On March 7th, Jushin “Thunder” Liger made a monumental announcement. During a New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) press conference, the legend wore a suit along with his red and white horned mask. He made an announcement that has not been uncommon so far in 2019. The veteran of 35 years announced that his storied career would be coming to an end. His official last wrestling appearance will be at Wrestle Kingdom 14 on January 4, 2020.
Jushin “Thunder” Liger was born on November 30, 1964, in Hiroshima, Japan. As a student in high school, Liger was an amateur wrestler. In his senior year, he made it all the way to the finals of a national championship tournament. Liger lost to Toshiaki Kawada, who would also go onto become a pro wrestler, notably for All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW). Following his graduation from school, he began to pursue a career in professional wrestling. He applied to be a student at the NJPW dojo but was turned down due to not meeting the height requirement at that time. Liger would not give up, going to Mexico to begin his training here. Later he described that he was barely scraping by in Mexico, near starving. Visiting NJPW officials saw this and made the decision to invite him to train in their dojo.
Liger made his professional debut on March 3, 1984, under his real name, Keiichi Yamada. He would see success early on, making it to the finals of the 1985 Young Lion Cup. He would go on to win the 1986 Young Lion Cup. Yamada would also participate in the Junior Heavyweight Championship League that year but was knocked out by Black Tiger. 1986 would also mark his first international excursion, as he travelled to the United Kingdom. There he would work under the name “Flying” Fuji Yamada for All-Star Wrestling. He would return there in 1987 and 1989; he would make another appearance in 2014 as the Jushin Liger character. During his jaunts for ASW, he would trade the World Heavy Middleweight Championship with Mark Rocco (the original Black Tiger).
In 1987 Yamada would also make an excursion to Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling. There he would train and work for the Hart family patriarch. He would return to Canada in 1989 but was called back to Japan early. The reason he was called back was to start as a new character-based gimmick. 1989 had also seen the debut of an anime called Jushin Liger, revolving around the main character of the same name. The costume and mask were based off the anime and design by Go Nagai. NJPW had previously seen immense success in turning a cartoon character into a wrestler with Tiger Mask. Jushin Liger would make his debut on April 24, 1989. Just a little over a month later, Liger would win his first IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. He would go on to hold this title ten more times in his career.
In January of 1990, he would start using the variation of Jushin Thunder Liger, which has remained to this day. It is sometimes styled as Jyushin Thunder Liger, and he has also been referred to as Jushin Lyger and Jyushin Lyger. April of 1990 would see his first appearance for the WWE, at a joint show between WWE, NJPW, and AJPW, with a win over Akira Nogami. Between 1990 and 1992, Liger would feud with Pegasus Kid (Chris Benoit), trading the Junior Heavyweight title between them. It would culminate in a mask versus mask match, which Pegasus Kid lost. In 1991 Liger would make his debut in Mexico, for the Universal Wrestling Association (UWA). Late 1991 would see him also debut for World Championship Wrestling (WCW). His first match would be with none other than “Flyin'” Brian Pillman. These two would go on to have incredible matches over the years.
As the ’90s progressed, Liger was becoming a fixture in NJPW. When WCW Monday Nitro made its debut in 1995, Jushin Thunder Liger and Brian Pillman would be in the first match. Liger would also win the Super J-Cup tournament that year, he would win it again in 2000. 1996 was a scary time for Liger, as he had to undergo surgery to remove a brain tumor. This led to a shift in his style following his return to the ring. On October 20, 1996, he would debut his heel character, Kishin Liger. This would happen during a match with the Great Muta. Muta became more and more aggressive during the match, eventually ripping Liger’s mask off.
When Liger rose from the mat, his face was painted ghostly white and accented in red. He spits mist in Muta’s face, which was one of Muta’s own trademarks. Liger ripped his bodysuit as well, revealing his chest was painted in a similar manner. Kishan Liger wouldn’t win the match against Muta. However, he competed for the rest of the match more like Muta, aggressive and using some underhanded tactics. Kishan Liger would make select appearances over the years when Liger would be disrespected in some way. The known ‘triggers’ of the character’s appearance would be the tearing of Liger’s mask or cutting off his trademark mane. These appearances would be in 2006 and 2012 respectively.
As the 90s gave way to the new millennium, Liger would try his hand in the heavyweight division. The NJPW booker at the time, Riki Choshu wanted to deemphasize the junior heavyweight division in favor of the heavyweight He would change up his look for this foray, losing the top half of his body suit and the horns on his mask. He had worn this look once before, back in 1994. There had been a champion versus champion match on February 24. As IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion he wrestled the IWGP Heavyweight champion, Shinya Hashimoto. This change in division emphasis would not be successful for NJPW, so Liger was shifted back to the junior heavyweight division.
