Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Cocktail Napkin

Sometimes the best collectible items were never meant to be saved at all.  They didn't necessarily begin their lives as anything significant.  Somewhere along the way, something happened to the item to make it special.  That event saved an ordinary, everyday item from being used, discarded, and ultimately disintegrating into nothing.  We're going to take a look at something just like that.  A small item that would've been destroyed over forty years ago had three specific men not come into contact with it.  That item, now a unique wrestling artifact, is...a cocktail napkin.

I like to refer to the 1970's as the "wild west days" of professional wrestling.  The "boom" caused by wrestling being a hit on the then-new medium of television in the '50s had long passed.  The "Rock N Wrestling" era of the '80s was still far off.  The '70s, from all accounts, still saw major popularity for the sport of kings, but stories of the era create a very exciting and somewhat chaotic image of the decade.  The NWA was still in full force, yet many of the individual promoters were battling outlaw organizations around the country.  The WWWF ruled the northeast, most importantly the gritty and often dangerous New York City of the era.  The AWA, however, is the territory that we may have the best glimpse into all of these years later.

Although a work of fiction, the AWA-backed 1974 film titled "The Wrestler," provides a fun look into the stars of Verne Gagne's promotion and the business in general.  In one of the most famous scenes, Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch participate in a barroom brawl, a concept that creeps into many real-life stories from that time.  I'm sure that not all of the nights in bars ended up that way, but there's no doubt that many memorable moments involving wrestlers took place in various hole-in-the-wall establishments around the world.

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a cocktail napkin that proudly advertises, "River Queen Bar - Lounge - Grand Forks, North Dakota."  On the back of the well-kept piece of ephemera are the autographs of Rhodes, Ivan Koloff, and Dennis Stamp.  The original owner of the napkin claimed that his dad obtained the autographs after a night of drinking around 1971.

Research suggests that the night was more likely in early 1972, as all three men were wrestling in the AWA at that time.  There doesn't seem to be much info regarding the establishment, but one can only imagine the atmosphere, especially when this troupe of grapplers entered the scene.  Adding to the story is the interesting quote of "When You're Out Of Work--Look Me Up...For Sparring!"  It's hard to tell just which one of the three wrestlers added the quote, but perhaps a barroom brawl did in fact break out that night!

Items like these are what truly keep the history of the business alive.  The autographs aren't rare and all three men still sign today, but it's the manner and context that make them much more interesting than one obtained in a normal setting.  Surely none of the three wrestlers or the recipient of the autographs ever would've imagined that small, square, early '70s napkin being discussed nearly a half century later, but here we are.  Dusty, Ivan, and Dennis, here's to you and those glory days, and nights, on the road!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Georgia Championship Wrestling...34 Years Ago To The Day

Often we look back on the events in wrestling's past that will never be forgotten.  The WrestleMania's, the Starrcade's, and Monday Night Raw's that will linger in the back of our minds as long as we're fans.  But what about the forgotten shows?  The shows that, for decades and decades, could be found somewhere in the world on any given night of the week.  No record of these shows may exist aside from a card rundown, results, or sometimes even less, but these are the events that kept the business going.  Before the advent of supercards and pay-per-view, these shows were where the money was made, as were the memories.

One of those very shows took place thirty-four years from the date of the publication of this article.  It was a Georgia Championship Wrestling card in Athens, GA on Thursday night, July 17, 1980.  The cover of the program at the time, the weekly Ringsider (Vol. 80 No. 14, to be exact) featured Ole Anderson in a familiar pose.  The gruff grappler is shown on the set of the Georgia Championship Wrestling television program, making a heated point as he is interviewed by Gordon Solie. 

Inside on the first page we are treated to photos and a listing of the then-current champions.  Harley Race was the (NWA) World Heavyweight Champion, while Ivan Koloff and Alexis Smirnoff held the Georgia Tag Team Championship, Tommy Rich was the National TV Champion, and Austin Idol was the Georgia Heavyweight Champion.  Promoter Paul Jones, a man often confused '60s-'80s star wrestler and manager of the same name, is pictured as is Freddie Miller.  Known for his "Beeeeee There!" catchphrase when promoting local cards on television, Miller was also the editor of The Ringsider.

