Saturday, December 5, 2009

Remembering Eddie Fatu

Eddie Fatu was born in 1973, a member of the famous Anoai wrestling family (which includes the Wild Samoans, the Tonga Kid, Rikishi, Yokozuna, and many others). Mr. Fatu trained at his uncles' Wild Samoan Pro Wrestling Training Center before going to work in uncle Afa's World Extreme Federation. He quickly caught the eye of World Wrestling Federation officials, appearing on WWF TV briefly before honing his skills further in the WWF's developmental territory Heartland Wrestling Association. Around this time, Mr. Fatu formed a long-running team with his cousin Matt which saw them in promotions such as Memphis Championship Wrestling and Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling.

In 2002, the two cousins debuted in the WWE, appearing as RAW General Manager Eric Bischoff's henchmen, Three-Minute Warning. Now known as Jamal (with his cousin going as Rosey), Mr. Fatu laid out weekly beatdowns alongside his cousin whenever Eric Bischoff felt someone had begun to bore the audience. Three-Minute Warning would continue to dish out destruction whenever called upon, both in and out of the squared circle. In what was their biggest angle at the time, Three-Minute Warning crashed the "commitment ceremony" of Billy and Chuck during the September 12, 2002 edition of SmackDown!. The two then went on to defeat the team in a match at September's Unforgiven PPV. A feud against the Dudley Boyz followed but the team came to an abrupt end when Mr. Fatu was released in June 2003.

From there, Mr. Fatu continued his in-ring career, working for both Total Nonstop Action (TNA) in 2003 as the tag team partner of Sonny Siaki. After working a program with America's Most Wanted (James Storm and Chris Harris), Mr. Fatu went to work for All Japan Pro Wrestling. There, he worked as Jamal, teaming with Justin Credible before forming a championship team with Taiyo Kea that saw the two perform in Hawai'i Championship Wrestling as well as Japan (the two would win the AJPW Unified World Tag Team Championship, the 2004 World's Strongest Tag Team League tournament, and the HCW Kekaulike Heritage Tag Team Championship).

In 2006, Mr. Fatu returned to the WWE, debuting as a singles wrestler alongside new WWE manager Armando Elejandro Estrada. Now working as Umaga, a mysterious Samoan savage (reminiscent of his uncles Afa and Sika of the Wild Samoans), Mr. Fatu attacked Ric "Nature Boy" Flair on an episode of Monday Night RAW, laying out the former 16-time World Champion. Umaga would face Flair at the 2006 Backlash PPV, defeating Flair and establishing himself as a fierce opponent.

From there, it seemed as Umaga was an unstoppable force of nature. With Armando Elejandro Estrada guiding his career, Umaga bulldozed over opponent after opponent, quickly earning the nickname "The Samoan Bulldozer". Comparisons to fellow Samoan wrestler Samoa Joe (who had established himself as "The Samoan Submission Machine" in both Ring of Honor and Total Nonstop Action) were inevitable but Mr. Fatu distinguished himself, proving that he was no carbon-copy of anyone.

For some time, it appeared as if nothing could stop "The Samoan Bulldozer". Umaga beat everyone there was to beat on the RAW roster, defeating main event stars such as Shawn Michaels, Hunter Hearst Helmsley, and John Cena. Umaga even sent Kane packing when he defeated "The Big Red Machine" in a "Loser Leaves RAW" match. Umaga then prepared for the biggest match of his career- a WWE Championship match against John Cena at the 2007 New Year's Revolution PPV.

After nearly a year of wrestling without being pinned or forced to submit, Umaga suffered his first pinfall loss in January 2007 at New Year's Revolution. John Cena successfully defended his belt, surprising Umaga with a roll-up that saw the Samoan Bulldozer's shoulders pinned to the mat for a three count. A rematch at the Royal Rumble saw Umaga's career further blemished when Cena forced him to tap out to the STFU (albeit with the help of the ring rope and turnbuckle) in a Last Man Standing Match.

Undaunted by his losses to Cena, Umaga participated in arguably the biggest match of 2007, the Battle of the Billionaires at Wrestlemania XXIII. Umaga was hand-picked by WWE chairman Vince McMahon to serve as his wrestler against arch-rival Donald Trump's wrestler Bobby Lashley. This match was especially important to McMahon as it was a Hair vs. Hair Match (with either McMahon or Trump losing their hair depending on the outcome). As expected, the match was a wild one with Umaga laying out "Stone Cold" Steve Austin (the match's special referee) and nearly winning the match for Mr. McMahon. In the end though, Umaga fell to Lashley.

An angry and now bald Mr. McMahon turned his attention from Trump to Lashley, seeking to punish Lashley for his humiliating loss at Wrestlemania. Despite his loss to Lashley, McMahon continued using the Samoan Bulldozer (who had lost manager Armando Elejandro Estrada thanks to a beatdown dished out by Lashley) as the instrument of his vengeance. The two feuded with Umaga helping Mr. McMahon capture Lashley's ECW World Title. Lashley countered by helping newcomer Santino Marella defeat Umaga for the Intercontinental Championship. Their feud continued until 2007's Judgment Day PPV which saw Lashley defeat Umaga, Vince, and Shane McMahon in a Handicap Match.

2007 saw Umaga's fortunes rise and fall. While he defeated Santino Marella to regain the Intercontinental Championship in July, he lost it in September to Jeff Hardy (who had just returned to the WWE). Umaga then suffered a brutal beatdown at the hands of a sledgehammer wielding Triple H (which lead to a storyline absence as Umaga served out a Wellness Policy mandated suspension). When he returned to action, Umaga fell to Triple H in a WWE Championship Match at the No Mercy PPV.

As 2007 became 2008, it became clear that Umaga was no longer an unstoppable force. Still, he remained a formidable opponent, battling Batista at Wrestlemania XXIV and Jeff Hardy in a Falls Count Anywhere Match at the 2008 One Night Stand PPV. In June 2008, Umaga was drafted to SmackDown! where he looked to be back on track in his winning ways. Unfortunately an ACL injury took him out of action for the remainder of the year.

In 2009, Umaga finally returned to action, destroying Jimmy Wang Yang during a match on SmackDown! From there, Umaga entered into a feud with CM Punk. Umaga defeated Punk at that year's Judgment Day PPV but he lost to Punk in a subsequent Samoan Strap Match at the Extreme Rules PPV. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Fatu was released by the WWE. Mr. Fatu recently appeared on the Australian Hulkamania tour, performing as Edward Smith “Uso” Fatu.

I'd like to extend my prayers and condolences to the family and friends of Eddie Fatu.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Themed PPV's from the Past and Present

Right now the WWE is attempting to make its PPV's more distinct with themed shows such as Hell in a Cell, TLC, and Breaking Point (submission matches). While fans' reactions have been mixed the WWE deserves credit for trying to invigorate the product and making each PPV seem special. Some fans may be surprised to learn that specialty PPV's date back to the beginning of PPV itself. Indeed, the idea of having special themed shows(and by this I mean shows based around a specific type of match) dates back even further as we shall see.

The WWE is by no means the first company to focus on branded events. Back in the 1960's and 70's, promoter Roy Shire featured an annual battle royal that was held at the Cow Palace Arena. Shire's Battle Royal was treated both as a special event and an extremely dangerous one (the battle royal was known for featuring injury angles including stretcher jobs). Promoter Shire featured some of his top stars in the match-up and often brought in talent from outside of his San Francisco based National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) territory, adding to the show's allure. WWE Hall of Famer Pat Patterson was a frequent participant (as well as two-time winner of the Battle Royal) and he would draw upon his experience there when he helped design the WWE's Royal Rumble.

In 1986, promoter Jim Crockett Jr. built a supercard around tag team wrestling known as the Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup Tag Team Tournament (better known as "The Crockett Cup"). The inaugural Crockett Cup was a major event in the NWA with most of the remaining NWA territories sending their top tag teams to compete against Crockett's teams. The first Crockett Cup saw 24 teams compete for a (kayfabe) $1,000,000.00 prize as well as a memorial trophy. The event was held over two days and was considered one of the year's top events. While it did not draw as much money as expected, it was successful enough that two more Crockett Cups were held.

Even during the earliest days of PPV, promoters considered specially themed shows in order to lure in customers. One of the first was the Wrestling Classic, the World Wrestling Federation's second PPV (some people have argued that this was actually the first official PPV as Wrestlemania was only available in closed circuit arenas while The Wrestling Classic was available in select homes). The Wrestling Classic revolved around a sixteen man tournament (as well as a WWF title match between champion Hulk Hogan and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper). The WWF would follow up on the idea of themed shows with its debut of the Survivor Series. For the first few years, the Survivor Series was made up entirely of tag team elimination matches.

In 1989, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) ran an Iron Man tournament at its annual Starrcade show. The show featured both a tag team tournament as well as a singles tournament with competitors battling in round robin matches to determine the "Iron Man" (and "Iron Men"). For more on the rules of the "Iron Man" tournament, click here.

During the 1990's, WCW toyed further with themed PPV's, one of which became known as Battlebowl:the Lethal Lottery. In 1991, WCW held the first ever Battlebowl at its Starrcade The BattleBowl (which has no connection to Rob Van Dam despite what you may think) featured "randomly" (kayfabe) selected teams battling one another with the winning teams advancing to a two ring battle royal held at the end of the night. WCW would follow up with another Battlebowl at Starrcade 92 as well as a Battlebowl PPV in 1993. Unfortunately for Battlebowl fans, the concept wasn't strong enough to establish an annual tradition.

WCW wasn't alone in using special events to build a PPV around. In 1985 WWF launched the King of the Ring PPV tournaments in 1985 at the Sullivan Stadium in the Foxborough, Massachusetts (later moving it to the Providence Civic Center in Providence, Rhode Island) . The event proved popular enough not only to run until 1991 but to be relaunched as a PPV event. The WWE continued the King of the Ring as a PPV until 2002.

Recent history has shown that specially themed PPV's can succeed. One of TNA's biggest successes has been its annual Lockdown PPV which features cage matches from start to finish. While the thought of nothing but cage matches seems like overkill, TNA has done a good job of keeping the show fresh and Lockdown continues to be one of the company's most popular PPV's.

