Japanese Thunder: A Parable for the most important Jr. Heavyweight of the last 25 years.
In American pro-wrestling in the year 2008 the idea of a strong junior heavyweight division is either a joke (WWE), a tantalizing reminder of what could have been (TNA), or good but unfortunately not presented to the mainstream (ROH, IWA-MS, assorted NWA Indies). So when I mention that in Japan the weight class is treated with respect, and never frittered away for the purposes of making a big muscle-bound slug a new star, people seem to have a great dral of trouble with this concept. They tell me “But wait a minute. You mean those little guys get a chance to do what they do best without being overrun by Triple H every 60 seconds?” Yes actually, and a great deal of credit for this mindset staying true over the last 25 years goes to one man and one company. The man is Jushin “Thunder” Liger, and the company is New Japan Pro Wrestling.
To understand the brilliance of Liger, and how he directly or indirectly influenced pretty much every lighter-weight (and a few of the heavyweights too) guy you see on TV right now, you need to go back a good way. See when the character was created, a sly nod to the anime of the same name just as Tiger Mask had been, it was assumed that New Japan was simply trying to catch lightning in the bottle with another wildly popular children’s hero just as Tiger Mask had been for them in the early 1980’s. And the hope was that this time, unlike the 1st Tiger Mask Satoru Sayama who left in a huff over the direction of the company, that the man behind the Liger myth would stay for a good long while. So they had to pick the right guy, a hungry young guy who would do what was needed to keep the character alive and who wouldn’t run in a huff and force them to extend the gimmick back to someone else as they had done with Tiger Mask after the original left in a fit of pique. So who did they pick?
Keichi Yamada, a guy who they had sent away for being too small, and got pissed off enough about it to go to Mexico on his own dime and learn while almost starving in the attempt. And while New Japan figured bringing him back in was a good idea they never figured how good of an idea it would end up being. And after he won the company’s Junior Heavyweight Title in a war against the salty veteran Naoki Sano he embarked on one of the longest and most consistent runs in the history of puroresu.
But on this run he would have help from his home promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling, who saw him and his rivals the chance to build a marked difference from their promotional rival All Japan Pro Wrestling. And, largely, it worked. The best way to explain this is that All Japan is known for the 4 Corners of Heaven heavyweight unit of the 90’s which any puroresu fan worth his or her salt can name in a moment: Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa, and Akira Taue. And each one of them had their own distinct personality traits meaning that fans could identify with the intensity of Kobashi, the coolness under fire and grace of Misawa, the unlucky and rough-hewn Kawada, and the dynamism of Akira Taue. Conversely the juniors of the 90’s get the same treatment although not nearly as snappy a nickname: Koji Kanemoto who is the surly veteran, the superhero in Jushin “Thunder” Liger, the graceful and perfectly skilled Minoru Tanaka, the evil Shinjiro Otani, the masked supervillain Black Tiger, and so on. But if you asked a puroresu fan to try and ascertain who were the All Japan juniors during the same period you’d get several seconds of deep blinking and then this: “They had junior heavyweights in All Japan?” To be sure they did, and some of them were talented, but there is in no way the same mythos surrounding them as does the New Japan Juniors.
New Japan understood, clearly where All Japan didn’t, that you could have a strong junior heavyweight division and it could be to the benefit of the company and not to its detriment. So when the top guys started to slow down new guys could come in and be accepted by the fans, as Wataru Inoue and Ryusuke Taguchi were, without fear that the promotion’s momentum would stop dead in its tracks.
But back to Liger. Liger’s brilliance is that even now, far past his prime, he is still finding ways to have matches on par with at least some of his best work and his name still means as much as anyone does. If you have never seen Liger at all, including his prime in America with WCW, go out of your way to do it. It’s worth it.
The Jushin "Thunder" Liger tribute video. footage from every promotion he's wrestled in recently.
JUshin "Thunder" Liger v. Ultimo Dragon from the Super J Cup.