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History of the Best of the Super Juniors Tourney
By JOHN F. MOLINARO -- SLAM! Wrestling

While North American fans brace themselves this weekend for the fourth pay-per-view in as many weeks, fans over in Japan are gearing up for an event that is so special it only happens once a year.

 : That time is upon us once again as New Japan Pro Wrestling presents its eleventh annual Top of the Super Juniors tournament. Commencing today at Tokyo's venerable Korakuen Hall and concluding on June 9th in Osaka, the annual showcase is one the most eagerly anticipated events on the Japanese wrestling calendar.

  The Top of the Super Junior Tournament draws not only the best junior heavyweight wrestlers from across Japan but also from the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Europe. For three weeks, wrestling's elite set Japan on fire, competing before the most appreciative wrestling fans in the world.

 Chris Benoit. Eddie Guerrero. Jushin 'Thunder' Liger. Dean Malenko. Negro Casas. Chris Jericho. Owen Hart.

Chris Benoit (third from left) celebrates his victory in the finals of the '93 tournament. From left to right: Shinjiro Ohtani, 2 Cold Scorpio, Benoit, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero and Fit Finley.

 These are just some of the wrestlers that have competed in the prestigious tournament over the past 13 years; wrestlers that helped establish it as the premiere showcase event for junior heavyweight wrestlers in the world. Behind the scenes stands the one man who is responsible for making the tournament such a critical success.

 Jushin 'Thunder' Liger.

 The current IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion, Liger doubles as the booker for New Japan's junior heavyweight division. It is a division that produces more quality matches each year than the WWF, WCW and ECW combined.

 The Top of the Super Juniors is Liger's annual platform to display just how great he is at what he does. Liger's precision booking of this tournament has been superlative over the years to the point that it should be put in a wrestling textbook and studied by aspiring bookers.

 His attention to detail in mapping out the tournament is awe-inspiring. Liger has shown he has the unique ability of booking it so that each match means something. He uses this important event to draw attention to up and coming stars and books it in such a way that he can elevate someone in the mid-card to the upper tier of the division.

 Like he did last year when he had then-mid carder Kendo Ka Shin go over division top dog Koji Kanemoto. The tournament win by Ka Shin instantly elevated him to super star status, breathed new life into the division and provided New Japan with more depth at the top of their division.

 Liger's booking of this tournament reads like a story. Each match acts as a chapter, leading into the following chapter, coming together to comprise one master novel. Each match means something in this tournament. Liger uses each match to move from point A to point B in the storyline, making for one of the most simple, yet at the same time, compelling jobs of storytelling in all of wrestling.
  • MOST APPEARANCES: Jushin "Thunder" Liger (9 tournaments)
  • MOST APPEARANCES BY A FOREIGN WRESTLER: Chris Benoit (6 tournaments)
  • MOST CHAMPIONSHIPS: Chris Benoit ('93 & '95) & Jushin "Thunder" Liger ('92 & '94)
  • WON THE SUPER JUNIORS AND SUPER J-CUP: Chris Benoit (J Cup in '94) & Jushin "Thunder" Liger (J Cup in '95 & 2000)
  • COMPETED IN SUPER-J AND TOP OF THE SUPER JUNIOR TOURNAMENT: Jushin "Thunder" Liger, Chris Benoit, Negro Casas, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Shinjiro Ohtani, Super Delfin, Taka Michinoku, Chris Jericho
  • MOST APPEARANCES WITHOUT WINNING IT ALL: Shinjiro Ohtani (7 tournaments)
  • APPEARED UNDER DIFFERENT NAMES: Jushin "Thunder" Liger (also competed under real name Keiichi Yamada), Eddie Guerrero (also competed under a mask as The Black Tiger) and Chris Benoit (competed as Pegasus Kid and Wild Pegasus)
  • NOTABLE FOREIGN COMPETITORS: Owen Hart, Negro Casas, Dr Wagner Jr, David Finlay, Too Cold Scorpio, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Lightning Kid (WWF's X-Pac), Brian Pillman, Alex Wright, Villano IV, Jerry Lynn, Chris Jericho, Chavo Guerrero, Jr., El Felino

  •  The Top of the Super Juniors tournament was born in 1988. While Big Van Vader was tearing up New Japan rings feuding with Tatsumi Fujinami and Riki Choshu, the junior heavyweight took centre stage for one month between January 4th and February 7th. Twelve of the best junior heavyweights in wrestling competed in a single-division, round robin tournament. That initial field consisted of Japanese upstarts Hiro Hase and Nobuhiko Takada, Europe's Tony St Clair, Canada's own Owen Hart and Keiichi Yamada, a Japanese sensation that went on to greater fame under a mask as Jushin 'Thunder' Liger. In the final, Shiro Koshinaka beat Hase to become the first champion.

