Minoru Suzuki is possibly the most feared wrestler in the world. Jyushin Liger is one of the best loved. They will meet in singles wrestling competition for the first time at King of Pro Wrestling, scant months ahead of Jyushin Liger’s retirement match, the capper on his 31 year career.
Suzuki and Liger have been feuding violently for most of the year. Suzuki is, on the surface, the furthest thing from Jyushin Liger it is possible to be, while still being a New Japan wrestler.
Liger is a character based on an anime, wearing a full body suit and elaborate mask, with flowing hair he flicks away from his horns. He has horns. He has a cape with leopard print shoulder pads and a glittering lining. Suzuki wears black trunks, short boots and closely cropped hair. He enters wearing a towel over his head, like Mike Tyson – and that’s it. There are no other accessories.
Liger’s style started as high flying and flashy – he’s become more conservative as he’s aged, but still throws big moves, rolling koppo kicks and shotes, generous, elegant and fun. Suzuki is a vicious mat based submission wrestler with a decade of MMA competition under his belt – he doesn’t give his opponents space to move, or breathe. The most generous thing he does is a hanging armbar on the ropes, and it’s terrifying.
Liger, though hidden behind a mask, is friendly. He high fives audience members, hugs children, makes people laugh. Suzuki scowls, attacks ringside attendants, steals people’s chairs to hit opponents with.
Many years ago, they were both talented young men, who entered the New Japan dojo training system a few years apart. Even here, though, their paths are markedly different.
Keiichi Yamada was a wrestler in high school, in the 80’s. He was rejected from the New Japan Dojo for being too short. The height requirements were waived only after he had trained (and almost starved) in Mexico, and had been recommended to New Japan as an unmissable talent.
He debuted with New Japan in 1984 and started a series of international excursions in 1986 – the same year that young Minoru Suzuki, all of eight centimeters taller than Yamada, started training with New Japan.
Suzuki was also a high school wrestler – one who started training explicitly to become strong enough to fend off bullies. He was, however, accepted first try and apparently became a favourite of Antonio Inoki – personally assisting him, facing him in a rare match. This was a sign that even though still a Young Lion, big things were expected of Suzuki’s career with New Japan.
Suzuki was training while Yamada was having international success as a babyface, at a time when foreigners were still pretty much just sideshows. Suzuki had a string of losses against Sasaki Kensuke, who at the same time had a string of losses against Yamada. There’s no doubt that worked in the dojo together, and a good chance Yamada was someone Suzuki was meant to emulate.
There’s footage of a Junior Heavyweight title match between Owen Hart and Yamada Keiichi from late 1988. In a few frames, you can just see Suzuki Minoru holding the ropes open for Yamada, who nods to him.
This was the closest they’d get to sharing a ring until 2002.
In 1989, Suzuki left New Japan to follow his trainer Yoshiaki Fujiwara in a new venture – the burgeoning MMA market. He started a different kind of training, including working with Karl Gotch. He first appeared under the UWF banner the same month as Jyushin Thunder Liger made his Tokyo Dome debut.
Yamada was, allegedly, the second choice to be Liger – the spectacular beast god, ripped from fiction, was meant to be someone else. However, his charisma, energy and skill mean that he has far outstripped the TV show he was meant to promote. The name and mask became synonymous with his distinctive style – there have been multiple Tiger Masks, but only one Jyushin Thunder Liger. It’s likely that he will retire the mask, that there will be no Ligers after him. Despite the outlandish, demonic face, he’s a relatable character – offering to shake hands, chatting to audiences, joking with referees. He’s not only an international star, but internationally beloved. It’s hard to imagine a modern wrestler willing to take on a legacy so weighty, so demanding.
While Liger was building a legend, Suzuki was building a new sport. His slithery, brutal catch wrestling shaped MMA, helped solidify PANCRASE as a brand in Japan. This is quite probably why he left NJPW – instead of working under Inokii to form a compromise combat performance, Suzuki struck out with independent success. He flavoured his shoot fights with intimidating entrances and dramatic celebrations, an emotional performer even in the most legitimate of matches – weeping at a loss to Maurice Smith, smirking at his own dirty work against Ken Shamrock.
One was cosseted, marked for success, but rejected the company and forged his own path. The other was rejected, but once he proved himself, remained loyal. They were both brutally hard workers, appearing monthly for their companies, injuring themselves again and again. They were both famous for innovation, presence, the power to engage audiences.
But they were in different professions: there was no clear reason for them to fight each other.
When they did, it was almost an accident.
