Tiger Mask is a professional wrestling character who has been played by several different professional wrestlers in a variety of promotions. There have been 4 men and one woman who wrestled using the Tiger Mask gimmick, though Candy Okutsu, the sole woman, was forced to use the name Tiger Dream after intellectual property issues arose.

The character was inspired by an anime of the same name (which had a corresponding manga) created by Ikki Kajiwara. The protagonist, Tiger Mask, was an orphan trained to be a villainous professional wrestler by the Tiger's Cave organization. The basic premise was that Tiger Mask turned his back on the Tiger's Cave, which then sent out assassins to take Tiger Mask down. Kajiwara licensed the rights to use the Tiger Mask name and likeness to New Japan Pro-Wrestling.

The first Tiger Mask, Satoru Sayama, made his debut with New Japan Pro-Wrestling on April 23rd, 1981, against Dynamite Kid. The Great Hisa of The Great Hisa's Puroresu Dojo describes his reaction:

When I first heard "next week, we'll have the debut of Tiger Mask!" on New Japan TV show, I didn't believe my ears. I laughed while I was watching television when Tiger Mask first entered to the ring of Kuramae Kokugikan (old Sumo Hall) on April 23rd, 1981. I always loved the Tiger Mask cartoon, but having the character as a legit wrestler was another story. Dynamite Kid was already a strong rival of Tatsumi Fujinami, who was the top junior heavyweight wrestler in Japan back then, and I didn't think this guy from cartoon character could beat Kid. However, this freak who came out of a cartoon show easily beat Dynamite Kid with a beautiful German suplex hold.

Tiger Mask became an immensely popular wrestler, becoming a "cultural phenomenon," in Hisa's words. His matches against Dynamite Kid became the stuff of legend, inspiring wrestlers from Jushin Thunder Liger to Jeff Hardy. Chris Benoit and The Great Sasuke actually paid tribute to their respective idols, Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask, in their match at the finals of the Super J Cup in 1994. On August 11th, 1983, Satoru Sayama retired as Tiger Mask.

After Sayama retired, Kajiwara broke off his relationship with New Japan. Kajiwara sold the rights to use Tiger Mask to Giant Baba, owner of All Japan Pro-Wrestling, which was New Japan's primary rival at the time. He tapped Mitsuharu Misawa, a promising young wrestler who had been training in Mexico in the more high-flying style of lucha libre. Misawa made his debut as Tiger Mask II on August 26th, 1984, defeating La Fiera, who was responsible for training him in Mexico.

Misawa initially had a tough time because fans still associated Tiger Mask with the breathtaking acrobatics of Sayama. Misawa ended up pushing himself too hard trying to live up to the memory of Sayama, and needed to take several months off in 1985 to heal up. He returned, wrestling a somehwat less dangerous style, and eventually became more comfortable in his role as Tiger Mask. Misawa continued finding success as Tiger Mask until 1990, when he asked his partner, Toshiaki Kawada, to unmask him, symbolizing his elevation to the heavyweight ranks, and kicking off his famous feud with Jumbo Tsuruta.

In March of 1992, Koji Kanemoto of New Japan Pro-Wrestling became the third man to wrestle as Tiger Mask, but his stint under the mask was the shortest, lasting less than two years, and coming to an end when he lost a mask versus mask match against Jushin Thunder Liger. While Kanemoto did well as Tiger Mask, he clearly was a far better fit for the character of the surly guy with a chip on his shoulder than he was for the more noble hero of Tiger Mask.

After Kanemoto dropped the Tiger Mask character, Satoru Sayama decided that he wanted personally to train another wrestler to wrestle under the mask. He trained Tiger Mask IV for one year before Tiger Mask IV debuted on July 15th, 1995, against The Great Sasuke of Michinoku Pro. Sasuke was so impressed with Tiger Mask's showing that he invited Tiger Mask IV to join Michinoku Pro. Tiger Mask IV has wrestled primarily in Michinoku Pro ever since, but he has had relatively successful stints in other promotions as well.

Of all of the Tiger Masks, Tiger Mask IV is unique in that for the other Tiger Masks, the Tiger Mask gimmick was used to gain fame so that they could unmask and succeed on their own. Tiger Mask IV has held his mask for over 7 years, longer than any of the others, and shows no signs of unmasking. While Tiger Mask IV has arguably had the least lucrative career of the bunch, the others were in bigger promotions, so that's not necessarily a reflection on his own ability.

Credit to:
The Great Hisa's Puroresu Dojo, http://www.puroresu.com/
TuttoPuroresu, http://digilander.iol.it/tuttopuroresu/
Strong Style Spirit, http://www.puroresufan.com/
The DragonKing Newsletter, http://www.angelfire.com/al/dragonking/

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