I was introduced to Jushin Liger through his appearances in Nitro-era WCW, and so beyond the nuggets of wisdom I’d glean from Mike Tenay, my initial impressions of him are as surface level as can be. The guy looked insane. Even watching a promotion that, by this time, was bringing in tons of foreign talent, I don’t remember finding any quite as foreign as Jushin Thunder Liger. At nine years old, my understanding of places like Mexico or Japan ran as far as WCW cruiserweights and takeout menus. Liger was the de facto most Japanese thing I’d ever known.
Japanese wrestling had such a mystique about it to me then, and Liger would be a major symbol of it. It was a world of dangerous head drops, giant trophies after seemingly every match and this red, fanged alien who’d made even Psicosis look as tame as Larry Zybysko by comparison. And I had no access to it, not yet at least.
By the time I find myself actively following puro nearly two decades later, Liger’s become something else entirely. He’s still a red alien with fangs I suppose, but an older, wiser one. I guess that’s why, even after becoming acquainted with much of his career that I’d missed, despite decades of war and innovation, what strikes me most about Liger is what all the aging stars I’d loved growing up had lacked – the ability to step aside.
A tremendous piece of Jushin Liger’s legacy is the 1994 Super J-Cup, an assembly of Japan’s best junior heavyweights convening for a single night tournament heralded by some as the greatest single night of wrestling of all time. The concept would travel between different promotions with mixed results for the next fifteen years. In 2009 Liger announces that the J-Cup will finally return to New Japan Pro Wrestling that December, just before Christmas. The winner will go to Wrestle Kingdom less than two weeks later to vie for the Jr. Heavyweight title against the reigning Tiger Mask. The first round will conclude with a matchup between the prior two winners of the tournament, Liger (‘95 and 2000) and the 2004 winner, Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Naomichi Marufuji.
There are a number of loosely tied threads between Naomichi Marufuji and Jushin Thunder Liger. Marufuji has often cited Liger (along with Misawa and Mutoh) as a major influence, citing a copy of “Beast God: Jushin Thunder Liger Special” on VHS that still resides at his parents’ house. In July 2000, Liger’s eleventh and final reign as IWGP Jr. Champion ends at the hands of Tasuhito Taikaiwa. One year later Marufuji wins his first GHC Jr. Championship against the same man.
The two meet in the ring for the first time in June of 2003 when Marufuji travels over to New Japan with partner Kotaro Suzuki to challenge The Unbeatables – the tag team union of Liger and Koji Kanemoto – for the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Belts. Marufuji asks Suzuki to step aside so he can get a shot at Liger. He gets his wish, and has his ass handed to him for much of the bout. They fail to take the belts, but sparks fly and New Japan fans vote it the company’s best tag match of the year.
One month later in Marufuji’s home promotion of Pro Wrestling NOAH, a tournament is put together to crown the first GHC Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Champions. In the final Marufuji, now teamed with his regular partner KENTA, meets the team of Liger and Takehiro Murahama. Again, Marufuji goes gunning for his hero, and again, Liger is happy to turn him into a highlight reel. Seriously, it’s like the AND1 Mixtape with powerbombs. KENTA is eventually able to get the upper hand on Liger long enough for Marufuji to pin Murahama with a Shooting Star Press – a maneuver invented by Liger. KENTAFuji hold those belts for 690 days, and it’s not until the 2009 Super J-Cup that we see Marufuji and Liger stand across a ring from one another again.
The meeting headlines night one, in front of a packed Korakuen Hall. The crowd is behind Liger, who graciously shakes Marufuji’s hand at the opening bell before attempting to tear him limb from limb. Liger spends the first few minutes stretching Marufuji, transitioning through twisty, showy holds. But ol’ Naomichi’s done a lot of growing up since the last time he saw Liger. He’s done a spell as the GHC Heavyweight Champion, he’s gone over to All Japan and ganked their junior title too; hell, he’d even just become a Vice President of Pro Wrestling NOAH, back before being a VP was so en vogue. He’s got the experience and savvy to get his licks back in – if only in brief windows, before Liger’s had enough.
It’s worth mentioning how well the Shoutei Palm Strike aged with Liger. He’s slowed down some, relying more these days on technical mat prowess where Marufuji’s edge is speed and getting aerial. When Liger gets fed up and grounds the relative youngster with a stiff whap upside the head, it’s an attack he’s been getting over for the better part of two decades. When he runs corner to corner slapping him stupid, you recall why we call him The Beast God. One such Shoutei knocks Marufuji from the turnbuckle to the outside. For a moment, Liger is set to kill. He hits a baseball slide that sends Marufuji into the railing, then flattens him with a dive from the top. A reminder perhaps, that the current juniors are still just pulling from the Liger playbook. He follows with a powerbomb to the floor, and things are getting a little grisly.
Back inside, Liger keeps on attempting to dismantle his opponent, working his left leg with a variety of holds and kicks. He couldn’t have counted on Marufuji declining to sell the damage to his leg almost entirely. Actually, you know what? He probably should have counted on that. No matter! From here the match peaks with both men dropping absolute bombs on one another. Liger piles on powerbombs and drivers in a manner reminiscent of their last meeting in NOAH. Marufuji finally swings the Shiranui he’d been looking for earlier in the match, and turns the tide with a series of superkicks. The aforementioned Shoutei is Liger’s downfall when Marufuji counters one into a snapmare driver followed with a Pole Shift for the win.
He’s finally found a way to beat his childhood hero, on their home court no less. He’ll ride that momentum straight through the rest of the J-Cup and punch a ticket for the Tokyo Dome on January 4, where he’ll topple Tiger Mask to take the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship. He’ll defend the belt in a string of killer matches before he drops it at Dominion in the final match of a hot rivalry with Prince Devitt. Devitt places his hands upon the steering wheel of the junior division, and doesn’t relinquish it for nearly four years. Just like that, the junior division has begun another new era.
You know, I’ve seen that Tokyo Dome match between Tiger Mask and Marufuji more than once. I know exactly how that match ends. Still, when I think of it, the ending I envision is always just a little different. Tiger Mask opens his eyes to find Liger standing over him; a red, fanged alien extending a hand to his fallen tiger friend. Both are getting up there in years, time and wear dulling their respective fangs. “Come on, pal,” he says, inexplicably having gained fluency in English. “This belongs to them now.”