Jushin “Thunder” Liger
Some of y’all may heard of the term lucharesu, some of y’all may not. That’s okay because I’m gonna tell it to ya. Lucharesu, which is a portmanteau of Lucha Libre and puroresu, mixes the agility and speed of the former with the psychology and hard hitting style of the latter. The style is very diverse as it can range from high flying, technical, strong style, and grappling/power based. It’s mostly common with junior heavyweight wrestlers. It remains influential to this day.
Lucharesu has its roots in luchadores like Mil Mascaras (the uncle of the former Alberto Del Rio) traveling to Japan and introducing the lucha libre style to the Land of the Rising Sun. This would be instrumental as lucha libre made use of aerial moves and attacks, technically sound grappling, and use of speed, power, and agility. Also, the use or masks and costumes were influential as many lucharesu wrestlers would wear em. The junior wrestlers incorporated the styles lucha style and in turn luchadores went to Japan and incorporate their style. One of the earlier puro wrestlers to incorporate the style was Gran Hamada (yes, Ayoko Hamada’s dad). Initially part of the first dojo class of New Japan, he was sent to Mexico because of his size. As he went to Mexico, he incorporated the Lucha Libre style and made a name for himself in Mexico. He eventually returned to Japan, introducing the style to the country. This would be a recurring thing with other influential lucharesu figureheads as they had the same fate as Hamada. They were too small to fit in and was sent to Mexico to adopt their style of wrestling and come back to Japan.
SN: Hamada would later find Universal Lucha Libre, one of the first companies devoted to Lucharesu and would be responsible for creating multiple lucharesu legends like Ultimo Dragon, Great Sasuke, Super Delfin, and Taka Michinoku.
Tiger Mask as portrayed by Satoru Sayama
The major company where lucharesu kicked off was in New Japan as they had a rising junior heavyweight division, send their junior wrestlers abroad to incorporate the styles of different nations and defend their titles too. The junior division would eventually have his first major lucharesu act Tiger Mask or Tiger Mask I. The OG Tiger Mask was a former kickboxer named Satoru Sayama who, just like Hamada, was not given a shot in the company because of his size and was sent to Mexico to train and came back to Japan more builded up. In order to encapture fans, Sayama became the first Tiger Mask, which was based off the eponymous popular anime. He eventually became big, wowing fans with his high flying skills, martial arts strikes, and grappling ability. He eventually became the top junior heavyweight wrestler in the world. His matches with Dynamite Kid (d. 2018) were historic, in which the 83 classic was the first 5 star match rated by Dave Meltzer. Their matches served as a prototype for lucharesu wrestlers. Eventually, Tiger Mask would leave NJPW and pioneer shoot style wrestling which was more realistic and based on martial arts and catch wrestling as Sayama was a kickboxer and trained by the God of Wrestling catch master Karl Gotch (RIP). Around the same time, All Japan had its own junior division which was not explicably influenced by lucharesu, but had some that worked in that style like Kunaki Kobayashi, Shiro Koshinaka (who would later become the first IWGP Jr. Champion), and the 2nd Tiger Mask who was one of the best and influential wrestlers ever Mitsuharu Misawa (RIP).
Rise of lucharesu
A picture at a Michinoku Pro Wrestling Event. As shown in the picture, lucharesu typically consists of wrestlers donning masks and/or colorful costumes and doing flashy wrestling maneuvers and aerial moves.
The lucharesu boom really kicked off in the late 80s and grew big in the 90s. In 1987, NJPW brought back a hot talent by the name of Keiichi Yamada, who would be later known as Jushin Thunder Liger, that would revolutionize junior heavyweight wrestling. Liger was the ultimate definition of the lucharesu style with his mixture of high flying and stiff technical ability. He dominated NJPW’s junior division for nearly 3 decades and became a huge household name in puroresu. Throughout the 90s, NJPW’s junior heavyweight division was bigger than before, with not only Liger, but with wrestlers like El Samurai, Koji Kanemoto (formerly the 3rd Tiger Mask), Minoru Tanaka, Norio Honaga, and Naoki Sano. It also included freelancers like the Ultimo Dragon and Great Sasuke and foreigners like Pegasus Kid (Chris Benoit d. 2007) and Eddie Guerrero (RIP). Almost all of these wrestlers wrestled the lucharesu style and it didn’t just happen there.
Many promotions based on Lucharesu came out like the aforementioned Universal Lucha Libre, Michinoku Pro Wrestling (founded by the Great Sasuke), Toryumon (founded by Ultimo Dragon), Osaka Pro Wrestling (founded by Super Delfin), and Kaientai Dojo (founded by Taka Michinoku). These companies expanded on the lucharesu style with its use of multi tag teams, creatively colorful costumes and masks, unique high flying skills, and innovative grappling maneuvers.
