5-Star Match Reviews: Jushin Thunder Liger vs. El Samurai - April 30th, 1992, by Alex Podgorski

New Japan Pro-Wrestling is said to be the home of the best cruiserweight wrestlers in the world. That has been the narrative around junior heavyweights for almost thirty years. And while it’d hard to argue that fact today (since they boast fantastic talent like Will Ospreay, Hiromu Takahashi, Ryu Lee, Roppongi 3K and many others), let’s see if it was true back in the 1990s, when junior heavyweight wrestling was first exploding onto the scene.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

This match took place on April 30th, 1992, at the final of the Top of Super Juniors Tournament. That is an annual tournament done to crown the best junior heavyweight wrestler in the world. And if the winner isn’t already IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, they get a shot at said title down the road. In this year’s edition, El Samurai had the most points going into the match, while Liger had the second-most points and was the champion going in. He was hoping to become the first tournament participant to win while also champion.

The match

Liger extends his hand but samurai spits in his face. The bell rings and a clean break ends in a stalemate. Samurai wins the second tie-up and slaps Liger around. Samurai takes Liger down and tries to rip the mask off, and tosses him out of the ring when he fails to do so. Samurai gets a foreign object and whacks Liger over the head with it several times and then tombstones Liger ringside. Samurai gets booed in the ring and delivers another tombstone and goes for the mask again. He tries to rip the mask off in a camel clutch and then smashes Liger’s head into the turnbuckles. Liger escapes a rope choke but can’t escape a knee to the gut after getting whipped by Samurai.

Samurai locks in a modified double arm submission hold to destroy Liger’s back. A jawbreaker sends Liger down and Samurai goes for the mask again. Then Samurai decides to mock Liger by locking in Liger’s signature Romero special hold. You can hear Liger wailing in pain. The fans chant Liger’s name as Samurai transitions it into the Daniel Bryan-style dragon sleeper. It looks like Liger’s being bent in half.

Samurai whips Liger, lands a forearm smash and continues to hammer away on him. Liger eats several right hands from Samurai until he fires back with one shotei palm thrust that sends Samurai down. Liger’s furious as he starts punching a downed Samurai as the ref keeps warning him. Undeterred, Liger suplexes Samurai over the rope to the ringside mats and then Ligerbombs him as well.

Back in the ring, Liger lands a rolling koppu kick and almost rips Samurai’s mask off completely. Liger tosses Samurai out of the ring, scoop slams him on the mats, then hits a diving senton onto him from the top rope. That was cool.

Back in the ring, Liger hits another Ligerbomb, a diving shotgun dropkick and a top-rope knee drop. He whips samurai and locks in a sleeper hold and then drops him after a few seconds. Samurai tries to fight his way out of a German suplex but fails and Liger drops him hard. Liger whips Samurai into a corner and drills him with another rolling koppu kick, followed by a flurry of shotei palm thrusts. By this point, Samurai’s mask has fallen off completely. Another rolling koppu kick sends Samurai out of the ring and Liger lands a diving moonsault splash onto Samurai outside.

Samurai returns to the ring at the ref’s count of fourteen and Liger takes him down with a rolling kimura of sorts. Samurai writhes in pain until he reaches the rope. The ref makes Liger back off, but Liger charges Samurai and locks the same hold again as soon as he can. Samurai reaches the ropes with his foot again. Liger whips Samurai, but he ducks a shotei and hits a flying forearm smash. He scoop slams Liger and lands a shotgun dropkick of his own. Liger escapes the ring but can’t escape Samurai as he lands a gorgeous somersault plancha over the top rope.

Back in the ring, Samurai hits a hangman’s neckbreaker and a Sting-style scorpion death drop in quick succession. Those moves get the first two-count of the match. Samurai lands a Russian leg sweep into a modified armlock submission hold (the same one Steve Austin used on Bret Hart in their WrestleMania 13 epic match) as the fans chant desperately for Liger. Liger refuses to quit, even as Samurai wrenches the hold as much as possible.

