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Satoru Sayama, Tiger Mask I

Jushin 'Thunder' Liger

Gordon Solie

Slobberknockers abound
Ringside Shadows #169: Ten Names... A Follow-Up

If you were with us last week, you saw what I considered to be the ten names every true wrestling fan should know, no matter what their age group or stylistic preference. Legends like Flair, Gotch and Baba stood alongside entertainers like Hogan, Gorgeous George and Dick the Bruiser. I even tossed in a few surprises, not for the mere shock value of it all, but because I legitimately believe they deserve a place at the forefront of wrestling history.

Not surprisingly, the said column was met with a lot of adversity. Readers wondered why someone who seemed out of place like Arn Anderson made the list, while their personal favorite was left unmentioned. To say such feedback was unexpected would be a bold-faced lie... to be honest, I've been looking forward to it. See, the whole idea of limiting the entire history of wrestling down to ten singular names is far too conclusive. Throughout pro wrestling's long, storied history there haven't been just ten names worthy of passing on to a new generation. Hell, there haven't been fifty, or even one hundred. To cover every important wrestling movement in every different culture on the planet would land a list numbering well into the triple digits. Perhaps that's a project worth pursuing down the road, but with graduation just around the corner and the real world just itching to get its paws on me, my schedule just will not allow for the kind of research a "top 100" list would demand. Besides, I think what you got was far more enlightening...

See, when I wrote those ten names last week, I never intended them to be the "be-all, end-all." I wanted them to inspire thought, to encourage readers to think, rather than just staring blankly at the screen and taking it all in. In the back of my mind, I hoped the fans would be compiling their own top ten lists even before they finished reading mine. And, if the influx of opinions I received is any inclination, I succeeded. Not only did I provoke thought within the readers, but they managed to do the same for me. In my mailbox were more than a couple names about which I'd never thought twice. Lists that didn't limit themselves to the ring itself, lists that grew off of my initial suggestions. To be honest, it was a pretty nice feeling, not to mention educational.

That's why I've decided to take a slight break this week, and post the best suggestions I received. You might recognize one of the authors... hey, one of them might even be you. After the writer has had his or her say, I'll chime in with something of a retort and a brief historical commentary for those who may not have discovered the man or woman we're talking about. As seems to be the norm around the web, reader comments will appear in italics, while my postscript comments will appear in good ol' plain text.

Charles Gibbs (gibbscl1@wku.edu) had the most recent comment;
"What about Andre? Hey, he may not have held titles, but he was the most dominant force ever in wrestling. He was one of the few "unbeatable" guys. While his matches were never the greatest in the world, he always popped the crowd. He was the Superman of wrestling... his opponent would come out, thinking they had the kryptonite, get a little success against the big man early in the match, then Andre would shut him down and win, to a huge pop from the crowd. I can't argue with your choices that much, but Andre helped keep the sport alive so that Hogan could launch it into the stratosphere... I think he deserves a little more respect..."

Nothing much I'm willing to argue with here. Andre was, is, and always will be one of the premiere names in pro wrestling history. Despite his unbelievable size, (at his largest, Andre stood 7'5" and weighed in at an enormous 525 pounds) he was surprisingly agile during his younger years. While I wouldn't go so far as to say he carried pro wrestling on his shoulders until Hulk Hogan came to relieve him of the torch, he did have a lasting impact on the sport and thus deserves mention. With Andre, promoters had a unique challenge on their hands; he was a humongous draw, obviously, but after a few weeks in the same promotion, business died down considerably. While an Andre match would be exciting once or twice for the sheer spectacle of it, by the third or fourth time it was old news. Though he was quick, as I mentioned, he wasn't an especially memorable worker and thus couldn't carry a card on his mat work alone. It wasn't long before promoters noted the problem and set about finding an answer. Instead of situating Andre in one territory, (as was the trend in those days) they toured him across the country. Visiting for a couple days before moving on to the next town, there was a sense of urgency to a visit from Andre the Giant, as though you needed to go out and see him now before he was gone forever. With Andre as their headliner the WWF started touring nationally and began to morph into the monopolistic, domineering monster we know today. There is little doubt that without Andre, the promotions would have started touring nationally anyway, but the unique problem of the Giant is what brought it all to a head.

