A tremendous aerial innovator, he became a legend in Japan, revolutionizing the sport of professional wrestling for Junior Heavyweights, and then retired in his prime.
Real Name: Saturo Sayama
Born: November 24, 1957
By Steve Slagle
The original Tiger Mask, straight out of the pages of a popular Japanese comicbook, single-handedly set the world of Junior Heavyweights (later called Cruiserweights and/or Light Heavyweights) on fire when he made his debut on April 23, 1981. At first, many traditional Japanese fans scoffed at the thought of Tiger Mask, artist Ikki Kajiwara’s popular comicbook wrestling hero, being pushed as a legitimate wrestling star. But as the world would soon find out, there was much more to the high-flying and inventive masked man than just his already famous Tiger Mask comicbook persona. This death-defying and revolutionary high-flyer took the style of his childhood idol Mil Mascaras, and due to his own incredible skill and ingenuity, turned it into his own, forever changing wrestling for wrestlers under 225 lbs. Quite simply, history may prove the original Tiger Mask to be one of, if not the single most important and influential men in the history of wrestling’s lighter weight division…
Tiger Mask was born Satoru Sayama on November 24, 1957 in Yamaguchi, Japan. He began his career not as a masked marvel, but rather using his real name when he made his pro wrestling debut on May 28, 1976, losing to Shouji Kai in Tokyo. After a few years of learning his craft, and paying his dues, Satoru Sayama steadily rose up the ranks. In 1979 he won his first title, the NWA World Middleweight championship in Guadalajara, Mexico. Sayama held the title for 6 months before losing to El Satanico on March 28, 1980, impressing many with his wrestling skills.
When Tatsumi Fujinami spearheaded the Junior Heavyweight division in Japan after his success in America as W.W.W.F Junior Heavyweight champion, New Japan was looking for new stars for the junior heavyweight division. As a way to promote and draw attention to the division, they decided on making the popular Tiger Mask wrestling cartoon character into a true wrestler. The talented Sayama was asked to fill the role, he accepted, and after much preparation made his wrestling debut in 1981 defeating the formidable Dynamite Kid for the vacated WWF Junior Heavyweight championship. He also managed to shock the wrestling world in the process. But that was only the beginning…
After winning over his critics in Japan with his dazzling repertoire and obvious superiority to every wrestler he met, Tiger Mask was finally defeated by the Black Tiger on May 6, 1982 for the WWF Junior Heavyweight title. The loss hurt, but was definitely lessened by the fact that Tiger Mask would go on to win the even more prestigious N.W.A. World Junior Heavyweight less than 3 weeks later on May 25, 1982. Then, the very next day, Tiger Mask defeated Black Tiger in a rematch for the WWF Junior Heavyweight title — making him a 2-time WWF Junior Heavyweight champion, the first-ever simultaneous NWA World & WWF Junior Heavyweight titleholder, and the hottest Junior Heavyweight the sport had ever seen…
Even in America, where he was first received with a great deal of skepticism, the unique and exciting Tiger Mask became a big “special attraction” for promoters. He defended the NWA and WWF belts nearly every night of the week, throughout the U.S., Japan, and Mexico. Everywhere he went, the unique and inventive Tiger Mask inspired young wrestlers to follow in his footsteps. Men like Jushin Liger, Rey Mysterio, Jr., Ultimo Dragon, and the Great Sasuke have all cited the original Tiger Mask as a big influence on them growing up.
But soon after regaining the WWF title, certain NWA promoters declared the NWA Junior Heavyweight title vacant, believing that since the NWA’s title was universally considered the “true” World Junior Heavyweight title, Tiger Mask should only defend the NWA — and not the WWF — World Junior Heavyweight championship. But not long afterwards, at the NWA’s annual meeting, the NWA Board of Directors decreed that Tiger Mask was to be officially recognized as NWA and WWF Junior Heavyweight champion.
For the next year, Tiger Mask ruled his part of the wrestling world. Whereas Tatsumi Fujinami had basically introduced the division to the Japanese fans, it was Tiger Mask who took it to incredible new heights of popularity in his native country of Japan, as well as in Mexico and the U.S.
However, during a tag team match on April 3,1983 he was injured by Dynamite Kid. Two days later, he was forced to vacate the NWA World Junior Heavyweight title after it became clear that he would need time off to recuperate. However, once the determined Tiger Mask recovered, he regained his NWA World Jr. title by defeating Kuniaki Kobayashi on June 2, 1983 making him a 2-time NWA World Junior Heavyweight champion, and once again, simultaneous NWA/WWF champion.
Then, shockingly, 2 months later, on August 12, 1983, Tiger Mask announced that he was retiring from the sport — truly going out at the top of his game. The NWA and WWF titles were declared vacant. However, New Japan Pro Wrestling, perhaps sensing that there was still a great deal of mileage left in the Tiger Mask character, pressed on. New Japan’s wrestling comic book character did not die when Sayama left the sport, and over the years, three other highly talented men eventually wore the costume of Tiger Mask. However, each man that followed had to strive to reach the incredible standard of wrestling excellence set by the original Tiger Mask, Satoru Sayama. Most historians agree that, although they each possessed tremendous ring skills, none truly lived up to the great Sayama’s original version of the character.
In the years following his retirement from wrestling, Sayama quietly kept active in the martial arts. But more disturbingly for many within the world of Japanese pro wrestling, Sayama had several negative things to say publicly about the “sport,” and even wrote a somewhat scathing account of his thoughts about wrestling in a book. However, his apparent ill-will eventually subsided, and in 1996 he returned to the sport and won 1/2 of the TWA Tag Team title. Also, throughout much of the 1990’s, Sayama — sans his Tiger Mask persona — was heavily involved in the stiff, hybrid “shoot” style of wrestling, also known as Mixed Martial Arts, both as a competitor and promoter.
Truly, Sayama has proven throughout his career that he is forever on the cutting edge, always a few steps ahead of everyone else. The Ring Chronicle proudly inducts the revolutionary and trend-setting Satoru Sayama, the original Tiger Mask, into his rightful place within T.R.C.’s Hall of Fame…