The character Tiger Mask (created by Ikki Kajiwara and Naoki Tsuji) debuted in the pages of Bokura Magazine in 1968 and debuted in anime the following year. By 1981 a second animated series was ordered and New Japan Pro Wrestling licensed the rights to the character. April 23, 1981 Tiger Mask debuted against Dynamite Kid and changed Professional Wrestling forever.
There have been five men to officially don the Tiger Mask persona and this completely arbitrary, unscientific look at these wrestlers should in no way been seen as the final word. Let’s climb to the top rope!
1. Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayama)
Perhaps obvious, Sayama deserves to be on top. His kinetic, gracefully high-flying and powerful style drove legions of hopefuls into the ranks of Professional Wrestling and thrilled legions of fans around the world. His feud with Dynamite Kid and the matches they delivered were so far ahead of their time, we are still playing catch-up.
Without Sayama, the Tiger Mask gimmick could have tanked. He simultaneously held the WWF and NWA Junior Heavyweight Championships, a feat which seems like an impossibility in today’s very compartmentalised wrestling world. In 1983, growing weary of NJPW’s growing imposition upon his personal life, Sayama gave up the mantle of Tiger Mask. Later on he resumed several different incarnations of the character, first becoming simply the Tiger then Super Tiger and finally Tiger King. Super Tiger would also have successors and an arch nemesis (Tiger Shark, the Earth-2 version of Black Tiger.)
2. Tiger Mask IV (Yoshihiro Yamazaki)
The longest serving and current generation of Tiger Mask, Yoshihiro Yamazaki was trained and ordained by Sayama himself. Many critics and fans agree that Yamazaki, who debuted in 1995, has an in-ring style that closely resembles that of the first Tiger Mask. Yamazaki has held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title and more recently the NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship.
He ranks high because of his longevity and the continuing quality of his matches. There has been talk of Yamazaki stepping down as Tiger Mask but it remains to be seen if this is more than speculation.
3. Tiger Mask II (Mitsuharu Misawa)
While it could be argued that Misawa should be higher on this list, his slot is in no way a slight on his ability. Like Sayama, Misawa is a superlative athlete and an innovator of several progressive wrestling maneuvers. While Sayama abdicated the Tiger Mask persona behind the scenes, Misawa abandoned the character during a match as a symbol of his own personal and professional growth. Misawa’s singles career ultimately eclipsed his tenure as Tiger Mask with a staggering amount of Wrestling Observer Newsletter 5 Star matches. He also has the most amount of 5 Star matches of any of the Tiger Masks. Misawa’s Tiger Mask held the NWA International Junior Heavyweight Championship as well as the Pacific Wrestling Federation World Tag Team Championship with partner Jumbo Tsuruta.
Tiger Mask II holds the distinction of being the only incarnation to compete in the Heavyweight class. Misawa would become the first Global Honored Crown Heavyweight Champion for Pro Wrestling Noah. In 2009, Mitsuharu Misawa died from injuries sustained during a match leading to reform within the Professional Wrestling industry in Japan.
4. Tiger Mask III (Koji Kanemoto)
In 1992, Koji Kanemoto assumed the identity of Tiger Mask. Kanemoto’s time as Tiger Mask coincided with the rise of Jushin Thunder Liger, blunting his popularity. Plagued by injuries and friction with promoters, Kanemoto stepped down having never won a championship as Tiger Mask. He unmasked following a match with Liger and it is unclear whether or not the bout had a “mask for mask” stipulation. What is clear is that under his own name, Kanemoto has achieved greatness.
The innovator of the Koji Clutch (notably used by CM Punk among others) is a 5 time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion and won Best of the Super Juniors three times. Interestingly, Kanemoto resumed the Tiger Mask persona in 2015 at Asistencia Asesoría y Administración’s Lucha Libre World Cup.
5. Tiger Mask V (Ikuhisa Minowa)
Despite being endorsed by Sayama, Minowa’s time as the fifth generation Tiger Mask is perplexing. Minowa donned the Tiger Mask in 2010, 15 years into Yamazaki’s reign as, well, Tiger Mask. It is akin to Octopussy and Never Say Never Again featuring competing James Bonds. Much like Sean Connery’s bungled return to Bond, Minowa wrestled very few matches and there is apparently no extant footage of his time as Tiger Mask beyond photographs.
His attire was deliberately more like the animated series version than his masked brethren. Aside from this, there is nothing to distinguish Minowa’s Tiger Mask as he also won no titles. His tenure lasted little more than a year. Prior to Tiger Mask, Minowa was an established MMA fighter and won the 2009 Super Hulk Tournament Championship for the DREAM MMA promotion.
Tiger Dream: The only female incarnation of Tiger Mask, Candy Okutsu (ordained and trained by Sayama) briefly donned the mask.
Samson Kutsuwada: In 1971 Kutsuwada wrestled as Tiger Mask on one South Korean tour put on Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance. There is no footage and is not considered an ‘official’ Tiger Mask.
Follow @WeWriteWrestlin on Twitter!