In the 1989 Wrestling Observer Yearbook, Jeff Bowdren staked his claim as to the 100 greatest matches of the 80s. Over thirty years down the line and with the benefit of the internet and streaming services, Liam Byrne aims to take a look back at each match (where available) that made the list. With a focus on the context in which these contests took place, take a walk back through time as we look at The Wrestling Classic.
In relatively recent years, there has been somewhat of a backlash, in some places, about the series of matches between Tiger Mask and Dynamite Kid. Perhaps incidentally, many of that more negative criticism arrived at a time when an increasing amount of information about Kid’s true nature behind the scenes came to be understood more broadly amongst wrestling fandom, as well as wider access to wrestling from different eras and promotions than ever before. However, and whilst Jeff Bowdren is only one man with no greater opinion than you or I, Tiger Mask versus Dynamite Kid in some iteration shows up on the list the same number of times as the epic trilogy between Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat. The April 23, 1983 version even ended up hitting the list at the number two spot. Whatever revisionism suggests about it for some people, it was being lauded at the time and maintains a lot of positive praise today.
The interesting thing about three of the matches ending up on the list is that the men – according to Wrestledata – only met seven times in singles competition. From a cross-section of all of 80s wrestling, that leaves them with a rate that was nearly 50% in terms of matches that made the list. Staggering whichever way you slice it. The other quirk of watching these matches through a modern lens is that six of them are on New Japan World: two of the three on the list, alongside four other contests. From April 23, 1981, through April 21, 1983, it is possible to witness the changing and growing nature of what they brought to the squared circle. With all of the matches between the two men available for viewing through online mediums, it would be churlish not to explore beyond those that made the list. This was not Kofi Kingston versus Dolph Ziggler; the evolution of this feud can be viewed in relatively short order.
A Dynamite Kid as yet untethered to Davey Boy Smith and the WWF first traveled to New Japan in 1980. Having spent a tour largely teaming with Stan Hansen and opposing Tatsumi Fujinami, Kid returned the following year as the promotion sought to bolster their Junior Heavyweight division. Eventually, this would incorporate more regular tours for Dynamite, but at this moment it took the form of licensing the popular ‘Tiger Mask’ character from manga in order to recreate their own version. Bestowed upon Satoru Sayama, the gimmick’s debut took place on the final day of Kid’s only tour of the year.
Watch on NJPW World: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00034_1_1
Not the shorn-haired savage that he was in the years to come, Kid’s main role here was to act as a foil through which the impressiveness of the Tiger Mask character could shine. Acclimatisation to masked wrestling for Sayama could explain away some of the awkwardness in terms of move execution, whilst Kid’s initial response to the character had him show more fear and surprise than he usually associated with him. It was truly as if he had never met someone with this skillset before. After the early theatrics, things largely settled into a by-the-numbers Junior Heavyweight contest. The tone for more heated exchanges in the future was set with Kid aiming to rip off the mask, before both men took the fight to ringside. Things were not yet at the level they would reach, though by the time Tiger Mask won with a German suplex, there was definitely something exciting about the two as a pairing.
New Japan obviously realized the potential as they were booked opposite each other four times over the course of 1982, not including their showcase bout in Madison Square Garden. New Year’s Day saw two WWF titles competed for in a New Japan ring, with Dynamite and Tiger’s battle for the Junior Heavyweight belt playing second fiddle to Bob Backlund’s defense of the World Heavyweight championship against Tatsumi Fujinami. It was Fujinami who had last held the Junior strap, though it had been vacated primarily – it seems – as a means to add further importance to the matches between Kid and Mask.
The title may have been up for grabs, but the shrunken statue of Tiger Mask that was showcased before the match was seemingly a gift for the masked wrestler rather than a secondary prize. This match showcased a Kid shorn of hair and enhanced of physique, one more in keeping with the way many remember him from his run in the WWF. With the Tiger Mask gimmick bedded in by this point, it was also a Kid that was not surprised or afraid of what he was up against.
This Dynamite radiated mean.
Knowing that he may not be able to match the athleticism of his opponent, Kid targeted the left knee early and often. A cynic might look at Tiger Mask’s subsequent kick flurry half way through the contest as an example of an egregious lack of selling, but when you have the commentators dropping words like ‘superhero’ into their discourse, it spoke to exactly what level they were presenting the masked man.
Like all good tragedies, it was Kid’s hubris that threatened to lose him a match he was clearly in control of. Pulling Mask up off the canvas at two after a tombstone and a diving headbutt in order to repeat the spots eventually saw him come up short on the second aerial maneuver. A figure four applied more pressure to the already-attacked limb, yet once again Kid’s exuberance cost him, this time for good. Multiple further attempts at the leglock were kicked away, before Mask avoided a charge in the corner and held Kid down for the three with a schoolboy.
