On Thursday, Jushin Thunder Liger, inarguably one of the most influential figures in the history of the global wrestling business, announced his retirement at a press conference in Japan. The 54-year-old masked wrestler, whose real name is Keichi Yamada, will travel the world on a farewell tour slated to end in January at the Tokyo Dome, where New Japan Pro Wrestling’s annual Wrestle Kingdom event has been expanded to back-to-back nights. Liger turned pro in 1984, adopting his trademark gimmick five years later, and has spent the decades since parlaying his status as the sport’s most innovative and spectacular high flyer into being one of its most overall respected stars. Along the way he has reinvented himself as one of wrestling’s smartest performers, which has served him well as injuries, age, and various ailments have inevitably slowed him down.
Nothing better illustrates the level of respect that Liger has earned than his unique contract with New Japan Pro Wrestling, his home promotion for his entire career. As reported in the July 27, 2015 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, when NJPW is not on tour, Liger is free to book himself anywhere in the world, even with companies that are not NJPW’s business partners. That allowed him to take the booking for the first of WWE’s NXT TakeOver specials to be held in a major arena—in August 2015, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn—and not the specials’ previous haunt at Full Sail University’s live event space. While NJPW was sending talent to a Ring of Honor card running that same night elsewhere in Brooklyn, Liger wrestled on the WWE event. He even got a win in his one-off appearance.
A lot has changed in pro wrestling since then, but Liger still controls his own destiny more than most any other wrestler. As such, it’s not necessarily out of the question that a deal could be made for Liger to check some items off his career bucket list that involve WWE-contracted talent—a second singles match with Rey Mysterio springs immediately to mind, but this is Liger’s bucket list and not mine. (That very bout was scheduled on one of NJPW’s visits to the United States last year, but nixed due to an injury on Mysterio’s part.) It will be interesting to see where he chooses to go, in large part because Liger is still a pretty damn excellent in-ring performer halfway into his fifties.
Liger broke into the business at a time when roles for smaller wrestlers were incredibly limited. Hell, in his case, he had to be more than that: In spite of being one of the best high school wrestlers in Japan and developing an impressive physique, he was originally told he was too short to be accepted into the NJPW dojo. Liger had to be flashy to stick out, but he was and so he did. It wasn’t as simple as that makes it sound: as Dave Meltzer reported in the 1990 Wrestling Observer Annual, Yamada hatched a plan to take his life savings and move to Mexico, where smaller wrestlers were more greatly accepted, which he did without bothering to learn Spanish first. It didn’t work any better than you’d expect, but NJPW descended on Mexico City for a TV taping at just the right time, Yamada’s doggedness earned him a spot at a tryout, and his talent carried him from there.
After eight months in the most loaded dojo class ever, alongside peers like fellow international legend Keiji Mutoh and all-time top Tokyo Dome draw Shinya Hashimoto, Yamada debuted as himself and quickly made a mark as the most spectacular wrestler on the undercard. In 1987, after time away on “learning excursions” in England and Canada, he invented the Shooting Star Press, which was more or less a three-quarter gainer executed off the top rope onto a prone opponent. He continued to be one of the most spectacular flyers in the world for years after that; when NJPW made a deal to debut a masked character licensed after a new anime, Yamada was the obvious choice to don the gimmick. The cartoon lasted just a season, but Yamada redesigned his ring gear himself en route to developing his trademark look in 1990. Only the “Jushin Thunder Liger” name and his signature theme song are reminders that the gimmick was created by anyone other than NJPW. The metaphor is barely even a metaphor: the singular wrestling genius long outlived the tacky branded hustle.
In the early 1990s, there was no bigger star among tape-trading hardcore fans of international wrestling than Liger. His flying moves and dives to the floor were so spectacular and his broader presentation so charismatic that he was instantly recognizable as a talent unlike any of his peers; he wore a full-body suit and a mask that covered all of his facial features, but there were very few wrestlers in the business with a comparable superstar aura. He expressed himself even though he was almost completely concealed. There’s no teaching that.
It helped that Yamada was such an avid and gifted student of the game, though. He took creative control of his storylines, injected them with blood and violence, and made fans care about more than just the pretty moves. Being a charismatic, spectacular superstar even got him showcase run in the United States as the Light Heavyweight Champion for Turner Broadcasting’s now defunct WCW promotion, where he and the late Brian Pillman routinely tore the house down and elicited standing ovations from live crowds. As you might expect given his physical style, the Liger gimmick didn’t last long before Yamada had his first major injury. While a 1993 leg injury may or may not have been storyline—he didn’t miss a tour, whatever the case—he obliterated his ankle on a baseball slide in a September 1994 match. Liger was on the shelf for almost a year.
In watching the early part of Liger’s comeback run, it’s hard not to get the impression that, at least initially, he wanted to keep doing a high flying style. It worked for a while, as he regained his IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title by inventing a new spectacular move, the flipping and twisting Stardust Press, at the January 1996 Tokyo Dome card. But by the time he had his first major title defense a couple months later, it appeared that Liger had some kind of Eureka moment. In a rare main event for the junior heavyweight division, after 20 minutes of a more storytelling-based affair with Shinjiro Ohtani, Liger kept the title with...a simple palm strike to the face. Just like that, the Shotay, as he called it—by any name, it’s the most simple finishing move in pro wrestling—had become one of its most credible, and for one of its most spectacular performers, to boot.
This was the formal introduction of the Liger that would continue to thrill audiences for the rest of his career. It came at just the right time, as it happened. Several months later, Liger had to undergo surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. Again, he somehow didn’t really miss a beat, wrestling part time again within just a few weeks and returning to a full schedule a few months later. At this point, the high flyer had been replaced by something more compelling—an ace storyteller whose mask and bodysuit somehow added to his expressiveness, if only because the bizarre sight of a Power Ranger-esque superhero emoting so vividly was such an unusual sight. There’s probably no greater performer in the genre in terms of body language. His gimmick meant that he had to rely on it entirely, and as a result—and because of his historic talent as a performer—he mastered that facet of pro wrestling utterly.
When Liger needed to build sympathy, there was nobody better, but on the nights where he would invade another promotion and flip the script as a heel, he was possibly even better, and effortlessly found ways to be a completely sarcastic asshole at every turn. He was putting up some of the best matches of the year well into the mid-2000's thanks to his timing, drama, and bizarre grasp of pantomime; everyone else felt the need to drop each other on their heads, but he was playing a different game. Liger also started appearing more frequently overseas, solidifying his legend as the most influential Japanese star on these shores.
In the past several years, Liger has worked mostly on NJPW’s undercards in various tag team matches, where he has helped to develop the young preliminary wrestlers. He’s featured in the occasional big match, where he shows that he can still have a thriller whenever he chooses. The sport will be worse off without him, and there may not be any good way to prepare for his absence. But it’s good to know that he’s going to tour the world to say goodbye for one last go-around. More than that, it’s tantalizing: if Liger wants to tear it up on his way out, including in New York City in a month during WrestleMania Week, there are still plenty of potential dream matches on the horizon for him. It will suck when he’s gone, but there’s a whole lot to look forward to between now and then.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.