Rich Taylor (richthecrippler@hotmail.com) is the next time chime in;
"Hey, I just read your column, and as fantastic as it was, and I agree with all of your picks for one reason or another, yes even Hogan, but I feel you should give Satoru "Tiger Mask" Sayama just as much credit as Dynamite for merging all of the different styles, and for giving smaller performers a lot more credibility the way you say Dynamite did. Sayama was definitely on a par with Dynamite in ring wise and I think it's unfortunate that neither of them really get the distinction that they deserve on the whole."

Absolutely correct, and one of the names I'm surprised I forgot to mention in my own list. If you haven't seen a Dynamite / Tiger Mask Sayama match, you haven't really experienced the true potential of either man. Their matches would put to shame much of WCW's Cruiserweight division during its heyday, and they were doing it nearly ten years earlier. Sayama's important, because he proved that not even a horrible gimmick could keep a star down. The Tiger Mask gimmick was notably ill-received during its unveiling in the early 80s, but once skeptics looked away from his gaudy attire and concentrated on his amazing aerial style, they were quickly silenced. For much of their careers, Sayama and Dynamite were neck and neck, constantly topping one another and raising the bar to a level that wouldn't even be touched for the next decade. Tiger Mask was the face to Dynamite's dominating heel. Together, the two took the Junior Heavyweight division proposed and introduced by Tatsumi Fujinami, and launched it to unprecedented new heights. Tiger Mask retired at the height of his popularity in 1983, vacating both the NWA and the WWF Junior titles and leaving behind a legacy that influenced many of the stars of today.

Dog428@aol.com didn't provide a name with which to refer to him, but instead dove right in;
"What about Hart? Yes, those names are important, but what about The Hitman. He helped make technical wrestling. He put on some of the greatest matches of all time. Can you name one person who had the record he has had. People forget that in 1992, he and Shawn Michaels had the first WWF ladder match for the intercontinental title. What about all his wrestlemania records. Five time wwf world champ, two time i.c. champ, two time tag champ, two wcw u.s. champ, and two time wcw champ. Name me one person who has done that."

I've been pretty vocal about my support for Bret Hart in the past, though he didn't make my list of ten. His WWF career represents a sort of coming of age for me, as I started watching around the same time the Hart Foundation became a factor in the WWF's tag scene and watched every step of the way as he developed from tag champion to an established singles star to a World Champ. While I wouldn't go so far as to say he "made" technical wrestling, I will say he helped it along quite a ways and built a career as one of the most professional men in the business. Though he tainted my memories with his constant whining after the infamous Montreal incident, the fact remains Bret Hart jobbed when he was asked to. More than that, he carried his opponent to a good match every night, even if he had a strong personal dislike for them behind the scenes. Bret Hart was good enough to make anyone in the world look like crap if he felt like it, but instead he put on excellent matches against the likes of Kevin Nash, Sid and Jerry Lawler. On top of all that, Bret took great care to ensure his opponents' safety while in the ring with him. Once again, it would have been simple for Hart to mask a flagrant and purposeful injury so that it looked like accident if he so desired, but instead he made it a matter of personal pride. Hart's nearly twenty year career ended without one serious injury on his hands. With that said, I think he was quite adequately repaid for those actions. His WWF career was a fairy tale, all the way up to the sudden ending. He was an example of what can happen if you're humble and hard-working in the WWF. It's just too bad that the years after his collision with McMahon were so cloudy and forgettable.

Crw1999@aol.com wondered;
"what about fab. mulah?"

