Every now and then a series of matches come along in wrestling, that prove so innovative and influential, they change the landscape of wrestling. Austin vs Hart, Tsuruta vs Tenryu and the Michaels vs Ramon ladder matches, are all examples of matches that pushed the envelope and not only changed perceptions on what could be done within the squared circle, but for better or worse, changed the expectations and tastes of fans. Few matches however, have left quite left such a sizeable impact as the seven Tiger Mask vs Dynamite Kid matches, which popularised the Junior style matches we still enjoy today. These matches have more then just flashy moves and athleticism going for them though, as when taken as a series a brilliant story of frustration, desperation and failure emerges. That said, have these matches stood the stood the test of time?
Match 1, A legend debuts
The Tiger Mask persona actually began life as a manga character in the late sixties, later transitioning into a popular anime. New Japan, who were looking to bolster their Junior division at the time, would licence the Tiger Mask character in the 80’s and Satoru Sayama would become the first of six men (if you include Tiger Mask W) to don the mask, debuting the character here. Dynamite Kid by this point is already established as a top Gaijin competitor but is caught completely off guard by Tiger Mask, who’s speed and athleticism wows the crowd early on. Dynamite Kid grows more frustrated as the match wears on that this “rookie” is showing him up, turning to cheap tactics to quell the onslaught, such as feigning a back injury and going after the Mask. Ultimately though Tiger Mask seems to always bounce back, and has an answer to everything Dynamite tries. In the end, after avoiding a Dynamite Kid headbutt, Tiger Mask counters a vertical suplex into one of the most beautiful German suplex’s you’ll ever see. Dynamite kicks out just a millisecond too late, and is left wondering what on earth just hit him as Tiger Mask gets his hand raised in victory. The athleticism in this is as good as anything you’ll see today, though this is more of a fast paced technical match, then a high flying affair.
Match 2, Chasing gold
While the WWF Junior Heavyweight championship carried the WWF name, it was mostly defended within New Japan, who had a working agreement with the WWF at the time. Tatsumi Fujinami had been the WWF Junior heavyweight champion for nearly 4 years straight (bar a two day reign by Ryuma Go), but vacated the title as he moved up to the heavyweight division. Dynamite and Tiger Mask were the obvious picks to lead the division in Fujinami’s absence, and the vacant title is up for grabs here. This time Dynamite is more prepared for Tiger Mask, aggressively targeting his legs whilst also being wearier of his offence. In the perfect throwback to their previous encounter, Tiger Mask once again reverses the vertical suplex and looks for the German, but Dynamite reverses this into a backdrop. Dynamite follows up with a piledriver and a diving headbutt and the match is his… but he’s not through with Tiger Mask just yet. Wanting to punish Tiger Mask perhaps for his previous loss, Dynamite hits another piledriver and goes for the headbutt again, only this time he misses. Tiger Mask rallies, and manages to win with a schoolboy pin, as dynamite once again kicks out just a little too late, and is once again left perplexed as to how he lost. On one hand the psychology of this match is a little off, most notably with the leg work Dynamite puts in almost being completely ignored in the end (Tiger Mask is jumping around in the closing moments). On the other hand this match is the perfect example storytelling that plays off a previous match, with Dynamite Kid being more prepared this time around, but with his disdain over the previous loss leading to his downfall.
Match 3, Firmly Defeated
Only a few weeks after their previous outing, we get another match between these two. The story here isn’t quite as strong, and the submission work is often uninspired, but the match has its fair share of big moments. Dynamite once again hits a piledriver (tombstone variation this time) and not messing around goes straight for the pin but Tiger Mask survives. Tiger Mask avoids the big diving headbutt and goes for a top rope splash of his own but also misses. Dynamite soon ends up on the outside however, and Tiger Mask hits his first dive of the series, taking Dynamite out. Once again, there is a call back to the first match, as this time Tiger Mask goes for the vertical suplex into the ring, only for Dynamite Kid to reverse it and go for the German, only for another reversal to lead to Tiger Mask hitting the German for the three. The biggest takeaway here is that Dynamite was soundly beaten this time, there’s no flash fall or close count, and as a trilogy this would have been a satisfying finish to their rivalry.
