Jushin “Thunder” Liger, one of the most revolutionary competitors in sports-entertainment history, is the latest inductee in the WWE Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020. Liger joins Batista, nWo members Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash & Sean Waltman, The Bella Twins, JBL and The British Bulldog in the Class of 2020. They will take their place in history during the 2020 Induction Ceremony on Thursday, April 2, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.
The masked marvel emerged in Japan in the late 1980s, enchanting fans from the moment he emerged from the curtain, clad in a dazzling red-and-white bodysuit and a striking mask with three protruding horns. But as impressive as he was on first glance, Liger was even more remarkable once the bell rang. Inside the ring, Liger was an innovator in every sense of the word. His high-flying, hard-hitting style has influenced generations of competitors and is credited as the inventor of the Shooting Star Press.
Liger made his way to the United States in 1991, arriving in WCW and engaging in an epic rivalry with Brian Pillman over the WCW Light Heavyweight Championship, the precursor to the Cruiserweight Title. Liger and Pillman’s incredible bouts are still talked about to this day as some of the most influential in sports-entertainment history.
Liger appeared for WCW sporadically throughout the 1990s, taking on competitors like Rey Mysterio and Dean Malenko. Meanwhile, in his home country of Japan, he established himself as one of the greatest competitors of all time, becoming an 11-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, even after a brain tumour almost took his life. He went nearly four decades without competing in a WWE ring until he made his WWE debut at NXT Takeover: Brooklyn in 2015, defeating Tyler Breeze in a battle that brought the NXT Universe to its feet.
Jushin “Thunder” Liger retired in January, making him a grappler with the distinction of having competed in five different decades. And now, he will add another incredible accolade to his résumé: WWE Hall of Famer. Don’t miss Jushin “Thunder” Liger take his place in sports-entertainment history at the 2020 WWE Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Thursday, April 2, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., and streaming live on WWE Network.
If the rumours were running rampant for a while now, Tokyo Sports was the first to confirm this morning Jushin “Thunder” Liger will join Antonio Inoki and Tatsumi Fujinami into the WWE Hall of Fame. The translated report notes that Liger’s induction was decided on this year and that New Japan Pro Wrestling has also been informed. Liger had travelled the world to showcase his talent for more than 35 years until his retirement at Wrestle Kingdom 14 earlier this year.
Keiichi Yamada, his real name, was an amateur wrestler during his high school years. After graduating high school in the early 1980s, he would apply to New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s (NJPW) dojo in the hope of becoming a professional wrestler. He was not accepted because he did not meet the height requirements the dojo had at that time. Yamada, determined not to give up his dream of becoming a professional wrestler, left for Mexico and began his training there. By his own account, he was almost starving while studying in Mexico. The NJPW officials took pity on him and asked him to come back to Japan to train in their dojo. In the NJPW dojo, he trained alongside the likes of Keiji Mutoh, Masahiro Chono and Shinya Hashimoto. He had his debut match in March 1984 at the age of 19, wrestling against Shunji Kosugi. He began studying various martial arts styles because he wanted to add something new and different to his wrestling style. In 1985, Yamada participated in the Young Lion Cup and got to the final of the tournament before being defeated by Shunji Kosugi. At the beginning of 1986, Yamada participated in the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship League but lost to Black Tiger. On July 19, 1986, Yamada faced Nobuhiko Takada in a losing effort in his first of many IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship matches.
After winning the Young Lion Cup in March 1986, he went on an excursion of Europe, where he wrestled for All Star Wrestling in England, under the name “Flying” Fuji Yamada He won the World Heavy Middleweight Championship twice, once in September 1986 and once in March 1987, both times defeating “Rollerball” Mark Rocco and both times losing it back to him, the last of these title changes being televised on ITV. Yamada would later visit All Star again in 1989, with tag partner Flying Funaki. He returned to Britain in 2014 to work once again for All Star Wrestling, this time under his masked Jushin Liger identity. Yamada went to Canada, around May 1987, where he wrestled in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in Calgary under his real name. He also trained under Hart in the legendary “Dungeon.” His experiences there led him to refer to Hart as a “very, very tough man.” He would return to Calgary in January 1989.