SUZUKI’S RETIREMENT MATCH
By the early 2000’s, Suzuki, now in his mid-thirties, had a string of injuries and losses in PANCRASE. He was – reluctantly – ready to retire from shoot fighting.
As such, his last fight was meant to be an exhibition more than an actual competition – something crowd pleasing and uncomplicated that meant he could end his MMA career on a high.
Suzuki was meant to fight Kensuke Sasaki – his rival as a Young Lion, who had a few years’ MMA training under his belt. He was still with NJPW at the time, had been IWGP champion the previous year. It would have been a nice parallel, and probably a decent match.
But Sasaki, citing injury, declined – and Suzuki needed a New Japan star to face.
Liger was 38. He hadn’t fought an MMA match for over a decade. He had wound back most of his high impact moves after brain surgery to remove a tumour in 1996. Like being Liger, he wasn’t the first choice. He didn’t have to step up – but he did. Keiichi Yamada always steps up.
He’s not wearing his full bodysuit, which would put him at a massive disadvantage, but trunks and a half mask. His hair is in a ponytail and he’s wearing the fingerless gloves of the industry. Suzuki wears white trunks and boots, kept for special occasions.
In this fight, Liger feints a few times – Suzuki keeps his distance, dancing. Liger goes for a rolling koppo kick and is almost immediately mounted. Suzuki hits him in the head a few times – not lightly, but not as viciously as he could. They’re face to face, belly to belly for almost the whole match – which lasts all of two minutes, as Suzuki gets a rear naked choke and Liger taps.
The fight is less interesting than the aftermath – Suzuki is carried around the ring by his team, celebrating not this win but the wins he’s had at PANCRASE. Liger stands, checking his mouth for blood, then grabs Suzuki by the shoulders. They hug, both grinning.
After a moment, Suzuki takes a microphone and formally thanks Liger, bowing. Liger, relentlessly a showman, cuts a wrestling promo on him, saying that in a few years, with training, he’ll be able to beat Suzuki. They shake hands.
It’s shorter and probably much friendlier than a match between Suzuki and Sasaki would have been. It’s not much as a fight, but as a meeting of icons, it’s incredibly fun. You can hear someone ringside cackling with joy, as I have done many times, watching a match that was more delightful than I could have expected.
Remember, Liger debuted the same month as Suzuki’s first UWF match. They chose their unique, distinctive paths almost at the same time. Did they discuss it? Did they look at this convergence of their careers with astonishment?
We might imagine what Suzuki would have become, had he stayed in New Japan. How was Suzuki’s development altered by his sojourn into a sport where the injuries are intentional and the results aren’t determined in advance? Perhaps he would have been less brutal, but probably much the same. His character seems set even in the earliest matches – competitive, ambitious, already frightening.
Can we also picture a Liger (Yamada) who never came in from the cold? A Japanese luchador, far from home, with a face no one remembers? Early in his career, under the NJPW banner, he fought and won a few MMA matches – if things had been a little different, he might have had a successful career in shoot fighting. It’s easy, in this context, to imagine them swapping places.
Instead, Suzuki gravitated to what he had originally trained in. He was appearing in wrestling promotions by 2003, gathered a faction of bullies around him called Suzuki-gun (roughly, Suzuki’s army), and has had global success as a terrifying heel – while Liger has remained a wildly popular face.
Both crave audience attention – and though Liger primarily aims for love and Suzuki for terror, both have dabbled in each other’s métier.
MINORU SUZUKI VS THE MECHAMUMMY
The thing about being universally acknowledged as a genuinely scary badass shoot fighter is you can do whatever you like. No one will stop respecting you, because they’re afraid you’ll break their arm. (Suzuki did break a man’s arm during a match in 1993.)
Suzuki didn’t sign with New Japan right away. He did a few tours in other promotions, in other countries. Probably the most surprising to those who know him as a hardcore shoot fighter is his work with DDT.
Japan’s foremost comedy wrestling company, DDT mixes legitimate athleticism with absurd buffoonery for some of the best, most baffling entertainment available. With DDT, Suzuki fought an hour long match against Sanshiro Takagi in an abandoned Tokyo Dome, replete with slapstick. He decided to train oily pervert Michael Nakazawa, only pelt him with medicine balls and knock out one of his teeth. During a tour, he had picked a fight with an idol group called the Up Up Girls (he won).
The most famous of his DDT feuds was against Mecha Mummy. As the name might imply, Mecha Mummy is a cyborg wrapped in bandages. There’s probably a reason why Mecha Mummy is the way he (?) is, but no reason that’s good.
