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Wrestling / Satoru Sayama

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The tiger and the mask.

"Seeing Tiger Mask for the first time as a kid had an amazing impact on my heart. Jumping and flying, all his movements were so beautiful... I was completely blown away."
Kazushi Sakuraba about his chilhood hero Sayama

Satoru Sayama (born November 27, 1957) is a Japanese Professional Wrestler, promoter and Mixed Martial Arts trainer, best known for his work as Tiger Mask. He debuted in 1976 for New Japan Pro-Wrestling, but he was sent abroad to Mexico, where he gained fame, and also trained with the legendary Karl Gotch. Later he moved to Britain, where he learned other martial arts and wrestled as "Sammy Lee", with his gimmick being a cousin of Bruce Lee. After his return to Japan, he was chosen to play the Tiger Mask character, based on the protagonist of the manga series. He redebuted under the masked and became the founder of the junior heavyweight wrestling, introducing the lucha libre style in Japan along his own abilities. After some years of stardom, in which he had legendary feuds with Dynamite Kid and Kuniaki Kobayashi, he left New Japan in protest for Antonio Inoki's irregular monetary management. He founded the Tiger Gym, a martial arts dojo, and shortly after was convinced by NJPW defectors to return to wrestling and join them in Universal Wrestling Federation. There Sayama adopted the "Super Tiger" moniker and helped to create the shoot-style wrestling along names like Akira Maeda and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. However, he had a falling out with Maeda and some others wrestlers and left to form Shooto, the first Mixed Martial Arts company in history. He acted as promoter and trained many future MMA stars, also doing a second return to pro wrestling by request of Inoki. After breaking up with Shooto due intern problems, he freelanced in pro wrestling indies like Michinoku Pro Wrestling and UWF International, and collaborated with Inoki in his Universal Fighting-Arts Organization. He ended founding a martial art, Seikendo, which derived into his own promotion, Real Japan Pro Wrestling.


"Go, Go, Trope List"

  • The Ace: He excelled in lucha libre, martial arts, catch wrestling and high-flying, was not a bad talker, and had an unique style to carry himself on the ring. As a result, and thanks to a smart booking, only Inoki was above him in popularity in the NJPW. Even Maeda and Fujiwara, who were solid draws in UWF, were in second place when Super Tiger was on the ring.
  • Acrofatic: Gained a lot of weight after his retirement in 1985, becoming barrel-chested and quite wide of waist, but he moves almost exactly like his former self.
  • Alliterative Name: Satoru Sayama.
  • Animal Motifs: Tigers.
  • Anti-Hero:
    • Despite being all heroic and kid-friendly, Tiger Mask could be surprisingly morally gray in the ring. He often resorted to win by count-out, a tactic that is nowadays associated with heels, and also went furiously after weak spots and injured limbs. It was probably his flawless technique and sheer charisma what saved him from being seen as an Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy.
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    • Sayama is a puroresu legend and one of the biggest contributors to the combat sports, but his fame as a bordering sadist in the dojo and his role in exposing pro wrestling's inner secrets have shadowed his figure to many eyes. He is a solid fan favorite nonetheless, but still not your usual pro wrestling idol, and his modern wrestling persona doesn't try to hide it.
  • A Pupil of Mine Until He Turned to Evil: Roughly how Karl Gotch saw Sayama. Gotch initially called Satoru his greatest student ever, but he always considered him to be too much of a bully, and later in his life he changed completely his opinion and claimed Satoru only trained with him to get his knowledge and connections. He ended up appointing Fujiwara as his official heir and stating he was his best student instead of Sayama. Ironically, Sayama and Fujiwara have been close friends for years and are frequent coworkers.
  • Arch-Enemy:
    • Dynamite Kid, Kuniaki Kobayashi and Black Tiger. More recently, Minoru Suzuki and Atsushi Onita.
    • In real life, Akira Maeda. Their hostility started in 1985, when Maeda shot on Sayama during a match and caused the fall of the original UWF. They continued badmouthing each other during years until 2006, when they were reunited in an interview by Hisao Maki and acknowledged (rather grudgingly, but with sincerity) each other's accomplishments. Currently, they seem to have regained some measure of respect for each other.
  • As Himself: Subverted. He did appear in his biopic film Shinsetsu Tiger Mask, though not as himself, but as his personal trainer. His own role was played by Masakatsu Funaki.
  • Badass Cape: Wore one during his entrance.
  • Badass Teacher: To Yuki Nakai, Noboru Asahi and all the senior trainers in Shooto. Or for that matter, everybody who ever stopped in the Super Tiger Gym.
