Thursday, November 20, 2014

A.J. Lee Returns To The Blog...For The Last Time?

It seems like once a year, the infamous A.J. Lee becomes a topic in these pages.  Coincidentally, this visit is parallel to rumors that, once again, A.J. is on her way out of WWE. While likely false, many fans have not enjoyed her change of character as of late.  The interesting aspects of her character have been replaced by her role as, maybe not ironically, a female version of CM Punk.  Whether Lee stays for years or is indeed finished following Survivor Series, no one can deny that she was one of the standout WWE females for the last couple of years.

If she is in fact finished, a new figure is hitting Wal Mart shelves just in time to celebrate.  The figure is part of the latest series in the chain's exclusive Superstar Entrances collection.  The series features WWE stars in non-removable entrance gear.  The series is notable for having a die-cut "window" on the back of the packaging so that the detail on the clothing is in full view.  A.J. is the first female to be part of the series.

Although the series features "Basic" style figures, all Mattel WWE female figures are "Elite" in build, with the extra articulation.  With the amount of detail here, this figure could have easily been released in one of the Elite series at the higher price point.  I believe that this facial design has only been used once before, in a two-pack with Big E. Langston.  That figure had a rather dull paint scheme.  This figure has the bright pink heart/spider t-shirt that I readily picture the diminutive Diva wearing.  As much as I liked the face design in her earlier figures, I think that I like this one even more.  You just want another Diva to smack that smirk right off of her face.

For some reason there are a few bumps on the abs of the figure.  I thought that it could have been bubbled paint in a botched job, but every example that I've seen had this issue.  I did also come across some paint mishaps on the tights design, but it isn't really anything that hurts the figure overall.  You can easily imagine this figure skipping to ringside.  When a figure almost comes to life before your eyes simply from the design, it's a great product.  Mattel has really begun to poor their all into every one of their releases--even store exclusives.

This may or may not be the final figure of A.J. Lee.  Even if she leaves the company, there could be future figures already in the works.  Nonetheless, I would consider this the "ultimate" figure of the controversial Diva.  It looks great in the package, too, whereas her figure released in the Elite line seemed to float in the package.  At a price point of $7.77, added to the fact that it is a store exclusive aimed at Christmas season sales, grab her while you can.  Despite her change in character, she's still a popular character and her figures never last long on the shelves

With Thanksgiving coming up, I'm glad that we had a chance to revisit my favorite "Turnbuckle Turkey" one more time.  For all of the fun that I poke at her, she stood out in an era where it's increasingly hard to do so. Now she can ride...err...skip off into the sunset while still "on top."

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Before Classic Superstars, There Were The Legends Of Professional Wrestling

Just a few weeks ago it was announced that Figures Toy Company would be producing a line of Ring of Honor action figures.  Speculation abound as to which wrestlers would be made in the line, what size the figures would be, and their price point.  Figures Toy Company has been making many waves in the action figure scene over the last few years by recreating the iconic World's Greatest Superhero figures of the 1970's, as well as other figure lines produced by the long-defunct Mego company.  However, this isn't the company's first foray into the wrestling action figure world.  Years before Jakks would introduce the legendary WWE Classic Superstars line to the world, Figures Toy Company would produce The Legends of Professional Wrestling.

It was the wrestling "boom period" spurned by the "Attitude Era" and the "Monday Night Wars."  Every wrestling company including WWF, WCW, and ECW had a figure line that were relatively interchangeable at around six inches tall.  One of my main issues with the era is that the history of the business was all but forgotten.  There was suddenly no room for the wrestlers of yesteryear.  These men, who were portrayed as either good or evil, were no longer welcome in a wrestling world where even the "good guys" didn't really fight with good intentions.  Thankfully, as WWE became the steward of wrestling history as the 2000s went on, the past began to be "rediscovered."  In the meantime, we had this collection of twenty-three wrestling legends made of plastic.