After a struggle, Liger manages to escape the hold and the fans cheer some more. Samurai whips Liger and locks in his own sleeper hold, but this time with a bodyscissors to make it harder for Liger to escape, but Samurai does eventually.

Samurai puts Liger on the top rope and teases a superplex, but Liger blocks it. They struggle for a bit until Liger punches him off and lands a diving splash for a 2.5-count. Liger lands a tombstone and goes for a follow-up diving move, but Samurai dodges. Liger rolls through and tries a dropkick, but Samurai blocks that too. Samurai attempts a running frankensteiner but runs right into a ligerbomb that gets a 2.75-count. Liger hoists Samurai onto the top rope and lands an avalanche electric chair suplex for another 2.75-count.

He whips Samurai again, but this time Samurai reverses into a pinning frankensteiner that gets him a 2.5-count of his own. German suplex by Samurai gets a two-count. Samurai attempts a diving splash but Liger gets up and shoves him away. Liger puts Samurai on the top turnbuckle and drills him with a second-rope diving DDT. He follows that with a huge back suplex from the top rope. Then Liger signals the end and the crowd goes wild. Liger puts Samurai on the top rope again and lands a diving frankensteiner.

The ref counts one…two…three at 21:15. That’s it!

Winner: Jushin Thunder Liger

You can watch the match here: https://www.bilibili.com/video/av12495536/

Review

I never thought I’d ever say/type this, but I was disappointed in a Liger match. This bout simply didn’t have any flow to it. There was no inner story, threadbare psychology, and very little in terms of drama. The only real story was centered on Liger and Samurai trying to unmask each other. While that did elicit a reaction from the crowd, it didn’t really add to the drama of the match. Both Liger and Samurai wrestled at the same pace before and after their respective masks were attacked. At least Liger showed more aggression when his was attacked. Samurai got his mask torn off almost entirely yet that didn’t light a fire under his ass the same way it did for Liger.

Furthermore, both guys just hit big moves on each other without much rhyme or reason. I understand throwing bombs at each other; that can work in some big matches if done well. But that wasn’t the case here.  They tried to make this match all about the athleticism and big moves, but even that didn’t work. Sure, Liger’s dives and picture-perfect move execution was amazing in 1992 as it is now, but it doesn’t feel significant if done gratuitously or without reason.

This was supposed to be the pinnacle of NJPW’s junior heavyweight style in the early 1990s, but it didn’t feel that way. There was too much senseless brawling and head punches. The actual cruiserweight elements were few and far between, with only a few cool-looking aerial maneuvers sprinkled here and there throughout the match.

There was also a pitiful lack of psychology in this match. Neither wrestler tried to make the other submit with painful submission holds, nor did either of them target a limb to weaken the other for later on in the match. And this was New Japan, a company that prided and promoted itself as a strong style company, in which matches were legit and as realistic as possible. If that’s so, then why did Liger’s only submission hold in the match happens three quarters of the way through and without any lead-up or follow-up?

Final Rating: ***1/2

This match’s quality is widely overblown. Sure, seeing two guys move quickly and hit crazy dives in 1992 was cool, but not five-star-historical-match-of-epic-proportions-level cool.  The match had very little drama since almost nothing happened for the first ten minutes. Liger and Samurai even tried to make a big deal out of attacking each other’s masks.

That didn’t work for two reasons. First, Liger had opponents attacking his mask in matches before this, and it didn’t make much difference. Secondly, even though Liger and Samurai were influenced by Mexican lucha libre, there was nothing in this match to suggest they were wrestling under lucha libre rules or codices.

If this was announced as an actual luchas de apuestas match (i.e. a true wager match with masks or other wagers on the line), this would’ve been infinitely better. Instead, it felt like a haphazard contest precious little in the way of story or significance.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.