  • Bad Boss: The reason his colleagues ousted Sayama from UWF was his egotistical, overzealous creative control. Contrary to popular belief, it was not because Sayama was booking himself as an Invincible Hero (he was a main star, but he still lost matches like everybody else and rarely gave a bout that was not great), but because the changes of ruleset and format he was imposing; the other wrestlers felt Sayama was using the promotion as a laboratory and making shoot-style evolve too quickly for the audience to get familiar with it, and given that Sayama was also operating his Super Tiger Gym at the time, there was the additional feeling that he didn't care about UWF because he had his own economical stability ensured. The yakuza scandal of executive Noboru Urata, who was Sayama's manager, was just the final straw.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Sayama first met Akira Maeda when he was coming from a pro wrestling training and saw Maeda and his karate coach training in a park. A perennial martial arts fan, Satoru went Squee upon seeing a particularly neat kick and rushed to introduce himself to them. They trained together for a couple of days, and when they had their first open rules sparring, before which Maeda thought this chubby guy who claimed to be a pro wrestler didn't look very dangerous, Satoru demonstrated his true skill: he immediately got a single leg and threw Akira on his ass in spite of all his karare mastery.
  • Big Brother Mentor: Was one to Akira Maeda in NJPW. He even was the one who contacted Hisashi Shinma in the first place and told him to check Maeda out.
  • Big Eater: Has quite of a Sweet Tooth. He used to send his cornermen to nearby vending machines to buy sweets during training pauses, and his trainee Naoya Ogawa recalls how Sayama once spent almost ¥10.000 in a coffee shop.
  • Blood Knight: Back in the NJPW Dojo, Sayama was in charge to welcome dojoyaburi (challenging martial artists) and show them the exit. While stronger guys like Maeda or Fujiwara have also famously fulfilled this role, Sayama is known for taking a special pleasure in doing it. In Kotetsu Yamamoto's words, only Antonio Inoki himself was better than Sayama in the art of breaking arms with a smile in his face.
  • Broken Pedestal: He was forced to leave Shooto in 1996 after a literal vote of no confidence by the board. According to recent revelations, reasons were multiple, yet all orbiting around this trope: Sayama had rekindled his relationship with professional wrestling the same year, which was not liked by shootists who had joined his cause thanks to his previous defenestration of wrestling; Shooto's two representatives had been just defeated in the Vale Tudo Japan 96, which cemented the opinion that Sayama's leadership was not giving them wins (without discounting that VTJ, Sayama's own brainchild, had been a pain in the ass for the Shooto fighters to adapt from the very beginning); and finally, there were standard accusations that Sayama was ilegally pocketing money (which were apparently untrue, and quite ironic given that the new chairman Taro Wakabayashi and other board members would end up busted for this very reason in 2011).
  • Bruce Lee Clone: His Sammy Lee gimmick was Bruce Lee's storyline cousin, even wearing the yellow suit made famous by Bruce in the film Game of Death. This turned him a fan favourite, not only for the reference, but also because one of the first subversions of the Foreign Wrestling Heel in England. Bret Hart even refers to Sayama as the "Bruce Lee of Wrestling".
  • Cane Fu: During his stint as Sammy Lee, he used to bring a shinai with him to hit his opponents.
  • Captain Ersatz: He and most of the other "official" Tiger Masks regularly get Fire Pro Wrestling representation. He also appeared in the videogame Saikyou: Takada Nobuhiko as the final boss under the name of "Tiger Neo".
  • Cast from Hit Points: Tiger Mask's signature flying cross chops could take down heavier opponents, but the recoil often knocked away Tiger himself as well.
  • Challenge Seeker: In May 2000, Sayama proposed a fight between him and his trainee Kazuyuki Fujita in PRIDE in what would be Sayama's MMA debut. It was probably just a promotional stunt, as one has to wonder why would Sayama want to get killed in the ring.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Tiger Mask would often throw the opponent off the ring and target any perceivable injury in order to win. An example of the latter would be his victory against Solar, as the Mexican got injured in his shoulder in kayfabe (as a way for the Mexicans to claim Worf Had the Flu) and it allowed Tiger to tap him out by putting him in a shoulder lock.
  • Combination Attack: He and Tatsumi Fujinami had a tag finishing move in which Tatsumi lifted the opponent by the legs spinebuster-style and Tiger performed a diving crossbody on him.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Purple as Super Tiger, golden as Tiger King, and black under his real name.
  • Cool Mask: Not any mask, but the Tiger Mask.
