Thursday, February 4, 2016

NXT Live: Merch & Memories

Even with WWE logos strategically placed at the event, a plug for the next Monday Night Raw in town, and on-screen ads here and there, NXT Live isn't your standard WWE production. In fact, aside from the WWE-led rebirth of ECW a decade ago, NXT is likely the most un-WWE production that you'll ever see from the sports entertainment juggernaut. That being said, it's easy to forget that NXT is still, supposedly, a developmental stage.

Recently, Pittsburgh, PA hosted its second NXT Live event. The home for NXT in the Steel City so far has been a roughly 2,000-capacity concert venue known as Stage AE. The building is nestled on Pittsburgh's North Shore right between PNC Park and Heinz Field, respective homes of the Pirates and the Steelers. The first show was in June 2015 and, as fans and wrestlers alike were preparing for the debut event, news of the death of Dusty Rhodes began to break. Despite the obvious shadow, the event was solid and featured the best that NXT had to offer.

The second show was equally as well received by the audience, but really did not come close to topping the debut. As good as the brand and its stars can be, many fans are blinded by their rabid love for it all. I am in no way putting those fans or their opinions down, but nearly everything popular has a "can do no wrong" phase. With a few exceptions, NXT is still in that "honeymoon" stage. Nothing really suffers because of it, as it is obviously a great product.

For the second show, I was a bit let down by the card initially. Between call-ups and some odd omissions, the card just seemed to come nowhere close to the first on paper. Many stars who do not get much television exposure were featured, and perhaps my favorite talent on the roster was nowhere to be found. Asuka, who can pop a crowd with a simple expression, was not on the show despite two women's matches on the card. Instead, the very inexperienced Nia Jax was included. Keeping in mind that NXT is indeed developmental and that Jax does need experience, her appearance was one that even the NXT hardcores weren't necessarily pleased about. Nepotism truly seems to be at work as far as Jax is concerned.

On the plus side, Finn Balor and Samoa Joe did an excellent job delivering a quality main event. With rumors ever-circulating as far as how long both will be part of NXT, it will be interesting to see just who can take their spot. It may just take two other concepts foreign to WWE: tag team and women's main events. Both divisions are very hot in NXT. American Alpha may be the hottest team in years thanks to a combination of appeal both in-ring and on the mic, while Dash & Dawson are an amazing throwback to teams who did indeed top territories. As far as wrestlers regardless of gender, Bayley is in a class by herself. Her connection with the fans through both her charisma and athleticism is something special. Like one of her mentors, The Dream, she has the ability to reach out and touch the fans with the simplest of ease. Should that intangible translate into her eventual WWE main roster spot, the company will have its first female megastar.

One thing that remained the same between the shows, or perhaps got even better, was the NXT merchandise. The stars are marketed as well as you'd expect coming from WWE's illustrious history in that area. Posters, belts, autographs, apparel, and accessories. If there's a star on the show, there will be likely be some sort of merchandise available there. Observing the sales, it seemed as if every order demanded the commemorative poster for the event. For $15, a beautiful, retro-styled "Steel City Showdown" poster featuring Joe, Balor, and the rest of the lineup was available. For $75 a fully-signed version was also for sale. That type of item does make a house show seem that much more special.

Given the opportunity, attending an NXT show is a unique experience that shouldn't be missed. It's a magic that has made new fans and brought lapsed ones back into the fold. How long the magic lasts is anyone's guess. Though I may have felt a bit less blown away this time around, I'm guessing that I'm one of the few. Will it be my last show? Absolutely not. Hopefully, NXT regenerates itself as talent rotates and the business continues to adapt to this new phenomenon. Without a doubt, it will be an interesting ride.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Mattel Goes "Behind The Scenes" In WWE

Here on the blog it seems that we've kicked off 2016 with a full month of WWE toys, mostly from Mattel. Now we're capping it off with a playset. Many figure lines that I collected as a child had playsets. G.I. Joe had spectacular bases, Masters of the Universe had castles and grottos, and even The Real Ghostbusters had their legendary firehouse. Unfortunately, wrestling playsets were usually limited to rings. Despite kids dreaming of locker room sets, an interview area, or even a Piper's Pit, the non-ring areas were usually relegated to whatever makeshift playset that a child could conjure up.