Wrestling promoters don't have to reserve themed events for PPV's. With the WWE running more and more three hour RAW's, it might not be a bad idea to run a themed show on one of these 180 minute blowouts. While I don't think it's in the WWE's (or TNA's) best interests to make every PPV or show a specially themed event, they might want to consider two of the following ideas:

Pro-Am: While I don't watch a lot of Japanese wrestling, I love some of the tournaments that the various promotions used to run. One of the best ideas I've heard of was a tournament that featured veterans teaming with rookie wrestlers. The possibilities here of course are endless. Not only do you get a chance to form new teams but you get to do angles with possible feuds between team members as well as younger guys getting a chance to get the rub from an established star. Like anything else, a promotion can make a kayfabe prize such as a big check or do something where the winner gets a tag title shot at the next PPV ( On a sidenote, I absolutely hate the idea of teams battling in a tournament where they face the champions that very night. I've never understood the concept of a team (or individual) wrestling several matches in one evening then having to utilize a title shot the same night against a fresh team).

Wrestling Olympics: I like the idea of the WWE's Bragging Rights PPV where RAW SmackDown! compete to see who is the best. The problem with Bragging Rights was that the company threw the show together at the last minute and they did little to make winning it seem all that special (other than the trophy). Imagine an all-star night in which WWE stars compete in various match-ups as well as old school angles like arm-wrestling matches, pose-downs, tests of strength, or whatever else you want to throw in. The team with the most wins would naturally go on to become that year's winner and claim a kayfabe prize they can brag about over the next year.

The key with any of these themed events is in how they are executed. Take the recent Hell in a Cell PPV. The problem with the PPV wasn't that there were three Hell in a Cell matches. The problem was that that 1) there wasn't a lot of build-up for the cage matches and 2) only one of the cage matches (DX vs. Legacy) actually used the cage with any regularity. On the other hand, I LOVED the Breaking Point The submission matches turned out to be excellent and for the most part, they tied in with the programs. For example, DX vs. Legacy was a battle of who was the toughest team. Likewise Orton vs. Cena played into the "Diehard" attitude of John Cena winning out over a weak-willed heel. Don't run a themed event unless you have a concrete plan for the matches involved.

As time unfolds it will be interesting to see whether the WWE adopts more themed PPV's or if it drops the concept in favor of more traditional shows. If history is any indication, you can be sure that themed events will be around in some quantity in the time to come.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Story of Survivor Series

It's not very often that a Great Moment in Wrestling can also be an Epic Fail but that's what happened when the two biggest wrestling companies decided to go head to head on Thanksgiving night. The result was the beginning of the end for one promotion and the debut of one of the longest running PPV's in WWE history. Join me as I look back at the debut of the Survivor Series.

Thanksgiving has always been an important day in professional wrestling. In 1987, it would become important for another reason-the location of an all-out battle between rival promotions the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). In the end, one promoter would be very thankful while another was thankful to still be in business.

For years, Thanksgiving was one of the most important days (if not the most important) for Jim Crockett Promotions. Even before the promotion launched its Starcade show (The grand-daddy of them all), Thanksgiving held a special place for the promotion and its fans. Thanksgiving was the day in which many feuds were settled and new programs developed as the fans relaxed from a big Thanksgiving dinner and watched some top-rate wrestling action. Starcade only magnified this, giving fans from all around the Mid-Atlantic area a chance to see the big show that before then, was often sold out. This of course, made Thanksgiving the biggest night of the year for JCP. It was the promotion's Superbowl or in wrestling terms, its Wrestlemania.

And speaking of Wrestlemania, 1987 was an amazing year for the WWF. Wrestlemania III was a monster success for the WWF (thanks to its epic Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant main event) as well as for the PPV companies which beamed the show into homes around the world. Seeing the success of Wrestlemania III, Vince McMahon decided to embark on a second PPV that year. After all, if one PPV was successful, imagine how good things would be with two. Some people were skeptical. After all, could the market sustain TWO pay-per-views in one year (McMahon had run two PPV's in 1985 but failed to do so in 1986)? As laughable as it may seem now, there was serious concern about flooding the market with two PPV's over the course of twelve months. Even more serious was the notion of running a show directly against their competitor JCP. Could the market sustain TWO pay-per-views on the same night (Thanksgiving)?

The wrestling world was all abuzz about the prospect of the WWF competing directly against JCP. For several years, the WWF and JCP had bumped heads as both companies grew from regional to national promotions. By 1987 the WWF had the upper hand but JCP remained a respectable second place to the WWF and they were by no means finished. While the WWF had Hulkamania powering its ship, JCP relied on traditional wrestling that appealed to many of the old school fans turned off by the sometimes cartoonish antics of the WWF. Stars like Ric Flair, Lex Luger, Dusty Rhodes, and the Road Warriors made JCP a thriving promotion of its own. Now, wrestling fans would be able to truly voice their opinion on who was the better company. It's even been said that JCP welcomed the chance to compete against the WWF as they felt their superior wrestling product would triumph over the glitz and glamour of the WWF.

If Vince McMahon had his way though, there would be no head to head battle. Using the leverage of the super-successful Wrestlemania III, McMahon made it known to cable companies that they now had another big WWF product to make loads of money off of. The only catch was that they had to carry this new show exclusively, especially if they wanted to get Wrestlemania IV. In a gesture reflecting his abundant goodwill, McMahon made it clear to the cable providers that there was no need to carry that second-rate Starcade any more since the big boys i.e. the WWF were running a Thanksgiving show. If that didn't get the cable companies thinking his way, he told them that they had to carry this new show exclusively, especially if they wanted to get Wrestlemania IV.

For those wondering about the legalities of what the WWF pulled, this was something that definitely could have been challenged in court. The problem was that by the time the case got to court, it would have been too little too late. JCP might have been able to get some sort of injunctive relief against the WWF and/or cable companies involved but they risked alienating the cable companies in the future. In the end, the majority of the cable companies went with the WWF, shutting JCP out of the picture. The result was that, Starcade had very few clearances while the WWF's new show Survivor Series had many. To no one's surprise, Survivor Series crushed Starcade, if for no other reason, because it was most fans' only choice if they wanted wrestling for their post-turkey dinner relaxation (Conventional wisdom has it that the WWF show was actually a better show wrestling-wise than Starcade but you be the judge).

Survivor Series' success continued the WWF's good fortunes, proving that the company could run more than one PPV a year. It also sealed JCP's doom as the company banked on Starcade to make a lot of money (which was certainly reasonable on their part as the show had always done so before). Without the revenue traditionally generated by Starcade, JCP ran into cash flow companies and its owners were forced to sell the company to Ted Turner just a year later.
Debut of the Elimination Chamber.

As we all know, the Survivor Series has gone on to become one of the WWE's "Big Four" PPV's. The WWF stopped airing on Thanksgiving years ago and for a while it looked as if the Survivor Series elimination matches were history. Fortunately the WWE has seen fit to bring back the elimination matches, reestablishing the Survivor Series as more than just another PPV. Over the last twenty plus years, fans have delighted to many memorable moments at Survivor Series such as the inaugural show's ten team tag elimination match (1987), the debut of the Undertaker (1990), the Undertaker's tainted win over Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship the following year (1991), the infamous Montreal Screwjob(1997), the night "Stone Cold" Steve Austin was run down by a mystery driver (1999), the climax to the Invasion angle, and the debut of the Elimination Chamber (2002). On a personal note, 1995's Survivor Series was memorable as it was the first PPV I ever attended (and actually a pretty good show in its own right).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Remembering Captain Lou Albano

Captain Lou! Captain Lou! Whether he was helping one of his charges cheat their way to victory, winning the U.S. Tag Team Championship, making beautiful music with NRBQ (and music videos with Cyndi Lauper), or starring in Brian DePalma's Wise Guys, Lou Albano knew how to keep himself busy and in the spotlight. He was bigger than life, literally and metaphorically, making an impact wherever he stepped.

Born Louis Vincent Albano, the man who would become famous in and outside of the squared circle did it all. He was a champion wrestler, a manager of champions, and a pop culture icon, appearing in music videos, TV shows, and film. Mr. Albano contributed so many things to wrestling that it's difficult to sum up all of his accomplishments. Arguably his biggest was his buildup to War to Settle the Score, the famous matchup which led to Wrestlemania and the WWF's rise to prominence but then again, with a resume as long as the Captain's, it's not easy to be certain.

Like many managers, Mr. Albano began his career in the ring as a wrestler. In his case, he rose to prominence as one half of the heel tag team called the Sicilians (alongside partner Tony Altimore). The Sicilians would become well known during the 1950's and 1960's, working throughout various territories including the WWWF and capturing the U.S. Tag Team Championship from Spiros Arion and Arnold Skaaland in 1967.

For most fans however, Captain Lou was best remembered for his work as a manager in the WWWF . As Paul Heyman mentioned in his blog this week, one of the Three Wise Men of the East, the legendary triumvirate of terror that ran wild over the babyfaces in the WWWF (the other two of course, being the Grand Wizard and "Classy" Freddie Blassie). Captain Lou would become known as "The Guiding Light" (one of the many names he bestowed upon himself), leading a record fifteen tag teams to championship gold in the WWWF. When Captain Lou managed a tag team, it was always a question of when,not if, his team would win the coveted WWWF Tag Team Championship. The teams he guided were a veritable who's who in the WWWF including the Wild Samoans, a team he led to a record three WWWF tag team championships.

Mr. Albano was so well known for his tag team accolades that people often forgot the singles championships he helped manage. The biggest of course was Ivan Koloff, who toppled Bruno Sammartino in 1971 to win the WWWF championship. The Intercontinental championship did not elude his grasp either with Mr. Albano helping both The Magnificent Muraco and Greg "The Hammer" Valentine win that prestigious belt.

Fans always have their choice of who the greatest manager of all time was. One thing everyone can agree on is that they broke the mold when they made Captain Lou. Captain Lou Albano was much more than a manager, he was a force of nature. It's hard to think of someone more despicable than Captain Lou. When the big, ugly man worked his way to the ring, you couldn't help but hate him. Captain Lou presented a look that was all his own. Whether it was the long rubber bands that dangled from his face, the wild hair and equally untamed beard, or his trademark shirt with generous belly protruding from underneath, Lou Albano looked the part of a slimy, no-good bad guy who would run over his grandmother if she stood in his way. One look at Albano and you knew what a character he was. You never forgot him. Even people who'd only seen him once would remember him as "the fat guy with rubber bands hanging down his face" or "that ugly obnoxious wrestling manager who never shut up."

Lou Albano was no cartoon character bad guy (although he would go on to become a cartoon character in Hulk Hogan's Rock and Wrestling and play a real-life version of a cartoon character in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!). He was the real deal. He reminded you of the loud, brash guy at the seedy side of town, hustling numbers or beating people up for failing to pay their debts. Lou Albano was the brains behind the brawn, the guy who guided monsters like the Wild Samoans and the Moondogs to the WWWF Tag Team Championship. He was also the guy who always looked out for number one-he defrauded Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka out of all his earnings then choreographed a brutal beatdown on Snuka when his nefarious activities were brought to life. Captain Lou Albano was one bad customer.