  • Dancing Is Serious Business: During the Seikendo shows, Sayama used to dance in the ring while wearing his mask and surrounded by Russian female dancers.
  • Depending on the Writer: British wrestling sources often vary about who was the older brother and who the younger one in the tag team of Sammy Lee and Quick-Kick Lee.
  • Distaff Counterpart: The character Tiger Dream, granted by Sayama to joshi wrestler Candy Okutsu. He also has another one in Ayaka Miyauchi, one of his few female trainees, a kickboxer who was goes under the name "Little Tiger" granted by Sayama himself.
  • Dramatic Unmask: Subverted. He nonchalantly unmasked himself in a TV show and proceeded to vilify pro wrestling, as he was tired of "fake" fighting and its politics (especially the money politics). Unsurprisingly, he was not very popular among wrestling promoters after that.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In his debut as Tiger Mask, being lifted from the apron by Dynamite Kid for a vertical suplex, then floating over him and reversing the move into a bridging German suplex for the pin.
  • Evil Counterpart: Black Tiger, originally a character from the anime as well. Also, although he never wrestled Sayama personally (he instead faced his apprentice Tiger Mask IV), Masked Tiger in Michinoku Pro Wrestling.
  • Face: One of the greatest ever.
  • Finishing Move:
    • As Tiger Mask, the bridging German suplex. However, he often finished opponents with simpler moves like tilt-a-whirl backbreakers and octopus holds.
    • In special occasions, Tiger used two patented moves, the Tiger Suplex and the Tiger Driver (a predecessor to the DDT).
    • As Super Tiger, he used the crossface chickenwing and other shoot-style submissions like armbars and keylocks.
  • Freudian Trio:
  • From Clones to Genre: His aerial moves were initially used only by incarnations of Tiger Mask, but then spread to all cruiserweight wrestling. Until then, junior heavyweights in Japan had been esentially miniature heavyweights with extra agility or downright pureblood luchadores.
  • For Want of a Nail: Consciously or not, Sayama was the original cause of the MMA boom and is indirectly responsible for its upswing today. Explanation: when he brought Rickson Gracie to Japan, the pro wrestling circuit was forced to challenge him in order to keep its hegemony and failed miserably when Nobuhiko Takada lost to him, giving birth to PRIDE Fighting Championships which introduced MMA in Japan and carved its niche between puroresu and K-1. The success of PRIDE introduced a long gallery of great fighters to the world, forced RINGS and other promotions to adapt their ventures to MMA, and made Antonio Inoki go nuts with the concept and start the Inoki-ism syndrome. Finally, this activity made the Fertitta brothers and Dana White realize that MMA was something that deserved a dime, so they bought and revitalized Ultimate Fighting Championship to turn it into what it is today. Surprising, isn't?
  • Genre Savvy: He fell for the trick the first time, but Tiger became wary every time a Mexican rudo offered him a handshake in midst of the match. He typically dodged the cheapshot or chopped him first.
  • Golden Super Mode: His Tiger King gimmick.
  • Good Is Not Dumb: Despite being a kid-friendly character, Tiger was far from being a goody two-shoes. If his opponent fooled himself believing Tiger would not play dirty, he would soon realize his mistake.
  • Hardboiled Detective: He played this kind of character in the 1995 film Roppongi Soldier.
  • Hurricane Kick: Uses it mainly as a feint. He famously broke in spinning kicks during a MMA exhibition against Yoshinori Nishi.
  • I Know Karate: and Judo, and Sambo, and Kickboxing, and Muay Thai, and amateur wrestling, and Catch Wrestling.
  • Instant Expert: Downplayed in his kickboxing debut against Marc Costello. Sayama only had undergone a crash course in the Mejiro Gym some days before, while Costello was a national karate champion who also had a larger range. The result was naturally Costello's victory, but Sayama managed to fend him off during the entire fight and was never KO'ed, just outscored for the decision. (He also used illegal takedowns to halt the course of the bout, but that is another story.)
  • Japanese Spirit: Has a preference for traditional Japanese imagery and ideals, as evidenced for his seikendo style and the ceremonials used in RJPW.
  • Jerkass: According to some.
  • Kid-Appeal Character: Started as one, as the junior heavyweight star was Tatsumi Fujinami. Then Fujinami ascended to heavyweight and Tiger Mask got the spotlight.
  • Legacy Character: Probably the most known in pro wrestling ever.
  • Leitmotif: "Boys Be A Tiger".
  • Let's Get Dangerous!: In his MMA exhibition match with Yoshinori Nishi, Sayama was being bullied around by the bigger and more aggresive Nishi until he had enough and showed his sambo skills, taking him down with leglock entries.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Incredibly fast and agile on his feet, and also able to deliver hard kicking and high suplexes.
