Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson's Impact on Professional Wrestling

As the world mourns the death of Michael Jackson, the media is already examining the cultural legacy of "The King of Pop". Like many pop superstars, Jackson influenced culture far beyond his original art i.e. music. One of the areas that some may be surprised to hear about is Michael Jackson's influence on the world of professional wrestling. Not only was Jackson's music used in wrestling but his image was as well. Following the release of Jackson's phenomenally successful album Thriller, Jackson's impact on wrestling would soon be felt in promotions throughout North America.

The early 1980's was a remarkable period of change for the world of professional wrestling. The industry was expanding thanks to the spread of cable television and shrewd promoters were beginning to see the possibilities of incorporating a multimedia approach to the industry, particularly by using music to excite its audience. Like many forms of pop culture, wrestling has never been afraid to use popular things for its own use. Wrestling promoters have "borrowed" things from TV, film, and even the headlines. Consider that promoters wooed TV Superman actor George Reeves to enter the squared circle, used wrestlers based on the Frankenstein monster, and even used a wrestler named after the infamous Zodiac killer of the 1970's. When one considers the success of Thriller, it comes as no surprise that wrestling co-opted it.

The 1980's saw the proliferation of entrance music for wrestlers. Although entrance themes were not used for every wrestler like they are today, they were beginning to become more common. Following up on the fans' positive reaction to entrance themes like Bad Bad Leroy Brown and Freebird (used respectively for the wrestlers Bad, Bad Leroy Brown and the Fabulous Freebirds), more and more wrestlers began using music to add significance to their entrances. The spectacular success of Jackson's Thriller saw songs from the record-selling album used both as entrance themes as well as for shows. WWF fans from the Rock and Wrestling Era no doubt recall WWF Championship Wrestling using Jackson's Thriller as its opening theme as well as WWF Update using the beginning of Wanna Be Startin' Something.

Of course the high energy songs of Thriller made them a natural for entrance themes-one of them even inspiring a tag team! Jeff Jarrett and Jerry Lawler's Memphis territory was a trailblazer in the use of music and music videos to hype their wrestlers (Co-promoters Jarrett and Lawler would create the tag team known as the Fabulous Ones as a test to see if music videos could be used to build stars) . Jackson's dance hit Pretty Young Thing (one of the album's seven Top Ten songs) was used not only as the entrance music but the name of the tag team duo of Norvell Austin and Koko Ware. The innovative Memphis territory paired Austin and Ware, calling them the P.Y.T. Express. Not only did they use Jackson's song but the duo dressed in red leather jackets similar to Jackson's trademark outfit, even going so far as to each wear a sequined glove like "The King of Pop".

With his video Billie Jean, Jackson popularized the dance move known as the moonwalk. Following the video's success, everyone seemed to be doing the moonwalk, even wrestlers. One of the biggest stars of the 80's was Michael Hayes of the Fabulous Freebirds. Hayes would use the moonwalk to taunt his opponents and rile up the fans at the same time. Ironically, Hayes was portrayed as a hard drinking Southern rock-n-roll rebel (the Freebirds of course, deriving their name from southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd's signature song Freebird) but his moonwalk became a key part of his act.

Many other promoters and wrestlers would use Jackson's music to enhance their acts. These are but a few examples. What is noteworthy about Michael Jackson's music is how much it was used. Certainly other artists' work was used by promoters but few if any, were used as much as Jackson's. This is a testament to both the popularity of his music as well as its easy incorporation into the world of wrestling. As Jackson's million of fans mourn their loss, wrestling fans should remember Jackson's subtle but important impact on professional wrestling.

Remembering Billy Red Lyons

Ask any fan who grew up during the Rock and Wrestling Era who Billy Red Lyons was and they'll tell you he was the voice of Maple Leaf Wrestling and one of many retired wrestlers who sometimes popped up on WWF television as an anonymous "WWF official". Ask a fan from the 60's and 70's and you'll hear stories of Billy Red's tag team exploits in the Mid-West with fellow redhead Red Bastien as well as his singles accomplishments across North America. Billy Red Lyons was a skilled performer who wrestled through four decades, gaining fans wherever he appeared.

