Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hot Rod's Legacy of Memorabilia

The last time that Rowdy Roddy Piper was profiled at length in this blog was around the time of his passing. It was quite the sad time, as we had just lost Dusty Rhodes as well. Neither man is one who should be mourned long. It doesn't fit into the character of either man. Both brought countless joy to millions of people worldwide. In the case of Hot Rod, my friends and I highly rank him as one of the nicest wrestlers to meet. He may even top that list, and will likely never be replaced. Piper had a way of making any fan feel like an old friend. He was special.

Roddy Piper was at his peak of popularity (both "good" and "bad") just when the WWF marketing machine was taking off. Many remember his likeness showing up on everything from lunch boxes to trading cards, but that wasn't where the "Rowdy" memorabilia began. In addition to magazine and program covers, Piper's mug showed up on the cover of the 1983 Georgia Championship Wrestling calendar. Pictured with his broadcast colleague Gordon Solie. The feisty villain had just recently turned "good" by saving Solie from an attack by Don Muraco.

Just a few years later, Piper was making headlines on the cover of the then-fairly new official World Wrestling Federation Magazine. Though he would share the spotlight a few times in those early years with the likes of Captain Lou Albano, Cyndi Lauper, and even fellow villains Nikolai Volkoff and The Iron Sheik, my favorite "cover" moment arrived on the December 1985/January 1986 issue. An artists rendering depicts the "Hot Rod" celebrating Christmas the "Rowdy Way," complete with "Bah Humbug" t-shirt. "Ebenezer Piper," anyone?

And no one deserved their own dedicated Coliseum Video title more than the rowdy Scotsman. "Rowdy Roddy Piper's Greatest Hits" delivered exactly what it advertised. There were highlights from classic Piper's Pit segments, overviews of his biggest feuds, and of course matches. One of the most memorable moments on the video is when Rowdy Roddy Piper interviews...Rowdy Roddy Piper. It's "Hot Rod" at his heelish best. On a personal note, this was the final item that I ever had Roddy autograph.

How about action figures? There have been a load. Everyone remembers the classic LJN Wrestling Superstar figure with the cloth kilt. There are some figures such as the Winston Rock N' Wrestling eraser and the convention exclusive G.I. Joe that are stuff of collecting legend. There's even what is likely the newest figure, a Funko Mystery Mini that truly captures Roddy's spirit in its likeness. But my personal favorite may be the one that I played with the most as a child, his entry into the Hasbro WWF line. Something about it was just fun to play with, even if the figure didn't represent Roddy in his wrestling gear. Maybe it's the maniacal facial expression or the great detail on the clothing that still makes it stand out to me.

This is just a small sampling of "Hot Rod's" lasting legacy of items. You may prefer something related to his movie career or his oft-forgotten venture into music with the "I'm Your Man" release. It's all here for us to cherish forever. There's even a new book written by two of Piper's children. Although I have yet to check it out, I'm sure that it will only add more great tales and stories to the already lengthy Piper legend. And will we see more Rowdy Roddy Piper figures in the future? To quote the man himself, "You damn betcha, man!" As long as the bagpipes play on, Roddy Piper lives...

...and I bet he's still outta bubblegum.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Is "The Artist's" First Mattel Figure A Masterpiece?

Traditionally, WWE is not a place where foreign stars thrive. There have been exceptions, but either the WWE audience does not gel with stars from outside of America or the company itself doesn't do a good job of playing to their strengths. Regardless, it's a trend that many current fans are hoping to see end. Why? They want to see Shinsuke Nakamura go to the top. They want to see the star who tore up rings in New Japan Pro Wrestling do the same in WWE. With what is arguably WWE's deepest roster in history, can "The Artist" do just that?

Nakamura has certainly arrived to a lot of hype, both to NXT and the main WWE roster. His first action figure is no exception. Usually reserved for legends, Nakamura's first Mattel figure is part of the "Defining Moments" line, highlighting a specific moment in time out of a long career. This figure celebrates Nakamura's arrival in NXT, which was anticipated by many fans worldwide. It happened at NXT TakeOver: Dallas during the weekend of WrestleMania 32 where Nakamura defeated NXT favorite Sami Zayn.