A separate piece of paper is included with the rundown of the night's card.  Fans in Athens were scheduled to be treated to The Assassins versus Ole & Lars Anderson, Bob Sweetan versus Mike George, Tony Atlas versus Dennis Condrey, and Jay Strongbow versus Eddie Mansfield.  In addition to the classic NWA Wrestling logo, a special greeting is included at the bottom.  It seems that the W.F.I.A. (Wrestling Fans International Association) was in Atlanta with their annual convention at the same time that this show was held.  There is no doubt that many W.F.I.A. members attended this card.  Anyone who wanted to be as "inside" to the wrestling business as you could be at the time was a member of that organization.  Even Juanita "Sapphire" Wright belonged to the club!

Next in the program is a full-page ad where Dusty Rhodes declares that he, indeed, "can tell you about pain."  It seems that "The American Dream" was a spokesperson for Stanback Powders at the time.  Grab a boxtop, $4.95, and this filled-out coupon and you would receive a shirt just like the one that Big Dust is shown wearing.  While the shirts are assuredly long gone, a quick Google search shows that this brand of headache powders does in fact still exist.  If only Dusty's magical fro still existed, too.  Nevertheless, this is a great example of the connection with the fans that "The American Dream" had throughout his career.

The next two pages are full shots of Tommy Rich and Austin Idol, the TV and Georgia Champions, respectively.  Rich was less than a year away from the brief peak of his career when he took the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from Harley Race.  Idol would go on to make his mark in several wrestling territories, including Memphis, but never seemed to attain the level of fame and success that his talent deserved.  Looking at both men today, they certainly seem to have lived different lifestyles.  Idol looks almost identical as he did in his wrestling days, while Rich is almost unrecognizable.

Our next page is a recap of some recent tv action.  In this case, it seems that a tag team known as "The Avengers" recently appeared on the Georgia Championship Wrestling scene.  I wonder how many fans knew that these two masked bulks were actually Ole and Lars Anderson.  Apparently they unmasked in a scuffle with Koloff, Smirnoff, and manager Rock Hunter.  I guarantee that Ole's often commanding promos convinced many a fan into buying a ticket to see this feud play out.

On the last inside page, we have a half-page action shot of two men who would go on to much greater fame.  "The Boston Battler" Kevin Sullivan has Tenru in a chinlock.  The young Asian star is better known as "Tenryu" and became a legend in Japan in addition to being a well-known name here in the United States.  The second half of the page is an ad for rentals at Grove Park Apartments.  For just $125 per month, fans of GCW could rent an apartment right on 1401 Bankhead Highway, named for U.S. Senator John H. Bankhead, grandfather of the outrageous actress Tallulah Bankhead.  Apartments are still located at the address, but they no longer bear the same name nor the same low monthly rate.

We end the program with a great shot of "The Big Cat" Ernie Ladd.  Ladd would begin to wrap up his career in the 1980's, and by the middle of the decade was working behind the scenes with the WWF.  So what happened at the matches that night?  Strongbow defeated Mansfield, Atlas defeated Condrey, Sweetan defeated Mike Sharpe, and The Assassins defeated The Anderson's.  Whether or not it was actually Mike Sharpe as listed in the results or Mike George as listed on the card may forever be up in the air.  Both men were active in the territory at the time.  The results were obtained from, an invaluable tool for any fan of territorial wrestling.

