The finality of Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger’s farewell tour didn’t set in with me for months after it wrapped up. The accolades flooded in. Writers, wrestlers, and fans all reflected on his storied career. He wrestled a pair of retirement matches at Wrestle Kingdom. It still didn’t stick.
He couldn’t really be done, could he?
Liger had been wrestling for what seemed like the full extent of my fandom. I watched him team with strongman Bill Kazmaier at WCW Battlebowl 1991 when I was still in grade school. I’d seen him powerbomb Tyler Breeze at an NXT TakeOver event 24 years later when I was the father of a then-two-year-old.
At this point, Liger seemed more like some horned mythological figure than simply a wrestler. He was a comic book hero come to life, a celestial being who engaged in earthly battles.
But deny it as I might, after 36 years, his career was really over. The pioneer, the acrobat, the junior heavyweight virtuoso had left us to sift through a wealth of memories.
During that process, I dug through his three decades of groundbreaking high-flying and world-class storytelling to find his single best in-ring year. That’s like picking through a barrel of diamonds with the task of choosing the most valuable among them.
In 1990, Liger had memorable stunners against Norio Honaga, Pegasus Kid (Chris Benoit), and Owen Hart as IWGP junior heavyweight champ. In both the U.S. and Japan, he tore it up in classics against The Great Sasuke in 1996. He had stellar years for Pro Wrestling NOAH in the early ‘00s, too.
His trophy case doesn’t make things easier. He earned a stockpile of Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards (h/t Indeed Wrestling) including Most Outstanding Wrestler for three straight years starting in 1990. From 1989 to 1992, he won both Best Flying Wrestler and Best Technical Wrestler each and every year.
1992 wins out, though.
He was an absolute supernova that year in New Japan Pro-Wrestling. Liger mashed on Norio Honaga in February, looked to tear his pound of flesh from El Samurai in a battle that got the five-star treatment from Dave Meltzer, and gave us a tag team classic in Nagoya Rainbow Hall. On top of his world-class work in his home country, Liger gave us a game-changer of a match against Brian Pillman at WCW SuperBrawl II.
It’s a year that exemplifies what made him special. It’s not just that he could fly beautifully above the ring, it was that he so perfectly timed his flights to punctuate moments in a story, to craft masterworks of violent theater.
Travel with me back to the time of grunge and Cross Colors as we explore Liger’s powers at their peak.
Jushin Liger vs. Norio Honaga (NJPW Fighting Spirit)
Once all the pageantry—balloons dropping from the ceiling, streamers spraying into the ring, and the national anthem trumpeting from the PA system was out of the way—two champions proceeded to clamp onto each other like two belligerent crabs.
Liger entered as the WCW light heavyweight champ; Honaga held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. We saw a hyper-aggressive version of Liger here as he battered Honaga with open-handed strikes—as he smothered his foe in the corner.
Honaga struck back with a focus on Liger’s midsection. Knees to the gut and knuckles grinding on his ribs left the masked wrestler wincing, too hurt to apply his signature surfboard move.
Intensity saturated it all. This bout was a powerful display of how convincing and compelling of a babyface warrior Liger was in his prime.
Eventually, Liger bested his rival and knelt with his two championships clutched in his arms like they were his leather and gold children.
Jushin Liger vs. Brian Pillman (WCW Superbrawl II)
In Milwaukee, in the opening clash of the PPV, Liger faced the man he beat for the belt. Little did fans know, they were about to bear witness to a match that would illuminate the potential of the art form. Liger and Pillman put on a show, an exhibition of the electricity two men could create with cruiserweight-style wrestling.
Pillman cranks up the intensity to best the Japanese star. Liger works over Pillman’s left leg in an attempt to slow him down. Two of the best high-flyers look to dropkick each other out of the sky.
Bursts of flying, fluid mat wrestling exchanges, and tons of chemistry made for a spellbinding title bout.
On Fanbyte early this year, Colette Arrand so aptly wrote of it: “The speed and power with which Pillman and Liger went at each other here is unlike anything else that happened on American television in 1992.”