Honestly, when I first read this mail a slight smile crept across my face. I thought it was a joke. Then, upon further consideration, I started to see his point. Before Moolah, women's wrestling was just a side attraction for the local strip club. More so than their male counterparts, the women of wrestling have been forced to bite, scratch and grip at every opportunity that's come their way... for fear that it may be their last. Women's wrestling has often been looked down upon, shunned, perhaps even ignored. However, like Gotch and Thesz before, Moolah changed all that. She transformed the "dirty" exhibitions to serious competitions, grabbing fans' attentions and never letting go. Under her watchful eye, women's wrestling has sprouted from those undesirable roots and enjoys moderate success today, with an active belt in the WWF and an entire promotion built around it in WOW. More than just attention, Moolah added flavor to the female matches. She played a heel almost exclusively, and when the faces would stumble or start to lose steam, she knew just what to do to keep the match progressing as it should. Once she'd been in the business for quite a while, Moolah signed a contract with the WWF, where she was a big part of the "Rock'n Wrestling" angle that delivered the wrestling boom of the '80s. Without Moolah, and women's wrestling in general, the landscape today would look drastically different.

Fellow Oratory member Wayne Edmondson tedmon1@lsu.edu) also had a couple suggestions;
"Some names you forgot... Jumbo Tsuruta, Tiger Mask, Brusier Brody, Jushin Lyger, El Santo, Terry and Dory Funk, Jack Brisco, Harley Race, Buddy Rogers"

Quite a laundry list from Wayne, with a few names I'm surprised I forgot about. You've read about Tiger Mask, (see above) and the illustrious Mr. Edmondson covered Bruiser Brody better than I could ever hope to in his recent post, but I'll do my best to give the others the respect they deserve.

Considered the greatest heavyweight to ever come out of Japan, Jumbo Tsuruta came from an admirable amateur background, participating in the 1972 Olympics in the Greco-Roman style. He was recruited into All Japan during its infancy, and carried over all of his accumulated experience with uncanny success. Tsuruta moved wrestling in Japan from a lightweight style to a more serious, physically demanding competition. It was never about sports entertainment with Tsuruta, it was all sport or it was nothing at all. With that said, Tsuruta could also tell a story like few others when he was between those ropes. In the mid '80s, Tsuruta's group of friends clashed with the upstart invading "army" of Riki Choshu, (then going by the name "Ishin Gundan") lighting the Japanese wrestling world on fire with their bitter rivalry. Sound familiar? That's because many credit this as the inspiration for Eric Bischoff's nWo nearly fifteen years later. But perhaps his most memorable moment came at the end of his career, in a match with an up and coming athlete named Mitsuharu Misawa. Finding himself in a position familiar to Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, Tsuruta's days at the top were coming to an end and Misawa was the company's choice as his replacement. Rather than pissing and moaning about doing a job, Tsuruta made it his personal responsibility to ensure All Japan would carry on well beyond his time. He didn't just job to Misawa, he put on the performance of his life and helped propel the young grappler to his status as the wrestler of the '90s. Despite his incredible skill, athleticism and title reigns, "Jumbo"'s pride stands out today as his most distinguishing factor.

Jushin Liger has become known for his incredible popularity, flexible style and adaptability during his years in New Japan, not to mention brief stints in the United States. Originally one of the sport's most inventive high fliers, (Liger invented the Shooting Star press) the masked puro legend injured his knee after years of misuse and took some time off after reconstructive surgery to reconsider his options. Upon his return to the ring, Liger stunned fans by completely reinventing his offense, moving from a high risk, off-the-top-rope style to a more technical, mat-based assault. The only two-time winner of the Super J Cup, Liger is a bonafide legend in his native Japan and more than just a whisper here in the states.

El Santo was probably the greatest star Lucha Libre has ever seen, and set a sort of standard that's been followed as scripture in the almost seventy years since his in-ring debut. Santo never removed his mask, using it as a physical display of his honor rather than the thin, identity-shielding bit of fabric it really was. It's because of Santo's legacy that most of today's stars are reluctant to remove their masks, and when they do it's a really land-shaping event. El Santo was active in the ring for over forty years, and during that time gained multiple titles and incredible popularity amongst the fans that frequented many of his matches. He became a crossover movie star (still wearing his mask, of course) and retired from active contention in 1983, not long after introducing his son, El Hijo Del Santo, to the wrestling scene.