I would imagine that like with many of these shows, a good time was had by all that night.  It was a time when wrestling truly was wrestling.  The stereotype of smoke-filled armories come to life.  Pro wrestling will never be like that again.  It's a different business in a different time.  But shows like these will always be the roots of the modern-day product.  In the end, it's about entering a different world for a couple of hours and letting the in-ring action take over.  That's something that, no matter the era, the industry will always provide.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mattel Completes Demolition, Elite Style

Although I've always had a problem choosing my all-time favorite singles wrestler (I've narrowed it down to five), tag teams have been much easier.  When asked, I've never thought twice about it, Demolition is my favorite tag team of all-time.  Some have labeled them as Road Warrior ripoffs, but it really isn't true at all.  While they may have been created so that the WWF could have a tag team with menacing facepaint and attire, that's really where it begins and ends.  Even with the "cartoonish" design of the WWF at the time, Demolition came off to me as much more believable than their "invincible" counterparts.

Ax and Smash could have some great matches with a variety of opponents.  They had power though they did not rely on it, instead being able to change their style to combat teams as diverse as The Rockers, The Powers of Pain, and The Hart Foundation.  They also did not overstay their welcome.  Although the final year was not nearly as strong as the first three, it did introduce a new member into the group, Crush.

Although Crush had other looks in his career still using the same name, many remember him from this first incarnation.  In between WWF stints, Crush returned to his home territory of Portland and continued to wear the Demolition gear.  There is also a story that Crush appeared at ringside in his Demolition garb in late 1993 around the time that he turned on Randy Savage.  While no photographic proof of this has surfaced, it's not that far of a stretch to believe that this happened while his similar "heel" design was being finalized.

Mattel has decided to include Demolition Crush in their Elite Flashback series.  Ax and Smash appeared years ago in Mattel's late Legends series.  Despite them being my favorite tag team, I was less than enamored with the final product.  Ax and Smash just seemed too slight and small for two men who were always bulky.  This was during the early days of the WWE-Mattel relationship when the toy company was providing underwhelming likenesses for larger-than-life characters.

Crush is an immediate improvement with the new Mattel Elite packaging alone.  He fills the window box well, as he should being the tallest Demolition member.  Included are the removable mask, vest, and arm gauntlets that were also included with Ax and Smash.  I have seen Ax's original vest in person and the one included here is an exactly replica.  The mask and gauntlets are very spot on as well.

The figure itself is good and tall, but the bulk suffers as it does with the earlier two members.  Crush just looks too thin to me.  These men were monsters.  One nice touch across the board on all three is that the torso joint pleasantly blends in behind the leather straps that were a Demolition trademark.  Those straps are done as a separate piece which is a nice touch when they could easily have been painted on.

As far as facial likeness, the paint is spot on.  The flowing black hair is also here.  What isn't here is the face of Brian Adams.  What I'm seeing is the Crush makeup on a rather generic face.  I also felt that the Mattel Smash suffered from this oversight as well.  It's not a complete killer, but it's the kind of thing that prevents a figure from being great.  At least the scowl looks like Crush, but I'm just not seeing Adams, whose likeness has been captured rather closely in the past.

Someone wanting to complete the Mattel Demolition tag team trio or the Legends/Flashbacks in general will want Crush.  In my opinion, even being the Demolition fan that I am, Mattel would've done better with a colorful "Kona" Crush figure.  For as brief as that run was, something with that character resonated with the young fans of the era to where it is the fondest remembered of Crush's personas.

Mattel has obviously found success by releasing Legends in the Flashback spot.  Andre the Giant, Lex Luger, and the Road Warriors are coming and while I know that we'll never get the depth that came with Jakks Classic Superstars line, Crush gives me hope that we'll get more figures of the lesser done names.  Now, if we can only get that Magnum T.A. released...

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jerry Lawler Sings

It is hard to believe that the last time that Jerry "The King" Lawler was the focal point of an entry on this blog was nearly two years ago.  I had decided to reflect on him after his heart attack which occurred live during a broadcast of Monday Night Raw.  Much to the relief of many, "The King" survived.  Although he was very lucky to be where he was at the time of his emergency, which included nearly instantaneous medical assistance, Lawler has always been full of life.  A continuously successful career in pro wrestling for over four decades almost requires that kind of attitude, as well as the ability to adapt.

