(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger vs. Shinjiro Otani – NJPW Fighting Spirit 1997
Once again we’re going back to what is quite possibly one of the most iconic years in pro-wrestling history, 1997. It might not have been the most financially-successful years for any company, but the calendar year was filled with amazing matches that, to this very day, have withstood the test of time.
All Japan’s Mitsuharu Misawa carried the first half of the year with a godlike title win in January and then an amazing title defense in June. WWE put on both the best match in WrestleMania history and the best gimmick match ever. WCW proved that you can have great matches in under fifteen minutes with this historic battle between Eddy Guerrero and Rey Mysterio. And New Japan was home to many technical masterpieces, including the match we’re looking at today, twenty-five years after it first took place.
It’s time to look back at the J-Crown title match between Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger and Shinjiro Otani from NJPW Fighting Spirit 1997.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-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. Also, special thanks to one of TJRWrestling’s regular readers for recommending this match to me.
This was a title match between champion Liger and challenger Otani. But it wasn’t for just one title; it was for the J-Crown Octuple Unified Championship. In other words, eight belts were on the line in this match.
The J-Crown was a short-lived albeit interesting wrestling experiment. In an attempt to determine who was the very best junior heavyweight wrestler in the world, several companies put their respective junior titles on the line in a tournament with the winner taking and then defending all of them. The titles were:
- The British Commonwealth Junior Heavyweight Championship that belonged to Michinoku Pro Wrestling (MPW) and was held by Jushin Liger
- The IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship that belonged to New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and was held by The Great Sasuke
- The NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship that belonged to the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and was held by Masayoshi Motegi
- The NWA World Welterweight Championship that belonged to Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre (CMLL) and was held by Negro Casas
- The UWA World Junior Light Heavyweight Championship that belonged to the Universal Wrestling Association (UWA) and MPW and was held by Shinjiro Otani
- The WAR International Junior Heavyweight Championship that belonged to Wrestle Association R (WAR) and was held by Último Dragón
- The WWA World Junior Light Heavyweight Championship that belonged to the World Wrestling Association (WWA) and was held by Gran Hamada; and
- The WWF Light Heavyweight Championship that belonged to WWE and was held by El Samurai
Sasuke was the first champion but he lost the title(s) to Dragón in November 1996. Then, Liger won the J-Crown and its eight belts from Dragón at New Japan’s 1997 Tokyo Dome show. In this match, he hoped to retain all eight belts against Otani, the former UWA World Junior Light Heavyweight Champion.
This was going to be a difficult challenge; Liger was no longer the high-flyer of yesteryear due to several health issues including a serious ankle injury and a (benign) brain tumor. He decided it was better for him to keep the flying to a minimum and focus more on power moves and mat wrestling. But that latter area was where Otani excelled. Otani was basically a scientific grappling genius in the same vein as Chris Benoit or Bryan Danielson. Despite his relative youth and lack of experience, was dangerous and noted for his ability to transition into lethal submission holds.
With such high stakes, it was anyone’s guess who’d win. Would Liger withstand both his worthy opponent and his own body’s limitations or would Otani grapple his way to victory and both reclaim his old title and win seven new ones?
This match originally took place on February 9th, 1997. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up after twenty-five years.
Otani comes to the ring first and gets a big ovation. Then Liger’s entrance starts and he gets one of the most boss entrances in New Japan history. Four gorgeous swimsuit models walk ahead of him carrying seven of the eight belts that represent his J-Crown. Liger walks behind them wearing the most important title belt, the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, around his waist.
This is for Liger’s J-Crown. They shake hands and then charge into a lock-up. Both men struggle to gain the first advantage and then trade control against the ropes. Otani gets a clean break on the second lock-up and slaps Liger, which leads to Liger angrily pushing forward and then getting trapped in a side headlock. Neither man goes down on the shoulder tackle spot and then Otani drops Liger with a spinkick. He tries another headlock but Liger counters with a back suplex. Otani charges but Liger dropkicks his knee. Liger stomps on that knee and then hits a dragon screw leg whip. It takes Liger a lot of effort to lift Otani to his feet due to that leg damage so Liger dropkicks that same knee as soon as Otani’s vertical. Liger applies a prison lock and smacks Otani back down to the mat each time he tries to lessen the pressure. After failing to attack Liger’s mask, Otani traps Liger’s arm but Liger quickly escapes and locks in a legbar.