Figures Toy Company and parent company Figures Inc. frequently advertised in the many wrestling magazines of the era and began the line with ads for "The Walking Condominium" himself, King Kong Bundy.  Each figure was around six inches tall (like the other wrestling figures of the day) and offered in both regular and "bloody" versions.  The blood was painted on rather generously and most of these figures also had slightly different colored attire as well.  For unknown reasons, Chief Jay Strongbow had two different color variations as opposed to a "bloody" version.  The first four figures (Bundy, Abdullah the Butcher, Killer Kowalski, and Ivan Putski) were also offered completely molded in a glow-in-the-dark plastic.

Each wrestler was it's own "Series" and eventually there were twenty-four series in all.  The only wrestler to be repeated was Bruno Sammartino, as he was offered in both his 1970's look and a "young" representation.  This is still the only version of Sammartino to include his infamous '70s perm hairdo.  Until the Classic Superstars line was released, this was the only time that many of these men had been immortalized in plastic.  As of this writing, the only figures to ever be released of Wahoo McDaniel, Eddie Gilbert, and Ox Baker are in this line.

Starting with Series 14 (Captain Lou Albano), the figures were released in completely enclosed boxes rather than carded.  Two-pack re-releases of figures were produced but are rather scarce.  Also beginning with Series 14, the heads of the wrestlers were actually interchangeable.  This led to FTC releasing a pack with all of the Series 14-24 heads, generic heads and bodies, as well as staff jackets and accessories as a "Create Your Own" set.

A few years later, FTC. tried to revive their line with the addition of Andre the Giant.  Two figures of the Eighth Wonder of the World were released, one in yellow and the other in the black strap.  They were made similar to the bodies of action figures produced by the aforementioned Mego company, and therefore they are out of scale with the other LOPW figures.  The figures were released in Mego-like packaging, as well.  The two are in-scale with the more recent Andre figures by Jakks and Mattel, and have risen in value in recent years.

Some collectors dismissed the line since the initial offerings were overproduced and often clearanced out very cheap.  Others preferred the longer lasting Classic Superstars line.  Both lines can be collected and enjoyed separately, especially since they are a completely different scale.  In addition to the great likenesses of Wahoo and '70s Bruno, the facial sculpts of Ivan Koloff, Baron Von Raschke, and Ox Baker are second-to-none.  Abdullah the Butcher had his best figure release here as well.

In a way, the line hearkens back to the Remco AWA figure collection of 1985-86.  They work as great companion pieces, especially since many of the names here popped up in the AWA.  The Legends of Professional Wrestling line might best be described as a celebration of the wrestling territories.  Men who made their name not only in the WWF, but the various NWA territories such as Mid-Atlantic and Georgia Championship Wrestling.

With twenty-three different characters, a collector could even cook up a heckuva fantasy card with these names alone.  My lineup?  Ricky Steamboat versus Bob Orton, Abdullah the Butcher versus The Sheik, Kamala versus Eddie Gilbert, Wahoo McDaniel versus Greg Valentine, Bruno Sammartino & Jay Strongbow versus Ivan Koloff & Jimmy Valiant (Managed By Lou Albano), Killer Kowalski versus Ox Baker, Superstar Billy Graham versus Tony Atlas, Iron Sheik & Nikolai Volkoff versus Tito Santana & Ivan Putski, and King Kong Bundy versus Baron Von Raschke.  Now that's a supercard!

We'll have to wait and see just what success FTC will have with ROH.  Will wrestling collectors connect with the offerings and FTC's online-only distribution?  Will high price points and kids unfamiliarity with the ROH roster hurt their chances?  Time will tell.  In the meantime, the LOPW line continues to gain back popularity.  Secondary market value of the later series figures has begun to rise.  It's time that this under-appreciated wrestling line takes its rightful, and legendary, place in collections everywhere.  Some of us have already treasured them for years.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Starrcade Was Turning Japanese

When you think of "The Granddaddy Of Em All," Starrcade, you think of huge NWA supercards held in November or December.  Japan, The Tokyo Dome, or the month of March usually aren't in the equation, unless you're thinking back to 1991.  Ric Flair was still holding "Big Gold," WCW had just broken away from the NWA, and stars such as Sting, Lex Luger, and The Steiner Brothers were at the top of the card. An alliance between WCW and New Japan Pro Wrestling was born, thus creating the first Starrcade '91, or WCW Japan SuperShow as it was known here in the United States.

