We continue our countdown to Jyushin Thunder Liger’s retirement.
As the calendar rolled around to 1997, it felt as if Jyushin Thunder Liger, and junior heavyweight wrestling at large, was about to turn the corner into a new era. With their black tights, black boots, and aggressive straightforward styles, Shinjiro Otani, Koji Kanemoto and Tatsuhito Takaiwa represented a breed of junior heavyweight wrestler that stood in stark contrast to the high flying colourful figures like Liger, Great Sasuke, Hayabusa and Ultimo Dragon that had dominated the scene in the middle of the decade. Presentationally at least; in many ways Otani, Takaiwa and Kanemoto were throwbacks to the early days of the junior heavyweight division, and figures like Akira Maeda, and Nobuhiko Takada.
Presentationally and stylistically, both generations of wrestler owed much to the forebear of the original junior heavyweight boom; the first Tiger Mask who had disappeared from NJPW in 1982. In an incredible turn of events though, 1997 saw the man now known as Tiger King in the cerulean blue after a decade and a half, and Liger would share a ring with the division’s pioneer in two different tag bouts over the course of the year.
In terms of achievement however, it was January 4 that saw Liger’s 1997 highlight. Once again he started the year by wrestling Ultimo Dragon in the Tokyo Dome, but this time more than just the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship was at stake. This bout was for all eight titles of the J-Crown, and Liger would challenge the man who beat him in the first round of the J-Crown tournament for all the marbles.
Dragon sought to retain early by using the same Magistral cradle that had shockingly eliminated Liger in the summer ’96 tournament, but to no avail this time, as Liger stayed quick on his feet. As the match wore on, the contest evolved into both men trying to land the biggest move possible; Liger would hurl Dragon with a mammoth German Suplex, but Dragon would headscissor Liger out of the ring, following up with an electrifying tope con giro.
Ultimately though it was a Steiner Screwdriver that gave the gold clad Liger victory, earning him the J-Crown and his eighth IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship in the process. Liger would lose the crown that summer to Best of the Super Juniors winner El Samurai, but his name would be forever etched into an elite club.
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