He was also a rarity among managers-someone who you actually thought might do a number on a babyface. Granted, Albano cultivated his image as a slob and you knew your favorite wrestler would come out on top in a fair fight against Albano. The problem was that you also knew Albano never fought a fair fight in his life. Albano presented a true sense of danger to babyfaces, luring them into a false sense of security then striking when they were at their weakest.

Like Shakespeare's loveable rogue John Falstaff, Albano also had an undeniable charm. As bad a guy as you knew he was, you couldn't help but laugh at some of his promos. The guy never stopped talking. Whether he boasted of being "often imitated but never duplicated" or any of the thousands of catchphrases he dropped, the not-so-good Captain was never at a loss for words. His sometimes comical antics served a secondary purpose-they lured the babyfaces and their fans into underestimating Albano until he sprang one of his diabolical plans on them. It was pure wrestling gold.

Although I was only able to catch Albano during the tail end of his heel years in the WWF, he made a lasting impression. One of the bits that illustrated Albano's craziness occurred during match between Albano charge "The Magnificent Muraco" and perennial loser Rudy Diamond. During the match, Albano paraded around the ring with a meatball bomber and cup of Coca Cola. It didn't take long for everyone to realize Diamond posed no threat to Muraco. Muraco was destroying the jobber but Albano was determined to add insult to injury. During the match, Albano walked up to the ring and gave Muraco a bite of his sub. If that wasn't bad enough, Albano then gave Muraco some of his Coca Cola to drink. The humiliation of losing to Muraco was compounded by Muraco getting a quick snack in and the sheer disgust at seeing someone sharing part of Lou Albano's lunch.

Hollywood has always been drawn to the charismatic personalities found in professional wrestling. That's why it's no surprise that Captain Lou was "discovered" by Hollywood. In the Captain's case, he would soon be found in the music videos of up and coming singer Cyndi Lauper, playing Ms. Lauper's father in her video Girls Just Want to Have Fun. The song was a smash success, aided by the video (and Albano's presence), and propelled Lauper to pop stardom.

In true form, Albano seemed to ride Lauper's coattails to the top. This would lead to one of the biggest angles of the 1980's and lead the way for the WWF's rise to the top as well. For weeks, Albano basked in the fame he'd earned by appearing in Lauper's video, boasting to fellow heel "Rowdy" Roddy Piper that he would produce Lauper for Piper's talk segment "Piper's Pit". After many weeks of speculation, Lauper appeared and that's when the fireworks started. Lauper and Albano clashed after Albano claimed to be the reason for Lauper's success, then added to his problems by making chauvinistic comments towards Lauper. In the end, the two decided to settle their differences by managing a wrestler against one another. The result was "The Brawl to Settle It All", a woman's title match between Albano's proxy, the Fabulous Moolah (then WWF Woman's Champion) and Lauper's proxy, Wendi Richter. The match main evented Madison Square Garden and scored record ratings for MTV when it was aired. When the dust had settled, Lauper's wrestler was victorious and Captain Lou had egg on his face.

Albano's defeat saw a slow but noticeable change in the manager's heart. Like the Grinch, his heart began to grow and he soon found himself helping Lauper in charity fund-raisers to fight Multiple Sclerosis. The two received an award for their efforts in Madison Square Garden and like most wrestling awards ceremonies, this one was ruined. This time, by Roddy Piper who cracked an award over Albano's head and laid out Lauper and her entourage. This angle would lead to "The War to Settle the Score", the famous buildup to the first ever Wrestlemania.

From there, Captain Lou began working on the side of the angels, guiding babyface teams like the U.S. Express (Barry Windham & Mike Rotunda) and the British Bulldogs (Davey Boy Smith and the Dynamite Kid) to the WWF Tag Team Championship. The now good captain also found himself in demand in Hollywood, guest starring on hit TV shows of the time such as Miami Vice and 227 as well as starring in Brian De Palma's film Wiseguys. Although Hollywood was now taking up most of his time, Captain Lou returned to wrestling from time to time. In 1994, Captain Lou added another tag team championship to his trophy case when he guided the Headshrinkers to a WWF Tag Team Title win.

As always, the hits kept coming for Captain Lou. In 1989, he starred as iconic video game character Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! and in 1996, he was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame. Two years later he would co-author the book The Complete Idiots Guide to Professional-Wrestling. 2008 would see the release of the Captain's autobiography Often Imitated, Never Duplicated.

Conflict, Kofis, and Kings-Why Kofi Kingston's New Accent Exemplifies Everything Wrong with WWE Storytelling

WWE fans have been shaking their heads, wondering wha' happened to Kofi Kingston. The popular high-flyer with the Jamaican accent is no longer Jamaican. One week he's "boom booming" and talking with a signature Jamaican accent, the next he's hailing from Ghana, West Africa, speaking with no accent at all. As if the fans were too thick to notice the change, Triple H (God bless him for always willing to help out) made a point of asking what happened to Kofi's accent. Naturally, that was the extent of an explanation.

The funny thing is that the WWE fans aren't shaking their heads because they're confused, they're shaking their heads because this is just the latest WWE change in booking that comes without explanation (In an effort to be fair, I did go on the WWE's web page and checked out Kofi's Superstar Profile. On it, it's noted that With a love for the Caribbean and the Caribbean lifestyle, Kingston brings a hybrid personality of his homeland and the island to the ring week in and week out. The problem of course is that the WWE didn't bother to mention this on TV in any way. Then again, why should they start now when they routinely change characters and storylines with little or no explanation. Case in point, the Bella Twins split to take sides with the Colons against the Miz and Morrison. Next thing you know, it's like it never happened (The old TV series Dallas once wrote off an entire season as a dream, earning eternal notoriety for its sloppy storytelling). Consider the babyface turn of MVP. One week he's a heel, fresh off a feud withMatt Hardy, the next he's a babyface (The same thing happened to Carlito but by now, Carlito doesn't care nor do his fans).

Truth be told, the WWE isn't the first promotion to change someone without any notice. Let me take you back to 1981 when Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) brought in wrestler Jimmy Valiant. Valiant, who had worked for various promotions (including the WWWF as part of the legendary tag team the Valiant Brothers) had just finished a memorable run in Jerry Jarrett's Memphis promotion as babyface "Handsome" Jimmy Valiant. "Handsome" Jimmy was wildly popular in Memphis but inexplicably, none of the bookers in JCP knew about this. Instead, they brought in Mr. Valiant as "King" James Valiant, a cocky heel managed by "Lord" Alfred Hayes (who at this point in his career was working as a manager).

King James Valiant grew a beard and became "The Boogie Woogie Man."
"King" James worked in the area for a few weeks before Jarrett asked JCP if they could use him for a tag match in Memphis. JCP agreed and sent Valiant to Memphis where he teamed up with Jerry "The King" Lawler for one night. Valiant was a superstar in Memphis and his appearance led to a healthy box office that night. In true wrestling fashion, Jarrett asked to use Valiant again, telling the bookers in JCP about how successful Valiant's appearance had been. At this point, JCP realized they were sitting on a potential goldmine. It was time for "King" James to go into permanent exile.

What happened next was some fancy footwork by the gang in JCP. Booker Ole Anderson told Valiant to grow his beard out (he'd been working in JCP as a clean cut heel) while he kept him off the air. Valiant suggested he be called "The Boogie Woogie Man" Jimmy Valiant and told Anderson about how he'd often come out to entrance music ( a novelty at the time). Anderson agreed and several weeks later, Valiant began coming out to the Manhattan Transfer's remake of The Boy from New York City [1] .While only a few weeks had passed since King James Valiant wrestled as a heel for JCP, no mention was made of him nor was it acknowledged that he was "The Boogie Woogie Man", now wrestling as a babyface [2] .

As we can see, other promoters have taken shortcuts when it comes to repackaging characters with no explanation which begs the question-what's wrong with the WWE doing it? The problem is that the WWE does so on a regular basis, usually without any rhyme or reason. Faces turn heel with no explanation, teams split up only to reform (Heaven knows I could write a treatise on how many times the WWE has foolishly split up the Hardys only to reform them without any explanation), and characters have dropped or added gimmicks with no rhyme or reason. When you make a change to a wrestler without explaining why, you're not only insulting your audience's intelligence but you're wasting a chance to get some heat from it.

Wrestling is all about getting the fans excited enough to continue tuning in to weekly TV and motivated enough to buy a ticket to a live event or order a pay-per-view. The way that promoters do this is by creating heat for characters and storylines. We all know the formula to get heat- somebody wrongs another wrestler, someone wants to prove they're the best, etc. etc.. There are time tested ways that promoters built up excitement by using conflict.

Good stories typically involve a lot of conflict. That's why it's rare that you find the characters of Supernatural sitting around playing Monopoly or 24's Jack Bauer spending an episode catching up on his grocery shopping. I remember a screenwriter telling me that every scene should have some sort of conflict That's not to say that every conflict has to be spectacular-just like a wrestling match shouldn't be highspot after highspot, a story shouldn't be one spectacular action scene after another (even Michael Bay knows that a movie can't be all explosions). The trick is pace your conflict and create a tempo that slowly but surely builds to an explosive climax (this is also useful in the bedroom-or so I've been told).

Things like a wrestler turning heel or face should never happen off camera. They're too good at creating conflict, and more importantly for wrestling promoters, drawing heat. Turning someone heel off camera is like deleting the scene in Return of the Jedi where Darth Vader turns on the Emperor in order to save his son's life and turning it into a throwaway piece of dialogue. Instead of showing Vader watching the Emperor blast Luke with Force Lightning only to finally pick up his former master and hurl him to his death, you'd have Han Solo asking Luke how everything worked out on the Death Star and Luke casually commenting, "You'll never believe this but my old man saw the light and kicked the Emperor's ass." Not exactly the stuff of movie legends.
What if George Lucas decided to delete this epic scene and instead explain it via dialogue? So Luke, we blew up the shield generator, anything happen on the Death Star? Yeah, you'll never believe this but Vader saw the light and killed the Emperor. Now, what's with these Ewoks?

