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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Jushin Liger vs. Bryan Danielson – ROH Weekend of Thunder

The early 2000s was an era of dream matches and matches you’d never expect to happen. With WCW and ECW dead, the wrestling world was in desperate need of an alternative to WWE’s juggernaut. Many companies tried and failed, and for a time Ring of Honor (ROH) did indeed fill that role. Their early success was thanks to two main factors: a deep roster of local, homegrown talent, and partnerships with other companies that enabled big cross-promotional matches. That’s what we’re looking at today.

Today we look back at the dream singles match between ROH’s Bryan Danielson and NJPW’s Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger’ from ROH’s Weekend of Thunder.

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.

The story

ROH had a working relationship with many different wrestling companies around the world, especially in Japan. To help elevate their homegrown talent, ROH opened the gates to some top-level Japanese stars, including the legendary Jushin Liger.

During the 2000s, Liger was wrestling all over the world. He was a certified cruiserweight legend who spent most of his time helping elevate younger stars. A few months prior to this match, Liger wrestled one of the best matches of his career in the Tokyo Dome for rival company Pro Wrestling NOAH. But even though he lost that match – and many others, at this point in his career – he was still revered for his contributions to pro-wrestling. As such, ROH extended an invitation to him and he accepted. Thus, Liger came to the US once again, this time to take on Bryan Danielson.

Bryan was perhaps the biggest star in ROH at the time. He was a technical wrestling marvel in the same vein as Chris Benoit or Kurt Angle. And despite his small stature, he was known to hit extremely hard with stiff kicks and elbows. That was because Bryan, like many indy wrestlers of that era, was heavily influenced by the work of 1990s Japanese wresters, including Liger.

Thus the stage was set for a major encounter. Bryan was a star on the rise in ROH and here he was taking on the god of cruiserweights. Many people thought the younger and more technically-skilled Bryan had the advantage, but Liger really was a superhero. He didn’t wear that attire just because it looked cool or to sell merchandise; he fought valiantly in every match, no matter how outmatched he was. And even though he was bigger than Bryan here, he had to be very careful wrestling the American Dragon.

The match

This match originally took place on November 5th, 2004 at an ROH event called the Weekend of Thunder. It was never rated by Dave Meltzer, so we can go into this match without that rating hanging overhead.

They shake hands and Bryan gets a clean break on the ropes. Some chain grappling ensues and Bryan wrestles his way out of a headscissor into a cross-legged facelock and then into a camel clutch. Liger counters into a camel clutch of his own but Bryan’s superior technique enables him to counter by attacking Liger’s leg. Bryan applies a heel hook but Liger reaches the ropes. Bryan’s forced to release the hold, but does so violently. They lock-up again and Liger does some cool Dynamite Kid-style flipping counters to get one over Bryan as the crowd cheers loudly.

They do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Liger gets the advantage first. He sends Bryan into the ropes and neither man budges on a shoulder block. Bryan tries again but Liger stands defiant. He charges again and this time ducks underneath and tries a surfboard stretch on Liger, the man that popularized that move. But Liger powers out and shows Bryan a thing or two with his own surfboard stretch. Liger stretches Bryan badly as the crowd applauds loudly, and then switches to a dragon sleeper-style surfboard and the crowd cheers even louder. Now you know where Bryan got that move. Bryan escapes by pulling on Liger’s mask, which Liger answers with a tilt-a-whirl backbreaker. Bryan goes to the floor but Liger gives chase with a baseball slide dropkick and a pescado to the floor. Great moves by Liger.

Bryan returns to the ring and rushes Liger into a corner with strikes. He lands some hard chops but Liger fires back with stiff slaps to Bryan’s chest. Bryan fires back and lands a kneelift and suplexes Liger into the top rope. A running dropkick sends Liger off the apron to the floor. Bryan sends him careening into the barricades and starts going for the mask in between uppercuts. Bryan pins for a two-count in the ring and applies a rear chinlock. He soon switches into a grounded abdominal stretch, targeting the ribs that were smashed into the steel barricades moments ago. He rolls into another pin and gets two again and then gets yet another two-count off a butterfly suplex. He tries several times to rip Liger’s mask off and toys with the referee in the process. Liger tries to fight back off a failed corner charge but runs into an airplane spin into a slam. He goes to the top-rope for a diving head-butt but misses. Liger tries the same move but also misses.