The packaging for these Defining Moments figures stands out and causes a rise of about $5 for what otherwise would be a Mattel Elite figure. The packaging makes a great difference if you're keeping the figure inside, but otherwise it is just a $5 upcharge for those looking to open it up. It is nice to get a look at all sides of the figure before it's opened and, aside from only one example that springs to mind (Defining Moments John Cena), the figures do not float in the packaging.

The Nakamura figure includes two entrance vests, which are both relatively easy to remove and replace. With sleeveless outfits like these, the rubber/vinyl used is more than welcome. It's with sleeved jackets and shirts where soft goods should always be used. When figures cannot be posed because of attire, it suddenly turns from "action figure" to "statue," but that rant isn't valid here. The figure also includes a removable arm band on the left arm. It comes loose when fiddling with the vests, but otherwise stays put.

For some reason, the pants make the figure seem heavier than the rather slender Nakamura should be, but I'm not complaining. I don't recall seeing the torso pieces used before, and they may very be unique to this figure. You can certainly do some of Nakamura's crazier moves, but his much-touted physical gestures are limited. I could see another figure with specially sculpted hand gestures coming down the line. The facial likeness and hairstyle are dead on.

Any fan of Nakamura will be happy with this figure. There is already a basic figure on the market, as well, but thus far this is the only one in the "Elite" style. That will undoubtedly change. If the extra $5 for the "Defining Moments" version bothers you, I'm sure that you will have another shot down the line. I could see a version with the NXT Championship being a possibility.

How will Shinsuke Nakamura fare on the main WWE roster? His popularity should serve him well, but I would predict that age, the language barrier, and the company's track record with foreign stars will keep him from being the number one guy. He can be a shining star as an upper-midcarder, and there's nothing wrong with that despite what some current fans would have you believe. Not everyone has to be the top guy. In wrestling, it's the illusion that everyone WANTS to be the top guy that matters. Some make it, some don't, but with wrestling it's the constant struggles that truly matter. I have a feeling that many WWE superstars with have their hands full trying to ascend past "The Artist" on their way to the top.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Some Favorite (and Least Favorite) Items of the Stars

As the season where I do most of my wrestling-related trips draws near, it brings back floods of memories. An interaction, a moment, a word, an item. This is a hobby where nearly every piece of memorabilia has a story, especially those that bear autographs. Did the star have anything to say when he or she signed that particular item? Sometimes even the most silent stars will comment on certain treasures. It may surprise some that a man of few words like Harley Race would know the history of his own action figures, but he absolutely does. Many can pinpoint the exact time and place where a photo was taken. And some will even make sure to note when a figure, card, or photo is their favorite.

One of the first stars that I can recall commenting on something being their "all-time" favorite is a man who is no stranger to classic photos. "The Living Legend" Bruno Sammartino does indeed have a preference in the absolute library of photography that exists chronicling his career. The photo features Sammartino sitting in a posed studio shot. The black and white photo also features a hint of the classic WWWF Championship belt, the original of which is missing in action. The photo has been distributed many ways, but even appeared as a trading card in the 1991 Wrestling Legends set.

Speaking of cards, a man who is still active in WWE has his favorite, dating back to the WCW days. While you might think that Dustin Rhodes would choose a card of his legendary Goldust character, it's actually the opposite. Showcasing the classic southern style of "The Natural" Dustin Rhodes, the card is straight from the WCW Main Event card set produced by Cardz in 1995. Though Dustin has other cards in the set, this one is from a number of cards produced that highlight individual moves. At that point in time, no one was more associated with the bulldog than Rhodes. The photo is an amazing action shot from his match with Blacktop Bully at SuperBrawl V.