Born William Snip, he began wrestling in 1959, one of many Canadian natives who made their mark in the squared circle. A talented athlete, Mr. Lyons chose wrestling over other sports due to the lucrative pay one could get from wrestling compared to other sports (this was in the day before entry level athletes in the NFL and NHL received impressive paychecks). His gambit paid off and he campaigned successfully across North America, distinguishing himself in Texas, Oklahoma, and the American Wrestling Association (AWA). He reigned as British Empire Champion in the AWA and found tremendous success in tag action with Red Bastien.

As his career began to wind down, Mr. Lyons worked as an announcer for Frank Tunney's promotion Maple Leaf Wrestling. He still ventured into the ring for an occasional match but spent most of his time announcing matches and hosting promo segments to hype house shows. When the WWF bought out MLW, Mr. Tunney continued to serve as an announcer and eventually became one of a select few retired wrestlers to appear as on-air WWF officials. His most well-known appearance as a WWF official was on an episode of Piper's Pit when Hulk Hogan was presented with a trophy honoring his four years as champion (this would lead to 1987's legendary Andre/Hogan feud). Mr. Lyons also served as president for the Cauliflower Alley Club.

As a young fan who started watching wrestling during the late 1970's, I remember tuning in to see Billy Red Lyons hosting Maple Leaf Wrestling (MLW) every week. He projected a warm, comforting presence that made you feel like he personally invited you to the matches. When the WWF bought out MLW, they (wisely) kept Billy Red on to host the WWF version of MLW. He also hosted the bumpers between matches where wrestlers did promos for upcoming shows. Jesse "The Body" Ventura used to mercilessly run down Billy Red during promos and Billy Red took it all in stride. I even got to see Billy Red in action a couple times in Buffalo. His best days were clearly behind him but he could still work like hell and take lots of bumps. To us Buffalo fans who caught his show from the Canadian airwaves, it was always special to see Billy Red Lyons in person, a testament to his warm personality.

NOTE: Thanks to Canadian Bulldog for reminding me of Mr. Lyon's famous appearance on Piper's Pit. For those interested in learning more about Mr. Lyons' team with Red Bastien, I invite you to check out the book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Wrestling's Unsolved Mysteries: The Finisher that Killed Two Wrestlers-Or Did It?

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 Ox Baker kill two men in the ring with his finisher, the heart punch?

The human heart is an amazing creation. Comprised of a special muscle known as cardiac muscle, the heart is said to beat 100,000 times a day, pumping oxygen and nutrients throughout the body along a sophisticated pathway of arteries, veins, and capillaries. Surprisingly, this magnificent organ is just the size of a fist.

Ironically, a blow from the fist of a trained man can destroy all the work of a heart. Legends abound of special individuals capable of delivering blows to the heart capable of stopping it or even ripping it out. Most of these stories are discounted as exaggerations or outright falsehoods but in the case of wrestler Ox Baker, some believe that there is more to these tales than just hype. According to some people, Baker's finishing move the heart punch, ended lives of two of his opponents.

The heart punch is a wrestling hold rarely seen today. However during the 1970's, Stan "The Man" Stasiak used it to great effect, winning many matches and distinguishing himself by its use (Stasiak would go on to win the World Wide Wrestling Federation Championship from Pedro Morales albeit not with the heart punch but with a suplex). The heart punch was based on the theory that the user knew where to strike an opponent so that his heart stopped momentarily, typically resulting in a knockout to the user's opponent. Looking back at this move, it seems like a great move to deliver a hold without actually doing any harm to an opponent.

As Stasiak's fame grew with his use of the heart punch, it was only a matter of time before other wrestlers began using it. One such wrestler was Ox Baker, a scary looking monster of a man (billed as 6'5" and 350 lbs.) who resembled a cross between Godzilla and Satan. This imposing figure enhanced his fearsome aura by adding the heart punch to his repertoire. The inclusion of the heart punch in his arsenal not only added to his reputation as a monster heel but it labeled him as a killer after not one, but two opponents died shortly after receiving the heart punch.

Despite wrestling's worked nature, injuries still occur. Between potatoes, missteps, and the wear and tear of working night after night, wrestlers suffer injuries, oftentimes working through them but sometimes having to take time off to recuperate. However with very few exceptions, deaths in the ring are unheard of. That is why the story of Ox Baker and his heart punch has captured the imagination of wrestling fans for decades.

Born Douglas Baker, the man who would become known in the ring as Ox Baker began his grappling career during the early 1960's. Trained by Buddy "Killer" Austin, Pat O'Connor, and Bob Geigel, Baker was ready to hit the big-time and hit it he did, quickly establishing a name as a fierce brawler who terrorized the territories in singles and tag team action. Typically a heel, the Ox worked in the American Wrestling Association (AWA), various territories of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), and even the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). However nothing would prepare the fans for what reportedly happened in June of 1971.

The scene was Omaha, Nebraska. Baker, alongside his tag partner the Claw was in a match against Alberto Torres and "Cowboy" Bob Ellis. Torres was well-known as one of the Torres Brothers, a much-adored babyface team made up of (real-life) brothers Enrique, Ramon, and Alberto. At stake were the AWA Mid-West Tag Team Titles. Little did anyone know that Torres life was also at stake. During the match, Baker was said to have delivered his heart punch to Torres, knocking him out. Torres was rushed to the hospital where he died three days later.

Baker's reputation as a killer in the ring only grew stronger when he downed another opponent for good in 1972. The Ox was feuding in Georgia with Ray Gunkel, a rugged competitor as well as the co-owner of Georgia Championship Wrestling. During the match, Baker delivered his much-hyped finisher but this time, Gunkel persevered, winning the match. However the heart punch took its toll as Gunkel collapsed later that night. Once again, the heart punch had claimed another life.

Or had it? While promoters hyped Baker's heart punch as the catalyst for Torres and Gunkel's deaths, what really happened is different than what was said to have happened. Professional wrestling has always been known for its tasteless angles so it's no surprise that some promoters capitalized on two deaths in order to build up a wrestler's reputation as a true killer. It's hard to think of a better way to build up a finisher than to point to two guys dying from it. Baker's official website even acknowledges his history:

Ox Baker's Heart Punch made Head-Lines in 1970, when he wrestled a man by the name of Alberto Torres. Baker hit Torres with the Heart Punch and Torres dropped and did not get back to his feet again. He was rushed to the hospital where he later died. It turned out that he had a ruptured pancreas, but didn't disclose it to the wrestling promoters before the match. Baker's Heart Punch was not the 100% cause of death. Then in 1975, Baker's Special Move made Head-Lines again. This time Ox was battling Ray Gunkel in a Texas Death Match. Baker hit Gunkel with the Heart Punch and Gunkel was dead before he hit the floor. Incidents like these made Ox Baker a feared man in the ring.

With all due respect to Mr. Baker, the facts surrounding Torres' death are much different. First off, Baker was not originally "credited" with killing Torres in the ring. That dubious honor went to his partner The Claw. Steven Johnson and Greg Oliver's book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams discusses how promoter Joe Dusek tastelessly credited the Claw with Torres' death, earning the scorn of a local sportswriter. The reality is that Torres died from a pre-existing condition-a ruptured pancreas. This ticking time bomb exploded that night during the match, ending Torres' life and career. As time passed, Baker was credited with causing Mr. Torres' death. Exactly when this happened is unknown but it wouldn't be a surprise if it happened after the death of Ray Gunkel.

In the case of Ray Gunkel (who died in 1972), the legend actually fits the facts. Baker did hit the heart punch on Gunkel during the match that took place on the night of Gunkel's death. After Mr. Gunkel's death, doctors discovered that the fallen wrestler suffered from a life-threatening case of arteriosclerosis. This arteriosclerosis made it possible for a worked heart punch to actually kill Ray Gunkel. Piecing the evidence together, doctors believe that Ox Baker's (worked) heart punch formed a blood clot in Mr. Gunkel's body, leading to his death later that evening.

So while there's no evidence to support the idea that Ox Baker's heart punch really killed Alberto Torres, there's little doubt that the heart punch did in fact kill Ray Gunkel. Where fact becomes legend is the idea that Baker's heart punch was routinely capable of killing opponents. Promoters took two deaths and spun them into a tale of a finishing move so deadly that it ended not only two matches but two lives.