Granted, Kofi Kingston's change in hometown from Jamaica to Africa doesn't have to be treated as an epic event. However any promoter worth his salt will find a way to turn it into something. Remember, not all conflict has to be world shattering. In Kofi's case, it could be mentioned in an interview that he grew up in Jamaica but he wanted to acknowledge his country of origin as he felt he didn't want to lie to the fans. While this would be something minor, it would fit in with the idea that he's a babyface and he doesn't want to mislead his fans. Or, it could be something deeper. Another babyface might question Kofi's lack of honesty in acknowledging his roots. "Kofi lied about being Jamaican-who was he trying to fool?".

Over the last few years, the WWE has shifted its approach to booking from using traditional bookers to utilizing writers to script promos, angles, and feuds. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because as we saw, good storytelling and wrestling go hand in hand. Unfortunately the WWE's writers either need to brush up on their storytelling or they need to explain the basics of storytelling to their boss because it's clear they could be doing a much better job.

[1] While Jimmy Valiant was not the first wrestler to come out to entrance music (Gorgeous George is often credited as the first to do so on a regular basis), he was one of the first to do so on a regular basis. Valiant even recorded his own song which he used as entrance music during his run in Memphis).

[2] This would be the beginning of a wildly successful run for Valiant in JCP with "The Boogie Woogie Man" becoming one of the promotion's most popular wrestlers for the next five years.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Review: The Death of WCW

Originally presented on in 2005.

Alvarez and Reynolds make good on telling what went wrong.
The Death of WCW
by R.D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez

“Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes"
- George Santayana

When it comes to studying the history of wrestling, analyzing how World Championship Wrestling (WCW) failed is equally as important as analyzing how it rose to early dominance in the Monday Night War. Under the leadership of Eric Bischoff, WCW went from distant second place competitor to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) to total domination in the world of professional wrestling. Things were so going so well that Eric Bischoff predicted that the WWF had less than a year before it would go bankrupt. Bischoff was no braggadocio, WCW was close to putting the last nail in the WWF’s coffin but incredibly, defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.

Fresh off of the success of Wrestlecrap: the Very Worst of Pro Wrestling, R.D. Reynolds brings his humorous style of analyzing the bizarre with him in dissecting the bloated corpse of WCW and explaining the organization’s untimely demise. Joining him is Bryan Alvarez, co-host of the Wrestling Observer Live radio show and editor of Figure Four Weekly (and indie wrestler to boot!) The two authors do a remarkable job of analyzing what went right and what went wrong with WCW, breaking things down into understandable terms, while entertaining the reader at the same time.

It’s still hard to believe that it’s been nearly four years since World Championship Wrestling went out of business. During the Rock-n-Wrestling Era, WCW offered wrestling fans an alternative to the cartoon styling of Hulk Hogan in the WWF. As Vince McMahon brought the WWF into the national spotlight and put many of his competitors out of business, WCW was for all intents and purposes, the NWA’s last stand against the WWF (there were other promotions such as Mid-South but the only true national challenger to Vince was WCW). When Jim Crockett’s outrageous spending brought WCW close to bankruptcy, Ted Turner bought the organization and kept wrestling on his Superstation TBS network. In Turner’s mind, wrestling was a big part of the Superstation’s success and it held a special place in his heart.

Rudyard Kipling once wrote, "They copied all that they could follow but they could not copy my mind, and I left them sweating and stealing and a year and a half behind." Such was the case with WCW. During the early 90’s they began to copy the cartoonish aspects of the WWF, bringing in characters like Norman the Lunatic, the York Foundation, and the Ding Dongs. This managed to alienate many of their long-time fans without attracting any new ones.

Enter Eric Bischoff. Bischoff had left the dying promotion the American Wrestling Association (AWA) only to find himself working for a promotion that seemed determined to outdo the mistakes made by the AWA. As an announcer, Bischoff witnessed WCW dying the same painful death that the AWA had. A man of ambition and vision, Bischoff seized an opportunity when it came to him and found himself in control of WCW. At first things weren’t so successful but Bischoff had a plan. With Turner’s financial backing, Bischoff acquired the services of Hulk Hogan and began the dramatic turnaround that would make WCW a smashing success.

By 1995, Bischoff had Hogan as well as several WWF stars such as the Honkey Tonk Man, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage on the WCW payroll. In many respects, WCW and WWF had traded places with WCW featuring cartoonish characters while the WWF tried to rebrand itself as the New Generation by focusing on workrate oriented wrestlers such as Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart. Ted Turner continued to watch Bischoff’s accomplishments but wondered why WCW hadn’t earned a clear victory in the wrasslin’ wars. After all, WCW had the star power of former WWF stars like Hogan and Savage. When asked why WCW was not dominating the wrestling industry, Bischoff replied that he needed a prime-time show to compete with the WWF (which had had a long-running timeslot on the USA Network on Monday nights). To his amazement, Bischoff was told that he now had two hours of prime-time to air a wrestling show (Bischoff would cautiously keep his prime-time show to just one hour however).

September 4, 1995 marked the debut of Monday Night Nitro and the beginning of the Monday Night War. Backed by the financial power of Ted Turner, Bischoff intensified his campaign against the WWF. WWF superstars like Lex Lugar and Madusa Micelli were signed out from under Vince’s noses only to make surprise appearances on the live Nitro show. To make matters worse, Bischoff took advantage of the fact that Monday Night RAW was frequently taped by giving away the results of RAW matches on Nitro. During the 1980’s, the WWF demolished the territories by buying out their top stars and using aggressive business tactics to dismantle his competition. In the immortal words of the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”. Vince McMahon may not have liked it but the WWF was now the victim of many of the same tactics he had employed to destroy his competition

By 1996, WCW was in the black for the first time in its history. Ted Turner was delighted. While WCW had always provided good ratings for Turner’s networks, it hadn’t turned a profit in its entire history. Buoyed by Nitro’s success, Bischoff expanded Nitro to two hours and launched another salvo in the Monday Night Wars by adding former WWF wrestler Scott Hall to WCW’s lineup. Hall was joined by another WWF superstar Kevin Nash and a storyline began wherein WWF superstars were apparently invading WCW. Things heated up even further when Hall and Nash challenged WCW’s three top stars Randy Savage, Sting, and Lex Lugar (Hulk Hogan was away filming a movie) to a six-man match at WCW’s Bash at the Beach pay-per-view. Fans were anxious to see if the WWF stars could beat the WCW’s best and equally anxious to learn who Hall and Nash’s mystery partner would be. In the end, the wrestling world was stunned as Hulk Hogan turned heel and joined Hall and Nash as part of a new wrestling organization known as the New World Order.

The introduction of the New World Order in 1996 began a period of unmatched prosperity in WCW. WCW could do no wrong as it sold out arena after arena, broke television ratings records, and enjoyed high buy rates for all of its pay-per-views. Under the guidance of Eric Bischoff , WCW seemed unstoppable. WCW was poised to put the WWF out of business and become the dominant force in professional wrestling.

And yet WCW failed to win the Monday Night War and eventually went out of business in 2001. Through an incredible series of bad business decisions, poor planning, and hubris, the company lost its ground to the WWF. The story of how WCW lost it all is what makes The Death of WCW such a fascinating story. Alvarez and Reynolds do a terrific job of examining what worked so well in building the company up and the many factors that led to its demise. WCW didn’t die overnight and it had several opportunities to re-establish itself but through sustained mismanagement, the company went from the king of the mountain to the bottom of the trash heap.

The detailed breakdown of the rise and fall of WCW is enhanced by the humorous comments of Reynolds and Alvarez. In his debut work Wrestlecrap, Reynolds revealed his mastery of poking fun at the very worst of professional wrestling. The story of WCW’s tumble is ripe with comic material and Reynolds capitalizes on every moment. And just as he did in Wrestlecrap, this book explains the wrestling terminology so non-fans have an understanding of how the business works and the terms used in professional wrestling. Reynolds’ and co-author Bryan Alvarez (also known for his humorous take on things) know how to keep things in perspective. While The Death of WCW has its laughs, the book is a serious look at how even the most successful business can fail. Whether you’re a wrestling fan or involved in business, there’s something to be learned from the book.

The book has gathered a lot of positive feedback from wrestling fans and non-fans alike ( Forbes recently gave the book a glowing review) but it does have its critics. Long-time fans and members of the wrestling media have taken the authors to task for both the book’s content and the analysis. The book has been criticized because it basically recaps much of what was written in the Pro Wrestling Torch and the Pro Wrestling Observer (as well as on last year’s WWE release The Monday Night War). Much of the criticism focuses on the fact that the book doesn’t cover new ground or raise any new theories as to the cause of WCW’s demise. Critics have also expressed concern that while authors Reynolds and Alvarez take a lot of pot-shots at many of the people involved in WCW’s demise, that people who are friends with them are overlooked when it comes to the blame game.

While there’s no question that the book recaps a lot of information, that’s hardly a new concept in publishing. If the book had done a poor job recapping the tale of WCW’s plunge into the abyss, there would be room for criticism. However the authors do a remarkable job of chronicling what made WCW so successful and what led to the bottom dropping out. The story of WCW’s ruin is one of the biggest events in wrestling history and there’s much to be learned from it. With the proliferation of wrestling biographies, the business is finally starting to get true historical retrospectives. The success of Wrestlecrap has shown that there is a market for books on wrestling other than biographies. Reynolds and Alvarez should be praised for their efforts in broadening the scope of wrestling books.

Critics have been quick to note that the authors do not provide a fresh perspective on WCW’s fall from grace. Wade Keller’s review of the book noted that the authors failed to challenge conventional wisdom. ( Pro Wrestling Torch Issue 844 January 18, 2005) concerning WCW’s demise. There’s no doubt that the authors agree with many of the reasons given by others as to why WCW fell from grace. However it’s not as if the reasons behind WCW’s death are a complex puzzle such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Wrestling historians have generally held a consensus as to the reasons behind WCW’s downfall and it makes no sense for the writers to sensationalize the subject matter by throwing out unsupported theories concerning WCW’s fall (Curiously, Keller takes issue with the authors’ failure to challenge conventional wisdom while at the same time criticizing them when they contest the long-held belief that WCW’s guaranteed contracts played a pivotal role in the company’s demise.).

Another criticism of the book is that Alvarez and Reynolds shielded their friends from criticism. Basically, the focus of this allegation is that that WCW’s color commentator Bobby “The Brain” Heenan escaped the blame game. Mark Madden (a former WCW announcer and Pro Wrestling Torch columnist) and Wade Keller, editor of the Pro Wrestling Torch have complained that there is no criticism of Heenan in the book despite his infamous “but who’s side is he on?” remark moments before Hulk Hogan’s heel turn at Bash at the Beach. Madden has also stated at the Torch’s bulletin board The VIP Forum that Heenan had a drinking problem which led to a serious decline in the quality of his color commentary (and the reason why Heenan almost let it slip that Hogan was turning heel and joining the New World Order) and that the authors don’t bring up this up as well.

