On September 16 at Destruction in Kagoshima, Minoru Suzuki forcibly took Jyushin Thunder Liger’s mask from his head, causing the masked legend to utter some chilling words. ‘You’ve crossed a line you shouldn’t have,’ Liger barked. After months of goading Liger verbally and assaulting him physically, taking the mask was the final straw, the point of no return.
At Destruction in Kobe, we got a taste of what that meant. Kishin Liger made only his fourth full appearance in 30 years, spraying mist in the eyes of Suzuki before almost driving a spike through his head. In all of Kishin Liger’s prior appearances, issues would fade quickly afterward. Jyushin Thunder Liger and the Great Muta went their separate ways. Taichi, driven through a table, was humbled, for a few weeks at least. Little was heard of Bad Boy Hido again. Yet Suzuki passed his point of no return and kept running, all the way to New Japan Road in Korakuen hall on October 7.
Rather than appear in any way intimidated after Kishin reared his head in Kobe, Suzuki again pulled Liger to the outside of the ring, brawled with him in the crowd and threatened to snap his arm in the ring. As his tag match broke down, Suzuki brought a pair of chairs into the equation, and gave one to Liger, challenging him to a duel.
Clashing steel echoed through Korakuen Hall as both were swinging for one another’s heads. Already having lost control of the match, referee Marty Asami tried to break things up for the safety of all concerned. Then Liger finally broke the camel’s back by cracking Asami’s spine, drawing a disqualification. Suzuki and Liger were pulled apart before the self-crowned king of pro wrestling uttered a name NJPW fans haven’t heard in over 30 years.
‘Yamada! Is that how you’re going to end your wrestling life?’
Keiichi Yamada had wrestled in high school with the goal of turning pro, but was turned away from the New Japan Dojo initially, instead taking a longer route through Mexico. He would eventually enter the New Japan Dojo in 1984, debuting on March 3 that year. Emerging in turbulent times, Yamada would earn the interest of many a fan, as would those who joined the Dojo slightly afterward, names that included Keiji Muto, Masahiro Chono and Shinya Hashimoto. It was in this mix that Yamada made the finals of the first ever Young Lion Cup in 1985, before winning the second tournament in the spring of 1986.
Yamada would go on excursion to Stampede in Calgary and All Star in the UK. He returned for a spell in 1988, a run that included participating in the precursor to Best of the Super Juniors, then known as Top of the Super Juniors. He would also challenge for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, albeit unsuccessfully, twice. Once was against Owen Hart, and the second, in December, against Shiro Koshinaka. In the first match that evening were a pair of Young Lions wrestling to a time limit draw; men named Takayuki (later Takashi) Iizuka and Minoru Suzuki.
Suzuki and Yamada passed like ships in the night, but they had similar guidance. Antonio Inoki would encourage Yamada to train in Sambo and other martial arts. Suzuki would undertake similar training, as would Iizuka, on excursion in Georgia. Yamada, eager to sharpen his skills further in order to gain results, would head back to the UK in the end of 1988 as Suzuki was taken under Inoki’s wing as his personal attendant. This was all for a short period however; Suzuki decided to gamble and left NJPW for UWF in March 1989; one month later Yamada was gone for good, and Jyushin Liger was here.
Just why would Suzuki address Keiichi Yamada in Korakuen Hall on October 7? Perhaps it was an acknowledgement that their past goes even further back than their November 30 2002 Pancrase fight, a fight that Liger took at short notice to defend the honour of pro wrestling against an MMA pioneer. Perhaps it was an appeal to the fighter beneath the larger than life Liger. The fighter that asked for a couple more years of sparring before another mixed martial arts fight in 2002, or that promised he’d come for Suzuki’s neck after being kicked low in December 2012.
Where Jyushin Thunder Liger spread the positive message of professional wrestling across Japan and the world, perhaps Suzuki wanted to strip him to the bare Keiichi Yamada, to fight and not to wrestle, despite Liger’s protestations that ‘anyone on the streets of Shinjuku can go out on the street and fight with weapons’. Perhaps Suzuki wants to do more than just destroy the image of Jyushin Thunder Liger, the global wrestling legend, but to break the spirit of Keiichi Yamada the man before both can walk into the sunset in the Tokyo Dome. With Liger promising a ‘fight to the death’ Monday in Ryogoku, Minoru Suzuki may once again be playing a dangerous game.