  • Lost in Imitation/Unbuilt Trope: The original Tiger Mask's aerial style barely looks like modern high-flyers's. This is because Sayama - under Karl Gotch's influence - wanted to work matches that were spectacular but sufficiently realistic at the same time. Hence, his matches featured elements of realism that are pretty much lost in cruiserweight wrestling nowadays: flying attacks that failed by the opponent simply walking out of the way, convoluted moves which were reverted whenever a real opponent should be able to revert them, stumbles and unspectacular falls out of the ring, wrestlers getting knocked out from simple kicks... It was the later wrestling generation which turned the high-flying scene into a world of infallible dives and magic physics.
  • Masked Luchador: The first Japanese one along with Mach Hayato, with lucha libre training under Diablo Velasco.
  • Master of All: Lucha libre, Western high-flying, shoot-style and recently even garbage wrestling. There are few wrestling styles that Sayama cannot perform excellently.
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: Sayama believed there might be great fighters waiting to be discovered in Russia, and it is said he held several kumites and tryouts there during his seikendo starting. If we look at the later success of Russian fighters in Ultimate Fighting Championship, he was not wrong.
  • Multidisciplinary Scientist: Is trained in Judo, Catch Wrestling, amateur wrestling, Sambo, Kickboxing and Muay Thai. He is not simply nicknamed "Genius" for nothing.
  • My Greatest Failure: Even if victory was objectively very improbable, losing the kickboxing match against Marc Costello deeply hurt Sayama, who was supposed to be the company's promising new shooter and was being watched by Inoki, Willem Ruska and Kotetsu Yamamoto.
  • Odd Friendship: Sayama was friends with Sumo Wrestling legends Taiho Koki, whose son Yukio works currently in RJPW, and Akebono, whom he taught Kickboxing for his K-1 career.
  • Old Master:
    • Founded the Super Tiger Gym, where has taught countless fighters and wrestlers.
    • While he has directly trained few of the most known (i.e. modern) Shooto fighters, he was the one who taught the instructors who trained them, which makes him an old master to old masters. Yuki Nakai, Noboru Asahi and Yorinaga Nakamura are his best known Shooto era apprentices. Also, combat wrestling founder Noriaki Kiguchi worked in his gym, and shootboxing pioneer Caesar Takeshi learned grappling from Sayama as well.
    • Sayama is currently the only red belt in seikendo, the martial art he founded.
    • He has recently begun dedicating his time to MMA coaching again with his new Sayama Dojo. Students include his own son Seito Sayama (a former basketball player of all things), Taiyo Nakahara (a veteran MMA fighter), Yamato Hiranuma (a national ranked judoka), and Takeru Wada (son of famous referee Ryogaku Wada and amateur kickboxer).
  • Opposing Combat Philosophies: His Seikendo martial art banned submissions. It assumes that in a real fight the floor will be hard as in most places in real life, as well as that a person is at an overwhelming disadvantage if he's taken to the ground and ends up at the bottom position. This is reflected in its Faction Motto ("Be Above") and is why Seikendo students are mostly trained in submission defense instead of offense, with a focus on getting back to their feet as quickly as possible.
  • Outdoor Bath Peeping: According to Yoshiaki Fujiwara, back when they were doing tours for NJPW, Fujiwara, Sayama and Don Arakawa used to peep in the women's bath of the hotels they were hosted in. According to Arakawa, Akira Maeda would sometimes join in.
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: After the UWF split, the greatest shoot-style exponents to Japanese eyes were Nobuhiko Takada from UWF International, Akira Maeda from RINGS and Masakatsu Funaki from Pancrase. Sayama was never counted, as Shooto was far less known and Sayama never had an active career on it.
  • Panthera Awesome: The Tiger Mask had aptly a tiger motif.
  • Passing the Torch:
    • Currently, there are three wrestlers who carry Sayama's torch: Tiger Mask IV (Yoshihiro Yamazaki), Tiger Mask V (Ikuhisa Minowa) and Super Tiger II (Yuji Sakuragi). The latter's Evil Counterpart, Tiger Shark (Kozo Urita) can be considered another torchbearer, as well as Great Tiger (his actual identity is not known, but it is believed to have been played by both Yukio Naya and Takatoriki).
    • He also has "Kamen Shooter" Super Rider (Yuichi Watanabe) as perhaps his first mask gimmicked trainee, though he isn't mentioned along the same lines as the others and is not a Tiger-related gimmick.