One of the top enemies of the Rhodes family once commented to me on his favorite action figure. It was as the Jakks WWE Classic Superstars figure line was in full force, and Arn Anderson was signing many examples of his new figure on that particular day. While Jakks made several figures of Anderson, they did tend to be a bit more buff than "The Enforcer" actually was. While signing my Galoob figure of himself, he commented to Dean Malenko and me that he preferred the vintage figure due to it having a much more lifelike look to it. Seeing as that it's one of my all-time favorite wrestling figures, I could not have agreed more.

Another favorite figure of mine, maybe more so due to presentation factors, did come from Jakks. This one is of a legend from both ECW and WWE, Rob Van Dam. Limited to 5,000, this particular RVD figure not only features the classic "Rob-Van-Dam" pose, but also reflects the brief period when the high-flying star held both the ECW and WWE Championships. Also included is a soft goods ECW t-shirt to fit the figure and a briefcase to reflect RVD's time as "Mr. Money In The Bank." What's also nice is that the figure was packaged in a style where the figure and accessories are showcased as opposed to the packaging itself. At a signing in Atlanta, RVD told me that this was indeed his favorite figure of himself. Who could disagree?

Of course, a few stars have "least favorite" items, too. One that really sticks out to me is from former TNA Knockout SoCal Val. How the beautiful redhead could have any "least favorite" pieces is beyond me, but she does have one photo that she doesn't particularly care for. In the promotional Impact Wrestling 8x10, Val is wearing a blue polka dot bikini. Val has told me several times that she doesn't care for the photo as she feels that she looks "12 years old" in it. Well, I know most fans would agree with me in that she looks like a full-grown woman in the photo, but you can be the judge with the provided image. Just don't take too long "examining" the photo. It is there solely for science.

And while many might think that Ole Anderson would only have "least favorite" items, I've only ever heard him gripe about two. Those are his two cards from the 1988 NWA trading cards series by Wonderama. To be fair, neither picture used is particularly great. especially the "dancing" card, as he put it. I paraphrased the rest of his description to keep the blog family friendly. Oh that Ole!

Thankfully, most wrestling stars embrace their merchandise. It's a record of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into their careers. Learning of all of these favorites listed here was solely by accident. Maybe I should start asking about more for future reference? Stay tuned...

Thursday, June 1, 2017

From The Musty Yellowed Pages--Ring Wrestling, June 1977

Forty years. It's a long time no matter how you look at it. The endless video screens, blinding lights, and over-rehearsed antics of today's sports entertainment were nowhere in sight. All you had was a ring, a spotlight, maybe a curtain, and a lot of rough men and women. Was it a better time? Who's to say? Was it a great time? We have so much proof in that direction that even a fan like myself, who was still a few years away from being born, can see that. Some of that proof is in the great old magazines of the era that we so often feature. This week, it's a look at the highlights of Ring Wrestling's June 1977 issue.

The cover is a time capsule all on its own. You've got Superstar Billy Graham grappling with Bruno Sammartino. Mil Mascaras is present in one of his classic outfits. We also have Women's Tag Team Champions Vicki Williams and Joyce Grable. Joining the blonde duo is none other than Vincent J. McMahon. Yes, the famous "Vince Sr." He didn't appear on the cover of any publication too often, but here he is.

At the time of publication, Ring Wrestling was still an offshoot of "The Ring," the legendary boxing title that at one point covered wrestling as well. It was a little more serious than the Weston wrestling magazines, and also seemed to cover a wider range of the wrestling world. Legendary photographer George Napolitano was a contributing editor of the magazine. One of the cover stories, "Are Bruno Sammartino's Days Numbered?" was penned by him. I'd venture to guess that the rogues gallery of Sammartino opponents featured were photographed by Napolitano as well.

A solid feature on the history of masked wrestlers is followed by a story and pictorial chronicling the rivalry between the teams of Williams and Grable and Toni Rose and Donna Christianello. If you think the women's wrestling revolution began a few years ago, think again! These four were tearing up rings for years. I've often said that Christianello did The Fabulous Moolah's shtick better than Moolah herself. Donna also did a lot of the training at Moolah's school. Grable, despite recent health battles, still appears at many wrestling-related events while Rose enjoys retirement. Williams has long been said to have distanced herself from the industry, while Christanello sadly passed away in 2011.

