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Think back to wrestling in 1982. Bob Backlund was in year four of his WWF World Heavyweight Championship reign and Ric Flair was in the first of his 16 title reigns. Wrestling was extremely different back then, to the point that some fans today find the product pre-1984 almost unwatchable. Wrestling at the time was based less on charisma and entertainment and more on believability and toughness. There is nothing wrong with the latter, but as wrestling evolved from small, regional promotions, to a form of global entertainment broadcasted on television and on PPV, it would be done so with the philosophy of entertainment first, ahead of believability.
Wrestling has continually been pushing towards a faster pace. Ever since Ed Lewis and Joe Stecher wrestled for five and a half hours in the 1920s, wrestling has moved towards a faster pace. There isn't nearly as much stalling, and lockups last five seconds instead of five minutes. If you watch a match in 2015 and compare it to a match from even 1998, you will notice that the pace is much different, that wrestlers move a lot faster and there is a lot more running and jumping involved.
In addition to pace, wrestling has also consistently evolved to the point that it is required that a top level talent be able to perform at least a dozen moves with regularity. Before the national expansion of the WWF, and well into the Hulkamania era, it was perfectly acceptable for a main event level wrestler to have only five moves or so. It wasn't always because the wrestlers lacked the talent or athleticism to pull off a variety of moves, but rather that it was not required for them to do so. Today, it is mostly unacceptable, but back in the day, not much was thought of it.
As far as moves went, wrestling has gone in the trend towards more spectacular and devastating maneuvers. Bruno Sammartino used the bear hug and Backlund used an atomic drop. Today, it would be unthinkable for a serious wrestler to use those moves as finishers, but Sammartino and Backlund were two of the biggest draws ever, and those were feared moves.
While a match from 1985 and a match from 2015 would look drastically different, from the pace, to the working style, to the moves the performers did, wrestling didn't always change so quickly. If you examined a match from 1935 and a match from 1975, there would be some differences, but they wouldn't be nearly as obvious as the differences in the matches from 1985 and 2015. Around the early-80s, wrestling was put on an accelerated course of evolution that has shaped the way wrestling is performed today.
So what happened? Many things can be attributed to shaping contemporary wrestling, especially the fact that national companies like the WWF and WCW were looking to entertain all types of fans (as opposed to the regional companies, which mostly catered towards traditional wrestling fans) and this needed to market their products more as entertainment and less of an actual athletic competition. But what was the tipping point? What actually represented what contemporary pro
wrestling could be all about?
In the early 1980s, Dynamite Kid and the original Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayama) collided in a watershed series of matches for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Ironically, a bulk of these matches were for the WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship, an obscure title whose matches almost exclusively took place in Japan. Perhaps more than any other feud in history, Dynamite Kid vs Tiger Mask changed wrestling forever.
To fully comprehend just how impressive these matches were, you have to think back to that time period and what else was happening in wrestling. While Bob Backlund was winning matches with the atomic drop, Tiger Mask was flying over the top rope with a cross body block, crashing into the barricade. It was so radically different than anything else that was happening in wrestling at the time, and because they were taking place in packed arenas in Japan and because they were affiliated with WWF, they got some play on American television as well, they had a massive impact on the future of wrestling. There had been some earlier "high-flyers" like Antonio Rocca and Edouard Carpentier, but most of them (especially Rocca) were billed as special attractions, and their styles were more like oddities and less like the foundation of a new wrestling order.
Watching the match in 2015, the moves don't seem all that groundbreaking. If you were grading their 1982 compared to 2015 matches, it would still be a very good match, but probably not a match of the year candidate. But the matches in 2015 that we consider great might not have ever taken place if it wasn't for guys like Dynamite and Tiger Mask for innovating the high-flying, rapid pace, match-style. The Savage vs Steamboat match at Wrestlemania III is often looked at as a watershed moment for wrestling, because of its speed and reliance on technical ability. However, there match wasn't nearly as exciting or as fast as the Dynamite/Tiger Mask matches, and they took place half a decade earlier. Realistically, it would take WWF approximately two decades to really catch up.
To put it in perspective, in 1982 it was illegal in most wrestling organizations to throw your opponent over the top rope. In Dynamite vs Tiger Mask, Tiger Mask suplexes Dynamite out of the ring completely, and by the end of the decade, the old rule of throwing your opponent over the tope rope being grounds for disqualification was pretty much extinct. Giving your opponent a suplex on the outside, or tossing them into a barricade was rarely seen up until that point, but now they have become staples in most modern wrestling matches.
Despite the match's significance, neither Dynamite Kid or Tiger Mask would continue their career for much longer. Injuries and a bad attitude would limit Dynamite and by 1991, his career was pretty much over. Surprisingly enough, Tiger Mask also didn't get along well with others, leaving NJPW in 1983 and then jumping over to Universal Wrestling Federation, only to retire in 1985 after a riff with UWF legend Akira Maeda. Despite how their careers ended, both Dynamite and Tiger Mask can look back on a career that some the formation of contemporary wrestling, that influences pretty much every wrestling match that takes place anywhere in the world.