A Highly Animated Ring Superhero
by Dan Murphy
In April 1981, Satoru Sayama donned a fur-lined mask and brought a comic book superhero to life. He also became one of the most influential professional wrestlers of his generation and one of the true pioneers of the fast-paced acrobatic style that is prevalent today.
Sayama trained under Antonio Inoki and Karl Gotch in the New Japan Pro Wresting dojo before making his pro wrestling debut in May 1976. He left Japan to compete internationally, making stops in England and in Mexico, where he learned the Mexican lucha libre style. When Sayama returned to New Japan in 1981, he was selected to play a very unique role. Looking to capitalize on the popularity of the manga series and subsequent anime series Tiger Mask, New Japan signed an agreement to license the title character – a heroic pro wrestler fighting to support a children’s hospital. Sayama was to become New Japan’s very own Tiger Mask.
It was a character that could have been a career-killer; a novelty character geared towards younger viewers, a transparent attempt to cash in on a pop culture phenomenon. But, as a testament to Sayama’s pure talent and athleticism, he successfully breathed life into the character. Tiger Mask quickly became the cornerstone of New Japan’s junior heavyweight division.
As Tiger Mask, Sayama was able to showcase the lucha libre skills he had learned in Mexico, along with the superior mat wrestling he had learned under Gotch. His wrestling style was a fusion of technical virtuosity, daredevil dives and attacks, and martial arts strikes and knees, straight from the comic book pages. Signature moves such as the spinning thrust kick, high-angle German suplex, and twisting moonsault splash made him a sensation with fans of all ages. He had the balance of a gymnast, the grace of a ballerina, and the grappling game of an old-style shooter.
The Dynamite Kid proved to be the perfect foil for Tiger Mask and the two had a series of matches that are still considered classics by historians and wrestlers alike. In 1982, Tiger Mask won the WWF junior heavyweight (beating Dynamite Kid for the vacant championship) and the NWA junior heavyweight title, and was named ‘Best Technical Wrestler,’ ‘Best Flying Wrestler’, and ‘Most Impressive Wrestler’ in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter year-end awards. He also had the ‘Match of the Year’ for 1982 in another match against The Dynamite Kid.
In August 1983, Sayama shocked the world by announcing his retirement from wrestling. New Japan retained the rights to the Tiger Mask character and Mitsuhara Misawa stepped in to play the role. To date, five men (Sayama, Misawa, Koji Kanemoto, Yoshihiro Yamazaki, and Ikuhisa Minowa) have served as Tiger Mask, though Sayama’s performance is still the gold standard.
Sayama returned to the ring in the Universal Wrestling Federation in 1984, using the names The Tiger and Super Tiger, and also competed under his own name. Through the years, Sayama has continued to wrestle periodically while also working as a trainer and promoter.
At a time when wrestling was dominated by giants and methodical mat wrestling, Tiger Mask was a shot of adrenaline into the sport’s bloodstream. He influenced countless wrestlers and helped change the look and pace of professional wrestling forever. His legacy is unchallenged and his contributions to pro wrestling are impossible to ignore.