(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: The Great Muta vs. Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger – NJPW, October 20th, 1996
Most people who follow Japanese wrestling think it’s all action and no emotion or personality; this match shows just how untrue that belief is.
What we’re looking at today is something special: a once-ever dream match between two of the most famous Japanese wrestlers ever, at least according to many American fans. But this was less like a match between Bret Hart and Rey Mysterio and more like a match between The Undertaker and Finn Balor. How so? Read on to find out.
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.
Junior Heavyweight and Heavyweights don’t usually interact much in New Japan outside of big multi-man matches. It’s extremely rare for a junior and a heavyweight to wrestle one-on-one; even in recent years such matches take place maybe once or twice a year. But in the 1990s these two wrestlers became such big stars that it became impossible for them to ignore each other.
Liger and Muta were both considered top stars in their respective divisions. Liger was New Japan’s unquestioned junior heavyweight ace while Muta was either the #1 or #2 heavyweight star. But there was an issue for Liger here: he was wrestling Muta, not Muto.
For anyone unfamiliar, Keiji Muto wrestled under two distinct gimmicks: himself under his real name and the Great Muta. Muto was a quick, athletic wrestler with a flashy arsenal and a deep understanding of scientific wrestling. Muta, on the other hand, was a monster. Muta still retained some of Muto’s biggest moves, but he wrestled in a far more sinister way. Muta was slow, unpredictable, violent, and remorseless. He fought with underhanded tactics and took full advantage of the fact that New Japan officials were very reluctant to end a match via disqualification. That allowed Muta to be sinister and go the extra mile by doing the most violent things possible. Weapons use, blinding his opponents with mist, and choking them with whatever he could find were not above Muta. This made Muta into less of a human character and more of a monster or a demon. The closest American equivalent I can think of would be if Mankind and The Undertaker were fused together. Muta had Undertaker’s slowness and deliberate pacing mixed with Mankind’s bizarre antics and bloodlust.
Needless to say Liger more than had his hands full. He was a straight-laced junior heavyweight that wrestled ‘purely’. He wore a costume like Muta but his costume didn’t have some deeper meaning nor did it awaken some kind of different personality. He was an anime superhero come to life and that was it. But even his excellent wrestling skills wouldn’t be enough here. Not only did Muta outweigh him but he was going to fight someone that doesn’t fight fair. Liger needed a strategy here; otherwise simply losing the match would be the least of his problems.
This match originally took place on October 20th, 1996. Dave Meltzer never gave it a formal rating but many fans have called it one of the most interesting and entertaining matches in New Japan history. Let’s see how well it holds up over 25 years later.
Liger comes out to a massive pop wearing an all-white version of his regular attire. Then Muta comes out with a demon mask covering his face and a Chinese dragon coiled around his head. Once in the ring, Muta removes his mask to reveal gold and black face paint.
The bell rings and Muta spits green mist for another huge pop. The fans chant for Liger as the wrestlers stare each other down. Muta slithers out of the ring and scares some fans by jerking the barricade. He returns to the ring and Liger dodges a huge spinkick to the head. Liger escapes a rear waistlock with an armlock but Muta gets a ropebreak. Liger takes Muta down and starts working over his left leg. Liger does some more mat wrestling but Muta’s stronger so he easily fights back to his feet and out of a headlock. Muta sends Liger into the ropes but Liger shoulder tackles him down. Then Liger ducks under Muta and dropkicks him to the floor. Frustrated, Muta rips off some ringside padding and menaces some fans. Imagine yourself sitting near ringside and the Undertaker stares you down wanting your chair. You’d fill your pants almost immediately.
Back in the ring, Muta teases a Greco-Roman knuckle lock but he kicks Liger’s stomach and rakes his eyes instead. Muta follows with his trademark snapmare/flashing elbow drop combo that sends Liger to the floor this time. Muta rushes Liger immediately as he returns to the ring. But then Liger reverses a corner whip and lands a rolling kick into the corner. Muta bails to ringside again and scares more fans.
In the ring, Liger snampares Muta and lands a face stretch and then a chinlock. Muta fights out so Liger lands a back suplex. But since Liger’s a cruiserweight it does little damage so Muta bounces up and lands a big overhand chop to Liger’s head. The crowd cheers wildly for Liger as Muta dumps him to the floor and piledrives him through a ringside table. And as soon as Liger starts moving, Muta chokes him with some tape or cables or something. Muta hisses to the crowd and then returns to ringside to inflict more carnage. He grabs the table that he just drove Liger through and tries setting it up against a ringpost but it falls over, so he throws it at Liger’s head and shoulder. Then Liger grabs some long metal object (I think it’s a ladder) and rams it into Liger’s ribs.
Back in the ring, Liger punches Muta’s stomach but he’s so weak at this point that it does literally nothing and Muta brushes him off. Liger tries a few more and now they appear to be working. Then Liger lands a piledriver on Muta. But again Muta bounces right up completely unfazed. Muta stomps on Liger’s damaged ribs and then dumps him onto the elevated entrance ramp attached to the ring. He suplexes Liger onto it and then does a repeat of his 1993 match with Hulk Hogan: he goes all the way up the ramp and lands a huge rubbing clothesline. Muta’s in no hurry as he tosses Liger into the ring and lands a back suplex for a two-count.