Jakks and Toybiz were the first to create additional play areas for their respective WWF and WCW figure lines in the 1990's. Despite the TitanTronLive figures being a relative disappointment, the actual Tron playset was extremely popular and likely proved to manufacturers that non-ring playsets would indeed sell. Mattel has carried this idea into the next generation, with several entrance playsets being introduced. One such set even integrates tablets in order to play your favorite entrance videos.

It was another Mattel playset that recently caught my eye. This set is the WWE Behind The Scenes Brawl. Admittedly, I pay less attention in general to these playsets than the figures themselves, but all seems to indicate that this set was originally released in the middle of 2015. This set contains all you need to recreate the backstage interview area currently utilized on WWE programming. Included is the curtain backdrop with logo sign and "lighting," a mesh "screen" that opens like a double door, a mounted camera, free-standing lighting rigs, three opening barrels, and a microphone.

You may recognize some of these pieces. The curtain backdrop pieces were included with individual figures in a Toys "R" Us exclusive set several years ago. The one figure that I picked up in that set, Mark Henry, included the older logo sign as well as a flat screen monitor that could easily be used with this set. In that release, the curtain was black and not the maroon hue that we have here. The camera, sans the stand included here, has seen several releases including most recently with the J & J Security figures.

The set is quick and easy to assemble. Once the backdrop pieces aresnapped together, everything else pretty much goes wherever you decide to place it. I picked this up as something that could be used as a nice display, but you're never too old to imagine some play possibilities. What if WWE launched a World Championship Wrestling-style studio show? Plop a ring down, set an announcer or two in front of the curtain, and have wrestlers roar through the mesh "entrance." It's 6:05 all over again!

Perhaps the most fitting figure for this set is coming very soon. Despite the prototype not having a microphone-holding hand, Renee Young's first figure will be a perfect companion to this set. As the most important and impactful interviewer in WWE since Mean Gene Okerlund, I'm looking forward to the Lunatic Fringe's number one fan taking her rightful place "Behind The Scenes" in the Mattel line. In the meantime, Mattel has given us Jim Ross, Michael Cole, and Jerry "The King" Lawler to conduct interviews, hopefully with more commentators to come. A Mattel Mauro Ranallo, anyone?

The set is fun, but not flawless. I could have done without the barrels, although I understand why they are included. Smash away, kids! I'd have preferred more equipment, or even some anvil cases. For a price of $35, some of the lights should really work. It couldn't have cost much to put some tiny Christmas lights above the curtain to give forth at least a small glow. That being said, the set is selling for above retail on the secondary market. It's popular even without special effects. Once Renee is released in a short while, I wouldn't be surprised if the playset becomes even more popular.

I like this set a lot. I'd have spent hours with such a set as a kid, just cutting promos. I made my own such backdrops back then, but an official item just makes it all the cooler. Kudos to Mattel for seeing the value in extending the fantasy.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Mattel Goes "Sycho"

He was Vicious. He was Justice. He was Humongous. He was even "Sycho." A master of the powerbomb, a skyscraper, and the master and ruler of the world. He is Sid. There's little middle ground on the man. You either like him or you don't. He had a look that was absolutely made for the wrestling business in a time when big men ruled. He hit all of the major companies as well as the top titles. Although he made it to the top of the mountain, various issues prevented him from staying there, or in any promotion, for very long. Now, thanks to Mattel, the man that rules the world is back.

The WWE action figure manufacturer is kicking the year off right. New packaging and many new characters. The first Elite series already contains three Flashback figures, usually favorites on this blog, with Davey Boy Smith and The Godfather joining Sid. The new Elite packaging is very attractive. The bubble is once again "open air" at the top, looking a lot like some superhero figure packaging that I've seen. The figures are also categorized with the logo (Legends, Divas, NXT, etc) that they're most associated with, although in 2016 I'm not sure how a current star can necessarily be labeled from either Raw or Smackdown.

