Satoru Sayama wasn’t the first wrestler to wear a mask and commit acts of flagrant derring do in a wrestling ring. By the late 1970’s, that was de rigueur in the world of Mexican lucha libre and slowly making its way around the globe.
Although not completely unique, there was something special about Sayama, who took on the anime character of Tiger Mask so completely, you could be forgiven for believing he was born with tufts of white hair and whiskers.
Yes, other wrestlers flew around the ring and even dived out of it. But who did it with the verve and fearlessness of Tiger Mask, who seemed to jump just a little bit farther, move just a little bit quicker and dare just a little bit more than even the best flyers on the Mexican scene?
He appeared in New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1981 and departed by the end of 1983, a
short, furious, brilliant run that changed wrestling forever. His matches, especially those with Dynamite Kid, delighted both the children he was supposed to help attract to wrestling programming and the young adults who made up the bulk of the audience.
He was never pinned and never submitted inside a New Japan Pro Wrestling ring.
The wrestling part of the wrestling business was never Sayama’s problem. The backstage politics, however, were too much for him to handle. He retired in August of 1983, seemingly content to train in the martial arts at the Tiger Gym, helping devise a fighting competition that would eventually become the pioneering mixed martial arts promotion SHOOTO.
Wrestling, however, wasn’t quite out of his blood, not yet. The UWF provided the chance to both escape the chaos of New Japan Pro Wrestling and help reinvent the form completely. It was an opportunity too good to pass up. And so, on July 23, 1984, Sayama returned to the ring as “The Tiger” selling out consecutive nights at Korakuen Hall.
While the two cards haven’t survived in their entirety, a commercial VHS tape captured both of the Tiger’s matches for posterity. Along with a match from future star Kazuo Yamazaki, who joined the promotion as the tsukibito (assistant) to Sayama, they show a distinct style slowly beginning to take form.
Main Event (7/23/1984)
Akira Maeda/Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. The Tiger/Nobuhiko Takada
They open with technical matwork, and Takada’s fine here, but Fujiwara is on another level. It feels like he’s never doing just one thing, instead working combination holds, affecting multiple joints and points of balance and riding the line between legitimate wrestling and the wrestling equivalent of a kung fu movie. It’s a damn shame he never had the “learning excursion” to England that Maeda and Sayama had, because he would have been a delight in that environment.
Tiger Mask tags in, and the kung fu movie quotient picks up. I am not the biggest Sayama fan, but one of the things I really appreciate about him is how all of his shit looks like it hurts. Too many juniors over the years have high spots that are genuinely athletically impressive but make no sense in a combat context. Tiger Mask’s knee drop looks like attempted homicide.
That’s kind of the order of the day on this match. Takada and Maeda break out some running double legs that legitimately look like a wrestler driving through resistance to take down an opponent. Maeda throws some stomps that look like they wouldn’t break an egg… so Takada doesn’t sell them and goes right to a throw and double wrist lock. Fujiwara looks like he injures himself on a flip bump, and Tiger goes after it like a shark. Sure, the tombstone piledriver and top rope headbutt take us out of the shoot style realm, but the killer instinct is there.
I don’t really understand what the referee is up to. Does he have a grudge against Takada? Is there an angle here I don’t recognize or is he just bad at his job? Between kicking Takada’s hand off the ropes when he reaches for a rope break and hooking his arm while he’s in mid-ground and pound on Fujiwara (and not doing anything illegal as far as I can tell), he’s definitely having an influence on the flow of the match and I don’t understand why.
They start busting out the big moves in the second half of the match. Maeda’s power bomb is nothing special, but his piledriver is just fine and Takada and Tiger play “can you top this” with killer jump spinning back kicks to rock Maeda and nasty looking suplexes that poor Fujiwara eats right on his head. Finish is a little out of nowhere as Fujiwara goes from eating big offense to pummeling his way into reversing a belly-to-belly into a German suplex for the fall. Not really satisfying as a conclusion, but a fun run up to that point.
Tag team wrestling and UWF were never really synonymous, but that doesn’t mean that tag bouts didn’t happen or that they weren’t important. It’s July and the UWF style is still sort of forming from the raw wads of dough that the crew had been tossing together. The names were surely in place as this saw four of the most influential men of the early UWF smacked together, with a better idea of what they wanted to do with their blank canvas.