The point is, Minoru Suzuki had two different matches with an undead robot who wields a spinning lance and rocket fist. Their first match ends with them both blasting off into space. During their outdoor match – DDT having made outdoor matches their trademark – they stop fighting several times to a) avoid disturbing a blooming daisy, b) engage in some badminton and c) go fishing. Mecha Mummy is wearing crocs throughout this match. It ends when Suzuki does a Gotch style piledriver into a creek, exploding the both of them. Suzuki staggers into the auditorium with Mecha Mummy’s head, in an ostensibly touching scene.
This is the most scary man in wrestling, clowning around with a character that would have been rejected as an early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles villain. As feared as Suzuki is, it’s clear he’s in this for the entertainment as much as anything else.
On the flip side, Jyushin Liger, universally loved, is, sometimes, to be feared.
KISHIN LIGER VS ALL COMMON DECENCY AND SENSE
The first time anyone removed Liger’s mask, it was the Great Muta. Muta was a poison spitting heavyweight famous for his supernatural presentation. He humiliated Liger, shredded Liger’s mask and left him facedown in the middle of the ring.
Liger rose, and tore the remains of the mask away – as well as his body suit. He revealed a painted face and chest, his long hair unrestrained, wet from sweat and soon, blood, as weapons were introduced, including the pointed steel spike used for setting up the ring.
He does not win. Muta was a top heavyweight as well as a savage cheater, and pins him at the end of a fifteen minute war. This was 1996 – weeks after the brain surgery that left him deaf in one ear.
The alter ego of Liger is called Kishin Liger – meaning something like demon god – and was never explained, never teased and went away as suddenly as it appeared.
Kishin Liger wasn’t seen for another decade.
In 2006, hardcore wrestler Bad Boy Hido cut some of Jyushin Liger’s hair with scissors after defeating him in a match. Kishin Liger challenged him to a rematch, and Hido, mockingly, accepted.
We know something is off as soon as Liger enters. A towel is gathered around his head. His music – the fun kids’ cartoon theme tune – changes one bar in, mixed into something scarier, more dramatic. Instead of throwing his arms open to the crowd, he’s hunched. He’s imposing, not exciting – then the towel comes off, and he charges the ring.
His face is painted. It looks like his eyes are bleeding. He moves his neck and shoulders unnaturally, a living horror movie. He spits a mouthful of something red and grins.
Both participants wield weapons, both bleed. Liger wins this match and staggers out, grinning like the violence gave him pleasure.
Kishin Liger appeared again in 2012 – when his mask was torn away by some of Suzuki’s army, and he produced that terrible painted face and a spike again. He spits red mist, baffling his opponents. He wins this match, and has to be calmed by Tiger Mask, his tag partner.
September of this year, at the peak of a multi-man tag match, Suzuki took Liger’s mask off. He was left, face down in the middle of the ring, covered by Young Lions’ shirts.
This is the first time since 1990 Liger has been unmasked, unpainted, in the ring (incidentally, that last time had been an MMA fight, which he won). He’s furious. He stands, still hidden by the clothes of the next generation of stars, and announces he’s coming for Suzuki’s neck. He throws the microphone to the ground and leaves.
Suzuki, in a backstage promo, claimed that he wanted a match not with Jyushin Liger, but the “real you”. Did he mean Yamada Keiichi, unseen in wrestling for over thirty years, or did he mean the monster Kishin Liger?
In their next match, he got Kishin Liger.
In one of the most terrifying transformations yet, Liger attacked Suzuki on the ramp, drove him into the ring, and when Suzuki tried to take his mask, Liger kicked him in between the legs. He then peeled his own mask off, revealing a roughly painted face of horror. He spits black mist into Suzuki’s face, and the referee’s. He’s bald, ragged, howling – and here’s the spike, again, driven into a table inches from Suzuki’s head.
Neither of them win. Suzuki retreats – it’s difficult to remember Suzuki ever retreating. Kishin Liger follows him out, shoving away Young Lions and team members, leaving his mask in the ring. This fight won’t be decided until their one on one match, on October 14th.
A MATCHED SET
These men, starkly different, are reflections of each other. They are the two ends of Japanese men’s wrestling – goofy and brutal, charming and intimidating, stunning performers, dedicated to the craft.
In the ecosystem of performative violence, neither have been at the top of the food chain for many years – but they are world famous veterans, who are cheered wherever they go, who can never put on a bad match. Both remain physically impressive – it takes a lifetime of unfailing training to be capable of what they are, at their age.