Some would point to Lawler's home wrestling territory of Memphis as almost an early view at what would later become "sports entertainment."  Crazy characters and even crazier situations would often find their way onto Memphis television and into the Mid-South Coliseum on Monday nights.  Lawler was frequently at the center of this madness, which probably helped him call some of the wacky Monday Night Raw antics so many years later.  "The King" was known for verbalizing some of the all-time great wrestling promos while feuding with the likes of Terry Funk, Randy Savage, and Andy Kaufman, but how about harmonizing?

Yes indeed, Jerry Lawler sang, or as his first LP was titled, "Jerry Lawler Sings."  Lawler produced two albums and about a dozen singles, but "Sings" was his first.  He wasn't the only Memphis wrestling star to be involved with music, keeping company with Jimmy Valiant, Sputnik Monroe, and of course Jimmy Hart.  I guess the pull of Nashville and Memphis' own music history was too much to resist.

Produced by Star Burst Records and recorded at Allied Recording Studio in Memphis, Lawler belted out ten tracks including covers of The Rolling Stones' "Heart of Stone," Buck Owen's "Act Naturally," Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," Dr. Hook's "The Millionaire," and the Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson collaboration "Good Hearted Woman."  The other five songs include "She's In Love With A Star," "Melinda," "If We Don't Make It Better," and "Happy Go Lucky" penned by Richard Ross and "Bumped Out of Love" penned by Earnest Vescovo.

If the cover art looks familiar, it's because Lawler held a copy up at his 2007 WWE Hall of Fame induction.  He also held up the record put out by the man who inducted him that night, William Shatner, and made a few jokes about both efforts.  Recently I was able to have a copy signed by Lawler himself.  He was absolutely stunned to see it and said that even he no longer owned a copy.  I asked what had happened to the copy from the Hall of Fame, and he said that it disappeared after the event.  To the amusement of "The King," I joked that Shatner took it home with him.

Lawler signed it with his amazing signature that is among my favorites of any wrestler, and had a question for me, "Do you still have a record player?"  I do, and told him that I own many of the wrestling records, including Jimmy Hart's "Outrageous Conduct" albums.  He pointed out that he created the cover art on the original release, which indeed was another musical entry from Memphis wrestling that was later re-released during Hart's WWF tenure.

Have I listened to it?  Well, no.  "The King" was amazed that the vinyl looked untouched.  Who wants to scratch up wrestling history?  Some of Lawler's music efforts can be found online, and while his self-depreciating humor regarding his musical career may be valid, you have to give credit to anyone who puts themselves out there in such a manner.  That's just another reason why he always will indeed be, "The King."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Jim Crockett Promotion's Coolest Piece Of Merchandise...Ever!

When you think of wrestling merchandise from the '80s, you automatically think of the WWF marketing machine and men like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, and The Ultimate Warrior.  Their likenesses dominated the products and conscious of collectors of the time and even today.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that items from outside of that spectrum weren't as great.  While Vince McMahon certainly owned the market, Jim Crockett Promotions was able to churn out some items as well in a vain attempt to catch up to the company that was taking over wrestling and crossing over into the mainstream.

Starting with the successful mostly-color/all gloss Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Magazine in the '70s and early '80s, Crockett was no stranger to producing quality publications.  Many of the company's larger shows and events had beautiful full-color programs.  Several attempts at a regular publication to follow up on the MACW Magazine's success were made, but seemed to fizzle out after a few issues.  Magazines solely dedicated to the popular Rock 'N Roll Express were produced as well, and no doubt ended up in the hands of many female fans.

It was in these publications that Crockett was able to showcase what other merchandise he produced.  T-shirts and apparel were aplenty, with everyone from Dusty Rhodes, Nikita Koloff, and Baby Doll getting their own shirts.  Mugs and programs as well as a full line of Four Horsemen attire were also advertised, but one thing that seemed to be popular at the time were bandanas.  Everyone remembers the logo bandanas worn by Hogan and Savage in the WWF, but these were different.  While a few were patterned logos of the stars, many actually featured full depictions of the individuals themselves.  Occasionally the same designs were used on t-shirts, but these bandanas are almost frameable art.