It was a star-studded card headlined by Flair defending the championship against Tatsumi Fujinami.  It was this match that led to the main event of the first WCW SuperBrawl event a few months later.  At the time, WCW seemed to be trying to position SuperBrawl against WrestleMania and replace Starrcade as its biggest yearly event.  I've always felt that, despite respect from a wrestling standpoint, the Flair-Fujinami rematch wasn't the main event to use to build a new supershow, but that's another argument for another time.

Although WCW was gone from the practice of event-specific programs, NJPW produced an amazing looking publication that was sold at the Tokyo Dome.  It is an oversized glossy program in the style that the WWF would not adopt for a few years.  Perhaps as a reflection in the advancement in photography by the Japanese, wrestling publications from their country almost always have a modern look and feel that holds up today.

Kicking off the program is a proclamation from James (Jim) Herd.  It is presented in both Japanese and broken English.  For those of you that have heard Jim Cornette rant about the former WCW Vice President, you can only imagine what the "Louisville Lip" would make of this. This is the WCW side of the program, and traditionally the "American" side.  Publications in Japan are generally read in what Americans would consider a "backwards" format, due to how their language is printed.  The other side of this program has a NJPW logo cover and contains opening statements from their officials at the time as well as their own rundown of the card.

To say that the card was star-studded is almost an understatement.  The top WCW and NJPW talent of the day is featured as well as men like Big Van Vader and Bam Bam Bigelow who competed regularly on both continents.  Sting battled his longtime rival The Great Muta in a match that would make any classics list, while El Gigante took on "Big Cat" Hughes probably to appease Japanese wrestling fans longtime fascination with "big man" wrestlers. 

WCW merchandise from the era is shown several times throughout, including the Wrestling Wrap-Up magazine and many now-collectible shirts.  One page displays merchandise made exclusively for this Starrcade In Japan event.  A pair of what appear to be pre-paid phone cards are particularly interesting looking.  T-shirts and even a beach towel were offered, but the crown jewel has to be the shiny silver Starrcade In Japan jacket.  With Ribera Steakhouse jackets becoming more and more common among Japanese wrestling lore, I would imagine that this jacket would be considerably rarer.  There's a treasure for puroresu collectors to hunt!

Interestingly, the ads are not limited to wrestling related goods.  Full page ads appear several times throughout the program for liquor, food, and other items.  Japanese ads often appeared quirky to Americans back in those days, as was often lampooned by shows like The Simpsons.  If you haven't sought out commercials featuring Hulk Hogan singing or Abdullah the Butcher frolicking on a beach with a young Japanese girl, you truly need to.  Nonetheless, in this program we see a rather creepy ad featuring a robot holding a baby in a wooded area, and girls dressed as Geisha advertising what is probably a ramen-style soup.

Although three of these SuperShows (all labeled Starrcade in Japan) were produced altogether and eventually sold in the United States on pay-per-view, this 1991 event is the only one to be released on VHS.  It was released as "Rumble In The Rising Sun" and appeared in many rental stores at the time.  All three would definitely be great additions to WWE Network, especially since "all" pay-per-views are supposed to be included.  So while these events aren't included in the regular Starrcade chronology, all are interesting footnotes in the history of both WCW and NJPW.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Topps Travels The Road To WrestleMania

Has the wrestling world ever changed as rapidly as it has since WrestleMania XXX?  Survivor Series is just around the corner and most everyone imagined that Daniel Bryan would still be battling at the top of the card.  Instead, injuries have kept him away since spring.  The "headlining" legend of WrestleMania, The Ultimate Warrior, should have been continuing his renewed relationship with WWE, but was struck down with a heart attack at the conclusion of the weekend.  Even planned changes such as the break-up of The Shield, the uncertain status of the Wyatt family, and the killed momentum of Cesaro have completely changed the WWE landscape since the company "let the good times roll" back in April.

In the latest WWE trading card set, Topps takes us back to that exciting and optimistic night, as well as the events that led up to it.  This is the third Topps WWE product of the year, and the one that will carry it through the holiday season.  Single packs and "blaster boxes," the latter automatically containing a relic card, are available.  Hobby boxes guarantee two "hits" (relic or autograph) among the twenty-four packs.  While relic cards are fun, I always prefer an autograph card.