By now the matwork is far more fluid and reminiscent of a more modern style of grappling that anyone familiar with MMA would at least faintly recognize. Gone are the slapdash transitions between holds or the awkward strikes. This isn’t trying to be like everyone else in pro wrestling anymore, instead you have legitimate attempts at takedowns from young Takada, you have Sayama using kicks to keep distance, Fujiwara working furiously to ground the strike-and-arial-prone Sayama and a Maeda who is starting to feel comfortable throwing kicks.
The contrast with modern wrestling is stark, especially considering the fact that modern wrestling is obsessed with both workrate and filling up space with moves instead of suspense. Everything here is a fight, from the smallest submission hold, to the attempts at any and all suplexes.
In the latter portions of the match, when everyone is tired and the big moves start coming out, the faucet still isn’t on all of the way, blasting out any-and-everything that they can think of. Instead it’s deliberate and working towards a goal of telling stories inside of the ring. The nothingness of postmodernism hadn’t bled into wrestling yet. Today meaning is derived from both nothing and everything.
You have four men with a very clear purpose and that purpose has nothing to do with emulating what came before. Sayama —known simply as The Tiger here—is still Sayama. That means his kicks are stiff, he’s not averse to ground work and he’s going to go up top and hit a diving headbutt if he gets a chance. A young, junior heavyweight Takada isn’t yet the beloved heavyweight that put on classics with Maeda, invaded NJPW and stole the IWGP belt but the outlines of that Takada are showing. Throughout the match it’s clear that he’s ready to burst out and evolve at any moment.
Ultimately, the story of this match was the push-and-pull between the old and the new. This was still traditional professional wrestling —there were still piledrivers, diving headbutts, missile dropkicks and stomps. But what finally finished off Takada was a bridging german suplex, which feels like the ultimate blending of old pro wrestling and the new pro wrestling that Maeda, Sayama, Fujiwara and Takada were working towards.
This match was similar in many ways to the Fujiwara v. Maeda match we reviewed last week. There is a fair amount of table setting shootstyle stuff, which sets up a more traditional pro wrestling run to the finish. This was very much a big star tag match, which sets up eventual Takada v. Maeda and Tiger Mask v. Fujiwara feuds, and gives nice tastes of Fujiwara v. Takada and Maeda v. TM.
Loved Fujiwara in this, as he is clearly one of the best in the world at this point. His interactions with Tiger Mask were awesome, his selling is so great and he makes all of Tiger Masks shots look like kill shots, the moment where he sells the Tiger Mask spin kick like it gave him a mild heart attack was awesome.
He also wasn’t afraid to break out some nastiness, especially when Takada went at him. More of a taste of what is great to come, then a great match on its own, still too many dropkicks, Tiger Mask flying headbutts and scoop slams to have this be some great stylistic evolution yet.
Was unbelievably keen for this one! Seeing possibly my all time favorite wrestler, Tiger Mask, make his UWF debut is pretty dang monumental and they treated it as such booking what I would consider the best possible tag match.
Cool to see the beginning of the transition of the character from Tiger Mask, to just The Tiger as seen here, to the eventual god of badassery known as Super Tiger. I really loved the behind the scenes stuff on this one, you could tell Sayama himself was a little bit nervous about this huge career leap but absolutely none of that showed once he was in the ring.
That’s not to say everyone else in the match did nothing, because the early exchanges between baby Takada and Gramps where really nice, especially the nifty wrist manipulation Fujiwara had going. And the Takada/Maeda stuff was just fire as it would always be.
Overall Takada was the work horse of the match and was clearly in there to eat the pin. Once Tiger got in though the whole game changed. He added that missing striking element with that hint of flash to the bubbling cauldron of the shoot style formula and the exchanges with both Fujiwara and Maeda, though short, were intense and mouth watering teases of large amounts of violence between those two and Sayama to come.
This match was everything it should have been and some. Seal of appeal without a doubt.
Kazuo Yamazaki vs. El Fantasma (7/24/1984)
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Kazuo Yamazaki was once just a kid, kind of the same way that it feels like Fujiwara was always just a grumpy old man. Yamazaki would go on to be one of the pillars of the style and a certified legend in Japan, with him still doing commentary during New Japan shows to this day. I’ll say this for skinny little Yamazaki: while everyone is trying to find themselves, it feels like he already knows what he wants and how to execute it as early as here, which is sort of amazing.
