5-Star Match Reviews: Naoki Sano vs. Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger – NJPW, January 31st, 1990
Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential wrestlers of all time. He was a pioneer, a revolutionary, in the junior heavyweight wrestling style. Countless wrestlers have emulated and tribute him over the decades, such was his influence. If it weren’t for Liger, chances are there never would’ve been a platform to showcase stars like Rey Mysterio, Eddy Guerrero, Chris Jericho, just to name a few. And of course, we’d have never seen super-heavyweight Brock Lesnar performing a Shooting Star Press (sometimes perfectly, other times, not so much).
But how did Liger get so famous? Well, apart from being a superhuman monster that managed to wrestle consistently for thirty-six full years, he put on great matches throughout the decades. We’ve already seen one of his epic matches from WCW in 1992, but that wasn’t what really put Liger on the map in his native Japan.
This 5-star epic was voted Match of the Year in 1990 in the Wrestling Observer (as well as a 5-Star match rating from Dave Meltzer) and was considered way ahead of its time. But that was thirty years ago, and a lot has changed since then. So the question we must ask is, does this match withstand the test of time, or has it been eclipsed by the many matches of the same style that have been put on in its wake?
There is no story to this match. It’s a straightforward Junior Heavyweight Championship match between challenger Liger and defending champion Sano. It took place on January 31st, 1990, in Osaka, Japan.
Sano extends his hand for a handshake but Liger answers with a bitchslap and it’s on. Liger hits a fury of shotei palm thrusts followed by an Irish whip and a spinning wheel kick to Sano’s face. Liger continues his offensive with a running seated senton from the apron to the floor. Liger doesn’t let up and rushes Sano as he re-enters the ring. Sano shoves Liger away then snapmares Liger and starts punching him in the head before tossing him back out. He whips Liger into the steel ring barricade as some fans scream in horror. Sano hits a piledriver on the ringside mats followed by a tombstone piledriver back inside the ring. Sano’s so angry at Liger that he decides to rip Liger’s mask off. At least half of the mask gets ripped clean off.
Sano tosses Liger outside again and drives him head-first into two different steel ringposts. Back in the ring, Sano smashes Liger into one of the turnbuckles and then lands a picture-perfect piledriver followed by a leg drop to the back of Liger’s head. Liger sells all of this like he’s completely spent, barely moving at all.
Sano taunts the crowd as they chant Liger’s name, so he pins Liger but that only gets a two-count. He stomps on Liger for a bit until the ref pulls him away to check on Liger. The referee starts counting to make sure Liger can continue as Sano removes one of the turnbuckle pads. In New Japan, they have one long pad that covers all three rope corners instead of one for each rope as seen in WWE. Sano smashes Liger face-first into the now-exposed corner. Liger’s been busted open and his blood gets smeared on the white turnbuckle pad.
Sano punches Liger in the face several times and pins but it only gets two as fans applaud Liger’s effort. Superplex by Sano, but Liger kicks out at 2.5. Sano tries to pick Liger up again, but Liger crumples to the mat once more. He’s selling incredibly well, looking like he had just been through hell and back.
Liger musters enough strength to get up but Sano kicks him back down. Sano Irish whips Liger and kicks him hard in the gut and follows with a Boston Crab. Liger’s screaming in pain. Sano stomps on Liger some more before hitting a picture-perfect vertical suplex for another two-count.
Sano continues to target Liger’s face and neck with a Pedigree-like facebuster for a 2.5-count. He smashes various joints and limbs into Liger’s now-exposed head as his mask dangles loosely. Sano whips Liger into a corner but Liger jumps and hits a tilt-a-whirl headscissor takedown on Sano and then kicks him out of the ring. Liger then musters all his strength and then hits a gorgeous tope con hilo over the top rope into Sano and onto the barricade. That was beautiful.
Back in the ring, Liger whips Sano and hits a gorgeous tilt-a-whirl backbreaker to gain control over the match. He continues to target the back with a vicious-looking Romero Special, and midway through grabs Sano by the neck to pull on his spine as much as possible. Damn, that looks brutal. Sano escapes by thumbing Liger in the eye.
Both get up and Sano regains control with a standing Octopus hold that targets both of Liger’s arms. As Liger falls to the mat, Sano rips the mask some more, exposing Liger’s face completely. The referee checks on Liger again to see if he can continue. Liger can barely make it to his feet as Sano kicks him and lands a Perfectplex for another two-count, as does a bridging German Suplex. It’s back to the Boston Crab for Sano. He keeps it locked in until Liger gets his hands under the bottom rope, forcing a release.