The 110 base cards are very nice this time around.  While I prefer the "year" sets with individual superstar cards, this set goes in order of the events leading up to WrestleMania XXX.  The photos used are very crisp and, in most cases, very well chosen.  Although many fans, including myself, are at times dumbfounded at some of the WWE's presentation, I always note that the talent level is fantastic. These superstars translate just as well onto trading cards as they do into action figures, proving that the WWE marketing machine is still in full force.

Subsets have been a popular trend in trading cards for quite awhile now, and we get some new ones this time around.  First up are sets dedicated to The Ultimate Warrior and "The Queen of WrestleMania," Trish Stratus.  Both are brightly colored, neon green and pinkish purple respectively, and highlight two stars who made it bigger during their careers than many originally imagined.  Next is a 22-card set dedicated to The Streak, including a 21-1 card from this year. Finally, a 60-card subset celebrates the 30 years of WrestleMania.  While it's a nice subset (any time that Greg "The Hammer" Valentine gets a card is good with me), licensing limitations hurt what could have been. Yokozuna gets three very similar looking cards in a row due to this.  Bret Hart returns to WWE cards in the Topps 2015 set, but he was obviously needed here.

In breaking a hobby box, I did not assemble a complete base card set as I did with the WWE 2014 series.  There are parallel cards to the base set, which basically amounts to different colored foil lettering.  I understand that there are collectors of these variations, but I don't get the excitement.  Boarders?  Sure. Lettering?  No.  As far as "hits," I happily received both a relic and an autograph.  Former Funkadactyl Cameron was my autograph, while a Cesaro WrestleMania XXX mat relic was the other hit.  A great memory from back when Cesaro should've been shot to the moon and wasn't losing to...lesser talent.

Road To WrestleMania is a good set.  Not great, but good.  If can get a good deal on a hobby box as I did, it's worth it to see what you pull.  You can't help but think that the Ultimate Warrior would have had autograph cards in this set, but it was not meant to be.  This is definitely one of the better "action shot" sets that have been produced.  Topps WWE 2015 is already set for February, and will include Hart as previously mentioned as well as the returns of George "The Animal" Steele and Sgt. Slaughter.  At risk of sounding like a broken record, how about a return to Heritage for the second half of 2015?  After all, it isn't one of my Topps reviews unless I plea at the end!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Remembering The Ox...

 If you ever wanted to find the perfect blend of professional wrestler and sports entertainer, you had to look no further than Ox Baker.  The master of the heart punch, or "hurt" punch as he sometimes called it, passed away on October 20th at the age of 80. Many ailments had piled up on The Ox from his years in the grapple game.  At his appearance this past summer in Charlotte at the Mid-Atlantic Fanfest, Baker appeared weak and frail, but his legendary spirit remained as he signed autographs and posed for photos.

Although Ox may not have been Harley Race or Jack Brisco in technique, he made up for it in his look, persona, and marketability.  Early photos from Baker's career depict a large, yet rather unassuming, athlete. Once the head was shaved and the facial hair was grown to frightening proportions, the true Ox Baker was born.  He became an image that would almost become the stereotype of a professional wrestler: big, mean, unkempt, hairy, and growling!

Despite never being a household name, even news outlets such as TMZ covered his passing.  He was a star of 70s wrestling magazine covers and even caused an honest-to-goodness riot on a 1974 winter night in Cleveland.  Thanks to two wrestlers dying shortly after wrestling him, his heart punch was touted as a killing machine.  Still, some of his out of the ring escapades are best remembered.

The year 1981 saw two of Baker's biggest moments occur, neither of which took place in the squared circle. When the late, legendary announcer Johnny Olson yelled for Douglas Baker to "Come On Down!," The Price Is Rights Contestant's Row would never be the same. Clad in his "Big, Mean, & Ugly" t-shirt, Ox not only won all of his pricing games, but displayed his charisma to the world with a hilarious showing next to Bob Barker.  Later that year, Ox battled Kurt Russell as the villainous Slag in "Escape From New York."

