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#36 Jushin Thunder Liger
Jushin Thunder Liger is probably the most unique talent to be ranked on this list. He was never a world champion, and unlike some of the other talents on this list who never became world champion, like Roddy Piper and Ted DiBiase, Liger never even came close. In addition, he was never really valued as a main event star, always having great mid-card matches but never main eventing that many major shows like all of his Japanese contemporaries did during the boom periods of wrestling in that country.
However, with all of that being said, is there any doubt that Liger is one of the top wrestlers of the last 50 years? Would anyone deny the claim that he is one of the most exciting and skilled performers in wrestling history? Could you even begin to tell the history of professional wrestling over the last thirty years and not mention Liger? The answer to all of those questions is no, and despite his lack of world championship success, Liger is probably the most inspirational wrestler of the last three decades.
Liger was a standout amateur wrestler in high-school and made it all the way to the Japanese High School National Championship match, where he lost to future All-Japan Pro Wrestling star Toshiaki Kawada. Following his high-school graduation Liger applied to the New Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo but was denied entry because he did not reach the height requirement at the time. This is ironic in a number of ways, because not only would Liger go on to become one of the biggest stars in the country, but also because the diminutive Tiger Mask was one of the biggest draws in the company at the time. Undeterred, Liger traveled to Mexico were wrestlers of his stature were more accepted, and he began training before returning to Japan and eventually being accepted back into the NJPW Dojo.
Liger began wrestling for NJPW in 1984 were he used his background in martial arts and amateur wrestling to impress fans, wrestling under his real name Keiichi Yamada and he became a solid IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship contender. In August of 1987, Liger debuted one of the most fascinating and entertaining wrestling maneuvers of all-time; the shooting star press. Throughout the late-80s Liger went on several international excursions, most notably in Europe and in the re-born Stampede Wrestling in Calgary. It was in Calgary where he first teamed with Owen Hart in some fabulous matches that set new standards for high-flying in the United States and Canada.
Liger returned to NJPW in 1989 and NJPW gave him a new gimmick. Inspired by the popular manga and anime superhero, Jushin Liger, Yamada was given the gimmick with a mask and a full costume of armor to wear to the ring. NJPW had previously had success with the high-flying Tiger Mask, whose gimmick was also based on a popular cartoon character of the time. The new gimmick was an immediate success and Liger began to have some of the best matches in wrestling while claiming 11 NJPW Junior Heavyweight Championships, the first one coming on May 25, 1989 when he defeated Hiroshi Hase for the championship.
Liger's contribution to actual in-ring action cannot be underestimated. Not only was he a tremendous athlete capable of doing breath-taking aerial maneuver, but his skilled amateur background made him one of the well-rounded workers of his generation. While he wasn't the originator of coming off of the top rope, he combined those moves with great technical wrestling. Liger's colorful persona and immense talent allowed him to get over in other markets outside of Japan. Not only was he a huge star in Mexico, but ask any casual wrestling fan to name a Japanese wrestler, chances are if they know one, it will be Liger.
Liger was not really an innovator as much as he was a performer who mastered what other wrestlers had started. Tiger Mask was the first Japanese wrestler to don a mask and fly around the ring and wrestlers like Antonio Rocca and Edouard Carpentier had introduced gymnastics and flips to professional wrestling decades earlier. Liger put the roads that those stars paved and strung them together and turned them into arguably the best wrestler of the 1990s. He had so many classic matches, with great wrestlers like Chris Benoit, The Great Sasuke, Ultimo Dragon, Rey Mysterio Jr. and others.
Liger became one of the only wrestlers from Japan to really crack the American market. He got established in WCW in 1991 when he began feuding over the WCW World Light Heavyweight Championship with Brian Pillman. While Liger was good in his first run in WCW, America wasn't quite ready for a performer like Liger. A lot of the wrestlers were not used to working with a wrestler that worked like Liger and there was a shortage of talent as the US didn't quite have a true light heavyweight division the way that Japan did. When Liger returned to WCW in 1995, things went much better for him as there were plenty of wrestlers that were brought in under Eric Bischoff from all around the world that formed a great cruiserweight division, and Liger had many notable matches in WCW. To this day Liger makes appearances on the US independent scene and even appeared on a NXT event in 2015, defeating Tyler Breeze.
In 2000 NJPW booker Riki Choshu decided to reduce the impact that the junior heavyweights were having on the company and moved Liger into the heavyweight division. This was obviously a terrible decision, and eventually he was sent back down the card. Liger would continue to wrestle for the company steadily until the present day. While he has not been a top contender for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, he has taken on a more symbolic role in the company, mostly wrestling on opening matches and always getting a big pop from the crowd. Although he is not the athlete that he once was, he is still a very competent mat wrestler and capable of having exciting matches despite being in his 50s.
Currently, there is a great group of high-flyers wrestling all over the world as wrestling continues to get faster and more athletic. Liger, along with some other influential wrestlers, has had a greater impact on wrestlers around the world, than probably any other wrestler since 1980. Anytime you see someone do a hurrancanrana off of the top rope, or someone do a shooting star press, that is Liger's influence reigning supreme over a wrestling match. Maybe he wasn't a world champion but Liger was certainly one of the most important figures in professional wrestling history.
Next week, #35 will be revealed, the only wrestler in history to reportedly draw one million fans to one arena during a single calendar year.
The Top 50 so far:
50.Ted DiBiase (click link for description of the qualifications of the list)
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger