Monday, July 20, 2009

Great Moments in Wrestling: Jake Roberts DDT's Ricky Steamboat

If ever a quote matched the cuthroat competitive nature of professional wrestling, it's Leo Durocher's oft-misquoted "Nice guys finish last". Another apt quote is Durocher's clarification of the above-mentioned quote- " I never did say that you can't be a nice guy and win. I said that if I was playing third base and my mother rounded third with the winning run, I'd trip her up". The world of professional wrestling routinely features friends stabbing each other in the back over titles and wrestlers stooping to the lowest of the low in order to get the win. Wrestling's hive of scum and villainy is perhaps only outmatched by that of the infamous Mos Eisley cantina.

In such a dark world, it's hard to imagine anyone succeeding without an utterly ruthless approach to things. However one man defied the odds and succeeded, despite wearing a white hat throughout his career. Indeed, Ricky Steamboat was one nice guy who didn't finish last. Steamboat would go on to win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, the NWA World Tag Team Championship, the United States Championship, the Intercontinental Championship, and many other regional belts. Steamboat was the perennial nice guy and one of the very few wrestlers to only work as a babyface throughout his entire career.

While Steamboat didn't finish last, he did end up on the short end of the stick many times throughout his career. Beloved by fans, Steamboat was the kind of wrestler who suffered beat down after beatdown by vicious heels, igniting the fans' desire to see him gain his revenge and in the process, making a lot of money for promoters.

One of the most notorious beatdowns in Steamboat's career was at the hands of Jake "The Snake" Roberts in 1986. Roberts had just entered the WWF while Steamboat debuted roughly a year earlier at Wrestlemania I. Steamboat had just finished his first major feud in the WWF with the Magnificent Muraco and established himself as a top star. Now, it was time for Steamboat to use his star power to get a newcomer over. Little did Steamboat know that what the WWF planned to accomplish this was by means of a potentially life-threatening angle.

By 1986, Jake Roberts had established himself as a main event star just on his finishing move. The second-generation star (the son of wrestler "Grizzly" Smith and brother to woman's wrestler Rockin' Robin) became nationally known due to his finisher known as the DDT. The move involved Roberts dropping his opponent's head into the mat apron in a move reminiscent of the bulldog and the piledriver. Roberts' signature move had a distinct look that made him stand out from his fellow wrestlers as did his extremely effective promos. Roberts' rising star was seen by the WWF and he was soon signed to the promotion.

The plan was for Roberts to deliver the DDT to Steamboat on the concrete floor during an episode of the WWF's popular show Saturday Night's Main Event. Knowing the potential danger, Roberts was reluctant to perform the move. However Steamboat convinced him that he could protect himself. What happened though was another story.

As was planned, Roberts did a Pearl Harbor job on Steamboat, attacking "The Dragon" before the match even began. Before Steamboat could do anything, Roberts grabbed him and DDTed him onto the floor. He then rolled Steamboat's limp body into the ring where he exposed Steamboat to the further humiliation of having Roberts' python Damien writhe all over his unconscious body. The attack was convincing and shot Roberts to the top of the WWF's heel rankings. Naturally, the WWF capitalized by pitting Roberts and Steamboat against each other in rematches, including a gimmick match known as a Snake Pit Match.

What many fans didn't know was how violent the attack really was. When Steamboat went to protect his head, he inadvertently exposed his head to the concrete. Steamboat's efforts actually ended up harming him, leading to Steamboat's head crashing into the concrete and Steamboat being knocked out cold. Roberts then had to pick up Steamboat's limp body and roll him into the ring.

Fortunately for "The Dragon", what could have cracked his skull only led to a concussion (a severe injury to be sure but much better than what could have happened) and one hell of a Fred Flintstone lump on his head. The two would go on to battle all over North America, feuding in arenas (including Toronto's record-breaking show The Big Event) and battling again on Saturday Night's Main Event. The angle and subsequent feud helped build both men's WWF careers with Steamboat moving on to an epic feud with Inter-Continental champion "Macho Man" Randy Savage and Roberts becoming one of the fed's top heels.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Epic Fail: The Braden Walker Experiment

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.

One of the highlights of Total Nonstop Action (TNA) wrestling during their first few years in business was their tag team division. TNA's tag teams provided action not seen since the 1980's second golden age of tag team wrestling and no team exemplified this better than "America's Most Wanted" ("Tennessee Cowboy" James Storm and "Wildcat" Chris Harris). Their battles with Triple X, Team 3-D, and others provided nonstop action for fans who longed for the excitement that good tag team wrestling can provide.

By 2006, TNA chose to split up AMW, hopeful that both men could breakout into singles success. Unfortunately for Harris, this was the beginning of a downward spiral that would culminate in his WWE run as Braden Walker, one of the worst pushes ever for a wrestler debuting in the WWE. Harris' run in the WWE damaged his credibility in the eyes of many fans, spawning Internet parodies such as the Braden Walker WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2009 video and the Definitive Braden Walker 3 disc DVD set. How could the man who lit up the ring as one half of AMW sink see his WWE run become an epic fail?

Harris' troubles actually began in TNA following the storyline split of Storm and Harris. The AMW breakup angle seemed to get off to a good start with Storm breaking a beer bottle in Harris' face and causing a storyline injury to Harris' eye. TNA set things up well to start the feud but they then made the unwise decision of putting Storm and Harris into a Blindfold Match as their first high-profile match against one another. The Blindfold Match, long notorious for stinking up the joint at Wrestlemania VI was no way to get a feud off to a good start and it killed a lot of the heat in the Walker/Harris feud. While TNA did a good job of rebuilding some excitement for the feud with an excellent Texas Death Match, things were never the same. From there, things continued to get worse for "The Wildcat" as he saw himself put into a program program with Black Reign (a subject for a future Epic Fail). Soon, Harris was jobbing his way down the TNA ladder most fans assumed he'd ne climbing. By the end of his tenure in TNA, Harris was involved in that classic Russoesque angle-complaining about how the company was holding him back. Meanwhile, James Storm was enjoying a healthy push and eventually put into Beer Money Inc., a team with Robert Roode. Since neither Storm nor Harris went into a sustained singles push, it's hard to explain why they were split up to begin with.

Following the expiration of his TNA deal, Harris decided to test the waters of the WWE. It was a move he would soon regret. In an interview with Alan Wojcik, Harris had little good to say about the way management handled his push, calling them "two-faced" and criticizing the way they kept changing how to package him as a character.

After being signed to the WWE, fans waited for Harris to debut, and waited and waited. Despite having worked for several years as a regular player on TNA, Harris spent a lengthy amount of time down in Florida Championship Wrestling, the WWE's developmental territory. When Harris did debut on WWE television (appearing on ECW) , it wasn't as Chris Harris, it was as Braden Walker, a generic-looking wrestler with a generic name. Walker's debut turned out to be a flop with some fans criticizing Walker's physical appearance and former WWE Superstar Lance Storm reportedly asking in his blog, "Is a treadmill a banned item in the WWE Wellness Policy"). As if that wasn't bad enough, Walker's debut match consisted of an offense comprised of of nothing but clotheslines. Fans who had delighted to Harris' work in TNA would be hard pressed to believe this was the same man who lit up the Six Sides of Steel against Triple X.

Things quickly went downhill from there. Fans took an instant dislike to Walker with yours truly forming the "Braden Walker Sucks" bandwagon and many jumping on. After a couple more awful appearances on ECW, Walker was future endeavored by the WWE. The sting of his short run and quick release was compounded by fans taking shots at Walker such as a faux video of Braden Walker being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and a fake ad for a 3 disc "Definitive Braden Walker " set by WWE Home Video.

In the end, fans of "The Wildcat" , leading fans to wonder Wha' Happened?