After returning to Japan in August 1987, Yamada debuted his Shooting Star Press in a match against Masakatsu Funaki, for which he had gotten the idea from reading the manga Fist of the North Star. Throughout 1987 and 1988, Yamada improved with each match, occasionally getting shots at the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, most notably against Owen Hart on June 10, 1988, and against Shiro Koshinaka on December 9, 1988. He would also take part in the first-ever Top of the Super Juniors where he earned 31 points, not enough to progress to the final. Within months of his second Canadian excursion, NJPW called him back, as they needed him for a gimmick based on an extremely popular anime superhero, Jushin Liger, created by manga 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 and a demonic-looking mask, resembling the superhero type featured in tokusatsu and anime programs.
Yamada as “Jushin Liger” returned to NJPW on April 24, 1989, at the Tokyo Dome. In the character’s debut match, he defeated Kuniaki Kobayashi. The Liger character underwent changes in conjunction with the Go Nagai anime progressing and its hero powering up. In January 1990, Liger was renamed “Jushin Thunder Liger.” He quickly became one of NJPW’s top junior heavyweights, eventually capturing the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship eleven times, between May 25, 1989, and December 6, 1999, among numerous other titles and accolades while wrestling around the world.
Early in his career, Yamada’s style mostly consisted of high flying. Years later, he started adapting more power moves and started focusing more on grappling and telling a story in the ring, part of this change was due to the fact that Liger had to reduce the stress he was putting on his body after undergoing brain tumour surgery in August 1996.
On October 20, 1996, The Great Muta faced off in a match with Liger. 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, despite losing the match to Muta. From 2004–2007, Liger was the leader of the NJPW heel stable Control Terrorism Unit (CTU) along with Hirooki Goto, Minoru Tanaka, Black Tiger IV, Gedo, Jado, Prince Devitt and briefly James Gibson.
On July 30, 2006, Liger revived the “Kishin Liger” gimmick and faced off with rival Bad Boy Hido in NJPW. 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. Liger’s next appearance as Kishin Liger took place in June 2012 and was brought on by Taichi tearing his mask to pieces. Kishin Liger returned again on September 22, 2019, at Destruction in Kobe, when Minoru Suzuki removed Liger’s mask. Kishin would spit mist into Suzuki’s face and attempt to stab him with a spike, before giving chase to Suzuki while attacking officials, young lions, and Hiroshi Tanahashi in his pursuit.
Liger and Tiger Mask won the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship on June 16, 2012, at Dominion 6.16, losing it to Forever Hooligans (Alex Koslov and Rocky Romero) on July 22. Liger’s next shot at the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship took place on May 3, 2016, when he unsuccessfully challenged Kushida for the title at Wrestling Dontaku 2016. In May 2017, Liger announced that 2017 Best of the Super Juniors would be his last BOSJ tournament. At New Japan’s 47th Anniversary Event, Liger was awarded a Junior Heavyweight title match against Taiji Ishimori. The next day on March 7, 2019, it was announced that Liger will retire on January 5, 2020, at Wrestle Kingdom 14. Liger retired on January 5, 2020, after he and Naoki Sano were defeated by Hiromu Takahashi and Ryu Lee.
But this story goes further NJPW and Japan. Liger made his WWF debut on April 13, 1990, at Wrestling Summit in the Tokyo Dome, an event co-produced with NJPW and All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW), where he defeated Akira Nogami. On July 16, 2015, WWE announced that Liger would wrestle a match at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn on August 22, 2015, against Tyler Breeze. According to NJPW, WWE had approached them about bringing Liger in for the event as a special guest.
Liger also made appearances with WCW during the 1990s. He made his debut in December 1991. He defeated Brian Pillman on December 25 for the WCW World Light Heavyweight Championship at a house show in Atlanta, Georgia. He would hold onto the title for over two months, before losing it back to Pillman at SuperBrawl II. Liger left WCW in December 1992 after Starrcade. Upon his return to WCW in 1995, Liger had the distinction of appearing in the first-ever match on the inaugural WCW Monday Nitro where he lost to Brian Pillman. He returned to WCW in September 1995, he would go on to face many other opponents such as Chris Benoit, Pillman, Dean Malenko, Rey Mysterio Jr., Konnan and Juventud Guerrera.