     The tournament was a smashing success, in large part due to its international complexion. The presence of Hart and St. Clair, both regarded as the best junior heavyweights from their part of the world at the time, gave the tournament instant credibility and made the Japanese wrestling community take notice.

     After a two year hiatus, the tournament returned in April of 1991, this time drawing not only the best junior heavyweight s from Japan, Europe and Canada, but also Mexico and the U.S. The U.K.'s David 'Fit' Finley, Mexico's Negro Casas and Too Cold Scorpio made that year's tournament a truly melting pot of international wrestling.

     The '91 tournament was an amalgamation of foreign wrestling culture and styles, bringing together the high flying speed of Japanese Puroresu, the grace and beauty of Lucha Libre, the hard-hitting stiffness of English and Canadian wrestling, and the flash and showmanship of American grappling.
  • 1988: Shiro Koshinaka
  • 1989-1990: No tournament was held
  • 1991: Norio Honaga
  • 1992: Jushin Liger
  • 1993: Pegasus Kid (Chris Benoit)
  • 1994: Jushin Liger
  • 1995: Wild Pegasus (Chris Benoit)
  • 1996: Black Tiger (Eddie Guerrero)
  • 1997: El Samurai
  • 1998: Koji Kanemoto
  • 1999: Kendo Ka Shin

  •  This tournament was also the first for current WWF Intercontinental champion Chris Benoit, a regular with New Japan at the time wrestling under the name Pegasus Kid. Just before the tournament, Liger vacated the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title, putting it up for grabs to the winner of the tournament. In a bit of a surprise, Norio Honaga upended Liger in the finals to win the tournament and the title.

     The following year, the presence of Eddie Guerrero and Koji Kanemoto gave the tournament an infusion of excitement. Fans were treated to a series of incredible matches between Liger, Benoit, Casas, Guerrero and Too Cold Scorpio. Liger claimed his first of two tournament championships defeating El Samurai in a memorable match.

     The 1993 tournament started out with tremendous hope and promise. New talent in the form of Dean Malenko, The Lightning Kid (the WWF's X-Pac) and Japanese youngster Shinjiro Ohtani made this a highly anticipated event.

     Things took a drastic turn for the worse, however, when Liger broke his ankle during a match with Too Cold Scorpio, forcing his early exit from the tournament. Plagued by the withdrawal of one of the wrestlers who made the tournament so special, the rest of the group pressed on as Benoit became the first non-Japanese to win the tournament, defeating El Samurai in the finals.

     A year later Liger was back and determined to put his stamp back on the tournament. Super Delfin and Taka Michinoku from the Michinoku Pro Wrestling office were invited to this tournament and Eddie Guerrero donned a mask as Black Tiger, reprising a character from New Japan in the '80s made famous by Mark Rocco.

     The '94 tournament stands as a testament to the ingeniousness of Liger's booking acumen. The top nine finishers in the eleven man single division were separated by no fewer than six points, displaying Liger's incredible ability to make virtually everybody in the tournament look strong and make each match mean something.

     In the end, Liger became the first man to win two tournament championships defeating Delfin in the finals.

     The 1995 tournament welcomed newcomers Alex Wright and Brian Pillman from WCW and Gran Hamada from Michinoku Pro Wrestling. This was also the first tournament that Liger did not participate in. Miraculously, his absence was barely missed as Benoit, Malenko, Black Tiger, Kanemoto and Ohtani put on a wrestling clinic for the Japanese faithful. Benoit became only the second man ever to win two tournament championships, defeating Ohtani in the finals.