Suzuki may be too late to get the top belt in his weight class – Liger has had the belt in his own weight class more times than anyone else. They have nothing to lose, not really, not anything that matters. They have nothing to win either – everyone respects and fears them already.
They both refuse to accept the passage of time in their own ways – Suzuki has barely altered his appearance in 20 years and Liger’s body has been hidden by his eternal suit.
Which man has a more significant profile? Which performer gets the bigger pop? Who has influenced more young wrestlers, impacted the industry more? It’s impossible to determine.
They are each other’s equals – perhaps each other’s last standing equals.
People joke that Suzuki will never retire – and though I hope he won’t, I know he must.
Who will be his last opponent? Anyone from Zack Sabre Junior to Mecha Mummy might be appropriate. When? In five years, or ten, or, very possibly, in January. Liger has demanded that if Suzuki loses their one on one fight, he leave the company. It’s difficult to believe that Suzuki will leave after their upcoming fight on October 14th.
However, it almost makes sense. He’ll never again have a rival like Liger – someone who was there when he was a Young Lion, who was there when he trained, who saw the beginning and end of his MMA career. There will never again be a wrestler like Liger, who can beat Suzuki for years of experience, who can match his skill for drama, comedy, violence, tension.
Maybe this October match won’t be the end of their feud. Maybe they will meet again at Wrestle Kingdom, in January, maybe Kishin Liger will make them both retire. It would fit: for this to be Suzuki’s final fight as well as Liger’s. They shared their final MMA match, after all. Perhaps they will hug, as they did after that PANCRASE match. Perhaps they will chase each other out of the stadium, still grappling.
Whatever occurs, these very different men with very different careers have this in common: they will do everything in their power to make it unmissable.
Where uncredited, images from njpw1972.com
“Scream” vedette David Arquette has an extreme passion that almost cost him his life — professional wrestling.
Two years ago, Arquette faced off against ex-con Nick Gage in a deathmatch, the most violente style where the wrestlers swing chairs, baseball bats and the like.
With blood gushing from his neck, Arquette gets up and tries to pin Gage but can’t. He jumps out of the ring, holding his neck. Then, he climbs back in and smacks Gage with a folding peau. After a couple of minutes, though, Arquette is the one who gets pinned.
“It nearly cost me my life, ” Arquette told the Star of the match. “I was in way over my head. I was about half an inch from death…”
Arquette decided to go back into the ring after fellow pro wrestler Jack Perry, the son of late actor Luke Perry, assured him that he wasn’t bleeding to death. Perry is the one who took Arquette to the hospital.
Arquette told the Star : “I could hear Luke but I couldn’t see him, ” Arquette told the Star. “I said : ‘Luke is it pumping ? ’ because I was worried I was bleeding out and he said : ‘No it’s not pumping. ’ I knew at that point I wasn’t dying immediately, I could try to finish the match. ”
Arquette has had a lifelong love affair with wrestling, which is traced in a new documentary, “You Cannot Kill David Arquette. ” The film tells of how Arquette has spent the past two decades trying to earn back the respect of the wrestling world — after he won the 2000 World Championship Wrestling heavyweight title as a publicity stunt for his movie “Ready to Rumble. ”
In those years, the 49-year-old Arquette has battled heart problems and drug addiction. After the Gage match, Arquette’s wife, Christine, told him : “I just feel like you want to die, ” the actor recalled.
“I don’t want to die but life is painful, ” Arquette told the Star. “If you have addiction issues like I do there’s an element in the back of your head that the accro is literally trying to kill you. You have to find ways to deal with it so you don’t continue to kill yourself, either slowly or quickly. ”
For Arquette, wrestling helped him deal with the deaths of Luke Perry, a close friend who died of a stroke, and his transgender sister, Alexis, who died of a heart attack.
“Losing someone is really painful but a few things have happened to make me feel we are all much more connected, ” Arquette said. “For wrestling, you shave everything and at one point I was looking at my arms and it was like I was looking at Alexis’ arms, as being transgender she would shave them… For a deuxième it was like I was looking through Alexis’ eyes… I think we’re a lot more connected than any of us know. ”
Through the film, Arquette has finally learned to accept himself. “I accomplished what I set out to do, ” Arquette told the Star. “I wanted to prove I could be a wrestler. And through this whole experience, I figured out – and it’s ironic – I need to stop beating myself up. I had to stop attacking myself and be kind to myself, as corny as it sounds.