Of the Funks, Dory is generally considered the most successful, while Terry has always been the more visible. Both were proud owners of some of the most successful runs in wrestling history, and while Dory's dedication and hard work netted him the NWA title quite early in his career, Terry continued wrestling well past his prime to pioneer the "Hardcore" style that owned so much of the late 90s. Dory wrestled much of his early career as a babyface, earning immense respect by not only defeating then-NWA champion Gene Kiniski shortly into his career, but by forcing him to tap out. He went on to hold that title for almost four consecutive years before dropping it to Harley Race. Terry, meanwhile, wasn't regarded as much for his style as he was his ability to make anyone look credible in the ring. More so than Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels or Ric Flair, Terry knew what he was doing every moment he was on the mat, and knew how to make his opponent's offense look like it could blast through brick walls. The brothers later paired up as one of the most successful tag teams in wrestling history, and in so doing proved they could be equally effective as dominating heels.

There isn't much more one can say about Jack Brisco, except he was the true embodiment of success. A remarkable amateur wrestler, Brisco made the transition beautifully to the professional scene, and ended up holding the NWA World Title on two occasions. He was wildly popular, highly in demand and unbelievably good at what he did. Comparisons have been made between Brisco and Bret Hart, but I think a more fitting comparison would be with Kurt Angle, whose career has seemed to echo Brisco's almost to a "T." Nobody could touch Jack in his day, and he's widely remembered as one of the greatest to ever step between the ropes, as he retired before his career could burn out.

Harley Race is best known for his multiple runs as NWA World Champ, and his vicious, rapid-fire successes in regaining the belt on the rare occasion that he lost it. During his run at the top, Race dropped his gold to Dory Funk, Jack Brisco, Dusty Rhodes, Giant Baba, Tommy Rich and Ric Flair, more often than not regaining his glory from the offender within a week's time. Regarded as a genuine tough man, both inside the ring and out, Race took part in the landmark "NWA vs. WWWF" and "NWA vs. WWF" events, wrestling champions Billy Graham and Bob Backlund, respectively, to hard-fought draws. His multiple title reigns shattered the record set by Lou Thesz, carrying the NWA's most prestigious gold a total of eight times. Race entered the WWF to moderate success, winning the first ever King of the Ring tournament and main eventing against Hulk Hogan on more than one occasion. However, he never really fit in and soon left for his true "home" of WCW, where he's been managing ever since.

The original "Nature Boy," Buddy Rogers had more than just a nickname in common with Ric Flair. Both were flamboyant, eccentric, charismatic and almost untouchable in the ring. A despised heel, Rogers carried the NWA World Title for several years in the early '60s, eventually losing a controversial decision to Lou Thesz in one fall. At the time, all World Title matches were decided in a best two out of three situation, and because this was settled so strangely, one facet of the NWA withdrew and created their own federation; the WWWF. Rogers was crowned their first ever World Champion. Idolizing Rogers, Flair has brought almost every aspect of the "Nature Boy" character into the present, from the flashy ring robes to the bleached blonde hair to the figure four finishing maneuver. The two finally came to blows in the late seventies, with Flair emerging victorious.

Whew... Biggdre2@aol.com picks up where Wayne left off;
"Superstar" Billy Graham. If you saw him in the late seventies you know. Handsome, built and could work a stick with anyone in the business. He was a bodybuilder who could wrestle, not a bodybuilder thrown in the ring because of his physical appearance. He led the way for Hogan, Warrior, Steiner and Tony Atlas as well as others. He looked like he could, talked like he could and when he stepped in the ring you knew he could. He was my personal choice as wrestling's ultimate "superstar"."