Sid is an absolute giant. Although he always came across as gigantic on television, I don't think that I fully grasped his stature until I stood next to him. That being said, the figure is required to reflect that. The Jakks Classic Superstars Sid was one of the great disappointments in an otherwise unmatchable line. The body and limbs seemed way too wimpy for the massive Sid. The figure also came at a time when the Jakks quality was beginning to wane, making extensive posing of the figures rather risky. Mattel's Sid is big and sturdy. He absolutely looks as in-scale as possible.

This particular Sid facial likeness is one that has yet to be captured until now. Most past Sid figures went for the serious, menacing face. Mattel went the route of Sid's psychotic laugh. It works. Commentators would often point out Sid's maniacal grin and guffaws at the sight of his downed and decimated opponents. I can also recall several classic magazine covers with that exact grin on full display.

Most of the body parts themselves are reused, but they work, no questions asked. Sid was not the most technically sound wrestler, so as long as the figure can perform a powerbomb and chokeslam, you should be good to go. You could probably even reasonably recreate Sid's famous WCW injury, but who would want to do that? Sid's leather entrance vest is also included. I believe that this is an all-new accessory. It is definitely different from the one included with Barry Windham last year.

Here we have another former Horseman from Mattel. In what should be a year of great new faces from the company, Sid is a nice start. For most Mattel collectors, I'd call it a no-brainer to add to the collection. With a few different looks and outfits, I wouldn't rule out another Sid from Mattel down the road. He's certainly a name that I could see being thrown into a Basic set as is becoming more and more the case with Legends figures.

What more is there to say? Throw down your softball bat and squeegee and pick up a Sid!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Five "Forgotten" Mattel WWE Figures

It's hard to believe that it's been six years since the Mattel WWE figure line began to hit stores and collectors hands. Some welcomed the change. Others, like myself, were bold and determined to try and ignore the line, holding on to our Jakks favorites ever so tightly. Over half a decade later, Mattel has taken their line of figures and toys and turned out some memorable and cherished product. It didn't necessarily start out that way.

Like with most figure lines, there were bumps and hurdles along the way. In an effort to correctly scale the vastly different WWE superstars, likenesses greatly suffered. I can remember an early Jack Swagger that nearly completely turned me against the line. In 2016, we've seen major improvements in likenesses as well as something that's important to me: depth. Because we are now in the sixth year of the line, we do have stars who, long gone from WWE, only received one or two Mattel figures. Highlighted here are five of those "lost" superstars. It's some of these early names that finally, years later, give us the natural depth that long-lasting lines achieve.

Kicking it off is one of my favorite people in the wrestling business: Tommy Dreamer. He is also the one on this list most likely to return to the Mattel line in the future. Although he seems to flawlessly float back and forth between organizations, Dreamer's recent WWE run was seemingly well-received. With the rapidly shrinking WWE roster due to injuries, Tommy may very well find himself bringing his brand of hardcore wrestling to the WWE Universe in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, Mattel already has a great Dreamer figure that was released in 2010 in a two-pack with Christian. Like many of these early "one and done" figures, Dreamer has seen a large spike in value on the secondary market. That value will take a hit should he see a new release, but there has been no word of a new figure at this time.

Although he had plenty of releases through Jakks, Shane Helms only saw one Mattel figure. In his guise as The Hurricane, the green and black outfit was hard to miss on store shelves. For being an early Mattel figure, extensive detail was put into the likeness, especially surrounding the characters mask. This is also the only figure of The Hurricane to date in his later look with the stringy shoulder-length hair. Since it was only a Basic figure release, no accessories were including. For those who have to see the Mattel Hurricane "soar" into the ring, the various Jakks Hurri-capes work perfectly.

Speaking of hair, the one and only Carlito made two appearances early in the Mattel run. When the line first debuted, I decided to only collect those who had never been made into a figure before. To get Primo, you had to purchase a two-pack with his brother Carlito. The set was released twice with a slightly more heelish look for both the second time around. While Primo has remained in WWE since, Carlito departed not long after the figures were released. Rumors of a WWE return for Carlito have swirled as recently as late last year. In my opinion, the Puerto Rican star would fit like a glove in NXT where he would likely be motivated to finally live up to his full potential.