Liger debuted with TNA on October 23, 2005, as part of their Bound for Glory pay-per-view, losing to Samoa Joe. Liger was the captain of the New Japan team in the TNA 2006 World X Cup Tournament and defeated Team Canada’s Captain Petey Williams at Sacrifice on May 14, 2006.
On November 5, 2004, Liger debuted in Ring of Honor, headlining their back-to-back “Weekend of Thunder” shows to huge acclaim. ROH selected Bryan Danielson as Liger’s special opponent for that weekend. For Night 1, the two faced each other in a singles match, with Liger winning the highly competitive bout after a super brainbuster. On November 6, 2004, Night 2 would see a “dream tag-team” match in the main event. Liger chose then-ROH Champion Samoa Joe as his partner out of respect for Joe’s accomplishments as ROH World Champion, and Danielson selected Low Ki to negate Joe. On January 29, 2010, at ROH’s debut show in Los Angeles, California as part of WrestleReunion 4, Liger lost a non-title match to ROH World Champion Austin Aries via pinfall after a brainbuster.
In May 2014, Liger returned to ROH as part of a tour co-produced by NJPW and ROH. On May 17 at War of the Worlds, Liger unsuccessfully challenged Adam Cole for the ROH World Championship. On March 27, 2015, Liger returned to ROH at the Supercard of Honor IX event, unsuccessfully challenging Jay Lethal for the ROH World Television Championship. Liger returned to ROH the following May to take part in the ROH/NJPW co-produced War of the Worlds ’15 and Global Wars ’15 events. Liger returned to ROH on December 2, 2016, at Final Battle, where he was defeated by Silas Young, then on August 18, 2017, during their UK tour stop in London, which was co-promoted with NJPW, CMLL and Revolution Pro Wrestling.
In 2007, Liger took part in the CMLL International Gran Prix as the captain of a team of non-Mexican wrestlers. Liger was the last man eliminated from the match by winner Último Guerrero. Liger returned to CMLL in September 2009 for a longer tour, teaming with Okumura, Naito and Yujiro as La Ola Amarilla. At Wrestling Dontaku 2010, Liger defeated Negro Casas at a New Japan show in Fukuoka, Japan, to win the CMLL World Middleweight Championship. Liger returned to CMLL in June 2010 for a long tour of the company. As the CMLL World Middleweight Championship, he earned entry into the 2010 Universal Championship. On August 13, 2010, at Super Viernes, Liger defeated La Sombra to win the 2010 Universal Championship. His reign would last 564 days. Liger came back to CMLL on July 19, 2019, to participate on the Jushin “Thunder” Liger Mexican Retirement Show. At the event, Liger defeated Carístico, Negro Casas, and Último Guerrero in a Relevo CMLL match.
From 2007 to 2016, Liger worked for many North American independent promotions. He made his Canadian return after 18 years on May 25 and 26, 2007, in Mississauga, Ontario. Liger made his Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG) debut in Los Angeles, California on January 30, 2010, as part of WrestleReunion 4. He defeated El Generico via pinfall after a brainbuster. On May 22, 2010, Liger made his debut for American promotion Jersey All Pro Wrestling (JAPW), losing to Homicide in the main event of the evening. He would later win the JAPW Light Heavyweight Championship. Liger would lose the title to Kenny Omega in his second defence on May 15, 2011, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the Invasion Tour 2011, New Japan’s first-ever tour of the United States. On March 24, 2013, it was announced that Liger would return to the United States the following month, making his debut for Pro Wrestling Syndicate (PWS) and Chikara, all during the WrestleCon weekend in New Jersey. On July 9, 2016, PWG announced that Liger would be returning to the promotion on September 2 to take part in the 2016 Battle of Los Angeles. Liger even worked a MMA match in 2002 in the Pancrase organization.
Throughout his career, which spanned three-and-a-half decades, Liger wrestled over 4,000 matches. For every name quoted in this piece, for this incredible career, for every wrestler he worked with, Jushin “Thunder” Liger is a major part of the history of wrestling. He understood before anyone else wrestling was a universal language that could transcend any frontier and any barrier. Liger is a wrestling Legend of and no one could deny that.
All pics and videos courtesy of WWE and BT Sport
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