Later in the '80s, Ox gradually left in-ring action.  More fans would probably know of the great Ox had he become involved in some capacity during one of wrestling's "boom" periods.  Aside from a blink-and-you'll-miss-it stint managing The Nightstalker (Bryan Clark/Adam Bomb) in WCW, it simply didn't happen. Instead, the Ox made his name and image known once again in his 60s and 70s as a regular on the indy and convention circuit.

Even if you did not attend the events, you would notice the name Ox Baker showing up around the country, but especially on the east coast.  When Ox wasn't managing an up-and-comer while carrying his bullwhip, he was serenading fans at his gimmick table with ditties ranging from cute to patriotic to bawdy. Based upon his look, most fans probably wouldn't have guessed that Ox was approaching 80, and his youthful antics gave no clues.

Ox always seemed proud of his action figure that was part of the Figures Inc. Legends of Professional Wrestling line.  When I think of him, I often picture that figure since it was such a perfect likeness.  I would imagine that it served as a validation of his success.  Ox didn't always get the recognition that he deserved, especially for how well he represented the business outside of the ring, but being immortalized in plastic right next to peers such as Bruno Sammartino, Wahoo McDaniel, and Ivan Koloff is quite the honor. If he can see the outpouring of love and respect since his passing, no more validation is necessary.

Although I'm sure you've already sung your way past St. Peter, Rest In Peace, Ox.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Wrestling MarketWatch: The 1990s

I would have never thought that I'd be nostalgic for the 1990's.  For me, the really fun times were in the previous decade.  Although I was born in 1982, I consider myself a full-fledged '80s kid.  Nonetheless, the passage of time and some rose-colored glasses have finally made me yearn for a dose of the '90s.  In amongst the neon colors, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Crystal Pepsi, there were some fun times in wrestling and plenty of memorabilia to reflect that.

It would be hard to collect wrestling memorabilia and not own something from the '90s.  Action figures, trading cards, magazines, programs, t-shirts, and videos dominated the market.  Because of the large amount of items and the beginning of a collectors consciousness to save, much of this merchandise can be obtained for about the original retail price.  Other items from the decade are still in high demand and, for various reasons, have risen in value.  We're about to take a look at a handful of these '90s wrestling treasures and their recent sale prices.

*The decade began with two wrestling action figure lines, WWF from Hasbro and WCW from Galoob.  The WWF line lasted until late 1994, while Galoob only made a single series in the United States.  A second series featuring several new wrestlers (as well as repaints from the first series) was released in the U.K.  Of these figures, one of the coolest was Michael P.S. Hayes.  The founding member of the Fabulous Freebirds was in a flashy "glam rock" period of his career and this figure reflects that.  A loose example of this figure, my favorite of Hayes, recently sold for $71.50.

*Figures weren't just released in small sizes.  Larger figures were also produced, often with a gimmick attached.  Multi Corp released several water-based WWF toys, including water pumper figures of The Ultimate Warrior and Hulk.Hogan.  Both figures have much more detail than water toys have any right to.  If they had been a few inches shorter, they would have fit right in with the Hasbro line considering the great likenesses.  Their only drawback was a rounded foot design that made them impossible to stand, but after all, they were just essentially water pistols.  A loose Ultimate Warrior recently sold for $10.

*Who said that the advent of WWE Network would kill VHS and DVD prices?  Not me!  For the most part, I've been right.  There will always been an uncertainty with streaming.  You don't have that with tangible media, and the demand is still there.  The 1990's WCW Turner Home Videos have always been popular, and titles like Beach Blast 1992 are still commanding $30 and more.  Is it the Ricky Steamboat-Rick Rude Iron Man Challenge Match or the Missy Hyatt-Madusa Bikini Contest that is still drawing fans?  You decide!

*One event that has yet to show up on WWE Network is the Slammy Awards.  Although they have been an annual part of Raw over the past few years, the ceremonies were irregularly held in the 1980's and 1990's. The 1996 and 1997 events were held in conjunction with WrestleMania in the slot that the Hall of Fame ceremony occupies today.  These 1990's Slammy ceremonies had programs given out at the event. Both programs have the Slammy Award design embossed on the cover.  Though rarely seen, one of each recently sold for a bargain price of $22.50 per program.