Another star frequently rumored to be on the WWE return trail is Shelton Benjamin. "The Gold Standard" also had an early Mattel entry, and the likeness was dead on. Benjamin always reminded me of "The Natural" Butch Reed in this gimmick and I don't feel that he went as far as he could have no matter the persona. Another great candidate for an NXT rejuvenation, Benjamin would likely be a great addition to the coaching area, as well. With the current rumored influx of talent to the WWE, there may be no stopping Shelton from joining the pack.

The only superstar out of our five featured to receive both a Basic and an Elite figure is Chavo Guerrero Jr. The high-flyer was still involved in many angles when Mattel began their line, but his Basic figure came along as a reminder of one of the worst. For whatever reason, Chavo found himself in a feud with Hornswoggle. The two-pack of figures reflects this epic struggle that many of us would prefer to forget, but at least a great looking Chavo figure came out of it. An Elite Chavito came complete with pancho and bandana.

I like to limit most "list" entries to five (quality over quantity), but there are others who had good and relatively forgotten early Mattel figures as well. Mike Knox and Luke Gallows spring to mind as further examples. As mentioned with Dreamer, the secondary prices on many of these figures have gone up, but you never know when a lapsed fan from a few years ago will be looking to liquidate their collection for the price paid or even cheaper.

Next week, the January figure trend continues with a look at a new "First Time In The Line" figure from Mattel...who actually made a cameo this week!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Big Bucket of Rumble

When I was a kid, my mother marveled at the action figures that were out there. In her childhood years, there just wasn't the same level of detail put into toys. After all, they were for kids. When I played with my G.I. Joe figures, my mom would tell me of the solid plastic figures that she and her siblings had. Army men, cowboys, space men, it didn't matter. They mixed them all together and had a lot of fun. I could understand why. It isn't about how many joints a figure has in its arms and legs. It's about what kind of hero or villain that the figure represents. The imagination of the child will take care of the rest. Now kids who are wrestling fans can relive that vintage plastic thrill.

Wicked Cool Toys has produced several different items under their WWE license, but none may be quite as unique as the WWE Micro Maulers. The item is exactly what it claims to be on the packaging: a "Bucket Of Superstars!" Inside this plastic tub are twenty-seven different WWE figures. Like the army men of yesteryear that I mentioned above, these are solid figures that don't move. They're posed in connection with the character that they represent, and there are both current and past stars included.

Making up the group are Yokozuna, Roman Reigns, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Sheamus, The Ultimate Warrior, The Undertaker, Erick Rowan, Jake Roberts, Rusev, Jimmy Hart, Daniel Bryan, Bret Hart, Randy Orton, Kane, Luke Harper, Bray Wyatt, John Cena, Ric Flair, The Big Show, The Rock, Jimmy & Jey Uso, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Triple H, Sgt. Slaughter, Dean Ambrose, and Macho Man Randy Savage. Originally, the set was also to include Hulk Hogan and The Road Warriors as well.

The top of the bucket detaches to become a ring for our little plastic gladiators. The figures are generally easily recognizable, and only once or twice did I have to refer to the names on the bottom of the molded stand. Not being in his robe, Flair looks just a tad generic. For some reason, my bucket contained two Jey Uso figures. Seeing as that on the packaging the Uso figures look to be identical, I wasn't too bothered by this.

The figures are divided between current star and legend by color, in red and blue respectively. Kane in his current look and attire is blue while The Undertaker in a hooded robe is in red, but that's not too big of a deal, either. The sculpts are good, the poses are recognizable, and some are just downright fun. If the mini-figure of the mighty Yokozuna in all his girthy glory doesn't bring a smile to your face, then you just aren't a wrestling fan.

The set is labeled as "Series 1" and "Royal Rumble," which had some collectors upset when Hogan, Hawk, and Animal were removed as it isn't a perfect thirty-man "Rumble." With the inclusion of a manager, I think that the sets are intended to be named after big events rather than actually replicating them. After all, these are "little plastic men." If this is indeed the case and further sets see the light of day, I would imagine that we will see WrestleMania, SummerSlam, etc.

These little guys are fun to toss around or just pose. They aren't Mattel Elite figures nor are they meant to be. It's simple fun and it actually isn't the first time that wrestling figures have been produced in this fashion. Although they did not have molded stands, Remco produced Mini Mashers as part of their AWA line. The figures were solid plastic each in a different color and based on the larger AWA figures. Some collectors have taken to painting them over the years, and I could see some artsy modern fans doing the same with these.

