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The Timeless Work of Tiger Mask

4 months ago M. Ish | Monthly Puroresu

M. Ish | Monthly Puroresu

The Timeless Work of Tiger Mask

By: Jeremy Peeples

Our piece on the rise of Will Ospreay led to some interesting parallels being drawn between Ospreay and Tom Billington, better known as the Dynamite Kid and his story is one that can’t be told without one of pro wrestling’s most influential acts of the last 50 years – Satoru Sayama, the original Tiger Mask. The character itself was rooted in a manga series, which itself became a trend in puroresu, with Jushin Liger being the most famous example after Tiger Mask. Sayama’s abilities in the ring were so multi-faceted that you could transplant his work 40 years ago into the modern-day and it wouldn’t look out of place.

While his series of matches with Dynamite Kid were the stuff of legend, simply seeing what Sayama could do in the ring during a much simpler time is impressive. In age when a slower style was the norm across the world and especially in the US’s northeast territory the WWF, he was able to wow audiences with things like tope suicidas in an era when someone doing a kneedrop off a turnbuckle was incredible and a basic bearhug could be a finish. Sayama’s spinning side headlock takedown into an ankle lock was done with so much speed that you couldn’t help but be impressed and it was a very smart blend of styles done in a way that didn’t feel forced.

Visually, seeing him go from the headlock got you into the mindset of “okay it’s a headlock” and then he would spin and dart behind his opponent so quickly that it actually got a headlock over as a move you could use as a setup for something far better before he launched into an ankle lock in an era where you didn’t see that move all that often. You might see some wrestlers use it occasionally as a setup move from territory stars like Scott Casey, but it wasn’t anything a fan would pay attention to in that era outside of Tiger Mask’s execution of it because it was so crisp and blended style with substance.

In the same way something can seem odd in a TV show if it doesn’t make visual sense – especially with animation, the same holds true for pro wrestling. Tiger Mask’s graceful movements combined nicely with his speed to create a style that was not only unique for its time – but has stood up over 40 years thanks to its speed and overall precision. Sayama could do many things well and didn’t do anything that wasn’t impressive on some level. He would brawl with Dynamite Kid on the floor but do so in a way that was within the rules overall since Dynamite would generally work heel in their matches since he was so much bigger visually.

The remarkable thing about Sayama is that even in that era with a slimmer build, he still had a sense of being a physical threat due to how good his strikes were. Things like his spinning heel kicks always hit the jaw flush and looked fantastic – and stood out more during his WWF matches where you’ve got the lighter-looking northeastern style and then have him hitting shots fairly flush and diving around in an era where an atomic drop was a finish. His post-shooto work showcased a blend of Tiger Mask’s speed with a more action-based ground game. It’s fascinating to see even his latter-day in-ring work in the ’00s when he was a lot heavier, but still had quick movement speed in bursts and focused more on the ground game.

He was slower in his overall movement speed, but still had a lot of snap to his spinning toehold takedown and groundwork. It was remarkable to see how quick he could be at all given the massive mid-section weight gain, but the blend of some early Tiger Mask with some UWF-style matwork was fascinating to watch and even interesting to see with the rise of MMA in the mid-’00s thanks to Ultimate Fighter and seeing just how far ahead of his time Sayama was when it came to having a hybrid style across different points in time.

His high-speed work brought him great fame, and he traded in some of that to do his own thing – very much like something you’d see Bruiser Brody do or Stan Hansen, where he felt his worth was a bit different than a major company did. Now it’s one thing for a big guy like them to know their worth and put up with minimal crap – a bit like how Brock Lesnar is now where he values his time and freedom and is only out to work as a big-money mercenary, but it’s another for a junior heavyweight to pull rank even now – let alone 30 years ago.

Sayama’s influence in the world of video games is unmatched for any pro wrestler that isn’t Hulk Hogan. So many franchises over the years have either had him in the game officially – like Wrestle Kingdom 2 on the PS2 or Toukon Retsuden 3 on the PS1 or had a knock-off in some form or fashion. Namco’s Tekken series has its best-known wrestler being King and he’s a complete expy of Tiger Mask visually, resulting in a bit of irony when Bandai Namco made a deal with New Japan for Tekken 7 during the heyday of the Bullet Club and had NJPW-influenced gear on King, whose default gear was already an homage to Tiger Mask.

Franchises like Fire Pro Wrestling have had Sayama-inspired characters for decades and even dating back to the debut of that franchise’s MMA mode called gruesome fighting in 1996’s Fire Pro Wrestling S 6-Men Scramble, you could make a version of him that blended both ground-based grappling and stiff strikes alongside his earlier high-flying. Despite video games being a fantastic way to enjoy a lot of his moves, there are so many little things he did in the ring that have yet to be replicated anywhere – like counting a hip toss with a full rotation of his body into a flying mare where he lands on his stomach.

Wrestlers like Ultimo Dragon have taken direct training from Sayama and used it for their own characters – like his The Tiger gimmick he used briefly after his WWE run and the whole lucharesu style that Ultimo is credited with created has its roots in what Sayama was doing a decade before.  As time has gone on, we have seen three other mainline Tiger Masks and of them, only Kota Ibushi as Tiger Mask W really fit the role as both a flyer and heavy striker. It’s a testament to just how good Sayama was in the role that 40 years later, only one person has come close to replicating his style in the character and it took nearly that entire 40 year span for it to happen.

The roots of modern-day companies like Dragon Gate and its years ahead of the curve style have their roots in Sayama’s work. Without him, you don’t have Ultimo keeping that blend of slick matwork and gorgeous flying alive and training several generations of talent in that style. His influence will live on for many more years to come because what he pioneered and perfected is now essentially the modern-day style of fast-paced pro wrestling. STARDOM has used it as the foundation for their High-Speed Championship and even WWE is being influenced by it to this day with their SNS WWE Speed programming.

Satoru Sayama’s work across every era of his career is fascinating to watch and has held up far better than most from his prime.

Written by:

A native of Virginia, I've written for Web for more than fifteen years, mostly in the video game space. My first print byline came in Hardcore Gamer Magazine, where I was published for five years until it went dormant in 2010. I currently write for a number of publications, including Monthly Puroresu, where I've done live event coverage and longform features since 2021.