Given the public's tendency to find conspiracies in everything, it's quite surprising that more has not been said about Ray Gunkel's death and whether or not he was actually murdered in the ring. After Mr. Gunkel's death, the Georgia promotion was thrown into turmoil with what is known as the "Battle of Atlanta". The Battle of Atlanta was a promotional war between Gunkel's ownership partner in the Georgia territory and Gunkel's wife Ann (who inherited Gunkel's share of the promotion). Ann Gunkel was forced out of the Georgia territory but retaliated by launching a rival promotion. Eventually the NWA teamed up with the owners of Georgia wrestling to put Mrs. Gunkel's promotion out of business (a fascinating story that you can read about in Jim Wilson's book Chokehold). It really surprises me that no one has tried to make the case that Ox Baker was hired to put Ray Gunkel out of action so people could move in on the Georgia territory (I don't think this actually happened but given the crazy rumors that go around in wrestling, you'd think someone would have suggested it).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review of "Ring of Hell"


Originally published at World Wrestling Insanity on July 11, 2008

Ring of Hell: the Story of Chris Benoit and the Fall of the Wrestling Industry is a book that’s been a long time coming. The professional wrestling industry has managed to fly under the radar for years, avoiding scrutiny from both the media and the government. For years, wrestling’s ethereal status as pseudo-sport combined with the general public’s ignorance to the inner workings of the business gave it a pass against most criticism until last year’s murder suicide involving Chris Benoit finally woke up the mainstream media. While it’s by no means the first book to take a hard look at the world of professional wrestling, it’s the first to adopt a take no prisoners stance that absolutely rips the industry apart. It’s also the first book to truly analyze what went wrong with Chris Benoit and why he went from being a beloved figure in professional to its most horrific. While it’s hard to argue against the criticism that author Matthew Randazzo V makes, it’s equally hard to take his criticism seriously as the book stumbles across the fine line between muck-raking and sensationalism. Regrettably, Randazzo’s approach to exposing the business’ working conditions ultimately fails. The author’s attempt to reveal the sickness inside the business is tantamount to a surgeon performing a biopsy with a chainsaw rather than a scalpel. By the time you’re finished reading Ring of Hell, you can’t help but wonder if Randazzo’s mother was gang-raped by a carload of wrestlers while Vince McMahon stood by and watched or whether he’s just that hell-bent on writing a sensationalized attack to cash in on the Benoit incident.

Whatever Randazzo’s motives, it’s a shame because Ring of Hell could have been a great book. Randazzo displays a lot of potential but the book falls prey to repetitiveness and just plain mediocre writing. At times, it is smartly written and at other times, it reads like a post on a wrestling board populated by junior high students. As clever as it may have seemed to the author, the comparisons to the porn industry get old rather quickly. It’s even worse when you see the same adjectives used over and over throughout the book. One has to wonder what the book might have looked like had an editor taken the time to go over it.

Randazzo’s love for his subject is clear from this particular piece of prose, “The drug-addicted cretin who knowingly turned himself into a crippled junkie for pro wrestling fame is surreal in comparison to Chris Benoit, the friend and family man; and that loving father and doting husband is surreal in comparison to Chris Benoit, the wrestler” (p. 20) Add that to the following gem and you can imagine Randazzo’s true feelings on Benoit:


I can’t imagine many wrestling fans reading this book without feeling insulted. Every page drips with venom and Randazzo seems to hold as much disdain for fans as he does for the industry itself. It’s hard to take the book seriously when he refers to the fans’ reaction to Benoit’s death as follows: “A sizable number of these fans would treat Benoit’s murder of his wife and child as a tragedy precisely because it would destroy any hopes of a future Benoit match. For many of them, it was hard to reconcile that Benoit was such a “good worker” but apparently such a bad person.” P. 261. Randazzo’s contempt for wrestling as well as its fans reminds me of a fundamentalist preacher trying to warn his audience against the evils of rock and roll music. Not only is the music bad but the fans are bad for listening to it. Sinner repent indeed.

While Randazzo organizes the facts into a comprehensive form, his analysis of the facts devalues the work he has put into researching the murders. Randazzo seems to be ignorant to some of the most elemental principles of human psychology. For instance, he seems oblivious to the common phenomenon of hero worship and fandom as seen when he discusses Benoit’s adulation for his hero Tom Billington (aka Dynamite Kid). “Tracing the decline in Chris Benoit’s mental health is complicated by the considerable evidence that he was always something of a crackpot. Benoit’s adolescent infatuation with Tom Billington seems neurotic and pitiful in retrospect: why was an otherwise normal teenage boy so abjectly preoccupied with receiving the approval of a pro wrestler?” Unlike billions of people on the planet, Randazzo has seemingly never looked up to anyone nor heard of celebrities.

Randazzo’s armchair psychology and failure to grasp this basic concept made me wonder whether I was reading the wrestling equivalent of Seduction of the Innocent. At times, his deductive skills bordered on the ridiculous as evident by the following “The cumulative stress of the road itself-the monotony, the pressure, the loneliness-was enough to drive many normal insane by itself” (p. 291). If the grind of the road is that deleterious to wrestlers, Randazzo may want to alert psychiatrists to the gold mine of patients waiting in wrestling as well as the over-the-road truck driving industry.

Time after time, Randazzo’s posits are undermined by ridiculous statements about the simplest things. Like many before him, he makes a convincing case that the daily grind of working in the ring combined with no off season is nothing short of suicidal. Yet the lack of understanding on the industry itself draws his total understanding of the business into question. It’s like someone giving you a discourse on calculus when they can’t show a grasp of basic addition. His comments on bumps clearly show he has an imprecise grasp of the fundamentals of wrestling given the following, “There is no “right way to fall, everything a pro wrestler does hurts” (p. 50). Contrary to Randazzo’s assertion, there is a right way to fall. Anyone who’s watched Tough Enough or spent time in MMA knows that there are techniques that can be used to fall without being hurt.. He also seems to ignore the golden rule of wrestling which is to protect your opponent. Few people will argue that wrestlers have an easy job you can’t help but wonder how much of the business Randazzo really understands.

On the surface, it appears that Randazzo has done a lot of research into the subject but his lack of understanding with basic concepts like bumps is troubling. Further weakening his work is that he fails to grasp (or just doesn’t care about) the idea that wrestling isn’t the only industry with its share of problems and scandals. What’s different about wrestling than say, football is that wrestling has flown under the radar for so long that it’s gotten a pass. And while pro football has seen some reforms such as drug testing and improved benefits for older players, one can hardly argue that the NFL doesn’t have its fair share of problems. Professional wrestling is definitely in need of reform but Randazzo’s book fails by being so over the top with its criticism that you can’t help but feel you’re taking part in a witch hunt. If the author let his disdain for the business take a backseat to his actual writing, it might have been more effective.

Despite the author’s heavy handed approach, the book does an excellent job of speculating what might have happened to cause Chris Benoit to kill his wife and son. Randazzo makes a strong case that a combination of a pre-existing mental condition, the physical torture Benoit subjected his body to coupled with a combination of prescription drug and steroid abuse set a timer that led to Benoit’s ultimate self destruction. It’s the most thought out analysis yet on the subject and one that should stimulate some discussion.

The book’s true strength is the number of interviews done with former WWE insiders (mostly former writers). Randazzo presents one of the closest looks yet at what goes on behind the scenes at Titan Tower, something you know you won’t get from a WWE book or most newsletters. It’s refreshing to see someone with no ties to the industry present a no-holds barred account of professional wrestling after years of pandering by the so-called wrestling media. It’s just so disappointing that Randazzo’s end product is so flawed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Great Moments in Wrestling: Jimmy Snuka's Baptism of Blood

Many cultures throughout history have recognized the ritual of baptism. While most people think of the Christian purification ritual known as baptism, it is a practice also associated with other cultures, sometimes for purification, sometimes for initiation, and sometimes for both. Practices vary based on culture and they have evolved over time to include meanings not originally meant. For example, the phrase baptism of fire is often used to refer to someone initiated into a group (often a military or paramilitary organization) by his or her first exposure to combat.

In 1982, wrestler Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka underwent a baptism of sorts himself. Years before fans routinely cheered heels, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka won the cheers of WWF fans despite beating up some of their biggest babyfaces (including his famous program with WWF champion Bob Backlund that culminated in Snuka's dive off of a steel cage). With his chiseled physique and death-defying "Superfly Splash", Snuka won the hearts of WWF fans. For all intents and purposes, he was a babyface but like any good promotion would do, the WWF had to stage an angle to officially turn Snuka from heel to face. Otherwise, what good was a turn if it couldn't be used to play with the fans' emotions and increase ticket sales? In Snuka's case, he would undergo an initiation into the ranks of the company's babyfaces through a baptism of blood.

Enter "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, the first man to hold both the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) World Heavyweight Championships hosted a talk segment known as "Rogers' Corner". The interview segment featured Rogers interviewing wrestlers, helping to get them over through their interaction with Rogers.

Snuka appeared on Rogers' show, accompanied by his manager Captain Lou Albano. Rogers was no stranger to Snuka, having managed him in Jim Crockett Promotions. When Rogers had learned that his former charge was being managed by the heel Albano, he immediately grew suspicious and promised to investigate Snuka's finances as well as his contract. Now, the day of reckoning had come for Albano. Little did he know it but Snuka would have his own day of reckoning as well.