Watch on NJPW World: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00040_1_3
Whilst this match was a good showcase of Dynamite as a junior heavyweight heel, the finish was anticlimactic and came out of nowhere. This seemed to be a case of the promotion wanting Mask to win, yet keep Dynamite strong enough to warrant a rematch at a later date. A pre-match promo by the loser was largely drowned out by the vociferous noise of the crowd, though whatever was said alongside the domination of his opponent at times during this match meant the two met just over three weeks later on January 28.
With each of the first three encounters, the men were afforded additional minutes in the ring to tell their story of wrestlers who had a burgeoning hatred for each other, yet could also largely telegraph their opponent’s every move. Within the opening minute, Tiger blocked a strike from Kid immediately following a rope break, well aware of the likelihood that Dynamite would bend the rules. Seconds later, it was the Brit showing off what he had learned from their recent encounters as he cracked Mask upside the head with an enziguri-style kick.
Unlike the last match, this was a more even encounter as it was initially the champion who took control; the effectiveness of the offense helped by Kid’s willingness to bump big and hard on moves as straightforward as an Irish whip to the corner. In fact, Tiger was largely able to nullify Dynamite’s attack, neutralizing him with submission holds and halting attempted comebacks with quick kick flurries.
In a callback to last time, the challenger did eventually land a tombstone piledriver, yet this time chose to go for a pin immediately. Mask was able to kick out at two, as well as avoid a resulting top rope headbutt, yet in order to further escalate the tension, he would also miss an attempted dive off of the top rope. Whilst Mask was known for his athletic moves, it was rare in these contests that he would launch himself in such a manner.
Sensing the need to raise his game yet further, a suicide dive did connect moments later, before a finish that harkened back to their first match. This time, Kid was able to reverse an attempted German suplex, only for Tiger to reverse the reversal and score the three count with the suplex and bridge. There may have been an element of luck in the earlier victory that year, yet this had shown that the masked man was more than capable of outwrestling his foe when it mattered.
The summer of 1982 saw the men meet three times in a little over one month, taking in Ishikawa, Tokyo and New York. Two of these matches were considered worthy of being on the list. It is perhaps poetic that the first one is the one that doesn’t make it, meaning that Bowdren hailed the final trio of contests as the ones that were amongst the best the 80s had to offer.
With longer hair and a sweatpant-clad Bret Hart in tow, Kid re-entered the ring to challenge Tiger on July 23, though without the WWF Junior Heavyweight Title on the line. Having been afforded the longest time in the ring for a match thus far, it wasn’t surprising to see the early exchanges in which Mask wowed the crowd with flipped escapes and spins into drop toeholds were punctuated by some groundwork. Though both men knew how to accelerate into an impressive sequence of counters and reversals to pop the crowd, the extended minutes in the ring necessitated some downtime as the two fought for control on the mat as well.
A series of armwringer reversals and two subsequent moves in which Mask landed on his feet (ignoring the slip on the first one) had the fans applauding and signaled somewhat of a mid-match reset. This served as the prelude to Kid exerting his physical dominance with multiple backbreakers and a gutwrench suplex, offense with the purpose of slowing down Tiger as much as ending the match. A neat callback to the usual finish between the two men saw Kid block a German suplex by wrapping his foot around Mask’s leg, before absolutely folding him in half with a back suplex.
Though the interference from Bret Hart in the closing stretch—kicking Mask to try and break a figure four leglock which saw Kid grab the ropes—and the confusion that causes may be why this missed the list, it once again saw the stakes raised in terms of the moves both men used to try and put the other away. A Space Flying Tiger Drop clipped Kid at ringside, who retaliated with a tombstone on the floor. The fans at ringside were no safer as a back body drop saw the Brit wipe out the first three rows, yet somehow he was still able to beat the count for his first victory over his nemesis.
Watch on NJPW World: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00045_2_1
Oddly enough, it is the first of the matches that makes the list that is the only one which doesn’t appear on New Japan World. However, the beauty of the modern internet meant that this pivotal contest in their feud isn’t lost to time.
By the time you have sat through four matches between Dynamite and Tiger, it becomes largely about what the last three had to offer to make them worthy of a place on the list. Taking place on August 5, the fifth match saw them connect the dots on what they were able to offer in a way that they hadn’t quite managed up until now.
What was good became spectacular.
The kinks that had seen the occasional blown move or sequence were ironed out, whilst the two men headed to the floor multiple times as they sold their desire to inflict maximum pain on their opponent. With that came additional risk as Kid was thrown out of the ring from the suplex position, before the Tiger collided hard with the ropes minutes later as Kid avoided a flying tackle. When the foundations are so strong and the narrative developed, risks could be taken and make everything that much more of a spectacle.