More than anything else, the WWE's total lack of effort in pushing Harris is what makes his short run such an epic fail. In Harris' defense, he wasn't the first talented wrestler to fall through the cracks in the WWE and definitely not the first TNA star to suffer a poor push. However it's difficult to remember the last time such a talented worker got such a half-assed push. It's hard to deny that the WWE put little effort into developing his character nor did they give him much time to make his mark in the company. Anyone who saw Harris' work in TNA knows what he is capable of doing. Unfortunately for the WWE (and Harris), his debut was botched terribly, earning it the distinction of an epic fail.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Did Roddy Piper Kill Rick McGraw in the Ring?

In an industry purposely mired in mystery, it's no surprise that professional wrestling has its share of mysteries that continue to puzzle its fans. Even with the explosion of shoot videos and tell-all books, fans still talk about some of wrestling's unexplained happenings, wondering what really happened. Join me now as I explore wrestling's unsolved mysteries, legends, and conventional wisdom to uncover the truth. Today, we'll look at a death that some attribute to a savage beating that supposedly took place in the ring and try to solve the question-did Roddy Piper kill Rick McGraw?

The scene was the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) during the waning months of 1985. Wrestlemania had come and gone and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper was riding high as the promotion's top heel (some would argue the top heel at the time in all of wrestling). Despite his status as the promotion's number one villain, Piper rarely wrestled on weekly television. Like Hulk Hogan, the WWF limited Piper's in-ring appearances, making them something they would have to pay to see. However while WWF fans didn't see Piper wrestle on tv, that didn't mean they didn't get to see the Rowdy Scot.

Every week, fans tuned in to WWF Championship Wrestling to watch Piper's Pit, the hottest talk segment in wrestling. Joined by his bodyguard "Cowboy" Bob Orton, Piper's segment on Championship Wrestling was usually the best part of the one hour wrestling show, serving as a showcase for Piper's incredible skills as a talker. The weekly interview featured "Rowdy" Roddy Piper doing what he did best-using his ability on the mic to drive the crowd into a frenzy. Piper's Pit served as a way for Piper to get over as a heel while furthering angles between various wrestlers. One week it might feature Piper harassing a babyface involved in a feud with one of Piper's fellow heels; another it might show Piper laying out a babyface (as he infamously did when he blasted "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka with a coconut). Wrestling fans quickly came to expect the unexpected on Piper's Pit.

One such incident involved a wrestler by the name of "Quick Draw" Rick McGraw appearing on the Pit. McGraw began his career in 1976, working various territories such as Memphis, Southwest Championship Wrestling, Montreal, Jim Crockett Promotions, and the World Wrestling Federation. McGraw won several regional championships and worked one of the WWF's historic Showdown at Shea supercards (losing to Greg Gagne during the days when the promotion was still known as the WWWF) and battling the Fabulous Ones as one half of the heel tag team known as the New York Dolls (with tag partner Troy Graham). McGraw, no stranger to the WWF, returned to the company in the mid 1980's as enhancement talent. He was what some fans referred to as a "jobber to the stars", an enhancement wrestler who got in his fair share of blows against his opponents but eventually lost nonetheless. McGraw was a good worker who could sell and make his opponents look like dynamite. While he won matches against preliminary guys, his win-loss record against name talent was miniscule.

In the fall of 1985, McGraw appeared on an episode of "Piper's Pit". Unlike most of Piper's guests, McGraw had a lot of questions to ask. The spirited wrestler wanted to know why Roddy Piper never wrestled on television, why he needed a bodyguard, and why he wore a dress (referring to Piper's kilt). McGraw taunted Piper, accusing him of talking trash but failing to back it up in the ring. McGraw's tactics infuriated Piper to the point where the usually silver-tongued devil tripped over his words. Enraged, Piper agreed to face McGraw the following week on Championship Wrestling. The crowd cheered as McGraw gave Piper something to think about for the next week-a wicked slap to the face!