  • Pet the Dog: During the infamous 1.4 Incident, Sayama was the only UFO member who tended the referee Tiger Hattori after he got low blowed by Naoya Ogawa, and virtually the only man in the arena who tried to calm down the subsequent brawl.
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: He used to be surprisingly strong for his small size. An example is at the 1975 New Japan year-end party, where he proceeded to beat everyone who challenged him to arm wrestling matches. He is still strong, only not pint-sized anymore, though.
  • Popularity Power: During his Tiger Mask tenure, the New Japan TV show reached higher than 25% rating every time Sayama was on, every card with him sold out the arenas, and he always got the biggest cheers regardless the opponent he was facing.
  • Power Trio: El Triángulo Oriental in EMLL with Kung Fu and Kato Kung Lee. Despite the name, it was a multinational team, as Fu was Mexican and Lee was from Panama (when Sayama was replaced with Black Man in LLI they became Los Tres Fantásticos).
  • Red Baron: "Yon Jigen Yaho" ("The Four-Dimensional Assassin"), "Densetsu no Tora" ("The Legendary Tiger"), "Tensai" ("Genius"), "10-Nen-saki O Iku Otoko" ("The Man Who Was 10 Years Ahead").
  • Ring Oldies: When he retired unofficially from active wrestling in 2016, he was 58, and still kicked people around in the ring.
  • Roundhouse Kick: One of his trademark moves.
  • Sadist Teacher:
    • Is considered a cruel and harsh trainer even to Japanese standards, to the extent that there are clips of him beating students with a shinai cane. In fact, it's said that Sayama trainees literally get hit harder in training than in the ring. Karl Gotch, who used to spoke of Sayama as his greatest student ever, supposedly remarked that Satoru was a glorified gym bully.
    • Sayama openly supports corporal punishment to children, something that is actually not as accepted in Japan as their cultural image could make you think.
  • Self-Referential Humor: Sayama likes to joke about his weight gain. For a time, the RJPW announcers used to introduce him as a superheavyweight to make the crowd laugh.
  • Shout-Out: His moniker The Mask of Tiger was one to The Mask of Zorro.
  • Showy Invincible Hero: Other than DQ or countout losses, Tiger Mask was never pinned, either in singles or tag team match, during his New Japan days. It has been speculated he has a streak on the level of Goldberg.
  • Signature Move: Various kicking variants, among them the Tiger Wall Flip, and especially the jumping sobatto or spinning sole kick. He also used a Tombstone Piledriver followed by a diving headbutt, probably inspired by Dynamite Kid.
  • Spectacular Spinning: Liked to throw spinning kicks and sweeps in pro wrestling and MMA exhibition bouts.
  • Suplex Finisher: He used both tiger and German suplexes aa finishers. According to one of his biographies, even back when he was in his high school amateur wrestling years, he liked to try for backdrop suplexes whenever he could, an idea he got from watching Lou Thesz.
  • Start My Own: Shooto, Seiken Shinkage-Ryu and Real Japan Pro Wrestling.
  • Tag Team: With fellow U-spirit shooter Yoji Anjo. This has his only solid team, as Sayama has gone predominantly solo through his career.
  • The Rival: Dynamite Kid and Kuniaki Kobayashi.
  • Training from Hell: He passed some under Karl Gotch, Kenji Kurosaki, Toshio Fujiwara, and Victor Koga, and he dispensed some himself to his many students (see Sadist Teacher above).
  • Unnecessary Combat Roll: Sometimes done to make effect.
  • Underwear of Power: Normally averted, but he did fight his kickboxing bout with Marc Costello in green ones.
  • Ur-Example: Innovated or popularized several moves. He is even rumored to have devised the Phoenix Splash (corkscrew 450° splash) before his retirement from NJPW.
  • Weak, but Skilled: Mainly due to his lack of size, Sayama never was very much of a fighter in comparison with other shooters, but his striking and submission acumen was deceptive.
  • The Worf Effect: He was thrashed by one of his Real Japan students, The Great Tiger, to show how dangerous he is.
  • Writing Around Trademarks: The Tiger Mask character was bought by All Japan Pro Wrestling after his retirement, so he renamed himself as "The Tiger", "Super Tiger", "Tiger King" and the like. He retained his name variations after adquiring the Tiger Mask trademark, as he passed it to his apprentice Yoshihiro Yamazaki.
  • Wrongfully Attributed: Contrary to popular belief, the original Tiger Mask character in the anime series wasn't a high-flyer like his real life counterpart, but a just pretty agile power wrestler. The subsequent Tiger incarnations adopted Sayama's moveset because it was what got him over.