Metalhead’s Riff: The Legend of Tiger Mask (Part 1)

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Before I start, I have to give credit to one of our regular commentators, Mr Joseph Hargrove, for the subject of this column. It was indeed his innocuous looking question about the importance and influence of the Tiger Mask gimmick that had me opening 25 windows at the same time, cross-referencing tons of information and basically type several knots into my fingers. I would thank him, but those thanks might sound a bit sarcastic a this point. Anyway, a promise is a promise so here is the full story behind the legendary Tiger Mask.

While the wrestling gimmick was created in the early eighties, for the origins of the Tiger Mask character, we must go back to 1968. Renowned manga writer Ikki Kajiwara (Ashita no Joe amongst others), teamed up with illustrator Naoki Tsuji to create a manga that would have a wrestler as main character. It told the story of Naoto Date, a viscous heel wrestler, fighting his battles under the mask of a tiger and who would have a change of heart upon returning to Japan. The series was published from 1968 to 1971 in Bokura Magazine and from 1970 to 1971 in Weekly Shonen Magazine. As so often in Japan, the success of the series spawned an anime adaptation which ran from 1969 to 1971. Serious re-publishings and re-airings would keep the popularity of the series alive. In, perhaps, a first sign of things to come, it is interesting to note that, while featuring mostly fictional characters and environments, real life wrestlers like Giant Baba, Kintaro Ohki and Seiji Sakaguchi would also appear on occasion, alongside a certain Antonio Inoki.

In 1972 Inoki would famously break away from the All Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance to create his own promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling. In that same year Giant Baba and the Momota brothers founded All japan Pro Wrestling. Both promotions would encounter success and eventually become known as the top two promotions in Japan. While both NJPW and AJPW would feature Junior Heavyweights, back then, those were basically faster versions of the heavyweights. Indeed most smaller wrestlers, although talented, were used as jobbers to the stars. One such wrestler was Satoru Sayama.

Sayama would wrestle for NJPW as early as 1976. While talented, Sayama’s small stature prevented him from bagging a permanent spot in NJPW. So he was often send on tours in England and Mexico were he would continue to develop the hybrid style he would become renowned for. It was in Mexico that Sayama would know his first championship success, by defeating Ringo Mendoza for the NWA Wolrd Middleweight Championship. It should be noted that, back then, NJPW was still using (mostly) NWA titles to recognize its champions. That would last until 1983, and Inoki’s foundation of the International Wrestling Grand Prix, which in turn would lead to the various titles still being used today.

In 1981, Inoki and the NJPW bookers were looking for means to attract a younger audience. They correctly anticipated that allowing the junior heavyweight to grow and develop a different style would be ideal for that. Seeking characters that were instantly recognizable, given the manga and anime were still very popular in those days and since Inoki was already associated with it anyway, Tiger  Mask seemed like a natural choice for their plans. Thinking that his style would be a hit with their target audience, Sayama was chosen for the role.

On April 23 1981, Tiger Mask made his NJPW début and was immediately met by scorn from the traditional NJPW audience. A manga character in the “serious” world of wrestling? NJPW HAD to be joking. Scorn turned to shock as Tiger Mask used speed and innovative offensive moves to overwhelm established international superstar (and wrestling innovator in his own right) The Dynamite Kid Tom Billington. Shock would quickly turn to universal acclaim as the two would assemble a series of matches and feud that is still spoken of in revered tones today. Pushed by NJPW as their premier Junior Heavyweight star, Tiger Mask would go on to have acclaimed matches and feuds all over the world and against pretty much anyone he encountered. Kuniaki Kobayashi (who would become known as Tiger Hunter following his matches against iger Mask I and II), Bret hart, “Gentleman” Chris Adams, Mexico’s Fishman, it didn’t matter where he went or whom he faced, tiger Mask wowed audiences everywhere.

Meanwhile NJPW, encouraged by the success of Tiger Mask decided to take a second character from the manga and transition it to the real world. One of Tiger Mask’s main antagonist during the course of the series was his “Evil Twin” Black Tiger. They quickly settled on one of Britain’s best wrestlers for the role.

Marc “Rollerball” Rocco and Satoru Sayama had actually met long before the Tiger Mask character was created. While wrestling in England, Sayama, then billed as Sammy Lee, wrestled a series of matches against Rocco that was well received. The choice was easy for NJPW, and Rocco was brought in as Tiger Mask’s nemesis. Their series was another hit. Rocco, who also had an acclaimed series of matches against the Dynamite Kid had no problems to adapt to any style and he and Sayama had  natural chemistry together. Sayama would go on to win the (W)WWF Junior Heavyweight Championships twice (first beating Dynamite kid, then Black Tiger) and the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship twice (Beating  Les Thornton and Kuniaki Kobayashi). This didn’t sit well with some members of the NWA board as they didn’t want someone associated with (W)WWF holding a NWA title. NJPW officials had to smooth things over, making Sawada the only wrestler to officially hold both belts at the same time.