Although I've seen the sets in brick and mortar stores, you can't go wrong for around $4 per bucket on Amazon. Hopefully the lower price doesn't mean that further sets are in danger, as there are plenty of current and past WWE stars that I'd love to see added in the future.

Yoko, Macho, Taker, and the Wyatt Family? Sounds like a heckuva Rumble to me!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The 2015 J\/\/ Awards

2015 has come and gone. A year of ups and downs, I think that we can all look forward to new hope in 2016. This year, we close out the blog with the sixth annual J\/\/ Awards. As always, the awards celebrate the best in wrestling memorabilia and memories over the past twelve months. As has also become a beloved tradition, "The Joshie" award itself has made its annual change. It has been classy, common, and a real American hero. This year, with a lot of wrestling-related sadness, it felt like it was time to just clown around a bit...and maybe become a bit freaky in the process!

 2015 Best Figure

Mattel's WWE Defining Moments Sting wins "The Joshie" for 2015 Best Figure. In the year that saw his debut WWE matches, Sting also received his first WWE-branded action figures. The first figure was based on his iconic "Crow" look from the late 1990's during his battles with the nWo. Two other Sting figures were released during 2015, but this "Defining Moments" entry lived up to the grandiose packaging and price tag and beat out the Elite Rusev figure for the ultimate honor.

 2015 Best Buy (Non-Figure)

Pro Wrestling Illustrated wins "The Joshie" for 2015 Best Buy. Pro Wrestling Illustrated returns to pick up another "Joshie!" The publication which has been the standard bearer for wrestling magazines since 1979 is now, by and large, the sole survivor. By reducing page count by just a bit, PWI has sliced their cover price down to $6.99. It's much more affordable than $9.99 and lets more of us enjoy such standards as the PWI 500 and the PWI Female 50. Fans and collectors alike need PWI to remain on the newsstand. An era without a wrestling magazine isn't somewhere that I want to be...

 2015 Best Product Line

Mattel wins "The Joshie" for 2015 Best Product Line. Superstars! Divas! Legends! NXT! Mattel once again took it to the mat with their WWE line in 2015. When the line began, I never would have been convinced that we would be celebrating the products at some point, but here we are. There truly is something for everyone as Mattel continually covers all bases with variety and selection. Are there still hiccups? Of course, but that goes for all product lines of all genres. As good as 2015 was for Mattel, 2016 may be even better. Why? Four words. Renee Young's debut figure. Nuff said!

 2015 Future Holy Grail

NXT Merchandise wins "The Joshie" for 2015 Future Holy Grail. NXT truly has taken over. It's a futuristic throwback. The kind of wrestling that might be standard mainstream fare today had sports entertainment not become the norm. It took awhile, but it's here. Wrestling as it should be. Fears that it will get "too big" are probably warranted, but I wouldn't worry just yet. If you got in on the ground floor of the merchandising, consider yourself lucky. The action figures and cards are great, but I'm looking at shirts, programs, and other merch featuring many stars who are already making an impact on the main WWE roster. It's repeated over and over, but the future is indeed now.

 2015 Thanks For The Memories Award

2015 Thanks For The Memories Honoree(s):  Dusty Rhodes & Rowdy Roddy Piper. When this award was introduced last year, it was not intended to become a memorial despite the first recipient being the Ultimate Warrior. Here we are in 2015 and another two of the most memorable icons of wrestling are unexpectedly gone. There are still times when I don't immediately remember that Dusty Rhodes and Rowdy Roddy Piper have passed away. They were both so full of life. Their actions and personalities WERE the wrestling that so many of us grew up on. May their souls rest in peace but their characters live forever.

That wraps it up for another round of J\/\/ Awards and another year. I thank you all for following the blog for yet another fifty-two weeks. The knowledge that you give me and the blog a few minutes of your time each week completely honors me. As always, the best is yet to come. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Hillbilly Jim...Hall of Famer of Humanity

I'm very often asked to share tales of meeting names from the wrestling business. I do have a boatload of them, but I never felt that this blog would be my avenue to share them. Someday, somewhere, I'll assemble them all, but occasionally one slips out. This is an amalgamation of several, all about one man. A man who, in my eyes, often gets lost in the shuffle of legends. He's iconic, yet isn't a member of the WWE Hall of Fame. He was a cast member of WWE Legends House, yet he rarely guests on regular WWE programming. He is Hillbilly Jim.

