Jushin "Thunder" Liger is a Japanese professional wrestler in the New Japan Pro-Wrestling promotion. One of the first true high flyers in professional wrestling, Liger completely redefined what junior heavyweight wrestling was.
Liger debuted in New Japan using his real name, Keiichi Yamada on March 3, 1984. However, getting there was not easy. Yamada was initially an amateur wrestler in the freestyle 75 kg class, but after he left school, he decided to try to make the jump to puroresu. He approached New Japan in early 1983, but he was rejected because New Japan thought he was too small. He didn't let this setback dissuade him, though; he saved up his money and traveled to Mexico in April of 1983 to try his luck there. He enrolled at a wrestling school, and while he did well, the language barrier and homesickness took their toll on him. Luckily, New Japan sent scouts to Mexico in June of 1983, and on June 12, 1983, New Japan agents saw Yamada wrestle and immediately signed him to a contract.
Yamada had significant success in New Japan, working with his idol, Dynamite Kid Tom Billington, and winning the Young Lions Championship, a tournament for rookies. In 1986, he left for a tour in England to define his persona, adopting the name "Flying Fuji Yamada". He returned to Japan in August of 1987, and competed with a then-equally-young Keiji Mutoh against Black Tiger and Owen Hart. It was in this match that he debuted the Shooting Star Press, using it as his finisher. Yamada's aerial maneuvers and innovation continued to make him a fan favorite, and he left for another tour of England in January of 1989 to further refine his fighting style. After England, he stopped over in Canada in the Stampede Wrestling promotion, run by Stu Hart. There, he wrestled Chris Benoit, Brian Pillman, and Owen Hart, and was able to flesh out his style before his return to Japan.
On April 24, 1989, Keiichi Yamada debuted the Jushin Liger character. New Japan was clearly trying to recreate the success they had achieved with Tiger Mask using a similar formula. Like Tiger Mask, Jushin Liger was originally a character from anime. "Jushin" means, approximately, "Beastmaster", and Liger refers to the hybrid animal created by a male lion and a female tiger. Liger was triumphant in his debut match against Kuniaki Kobayashi, winning in 9 minutes, 55 seconds. Early in 1990, he started using the "Thunder" nickname, which has stuck well. In the following years, Liger would go on to have memorable feuds with Naoki Sano and Chris Benoit. On July 4, 1991, in the middle of their feud, Liger won a mask versus mask match against Chris Benoit, who wrestled as Pegasus Kid under a mask. Benoit unmasked, and became known as Wild Pegasus.
Liger would go on to battle Benoit, Dean Malenko, Super Delfin, Ultimo Dragon, The Great Sasuke, El Samurai, and others throughout the 90's, creating the New Japan junior heavyweight style and influencing the junior heavyweight/cruiserweight style throughout the world. Junior heavyweight super-cards such as the Super J Cups, Skydiving J, and J-Crown would showcase this style, which featured an emphasis on high risk maneuvers and precedence of finishing moves as well as solid mat wrestling. At the same time as he was competing in these tournaments, Liger fought off an assortment of injuries in the mid-90's, including a broken leg soon after the Super J Cup in 1994 and an ulcer which resulted in his early exit from the J-Crown tournament in 1996.
Liger has also made multiple appearances in WCW, most visibly on the very first WCW Monday Nitro from the Mall of the Americas. He and "Flyin'" Brian Pillman put on a spectacular match that even got the relatively listless mall crowd's attention. Previously, the two had also exchanged the WCW Light Heavyweight Title and put on one of the best pay-per-view opening matches of all time at Superbrawl II. His relationship with WCW (as well as New Japan's relationship with WCW) was soured by a rather shameful appearance in late 1999 where he was forced to job the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship to Juventud Guerrera when Guerrera hit him over the head with a bottle of tequila.
While Liger has had continued success in the New Japan Junior Heavyweight division, he has failed to ascend to the heavyweight ranks. While Liger, much like Tiger Mask in the 80's, has paved the way for greater and greater acceptance of smaller wrestlers, the New Japan booking team treats heavyweights as the primary stars and they are loath to push smaller wrestlers into positions outside of the junior heavyweight division. Generally, smaller wrestlers need to bulk up and gain more muscle in order to be considered for a heavyweight push (see Riki Chosyu for a prime example).
Liger has one of the most recognizable costumes in wrestling. He usually wears a colorful full bodysuit, though he has been known to wear just tights, and has a distinctive horned mask with mesh covering the eyes and a small hole for the mouth (contrast against that of El Samurai or The Great Sasuke whose masks expose the entire chin as well). Equally as notable as his mask is Liger's wild black mane of hair, which has an intimidating visual effect not unlike animals which attempt to look larger to scare away predators. To get an idea of what this outfit looks like, Psicosis of AAA and WCW fame has a look strongly inspired by Liger's, from the bright colors and horned mask to the voluminous head of hair.
In terms of color scheme Liger has most frequently used a red, white, silver and gold outfit, but he has been known to wear green in the past, as well as other colors. In recent years, he has worn a primarily black outfit.
Why Jushin Liger Matters
Jushin Liger is one of the greatest professional wrestlers ever. He has put on numerous four and five star matches with a variety of competitors over the years, and remained at the top of the junior heavyweight class almost since he began. He has created numerous moves, such as the super fisherman buster, the Shooting Star Press, and the Ligerbomb. His selling is top notch and his grasp of ring psychology is matched by few. Just by his creative output in terms of matches, one could make a convincing argument that he's the greatest professional wrestler ever.
However, his worth is much more than the sum total of his actual matches, as he has inspired and influenced so many people. Almost all junior heavyweights owe something to him, whether it be his innovative moves, his ability to exude personality when wearing a mask that almost completely covers his face, or his blend of creative power moves with non-trivial mat wrestling and high risk aerial maneuvers. He has influenced both the new generation of young wrestlers such as Jeff Hardy, Rob Van Dam, and Billy Kidman and his own peers when he wrestled them, such as Benoit, Delfin, Ultimo Dragon, Sasuke, and Shinjiro Ohtani. Even when he retires, his effects upon his sport will be seen for decades.