Some wrestling matches are great because they feature talented athletes showing off what they can do in the ring. Others are unforgettable because of their theatrics and high-level storytelling. Still more are memorable because of the crowd’s investment in the contest. Some matches are all these things. Those are the ones that are truly essential viewings.
Consider the following match from New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1996: The Great Muta vs. Jushin Thunder Liger. One of the testaments to this match’s greatness is that it is fully comprehensible and easy to follow even for those with no prior knowledge of Japanese wrestling. Stop and think: if someone didn’t know who John Cena and the Rock were, how would they understand that their last two Wrestlemania matches are considered watershed moments in recent WWE history just by watching them? Crowd heat? Maybe. But would a fan with no knowledge of the WWE understand their characters automatically? Most likely not. Would they immediately know who to cheer and who to boo? Definitely not.
Part of what makes this match between Muta and Liger essential viewing is the fact that it is a well-executed, binary battle between a evil bad guy (Muta) and a heroic good guy (Liger). The two establish their characters fully before the bell even rings, with Muta’s impressively creepy costume and signature green mist opposed by Liger’s shining white outfit and crowd-adulating calls for cheers. Throughout the match, Muta attacks Liger outside the ring, uses foreign objects, and (most dastardly of all) frequently attempts to remove Liger’s famous mask. Liger, on the other hand, fights fair and takes the punishment, never showing malice towards his opponent until he is pushed to the very edge.
Throughout the match, the crowd are as impressive as any that might gather today in Chicago, Toronto, or Madison Square Garden. They gasp and cry out in agony at Muta’s sheer evilness and pop like 10-year-old marks for Liger’s heroics. In this era of “We are awesome” chants coming from self-congratulatory “smart” crowds, today’s fans could take a lesson from the Japanese fans suspending disbelief and allowing themselves to be swept up in a near-Wagnerian battle between polar forces.
So here it is, for your viewing pleasure, The Great Muta vs. Jushin Thunder Liger:
What wasn’t described above (for the sake of not spoiling the match) is the bout’s rather famous finishing sequence. Having been unmasked by the wicked Muta, Liger goes on a rampage, punishing the villainous heel for embarrassing him. Liger’s intensity and divergence from the style he established throughout the match conjure up some of the philosophical questions which the best wrestling often does: How much distance is there between absolute good and absolute evil? When is it appropriate for the righteous to lash out and use the tactics of their adversaries? Can good go too far in fighting evil? Nietzsche famously wrote, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” In some ways, this match illustrates Nietzsche’s point — or does it?