At first glance Heenan’s performance as a color commentator might seem relevant when you consider that Alvarez and Reynolds bring up Nitro announcer Tony Schiavone several times in their book. For example, the authors bring up Schiavone’s infamous call where he mocked Mick Foley’s WWF Title win (Schiavone knew that Foley was going to win the title since the RAW that week was pre-taped) only to have his comment backfire when Nitro viewers switched to RAW in droves to see Foley’s first World Title win. A closer examination of the two announcers show that while Schiavone’s comments are largely blamed for Nitro losing to RAW that week (and beginning the WWF’s eventual victory in the Monday Night War) Heenan’s comments are considered to be a footnote at best in the world of broadcast faux pas (and given Heenan’s career-long disdain for Hulk Hogan, his comments were similar to what he said about Hogan every other broadcast). Furthermore, Schiavone earned eternal disdain for many other remarks including his constant promotion of “the greatest Nitro ever” week after week.

The criticism made thus far has been extremely weak and I have to wonder if some members of the wrestling journalism community aren’t upset at the success of the book. While The Death of WCW is not a New York Times bestseller, it has had its share of success. It seems to me that some long-time wrestling writers may be a little resentful that guys who haven’t been around that long are now in the spotlight (Fortunately this isn’t the case with everyone as long-time wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer writes a nice introduction for the book). The authors may be recapping material that was featured in newsletters and books like Sex, Lies and Headlocks, but the book is a remarkable accomplishment nonetheless.

Unfortunately, most of the critics have missed out on the book’s one true flaw. Alvarez and Reynolds continue a distressing trend in wrestling books - the total lack of establishing the authors’ scholarship. Time after time, Alvarez and Reynolds provide facts and figures as they document WCW’s rise and fall but rarely do they document what information they relied on to get these figures. While the book includes a brief list of sources, there’s really no way of telling where they obtained information on buy-rates for pay-per-views, wrestlers salaries, or house show attendance. While you can be fairly certain that a lot of the information was harvested from the Torch and the Observer, there’s now way to be sure. There’s no excuse for it. It’s sloppy writing and it’s something that’s become far too common in books about wrestling. It’s a shame because future wrestling historians can’t use The Death of WCW as a resource with any level of confidence because they have no way of verifying the information presented by Alvarez and Reynolds. Ask any scholar or educator about the importance of listing your sources and you’ll understand why The Death of WCW is an enjoyable book but totally useless when it comes to proving historical fact. It may seem like nit-picking but wrestling writers need to bring their level of scholarship up to the same level as any other author writing a historical review. Mick Foley’s Have a Nice Day demonstrated that wrestling fans are not idiots and it’s time that the authors of wrestling books honored the fans’ reputation by bringing their scholarship up to speed.

Despite the book’s scholarly shortcomings, The Death of WCW is a great read. The 335 page book is entertaining and well written (although a little pricey at $19.95 for a soft cover). It also features a nice selection of color photographs that enhance your reading experience and it’s nice to see high quality photography in wrestling books other than those released by World Wrestling Entertainment.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Andre the Giant DVD Review

(Originally reviewed at 2005.

"…For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away" - The Epistle of James Chapter 4 Verse 14

In an industry where everything was portrayed as larger than life, Andre Rousimoff was the real deal. The close to seven foot tall four hundred plus pound wrestler dwarfed his opponents in the ring and made an unforgettable impression in the world of professional wrestling during his 28 year career. During the 1970’s, Andre was the highest paid wrestler in the business and he made a fortune for promoters as he toured territory after territory. Fans clamored to see the real-life giant who could use power moves and high-flying moves equally well. As Andre’s legend grew, he eventually became known as “the Eighth Wonder of the World”.

However, Andre’s tremendous size was both his blessing and his curse. Although Andre’s unusual growth has been attributed to acromegaly (a medical condition in which the body overproduces growth hormone), his actual medical condition was childhood pituitary gigantism (Simply put, both conditions are similar but acromegaly occurs during adult age whereas childhood pituitary obviously begins sometime during childhood). Semantics aside, the end result was that Andre’s body was the proverbial ticking time bomb. When his body stopped growing in height, it continued to grow internally, wreaking havoc on his internal organs. While the matter is now treatable with surgery and drug therapy (as Paul “Big Show” Wight can attest), Andre did not have that option and he lived his life to the fullest, knowing that his time was limited. The stories of Andre’s eating and drinking exploits are legendary with one tale mentioning that he once dined at a restaurant and ordered every item on the menu. Another story has Andre drinking over one hundred beers in one sitting before passing out. While these stories may be tall tales (no pun intended), they reflect Andre’s lust for life. In the end, Andre the Giant’s approach to life was exemplified by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw who wrote: Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.

In the ring, Andre was a true spectacle. Promoters typically put him in handicap matches or battle royals where he astounded fans with his unbelievable size and even more incredible agility (dropkicks and aerial moves were not uncommon during Andre’s early years as a wrestler). However Andre also engaged in memorable one on one battles with other big men of the sport such as Hulk Hogan, Bruiser Brody, Blackjack Mulligan, and Ernie Ladd.

Andre was a guaranteed draw but promoters did not want the Giant’s novelty to wear off on fans. As a result, promoters limited his appearances. This was no problem for Andre. He could appear once or twice in one territory and rest assured that dozens of promoters were waiting to book him in their region. This continued for many years until Vince McMahon’s national expansion during the 1980’s when he cut all cooperation with promoters and restricted Andre’s appearances to the World Wrestling Federation and an occasional appearance in Japan.

By the 1980’s, Andre’s body was feeling the effects of his glandular disease. He had trouble navigating the ring and unknown to the fans, often relied on a wheelchair backstage. However this didn’t stop Andre from participating in some of the most memorable matches of the 1980’s including his Wrestlemania III match with Hulk Hogan where he helped set a live attendance and pay-per-view record. Near the end of his career, Andre wrestled in constant pain. Doctors were amazed that Andre was still alive as most people with his condition were lucky to make it to age forty. Andre defied the odds before passing away at the age of 46.

The Andre the Giant DVD was announced last year to much fanfare. After recent DVD packages celebrating the careers of Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, Fans were eager to see what type of package the WWE’s highly regarded video production department would put together to honor the first inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame. Given Andre’s storied career and feuds with superstars such as Big John Studd, King Kong Bundy, Killer Khan, Hulk Hogan, Blackjack Mulligan, and Jake “the Snake” Roberts, Andre’s WWE appearances alone would be enough to fill up a two or three disc set.

Sadly, the WWE has failed to deliver anything even close to that. Andre the Giant is actual a re-release from a Coliseum Home Video produced during the 1980’s. This DVD features ten matches with Andre the Giant and while there are some interesting matches, the DVD is hardly a showcase of Andre’s legendary career. A quick look at the matches featured in this collection should assure you of that:

Andre vs. Moondog Rex- Rex provides the same defense offered by most of Andre’s opponents which is to say none.

18 man Battle Royal- Andre was often featured in battle royals and this one has some of the top WWF stars of the early 80’s such as Sgt. Slaughter, “Big” John Studd, the Iron Sheik, Hulk Hogan, Tito Santana, Adrian Adonis, Dick Murdock, Paul Orndorff, Pat Patterson, and others.

Handicap match vs. Black Gorman & the Great Goliath (who is neither great nor a goliath)-This match was typical of Andre’s typical matches on WWF television.

Handicap match vs. Jack Evans, Johnny Rodz, and Joe Butcher Nova-another handicap match made interesting by the fact that Andre pins three men at once.

Andre vs. Gorilla Monsoon (boxing match)- this match provides fans a look at a novelty match as well as a chance to see Gorilla Monsoon in action.

Andre the Giant and Jimmy Snuka vs. the Wild Samoans- Andre’s tag matches offered his partner a chance to sell offense for most of the match until they made the eventual tag to Andre who would pave the road to victory. This match gives fans a chance to see Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and the often underrated team of the Wild Samoans in action.

Andre vs. the Masked Superstar- Superstar would later team with Andre as part of the Machines and eventually form one half of Demolition. That’s about the best that can be said about this match.

Andre the Giant and S.D. “Special Delivery” Jones vs. “Big” John Studd and Ken Patera (the infamous haircut match where Bobby “the Brain” Heenan’s henchmen Studd and Patera cut Andre’s hair and set up a great feud that led to the inaugural Wrestlemania).

Andre vs. Ken Patera- a follow-up to the haircut match where Andre seeks revenge on one of the man who raped him of his dignity (as the haircut angle was frequently described).

Andre vs. Big John Studd in a Bodyslam Challenge Match (Wrestlemania I)- the payoff match for the haircut angle where Andre put up his career versus $15,000.00 put up by Studd. Michael Cole and Tazz provide commentary in what appears to be yet another WWE effort to deprive Jesse Ventura of royalties for commentary.

The match also features Andre appearing on the old Tuesday Night Titans show where he interacts with a young Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

There are two ways to look at this DVD. As a showcase of Andre’s career, the DVD fails miserably. The matches presented here are appetizers at best, with perhaps two matches that would be considered keys in Andre’s career (the haircut match and the bodyslam challenge from Wrestlemania I). However, given the DVD’s low price (it lists at under ten dollars), it offers fans a cheap way to not only check out Andre’s career during the early 1980’s but an idea of what the WWF was like before Wrestlemania. If you don’t have WWE 24/7, this DVD offers ninety minutes of old school WWF action you’re not going to see elsewhere (at least off the black market).

I like to take some time to address Derek “the Dean’s” scathing attack on the former wrestler and WWF commentator who provides much of the commentary on this disc, none other than Lord Alfred Hayes. True, Lord Alfred Hayes was one of many former wrestlers who polluted the WWF airwaves at the time with less than stellar commentary (No one exemplified this better than Pat Patterson whose broadcasting efforts seemed more appropriate for an oral exam at an English as a Second Language class than anything else). And while Hayes’ foppish manner and outrageously cheesy tuxedos made him a legitimate laughing stock, he is still head and shoulders above Michael Cole when it comes to class and commentary skills.

