In 1992, Jushin Liger and Brian Pillman Changed American Wrestling

But don't tell American wrestling from 1992-2020 that.

I love Jushin Liger. I’m hardly alone in the sentiment, but I’m still avoiding Wrestle Kingdom because it hurts a little knowing that I’ll never see him wrestle again, and hurts even more knowing that I’ll never get to see him wrestle live. It’s a shame because I think Liger had a really good last couple of years as an old man junior and think he deserved to challenge for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship at least once.

Now that he’s retired, Liger lives in wrestling’s collective memory as a young man, a trailblazer whose unparalleled success defined and influences a style of professional wrestling that is now, with WWE’s realization that smaller wrestlers can captivate audiences in the main event, the style. It’s hard to overstate how important Liger is to wrestling, so I won’t even try. Instead, I’m going to write about one of his better-known matches, one that means the most to me as a fan of his work and frustrates me as someone who spends too much time watching early-90s WCW. Let’s check out his 1992 match against Flyin’ Brian Pillman for the WCW Light Heavyweight Championship at SuperBrawl II.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a wrestling promotion in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a cruiserweight division. I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice and can’t continue that riff any further, but in 1991 that promotion was World Championship Wrestling and the fortune was Ted Turner’s. Brian Pillman, an ex-football player mostly famous for trying and succeeding in making his hometown Cincinnati Bengals as a free agent, was something of a can’t-miss prospect out of Stu Hart’s Calgary territory, who’d been in World Championship Wrestling for a couple of years before the institution of a Light Heavyweight Championship, designed, in part, to showcase Pillman’s unorthodox-to-WCW style of aerial wrestling. He was the inaugural champion, that title his first in the company. 

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He lost the title on Christmas Day in 1991 to Jushin Liger, already an established star in NJPW at that point, but a new concern in WCW, who’d been feeling out featuring New Japan talent, first with the Great Muta, then Liger, and later Masahiro Chono. Liger won the belt in his first match, defended it against Pillman three times on three other house shows, then finally made his TV debut in a candidate for one of the worst matches of his career, a tag match pairing him and Bill Kazmaier against Mike Graham and Diamond Dallas Page. That match making tape while five out of six of Ligers matches against Pillman across 1991-92 is proof enough to me that the world is a machine designed to torture. But, y’all, the one we got. 

You know how annoying it is when two flippy bois do their schtick and go for dropkicks at the same time and miss, resulting in a standoff? In 1992 that shit ruled and let you know that things were going to pop off in a serious way. This is the opening match on a pay-per-view, and nothing else was going to catch it. 

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There’s a lot of that kind of thing in this match, both wrestlers thinking so much alike that it’s like they’re reading plays from the same playbook. The story, at least early, is that Pillman is going to keep to the ground and try to outwrestle Liger, but if you’ve seen any Jushin Thunder Liger match you know that he’s as technically proficient as anybody else in the world. That frustrates Pillman early, and he cheats a little here and there, but he’s still a white meat babyface in 1992, someone whose physical charisma and good looks are hard to deny, and watching him try to stay out of Liger’s patented surfboard stretch is great theater. So too is Pillman’s attempt to fight out of a figure four leglock, which culminates in the kind of slap exchange reserved for big matches against heated rivals. It rules.

Early in the match, Jesse Ventura and Jim Ross agree that this is the kind of match that won’t necessarily be won by the wrestler with the most momentum, but by the wrestler who is able to capitalize on the other’s mistake. That’s a pretty common talking point, but what’s amazing about this match is that they’re able to make that the story, building a narrative not out of a face/heel dynamic, but that both men came to play. There are spectacular sequences in the middle of this match where, in the blink of an eye, Liger goes from hitting a somersault to the outside on Pillman to being on the receiving end of a Pillman suplex to the outside, where Flyin’ Brian takes him out with a diving crossbody. 