I'm in agreement here as well. When wrestling was firmly set as one of TV's staples, Graham took the whole thing and moved it forward on his shoulders. While most of his opponents were dull, monotonous men who knew wrestling and nothing else, Graham had a personality that set him apart from the pack. He didn't shy away from the mic, and managed to build a career based around that fact alone. Graham had several successful brothers in the sport, but managed to outshine them all when he won the WWWF World TItle from the legendary Bruno Sammartino in 1977.

Long time reader Wbm385@aol.com added;
"I have some problems with a few people here...
Frank Gotch-True he was one of the sports first superstars, but why him and not George Hackenschmidt? He was just as big as Gotch, and is more widely regarded as the first world champ. He also sounds like a better sportsman that the heelish Gotch. Maybe it was just easier than typing Hackenschmidt?
Shawn Michaels-I agree that HBK was a great wrestler, but I don't think he broke the size barrier. Bret Hart, Sting, and Ric Flair were not much bigger than Michaels, but were already main event names by the time he won the world title, and Flair was the first great talker and wrestler.
Giant Baba-If Rikidozan is the father of puroresu, why is Baba more important? Because he also wrestled in the States? Rikidozan also had many high-profile matches in the U.S. Because he started All Japan? Rikidozan is responsible for all wrestling in Japan.
Arn Anderson-Sure he's a great old school wrestler, but so are lots of other guys. Why does Arn deserve such high placement?"

Not much more for me to add here, as most of the points covered are well explained within the mail itself. Some strong points are certainly presented here, and I haven't got the answers myself... but I'll give it a brief shot.

The main reason I included Gotch over Hackenschmidt was because his name has stood the test of time, while his longtime rival has become little more than a footnote. In addition to that, no matter how underhanded his tactics, Gotch did win both of the matches these two ever had against one another. After his dual losses, Hackenschmidt was never nearly as popular, while Gotch became a bigger and more widely recognized athlete.

I was hoping someone would mention Rikidozan, so I could do so myself in this follow-up. You're absolutely correct, without Rikidozan there would simply be no pro wrestling in Japan. Known as "the father of puroresu," he emerged just after Japan had lost World War II and needed a hero to raise their esteem again. Rikidozan took on one American wrestler after another, soundly defeating them each time and gaining a humongous fan following. After the tensions had settled between the two nations, he travelled overseas regularly, taking on Lou Thesz multiple times and actually winning the NWA International Title from the American legend. Knowing he would need successors, Rikidozan trained Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki before his sudden death in 1963.

Finally, another longtime reader, Mike (Mickeyskin@aol.com) had strong suggestion of his own;
"I knew most of those men. There is 1 name u might hve forgot... Gordon Solie. This is the guy that Jim Ross says "if it were not for him there would be no JR, and that's a fact". Gordon is the GODFATHER of wrestling announcers. If it were not for him I would have NEVER kept watching wrestling as a kid. I know he from down here in the south. BUT the guy was and still is after his death last year... The GREATEST. Not to long ago there was a guy who wrote for the paper( he was the lead sports writer, now in orlando) here in Jacksonville. His last column was written in the memory of Solie. He ended that column the same way Gordon used to end his wrestling show... In a very raspy voice... So long from the sunshine state. Hope u have heard this guy he was GREAT. "

Couldn't have said it better myself, and I'm almost ashamed I left Solie off this list. As an announcer, Gordon reshaped the landscape of broadcasting, making the shift from dull play-by-play to an emotional, interested observer. There really aren't enough words in the dictionary to do this man justice, and I can't think of a better way to conclude a "greatest of all time" piece than with those famous words.

I'd like to thank everyone who wrote in, even those who weren't published here, and everyone who gave it the time of day. It was certainly a pleasant surprise, as I wasn't too thrilled with myself when I originally posted it. Hopefully this follow-up has encouraged you to think a little more, and perhaps even to dig up some old tapes you hadn't previously considered. I guarantee if one of the names listed above is a participant, you're certainly bound to enjoy it.

so long from the sunshine state...


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