Other puroresu promotions have adopted to the junior heavyweight lucharesu style like WAR and FMW with their top ace Hayabusa (RIP). Lucharesu became a huge influence in not only the puroresu world, but the entire wrestling world as many luchadores like Juventud Guerrera, Rey Mysterio, and of course Eddie Guerrero and other foreign wrestlers like Chris Jericho (then known as Lionheart) and Owen Hart would incorporate the lucharesu style in their wrestling.
Something I forgot I mention that’s important. While some lucharesu wrestlers made appearances in North American wrestling companies in the 80s, lucharesu would have some crossover success overseas in the 90s, when American companies like ECW, WCW, and WWF brought junior heavyweight wrestlers from Japan and incorporated em with mainly their smaller and lighter wrestlers, showcasing their innovative skills to American audiences. This would be influential as there were a number of American wrestlers who took from lucharesu. More on that later.
Some Important Tournaments
Major tournaments involving lucharesu included the Super J Cup (I’m only gonna be talking about the first two) and the J Crown.
The original Super J-Cup (which took place in NJPW) in 1994 is widely considered to be on the best wrestling events ever. It brought junior heavyweight wrestlers from different promotions and countries. Most of the wrestlers emphasized the lucharesu style with their high flying style and flashy techniques. Notable matches included Great Sasuke vs Pegasus Kid in the (rated 5 stars) and Great Sasuke vs Liger (rated 4 3/4 stars). WAR would have a J-Cup a year later with the same premise of bringing wrestlers from different promotions and countries. Another year later, NJPW would host the J Crown that followed the same premise, but it was a contest between 8 junior heavyweight champions. The tournament winner was the Great Sasuke who held all 8 championships, until he was beaten by Ultimo Dragon (who already was a holder of two champions), totaling his championships that he held altogether to 10, which is still a record in wrestling. These events were influential as there were events made solely for junior heavyweights.
DAMN! Look at all these championships.
Lucharesu in other circles
Even though widely associated with junior heavyweight wrestlers, there are a number of heavyweight wrestlers who practiced the lucharesu style. Some major examples of heavyweight lucharesu wrestlers are Great Muta/Keiji Mutoh, Kazuchika Okada, Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Hiroshi Tanahashi, SANADA, Testuya Naito, Jinsei Shinsaki, and Kenny Omega. In the case of most of these wrestlers, they started off in the junior heavyweight division before graduating into the heavyweight division. There are also defacto junior heavyweight wrestlers (those ≤ 220 lbs) who work in the heavyweight division like Kota Ibushi, Hayabusa, KENTA, Noamichi Marufuji, Katsuhiko Nakajima, Shingo Takagi, and Will Ospreay. Many Joshi wrestlers adopted the lucharesu style like Mariko Yoshida, Akira Hokuto, and the queen herself Manami Toyota and contemporary ones like Kairi Hojo/Sane, Io Shirai, and Mayu Itawami. Most of these wrestlers (regardless of gender) are considered to be one of the greatest and influential wrestlers ever and they’ve have put on some of the best matches in wrestling history.
Expansion and current influence
Lucharesu continued to expand at the turn of the millennium. Toryumon would become Dragon Gate, which became one of the biggest lucharesu promotions in the country and continued the lucharesu style from Toryumon. Pro Wrestling Noah would debut out of the mass exodus of AJPW and it made an emphasis on its junior heavyweight division. However, not all that glitters is gold. In 2000, the NJPW junior heavyweight division was hit badly as the early stages of Inokism that would later hurt the company real bad came to fruition. Inokism was pretty much when founder and former promoter Antonio Inoki pushed the company into the world of MMA. The junior wrestlers were forced into the heavyweight division and existed just to be buried by the heavyweights. It slowly regained credibility when New Japan was it worse (Inokism in its final form) before it returned to prominence in the late 00s and the 10s. To this day, NJPW’s junior heavyweight division is still thriving and continuing the lucharesu style that made em so popular.
Lucharesu also became an influence on American wrestling as many indie promotions and wrestlers adopted the style. American indie promotions like Chikara (founded by indie legend Mike Quackenbush who was influenced by Liger) and PWG. Most indie wrestlers that were influenced by the lucharesu style would become huge stars in major wrestling companies like WWE (which includes NXT now), Impact/TNA, ROH, and recently AEW.
Lucharesu still remains an influential and dominant style in the wrestling world to this day.