“A Tribute to Masked Wrestlers” is an ongoing series paying homage to the greatest pro wrestlers who have donned a mask in the ring. Check out part 1 on Ultimo Dragon here.
Tearing free from the pages of comic books and from the world of anime, Tiger Mask stepped into real-life rings in 1981 and soon became a legend.
Satoru Sayama had been wrestling for New Japan Pro Wrestling, providing bulkier wrestlers with a guy to squash. His small frame (160 lbs.) would have likely kept him as a bottom feeder had things stayed the same.
After spending the tail end of the '70s wrestling in England and Mexico, Sayama was asked to play the Tiger Mask character back home in Japan.
Japanese fans originally turned their nose at the idea.
Tiger Mask was a cartoon, an over-the-top heroic wrestler who every week fought off vampires, monsters and scarred villains. It seemed too silly to work.
Had Sayama been less talented, perhaps the idea would have bombed.
In his debut match against Dynamite Kid on April 23, 1981, Tiger Mask quickly amazed and hypnotized the audience.
An athletic marvel and a one-of-a-kind talent, Sayama brought an array of high-flying moves that fans had never seen before.
He possessed the balance of a gymnast, a cat-like agility and a sixth sense for the sport.
Sayama was heavily influenced by and admittedly copied Mexican icon, Mil Mascaras' style.
In the way that Tiger Mask dove over the ropes, arms spread out like wings, the Lucha Libre style clearly inspired him. Sayama would of course look to elevate and expand on what he'd seen.
Sayama's innovations changed the Junior Heavyweight division and wrestling in general.
Watching a Tiger Mask match in the '80s was like watching Jimi Hendrix performance in the '60s. Fans knew they were watching something special, but couldn't grasp what they were seeing, knowing it was ahead of its time.
Sayama brought us the Tiger Feint Kick, a move where the wrestler's momentum and rotating body make for a dazzling kick.
Rey Mysterio went on to make the move famous, dubbing his version the 619.
The Tiger Spin is another of Sayama's gifts to wrestling, though few wrestlers are able to pull it off.
While a move ending in a drop toe-hold doesn't sound all that thrilling, Sayama transformed himself into a whirlwind as he took his opponents down with it.
He didn't invent the Corner Backflip or Cartwheel Plancha, but Tiger Mask perfected and popularized them.
Tiger Mask was not one-dimensional and did far more than just fly around the ring. Trained by technical greats, Karl Gotch and Antonio Inoki, Sayama was also an excellent catch wrestler.
Wrestling Observer Newsletter named him both the Best Technical Wrestler of' '82 and '83 and the Best Flying Wrestler of those two years.
Tiger vs. Dynamite
In Tiger Mask's brief career, he had scores of fantastic matches.
None of it compares to the opuses he and the Dynamite Kid created together. Perhaps no two wrestlers put together a set of more beautiful matches.
The two earned Wrestling Observer Newletter's first ever five-star match in 1983, one year after earning Match of the Year honors.
Their uncanny feel for each other made every counter, every reversal look natural. Aspiring wrestlers should study their clashes, the crispness of their moves, their unparalleled artistry.
Dynamite and Sayama made something as banal as a wrist lock breathtaking.
Citing the tiresome nature of locker room politics and boredom with "fake wrestling," Tiger Mask retired in 1985 at only 28.
He exposed wrestling's secrets and at times expressed his distaste for the sport in his book, Kayfabe.
He was now more interested in shoot-style fighting.
He founded Shooto, a mixed martial arts organization based in Japan. He'd longed dreamed of becoming a martial arts trainer and realized that dream for nearly a decade.
His Super Tiger Gym became the proving ground for many future fighters.
He did eventually return to the ring in the '90s, appearing sporadically under various names such as Tiger King and Super Tiger.
Lineage and Legacy
Sayama turned the Tiger Mask character into a valuable commodity. It's no surprise then that four wrestlers continued donning the mask and carrying on the tradition.
The most famous of these men is Tiger Mask II, the incomparable Mitsuharu Misawa.
As great as Misawa's career was in totality, he nor any of the other subsequent Tiger Masks were on Sayama's level in building prestige to the character's name.
The Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Famer could have been one of the five greatest wrestlers of all time. In just a few short years, he mastered the art of wrestling.
A performer as skilled as Sayama, conducting his body like a symphony, seemed born to wrestle.
Fans will always treasure his priceless contributions and watch his matches numbed with awe, but we will also wonder what could have been.