Despite some injuries, Tiger Mask was at the top of his game in 1983. Therefore the wrestling world was in shock when Sayama announced his retirement from active competition (he was 26 at the time). Disgusted with the backstage politics inherent with wrestling promotions all over the world, he founded his own training school, Tiger Dojo, and spend most of his time training wrestlers and martial arts fighter. In 1984 he made a return to wrestling by joining the recently founded Universal Wrestling Federation where he would be billed The Tiger and later Super Tiger to distinguish himself from Tiger Mask II whom, by then, had already debuted in AJPW (but I’m getting ahead from myself here). Super Tiger would have some fantastic matches and feuds against Akira Maeda and Yoshiaki Fujiwara before Sayama would leave UWF after some differences with Maeda. While both had a background in martial arts and agreed that a shoot style was best for wrestling, one was more about kicks, the other was all about holds. Not able to reach a consensus Sayama returned to his training dojo (and UWF would fold soon after). Sayama would train fighter and wrestlers for years to come, forming Shooto and criticizing the “worked” style of wrestling. He would make occasional returns to wrestling, using Super Tiger or Tiger King as his gimmick and would go on to endorse several variations of the original Tiger Mask character (for a complete list, see below). He founded Real Japan Pro Wrestling in 2005 and would continue wrestling occasionally, even if age had taken away most of the skills that made him a superstar. In fact, in March this year, he made a another special appearance at RJPW against Akebono. While the match wasn’t good, the audience was delighted to once again greet someone who will remain a true wrestling legend.

The story of the original Tiger mask ends here, but wrestling was far from done with the Tiger Mask gimmick. In 1984, seeking to emulate the success of NJPW’s Junior heavyweight division, AJPW bought the rights to the Tiger Mask gimmick. One of the most promising talents of wrestling at the time, 22 year old Mitsuharu Misawa, was chosen to don the mask. Trained by Giant Baba, Dick “The destroyer” Beyer and Dory Funk Sr and La Fiera while he was in Mexisco’s EMLLMisawa knew he had some big shoes to fill. But AJPW was determined to see him succeed and quickly added “Tiger Hunter” Kuniaki Kobayashi and Dynamite Kid Tom Billington to a division already featuring the likes of Chavo Guerrero Jr and Atsushi Onita. Misawa’s talent and the differences of style between him and Sayama meant the series against Kabayashi and Dynamite Kid were not merely a repeat. Instead, together with Guerrero Sr and Onita they would set the wrestling world on fire. Tiger Mask was back on top.

In 1986, in a move that was considered a blunder by most wrestling observers, Tiger Mask II/Misawa graduated to the Heavyweight Division. While some predicted failure, as Tiger mask had become synonymous with Junior Heavyweights, Giant Baba was thinking long-term. He needed to start grooming the next generation of AJWP stars and Misawa was on the top of his list. Tiger Mask II’s first proper feud as heavyweight would be against legendary Jumbo Tsuruta. Being taken under the wing of someone who was, perhaps, the world’s best wrestler at that time was a huge boost for Misawa, who was learning fast. Sure, he would lose his feuds against Tsurata en Genichiru Tenryu but that was irrelevant. From that point on, he was on his way to wrestling greatness. he would also continue wrestling international superstars such as Bret hart, Curt Henning and Ricky Steamboat. By 1990, Giant Baba knew Misawa was ready for bigger things. There was just one last detail to take care off. On May 14 1990, during a tag team match against Yoshiaki Yatsu and Samson Fuyuki, Tiger Mask II told his tag team partner, Toshiaki Kawada, to unmask him. After six years under the mask, Misawa was revealed to the world. he would soon don his trademark green thighs and start working on his own legacy.

It’s difficult to compare the original Tiger mask with Tiger Mask II as they were both such great wrestlers. While Misawa’s incarnation wouldn’t revolutionize wrestling like Sayama’s did, he certainly did more than his part to add to the legend by adding his own flair for in-ring psychology and story-telling to the gimmick. Misawa would sporadically don the mask again, for special reunion events mostly, but, after 1990 the name Mitsuharu Misawa would become a legend of its own.

In 1989, NJPW decided to launch another gimmick based on a manga/anime character. This time, they chose one of the creations of legendary mangaka Go Nagai. It’s name? Jushin Liger. While this is not the place to tell the legend of Jushin Liger, the mention is relevant as some of his first feuds would be against “Tiger Hunter” Kuniaki Kobayashi and Mark Rocco who would reprise his Black Tiger character for the occasion. Rocco had stayed in touch with NJPW over the years, and, was eager to put yet another promising talent over (especially since he had already feuded with Keiichi Yamada years before). Sadly, health problems would force Marc Rocco to retire in 1991, but his Black Tiger character had certainly left its mark on the wrestling world. But the connection between Jushin Liger and the Tiger Mask universe was made.

That connection is important to answer part of the question that originated this article. How relevant is the Tiger Mask gimmick? Jushin Thunder Liger is the best Junior heavyweight ever, that is a given. But Satoru Sayama and his Tiger Mask character can be credited with creating the environment that would made Jushin Liger a star. Before Sayama there was nothing. After Sayama, there was a thriving, spectacular, innovative and thrilling Junior Heavyweight Division that would only continue to grow. Misawa would then take the gimmick and flesh it out, adding his own talent to continue building on the legend. Also the successful transition of the Tiger Mask Gimmick, from manga character to wrestling persona, would undoubtedly pave the way for the Jushin Liger gimmick. Let me put it this way, would there even have been a Junior Division like we came to know and love or a character like Jushin Liger without the original character? I don’t know about you, but I’d say that’s pretty damn relevant.

Next week, if all goes well, we will see how the gimmick did in the nineties and 2000’s and take a look at all the variants of the gimmick that have been created over the years.

 

In the meantime, I am left with an almost impossible choice for my Match of the Week. I mean how can one choose between dozens of great matches? I finally settled on the two who started it all, and chose their match from April, 23th 1983.

Because I’m in a good mood, and because one can not speak about Mitsuhara Misawa without showing at least one of his matches, you get a double feature today. I chose his match against Kuniaki Kobayashi since the “Tiger Hunter” is also part of the legend. Enjoy!

If any of you are interested in other matches involving the Tiger Mask’s feel free to ask in the comments, I will do my best to find them for you.

That’s all from me this week, see you all soon for the continuation of this story. Have fun!

 

 

 

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