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By Mike Johnson on 2019-03-07 10:14:00

One of the all time greatest Junior Heavyweight wrestlers of all time, Jushin "Thunder" Liger, 54 years old, announced during a press conference earlier today that he will officially retire from the ring at the 2020 New Japan Pro Wrestling Wrestle Kingdom event at the Tokyo Dome.  The announcement was not a shock, although it marks the end of an era in professional wrestling.  With his full body suit, horned mask and electric theme song, Liger, as a character, was immortal, aging only in how his ring work changed.  He had not been a focused upon performer in some time, and in reality the nostalgia of who he was made him a bigger deal in the United States than he was in New Japan.  He didn't even work this year's Tokyo Dome, instead announcing parts of the show.

To say Liger was one of the most influential wrestlers of the modern era is perhaps an understatement.  It's impossible to accurately account for how many talents he inspired and/or pushed to follow the style of wrestling he helped cultivate in the 1990s New Japan Pro Wrestling, where Junior Heavyweights were treated as an attraction vs. undercard fodder.    Liger is an 11-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and a six time Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion.  It's impossible to think of a time where he wasn't part of the New Japan mix, either as a challenger, a champion or as the veteran the newer generation had to get past to make their own name.  When he retires, it will truly be the end of an era.

Liger, real name Keichi Yamada, was actually denied entry to the New Japan Dojo when he began trying to become a pro wrestler.  He instead went to Mexico, where he started his career and was later invited back to the New Japan dojo, which he has said happened only because NJPW officials at the time took pity on him.  He began training and like many other young stars, went on excursion to other countries, including Great Britain (where he worked as Flying Fuji Yamada) and Canada, where he worked under his real name for Stu Hart's Stampede Wrestling.

Liger returned to New Japan in 1987 full-time and competed under his real name.  He was then given the Liger gimmick, based on a popular Japanese comic book and animated series, with the idea of creating a new Tiger Mask-like character, which had seen great success.  The Liger character debuted on 4/24/89 at the first-ever New Japan event at the Tokyo Dome, defeating Kuniaki Kobayashi.  As the character's look progressed, the outfit mixed with Liger's incredible aerial spots, including the shooting star press, caught the attention of all who saw it, even getting coverage on the George Michael Sports Machine series here in the United States.

It was Liger's rivalry with the late Brian Pillman that brought him his first real fanfare in the United States as the two feuded over the WCW Cruiserweight championship in late 1991 and early 1992, culminating in an amazing PPV bout at Superbrawl II that stole the show and set the stage for the modern day Cruiserweight style wrestling we see today.   The rivalry would be revisited on the first episode of Monday Nitro and Liger, through New Japan's working relationship with WCW, would continue to make appearances over the years.

Liger would also come to work for Ring of Honor, headlining a "Weekend of Thunder" events in New Jersey and Massachusets, where he worked against Bryan Danielson.  He would lost a non-title bout to then-ROH Champion Austin Aries and would make a number of subsequent appearances due to New Japan's working relationship with ROH.  In his announcement, Liger stated that he hoped to work Madison Square Garden at the G1 Supercard, which would be his debut in the venue.

Liger worked the 2005 Bound for Glory event for TNA, losing to Samoa Joe.  He would later return to the  company to represent New Japan as part of the 2006 World X Cup.

Liger made one appearance for WWE, at the first NXT Takeover: Brooklyn, defeating Tyler Breeze.  Liger was invited to work the show by William Regal, who he knew from his time in WCW and England, appearing as his NJPW deal allowed him to take outside bookings.  It will likely end up being his lone WWE appearance.

On a personal note, Liger has been and continues to be one of my favorite performers.  There was a period of time where if he was booked in the United States, I was getting on a plane to go to that event, because the idea of New Japan running the States, at that point, seemed silly and impossible.  Liger, when he worked here, was all about doing what he thought would get the crowd to react and there were times where I would question how he was booked to lose, only to find out that he called the finish, no matter how silly it seemed to me.    I could go on and on about what Liger means to me and what he's accomplished in his career - and I suspect I will in the months to come - but when January 2020 hits, and Liger exits the ring for the last time, there will be sadness, there will be respect, but there will also be the closing of the door on an amazing career, one that saw him overcome rejection to becomes one of the biggest stars of all time, that saw him overcome a brain tumor to return to the ring and one that saw him literally, create an iconic, immortal role in professional wrestling.

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