Watching this DVD, I couldn’t help but laugh at the constant presence of Lord Alfred Hayes. Hayes exemplifies the white trash trying to fit into high society mindset of Vince McMahon. Vince McMahon seemed to be of the same mindset as soap opera writers at the time who thought an English or Australian accent equated itself with sophistication. In McMahon’s mind, Lord Hayes could make a discourse on a colostomy bag seem classy by means of delivering it with an English accent. During the 1980’s, Hayes was omnipresent in the WWF. Lord Alfred was the original stooge for Vince McMahon, serving as Ed McMahon to Vince’s Johnny Carson on Tuesday Night Titans. He provided commentary on B shows, hosted “Update” on WWF Superstars (a brief news segment where he would advance storylines), and was a convenient target whenever there was an airborne pie or pastry.

Unlike Michael Cole, Lord Alfred Hayes was never on the receiving end of poetry or Heinreichesque love. In fact, this anecdote from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper confirms Hayes’ supremacy over Cole:

A few days later, Lord Alfred Hayes, who is hung like a horse comes up to me as I’m getting out of the shower. He’s naked and starts running after me, swinging his dick and yelling “Roddy, Roddy”. He’s twirling that thing around like Roy Rogers trying to lasso Dale Evans -- Roddy Piper, In the Pit with Piper. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2002 p14.

To quote Stan “the Man” Lee: Nuff said!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Mike Rickard Provides the Randy Savage Bio the WWE Didn't Part Two

Two weeks ago, we examined the exciting career of "Macho Man" Randy Savage from his earliest years up until his first feud against Hulk Hogan. As 1986 began to wind down, Savage was in strong control of the Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship but that was about to change. A new challenge awaited Savage in the form of Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat. Steamboat had entered the WWF in 1985 just several months before Savage's WWF debut. Like Savage, Steamboat was championship material but he had been mired in feuds against the Magnificent Muraco and Jake "The Snake" Roberts. However Steamboat had refocused himself and set his sights on Savage's I-C belt. Savage now faced the greatest challenge to his title yet.

Savage learned how tough of a competitor Steamboat was during a match taped for WWF Superstars. The fans would also learn the lengths to which Savage would go to hold on to his belt during this heated encounter. The fans watching this match knew they were watching a match for the ages. Steamboat fought with everything he had, putting the champion on the defensive. Steamboat's momentum made it appear almost certain that Savage was going to lose the championship. In fact, Steamboat looked to have won the belt until the controversial arrival of heel referee Danny Davis. Davis interrupted the count, giving Savage a chance to regroup. Savage capitalized and sent Steamboat out of the ring where "The Macho Man" proceeded to assault Steamboat's throat area. After throwing Steamboat back into the ring, Savage took the timekeeper's belt and jumped off the top rope with it, using it to crush Steamboat's larynx. Steamboat was hospitalized and fans wondered if he could ever come back from the devastating injury he had suffered.

Just when it looked as if Savage had ended the challenge (and career) of Ricky Steamboat, "The Macho Man" got a rude awakening when Steamboat showed up at ringside for one of his matches! From there, Steamboat made his presence known and Savage knew that he would have to do battle with the man who had taken all he could dish out and still come back for more!

A rematch was signed for Savage and "The Dragon" to appear at Wrestlemania III. In what is largely regarded as one of the greatest matches of all time, Savage and Steamboat fought over the Intercontinental Championship. The two fought back and forth with neither man gaining the upper hand for long. Finally, after referee Dave Hebner was accidentally knocked out, Savage clotheslined Steamboat and laid him out. He climbed to the top rope and delivered his deadly flying elbowsmash from the top rope, covering Steamboat for the pin. Unfortunately for Savage, the referee was still unconscious and couldn't make the count. Savage then went to repeat the move that had nearly ended Steamboat's career. Frustrated, Savage grabbed the timekeeper's bell and climbed the top rope to deliver the same move that had crushed Steamboat's larynx months earlier.. Perhaps remembering how Steamboat had saved him from the brutal attack of Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik many months before, George "The Animal" Steele knocked Savage off the top rope, giving Steamboat the opportunity to rally back. When Savage bodyslammed Steamboat, Steamboat hung on to Savage and rolled him up for the pinfall victory. Ricky Steamboat was the new Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion.

By now, fans were warming to Savage and he turned babyface. After the WWF Title was declared vacant when Andre the Giant sold the belt to "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, a tournament was held for the WWF Championship at Wrestlemania IV. Savage fought his way through three opponents to the finals where he faced "The Million Dollar Man" in the finals. However DiBiase was far from finished with his quest for the gold. True to form, DiBiase, DiBiase, stacked the deck by placing both Virgil and Andre the Giant in his corner. Things looked bleak for Savage but help came in the shape of Hulk Hogan. In the final round, Hulk Hogan lent his support to Savage by blasting DiBiase with a steel chair, helping Savage win the belt.

Shortly thereafter, Savage began feuding with Ted "Million Dollar Man" DiBiase and Andre the Giant. Savage was no match for both wrestlers so he teamed with Hulk Hogan, forming a tag team known as the Mega Powers. The MegaPowers met DiBiase and Andre at SummerSlam. Jesse "The Body" Ventura was appointed as the special referee but fans were skeptical that he would call a fair match given the financial incentives DiBiase would no doubt give him to call things in the Million Dollar Man's favor. In the end, the lovely Elizabeth unleashed her secret weapon- an eenie weenie polka dot bikini which distracted the Megapowers' foes and allowed them to rally back and defeat Andre and DiBiase.

Over the next year, the MegaPowers slowly began to split apart as Savage became increasingly jealous over what he thought was Hulk Hogan "lusting after Elizabeth". Finally, the Mega Powers exploded during a match between the dream team and the team of the Big Bossman and Akeem the African Dream Savage brutally attacked Hogan, setting up a main event match at Wrestlemania V. Elizabeth remained in a neutral corner during the match, in which Hogan regained the WWF Title.

Savage felt that Elizabeth had betrayed him and replaced her with valet Sherri Martel. "Scary" Sherri often aided Macho Man with the help of a loaded purse and Savage continued his winning ways in the WWF, eventually defeating "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan for the King of the Ring title. The Macho King (as Savage was known after defeating Duggan) then began a feud with the Ultimate Warrior after helping Sgt. Slaughter defeat the Warrior for the WWF Title. Before the match began, "The Macho King" (as Savage was calling himself) attacked the champion to the point where the Ultimate Warrior had to crawl to the ring for the match. Amazingly, the Ultimate Warrior rallied back until the "Macho King" blasted a ruby scepter over the Warrior's head giving Slaughter the opening he needed to clinch his win. Savage and the Warrior feuded, culminating in a retirement match in which Savage lost, forcing him to leave the squared circle. After losing the match, an enraged Sherri Martel attacked Savage but Elizabeth rushed to the ring and saved Savage.

Although Savage could no longer wrestle, he continued to appear in the WWF as a color commentator. He also rekindled his romance with Elizabeth and eventually married her at SummerSlam. However the wedding reception was crashed by Jake "The Snake" Roberts and the Undertaker who attacked Savage and terrified Elizabeth with a snake they had placed in one of their gifts. Unable to wrestle, Savage was unable to exact revenge on Roberts until he received special dispensation from WWF President Jack Tunney. Savage and Roberts would feud for several months before Savage destroyed Roberts in a match on Saturday Night's Main Event.

His feud with Roberts finished, Savage turned his sights to the WWF Championship again (held by Ric Flair who had won the title at the Royal Rumble). Flair and Savage feuded with Flair taunting Savage that Elizabeth was "damaged goods" and that Flair had romanced her before Savage even knew her. Flair and Savage met at Wrestlemania where Savage won his second WWF Title. It wasn't long before Savage lost the title to Flair and began feuding with Razor Ramon (who helped Flair regain the belt from Savage).

Savage began wrestling less frequently in the WWF and joined Vince McMahon as a color commentator on Monday Night RAW. Savage found himself thrust back into the spotlight when his protégée Crush turned on him, blaming Savage for an injury he suffered at the hands of Yokozuna. Savage would face Crush at Wrestlemania X in a Falls Count Anywhere Match, proving that he still had it in the ring. Then, in a surprise move, Savage left the WWF for rival World Championship Wrestling (WCW) becoming one of their top babyface wrestlers and teaming with Hulk Hogan. Savage rekindled his feud with Ric Flair and battled Flair over the WCW World Title after winning his first WCW belt in a 60 man battle royal. The Savage/Flair feud was taken to another level when Miss Elizabeth entered WCW and turned heel against Savage by joining Flair.

The Macho Man became involved in one of the biggest angles of all time when WCW was invaded by the New World Order. Savage defended WCW against the NWO, rekindling his feud with Hulk Hogan (a founding member of the NWO). Savage challenged Hogan for the WCW Championship but the continued interference of nWo members made it impossible for Savage to wrest the belt from Hogan.

After his WCW contract expired, Savage disappeared from the company for several months before resurfacing at the 1997 Super Brawl PPV. Savage shocked the fans when he interfered in the WCW title match between champion Hulk Hogan and challenger "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, helping Hogan to retain the belt. Savage was now a member of the New World Order he had spent several months fighting.

Now a member of the nWo, Savage battled WCW's babyfaces such as Diamond Dallas Page and Lex Luger. The feud against Page went on for most of 1997, culminating in a Las Vegas Death Match at Halloween Havoc. After feuding with Page, Savage found himself embroiled against "The Total Package" Lex Luger. After the program with Luger ended, Savage found his rivalry with Hulk Hogan was far from over. With Sting holding the WCW championship, Hogan and Savage found themselves fighting over who would challenge Sting for the belt. Hogan and Savage's rivalry quickly ignited into downright hostility when Hogan tried to keep Savage from winning the belt. When Savage won the belt, the nWo found itself split into two factions with Hogan leading his teammates against the nWo members who had sided with "The Macho Man". Once again, Savage was a babyface as were his comrades in what became known as the nWo Wolfpack.

Unfortunately for "The Macho Man", years of wear and tear had taken their toll on his body, forcing him to undergo knee surgeries. This would lead to Savage's absence from WCW for most of 1998. When he returned, Savage introduced his new female valet Gorgeous George. He also introduced the fans back to his heel side as he allied himself with Sid Vicious as well as two new female companions, Madusa and Miss Madness. This team would see Savage capture the WCW title once again, this time in a tag match at Slamboree. The reign lasted all of one day with Hogan defeating Savage the next night on Monday Night Nitro.

By 1999, WCW was beginning to tailspin as the WWF overtook it in the Monday Night War. Savage continued working for WCW until his contract expired in 2000. His last major program saw him allied with WCW's veterans known The Millionaire's Club against the young upstarts known as The New Blood. Savage then disappeared from the world of wrestling for several years.

