Over this past weekend, wrestlers celebrated the career of a true living legend as he took his final steps into the ring. Thousands of messages sharing memories in tribute to this great man all echoing the same three words: Thank You Liger.
This is my tribute.
The very first time I saw Japanese professional wrestling was in 2010 after a six-year hiatus from watching wrestling. I think most fans go through that period where wrestling isn’t “cool” anymore and they fall out of love. As a kid, the only wrestling I knew was the stuff I could see on TV.
However, 2010 was when I began to fall in love with wrestling again,and a big reason for it was the discovery of wrestling in Japan. Jushin “Thunder” Liger versus The Great Muta on Oct. 20, 1996 is arguably one of the most famous puroresu matches in history and the match that made me a fan of Liger.
Immediately my attention was drawn to both competitors, but Liger in particular. Wrestlers I grew up watching didn’t look like him at all. The cape, the suit, the mask, his music! I was instantly a fan, and from that moment I began seeking out as many of his matches as I could (thank you YouTube).
Fast forward to 2014, and Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro-Wrestling present their first Global Wars show in Toronto. Liger is returning to ROH and I’m excited like a kid on Christmas. I remember sprinting from the locker room and running around the Ted Reeves Arena to find a good vantage point to film his entrance.
Hearing that music live for the first time gave me chills and I couldn’t have been happier. Funny enough, the person to actually introduce me to Liger was Mark Briscoe. He had told the NJPW wrestlers my name was Cheeseburger (which they thought was hilarious) and introduced me to them.
The representatives of NJPW were staying in the USA all week leading up to the next show in New York City. I lived nearby so I was tasked with taking care of them during their stay. This involved taking Liger around Philly to see various locations from the Rocky movies. (I summoned up the courage to ask for a photo together by the statue, too.)
As a thank you and after finding out he was my favorite wrestler, he gifted me with an NJPW shirt with a hand-drawn Liger mask autograph the next day. I still keep a photo of the shirt as my wallpaper on my phone and the shirt remains in my closet.
And now we get to how I learned the Shotei.
ROH and NJPW ran a two-day tryout camp at the ROH Dojo. As a student, I was allowed to participate. Our drills and matches were held in front of Liger and many others from New Japan. Naturally, being in front of my idol, I wanted impress by doing one of his moves and proceeded to do an absolutely awful palm strike in my match. Afterwards, one of the Japanese wrestlers suggested I ask Liger to teach me how to properly do it.
“You really think he would teach me it?” I asked.
They said, “Yeah! Let’s go ask him!” and proceeded to take me to ask him together. Liger loved the idea and taught me on the spot how to deliver a proper Shotei palm strike. I’ve used it as my signature move ever since. That moment is when I’d say our friendship truly began.
On Jan. 4, 2016, I found myself walking into the Tokyo Dome for the first time. I’m going to be a surprise entrant in the New Japan Rumble. Since I started wrestling, performing in Japan had been my ultimate dream. Now not only am I in Japan, but I debut in the freaking Tokyo Dome! So as you can imagine, nerves are really high.
The Tokyo Dome is like a gigantic maze backstage with tons of corridors and doors; it’s tough to find your way without a guide. There were a multitude of different locker rooms for the various factions and foreign talent. Naturally, I stayed with the other ROH talent.
As I was getting ready to change, a Young Lion told me to bring my stuff and follow him to the main NJPW Unit locker room to change. As I opened the door, it was almost like every high school 80s movie where you hear a record scratch sound. I walk in and find myself looking back at several veterans and legends of puroresu pondering who this skinny kid is that just walked in.
After what felt like an eternity of me standing frozen, Liger-san stands up in the middle of the locker room and introduces me to everyone as Cheeseburger and welcomes me into the locker room with a bow. The awkwardness was gone and everyone was extremely welcoming to me. That moment of kindness right there helped my nervousness immensely that night.
Another surreal moment for me took place at Global Wars in Chicago on May 8, 2016, the night we teamed together for the first time. It was me and Liger-san against The Addiction. Here I was finally getting to team up with my idol, my hero, my mentor!
I made my entrance first but decided to wait on the ramp. My heart raced as I waited for that legendary music to hit in the arena and to stand side-by-side with Jushin “Thunder” Liger! The match ended up being a ton of fun and the result was me getting the biggest win of my career at that point. We had a big celebratory hug at the end as well!
Liger-san has one of the kindest hearts in all of the world. Despite being a legend of his status, he constantly remains humble and treats everyone as an equal. I’m truly honored to call him a friend and a mentor.