Realizing he can’t counter Liger, Otani crawls to the ropes to force a break. Liger lets go but instantly starts dropping knees onto Otani’s knee and then rubs his foot in Otani’s face. Otani starts fighting back with stomps and kicks (despite being worked over seconds earlier) and then switches to slaps. They struggle against the ropes until Liger traps Otani’s leg between the ropes. The ref orders a break and Otani lands another spinkick and starts hitting stiff corner forearms. Liger replies with the same and goes back to Otani’s bad leg. But Otani reverses, drives his forearm into Liger’s face, and manages to trap Liger’s right arm. Liger frees himself so Otani starts attacking his left arm with knees and a cross armbreaker attempt. Liger grapples out and counters with a cross-legged surfboard hold, then switches to a lotus lock and traps both of Otani’s arms with his feet. Otani counters that and goes after Liger’s ankle and Liger starts screaming and squirming (which makes sense given that he damaged his left ankle badly three years earlier). Otani stops and goes back to Liger’s left arm but Liger blocks another armbar attempt. Otani counters Liger’s counter and locks it in but Liger gets a ropebreak. Except Otani ignores the break and wrenches Liger’s arm as much as he can.
Otani stomps on Liger’s arm and chest, then chokes him in the corner and hits shoulders to the gut. He follows with a facewash and a jumping armbreaker, and then pulls Liger up for a huge over-the-shoulder armbreaker. Despite Liger’s screaming, Otani doesn’t relent as he lands another one and then stomps away on Liger’s arm. Otani tries another side armbar but Liger counters with another legbar, only for Otani to roll them both to the ropes. Liger starts stomping but Otani keeps him at bat with kicks from a guarded position, then locks yet another Fujiwara armbar while also using his knee to stretch Liger’s arm even more. Otani tries both a crossface and another armbar as different submission hold options, but Liger counters back to a leglock of his own. Both men struggle to their feet and get a clean break in a corner, which leads to Liger slapping Otani as hard as he can.
Liger charges into the corner with a massive shotei palm thrust but reels back in pain. On his next charge he switches to a rolling koppu kick which sends Otani to the floor. Liger goes to the top rope and hits a plancha to the floor. Liger recovers quickly and decides to punish Otani some more. Powerbomb onto the ringside mats. Then he goes to whip Otani into the steel barricade. Otani counters and Liger hits it back-first instead. Otani follows with his own one-shoulder powerbomb onto the mats. He follows with a dive from the apron and then throws Liger back into the ring. The crowd, which was watching quietly and studiously thus far, starts waking up. Otani goes for a springboard dropkick. Liger dodges and locks in a majistral cradle. One, two, Otani kicks out. Liger goes to the top-rope again. Super Frankensteiner. Otani pulls a Rey Mysterio and counters the pin. One, two, th – Liger kicks out. Otani lands on his feet off a German suplex and connects with a wheel kick. He goes for a dragon suplex, Liger blocks, and Otani switches to a bridging German suplex that gets another two-count. So that’s where Tanahashi got that idea.
The crowd comes alive as Otani whips Liger into a corner. He charges…and runs into a lariat from Liger. Liger pins but Otani grabs the rope. Running Ligerbomb. Otani kicks out. Liger attempts a Brainbuster. Otani blocks and then lands behind Liger and hits another German. He follows with a successful springboard dropkick and then connects with a picture-perfect bridging dragon suplex. One, two, thr – no, Liger still kicks out. Otani tries another dragon but Liger resists and gets to the ropes. Otani ducks a lariat but then runs into a full-contact shotei. One, two, Otani kicks out. Liger follows with not one but two Fisherman Busters. But he’s not done. He goes for a sheerdrop Brainbuster. Otani counters in midair and lands on top of Liger in a press position. Otani puts Liger on the top turnbuckle but Liger hits another shotei. Otani keeps trying to hit some move off the top rope but Liger keeps hitting him and cutting him off. But Otani fights through, lands some head-butts, and then connects with a super Frankensteiner. Springboard wheel kick by Otani connects. One, two, thr – Liger kicks out once more. But Otani thinks he has won. Otani crawls over for another pin. Liger kicks out again. And again and again.
Otani pulls Liger up but Liger collapses. He does the title belt gesture to signal the end and goes for another dragon suplex. Liger fights out and starts hitting shoteis. Otani braces himself and takes them like a champ. Liger keeps hitting Otani in the face as hard as possible but Otani stands firm. Liger charges and hits a running shotei. Otani goes down. One, two, and three! Liger wins and retains his titles!