During the segment, Rogers revealed that Albano had no contract with Snuka. Unfortunately for "The Superfly", Snuka's money was gone (with the implication being that the shady Albano had robbed Snuka blind). An angry Albano stormed off the show, shouting at Rogers and calling him a liar. Rogers told Snuka he was now a free man. The downside though was that Snuka's money was gone. Rogers shook Snuka's hand and hugged him, proclaiming to the fans that "This man is a free man". Snuka shook his head with approval. Snuka then told Rogers he normally didn't say a lot but he had a question for Rogers- would he be his manager? No doubt happy to be reunited with his former client, Rogers embraced Snuka but reserved decision. Rogers was too caught up in the moment to answer Snuka. Just then, Lou Albano returned to the scene, shouting at Rogers until the former world champion chased him off.

The fans cheered, happy that Snuka was now free of Albano's influence. However the happy moment would soon be ruined as Snuka walked to the ring for a previously scheduled match against Ray "The Crippler" Stevens. Managed by "Classy" Freddie Blassie, Stevens was a seasoned veteran who Snuka had teamed with him in Jim Crockett Promotions to win the NWA World Tag Team Championship. Thanks to the fortunes of the squared circle, they were now opponents. Snuka would need to be on his "A" game against Stevens, especially with Blassie in "The Crippler's" corner.

If Snuka had counted on Albano to counteract Blassie's potential interference, he was in for a rude awakening. Although Albano was in the ring with Snuka, he had no intention of helping him. Instead, he began shouting at "The Superfly" and shoving him. The self-proclaimed "Manager of Champions" (although Albano gave himself the moniker, it was nonetheless a well-deserved one given the record-setting number of teams he guided to the WWF Tag Team Championship) then got into Snuka's face, shoving Snuka and then punching him. Snuka fired back a blow of his own but from there, things quickly deteriorated as Ray Stevens jumped in, choking Snuka with Blassie's cane and holding his opponent as Albano unloaded with punches of his own. Although Albano was now a manager, he had enjoyed a successful career as a wrestler and he was still capable of dishing out punishment (as Snuka soon found out). Stevens joined in on the melee, punching away at Snuka while Blassie directed traffic in the ring. A bloodied "Superfly" soon found himself thrown out of the ring by Albano and Stevens but the beat down was just beginning.

Following his former champion tag partner outside of the ring, Stevens picked up Snuka and delivered a bone-crushing piledriver, driving Snuka's already bloody skull into the concrete floor. As the chaos continued, color commentator Bruno Sammartino predicted that "we're not going to see Superfly Snuka for a long time to come". Snuka was clearly done but not Stevens. Stevens lifted Snuka one more time to deliver a second, devastating piledriver. Snuka's body spasmed as Stevens left the scene of the crime. Then, in a reaffirmation of his heelish nature, Lou Albano returned to the scene of the mugging to kick Snuka while he was down.

The beatdown was violent and bloody, one of the most brutal ever seen on WWF television at the time. It looked as if Snuka had bled all over the floor, his life-giving fluids splashed in and out of the ring in a blood-soaked baptism signifying his transformation from heel to face. However a careful review of the footage shows that while Snuka was busted open, someone threw a cup full of fluid (possibly beer or soda) onto the concrete just as Snuka was thrown out of the ring. Whether this was the act of an angry fan showing his discontent with what was occurring in the ring or a carefully orchestrated move to make the beat down look even bloodier, it had the effect of making it appear as if Snuka had bled buckets onto the floor.

Despite the savage attack, Snuka would return to the ring. Now managed by Buddy Rogers, Snuka would exact his revenge on Albano and Stevens, both in singles matches and in tag matches with Rogers as his partner. WWF fans wasted no time embracing Snuka as one of their own with his official turn onto the side of the angels. Although Rogers' run as Snuka's manager would be short-lived, big things awaited "The Superfly". Snuka's star would continue to rise as he worked two epic feuds, the first with Intercontinental Champion Don "The Magnificent" Muraco and the second, the historic feud against "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. Snuka's transformation into a face began with a bloody beating but it soon translated into incredible success for the amazing athlete from the Fiji Islands.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Epic Fail: A look back at nWo Souled Out and other wrestling flops