I thought this was really cool, and was in many way even more shootstyle then the big tag match. Your previous lucha matches in UWF, were lucha matches. This was Fantasma hitting the mat hard and grappling, there was really struggle in all of the exchanges, with none of the fluidity of lucha matches.
You won’t see armwringers in RINGS, but the spirit of battle was definitely there even in more traditional wrestling exchanges. I thought Fantasma looked really strong on the mat, and liked how Yamazaki needed to establish distance to land his spin kicks and really get an advantage. Too bad they didn’t keep using luchadroes, would have loved to see how guys like El Dandy or Negro Navarro would have adjusted to the style changes.
Fantasma jumping a low kick only to eat a side kick to the chest in mid air is all I need to be all-in on this thing from the jump.
There’s a chunk of the middle clipped, which I assume is more of the trading headlocks matwork they didn’t feel the need to air, but damn it I like the trading headlocks. They roll on the mat trying to pin each other with side headlocks, they fight over who’s controlling who in a front headlock—it sounds mindnumbing but I’m digging it.
Both of these guys know how to work (and sell!) a headlock so it looks an actual attempt to hurt or control someone, or switch out of it into different offense and then back in. I would have zero problem watch twenty minutes of “Yamazaki and Fantasma work around a headlock”.
The Tiger vs. Mach Hayato (7/23/1984)
After souring on his juniors work, his UWF matches are really raising his stock with me. (I almost typed “shoot style matches” but you still can’t really call it that. Mach Hayato just hit a vertical suplex.)
I don’t know what to think about Hayato. He’s not a mat wizard, nor is he any kind of kickboxer, but he is willing to throw a plancha that looks like he landed directly on the top of his head.
He’s mostly a big-ish body for Sayama to wrestle around. That works fine as long as he’s throwing the kicks and flips, but Tiger doesn’t have the depth of skill he would need to make the mat wrestling really compelling against a guy who is not giving him a ton to work with.
A lot of Hayato’s offense just looks bad. He throws a dropkick that Sayama sells despite taking no visible impact, in contrast to the previous day’s tag match. (I get the feeling Maeda would’ve busted his orbital for that.) There’s a top rope dive that… I have no idea what that was supposed to be. Did his leg collapse on him? Did he miss that move on purpose? Not a good showing by Hayato. As masked UWF wrestlers go, he’s no El Fantasma.
Of note perhaps only to me, all three matches end on pinfalls after suplexes. I promised Jon I’d go in depth on this in a future essay, but for now suffice to say I appreciate this detail of the original UWF. The suplex works better as a pinning move than as a pure impact throw. The risk of pinfall adds so much to both the throws and the matwork. It’s a shame they eliminated this aspect of the game.
One of my favorite things about 1984 Sayama is watching him modify how he works while still keeping it astoundingly familiar. He’s known for these historic, influential and fast-paced matches, but that was never the summation of who he was. He’s, in a word, a master.
He understands that the fans still want to see some of his big spots, and knows when to tease, when to deliver and when to push the new style of wrestling he wants to be doing.
There are micro-stories being told, like the previous night he used a diving headbutt that couldn’t get the three-count and here, against Mach Hayato, he completely whiffed it and it cost him dearly. You can almost feel the in-character wheels turning of “why am I doing this when I can just kick this guy, throw him or try to tap him?”
He’s still not willing to let go, nor does he ever when you consider a moonsault into a double wrist-lock became a part of his arsenal later on, but you can see it all making sense in real-time.
This was a messy juniors Tiger Mask style match, I sat through a ton of these when putting together the DVDVR 80s New Japan set years ago. Nothing shootstyle about it.
I liked TM’s unprofessional knee to the back of Hayato’s head, and Hayato’s crazy flip Super Astro senton to the floor, otherwise this had a bunch of sloppy spots. The good Tiger Mask is coming, but he wasn’t here for this.
Akira Maeda & Yoshiaki Fujiwara beat Super Tiger (Sayama) & Nobuhiko Takada (16:46) when Fujiwara pinned Takada.
Kazuo Yamazaki pinned Fantasma
Super Tiger pinned Mach Hayato (9:17)