Winner and STILL J-Crown Champion after 27:14: Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger
If there was ever proof that giving wrestlers freedom to tell their stories in the ring without overcomplicating things is a superior booking strategy, it’s this match. This was simple and straightforward, yet it was also one of the most compelling matches I’ve seen out of New Japan in a very long time. It wasn’t some forced, grandiose epic; instead, it was a technical marvel that had lots of nail-biting tension. By no means was it the best junior heavyweight match ever, but it sure came close.
The story here was that both wrestlers had to wrestle smartly if they were going to win. The first half of the match was built on technical grappling more than anything else. Both Liger and Otani were once voted ‘Best Technical Wrestler’ by the Wrestling Observer’s readers, and this match was an example as to why. They spent a long time working over limbs, exploiting weaknesses, and countering each other with fluid and seamless transitions. Liger tried to target Otani’s leg while Otani favored a two-pronged approach that saw him attack Liger’s leg and his arm. Both wrestlers tried to take away each other’s striking advantages, but neither one was particularly successful. Otani got closer to winning thanks to his coordinated attack on Liger’s arm, which also benefitted him by weakening Liger’s shotei palm thrusts. Whereas one or two would’ve likely ended Otani had Liger’s arm been healthy, Otani’s arm targeting in this match weakened the shotei’s effectiveness to the point that it took many more to keep Otani down.
And while the first half was all about technical wizardry, the second half was all about drama. After both men realized that submissions weren’t going to do the job, they chose to trade bombs and near-falls in a classic, AJPW-style way. Both wrestlers did their best to block or counter big finishers, and even when those moves were hit, both guys somehow kicked out. Otani was desperate to find any avenue to victory, which he showed through his facial expression and body language. His frustration mounted with Liger kick-out, which culminated with him running out of ideas. He went to the dragon suplex well one times too many and that spelled disaster for him. Liger was able to turn the match around at that point and basically nullify all of Otani’s armwork within minutes. While his arm had been giving him trouble throughout the match, Liger channeled his inner Beast God, fought through the pain, and just destroyed Otani with palm thrusts. Otani tried to tank them like a boss, but Liger was too much for him here. In the end, it was a simple running shotei that dropped Otani long enough for the three-count. No wonder Liger relied on that move more and more in the years and decades that followed; it won him this huge match whereas his regular finishers – the Ligerbomb, Brainbuster and Fisherman Buster – couldn’t get the job done.
That’s one of the biggest reasons why I enjoy all these old Japanese classics so much; they’re so much more unpredictable yet the finishes make complete sense when they happen.
But even though the wrestling was superb, there was a big problem with how this match was structured: there was almost no follow-through between the first and second halves. It was like Bret vs. Owen from WrestleMania X: that match had lots of armwork in the beginning that led to absolutely nothing. The same issue happened here but it was way more pronounced. Early on, it looked like Liger had smashed Otani’s knee to pieces yet seconds (not minutes; seconds) later, Otani was using spinkicks and stomps without selling at all. Liger was guilty of this same no-selling as well, though it wasn’t as bad in his case. He did no-sell his legs a bit, but he did sell his arm like crazy for Otani and struggled to capitalize on a counter lariat because his arm was still hurting. That sort of inconsistency might discourage viewers from enjoying this match fully. Both wrestlers spent so much time on the mat trying to make those various holds mean something in the larger narrative of the match, only for almost all of it to be forgotten minutes later. After all, why would Liger dive from the top rope moments after getting his ankle worked over? And why didn’t Otani use his elbows and forearms more early on to give his knee more time to recover before going on the offensive?
Final Rating: ****3/4
This was another case of a match being almost perfect yet being held down by something glaring that was too hard to ignore. The first half was all outstanding technical wrestling and the second half was desperation bombs, drama, and high-spots. There was no seamlessness between both halves; in fact, the difference between was so cut-and-dry that they might as well have been two different matches altogether.
This was still a great match, but lacking in follow-through. Had the stuff in the first half come up later and actually made more of a difference in the finishing sequence, then this match would be up there among the cream of the crop. And yet, I would still recommend watching this match a lot more than many modern New Japan junior matches. This one doesn’t feel so rushed and explosive; instead, it’s drawn out enough to tell a compelling story without dragging. In that sense, this match becomes a case of New Japan wrestlers using the 1990s All Japan style.
So if you want to see the best of New Japan’s 1990s junior heavyweights actually tell a story that goes beyond simple flips and dives, this is the match for you.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.