Despite his absence from wrestling, Savage remained busy, appearing as a wrestler in the blockbuster film Spider-Man and recording a universally panned rap album entitled Be a Man. During his hiatus from wrestling, Savage challenged Hulk Hogan to a shoot wrestling match for charity. The match failed to materialize but rumor has it that the two ran into each other at a TNA show.

With WCW out of business, fans began to wonder if Savage might show back up in the WWE. Over the years, rumors have flown that Savage is persona non grata at the WWE. While no one knows the reason why, Vince McMahon has made it clear that Savage is one of the very few people who he will not do business with. Fans wanting to see the Macho Man in action were excited when Savage returned to the ring for Total Nonstop Action (TNA) in 2004. Sadly, his appearance was short-lived and fans were shocked to see that the once muscular Savage had become a shell of his former self.

Since this time, Savage has been noticeably absent from the world of wrestling. However he still remains one of the most popular men in the history of the business. Despite a fifteen year absence from WWE television, Savage's Macho Madness DVD proved to be a success, demonstrating that while he is gone from the airwaves, he is not gone from the hearts and minds of wrestling fans everywhere.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Epic Fail: Cock a doodle doo!

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops. The book reminded me that for every Star Wars, there's ten Battle Beyond the Stars and that no artist has a perfect track record (just look at Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and I'll rest my case). In the spirit of kicking a man while he's down, I've decided to take a look at some of wrestling's biggest flops of late Join me as I look at some of the biggest misfires in the history of the squared circle.

Whether you call them gimmicks or characters, wrestling fans have come to expect their wrestlers to have something that sets them apart from the pack (besides talent). While some traditionalists argue that wrestlers never needed gimmicks or characters to get over, that's really not true. Wrestlers have used gimmicks or played characters for decades. Cowboys, wildmen, the All-American, the dastardly foreign menace- all of these archtypes have made it easier for promoters to book wrestlers by adding a little razzle-dazzle to them.

That's why it's no surprise that when Vince McMahon decided to highlight the show business aspect of wrestling, his promotion was heavy on characters with wild gimmicks. Once McMahon got the Rock and Wrestling Era into full gear, wrestlers sported musical entrances, flashy costumes, and a menagerie of bit players ranging from Damien the snake to Frankie the macaw.

At its best, a gimmick can help a wrestler make the jump from star to superstar. The Undertaker's gimmick helped wrestler Mark Calloway go from "Mean" Mark Callous in WCW to the top of the pack in the WWF. Gimmicks (like managers) can help guys get over who might not seem like star material on their own. While gimmicks can be a good (or even great) thing, they can also harm a career. In one wrestler's case, a gimmick took what looked to be a promising career and permanently damaged (some would argue destroyed) it. In this case, the wrestler was Terry Taylor and the gimmick hardly needs any introduction. It has become synonymous with bad booking and how a lousy idea can stick with someone for the rest of their life. Of course I'm talking about the gimmick known as "The Red Rooster".

Born Paul W. Taylor III, the man who would become better known to wrestling fans as Terry Taylor got his start in the South. Taylor's good looks nearly saw him become one half of the innovative tag team the Fabulous Ones but Steve Keirn would eventually earn the spot, forming the team with Stan Lane. Undaunted, Taylor continued wrestling, attracting the attention of both fans and promoters alike with his fluid ring-skill and good looks. A subsequent run in Bill Watts' Mid South Wrestling proved to the fans that Taylor was more than just a pretty boy, cementing his popularity with male fans who might have questioned his toughness.

Naturally, Taylor's good looks didn't hurt him either. Female fans flocked to see him, making him one of the more popular wrestlers alongside other heartthrobs such as the Rock and Roll Express, the Von Erichs, and Magnum T.A. Taylor soon found himself being profiled in wrestling magazines, a sign of his growing popularity. In the ring, he earned various regional championships and became a viable contender for the NWA World Heavyweight championship.

By 1987, Taylor was a top star in Bill Watts' Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF), the successor to Mid South Wrestling. However when Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) bought out Watts' financially troubled UWF, Taylor (along with most of the stars of the UWF) had the rug pulled out from under him as the UWF stars became little more than jobbers for Crockett's wrestlers. In Taylor's case, he was put into a short-lived program where he was jobbed to Crockett's star Nikita Koloff. Taylor's experience in UWF would be a harbinger of his next trip to greener pastures.

In 1988, Taylor entered the WWF with a reputation as a solid worker with an enthusiastic fan base, a fan base eager to see how he would fare in the WWF. Some fans were skeptical, believing that Taylor would have trouble succeeding in a promotion that revolved around pushing big muscular wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior as opposed to technically proficient workers like Taylor. Others pointed out that while the WWF favored big men, it also recognized the need for good workers and that wrestlers such as Ricky Steamboat and Ted DiBiase had shown there was room for success for guys like Taylor.

One of the keys to Taylor's future in the WWF would be the gimmick the WWF gave him. By the time of Taylor's debut, everyone had a gimmick, regardless of their reputation prior to entering the WWF. This point was driven home when seven-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race entered the WWF as "King" Harley Race. Race's record-breaking reign as NWA champion was ignored in favor of booking him in his new persona as the arrogant king of wrestling. While some fans didn't care for the WWF's reliance on saddling everyone with a gimmick, it was the way the company did business. Taylor had the skills to get the job done in the ring. Now, his fans could only hope that their favorite would get a good gimmick that he could use to springboard himself into the WWF spotlight and then show the fans the skills that had served him so well thus far.

Sadly for Taylor, the gimmick that could have done this ended up going to another man. Legend has it Taylor was originally considered for the role of "Mr. Perfect", a role which could have propelled Taylor to the top of the federation (as it did for the man chosen to play "Mr. Perfect"- Curt Hennig). Instead, Taylor was saddled with a gimmick known as the Red Rooster. It would be a classic case of one person getting the gold mine and the other getting the shaft.

As bad as the gimmick sounded, it was even worse in practice. Sporting red hair spiked to look like a rooster, Taylor entered the ring in red tights strutting around the ring like, well...a rooster! The gimmick itself was just so bad and so was the way in which it was implemented. Normally, having the top heel manager of the promotion (in this case Bobby "The Brain" Heenan) guiding your career was a good thing. Instead, Taylor was portrayed as having Heenan take him under his wing (no pun intended) in order to show how Heenan could manage anyone to the top. From there, things got even worse when Taylor entered the ring. As if strutting around the ring like a rooster wasn't bad enough, WWF announcers had fun with Taylor's looks and name during matches. For example, during a Taylor/DiBiase match, Vince McMahon recalled famous chickens such as Chicken Little and remarked on Taylor's smoothness in the ring as "poultry in motion". After DiBiase defeated Taylor and stuffed a one hundred dollar bill in his mouth, Jesse "The Body" speculated on how much chicken feed Taylor could buy.

Eventually, Taylor parted ways with Heenan, turning babyface and wrestling on the undercard at Wrestlemania V. At this point, the WWF could have had Taylor dump the "Red Rooster" persona (just as he had dumped Heenan as his manager) and make a fresh start. Instead, the WWF kept the gimmick on him and began jobbing Taylor out to the company's heels. Showing his professionalism, Terry Taylor continued to put on good matches even though he was doomed to count the lights by the end of the match.

In the end, the "Red Rooster" gimmick devastated Taylor's career. No matter how good Taylor looked in the ring (and he could put on one hell of a match), the gimmick killed him. He became the laughingstock of wrestling with fans mocking him and wrestling magazines wondering how someone so talented could sink so low. Fans who had never seen him before his entrance into the WWF wondered why his fans were so big on him. The fans who had supported Taylor's career prior to his WWF days were shell-shocked. How could such a talented wrestler end up as the butt of so many jokes?

In a testament to Taylor's ability as a wrestler, he actually managed to salvage his career when he left the WWF for WCW in 1990. Unfortunately for Taylor, WCW (which was doing its best to be a poor man's version of WWF) saddled him with lackluster gimmicks such as Terrance Taylor and "The Taylor Made Man", hardly the way to rebuild his reputation after the "Red Rooster" debacle.

A talented wrestler, Taylor would never have trouble finding work but he would have trouble finding main event success. His career never rebounded from the Red Rooster gimmick. Fortunately for Taylor, his reputation in the ring saw him find work backstage as a booker and agent and recently, as head of talent relations in TNA. To this day, fans still wonder how Terry Taylor's career would have gone had he played "Mr. Perfect" (or just about anything but "The Red Rooster"). Instead, they can't help but equate "Red Rooster" with epic fail in the gimmick department.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mike Rickard Provides the Randy Savage Bio the WWE Didn't Part One

Recently, the WWE released Macho Madness: The Ultimate Randy Savage Collection, a three disc set featuring some of the "Macho Man's" greatest matches. What it didn't feature though was a career retrospective of Savage, leaving some fans feeling left out in the cold. While everyone has their reasons why Vince McMahon harbors a grudge for Savage, the bottom line is that the fans were denied an opportunity to explore Savage's rise to greatness. In light of this, allow me to provide a little background on a man who personified excitement in the ring and on the microphone.

Randy Savage's (born Randy Mario Poffo) first brush with professional sports wasn't in pro wrestling but as an outfielder for the farm team of the Saint Louis Cardinals (and others). Savage competed both as a baseball player and a wrestler, donning a mask to hide his identity when he wrestled (At the time, it was not uncommon for sports players to work wrestling during the off-season). Eventually, Poffo's father Angelo started his own promotion, inviting his sons Randy and Lanny to join him there. Angelo, a successful wrestler during the 1950's and 60's formed the International Championship Wrestling (ICW) promotion, an outlaw promotion that operated in the Southeast.

Savage joined his brother Lanny Poffo working in the ICW and battled his brother for the ICW Championship. After the ICW folded, Randy began wrestling for the Memphis based Championship Wrestling Association (CWA) promotion, the same organization the ICW had once competed against. Joined by his brother and father, Savage quickly captured the spotlight as a much hated heel, feuding with the Rock-n-Roll Express and Memphis heroes Austin Idol and Jerry "the King" Lawler.

With his chiseled physique and lightning fast speed, Savage was a sight to behold in the ring. "The Macho Man" combined the excitement of the high-flyers along with the action of the brawlers. Although Savage was not wrestling for a large promotion, he captured the imagination of wrestling fans from around North America after a thrilling match with the Rock-n-Roll Express (Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson) highlighted by one of the most brutal spots in wrestling. The spot saw Savage piledrive Ricky Morton through a bench after the match ended,perhaps the first time such a move had been executed. The spot was soon talked about by fans everywhere and thanks to its inclusion on the compilation tape Lords of the Ring, earning Savage nationwide fame amongst the wrestling community.