SuperBrawl II took place in Milwaukee, and I feel like that’s important to note because the fans are into this match and haven’t been given a reason to care. The WCW Light Heavyweight Championship has yet to (and never will) find its purpose. Liger has been on television once. None of the champion’s house show matches took place in the midwest. But you can see and hear the fans react to the rising tension in the ring. They’re equaled in their enthusiasm by Ventura and Jim Ross, who are one of the great, underrated commentary duos, this being one of Ross’ best performances. He has a lot to chew on here, as if there are two things in this world he loves to talk about, it’s wrestlers who have played football, and wrestlers who aren’t from these United States of America. 

It’s not like Liger and Pillman need the help, though. They manage to make their last double-miss, a mid-air collision on twin double clotheslines, look gross, and Pillman barely manages to kick out. Like Ventura and Ross predicted, it’s a mistake that ends the match: Pillman gets out of the way of a Liger headbut, rolls his opponent into a bridging cradle, and we have a new champion.

Watching this match in 2020, it feels like watching wrestling take a gigantic step forward in terms of its capacity to tell compelling in-ring stories. It’s not that the heavyweight wrestling of this era was boring, but the speed and power with which Pillman and Liger went at each other here is unlike anything else that happened on American television in 1992. On Twitter recently, I postulated that this match was one of three light heavyweight rivalries that paved the way for what became a style of main event wrestling in the United States, the other two being Dynamite Kid vs. Tiger Mask and Rey Mysterio Jr. vs. Eddie Guerrero. 

This is where things get frustrating: Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask wrestled their series in 82-83, and Mysterio and Guerrero had their high profile mask vs. title match in 1997. That’s ten years between Kid/Mask and Pillman/Liger, and five between Pillman/Liger and Guerrero/Mysterio. How could so much time elapse between those rivalries when it seemed obvious that those men were living in the future? Well, for the most part, light heavyweight divisions have been utilized as a means of killing time, and as a way of keeping a toe in the door with whatever Japanese promotion the WWF or WCW were loosely working with. The WCW Cruiserweight Championship of the Monday Night War era is, at least to me, unquestionably the best part of a period of wrestling that has aged very badly, and then you’re looking at a two year stretch, 1996-1998, where the promotion took it (or anything) seriously.

As for the title that’s on the line here, it’s the only singles title Brian Pillman held. Ever. It’s hard to believe, given how integral Pillman is to every retelling of 1990s wrestling in America, but WCW’s perception of him as a tag team wrestler, the outlandishness of his Loose Cannon gimmick, and the broken ankle he sustained in 1996 largely kept him away from singles titles. With that in mind, watching this or any of his highly regarded WCW matches is a little bittersweet, like even before Hulk Hogan chased all the young, hungry guys out of World Championship Wrestling on his yellow and gold Harley Davidson, the company was just as capable of fucking up on can’t miss prospects.

WCW also whiffed on the Light Heavyweight Championship, as after Pillman the title bounced around on the undercard until it was quietly abandoned. Why? Because management of the company was in flux and one of the people hired to take WCW to prominence, Bill Watts, made top rope moves illegal. I like the Watts era of WCW plenty, but there are few stretches of time where the divide between what audiences want and what the promoter thinks the audience wants were so obvious. Listen to this crowd in Milwaukee go nuts for Liger in his first real showcase and tell me that American wrestling in 1993 couldn’t use more of that. 

It could use more of that now, when, like then, an incredibly talented division of wrestlers labors in the hell of not knowing whether they have their own television show or are just a division on NXT. How we’re this far removed from such an important match and still dealing with the perception of cruiserweight wrestling as less than everything else on the card is wild, especially considering the generation defining talent who’ve come out of those divisions in the past or would be wrestling in them now if the weight limit for those divisions were still in the 220s rather than 205. It’s a shame that one of the takeaways from this match is a legacy of wasted potential, but wasting potential is what wrestling does. In that regard, there are few matches that glimpsed the potential for revolutionizing an entire country’s framework for professional wrestling as this. It’s no wonder we’re still catching up.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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