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 (Spielberg had 1941, Lucas had Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and Francis Ford Coppola had Godfather III). 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.

nWO Souled Out:
Oscar Wilde once said, "Nothing succeeds like excess". While there's something to be said for damning the torpedoes and going full speed ahead, sometimes our zeal can get the best of us. Whether you call it zeal, excess, or plain arrogance, Eric Bischoff decided that it was time for an NWO themed PPV. The result was Souled Out, a pay-per-view held on January 25, 1997. The show featured the stars of the nWo and WCW but the PPV focused on the stars of the nWo. The PPV featured Eric Bischoff and Ted DiBiase on commentary, nWo referee Nick Patrick, and an nWo-themed set.

Looking back, it's hard to argue with Bischoff's reasoning. The nWo was a runaway success in WCW, thrusting the company to the top of the wrestling game and crushing the WWF in the ratings war. If the nWo meant ratings, surely they'd translate into buyrates for a PPV. Furthermore, if the PPV proved to be a success, more nWo themed events were just a matter of time. In their book The Death of WCW R.D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez speculate that Bischoff was testing the waters to see if there was enough demand for two PPV's a month (The show was also held on a Saturday, a rarity and probably an experiment to test the PPV waters for a night besides Sunday).

Apparently there wasn't. The nWo Souled Out PPV was a flop both in terms of buyrates and the reaction of the fans. Watching the show, you almost get the feeling that the powers that be felt they could do no wrong (which, truth be told, really was the case up until this point). It was almost as if Eric Bischoff and friends wanted to see how bad of a show they could run and still make money. The PPV was a study in excess. Bischoff ran down the competition throughout the show and one of the show's highlights was a Miss nWo Beauty contest featuring what looked like a contingent from Kevin Nash fan club. Viewers had to wonder if they hadn't died and gone to hog heaven both in terms of the contestants riding Harleys and their "looks".

The show itself featured a mixed bag of wrestling. As was the case at the time, the nWo ran roughshod on the WCW stars, defeating them in most of the matches. While there were highlights in terms of wrestling quality (it would be next to impossible to have all bad matches given that guys like Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, and Syxx worked the card), there was little to justify ordering the show. Unfortunately the powers that be at WCW failed to learn the lesson here. Eventually, the nWo would go the same way as the goose that laid the golden eggs.

Curry Man: He's hot, he's spicy, he's Christopher Daniels??? Leave it to TNA to take one of their best workers and reduce him to a joke with the slightest of ease. While you could cut TNA some slack and say that they'd already done a great job turning "Fallen Angel" Christopher Daniels into a shell of the wrestling character he was, it's hard to imagine saddling him with a gimmick as bad as this one. Not since Terry Taylor clucked his way into obscurity has a wrestler had to deal with such a millstone around his neck. The only good thing about this gimmick is that Daniels' wore a mask so not everyone knows his shame. TNA can claim that Curry Man was way over in Japan but there's still no excuse for Daniels being stuck with this turkey in North America.

Fake Kane: The psychologically unsound Kane took a turn for the worst when he began hearing voices and being plagued by the mysterious date of May 19 (Coincidentally, the release date for his WWE Film See No Evil). WWE fans used to having their suspension of disbelief stretched to the breaking point had to deal with Kane hearing voices and seeing things that everyone at home saw but which no one around Kane saw (The fact that this angle was reminiscent of the One Warrior Nation angle in WCW where Hulk Hogan hallucinated seeing the Warrior tells you all you need to know about the quality of this one).

As usually happens with Kane, the Big Red Machine made the best of a truly bad angle, hoping to salvage it from the Katie Vick section of his career. Thanks to some good work from Kane, his ongoing breakdown proved to be catchy and fans started to wonder what was so important about the date. Eventually, it was revealed that May 19 was the anniversary date of the tragic fire that killed Kane's mom. We also learned that a mystery imposter Kane was behind it all, leading to a terrible match between the two at the 2006 Vengeance PPV. In true kneejerk reaction, Vince McMahon pulled the plug on the angle when the first match between Kane and Faux Kane went south. The next night on RAW, Kane destroyed his doppleganger, sending him packing faster than the time DX wiped out the Spirit Squad and sent them back to OVW (due to time constraints, we'll have to save that one for another time).

