Hello readers old and new, welcome to another journey into The Lion’s Vault. I am still your friendly, neighborhood archivist, and I am ready to once again turn back the clock and watch some matches from New Japan’s yesteryears. To start things off this week we will continue our countdown to Jushin Thunder Liger’s upcoming retirement matches at Wrestle Kingdom, this time looking back at the highly regarded January 31, 1990 match pitting Liger against Naoki Sano. Then for our second featured bout we will take inspiration from NJPW’s recent announcement of the creation of their New Japan Pro Wrestling of America subsidiary and watch the earliest available NJPW World match to take place in the United States of America.

Naoki Sano © vs. Jushin Thunder Liger (IWGP Junior Heavyweight)

January 31, 1990
New Spring Gold Series [Semi-Main Event]
Osaka – Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium

Spoiler Free Teaser: Jushin Thunder Liger seeks revenge on the man that ended his first IWGP Junior Heavyweight title reign, and in doing so provides us with an intense, hate filled, blood soaked match. An absolute classic that caps off a six month feud between Sano and Liger, and inarguably one of the best matches of their respective careers. ****¾

Watch the Original Japanese Commentary: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00089_2_1
Watch the Retrospective English Commentary: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00089_2_1e

**Commentary Note: I highly recommend that you listen to the Japanese commentary the first time you view this match. While I absolutely love that Kevin Kelly and others have provided retrospective English commentary for select matches from the archive, I believe this is a match that is best served by trying to view it as “in the moment” as one can…which is something that a retrospective commentary obviously works against. Additionally, the audio mix isn’t great for the English commentary, which leaves the crowd feeling much more muted than the original broadcast version.**

Before we begin with the match run down I would like to make a couple of recommendations for other wrestling fan created content related to this match. First, I highly advise checking out Brennan Patrick’s Liger Beat feature that beautifully covers the August 10, 1989 match where Sano defeated Liger for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title. And if you would like a fun audio take on this match and surrounding context, take a listen to WH Park’s Thunderstruck #1 podcast with special guest Damon McDonald of the Super J-Cast. 

As we make our way to the ring for the pre-match introductions, we see Naoki Sano standing on one side of ring wearing the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship belt and looking calm, cool, and collected while waiting for the bell to ring. His challenger is the man who he defeated a little over five months ago for the title, Jushin Thunder Liger. Earlier in his title reign, Sano had already defeated Liger in one rematch, and so this match realistically marks Liger’s last chance at regaining the belt from Sano. In a sign of his confidence, when the wrestlers meet in the middle of the ring Sano extends his arm to offer a handshake, a gesture that Liger made towards Sano in their previous two encounters…to which both times Sano slapped Liger’s hand away. Insulted by Sano’s gesture Liger responds by slapping him so hard across the face that it drops Sano to the mat. As the referee tries to hold the enraged Sano back from attacking Liger the bell rings and Liger rushes in with a series of palm strikes as a part of an all-out attack on the champion. This early over-aggressiveness ends up working against Liger as Sano is relatively quickly able to turn the tide with some hard strikes, and then a piledriver on the outside floor followed by a jumping tombstone leaves Liger lying on the mat. Now in complete control and wanting vengeance Sano nearly rips Liger’s mask in half, throws him to the outside, and launches him into the ring post which opens up a giant cut on Liger forehead. 

Sano just continues to destroy Liger, who admirably sells Sano’s offense like death…and the crowd is reacting as he might die as well. In short order, Liger’s blood ends up on Sano, Liger’s bodysuit, the mat, and a turnbuckle pad. As Sano continues to work over Liger’s cut his mask practically falls away, essentially transforming the superhero Liger into a beaten and bloodied Keiichi Yamada. Sano is now exuding the confidence of a man who knows that he has broken his opponent, but much like Liger’s over-aggressiveness costing him earlier, Sano’s confidence gives Liger an opening as he sends Sano outside of the ring after a reversal and follows it with a big somersault plancha. Back inside a tilt-a-whirl backbreaker followed by a Romero Special seem to have Sano on the ropes, but while bridged in the air Sano is able to reach behind himself and rake his fingers across Liger’s cut and eyes to regain the advantage. 

