Japanese Thunder: A Parable for the Most Important Jr. Heavyweight of the Last 25 Years

In American pro-wrestling in the year 2008 the idea of a strong junior heavyweight division is either a joke (WWE), a tantalizing reminder of what could have been (TNA), or good but unfortunately not presented to the mainstream (ROH, IWA-MS, assorted NWA Indies). So when I mention that in Japan the weight class is treated with respect, and never frittered away for the purposes of making a big muscle-bound slug a new star, people seem to have a great dral of trouble with this concept. They tell me “But wait a minute. You mean those little guys get a chance to do what they do best without being overrun by Triple H every 60 seconds?” Yes actually, and a great deal of credit for this mindset staying true over the last 25 years goes to one man and one company. The man is Jushin “Thunder” Liger, and the company is New Japan Pro Wrestling.

To understand the brilliance of Liger, and how he directly or indirectly influenced pretty much every lighter-weight (and a few of the heavyweights too) guy you see on TV right now, you need to go back a good way. See when the character was created, a sly nod to the anime of the same name just as Tiger Mask had been, it was assumed that New Japan was simply trying to catch lightning in the bottle with another wildly popular children’s hero just as Tiger Mask had been for them in the early 1980’s. And the hope was that this time, unlike the 1st Tiger Mask Satoru Sayama who left in a huff over the direction of the company, that the man behind the Liger myth would stay for a good long while.

So they had to pick the right guy, a hungry young guy who would do what was needed to keep the character alive and who wouldn’t run in a huff and force them to extend the gimmick back to someone else as they had done with Tiger Mask after the original left in a fit of pique. So who did they pick?

Keichi Yamada, a guy who they had sent away for being too small, and got pissed off enough about it to go to Mexico on his own dime and learn while almost starving in the attempt. And while New Japan figured bringing him back in was a good idea they never figured how good of an idea it would end up being. And after he won the company’s Junior Heavyweight Title in a war against the salty veteran Naoki Sano he embarked on one of the longest and most consistent runs in the history of puroresu.

But on this run he would have help from his home promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling, who saw him and his rivals the chance to build a marked difference from their promotional rival All Japan Pro Wrestling. And, largely, it worked. The best way to explain this is that All Japan is known for the 4 Corners of Heaven heavyweight unit of the 90’s which any puroresu fan worth his or her salt can name in a moment: Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa, and Akira Taue. And each one of them had their own distinct personality traits meaning that fans could identify with the intensity of Kobashi, the coolness under fire and grace of Misawa, the unlucky and rough-hewn Kawada, and the dynamism of Akira Taue.

Conversely the juniors of the 90’s get the same treatment although not nearly as snappy a nickname: Koji Kanemoto who is the surly veteran, the superhero in Jushin “Thunder” Liger, the graceful and perfectly skilled Minoru Tanaka, the evil Shinjiro Otani, the masked supervillain Black Tiger, and so on. But if you asked a puroresu fan to try and ascertain who were the All Japan juniors during the same period you’d get several seconds of deep blinking and then this: “They had junior heavyweights in All Japan?” To be sure they did, and some of them were talented, but there is in no way the same mythos surrounding them as does the New Japan Juniors.

New Japan understood, clearly where All Japan didn’t, that you could have a strong junior heavyweight division and it could be to the benefit of the company and not to its detriment. So when the top guys started to slow down new guys could come in and be accepted by the fans, as Wataru Inoue and Ryusuke Taguchi were, without fear that the promotion’s momentum would stop dead in its tracks.

But back to Liger. Liger’s brilliance is that even now, far past his prime, he is still finding ways to have matches on par with at least some of his best work and his name still means as much as anyone does. If you have never seen Liger at all, including his prime in America with WCW, go out of your way to do it. It’s worth it.


19 Responses to “Japanese Thunder: A Parable for the Most Important Jr. Heavyweight of the Last 25 Years”

  1. Okori says:

    this is the favor to me from Mizzo. If you want to discuss the article herein, or explain that I’m a moron for even wanting to do this, that is your right. But remember…. be respectful in the spirit of TSF. Thank you.

  2. Mizzo says:

    If anyone is having problems with the post because of their browser, shoot me an email.

  3. Mizzo says:

    Don’t get scared now bruh 😉

  4. Okori says:

    I haven’t been scared ever.

