There are many reasons why Jushin Thunder Liger is considered not only one of the top junior Heavyweights in history but one of the most influential as well. When choosing which years I wanted for this special Voices of Wrestling feature, one of my goals was to emphasize the ‘other’ aspects of Liger’s career that made him a legend. 2007 was an easy year to highlight one of those aspects – his willingness to give the rub to any wrestler to help in their growth, even if its a wrestler far below him on the pecking order from a different promotion.
Coming into 2007, Jushin Liger’s legendary status was already cemented. He wrestled for the biggest promotion in Japan and had a list of accomplishments that most wrestlers could only dream of: eleven-time New Japan Junior Heavyweight Champion, four-time New Japan Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion, J-Crown Champion, GHC (NOAH) Junior Heavyweight Champion, the list goes on. But that didn’t stop him from visiting much smaller promotions to help their wrestlers and their attendance/publicity, which he did throughout his career (and still does to this day). That led him to Michinoku Pro in August of 2007 to take part in their Fukumen World League.
The Fukumen World League is a single elimination tournament featuring only masked wrestlers that is held every four years or so. In 2007, Michinoku Pro was holding the fourth version of the event and brought wrestlers from all over the world to participate. Atlantis from CMLL was in the tournament, along with Olimpico, Ultimo Dragon, El Samurai, Tiger Mask IV, and of course a slew of Michinoku Pro wrestlers. In the first round of the tournament, Jushin Liger was paired with Billy Ken Kid, one of the top wrestlers from the small Osaka Pro promotion.
Billy Ken Kid was a respected veteran even if he was from smaller promotion, and it wasn’t the first time he had met Liger in a match as Ken Kid made a couple stops by New Japan earlier in his career. It would have been easy for Liger to just go in and coast through a quick match, he was Jushin Liger after all and many other established wrestlers would have been happy to do that. But that wasn’t Liger’s style, as he wasn’t in Michinoku Pro to assert his dominance but to put on a good show. And that he certainly did, as Liger and Ken Kid put on a hell of a match.
I mostly want to talk about the next match in the tournament, but I don’t want to completely ignore Liger’s first-round match as it was pretty great. Ken Kid wins the opening exchange and controls the early portion of the match to set the tone, as Liger wrestles from underneath. The good times for Ken Kid didn’t last as Liger hit a brainbuster on the bare floor outside the ring, a move that showed he wasn’t exactly taking Ken Kid lightly.
The magic of the match was that the action was split so evenly (Ken Kid with his high flying/comebacks and Liger with his strikes) that the crowd really bought into Ken Kid winning. The crowd popped huge at the end when Ken Kid got a near fall or when he kicked out of one of Liger’s big moves, hoping to see the big upset. Liger convinced everyone watching he may actually lose which was a feat in of itself, and the match was laid out perfectly. Liger didn’t lose, however, as he put away Ken Kid in a shade under 15 minutes with the C.T.B. (his finisher at the time) to advance to the second round.
In the second round, he met the young and talented Yoshitsune. Yoshitsune has gone by so many names it would break the website if I listed them all, but today he wrestles as SUGI in ZERO1. Yoshitsune was an amazing high flyer, hitting moves that very few other wrestlers were able to do. He was quick as lightning and innovative, and at the time was one of the more talked about young junior heavyweights on the indie scene in Japan. He hadn’t turned that potential into any tangible success however as he had no title wins and was still mostly a midcarder wherever he went, and he had to win a qualifying match just to get into the tournament at all. But he defeated Shibaten (Hercules Senga) in the first round for the privilege of being taken down by the greatest junior heavyweight of all time.
This wasn’t the first time Liger found himself in this situation. Back in 1994, he was wrestling in a tournament (Super J Cup) and faced off against an innovative young high-flying underdog from a different promotion (Hayabusa) in another one of Liger’s most talked about matches. That time, Liger was able to hold off Hayabusa to win the match, but it helped Hayabusa’s career to go toe to toe with one of the top wrestlers in Japan at the time. Here, Liger may not have been in his prime anymore but he still dwarfed Yoshitsune in regards to experience, skill, and any other metric one would use to compare wrestlers.
Except for maybe feistiness. In homage to Hayabusa, Yoshitsune started his match with Liger in a similar way – getting the early jump. In one of the best camera shots I’ve ever seen in a wrestling match, Yoshitsune charges down the ramp as he came down to the ring and jumped over the top rope to dropkick Liger out of it. He immediately follows with a tope con hilo and a Space Flying Tiger Drop, as the crowd roars in approval. Getting an early jump on the legend seemed like his best chance of winning, and early on the strategy was working.
I think this is my favorite match beginning ever. The way it was shot, the atmosphere, everything. How is Liger so good at all aspects of wrestling. pic.twitter.com/PWeUN6pv5K
— Joshi City (@JoshiPuro) June 3, 2019
A hurt Liger barely made it back to the ring as the referee’s count got to 16, and Yoshitsune immediately goes to work with a superkick/tiger feint kick/450 Splash combination. That didn’t keep Liger down, however, as Liger shook off the cobwebs and knocked Yoshitsune’s head off with a Shotei. Liger hit another one and told the referee to start counting, more than willing to get a quick win via KO. Yoshitsune wouldn’t stay down so Liger nailed a Liger Bomb, but he kicked out. The crowd popped for Yoshitsune not being pinned as it had the feel of a match where the underdog got in their spots and then went down quickly to a wrestler that far out-ranked him. Liger then tries the brainbuster, but again Yoshitsune kicks out.
Liger complains to the referee as it seems impossible Yoshitsune won’t staying down, as the crowd starts chanting Yoshitsune’s name. Liger sets up Yoshitsune on the top turnbuckle but Yoshitsune slides away, he kicks Liger off the turnbuckle and applies the Koromogawa (modified cradle) for the three count! The most decorated junior heavyweight in puroresu history had lost in one of the biggest upsets of his career. Other Michinoku Pro wrestlers come in to celebrate as they put Yoshitsune on their shoulders, and Yoshitsune gives a quick post-match speech.
It’s fair to ask in this situation – why? Why would Liger go to a different promotion and put over one of their young wrestlers? Why wasn’t just having a competitive match enough to give him the rub? What benefit did this give to Liger or New Japan, where he was contracted his entire career? The answer is that it gave no personal benefit to Liger or to New Japan. That’s what made Liger special – he wasn’t stopping by Michinoku Pro for himself, he was doing it for Michinoku Pro. He had the fame and the money, but he still wanted something different. He went there to help one of their young wrestlers get his first big win, something that would catch headlines in wrestling magazines. His goal was to help grow wrestling nationally, not just within his own promotion, and he consistently did that throughout his career. Most wrestlers get to where they are from being selfish and watching out for themselves, but Liger got there by pushing younger wrestlers to their limits and giving back once he gained the status to do so.
Whether or not Yoshitsune used this rub for good use is up for debate, and not something Liger had any control over. But for one night, Yoshitsune was the king of the world. And 12 years later it’s still a match that resonates with me as wrestling is a selfish business but Liger always went in a different direction. Whether it be putting on the best matches in history or using his status to push others up the ladder, few wrestlers have done more to help grow the junior heavyweight scene in Japan over the last 30 years than Jushin Thunder Liger.