But his reprieve doesn’t last long as Sano immediately cinches in a Fujiwara armbar. Sano raises Liger to his feet and hits a bridging dragon suplex for yet another 2.5-count. He pins Liger again, but the Beast God kicks out at 2.5 once more. Sano whips Liger…only for Liger reverses that and clotheslines Sano out of the ring. Sano gets back into the ring and Liger whips him and tries to hit some kind of dropkick, but Sano holds onto the ropes. Sano charges and hits a big lariat that gets another two-count. He whips Liger into the corner and hits a running dropkick onto Liger.
Liger tries to reverse a whip on Sano, but Sano flips from the top rope over a charging Liger. Sano tries to duck but Liger nails him with a rolling koppu kick. Another spin kick by Sano. Sano tries an Irish whip but its Liger’s turn to hold onto the ropes. Liger ducks a clothesline and reverses a sidewalk slam into a tilt-a-whirl headscissor. He charges at Sano, who ducks and sends him flying over the rope and out of the ring once again. Sano ascends the top turnbuckle and hits a huge diving splash onto Liger.
Liger makes it back into the ring at the ref’s count of eighteen. A trapping suplex by Sano gets another two-count. Sano attempts a superplex…but Liger lands on top of him and goes for a pin. The referee counts one…two…no, Sano kicks out. Liger goes for a Ligerbomb…but Sano reverses it into a pin…no, wait, Liger kicks out of that. Bridging tiger suplex by Sano…no, Liger gets his foot on the rope. Sano announces the end and goes for a backdrop…no, Liger reverses that as well. He pins Sano, but Sano kicks out again. What an awesome kickout sequence.
Bridging German suplex by Liger. Another two-count. The fans are chanting Liger’s name as both men are down. Liger whips Sano, who flips over Liger’s back and tries a hurricanrana…but runs right into a huge ligerbomb. NO, Sano kicks out of that as well. Tombstone piledriver by Liger. He climbs the top rope. SHOOTING STAR PRESS!
The referee counts one…two…three! That’s it.
Winner and NEW IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion after 20:00: Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger
While I did enjoy this match a lot, I didn’t think it was deserving of the 5-star treatment. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fun match and is actually structured pretty well. It’s just that…time hasn’t been kind to it. It just doesn’t hold up compared to the matches that have come after it, and feels less dramatic. Sure, it’s a great athletic contest, but the action was 80% Sano beating the tar out of Liger and Liger pulling off a decent comeback. It just lacked that level of epicness that has come to define many other 5-star matches.
If we compare this match to other 5-star epics in this series, what this match lacks is a sense of evenness between both competitors. Sano spends most of the match on offense, while Liger makes a comeback towards the end to win. To me, that takes away from the drama because there isn’t enough back-and-forth action to further the possibility that either man could win. Liger’s victory seems sudden and almost unrealistic given that he was selling Sano’s earlier offense like death yet still had enough strength at the end of the match to not only Powerbomb Sano without difficulty but also hit his patented Shooting Star Press perfectly.
That said, Sano deserves a heap of praise for how well he executed his moves. I honestly think he should’ve been the guy for video games companies to use as a motion capture model for wrestling video games. Everything he hit in this match was smooth and crisp. I’ve seen very few wrestlers land complex wrestling moves with his sense of precision and timing.
Final Rating: ****1/4
I cannot consider this a perfect match, especially compared to how much the junior heavyweight/cruiserweight style has evolved over the past thirty years. I’m not saying that all the daredevil, ‘flippy shit’ that we see nowadays is better than this. What I’m saying is that later matches have been more dramatic and exciting (example seen here). Not because they featured crazier moves and more ‘high spots’, but because subsequent matches features better back-and-forth action than what was seen here.
This was a fun contest that showcased Liger’s determination to win and also Sano’s skills as a wrestler. The match really kicked into high gear in the last five minutes with lots of great reversals and near-falls. But much of what preceded that was Sano destroying Liger and Liger trying to mount a comeback. It didn’t feel like a war in which either man could win.
That said, this match was fun to watch. It’s great, but not the epic war it was described to be when it first came out thirty years ago. Both guys also deserve praise for being such pioneers in the junior heavyweight style. Although the style has indeed involved over the decades, one cannot deny the enormous influence these two wrestlers had on the wrestling business and its stars.
You can check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Review series right here. Thanks for reading.