"A Tribute to Masked Wrestlers" is an ongoing series paying homage to the greatest pro wrestlers who have donned a mask in the ring.
The pioneering super-athlete Jushin Liger is considered by many to be the greatest junior heavyweight wrestler of all-time.
One of the most exciting wrestlers wore an outfit as stunning and memorable as his matches.
His wild, matted hair jutted out from behind his demonic, kabuki-esque horned mask. In a red and white bodysuit, Liger flew around the ring, amassing a collection of classic matches.
Like Tiger Mask before him, Jushin Liger (real name: Keiichi Yamada) was at first considered too small and spent the beginning of his career floundering before being given a character from a manga and anime series.
On April 24th, 1989 Yamada debuted as Jushin Liger vs. Kuniaki Kobayashi at the Tokyo Dome.
The wrestling world would never be the same.
Yamada's mask at the time looked more like a cross between a hockey goalie mask and Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat.
Following the plot of the anime series, Yamada's character evolved from Jushin Liger to Fire Liger to the phase most fans recognize, Jushin Thunder Liger.
Adversity Breeds Innovation
At only 5'7'' (1.7 m) New Japan Pro Wrestling bookers saw Yamada as too small.
While training and developing as a wrestler, Yamada sought an edge, something to help him stand out. His study of martial arts led to his adoption of the Rolling Koppu Kick, which he later made famous.
He wrestled as "Flying" Fuji Yamada in Europe and under his real name in Canada.
While wrestling for Stu Hart in Calgary, he also trained in the famed Hart Family Dungeon. His excellent technical skills were first developed during his time as a high school amateur in Japan, but Hart's guidance sharpened them.
Yamada improved tremendously during these tours, but didn't receive the attention or opportunities his talent deserved.
Inspired by the comic Fist of the North Star, Yamada created the Shooting Star Press which is still one of the most awe-inspiring moves in wrestling.
Godfather of the Cruiserweights
As Liger, Yamada found sudden success in Japan. In 1991, he debuted in WCW and exposed American fans to his dynamic style.
During his feud with Brian Pillman over the WCW Light Heavyweight Championship, Yamada wowed audiences with his speed and high-flying ability.
Yamada's matches with Pillman were fast-paced works of art.
Before Liger came along, WCW and American wrestling in general was dominated by bigger men. Fans were used to watching men like Lex Luger, Sid Vicious and Barry Windham slug it out.
Yamada's run proved that audiences could get behind smaller wrestlers.
He paved the way for the WCW cruiserweight boom of the late '90s, when the company brought in stars from like Psicosis and Ultimo Dragon.
In a thrilling match against the Great Muta in 1996, Yamada revealed another side of his character, Kishin Liger. Muta had worn down Liger and then tore off his mask.
With his face hidden in his hands and Muta stalking him with a steel chair, fans didn't know what to expect.
Yamada popped up on his feet revealing his painted face before spitting green mist into Muta's eyes.
He played the more brutal and aggressive Kishin Liger alter-ego sparingly, most notably in a hardcore match against Bad Boy Hido.
The moment against Muta demonstrated his feel for the spectacular, and how he continued to tweak his character to keep fans entertained.
It was this kind of flexibility and willingness to change that helped him extend his career after undergoing surgery for a brain tumor in 1996.
Yamada took to a more mat-wrestling focused style to reduce the stress on his body.
Though famous as he was for his aerial work, Yamada was as just as talented as a grappler.
Wrestling Observer Newsletter named him the Best Flying Wrestler from 1989-1993, but he also won their award for Best Technical Wrestler from 1989-1992.
Keiichi Yamada's impact on pro wrestling is immeasurable.
He helped legitimize the cruiserweight/junior heavyweight divisions in Japan and the U.S.
As a booker for New Japan, he created the Best of the Junior and Super J-Cup tournaments.
Psicosis emulated his mask, numerous wrestlers have adopted the Shooting Star Press and countless others have looked to Yamada as a major influence and inspiration.
Yamada wrestles today as Jushin Liger mostly on the independent circuit, giving fans the opportunity to see one of the all-time greats before he decides to permanently hand his mask over to the Hall of Fame and call it quits.
Jushin Liger is one of wrestling's most unforgettable characters, and Yamada one of its most extraordinary performers.