If any of these bandanas stand out, it's undoubtedly the one that depicts The Four Horsemen.  This isn't just any incarnation of the legendary faction, but rather the original group.  Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, and Ole Anderson are in all of their glory.  This is quite possibly one of the few pieces of merchandise to feature the original Horsemen that is licensed by Jim Crockett Promotions.  By the time that many of the other items were produced, including the popular trading cards by Wonderama, Ole had long since left the group.

The amount of detail on the Horsemen bandana is even more striking than those produced later.  The Four Horsemen name is done in glittery gold lettering, there's some cash trailing a limo with a woman's leg sticking out, and there's even a small city skyline to the right, that probably should have been done a bit larger for effect.  The boys are done in a cool pastel look, and while Flair may look a bit feminine, you just can't look past the lipstick on Tully's collar.  Horsemen through and through!

How many of any of these bandanas were made?  We may never know.  I like to call the 1970's the "wild west" years of wrestling.  In turn, the 1980's were the equivalent as far as wrestling merchandise.  We just don't know what all was made from each promotion and won't until those items surface again.  What we do know is that they're fun to collect and part of that enjoyment is making new discoveries of old items.  We also know that even three decades later, The Four Horsemen are still the the ring and printed onto cloth!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

He's Got The Whole Figure In His Hands...

Just when you thought that there was no hope for someone with a non-muscular body type to hit it big in WWE, along comes Bray Wyatt.  Obviously his look isn't the only reason for his success, but it has played a big part.  Fans have largely rejected the overly pumped muscle men that seem to dominate the WWE scene.  Instead, the WWE Universe has latched onto men like Daniel Bryan (smaller), Roman Reigns (big, but covered), and of course, Bray Wyatt.

When a popular character finally debuts as a figure, it immediately becomes a hot item.  Bray Wyatt has the distinction of his first two figures being released simultaneously.  One is in the Basic Mattel series while the other is an Elite figure.  When choosing between the two it isn't always a no-brainer, but it is with Wyatt.  The Basic is just as the name says, basic, while the Elite includes two of Wyatt's most recognizable props, his hat and shirt.

I decided to pass up the Basic and go right for the Elite.  Why buy an incomplete figure when the "gimmicks" are so important to the presentation?  Right away, Wyatt passed my "Mattel packaging test."  As I've discussed before, the Mattel WWE figures have occasionally looked as if they're "floating" in the package.  Bray does not suffer from this, and it is helped by the shirt packaged in the corner.

New pieces had to be designed for this figure, and they capture Bray very well.  Another of my notoriously hated Mattel features, the torso joint, works perfectly with Bray.  Crab walk, anyone?  He isn't a slim fella, nor does he wear conventional gear.  Among Cena, Orton, and Sheamus he sticks out like a sore thumb in the best possible way.  He is imposing in a completely different manner and that, again, is a major part of his appeal.  He's the psychopathic killer child snatcher that appears in your nightmares.  The kind of character that makes wrestling, and your emotions, spring to life.

Facially, I don't think that they could have come closer.  The eyes.  The grin.  All the creepiness that is present not only during his promos, but in his matches as well.  The hat fits on top perfectly, which brings us to the shirt.  We've got some soft goods here, and I could not be happier about that.  The rubber shirts just don't work as well.  I don't think that we've seen the last of the rubber, but I'm glad that it's not a Mattel standard.

You really can't go wrong with this figure, especially if you like having a character with his trademark accessories.  It's a definite "Figure of the Year" candidate, but once the hype dies down it will likely be easy to find.  When a character as hot as Wyatt maintains their popularity, the figure is continually re-released in new series to meet demand.  Rowan and Harper should see a similar shelf life, as their basic figures are being released in a two-pack (with Bray's rocking chair) and in singles packs as Elites.  The latter releases will contain the rest of the Wyatt Family paraphernalia as Harper will be packaged with the lantern while Rowan will have his trademark mask and the rocking chair.