Both men get to their feet and trade strikes. Bryan charges but runs into a shotei palm thrust. Liger gains some momentum as he lands a corner shotei and a super hurricanrana for a two-count. Both men trade waistlocks, Bryan elbows out and dropkicks a charging Liger’s arm. Bryan wisely attacks that injured arm of Liger’s with standing armbreakers. He goes for a dragon suplex but Liger escapes, so Bryan traps his arms and lands a bridging German suplex. One, two, Liger kicks out. Bryan applies his Cattle Mutilation submission hold. Then he floats over into a cruficix pin. Liger barely escapes.

Bryan goes for another dragon suplex but Liger counters with a roll-up. Wait, no, Bryan counters that with a pin of his own. One two, Liger kicks out. Bryan lands a Misawa-style rolling elbow and a bridging dragon suplex. One, two, thr—no, Liger kicks out yet again. Cattle Mutilation reapplied. Liger reaches the ropes. Bryan attempts a suplex. Liger counters with a Brainbuster. Awesome counter. Liger follows with another shotei palm strike. He signals the end, Ligerbo—no, Bryan escapes. Liger answers with a rolling koppu kick. Ligerbomb connects. One, two, thr—no, Bryan kicks out. Liger puts Bryan on the top rope. Bryan tries to fight out with head-butts. Liger answers with a shotei to the jaw. And follows with an Avalanche Brainbuster! One, two, three! There’s the match!

Winner after 18:35: Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger

 

Review

This was a fun little exhibition match. Bryan and Liger had solid chemistry together and worked very well together in front of as wild crowd that loved every minute. It was hyped as a legendary, once-in-a-lifetime encounter. And yet, it wasn’t the historic epic expected of these two iconic grapplers.

There’s a reason I called this an ‘exhibition’ match: it was basically a surface-level overview of what both men were capable of. It was a teaser, an amuse-bouche of both wrestlers’ talents. They told the most basic story they could with Liger playing the superhero (because, duh) and Bryan adapting to be the villain for him to overcome. Bryan was excellent as the heel here. He mocked Liger whenever he could. He attacked Liger’s mask over and over again to get cheap but intense heat from the crowd. He tried to steal several pages from Liger’s playbook. But all of that failed to keep Liger down. Liger didn’t do as much as he did in the past, but he still worked hard here. And despite fifteen years of wear-and-tear on his body, Liger wrestled without showing any real signs of age. He didn’t do many dives or crazy flips (surviving a brain tumor will do that to you) so he resorted to technical wrestling and power moves. And even with those subtle limitations, Liger still put on an awesome performance.

And yet, I cannot overstate how disappointed I was with this match. This was Bryan vs. Liger, the junior heavyweight version of Joe vs. Kobashi in terms of build and hype. It featured a rising indy star taking on a Japanese legend in front of a rabid smart crowd that knew everything about both wrestlers. Sadly, they never reached that higher level in this match. The intensity was limited, the story was threadbare, and the tensest moments were few and far between. Maybe I got lulled into this with false expectations of a historic classic. After all, ask any wrestling fan during the 2000s how they would’ve reacted if they saw ‘Bryan Danielson vs. Jushin Liger’ during that time period. They would tell you that sounded like a genuine dream match. It had the most technically-sound wrestler outside WWE taking on the pioneer of junior heavyweight wrestling. But this match failed to live up to the hype. It was good, but that’s it, just good. It could’ve been so much more, but ended up being a big disappointment.

Final Rating: ***3/4

I wanted to love this match. Liger is one of my favorite wrestlers ever and Bryan has long been an elite-level grappler. And Bryan – like many wrestlers – copied or emulated Liger in one way or another. So this really was almost a ‘master vs. student’ sort of match which, on paper, looked like an instant classic. But the actual result was nowhere near that level. Maybe both guys were tired of the hard-hitting styles they immersed themselves in and wanted a night off. But if you ask me, this was not the night to do that. This should’ve been something monumental, something historic. Instead, it’s a largely forgotten classic that you barely hear about outside of random wrestling trivia. It’s too bad, especially considering what both wrestlers were capable of doing.

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