Thursday, 24 November 2011

An English Tiger...

From English town halls to the Tokyo Dome...

If you ask what the greatest wrestling match of all time is, you're never going to receive a definite answer, but two names opposite each other that will pop up time and time again are Tiger Mask and the Dynamite Kid. They clashed several times from 1981 to 1983 in New Japan, with matches so far ahead of their time that, even now, they're as fresh, exciting and compelling as ever before, with unique high spots, incredible technical wrestling, and absolutely masterful high flying. What is immediately clear is that both men are once-in-a-lifetime talents, with Tiger Mask in particular showing extraordinary athletic ability. Tiger Mask's innovative style, which gelled perfectly with that of the Dynamite Kid, was enough to inspire countless junior heavyweight wrestlers for years to come, and revolutionised the way smaller wrestlers were perceived in Japan.

Now, why are we discussing this on Two Falls, Two Submissions Or A Knock-Out? Well, while the Dynamite Kid's British roots are well-known - Dynamite was born and raised in Golborne, Lancashire, and prior to finding worldwide fame as one half of the British Bulldogs and one of the most skilled professional wrestlers of his age, the Dynamite Kid was a regular on World Of Sport - he's not the only British connection in the Tiger Mask story.

Satoru Sayama grew up in Shimonoseki, Japan - about as far removed from Dynamite Kid's Lancashire roots as you can get - where, as a young boy, he idolised Japanese wrestling icon Antonio Inoki, and the high-flying Mexican luchadore Mil Mascaras. After years of schooling in the martial arts, Sayama trained under Inoki, and debuted in 1976 for New Japan Pro Wrestling. However, given his small size, few believed he would ever make a name for himself in the giant's playground of professional wrestling, and Sayama was forced to ply his trade elsewhere, travelling to Mexico, and to Europe.

It was in Europe, where Sayama first came to prominence, appearing on World Of Sport under the slightly racist name of "Sammy Lee", complete with Bruce Lee style yellow jumpsuit, hoping to cash in on England's craze for kung-fu at the time. In English rings, Sayama flourished, amazing everyone who saw him with his fast-paced style, martial arts expertise, and utterly unique offensive style, with commentator Kent Walton often proclaiming him to be amongst the very best in the world.

In 1981, with New Japan looking to attract more young fans to its product, it was Sayama they chose to portray the popular anime wrestling character Tiger Mask - a gimmick that, even moreso than Sammy Lee, could have been a career killer for a lesser worker, but instead, Sayama was able to take the gimmick to unimaginable heights, lending it an almost mythic status that persists to this day, and pave the way for generations of junior heavyweights to follow him.

It was under the gimmick of Tiger Mask that Sayama would come to face Dynamite Kid, a man he had met, and on at least one occassion shared a ring with, while wrestling in the UK. Dynamite had been hand-picked as the man to put over Tiger Mask in his debut match - and he did a masterful job, creating a series of matches that will be remembered for years to come.

Given the success of the Tiger Mask character, New Japan once again looked to the original Tiger Mask anime for inspiration, and came up with the heel antithesis of the comic book hero Tiger Mask - the villainous Black Tiger. Once again, New Japan looked to English shores for the man to don the mask. Mark "Rollerball" Rocco, a fourth-generation wrestler, a hard-hitting, fast-paced, vicious and always exciting heel from Manchester, certainly no stranger to English grapple fans, had wrestled a series of highly regarded matches with Sammy Lee in the UK, and was entrusted with the task of repeating the job overseas. Rocco did not disappoint, putting on a run of matches that rival even those of Dynamite Kid in Sayama's back catalogue.

While Sayama and Rocco's time under the iconic masks would prove to be short, following Sayama's shock retirement from the sport, their work, along with that of the Dynamite Kid, in cementing Tiger Mask as a legendary figure in the annals of Japanese wrestling history, would reverberate down the decades. Four more men would don both the Tiger and Black Tiger masks, with countless variations appearing all over the world. Sayama himself would go on to become a hugely influential martial arts trainer, promoting and fighting in a number of "shoot-style" promotions that some argue helped open the doors for what we now know as Mixed Martial Arts in Japan. Today, Sayama still makes occassional appearances under the mask in showcase matches, and despite his advancing years and expanding waistline, still possesses enough of the old magic to put many wrestlers half his age and half his size to shame.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said for his old rival The Dynamite Kid, who has been left partially paralysed and almost penniless as a direct result of the effects of his hard-hitting wrestling style, and the years of abuse he put his body through, or of the original Black Tiger, Mark Rocco, who was forced to retire from wrestling in 1991 after being diagnosed with a serious heart condition.

The story doesn't end with Sayama and Mark Rocco, though - in 1989, New Japan looked to replicate the success of Tiger Mask by once again giving a wrestler a gimmick adapted from a popular anime. This time, the character was "Jushin Liger", from the anime of the same name - while the Tiger Mask character had been a professional wrestler in the source material, the character of Liger was a teenage boy descended from a legendary warrior, with the magical power to cover his entire body into demonic biomechanical armour.

And, once again, they looked to a New Japan trainee who had initially been forced to leave the company due to his small size, and had gone off on a training excursion to Mexico. Keiichi Yamada was left almost starved while training in Mexico, so New Japan officials took pity on him, and paid him to return to Japan and continue his training. Soon, he would debut at the tender age of 19 and, in something of an echo of Sayama, would incorporate a variety of martial arts techniques into his wrestling style. Despite winning New Japan's "Young Lion's Cup", Yamada failed to make a name for himself, and travelled to Europe to further his wrestling career. Like Sayama before him, he ended up in England, wrestling as "Flying" Fuji Yamada. There, he wrestled the top stars of the day, often tagging with England's own "Japanese" star, Kendo Nagasaki.

In yet another echo of Sayama's career before him, Yamada would put on a series of incredible matches against Mark "Rollerball" Rocco throughout 1986 and 1987, and the two would trade the World Middleweight Title a number of times.

In 1989, after another brief run in New Japan, an excursion in Calgary's Stampede Wrestling, and a quick return to the UK's All Star Wrestling, New Japan chose Yamada for the Jushin Liger gimmick and, once again, he would embark on a series of phenomenal matches with his old rival, Rollerball Rocco - this time with Rocco reprising the role of Black Tiger. Liger would go on to wrestle every Black Tiger to date, and like Tiger Mask before him, he would become one of the most recognised, well-respected wrestlers in the world - and it might never have happened, were it not for the masked men's shared experience wrestling the likes of Marc Rocco on ITV on a Saturday afternoon.

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