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Ikari no Jushin Liger


Around 30 years ago, a certain little anime series was released.

If you hadn't heard of it, no one could really blame you. It wasn't as phenomenal as Neon Genesis Evangelion, nor did it have the same cultural impact as Dragon Ball. In many ways, Jushin Liger had a formulaic superhero narrative that many of us are all too familiar with: a reluctant boy transforming into a hero the world needs in times of great need (in this case, biomechanical monsters from the future).

Time has not been kind to the Jushin Liger anime, but it meant the world to an entirely different audience. After all, the man who played the role of Liger in wrestling rings all over the world may—without question—be the greatest of them all.


To say that Jushin Thunder Liger is a wrestling legend is one thing, but that would be to put him on the same plane as so many others, especially in an industry where "legend" is a word thrown around consistently. If anything, the best word to describe Liger would be that very character he played: a superhero.

In a career that spanned 30 years, Liger has won over 33 titles, and invented and innovated many moves that we now associate with the very core of cruiserweight and junior heavyweight wrestling. Liger went toe-to-toe against the closest analogues we have to biomechanical robots: the best professional wrestlers in the world. Say the words "high-flyer" and "technical wrestling," and the conversation invariably shifts to the many feats that have defined Liger's career over the past 30 years. In many ways, the very history of Jushin Liger the professional wrestler parallels that of the manga that inspired him, and perhaps even surpasses it.

Jushin Liger wrestled his final matches this weekend at Wrestle Kingdom 14. On the first night, he teamed with legends like Tatsumi Fujinami, The Great Sasuke, and Tiger Mask; standing opposite them are legends in their own right, like Naoki Sano, Ryusuke Taguchi, Tatsuhito Takaiwa, and Shinjiro Otani. On the second night, Liger joined forces with Sano in a match that pitted the past against the future, as they battled with Ryu Lee and Hiromu Takahashi.

But it does beg the overthink: in the twilight of his career, what has Liger done to deserve all of these accolades? What makes Jushin Thunder Liger the greatest junior heavyweight ever?

*****



For many casual, recent fans of professional wrestling, the closest moment they would associate with Jushin Liger would be his match at WWE NXT: TakeOver New York, when he went toe-to-toe with an brash upcoming performer we know as Tyler Breeze. In a career that spanned nearly three decades up to this point, this was Liger's first true outing with the WWE. (He had technically performed under the company's umbrella all the way back in 1990, on a show called Wrestling Summit at the Tokyo Dome.) Younger and newer fans were treated to a taste of the kind of performer Liger was; albeit slower and more methodical, lacking the speed and aerial exhibitions that made Liger the very essence of Japanese puroresu.

Like his anime inspiration, Liger was pretty much an unlikely professional wrestler. Keiichi Yamada was thin and wiry, and fit the trope of the Japanese "young boy" at the start of his career in the late 1980s. Liger took to Mexico, where despite starvation and frustration he persevered to become a better professional wrestler. By the time he got back to Japan, Yamada trained alongside future first-ballot hall of famers like Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono, and Keiji Mutoh. Before donning the mask and costume of Jushin Liger, Yamada was "Flyin'" Yamada: a generic wrestler who went around the world to compete, but never really made an impact until he changed the story for himself.

*****


Between 1989 and 1999, Jushin Liger claimed 11 IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship titles, a feat unprecedented to this day. Liger's longevity was a testament to his perseverance and willingness to change with the times. As his bones got battered by aerial moves, he started to incorporate mat and power moves into his ring repertoire, emerging as a very balanced wrestler who can go toe-to-toe with wrestlers way above his weight class. In Japan's own "Attitude Era," Liger too was on the cutting edge of villainy: under the mask of Kishin Liger and his penchant for mist, and the "Black Liger" era that had him ally with villainous stables and walking the tightrope between hero and heel. In 1996, Liger faced an opponent beyond the ring: a brain tumor. At his weakest, though, Liger continued to showcase the scintillating style that made Japanese pro wrestling so popular.

Liger was also not afraid to cross over to mixed martial arts, despite not being as successful in it as his excursions in the ring. Even as the Japanese pro wrestling climate shifted towards heavyweight wrestling, Liger thrived.

*****


The past year has been a sort of farewell tour for Jushin Thunder Liger: at 55 years old, with three decades of in-ring experience, and innumerable matches on record, one of the most remarkable careers in professional wrestling will draw to a close this weekend. But it does beg the question we had from the start: why is Jushin Thunder Liger so great?

Liger was inspired by anime: from a character and story arc that has long since wound down in a catalogue of so many other titles. But dozens—if not hundreds—of professional wrestlers all over the world have been inspired by the larger-than-life character that Jushin Thunder Liger portrayed in the ring. For a time, the red-and-white tokusatsu-inspired bodysuit and the iconic horned mask were the enduring symbols of puroresu itself. Many of the moves and athletic exhibitions that we enjoy today, exemplified by the legendary Shooting Star Press, all came from Liger, in some form or another.

In his own way, Liger changed the very landscape of professional wrestling by changing himself. Be it from Jushin Liger to Kishin Liger, from a high-flying ring style to a mat-based power game, or treading that line between Liger and Yamada. That knack for change and adaptation was the formula for Liger's lasting power, and his legacy in an unprecedented, remarkable career.

Chances are that we may never get to see another talent just like Liger in the future. Not with more "real" storylines, edgier characters, and so on. To see that story of Liger finally hanging it up—a force of good for most of his career, who soared above everyone else to legitimize cruiserweight and junior heavyweight wrestling, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience in itself. If time wasn't too kind to the anime that inspired Keiichi Yamada, then it was all the more gracious to the wrestler, the real-life superhero, who donned that mask.

Images from OldTypeNewType, WrestlingEdge.

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