    The mask of the dude at the top of this post, though, would scare people.

  5. Wally Sparks says:

    Excellent piece. Liger and Muta are 2 of my favorite wrestlers to watch. I would love too see more Pro Wrestling themed stuff here. Good shit bro…

  6. Okori says:

    not a problem man. bring it up to Mizzo. I’ll see what I can do about having it be a special guest post.

  7. Okori says:

    oh come on. This post can’t be this quiet.

    This post was intended to be an antithesis to the idea that pro-=wrestling, and sports in general, has to be about racism. It can be, and is in a lot of places, about brilliance. Pure can’t look-into-the-eyes-of-the-sun brilliance, the kind that is of Liger’s or Vick’s in a lot of ways.

  8. BeinMiceElf says:

    What’s next, a piece on the midget women’s championships in the Bulgarian Wrestling Federation? How about a piece on the 2008 One-Legged-Man Ass-Kicking Contest?

    The fact that the name ‘Triple H’ even got mentioned on this site just dragged this forum back about 30 years, pre-Internet. I stopped reading after the phrase ‘To understand the brilliance of Liger…’ Brilliance? Please. Picasso was brilliant. W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglas were brilliant. Beethoven, Shakespeare and Newton were brilliant. (And yes, there is a hierarchy of aesthetics, art, and beauty, and professional wrasslin’ falls WAY out of the pool. It is a source of entertainment for the feeble-minded. It ranks right down there with day-time TV and info-mercials.)

    It’s a little early for April Fool’s Day, but this HAD to be a joke.

  9. Okori says:

    Hey guess what BeinMiceElf? Whether you want to believe it or not I’ve been a fan of pro wrestling for decades, and in that time, Jushin “Thunder” Liger is the most brilliant wrestler I have seen come along during that time. And since I wrote this piece, and not you, I feel the usage of the word brilliant I imagine was within my rights to be used. But, mocking tone aside, this was why I asked Mizzo to post this for me.

    Nowadays when people think of Pro Wrestling, past your insipid idea that it is a feeble-minded form of entertainment, two people’s names come up: Chris Benoit and Vince McMahon. Benoit because he killed his wife and kids, and then killed himself, in an act that if it was done by anyone else in any other sport or artistic field would be leading the news for 12 months. Not just Sports Center, the NEWS for 1 whole year. And Vince McMahon because his is the only figure of authority that anyone can name. And normally that is what people stop at thinking, because they haven’t allowed their brains to go beyond that basic and simplistic line of thinking. I’m not going to let anyone else do that.

    The truth is this: In Pro Wrestling, a sport that is treated with respect in Japan and reverence as a national religion in Mexico, Liger and what he has done, and the spirit of achievement he represents, is far more up to the spirit of Pro Wrestling than Benoit or McMahon. Hell… Liger came back off of a brain tumor and one of the worst broken ankles that I have ever seen to continue to do what he loves, and to do it at a exceedingly high level. If that’s not something to respect then I guess I no longer know the meaning of the word.

    But if you don’t want to read it, if the idea of a wrestling post on TSF offends you to such a degree, than I’m sorry. Because it was important to me to write it and it was important to me to have it be published here on TSF.

  10. Mizzo says:

    I would be a hypocrite to not post this piece on TSF. The subject matter–in my eyes–is immaterial.

    I set out to give every writer a chance–like others have given me–and will continue to do so.

    I questioned Okori why I should publish this and his response was sufficient.

  11. Okori says:

    and, BeinMiceElf, I actually went to the trouble of doing RESEARCH on this topic. You know that thing that journalists and writers who are even the slightest bit qualified are expected to do? Why would you think someone would do that for an art form (and it is an art form, despite what you think) that is, as you said, a form of entertainment for the feeble-minded? It’s because no matter what I write, whether it happens to be about Jushin Liger or a paper on Asian Gangs, I treat it with the seriousness that any writing deserves to be.

    I’m sorry that you seem to think that if it’s not something you want to read about that no one else should enjoy it.

  12. Okori says:

    and, to everyone else reading this, I’m sorry that I lost my temper. It’s just that I don’t like hard work being diminished.

  13. Cevidence says:

    Yo I’m a wrestling fan and I have no shame admitting that…..

    What do you think of Rey Mysterio’s place in history as a light heavyweight or a wrestler in general? He’s been called one of the best by names such as Bret Hart and that carries a lot of weight.

