These four wrestlers collectively helped professional wrestling in the late ’70s and early ’80s transition from a more plodding mat style to a more fast-paced form by creating a hybrid of Lucha libre, Japanese, and English ring styles and bringing them to North American audiences.
These are your favorite wrestlers’ favorite wrestlers, and this is a tribute to them.
Wrestlers Who Revolutionized Professional Wrestling
It’s a breezy September evening in New York City, and there is a buzz in the air. A burgeoning East Coast-based professional wrestling promotion is hosting one of their biggest shows of the year at the then "Mecca of Sports" Madison Square Garden.
Fans would pack the 18,000 plus seat arena nearly to capacity on this Monday evening to watch large, bare-chested grapplers climb into a ring and do battle.
Names like Andre The Giant, Pat Patterson, Bob Backlund, and Chief Jay Strongbow were all prominently featured on the card. They would play a hand in gaining the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) its early notoriety.
During this period, the in-ring action spectators were primarily treated to was trash-talking, followed by body slams, foreign objects to the cranium, and the occasional suplex (if you were really lucky).
But unbeknownst to many in attendance that evening and thousands of other fans who could not attend, the "sport" of professional wrestling was about to be forever revolutionized, and this revolution would get its start across the pond in England.
1. Mark “Rollerball” Rocco – The Original Black Tiger
Mark Rocco was a fourth-generation British wrestler. Although his father was against his son becoming a professional wrestler — he would go as far as having Mark banned from his gym in Manchester, England — Rocco would "learn the ropes" from many veterans from the age of 16 while his father was out on tour.
Before long, he would be touring as far away as France, Japan, and eventually North America.
It would be squaring off against the likes of Satoru Sayama (Tiger Mask), Keiichi Yamada (Jushin Liger), and Dynamite Kid (more on him a little later), among others, which would earn the British grappler his initial acclaim and start him on the path towards leaving an indelible mark on the profession.
This series of highly regarded matches would also lead to New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) contacting Rocco, leading to the birth of the "Black Tiger" persona and some of the most highly rated matches in Japanese television history against Sayama’s Tiger Mask.
This rivalry would continue throughout 1982 and extend to the WWWF, where Mark briefly competed against the likes of Bob Backlund and even Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea, captivating audiences with a faster, higher-flying style than many had ever witnessed before.
Whenever not on tour overseas, Rocco would continue to compete for All Star Wrestling back home in Britain for the remainder of his career, which would last into the early ’90s.
After a long battle with dementia, Rocco sadly passed away on July 30th, 2020. He was 69.
2. Dynamite Kid
There isn’t a lot left to say about Tom Billington Dynamite Kid that exposés and shoot interviews over the years haven’t already revealed, apart from the fact that his in-ring legacy will survive as among one of the most influential ever.
Tom’s childhood interest in sports, including amateur wrestling, gymnastics, and even some boxing training, would develop his small but powerful frame. Being a descendant of the British Billington family, noted for their combat sports and professional wrestling history, didn’t hurt either.
His career spanned two decades and included notable runs in the WWF, capturing the heralded (but now defunct) WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship, training and wrestling in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in Canada, and multiple tours of both All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW), and New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) in the mid-to-late-1980s.
It would be this combination of British, Canadian, and Japanese wrestling styles, coupled with Dynamite’s pure athleticism, which would help elevate the art of in-ring professional wrestling to new heights during his heyday and lead to legends such as Bret Hart regarding him as “pound-for-pound, the greatest wrestler who ever lived.”
After years of ill-health, Billington died on December 5th, 2018, his 60th birthday.
3. The Original Tiger Mask – Satoru Sayama
Fans of professional wrestling may quickly point out that the Tiger Mask persona has belonged to several Japanese professional wrestlers since its origin in the early 1980s. For the purposes of this article, we are talking strictly about the Original Tiger Mask – Satoru Sayama.
The story goes that New Japan Pro-Wrestling licensed the character from the creators of the popular Japanese manga series by the same name and created a real-life Tiger Mask to help boost their Junior Heavyweight Division.
Instantly recognizable by its trademark mask, designed to look like a tiger’s head, combined with Sayama’s well-rounded skillset consisting of high-flying attacks and martial arts in the ring, the character was an immediate hit.
Sayama portrayed the character until 1983, when he left New Japan.
Stateside, Sayama found moderate success as the first wrestler to ever simultaneously hold the WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship and NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship.
He would go on to feud with the likes of Kuniaki Kobayashi for the straps, José Estrada Sr. at early WWF television tapings, and more famously with The Dynamite Kid. Their now infamous 1983 NJPW match at Sumo Hall earned the very first 5-star rating by Dave Meltzer.
4. Marty Jones
Marty Jones perhaps might be the least known of the names mentioned on this list but is one of the best all-around grapplers of the bunch. The fact that Jones was responsible for training a young William Regal speaks to this.
A staple of the Joint Promotions and All Star Wrestling promotions in Britain throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Marty made his wrestling debut in 1972.
He would win his first singles championship from none other than Mark "Rollerball" Rocco in November 1976 when he defeated him for the British Light Heavyweight Championship, a Joint Promotions title he would go on to hold five times.
While never wrestling across the pond in the WWF, Jones did a stint in NJPW in the early ’80s, where he faced off against the original Tiger Mask and also participated in tag team matches alongside and against well-known international names at the time, such as Antonio Inoki and even Andre The Giant.
As might be expected, Jones is now a trainer for several British-based wrestling promotions and, in recent years, even mentored multiple members of the current NXT UK roster.
There are no doubt some deserving names not included on this list. However, these four wrestlers collectively revolutionized the professional wrestling business, helping mold wrestling to the high-paced style of today.
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