Keichi Yamada's is a story of what might have been. A former amateur wrestling standout, today Yamada might find himself in any number of Tokyo training facilities after his graduation from high school, preparing for a career in mixed martial arts. Maybe the elaborate ring entrances of Kazushi Sakuraba would have caught his eye and guided his obsession. Maybe it would have been the intricate submission wizardry of Rumina Sato.
But when he graduated from high school in the early 1980's, MMA was just a flicker in the brain of of Yamada's idol, the great Tiger Mask. Instead of MMA, Yamada obsessed over professional wrestling. Standing a shade under 5-5, wrestling stardom wasn't just a longshot-it was an impossible dream. Despite his impressive amateur pedigree, the doors to New Japan Pro Wrestling's famed dojo remained closed to Yamada because of his diminutive stature-but that wasn't enough to make him quit. He journeyed to Mexico, learning the high flying style of lucha libre before being rediscovered by a New Japan scout and shipped back to Japan for formal training.
He was living the dream and was intent that nothing would stop him. His tireless work ethic could have made him a MMA giant-instead, as Ring of Hell author Matthew Randazzo V described in his seminal book, it drove him to become one of pro wrestling's most self destructive dynamos:
Unlike most Young Boys, who treat their graduation from the dojo like a parole from prison, Yamada was reluctant to leave. When finally convinced, Yamada moved into a small apartment one block away. The new dojo class got used to the 2 a.m visits from Yamada, who was too full of ideas to sleep and needed the entire dojo to wake up immediately so they could practice the innovative spots he came up with in bed.
Yamada, wrestling as the cartoon character Jushin Liger, put his body through tortuous matches. He was slammed on his head, tossed to the floor, and lept from the top rope night after night for more than a decade. By the time he finally made his MMA debut, he was a shell of a man-38 years old, broken, and so swollen from heavy steroid use that he was barely mobile.
Despite his pro wrestling fame, Yamada's MMA cup of coffee was not really about him. It was a tribute of sorts to his opponent, Pancrase founder Minoru Suzuki who knew Yamada from their time together in New Japan. Suzuki had been through wars of his own, first with the hard training in the cutthroat world of Japanese shoot style wrestling, and then fighting monthly for nearly a decade in Pancrase. He had suffered numerous concussions and was unable to compete at the level he was accustomed to. This was to be his final fight in Pancrase (he would only perform in catch wrestling exhibitions on future shows). Yamada was not meant to be an actual test, just a famous opponent he could run through on route to a very angry retirement.
The fight opened with Yamada tentatively jabbing before flying across the ring with Liger's patented koppo kick, a rolling somersault based attack that was probably not well suited to mixed martial arts even in the best of times. Suzuki pounced and a rear naked choke shortly followed. It was an embarrassing showing for Yamada, but a triumphant one as well. He didn't take a single step backwards from the showmanship he had made such a part of his in ring persona. He fought on his terms-in a mask and flying through the air. It was gaudy, reckless, and memorable. A fitting performance from one of wrestling's very best.