The bench-breaking incident was just one of many highlights for "The Macho Man" in Memphis. In addition to his outrageous interviews, Savage continued to taunt the fans by making brutal attacks on the area's babyfaces. One such attack occured when Savage used a baseball bat to beat up "The Universal Hearthrob" Austin Idol, making short work of Idol and leading to a title win for Savage. Savage would later feud with Jerry "The King" Lawler, capturing Lawler's Southern Heavyweight Championship.

After bowing to defeat in a loser leaves town match against Lawler, Savage surfaced in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) during the peak of the Rock-n-Wrestling Era (joined by brother Lanny Poffo whose family tie to Savage was ignored). The various managers of the WWF courted Savage as their client but Savage shocked the wrestling world when he chose newcomer Miss Elizabeth as his manager. While no one had seen or heard of Elizabeth, she captured everyone's attention with her stunning good looks. Still, the fans could not help but wonder what Elizabeth brought to the table besides the obvious.

Looking back at Savage's early days in the WWF, one has to acknowledge what a brilliant move it was to have Miss Elizabeth manage Randy Savage. While Savage's work in the ring was phenomenal, his pairing with Miss Elizabeth catapulted him to the front of the pack in the WWE. The unique relationship between Savage and Elizabeth quickly had fans talking. It was a classic case of beauty and the beast with the lovely Elizabeth (a name that would become as synonymous with her as "Miss Elizabeth") providing a doting mild mannered contrast to the boisterous larger-than-life "Macho Man". Even more curious was what Elizabeth saw in Savage. While "The Macho Man" was a clear-cut heel, there was nothing heelish about her. Unlike other managers of heels, Elizabeth never cheated on Savage's behalf. The fans began wondering why Elizabeth (who seemed like a decent person) managed Savage, especially given the way he constantly belittled Elizabeth, even using her as a shield against babyface opponents.

While the fans continued to question the dynamics of the Macho Man/Elizabeth relationship, Savage won match after match. Savages success in the ring eventually earned him the #1 contender's spot for the Inter-Continental Championship, a belt held by babyface Tito Santana. Savage proved to be a formidable opponent for Santana with the champion fighting off Savage's challenges until an epic encounter in the Boston Garden. On February 8, 1986, Savage wrested the belt from Santana but his win was not without controversy. Late in the match, Savage grabbed a foreign object, blasting the champion with it as Santana suplexed him into the ring. The blow kayoed Santana, leading to an easy pinfall and championship victory.

Following his title win over Santana, Savage began what would become one of the greatest Intercontinental Championship title reigns of all time. Savage defended his belt against Santana as well as WWF veteran George "The Animal" Steele. Smitten with Elizabeth, the simple-minded Steele battled Savage not only for the I-C belt but for the heart of Miss Elizabeth. While Steele's matches weren't much in the ring, the added drama of him trying to woo Elizabeth made for an interesting program.

While the Intercontinental Championship brought prestige to Savage's career, "The Macho Man" had his sights on something even bigger. As I-C champ, Savage was the defacto number one contender for Hulk Hogan's WWF Championship, a belt that was his ultimate goal in the WWF. Savage pursued Hogan's belt with an intensity that fit his surname, waging war with the Hulkster in a classic series in Madison Square Garden. Savage took Hogan to the limit and although he failed to capture Hogan's belt, it was just the beginning of many classic encounters.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Greatest Story Never Told: The Battle of the Nature Boys Flair vs. Landell

Art begins in imitation and ends in innovation.
-Mason Cooley

Professional wrestling has many examples of the adage "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". Back in the 80's, the Road Warriors spawned more knock-offs than Gucci handbags on New York City street corners. However wrestling also endorses the idea that "there can only be one". In a business driven by ego, there's only room for one. This was seen in the classic "Battle of the Nature Boys" in the late 1970's and nearly came to repeat itself a decade later. The first battle was a short-lived but memorable classic while the second became better known as a case of "what might have been".

The battle of the Nature Boys. A memorable encounter that played an important role in Ric Flair's ascension to greatness. The brief but memorable encounter saw Ric Flair battle the original "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers in a match to determine who would hold the title of "Nature Boy". Rogers, a legend in the sport and one of the wrestlers who inspired Flair to enter the business, had come to Flair's stomping grounds in the Mid Atlantic area's Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP). With two egos as big as Flair and Rogers, there could be no sharing of the name, thus a battle between Flair and Rogers was inevitable. Rogers, the man who originally soared to fame under the "Nature Boy" nickname had seen better days but he still had a few tricks up his sleeve. The cagey veteran was ready to show Flair why he had enjoyed so much success (part of which involved him being the first man to hold the NWA World championship and the World Wide Wrestling Federation championship) and maintain his claim to the title "Nature Boy". However when the battle was over, Flair stood triumphant, once again proving that "to be the man, you've got to be the man."

As wrestling promoters has proved time after time, good angles are made to be used again and again. Flash forward several years later to 1985. Jim Crockett Promotions is holding its own against the national expansion of Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and one of the key pieces in JCP's success is its world champion, "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. By this time, Flair is at the peak of his game, having honed his craft to perfection and developed a reputation as the man who could wrestle a broom to a five star match.

While Flair was enjoying his time at the top of the mountain, a hungry young competitor by the name of Buddy Landell was making a name for himself elsewhere. Landell broke into the business in 1979 after training under famed grappler Boris Malenko. Malenko's reputation helped Landell gain entrance into the business and soon he was wrestling throughout many of the territories at the time including Mid South, Memphis, and others. Landell's big break came in 1983 when he was asked to dye his hair blonde and work in Puerto Rico as a heel. From there, his career began to build momentum and he began working as "Nature Boy" Buddy Landell.

For decades, it was common for wrestlers to adopt the gimmicks of other successful wrestlers, especially when most fans' knowledge of wrestlers was limited to what they could tune in on their local television channel. If a promoter saw that "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes was over big in Florida, they could make their own version of the Dream (as happened in Memphis when Dusty's "cousin" Dirty Rhodes began wrestling for Jerry Jarrett). In most cases, the copycat wrestler was a cheap imitation but in the case of Buddy Landell, imitation was turning into innovation. It only became a matter of time before fans began speculating who was the better Nature Boy.

With the rise of cable TV, fans became aware of other wrestling promotions and their wrestlers. Inevitably, fans who saw a "Nature Boy" in one area couldn't help but wonder how their "Nature Boy" would stand up against the other. Typically, these confrontations never took place as rival promoters didn't want to pit their version against another, especially when they were dealing with an imitation. However in the case of Buddy Landell and Ric Flair, a confrontation was put into place.

In 1985, JCP began planting the seeds of what they had to have hoped would be a big money feud between National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair and a talented upstart. Things began with Landell entering the Crockett territory with manager James J. Dillon at his side. Landell wasted no time making it clear who the real Nature Boy was. During a TV interview, Landell recalled how his career was floundering until he got a phone call from manager James J. Dillon. Landell knew that Dillon saw a diamond in the rough and it was his call up to the big leagues i.e. Jim Crockett Promotions. Landell recalled how Ric Flair had taken the name "Nature Boy" from another man and the history books would one day show that Buddy Landell had seized the title "Nature Boy". Flair was a great champion but he was an old man and it was Landell's time to take his place.

More interviews followed with Landell positioning himself as "The Real Nature Boy". JCP even filmed vignettes involving Landell and his bid to topple Flair. One involved DIllon trying to watch a Flair match and analyze it with Landell only for Landell to yawn and tell JJ that Flair bored him. The vignette continued with Landell partying the night away while Dillon reluctantly joined along, no doubt concerned that Landell was taking his opponent too lightly.

As the program slowly unwinded, Landell continued boasting of being the real thing while he wrestled his way up the ladder. Eventually, Ric Flair began to take note of Landell's boasts and a confrontation seemed inevitable. While a few matches did take place at house shows, JCP was unable to pull the trigger on what could have been a big feud due to Landell being fired after falling prey to personal demons. What might have been a great program never saw the light of day.

According to interviews with Landell, Flair was slated to take time off from JCP in order to deal with a family crisis. This would lead to a match with Landell defeating Flair for the title and him holding it until Flair's return. As we know, this never happened but what if it had? How successful would Landell's run as world champion have been? Anyone familiar with Buddy Landell's work at the time knows that he was a good worker with good microphone skills (A great example of this is Landell's work in Memphis around 1986 with "Superstar" Bill Dundee during their program against Jerry "The King" Lawler).

If a Landell vs. Flair program had taken place, wrestling as we know it might have been very different. With James J Dillon managing Landell, would the Horsemen have ever formed? Would Flair have stayed as a face rather than turning heel as he did around this time? Bear in mind that around the time of the proposed Flair/Landell feud, Flair was just beginning down the road that would lead to the formation of the Four Horsemen. Around this time, the fans in the Mid-Atlantic area still held a soft spot for Ric Flair, cheering him even while fans in most other promotions booed him for his heelish tactics. In JCP, Flair wrestled against babyfaces as well as heels but by September 1985 (the time when the Landell program was beginning to pick up speed), the promotion seemed headed towards booking Flair as a straight out heel, particularly following his infamous attack on Dusty Rhodes in a cage (the classic beatdown that eventually led to the formation of the Four Horsemen).

However, with Landell's program with Flair, things could have been much different. Flair clearly would have been the face in a program against Landell and his heel manager James J. Dillon. Thus, JCP could have continued its booking style of having Flair work as a babyface or heel, depending on his opponents. Assuming this happened, it's difficult to imagine Flair working as a Horsemen, especially with J.J. Dillon out of the mix. That isn't to say however that the Horsemen might not have been formed with Landell filling Flair's spot, especially when one remembers that Dillon was also managing Tully Blanchard (one of the original Horsemen) at the time. Without the Horsemen (and a heel Flair), would JCP been able to compete as well as it did against the WWF?

Like any "what if", we'll never know what might have happened and we can only speculate. The wrestling world might have been very different or things might have taken a different path to where they ended up in the real world. After defeating Landell, Flair could easily have turned heel with Dillon dumping Landell and joining Flair's side. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.

Ironically, the Battle of the Nature Boys would be revisited in the 1990's when Landell was set to face the original Nature Boy, Buddy Rogers. The match was set up in the Tri-State Wrestling Alliance after Rogers special refereed a match involving Landell and Landell attacked Rogers. After a Rogers comeback, the match was signed but sadly, the promotion folded and Rogers died not long after.

In the end, wrestling fans were denied the chance to see what could have been a memorable feud. What would have happened? We can only speculate as we look back on one of the greatest stories never told.