Muta sends Liger into a corner for his handspring elbow but Liger sidesteps and lands another rolling kick. Liger follows with a diving shotgun dropkick and then a plancha to the floor. As Liger recovers in the ring, Muta crawls under it and pulls out a broom. Liger chases after him but Muta hits him with the broom handle and then chokes him with it.
In the ring, Muta starts ripping Liger’s mask. He appears to rip it off completely as both the ref and the crowd admonish him. Muta grabs another chair as the ref checks on Liger. Muta goes to swing the chair but something stops him dead in his tracks. It’s Liger. His face is shown but it’s covered in white and black face paint! Liger spits green mist in Muta’s face! IT’S KISHIN LIGER!
Kishin howls like a beast and with renewed energy jumps to ringside and grabs a ring spike. He jumps back in and hits Muta right in the head with it. Muta bails to ringside but Kishin chases after him and cracks him in the head with a chair. He sends Muta careening into the barricade and then hits his head with the spike again. Then Kishin rips off some ringside mats and piledrives Muta onto the exposed floor. Kishin follows with a top-rope diving chairshot to Muta’s head and then grabs a table. He sets it up in a corner in the ring and whips Muta into it. Then he goes to STAB Muta with the ring spike. But Muta dodges in the nick of time. Kishin pierces the wooden table with the spike and then turns around to try and stab Muta again. But Muta hits first with red mist. Even stronger and more potent Asian mist blind Kishin. Muta hits Kishin’s head with the spike and sends him into the table still in the corner. Muta follows with his handspring elbow/facecrusher combo and then goes to the top rope. Snap diving moonsault. One, two, three! Muta beats both Jushin and Kishin Liger.
Winner after 17:35: The Great Muta
To watch this match, go here. It will open in a new window.
Just like the Hogan/Rock’s match at WrestleMania X8, this match wasn’t designed around in-ring quality. Instead, this was a pure story, a match built on entertainment and gimmickry. And even though the action was incredibly simplistic, it was so much fun. This was a classic case of getting more with less and showcasing personality. This match really deserves to be studied because of how great and successful it was at telling such a compelling story.
As predicted, Liger was out of his element from the very beginning. He tried to wrestle purely as he always did but Muta just brushed him off, both figuratively and literally. For the first half of the match, Liger couldn’t really mount any sustained offense. He slowed Muta down or made him flinch but he didn’t hurt Muta. Conversely, Muta showed his heavyweight advantage by hitting fewer moves but those moves did more damage. Muta toyed with Liger and no-sold what few moves Liger could land on such a bigger opponent. Worse, Muta’s psychological games and unchained violence amplified the urgency for Liger. He couldn’t land key moves, and what little he did land had almost no effect. Meanwhile, his own body wasn’t holding up against Muta offense. And so, Jushin Liger was forced to fight fire with fire. He led Muta desecrate his sacred mask, thinking it would demotivate him. But that ended up having the opposite effect: it awakened the demon hiding beneath, Kishin Liger.
In one of the most entertaining theatric moments in New Japan history, a new alter-ego debuted for Liger. This demonic Kishin that looked like he belonged in KISS hit Muta with his own mist. From that point the playing field was even. The psychological edge Muta kept for most of the match disappeared in less than a minute. Kishin Liger matched Muta’s violence with his own. Kishin was willing to go to similar lengths to end Muta and in some ways even further. He tried to STAB Muta with a ring spike. He cracked Muta’s head with a chair more than once. He was willing to destroy Muta to win. Kishin’s ‘villainous’ violence was the perfect match for Muta’s and the perfect mirror to Jushin’s purity as a competitor.
Liger came incredibly close to winning. He actually stood a chance of beating the heavyweight Muta with all the violence he was showing. But in another great storytelling twist, Muta proved that the student can’t beat the master on the first try. Liger spit green mist to blind Muta but Muta fought back with red mist, which is even more potent and dangerous. Kishin was blinded by both his own fury and Muta’s dangerous mist, to the point that Muta was able to recover and hit a quick chain of moves to pin Kishin.
It was awesome storytelling. Liger was an underdog that had to go farther than ever before in the hopes of beating a monster he had never faced before. Muta was such a novelty for him that he couldn’t deal with (much less beat) such a monster via normal means. This match-up created the perfect setting for which Kishin Liger could debut. And even though Kishin only appeared four times in Liger’s entire career, his debut was pretty memorable.
Final Rating: ****
This is one of those matches that wrestlers should study and analyze. It might not be the most action-packed match but the storytelling, tension, and psychology were off the charts here.
This match was closer to a WWE/entertainment-style match than it was traditional Japanese puro. Liger and Muta managed to put on a clinic on how to tell a clever story without words. It was all about body movements, facial expressions, and visuals. No words were needed to tell what happened here.
Sometimes having wild characters and interesting personalities can really improve a wrestler’s presentation. That was the case here. Liger went from being a great costumed guy that happened to be athletic to showing off more personality and character progression in a single match. it takes incredible talent to pull something at off successfully, and that’s these guys did here.
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.