We continue our countdown to Jyushin Thunder Liger’s retirement.
By 1994, the age of Jyushin Thunder Liger was in full effect. His year started at Battlefield ‘94 in the Tokyo Dome, where after a spectacular entrance, he defeated and demasked the third generation Tiger Mask (Koji Kanemoto) and firmly cemented himself not just as junior heavyweight ace, but as arguably the face of NJPW at large.
The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Liger was considered by many to have equal standing and significance within the wrestling sphere as his Heavyweight counterpart. Inevitably this would lead to a match between the two, and on February 2 in the Nippon Budokan, Liger faced ‘King of Destruction’ and IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Shinya Hashimoto.
Debuting the half suited ‘Battle Liger’ guise for this match, a move Liger would state was inspired by a desire to increase his range of motion and not offer horns on his mask for Hashimoto to grab. He was taking Hashimoto extremely seriously indeed, as was evidenced by his impressive physique usually covered by his iconic suit.
During the match, neither a top rope DDT nor Frankensteiner were enough to put away Hashimoto, who’s heavy strikes were too much for liger. A crashing leg sweep would be followed by a Vertical Drop Brainbuster to give the heavyweight champion victory, but Liger had proven the point that in ring and out, the junior heavyweight division were more than capable enough of competing in the main event space against the heavyweights.
Indeed, they were more than capable of headlining entire events on their own. Later in April, Liger was able to enact an idea he had been obsessed with for decades. In 1979 as a middle schooler, he had attended the ‘All Star dream Match’ card hosted by Tokyo Sports newspaper on their anniversary. The event brought together names from all over Japan, not isolated to one promotion, for one festival of professional wrestling. Famously this would be the last time that the B-I Cannon duo of Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki would ever team up.
One day, Liger hoped, a similar festival could be brought to contemporary fans, and on April 16, that day came. The Super J-Cup brought together junior heavyweight wrestlers from NJPW, WAR, Michinoku Pro and the independents for one memorable night in the sold out Ryogoku Sumo Hall. Years before social media, Super J-Cup ‘94 became one of the most widely shared, proto-‘viral’ professional wrestling events of the age for the sheer diversity and in ring competitive quality on display.
Liger would memorably face a young firebrand in Hayabusa in the first round. Still in the midst of an excursion from his home FMW, Hayabusa was a relative unknown going into Super J-Cup, but was widely known afterward. Going hell fr leather from the outset, Hayabusa unleashed a death defying tope con giro to a Liger still making his entrance, and though Liger would come out on top of the short and intense bout, Hayabusa made a name for himself and then some.
After dispensing with Ricky Fuji in the second round, Liger would advance to take on a man in Great Sasuke who would become yet another key rival for the masked legend. Sharing a similar ‘lucharesu’ background to both Liger and Ultimo Dragon, Sasuke was the charismatic leader of Michinoku Pro Wrestling, a promotion that was dedicated to showcasing wrestling and wrestlers from the rural areas of Japan not usually serviced by the ‘big two’ national promotions in New and All Japan. Sasuke, TAKA Michinoku and Jinsei Shinzaki would all emerge from M-Pro onto the global stage in the mid 1990s, and over one night of amazing performances, Sasuke made a huge statement to the world.
Late in the semi-final, it appeared as if the pressure was too much for Sasuke, as he slipped on a springboard maneuver. Liger would mock his black suited opponent, only to be caught with a hurricanrana for the three count that put Sasuke into the final and Liger out of the single elimination tournament.
Liger wasn’t victorious in the first Super J-Cup, but had been a critical party of history, and continued to do so through the year. In May he would face Satoru Sayama in a singles exhibition bout, as Sayama made his return to an NJPW ring after a near 12 year absence. The next month, Top of the Super Juniros would be renamed Best of the Super Juniors, and Liger instantly made his mark on the tournament, defeating Super Delfin to be the inaugural BOSJ winner.
Then on September 24 in Nagoya, disaster struck. During a tag match that saw him teaming with Riki Choshu against Shinya Hashimoto and Wild Pegasus, Liger suffered a broken left ankle and torn left ACL. He would miss the remainder of 199 and the bulk of 1995, before returning in time for a memorable interpromotional dispute.