     The tournament was especially sweet for Benoit, Malenko and Guerrero. Arn Anderson and Ric Flair were both on tour with New Japan at the time and were impressed with their work. So much so that Anderson, involved in the booking of WCW at the time, convinced Kevin Sullivan and Eric Bischoff to make it their top priority to sign the threesome to WCW contracts that coming Fall. In many ways, the Top of the Super Juniors tournament opened the door for Benoit, Malenko and Guerrero to make their presence felt on a national level with WCW.
    Round Robin
     May 19th at Korakuen Hall, Tokyo: Tatsuhito Takaiwa vs. Shin'ya Makabe
     May 21st at Grand Ship Convention Center, Shizuoka: Koji Kanemoto vs. El Samurai, Minoru Fujita vs. Kid Romero
     May 23rd at Ishikawa Prefectural Building #1, Kanazawa: Shinjiro Ohtani vs. Minoru Tanaka
     May 24th at Takaoka Techno Dome, Toyama: El Samurai vs. Shin'ya Makabe, Kendo Ka Shin vs. Kid Romeo
     May 26th at Kasugai City Gym, Nagoya Nagoya: Tatsuhito Takaiwa vs. Doctor Wagner Jr, Kendo Ka Shin vs. Minoru Tanaka
     May 27th at Kusaka City Sports Gym, Saitama: Koji Kanemoto vs. Tatsuhito Takaiwa
     May 28th at Exercise Park Gym, Nagano: Koji Kanemoto vs. Shin'ya Makabe, Kendo Ka Shin vs. Minoru Fujita
     May 29th at Saku City Gym, Nagano: Shinjiro Ohtani vs. Kid Romeo
     May 30th in Iberaki: Shin'ya Makabe vs. Doctor Wagner Jr, Minoru Tanaka vs. Minoru Fujita
     June 1 at Hisayoshi City Gym, Saitama: El Samurai vs. Doctor Wagner Jr
     June 2nd at Nippon Budokan, Tokyo: Koji Kanemoto vs. Gran Hamada, Shinjiro Ohtani vs. Minoru Fujita, Katsumi Usuda vs. Kid Romeo
     June 3rd at Tsu City Gym, Mie: El Samurai vs. Gran Hamada, Shinjiro Ohtani vs. Katsumi Usuda, Minoru Tanaka vs. Kid Romeo
     June 5th at Kameoka City Gym, Kyoto: Tatsuhito Takaiwa vs. El Samurai, Doctor Wagner Jr vs. Gran Hamada, Kendo Ka Shin vs. Katsumi Usuda
     June 6th at Ube City Commemorative Gym, Yamaguchi: Shin'ya Makabe vs. Gran Hamada, Minoru Tanaka vs. Katsumi Usuda
     June 7th at Imabari Public City Hall, Ehime: Koji Kanemoto vs. Doctor Wagner Jr, Shinjiro Ohtani vs. Kendo Ka Shin
     June 8th at Takamatsu City Gym, Kakawa: Tatsuhito Takaiwa vs. Gran Hamada, Minoru Fujita vs. Katsumi Usuda
     June 9th at City Central Gym, Osaka: Best of the Super Jr. Tournament Finals

     In 1996 the tournament changed to a two division format with the top two finishers in each division advancing to the semi-finals. Newcomers this year included Tatsuhito Takaiwa, Germany's Franz Schumann, Mexico's Emilio Charles Jr and Villano IV and WCW's Mr. JL (Jerry Lynn).

     Eddie Guerrero scored the biggest win of his career in Japan defeating Liger in the finals.

     Another year, another format change. The 1997 tournament saw the winner of each division meet in the finals. Liger imported Robbie Brookside and Doc Dean, two of England's best wrestlers, Scorpio Jr and Dr Wagner Jr from Mexico's EMLL office and Chavo Guerrero Jr and Chris Jericho from WCW to be a part of the tournament. El Samurai fought off the challenge of Jericho, Ohtani and current ECW star Yoshihiro Tajiri to win his division and beat Koji Kanemoto in one of the best matches in tournament history.

     The 1998 tournament saw more newcomers. Michinoku Pro star Shiryu (WCW's Kaz Hayashi), Kendo Ka Shin, EMLL's Felino and Yuji Yasuraoka from Genichiro Tenryu's WAR outfit made their tournament debuts. It was a highly competitive tournament as Koji Kanemoto finally got the monkey off his back, defeating Dr Wagner Jr in the finals. The tournament not only solidified Kanemoto's standing in the Japanese wrestling hierarchy, but it also elevated Wagner into one of the top spots in the highly competitive junior heavyweight division. Once again, Liger proved his worth in gold as the leading the booker in the business.

     Last year, Liger used the tournament as an opportunity to elevate Kendo Ka Shin by having him defeat Kanemoto in the finals. Three months later Ka Shin was on top of the division as he defeated Kanemoto for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title, cementing his position among Japan's top junior heavyweights.

     This year's tournament has already been marred with controversy. WCW's Kidman and Juventud Guerrera, originally scheduled to work the tournament, were pulled out by Vince Russo. As if the working relationship between New Japan and WCW weren't strained enough, WCW decided to send power plant alumni Kid Romeo as their replacements.

     No matter, though. The Top of the Super Juniors tournament is so steeped in history and tradition that it will survive this crisis like the previous ones by putting on some of the best wrestling matches of the year.

     Still, many questions loom. Will the absence of Liger, who awaits the winner in a future title match, substantially hurt the tournament's credibility? Will Kendo Ka Shin become the first wrestler to win back-to-back tournaments? Will Kanemoto reclaim his stake to the top spot in the division and win his second tournament? And can Shinjiro Ohtani, after years of close calls and near misses, emerge from the daunting shadows that Liger and Kanemoto cast over him and finally win the big one?

     Questions that will all be answered over the next three weeks.
    More on the Top of the Super Juniors:

    Full preview of the tournament
    New Japan tourney turns 10
    Junior Heavyweights take centre stage in Japan
    Kendo Ka Shin wins 1999 Tournament

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