We continue our countdown to Jyushin Thunder Liger’s retirement.
After Jyushin Thunder Liger ended 1995 in winning form, defeating Gedo to wear the Super J-Cup golden jacket, he was riding high into 1996. The year started with a challenge to IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Koji Kanemoto. After losing his Tiger Mask three years earlier, Kanemoto had only grown more confident, more comfortable and more dangerous in black tights and with a hard hitting attitude.
Kanemoto would give Liger all he could handle, taking control of his challenger with some tough strikes and a brainbuster from the top rope, but Liger had new tricks up his sleeve. Innovating what Tetsuya Naito would later find fame with, a proto-Stardust Press, Liger secured his seventh IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, and would cement his reign with a successful defence against Black Tiger (Eddie Guerrero) a month later in Sapporo.
April would see the Great Sasuke take the title off Liger, but something new was to come in the junior heavyweight title scene. Under Liger’s lead, NJPW had become the destination for junior heavyweights from all over the world to prove their worth. So much so that a Budokan event called the Sky Diving- J would see a card entirely composed of junior heavyweight championship matches. Eight titles, representing Mexico, America, the UK and Japan were all being contested in an NJPW ring; the next logical step was to see just who the greatest champion was.
The result was the J-Crown, which unified eight different junior heavyweight titles. As the G1 Climax saw an entire week of action in Ryogoku Sumo Hall, the attention of fans was as much on the Great Sasuke lifting eight title belts as it was on Riki Choshu’s phenomenal perfect record.
Where was Liger in the tournament? He was eliminated in the first round by Ultimo Dragon, but bigger problems lay under the surface. Injured during the match, Liger was taken for evaluation where a tumor was found on his brain. The scare saw Liger immediately undergo surgery, but the tumor was thankfully benign, and he would return to action after just seven weeks.
Liger had overcome a health issue that could have threatened his career, but he wasn’t the only one who had overcome adversity. The city of Kobe was recovering from a major earthquake one year before, and on October 20, NJPW ran Kobe World Hall for the first time since the disaster. Highlighted on the card was a dream clash between Liger and the Great Muta that had actually been scheduled for two years prior, but had been canceled due to Liger’s earlier ankle and knee injury.
While Liger lost to Great Muta on the night, fans would leave with a memory to last a lifetime. Midway through the bout, he would rip his mask off to reveal the face painted, super human Kishin Liger for the first time. Representing the superhuman strength that comes to those battling through crisis, Liger fought with a terrifying fury, the likes of which fans wouldn’t see again for a decade.
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