Bray certainly has the whole WWE Universe in his hands, and rightly so.  It's a great character that has elements of Kevin Sullivan, Waylon Mercy, and even a little bit of Cactus Jack.  It's something that is seemingly too edgy for modern day WWE, yet it is exactly what the people want.  And if it ever stops working, they can always revert to my idea of a Pawn Stars stable.  Just imagine Steve Austin as Rick, Greg Valentine as The Old Man, Bill DeMott as Corey, and Bray Wyatt as Chumlee.  Follow The Dollars?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My Favorite Events--WWE Hall Of Fame 2013

Favorite wrestling events don't necessarily need to include actual matches.  Honoring this great business and its stars can be equally as thrilling and memorable.  While there are many nights like this on a calendar year thanks to various wrestling institutions, the one that gets more attention than any other is the annual WWE Hall of Fame ceremony.  Since 2004, the event has been held on the night before the biggest annual show for the company, WrestleMania.

2013 saw my first pilgrimage to WrestleMania, which of course meant that I would be attending the Hall of Fame.  Initial rumors claimed that a certain 90's supergroup would be inducted that year, not particularly thrilling me.  Not long after, rumors of Bruno Sammartino finally burying his 25-year-long grudge with WWE also began to surface, including word that "The Living Legend" would finally take his place in the Hall of Fame.

As we all know by now, Sammartino did indeed join Bob Backlund, Booker T, Trish Stratus, Mick Foley, and Celebrity Wing Inductee Donald Trump in filling out the Class of 2013.  Held in a Hall of Fame level venue like Madison Square Garden, the atmosphere only enhanced what would have been a magical night no matter the location.

Unlike some years where the speeches tend to lag, almost every inductee had something memorable planned as part of their special moment.  Mick Foley had the first finishing move and pinfall to take place at a WWE Hall of Fame ceremony when he dropped his elbow onto Chris Jericho, lying prone on stage, while CM Punk counted the pin.  Trish Stratus brought several props to her induction as well as the announcement of her pregnancy.  Booker T capped off a tremendous speech with his famous Spinaroonie, while Bob Backlund was simply...Bob Backlund.

Bruno Sammartino was positioned as the "main event" of the evening, as was appropriate.  Tickets to the ceremony did not sell out until after the Sammartino announcement, thus cementing the night as "The Living Legend's" 188th such accomplishment in Madison Square Garden.  I know that I am not the only fan who could never have imagined attending a Sammartino-headlined MSG show, but it happened.

In his speech, Foley pointed out that it would be hard to ever top the 2013 Hall of Fame class.  He was right.  It could be argued that any of the wrestlers inducted in 2013 had the potential to "headline" a Hall of Fame class.  All five were world champions and each left a lasting imprint on the business.  All were also alive to participate, which in the world of wrestling sadly isn't always the case.

The event was also the first of its kind to actually see a bit of merchandising.  While a program is produced for every Hall of Fame ceremony and shirts have been marketed for the past few years, 2013 saw a bit more.  Mattel designed their Bruno Sammartino figure as a homage to the event, complete with accessories of the podium and a WWE Hall of Fame plaque.  In their Best of 2013 set, Topps included trading cards with photos from the event.  A few of their autographed insert cards used these photos as well.

Aside from possibly changing the celebrity inductee (I enjoy The Donald, but Cyndi Lauper would have fit even better), I don't think that we could have gotten a better Hall of Fame in The Garden.  Since most of my favorite events took place before I was old enough to make an effort to attend them, the 2013 WWE Hall of Fame was the perfect storm.  Stars from the past shining one more time in the mecca of pro wrestling, a landmark that will soon be history itself.  "Standin' In The Hall Of Fame," indeed.