In my younger days, I was a more casual fan. I remember very early in life saying "KingKongBundy" (youthfully enunciated as one word) and "Junkyard Dog," but some I recognized visually. Standing in the action figure aisle at the late, great Hills Department Store, I remember pointing out figures of "The Announcer," "The Girl," and "The Farmer." Those were, of course, Mean Gene Okerlund, Miss Elizabeth, and Hillbilly Jim. I never really thought that I'd own them, but I sure did like looking at them. I was a G.I. Joe kid then, and those "big, rubber wrestlers" were positively huge. Especially "The Farmer."

As I became more of a fan, I always enjoyed Hillbilly. The idea of a big, scufflin', man from the hills made sense in wrestling, as it had for decades with various incarnations of the gimmick. No one using the style was really having mat classics, but astute fans know that a "five-star match" isn't always what matters. Larger-than-life characters will always marvel the wrestling audience, and that's exactly what the "country boy" wrestler is designed to do. Hillbilly Jim carried that legacy into the most marketable time in wrestling history, the 1980s.

When you remind kids of the '80s of the grand WWF Wrestling Superstars figure line mentioned above, Hillbilly Jim quickly springs to mind. He was produced very early in the run and was a very lifelike replica. Just as he does in real life, Hillbilly towered above most of the others. He even came with an accessory in the form of his removable hat. Hillbilly also appeared on magazines, programs, trading cards, ViewMaster reels, Hulk Hogan's Rock n' Wrestling cartoon, and much more.

Hillbilly wrestled until 1990 when his neck finally became a problem for him. He became deeply involved in Coliseum Video's WWF video line and later became one of WWF/WWE's "goodwill ambassadors," especially with their Road to WrestleMania tour. It was because of his relationship with Coliseum Video that I first met the big man. He was, in fact, the second wrestler that I ever met. In 1995, my family happened to be shopping in a local grocery store when we learned that Hillbilly would be appearing in the video rental department that day. I can still remember the mountain of a man making his way down the main aisle of the store. When he arrived at the signing table, I recall that he turned to a nearby poster of fitness celebrity Tony Little and said, "Hey, I know you!" This was before everyone had photo capabilities on them at all times, but I did get some autographs and great memories.

I've met Hillbilly several times since, but it was an appearance just this month that really made me reflect on the wrestling legend. The KSWA (Keystone State Wrestling Alliance) promotion here in Pittsburgh runs their annual fanfest in December. It is one of their biggest shows of the year combined with a Toys For Tots drive and other activities that create a truly festive atmosphere. One or two big names from wrestling's past are always brought in as well. I think all would agree that no legend ever fit the event better than Hillbilly Jim.

Whereas most legends will say a few words about the event that they're at, I truly believed every word this time. The big man billed from "Mudlick, Kentucky" was having a ball. He spent time with each and every fan who approached him. He even mingled with the crowd in the second half of the show and got into the matches just as much as the fans. There wasn't any "sell the gimmicks and run out the back" like you see with a lot of names. Hillbilly Jim is genuine.

Thinking back, Hillbilly has never been anything but genuine with myself and anyone else that I know who has met him. The fun-loving mountainous grappler? The weekly host of SiriusXM's "Moonshine Matinee?" The happy-go-lucky guy that you saw on Legends House? That's the real Hillbilly Jim. In this day and age, he's the kind of person that we need more of. Heck, even his mantra of "I'm not here for a long time, I'm here for a good time," is something that we all could strive to follow.

Hillbilly Jim may not be in the WWE Hall of Fame, but he sure is in mine. He enjoys people. Kids big and small. He doesn't need to spend time away from home, but he does. Whether it's a fan in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania or New York, New York, Hillbilly has time for them. He makes time. He gives back. If you ask me, that's what makes a true legend.

And just as Hillbilly and I said after we snapped the picture above...