Tony "Mouthful of Marbles" Atlas, Manager: For years, wrestling fans have been clamoring for the WWE to bring back managers so what do they do-they pair one of their worst talkers (and workers) with WWE Hall of Famer bad talker Tony "Mr. USA" Atlas. Debuting on ECW, perennial babyface Atlas turned heel on Colin Delaney, aligning himself with "World's Strongest Man" Mark Henry. While the heel turn was a lot of fun, things quickly went downhill from there. For years, Booking 101 held that you pair poor talkers with managers in order to help get them over. The only thing the WWE forgot was that the manager has to be able to string together a sentence or two himself. Not since Mushmouth graced the Fat Albert set has there been such a poor representation of the King's English. Give the WWE credit where credit is due. After Atlas' run as a manager, no one is going to be clamoring for managers anytime soon.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Mike Rickard Reviews Starrcade: The Essential Collection

n 1983, Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) held one of the most successful wrestling shows ever. The sold-out show featured a who's who of talent from the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and was headlined by a steel cage match for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship between former champion "Nature Boy" Ric Flair and Harley Race. The card would sell out the Greensboro Coliseum as well as several closed circuit states in the Carolinas and beyond. Starcade: A Flare for the Gold had succeeded beyond Crockett's wildest dreams and suddenly, the business changed overnight.

Make no mistake about it, Starrcade was the innovator, the forerunner to Wrestlemania that proved that with the right buildup and matches, promoters could expand their revenue base past the confines of a single arena. JCP would show the wrestling world that a card could be shown on closed-circuit television (and once technology made it mainstream, in fans' homes) for fans unable to score a ticket to the event in person. For the next two decades, Starrcade would become the biggest show of the year for JCP and its successor, World Championship Wrestling (WCW).

Starrcade: The Essential Collection provides a well-balanced look at one of the most important PPV's in wrestling history. As Jim Ross notes on the documentary, every student of the game needs to know the history of this pivotal show and the role it played in the evolution of professional wrestling. Thanks to this product, they now have a convenient reference as well as a solid series of matches from the event. This three disc set features a one hour documentary on the history of Starrcade and a selection of some of the key bouts from the show's run.

Serious kudos to the WWE for creating an even-handed documentary feature on the history of Starrcade. While some fans have expressed grave concerns over the upcoming Rise and Fall of WCW DVD, this one provides a candid, balanced look at Starrcade. While it's another case of history being told by the winner, it features interviews with a lot of Starrcade's key personnel and performers including Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Tully Blanchard, Magnum T.A., Road Warrior Animal, and former JCP announcer (and brother of promoter Jim Crockett Jr.) David Crockett proving that the WWE can do a relatively objective job when it comes to telling the story of its former rivals (and in all fairness to the WWE, their DVD's dealing with rivals such as the American Wrestling Association, Extreme Championship Wrestling, and World Class Wrestling have been surprisingly good as opposed to the Death of WCW).

The DVD follows Starrcade from its very beginning up until its last days. Watching the program, you can't help but notice the pride of the people involved. When JCP asked Dusty Rhodes to become their booker, Starrcade instantly became Jim Crockett Promotions' biggest show of the year-its Wrestlemania, its Superbowl. Rhodes came up with the Starrcade concept, following the success of supercards he'd worked on during his tremendously successful run in Florida. However (as chronicled in the program), Jim Crockett Jr. placed all his eggs in one basket and a ruthless (and/or shrewd depending on your point of view) business move by Vince McMahon killed Starrcade. Crockett never recovered and he ended up selling the company to Ted Turner. As pointed out, the Turner organization brought a lot of plusses to the company-increased production values and marketing but as Dusty Rhodes put it, the company didn't know "shit" about wrestling. Starrcade floundered as it tried bold new concepts like the Iron Man and Battlebowl competitions but neither proved successful and it was only when Eric Bischoff took over WCW that Starrcade began to bounce back.

Like any good history lesson, there's something to be learned here. Comparing Starrcade to Wrestlemania, Jim Ross feels Starrcade lost its identity after JCP folded. When you hear one wrestler point out how Starrcade lost its importance when PPV's started coming out every other month, you can't help but wonder if anyone in the WWE sees the irony.

In the end though, Starrcade was something very special. As noted on the show, it's still talked about to this day. As Road Warrior Animal points out, it not only featured some of the greatest champions in wrestling but some of the greatest challengers. Starrcade is gone but it's (as Gorilla Monsoon would say) "highly unlikely" that it will be forgotten any time soon.