Following up on the success of the previous week, McGraw taunted the Rowdy Scot further by wearing one of Piper's trademark "Hot Rod" t-shirts into the ring. McGraw's antics continued as he blew his nose into the t-shirt and threw it at his opponent. Piper left the ring and told the fans "I'm going to show you why they don't let me wrestle on television." Piper returned to the ring only to be ambushed by McGraw. Wasting no time, McGraw attacked Piper while he took off his t-shirt, gaining an early advantage. However Piper mounted a comeback, sending McGraw out of the ring and slamming him into the security rail not once but twice. Just when things looked to be over for McGraw, he mounted a comeback, firing off punches at Piper. McGraw's comeback was short-lived though and the "Hot Rod" went to work, brutalizing McGraw with a neckbreaker, a suplex, and even a DDT(An interesting aside-Piper used the DDT twice during the match with color commentator Bruno Sammartino referring to the move as "some kind of piledriver"). Finally, the referee stopped the match after it was clear McGraw could not continue the match.

After the brutal encounter, Piper taunted his opponent, shouting "Now you know why they don't let me wrestle on television". The violent match served two purposes. Not only was it an entertaining match for the fans but it also reinforced Piper's image as a cocky heel who could back up his talk in the ring. McGraw suffered what looked like a savage beating, adding to Piper's reputation as a guy you didn't want to anger.

What happened next changed the match from a highly entertaining one into something of a mystery for many fans. Not long after the match aired in syndication, Rick McGraw passed away unexpectedly at the age of just thirty. To some fans, it was clear what had happened-Rick McGraw had been beat to death by Roddy Piper. In their mind, the injuries McGraw suffered at the hands of Piper led to his young death. With kayfabe in full effect, some fans couldn't help but speculate that Piper had killed McGraw.

But what really happened? Did Roddy Piper beat McGraw to death? Did he somehow hurt McGraw, triggering a heart attack? McGraw's death wouldn't be the first death that occurred in the ring. Wrestler Ox Baker was credited with killing not one, but two opponents in the ring with his devastating "Heart Punch" (the Ox Baker story will be discussed in a future column). Did a similar event take place here between McGraw and Piper? Let's review the possibilities:

1. Roddy Piper beat Rick McGraw to death: While discussing this theory, it's important to remember that the Piper/McGraw match occurred prior to Vince McMahon destroying kayfabe by announcing that matches were worked. When you consider that some fans at the time believed that wrestling was a legitimate sporting event, it's no surprise then that some people believed McGraw's beating in the ring caused his death. When you also factor in McGraw's impressive bump-taking ability, there's little doubt why some people thought the young star suffered a tremendous beatown.

The reality however was much different. While McGraw did a great job selling for Piper, he sustained no damage in the ring. However is it possible that McGraw suffered a heart attack due to an accidental blow? Possible but unlikely.

2. McGraw died due to performance enhancing substances: The Rick McGraw who wrestled in the WWF shortly before his death looked different than the Rick McGraw who worked elsewhere before. Like many wrestlers who entered the WWF from another territory, McGraw seemed to have added a good amount of muscle to his physique. While McGraw always kept himself in good shape, he appeared bigger than ever. He also had the puffed up face that steroid users sometimes had, leading to natural speculation. To my knowledge, there was no toxicology report done on McGraw so speculation is all we have to go on for this theory.

3. McGraw died due to drug abuse: This theory has grown in prominence thanks to Bret Hart's autobiography Hitman where he discusses seeing McGraw completely wasted on drugs during his stint in the WWF. From what Hart saw, McGraw's body just couldn't cope with all of the Placidyls Hart believed McGraw was taking.

Regardless of the cause of death, the passing of Rick McGraw was just one of many tragic deaths that cut a promising wrestler's life way too short. It's possible that McGraw was one of those people who had a heart which was a ticking time bomb. It's also possible that steroid and/or drug abuse contributed to his untimely demise. Without knowing McGraw's family medical history, it's impossible to rule out a pre-existing condition that could have caused his death.