From 2004 to 2007, Jushin Liger was part of a heel stable called Control Terrorism Unit (CTU). Other members of CTU would be Hirooki Goto, Minoru Tanaka, Black Tiger IV, Gedo, Jado, Katsushi Takemura, Dick Togo, and Prince Devitt. The group disbanded in 2007 because Liger wanted to disband while they were at the top of NJPW. Liger would then go on to join Masahiro Chono’s Legend group. Besides Chono and Liger, other members of the group were Riki Choshu, Shiro Koshinaka, Super Strong Machine, and AKIRA. They would disband in late 2009, as Chono, Choshu, and AKIRA would all leave NJPW. Throughout his career, Jushin Liger has been a perennial for NJPW. Aside from time away for his brain tumor, and unless he was away on an excursion, it’s hard to find an event where he doesn’t appear.
During the 90s, most of Liger’s outside of Japan excursions in North America was for WCW. Moving into the mid-2000s, he would begin to be more active in North America. He first debuted for Ring of Honor (ROH) in 2004, which NJPW would also build a working relationship with later. In 2005 and 2006, Liger would work a couple of shows for Total Nonstop Action (TNA) Wrestling, now known as IMPACT Wrestling. There is some “rumor and innuendo” about Liger’s time in TNA. He was originally scheduled to face Christopher Daniels at the 2006 Lockdown pay-per-view. Liger was apparently unaware that all matches on that show would take place inside a steel cage, a match type he had never been in before. When he learned of this, he pulled out of the match. He would take part in the World X Cup Tournament after that, as captain of Team Japan.
In 2007, Jushin Liger would finally return to Canada after 17 years. He would work for UWA Hardcore Wrestling. Liger would debut with Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL), as they have a working relationship with NJPW. His initial run in 2007 would be short, but he would return multiple times in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Liger would also wrestle CMLL talent that would come to Japan as part of the working relationship. He would return to ROH in 2010, as well as debut for Southern California mega-indie Pro Wrestling Guerilla. There he would be able to showcase more of his comedic side, which even years after, is still the subject of GIFs today. Another 2010 debut would be for Jersey All Pro Wrestling. He would appear twice there in that year, and in December he won the JAPW Light Heavyweight Championship.
He would lose that title in April of 2011 against a young Kenny Omega during NJPW’s first American tour. In 2013, Liger would return to the United States debuting for Pro Wrestling Syndicate (PWS) and CHIKARA. Late 2013 would see Liger work a couple of shows for the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in Texas. As NJPW and ROH began to work together more starting in 2014, Liger would be a fixture of the co-promoted shows. He would also make appearances on ROH shows as part of their working agreement. In addition to his work in North America, Liger is well travelled in Europe. He has performed for many companies in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands. Some of his recurring haunts are Revolution Pro Wrestling (RevPro, another NJPW affiliate), Preston City Wrestling (PCW), and Westside Xtreme Wrestling (wXw).
In 2015, Jushin Liger would return to WWE. He would participate in the first NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, defeating Tyler Breeze. One would think that in 2019, there wouldn’t be any place left for Liger to debut for. That isn’t the case. He will be making his debut for the Irish wrestling company, Over the Top Wrestling, on March 16th. In a career spanning three and a half decades, Jushin “Thunder” Liger has amassed quite the list of titles and accolades. In addition to his 11 reigns as IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion, he’s held 14 other titles. Most are in the light heavyweight/middleweight/junior heavyweight category, as well as in the tag team category. He’s held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships six different times and is a two-time NWA World Junior Heavyweight Champion.
Liger has participated in over 80 tournaments, winning 12 of them. These include the Young Lion Cup, Top of the Super Junior, Best of the Super Juniors, Super J Cup 1995, Super J Cup 2000, Naeba Cup Tag Tournament 2001, G1 Junior Tag League 2001, Campeon Universal del CMLL 2010, Torneo de Parejas, NTV G Cup Junior Heavyweight League 2013, and the British J Cup 2017. Liger is also the only wrestler to be ranked in the PWI 500 every year since its publication began in 1991. He’s also received several awards from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 1999.
When Jushin “Thunder” Liger confirmed that his retirement was imminent, it is the end of an era. Many modern wrestling fans don’t know an international scene without Liger. Especially NJPW fans. He will continue to compete regularly until his official retirement on January 4, 2020. Liger also stated in the press conference that he hoped to appear at the ROH/NJPW G1 Supercard at Madison Square Garden. He noted that watching Tatsuji Fujinami win the WWWF Junior Heavyweight Championship from Carlos Jose Estrada made him want to become a pro wrestler. That match took place in Madison Square Garden. As far as life after wrestling, that’s a bit too far out for Liger to look at for now. He told the reporter who asked the question that he “was a wrestler for the next ten months, so ask him again in ten months.”