I became a wrestling fan at a very young age. My grandma would tell stories of her sitting a four-year-old me in front of the TV and turning on Sesame Street, only for me to get up and change it to wrestling. I was the big WWF fan in the house because of the characters and the colors, but my dad was a WCW guy. It never quite clicked for me in the same way, save for Sting—I freaking loved Sting—but wrestling was wrestling and I’d watch any kind I could.

My first exposure to Japanese wrestling came in the form of two wrestlers that made their way to WCW: The Great Muta and Jushin Thunder Liger. To say both made an impression is a giant understatement. The Great Muta was just so… evil. He had his karate movements that just looked like he was up to no good. He blew mist in people’s faces, nay, in Sting’s face!

How dare he! I loved to hate The Great Muta, but I loved to love Jushin Thunder Liger.

It was a series of matches with Flyin’ Brian Pillman, years before that famous September evening in a shopping mall, that hooked me on Jushin Thunder Liger. I had never seen wrestling like this. Their matches were faster, they were high flying, they were completely different from the plodding giants in New York. These guys could go. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the birth of a workrate mark. Before Liger, my favorite wrestlers were Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior. After Liger, it was Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart.

(And always Sting. I freaking loved Sting.)

Jushin Liger was a paradigm shift in my young brain. A big, bold character that looked straight off the cast of a Saturday morning cartoon (I was born on the wrong continent to know that he, in fact, was exactly that) and a wrestler behind the mask brought excitement to the ring. Watching Jushin Liger sparked the thought, “Wait, wrestling can be this, too?”

The subject of our reflection here is a match from February 1997 against one of Liger’s greatest rivals, Shinjiro Otani. Well, I say greatest rivals, but of the 17 singles matches the two had, Liger won 14. I suppose as a rivalry it looked a bit like the last 17 years between Ohio State and that school up north.

The most surprising thing about this match is how much of a fight it feels like. These two batter each other with slaps and chops. At this point in time back here in the US, people were whacking each other with chairs left and right, but the blows in this match feel every bit as brutal.

The wrestling is messy in the best kind of way, especially in segments where they each mash their opponent into the corner, grappling for control. Had I seen this match in 1997, I wouldn’t have appreciated how realistic that is. Now, having watched an untold number of MMA fights that result in this exact same clinch grappling along the cage, it serves to heighten the reality.

This is not the kind of wrestling I would expect from a junior heavyweight title match. It’s stiffer and more brutal. There’s barely any flying maneuvers. The pace is pretty slow for the first two-thirds. It’s 30 years later and here I am again, watching Jushin Liger and having my preconceptions challenged.

As the match nears the closing stretch, the pace picks up, but the brutality remains. Liger slaps Otani in the face over and over and over. Otani is determined to finally win the big one against the legend, but an early celebration after mistaking a two count for a three causes a loss in focus and Liger puts him away with a Shotei.

Another one in the win column for Liger and another classic in the history of one of the most influential wrestlers in my lifetime. It’s hard to watch this match and not see the seed of the Bryan Danielson/Nigel McGuinness matches and the styles of too many workers to name. Not only influential to them, but to those of us in front of our televisions, Jushin Thunder Liger set the bar. Here’s to an incredible career.

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