Match 4, A Hollow Victory
Several months after their last match, Dynamite gets another match with Tiger Mask, this time with Bret Hart in his corner. The title isn’t on the line here this time, perhaps because of Dynamite’s multiple straight losses to Tiger Mask so far. This match has a more exhibition style feel to it, although there’s still plenty of flashy athletic moments thrown in, including Tiger Mask’s “619” style fakeout, which the crowd just loves. They once again play off the german suplex finish, and the theme of legs being worked over continues as well. Dynamite doesn’t come off quite as desperate this time around, and instead it’s Bret Hart who brings in the underhanded tactics, forcibly breaking-up a figure four. Tiger Mask responds with a spectacular Space Flying Tiger Drop (all these years later, and there’s still very few moves as crazy as that), before getting disqualified after throwing Dynamite over the barricade (yes that was enough to get you disqualified back in 82). This match essentially exists to rejuvenate the rivalry between the two, giving Dynamite a hollow victory that reestablishes him as a threat, whilst also not giving him the clean win he desires. If you weren’t planning on watching all their matches, then you can probably give this one a skip.
Match 5, Digging Deep
The Junior title is back on the line, now Dynamite finally has a win over Tiger Mask. Bret Hart is once again at ringside but doesn’t play as big a role this time around. This match maybe isn’t the best structured at times, but like most of the other Tiger Mask/Dynamite Kid matches, it’s a fun, easy to watch match, and once again it adds another piece to an ongoing story between the two men. There’s a lot of legwork as per usual, as well as a healthy dose of piledrivers, but some new bits including the bow and arrow hold and the tigerdriver come into play as well. The theme here is one of Tiger Mask having to dig just that bit deeper this time to come up with the win. Dynamite hits the piledriver and the diving headbutt, and he’s far too desperate to not go for the pin, but Tiger Mask shows his resiliency and makes the kick out. A brutal dive from Tiger Mask follows, followed by a unique gutwrench/tombstone piledriver variation and a moonsault to claim yet another win over Dynamite.
Match 6, Heading to the states
Tiger Mask and Dynamite head to the states to show their stuff in front of the Madison square garden audience. This match is an odd one, in that it almost feels like a taster of what these two are capable of. The crowd is clearly left in awe of Tiger Masks’s abilities, as the two men run through some of their usual spots, but it has nothing on any of their Japan matches. What is it about wrestlers having better matches in New Japan as opposed to the WWF/E? Anyway, Tiger Mask wins this one with the moonsault, after avoiding a diving headbutt. This is by far their least dramatic, least interesting and least fun match of the series. It’s not necessarily bad, but not worth seeking out, even if your a big fan of all their other matches. Also, this is the only match that doesn’t feel like it adds anything to the story.
Match 7, The 5* Finale
If you’ve only watched one Tiger Mask/Dynamite Kid match, chances are it’s probably this one. It is (depending on how seriously you take such things) noteworthy in that it is the first match to ever earn five stars from Dave Meltzer, though it almost suffers from a sort of Marmite effect, in that some dislike it compared to their series of matches from 82, whilst others would call it their best offering. Undeniably however this match is the flashiest, the most high risk and the most dramatic (if you can stand the overbooking) of the bunch. By this point the crowd knows what to expect from these two, raising to their feet every time Dynamite ends up on the outside and Tiger hits the ropes. We get a nice mix of action early on, including an appearance of the romero special and the 619 faint again. Both men end up in the crowd and it seems the match is over prematurely, before we thankfully get a restart. The match ends again shortly after when it seems Tiger Mask has been injured, but after some brawling and a lot of pandering to the crowd, the ref finally agrees to restart the match again. We get piledrivers, a tease of the german suplex finish, lots of mask pulling, outside brawling and yet another restart before both men hit tombstone piledrivers outside for the count out finish.
Your probably thinking all these restarts sound terrible, especially since we get a non-finish anyway, but it works so well here (well some would disagree) in building up the tension. The fact that after everything, it all ends in a non-finish is the perfect conclusion to their rivalry, with Dynamite Kid unable to get the decisive win he so desperately desires, the look of disappointment on his face telling the story of his failure. It stands as a brilliant piece of character work that is far more unique and interesting then if Dynamite finally got the victory (or if Tiger Mask won again for that matter).
Still worth watching?
It has become almost a little hip to not like these matches nowadays, and many would suggest the matches haven’t aged as well as say, the likes of Dynamite Kid’s matches with Fujinami prior to this feud. In truth, if you’re looking for perfect in ring psychology, completely logical sequences and well structured sequences, then this series isn’t what your looking for. These matches don’t aim to be wrestling masterclasses though, much like the thousands of Junior style matches they inspired, they are unique spectacles of incredible athleticism and innovations, maintained by a strong enough understanding of the basics to pull the viewer in. While the athleticism presented here, has since been surpassed (although no by as much as you might think), the storytelling has stood the test of time, especially when the series is viewed as a whole. If you haven’t seen these matches before, then the first three and the final match are certainly the most must watch if you fancy yourself a bit of old school Junior heavyweight action.