suplex variations which Liger somehow finds a way to survive. Liger escapes an avalanche brainbuster and turns it into a near-fall! Sano really should’ve found a way to put him away by now. I’ll leave the ending for you to witness, as it really was ahead of its time.
#2: vs. Brian Pillman – WCW SuperBrawl II 1992
For English-speaking fans, the first time we likely had the pleasure of seeing Liger’s work was during his rivalry with ‘Flyin’ Brian Pillman over the WCW Light Heavyweight Championship; Jim Ross and Jesse Ventura provide commentary. Speaking of which, Ventura sounds delighted to be calling a Liger match for the first time. This is seriously as good as any cruiserweight match we saw last decade. The crowd pops as these athletes show their pace. Pillman tries to slow things down, but Liger wants it quicker and targets Brian’s left leg. A figure four leg lock puts Pillman in a heap of trouble. The crowd pops as they pick it up again and Liger somersaults off the turnbuckle on to Pillman.
What’s special about this match is it helped to establish WCW’s light heavyweight division. Granted that it was short-lived, but this could have been the start of something special had the powers in charge had any clue of how to manage it. Pillman fires back with some explosive offense. I like how they both cancel each other out with dropkicks to show how competitive and like-minded they are; JR calls this as an aerial war.
I think the only annoying thing about this are the fans chanting “USA!”. Ventura comments on it by saying they are not disrespecting Liger as they’re only chanting it due to their patriotism. Pillman will not quit despite taking a mean superplex. Liger misses a diving headbutt and Pillman uses an innovative pin to get the win and claim the Light Heavyweight title for a second time! Sadly, this was the peak of this championship as it was deactivated four months later.
#3: vs. El Samurai – NJPW Sumo Hall Show (Apr ’92)
Am not sure why this match is so hard to find, but I did manage to come across it on a Chinese website here: Jushin Liger vs. El Samurai. It’s the only encounter in this list which was rated 5 stars by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. While some may not understand why the encounter was rated so highly, I may be able to explain why. Firstly, this was the final of the Top of the Super Juniors tournament which also included Norio Honaga, Negro Casas, Pegasus Kid (Benoit), Eddie Guerrero, David Finlay, 2 Cold Scorpio and Koji Kanemoto. Secondly, Liger would make history if he won due to also being the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion. Having topped the standings, El Samurai wanted to prove he was the best junior heavyweight in New Japan. He was vicious from-the-off, as he went after Liger’s mask and struck him with objects.
Samurai conjured good heel heat as he grounded the champion; going as far to steal Liger’s trademark surfboard stretch. We have to remember this is happening in 1992, so many of these techniques to elicit heat were fresh and creative. What brought this to life was the comeback from Liger, which was mercilessly hard-hitting. His desire to get revenge was so fraught that it blurred the lines of face vs. heel, and some say they almost double turned; you could almost feel sorry for Samurai as his mask gets completely torn off. What this match does is send a message to all of Liger’s rivals; if you want to mess around, expect as much back and more. Does it deserve to be rated so highly? I’ll let you be the judge.
#4: vs. The Pegasus Kid – NJPW G1 Climax ’92 – Day 4
Having battled Jushin Liger several times since 1990 and losing his mask along the way, Pegasus Kid wanted to stop the rot by getting one over Japan’s beloved superstar on the last day of the G1 Climax event. I don’t want to big this up too much as it should be able to speak for itself as arguably their best encounter. If you can stand to watch any matches involving Chris Benoit, then this should do the job of showing Jushin Liger’s ability to work a great match with a range of opponents.