    And have you seen this guy Mistico from Mexico? Rey Mysterio has said that Mistico (who is only 22 I believe) is better than he was at that age…..those are big words…

  14. Okori says:

    well the interesting thing re Rey is that there are 2 different eras that you bring up. The first is the Rey Misterio Jr. era that lasted from 1994 to the end of WCW which was in 2001. That Rey Misterio Jr. was unbelievably innovative, and could pop off hurricanranas from incredible angles and from positions that you did not think someone could hit the move. Plus he is the crispest high-flyer of his era. Everything hit clean and on target. Try and find his AAA stuff if you can do it. It’s brilliant in a way that still seems ahead of its time.

    The Rey Mysterio that you see now is less innovative by virtue of the knee surgeries but is more of a classic American-style wrestler as a result, which leads to the praise by Bret Hart (who holds no place in his heart for Lucha Libre with his “everything had to look like a real fight” idea.) He’s a top-10 wrestler in WWE right now, and as a result is in the top 30 in the world. But I’d be lying to you if I said that he wasn’t a shell of what he used to be when he was tearing up Mexico and Japan.

    Re Mistico: Yes I have seen some of his work, not a lot, but enough to form an opinion. I can see where Rey’s coming from because he’s got some of the same basic skills. The difference is that, by the time Rey was 22, he had 4 years under his belt, was booked in Japan and wrestled in a major tournament, and was in ECW. Mistico who is 22 has not left Mexico yet. Mistico still has a lot of impressing to do.

  15. Okori says:

    Hopefully this answered your question suitably.

  16. BeinMiceElf says:

    Hey….. it’s not my fault Mr. Okori decided at some point in his life that it was a worthwhile enterprise to devote his free time to watching people in fourth-rate costumes dance around in pre-arranged routines, faking one-on-one combat and trying to pass it off as a real ‘sport.’ If you like to watch a cross between Halloween and Mortla Kombat on TV three nights a week, more power to you.

    But don’t come on here crying when people make comments about what you chose to write about. Any real writer who is the “slightest bit qualified” — and how aptly your own phrase describes you — knows that once something is published or posted, the audience reaction is what it is, and there is no law granting writers the benefit of civility, fairness, or anything of the kind. If you choose to write about a topic that serious people treat ludicrously, then you get what’s coming to you. This isn’t Canada, where men like Dean Steacy can haul you into court for lampooning someone’s beliefs. We’re free to rip writers here, and writers are meant to thicken their skins and deal with it.

    If you’re susceptible to losing your temper because I criticized your subject matter, then maybe you’re already self-conscious of your own poor choice in entertainment vehicles. Anger is as much a sign of a problem with the angry person as it is a proof of effectiveness of the stimulous leading to anger.

    And if memory serves, you requested the chance to post here. Be careful what you wish for…..

  17. Okori says:

    Mizzo asked me not to get into it with you. Having thick skin and all. And I’m not actually going to get into it with you. Because, as I have only recently discovered, your dismissive attitude towards a hobby that a lot of people have says a lot more about you and your attitude than it does about me and my hobby.

    Goodnight.

  18. kokushishin says:

    You’re omitting that a good chunk of the guys who would be stuck as “cruisers” 15 years ago are accepted heavyweights today.

    Jericho, Misterio, Punk, Morrison, Hardys et al are in or have been in each WWE brand’s title picture. They don’t need to be relegated to a secondary division. Same with Styles. Same with Danielson and McGuinness.

    Even overseas, you have Go Shiozaki as NOAH’s future. You have Masato Tanaka as Z-1’s heavyweight champ. If anything, it is kind of sad that Lyger is highly unlikely to reach the IWGP.

  19. Okori says:

    Kokishi here’s the thing:

    Danielson was, until he lost the title to KENTA, the NOAH Jr. Heavyweight Champion. McGuinness is at this point a heavyweight. and Mysterio (I refuse to call him Misterio because he and the force of nature who he resembles are not the same person.) is at this point too at least in terms of style and opponent choice. However Matt Hardy is already a third-division champion by virtue of being the ECW champ. What more damage could you do by making ECW the Cruiserweight show?

    Go is also not a Jr. Heavyweight, and Masato bulked up to be the Z-1 champ. It’s not sad that Lyger won’t reach the IWGP. I think he is honestly happy where he is.