You can hear the elevated level of excitement in Jim Ross’ voice as he calls the action. He and the rest of the wrestling world watched as a 17-minute all-time classic unfolded, as Pillman pinned Liger to reclaim his crown.
Jushin Liger vs. El Samurai (NJPW Explosion Tour)
Back in Japan, Liger shifted his focus to tangling with his old rivals. He not only had the IWGP junior title to defend, but he also had his eyes on winning the Top of the Super Juniors (now: Best of the Super Juniors) tournament. In his way stood familiar faces like Pegasus Kid and Honaga. In the final, Liger then found himself in a dogfight against El Samurai.
The drama begins with El Samurai spitting in his face, then tearing at his mask. Liger is soon in big trouble. He suffers a prolonged beating, a beer bottle to the head, boots to the back of his neck.
A pissed-off Liger later charges back in one of the most intense comebacks you’ll see in a wrestling ring. What follows is a blur of dives, yanked limbs, and Liger’s fingers ripping at Samurai’s mask. By the time he falls atop his foe for the win, our hero is weary but triumphant.
In the process, he had arguably the best match of his career, a tour-de-force in wrestling storytelling.
Jushin Liger vs. Pegasus Kid (NJPW G1 Climax)
In the months to come, Liger continued to defend the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship in Japan, as well as compete in WCW as a special attraction against the likes of Brad Armstrong and Jimmy Garvin. El Samurai dethroned him in June. July saw the team of Pillman and Liger fall in the quarterfinals of the NWA World Tag Team Championship tourney.
Another big defeat came in August when Liger was unable to overcome the Pegasus Kid in the G1 Climax.
A disrespectful, merciless Pegasus dominated a strong match. Expert mat work from both men combined with palpable animosity had things clicking between these familiar foes.
Amid a stretch of counters and takedowns, Liger popped off a gorgeous baseball slide dropkick to send Pegasus into the rail. The more powerful Pegasus came out on top regardless. A powerbomb from the top rope sealed it for him.
Jushin Liger vs. Eddie Guerrero (NJPW Final Battle)
Before their more famous meetings, Liger and Guerrero collided in the Niigata City Gymnasium. It’s not a bout among either man’s best, but a hidden gem worth watching.
The mat wrestling has plenty of snap. You can see sparks of the great chemistry they would later fully exploit.
To the delight of the crowd, each man took big risks. Liger flew at Guerrero at ringside. Latino Heat paid him back by springboarding himself into the stands after Liger.
A top-rope suplex looked to be Liger’s end, but a crafty counter allowed him outlast Guerrero. The two icons than shared a post-match handshake in a show of respect.
Jushin Liger and Koji Kanemoto vs. Masao Orihara and Ultimo Dragon (NJPW Final Battle)
As 1992 wound down, Liger wrestled Franz Schuhmann in Germany, teamed with Eric Watts of all people, and took on Sting at a house show in South Carolina. Before that, though, he had a classic to compose in Japan.
At Nagoya Rainbow Hall, Liger teamed with Kanemoto for his last great match of 1992.
The match’s opening moments were a sprint between Liger and Dragon. They wowed the crowd as they dashed at each other, as they each struggled to keep the advantage on the mat.
The wrestlers all worked fast and wild as the action progressed. It’s a bout filled with daredevils diving, charging, pushing each other to the limit. At one point, Liger goes so far as to suplex Orihara out of the damn ring.
The El Samurai match was a showcase of Liger as a storyteller; this was a demonstration of what foot-on-the-gas Liger looks like.
Liger would go on to grow his legacy in each year following this one. His matches against The Great Sasuke in 1994 and Shinjiro Otani in ’96 and ’97 are must-watch material. In the early ‘00s, he had memorable showings for NOAH. And in the late evening of his career, he and Minoru Suzuki had a hell of a feud that culminated at NJPW King of Pro-Wrestling 2019.
We have thrown out words like “icon” and “legend” through it all. We build him up as a key figure in wrestling’s trajectory and ponder where he ranks among the greats. All deservedly so.
Liger, meanwhile, has a humbler view of what he did in the ring all those years. “I spent my whole career just having fun,” he told New Japan in March. “The thought process was just ‘this sounds like fun, let’s do it’.”