*Hasbro is probably the best remembered WWF licensee of the decade, but their products weren't solely limited to figures.  The company marketed a number of roleplaying items that enabled children to "become" their favorite WWF Superstars.  One such item that had a relatively short shelf-life was Jake Roberts' Snake toy.  Although it was marketed simply as Jake's snake, the toy was released around the transition between Damien and Lucifer.  The toy snake even included the famous drawstring bag that held Jake's reptilian friend. A boxed example recently sold for $56.

A variety of items from a decade that offered a variety of wrestling choices.  It would be my guess that demand for these items will only rise, as children of the era who let go of their items at some point are looking to get them back.  The rise in popularity of the Hasbro WWF toys is a big example of this.  As vast as the wrestling of the decade was, I'm sure that we'll revisit this time, and its merchandise, again for another edition of MarketWatch!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

For The Love Of Hasbro...

It seems as if the Hasbro WWF figure line creeps up here on the blog at least once a year, and rightly so.  It's hard to believe, but 2015 will mark the 25th anniversary of the beloved line.  If you use the 1989 date on the ring toy, the celebration has already begun.  In that quarter of a century, collectors love for the line has only grown stronger.  Why?  A multitude of reasons that is firmly entrenched in nostalgia for the WWF era that the line represents, as well as the many memorable wrestlers that were produced.

In the first few years of Hasbro's WWF run, heavy marketing was key.  Commercials starring Jesse "The Body" Ventura (who, ironically, did not get a figure in the line) showcased the "Real Wrestling Action" of the figures as well as the features of the toy ring.  Real WWF footage was interspersed with Ventura, some kids, and even some of the WWF Superstars.  Ventura's departure from the WWF in summer 1990 led Rowdy Roddy Piper to take over as "host" of these commercials.  All of the ads starring both men ran well into 1991 and appeared during the commercial breaks of just about every childrens-related show of the time.

Of course, the WWF was ever-changing, and it took about a year from a stars debut for them to appear as an action figure.  As a result, figures such as Ric Flair and Nailz didn't hit store shelves until after they had been gone from the company.  It was no matter, as with figures of legends such as Andre the Giant, Dusty Rhodes, and Kerry Von Erich, there was no shortage of fun to be had.  I know that I wasn't the only child "promoter" that continued to "book" these stars long after their real-life WWF tenures were over. Rhodes-Flair WWF style?  Thanks to Hasbro, it happened!

It's actually interesting to think of all the talent that made it into the line.  In addition to Andre, Flair, Rhodes, and Von Erich, you had the '80s WWF stars of Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, and Ted DiBiase.  The 1990s "New Generation" of Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, and Razor Ramon. NWA associated talents such as the Legion of Doom, Lex Luger, and The Steiner Brothers.  Even AWA names such as Rick Martel and Curt Hennig showed up.  The 1990-1994 WWF was a wrestling melting pot.  The Hasbro line truly reflects that.

In 1992 and into the following year, Savage became the commercial spokesperson.  When the television advertising died off, so seemingly did Hasbro's interest in the line.  While more great figures such as Doink the Clown, Bam Bam Bigelow, and Yokozuna were being produced, the line just didn't have the same steam that it once did.  Late 1994 saw the release of the final series, ironically, just when many colorful wrestlers were debuting in the WWF and would have been due for figures.

Although some negatively deem the 90-94 WWF as the height of the company's cartoon era, there are many who would love to see it back.  Skits, segments, and storylines that are presented in today's WWE are often nowhere near as entertaining as what we were shown back then.  WWE Network can be used as evidence in the argument.  Would a Hasbro style line work today?  As a secondary product to the main WWE figure line, there's no doubt in my mind.  We are living in an age where "retro" styled and themed action figure lines are soaring in popularity.

While I'd like to see an unaffiliated "Legends of Wrestling" line come along in the style of the Remco AWA line, John Cena, Bray Wyatt, and Daniel Bryan with "Real Wrestling Action" in a Hasbro style would be just perfect.  I know that we'll once again be revisiting Hasbro here on the blog for the big anniversary next year, and it'd be very nice to be able to discuss a reintroduction of the line.  As I say so often, "make it happen..."