It was also the first with a really decisive winner. Having kicked out of the flying headbutt, Tiger seized the chance after sending Kid to ringside. Eschewing the Space Flying Tiger Drop for a no-messing no-rope plancha, he followed with a gutwrench suplex, turning it into a modified tombstone that looked like it shortened Kid’s spine several centimeters. A moonsault press landed perfectly, keeping Kid’s shoulders down to the canvas for a decisive three count. This wasn’t an opportunistic German after a reversal where one could claim the element of surprise; this was Tiger exerting his superiority over Dynamite—an unsurprising ending given a relative period of drought before their next Japanese contest.
Just over three weeks later, the Dynamite Kid/Tiger Mask touring offering was showcased at Madison Square Garden under the WWF’s banner. Coming in at just over six minutes, this was the definition of a ‘greatest hits’ collection. The spin into a drop toehold; the monkey flip with Mask landing on his feet; a Tiger feint kick sending Dynamite scurrying at ringside; big Kid bumps on a back body drop; a missed diving headbutt eventually leading to a moonsault press for the Tiger Mask win.
Even though it does fall short compared to the Japanese offerings, it is easy to see why the match from Madison Square Garden got the response it received and is still considered a pinnacle match. During a time period when tape trading was limited to a select group, the world wide web didn’t exist and access to wrestling from around the world relied on having contacts in the right places, people just didn’t get the chance to see this high-octane style of wrestling. This show was the MSG debut of both Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask, and the card had started off with matches involving Tony Garea and Killer Khan (no knock on Khan, by the way) and would follow this match with bouts such as Swede Hansen versus Salvatore Bellomo and a tag team midget match. Next to some of the other wrestlers the crowd in New York would see, Tiger Mask and Dynamite Kid felt as if they had come back from the future to show what wrestling could be like. The crowd were audibly and visibly impressed throughout; moves like the Kid’s gut wrench suplex, Mask’s spinning drop toe hold and even the missed diving headbutt that led to the finish had an impact and crispness that would live long in the memory for any audience member who had the chance to see the two men in action.
Watch on NJPW World: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00046_1_1
It was almost eight months before the men would reconvene for their last encounter. Returning to the scene of their first match (and the fifth, the first on the list), Kuramae Kokugikan, this was a Dynamite Kid just over a year from his move to the WWF; a Tiger Mask literal months away from ‘retirement’ that ended when he turned up in UWFi in 1984. It was pretty much the end of an era for these two—the last real-time they could meet before their lives went in very disparate directions.
Watch on NJPW World: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00049_2_2
Adding one last little bit of spice to the mixture was the introduction of the NWA Junior Heavyweight Title into proceedings. Held by Tiger since May 1982, it was the first time this was the belt up for grabs. Sitting in the third spot from the top behind Antonio Inoki versus Masa Saito and Riki Choshu defending the IWGP Heavyweight Title in the main event against Tatsumi Fujinami, this match sat alongside two other notorious feuds of the era, taking its rightful place as the notable rivalry in the JUnior Heavyweight division.
Over the course of the over-twenty minutes the men fought in total, the time afforded them the opportunity for callbacks to spots and moments that rewarded the crowd who had followed their feud over the past two years. Though it lacked the initial fire of some of their previous encounters, Kid landing on his feet out of a flip seemed to mock Kid’s athleticism, before the masked man showed his aerial prowess early with a perfectly executed tope suicida, as well as sending his opponent scurrying away from a tiger feint kick. When Kid attempted to land a tombstone piledriver, the crowd in attendance cheered wildly for Mask’s escape as they knew how potentially dangerous the move was.
The match wasn’t without controversy. A crossbody from the apron to the ringside floor by Mask sent both men over the railings. With this grounds for an automatgic countout according to the rules of the time period. The period of scuffling afterwards, the involvement of the referee to break them up, and his decision to eventually restart the match was odd seen through contemporary eyes, yet the restart saw everything kick into a higher gear: a tombstone and a top rope headbutt Kid’s first offensive manoeuvre of the second period of action.
Giving up all pretenses of it being a scientific contest, the two brawled around ringside, with a couple of Irish whips with such velocity they threatened to wipe out the front row. Things almost spilled completely out of control as Kid smashed a bottle on the steel post, headbutted the referee and tried to go after Tiger with the jagged edge of the glass. It was as if Kid had completely lost it, yet somehow this wasn’t the end of the match. There was still time for some dueling tombstones at ringside before a second double countout finally put the match, and the rivalry, to bed. Though Tiger had been dominant in terms of wins and losses, it felt right that the two men who had been attached to each other in such a manner battled to a no-contest in their final outing.
Looking back on the series of matches, the confusing booking and bloat in terms of timing hurt things when it came to the contest that ended up placing the highest on the list. The sense of things spiraling out of control must have been exciting at the time, but it hurts things in retrospect.
The best of the matches? The fifth contest—one that also cracked the top twenty3was the ultimate mixture of reversals, high-flying and that little edge of nastiness that both managed to bring to the proceedings. Even if they aren’t always held in as high a regard as they once were, it wouldn’t be time wasted to spend a couple of hours watching Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask do what they did best.