The brief offensive spell from Liger seems to have shattered Sano’s over-confidence, as he begins to work over the cut with more desperation before transitioning into a series of different suplexes while trying to secure the pinfall. During all of this Liger is occasionally able to counter and hit Sano with a move, but every time he appears too exhausted from the blood loss and Sano’s big offense to take advantage of these fleeting moments. After several close falls Sano places Liger on the top turnbuckle so that he can hit him with a superplex, but on the way down Liger is able to reverse the move and land on top of Sano as they crash to the mat. This earns Liger his first nearfall in the match, but again Sano is able to regain control and hits Liger with a Tiger Suplex (the move that Sano defeated Liger with in their last match) which Liger is only able to break by draping his foot on the middle rope. Sano begins to show his own signs of exhaustion, as Liger reverses another suplex attempt, and then hits Sano with a big German leading to both men lying on the mat while trying to recover. As they regain their Sano tries one last burst of offense, but this time Liger is able to counter into a Liger Bomb for a nearfall. Seconds later Liger drops Sano on his head, ascends the corner turnbuckle, and then leaps off and connects with a Shooting Star Press (a move that he hasn’t used since his Yamada days) to put Sano away and reclaim the IWGP Junior Heavyweight championship!

After the match both men look like they have been in a fight for their lives, and a blood-soaked Liger needs the referees assistance to stand for the post-match ceremonies. However, once he is presented with the title Liger snaps and throws the belt down at the still fallen Sano. Disgusted and angered at what has transpired…over what he has been reduced to…a bloody mess, his mask ripped, his identity revealed in the middle of the ring…Liger takes out his frustrations on the attending young lions and makes his way back to the locker room leaving his supposed prize behind in the ring.

Match Rating ****¾ – Yeah, I absolutely love this match, and it very well might be my all-time favorite Liger match. It is honestly hard to know where to begin when praising this match, but let’s go with how this encounter felt like the perfect culmination of Liger and Sano’s feud. For nearly half a year Sano had dominated Liger, and in doing so had successfully gotten into the head of Liger. Then in this match Sano’s antics caused Liger to snap before the bell even rang, which initially put Sano on the backfoot before giving him an opening to use Liger’s aggressiveness against him in a critical moment. Then as Sano dominated the match he attempted to break Liger by embarrassing bloodying him, but ultimately these actions pushed Liger to new levels, and came back to cost Sano the match and the championship. When we add the wrinkle of Liger losing his superhero identity during the match and being reduced back to Yamada…and it being Yamada’s big move that finally put Sano away…well, by pro-wrestling standards this was a storytelling masterpiece. But it was also more than just a fantastic story! The in-ring action and selling from both men was great, the blood added to the drama and helped drive the story, and the crowd was on the edge of their seats the whole time. Just an absolute, all-time classic and a match that should be on everyone’s must-watch list. 

Antonio Inoki vs. Frank Monte

December 15, 1975
WWWF on HBO [3rd of 8 matches]
New York, New York, USA – Madison Square Garden

Spoiler Free Teaser: It’s Inoki, in America, in the WWE. Super basic match with some interesting selling, and hey…it’s under five minutes. *½ 

Watch: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00267_1_1

This match represents Antonio Inoki’s first-ever WWE match (then WWWF) as he takes on “Fabulous” Frank Monte who had a decent physique and an awful blonde mustache. The match itself is quite simple as Monte works to make Inoki look strong, but the styles clash between the two competitors just makes it an odd (but if you are in a generous mood, an amusingly odd) match to watch. As Inoki runs through a fairly vanilla offense, Monte oversells everything, begs off every chance he gets, and complains to the ref about Inoki choking him multiple times. On the couple of occasions that Monte takes over we are treated to rest holds and some of the most entertaining forearms ever where Monte dramatically stomps on the mat while lightly swinging his forearm into Inoki’s back over and over. And that’s really all there is for about five minutes, at which point Inoki puts Monte away with a backdrop suplex. On the bright side, the crowd seems to react pretty well to Inoki’s victory, so mission accomplished.

Match Rating Rating *½ – So yeah, that was a match. Monte worked mid-1970s heel 101, Inoki looked decent in victory, and the crowd seemed to appreciate it enough for what it was. As a historical curiosity there is some value in watching it, but that’s about it.

And with that ends this week’s trip into the archives. But have no fear, we will back again next week to cover Liger taking on a new challenger and to witness a GHC Heavyweight title defense on a NJPW Tokyo Dome show. Until then you can check out our Guide to The Lion’s Vault to see all of the matches that we have featured. Thanks, and peace and happy wrestling watching to you all!