Articles featuring Giant Baba, a young Randy Alls (later Randy Rose of the Midnight Express), international female stars, Nikolai Volkoff, and Harley Race are also included. Smaller points of interest are covered in "On And Around The Mat World." The Cauliflower Alley Club, which just held its annual reunion in Las Vegas, is mentioned here as a club that meets once at week and is helmed by names such as founder Mike Mazurki, Count Billy Varga, and Mildred Burke. There's also information on the Wrestling Fans International Convention (stories of which still need to be gathered in book form), and great accompanying photos of Baba, Mascaras, and "The Fabulous" Jackie Fargo. The latter is a man who sadly never seemed to get enough press in other magazines, despite his star power.

In addition to letters and the ubiquitous ratings section (featuring a full twenty men, twenty women, and twenty tag teams rated), we get two pin-ups. These aren't color or slick. These are pin-ups right on the same paper as the rest of the magazine. First up, for the ladies, we have the High Flyers themselves, Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne. A highly underrated team, many will remember them immortalized in the Remco AWA action figure line together before Brunzell became a "Bee" and Gagne became a "Raider." For the men we have the stunning blonde Lorraine Johnson. If the face looks familiar, you may have seen her daughter once or twice about a decade later when Baby Doll took up with the likes of Tully Blanchard and Dusty Rhodes.

And how about The Great Fuji? Yep, it's the man who later became known simply as "Mr. Fuji." At the time, it seems that the devious one was wreaking havoc on Ray Stevens and Pat Patterson in San Francisco. It's striking to see how similar he looked nearly two decades later when he once again sported a shaved head. Ivan Koloff, Larry Zbyszko, and Susan Green get some good press following Fuji, and we run into yet another staple of the '70s--fan clubs. Wrestling historian Tom Burke breaks down exactly which clubs we can join and how, run by names like Mick Karch, Mickie Henson, and Ken Jugan who would all go on to be in the business themselves.

I hope that over the years you've loved peering into these printed windows of the past as much as I do. There are plenty more to come, as there are no shortage of classic (and not so classic) wrestling publications to explore. I only go through the highlights, but I know I miss hidden gems now and then. If you really want to explore these things, hop over to eBay. Many really aren't much more expensive than they originally were decades ago. And you can't put a price on a memory...


Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Story of a Warlord and a Barber...

With each passing year, Mattel gets closer and closer to surpassing previous WWE action figure lines. Not only has quality been excelling, but the depth of the line is coming close to that of Mattel's WWE predecessor Jakks. Helping that depth, especially important to collectors such as myself, is the inclusion of the legends. Early on, Mattel seemed to give up on including the stars of the past. With each review that I do, I become more a champion for the company and who they're choosing to include. With their Elite Series 49 and 50, Mattel finally adds Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake and The Warlord.

While neither man is a stranger to action figure collections, it has been almost a decade since they have been immortalized in plastic. "The Barber" is based on his look from 1989 (per the back of the packaging), while The Warlord is featured in the gear that he wore from 1990 to 1992, though the back of the box pinpoints WrestleMania VII where he battled The British Bulldog. Both figures look great in the packaging and fill the "window" well. The annoying sign advertising the cardboard diorama gimmick is present with both. I did not even bother photographing either stand/backdrop, as there is nothing new that I can cover with the "bonus." I still don't care for it, and can't wait until Mattel feels that it has run its course.

Both of these men are wrestlers that I feel have been somewhat underrated in recent years. I often point out that Brutus Beefcake is one of the best-remembered stars by fans of my generation. Even casual fans fondly remember "The Barber," clipping shears and all. He was over with the fans and, while he may not have had the most classic in-ring style, he got the job done as far as WWF devotees were concerned.

When I first saw prototype pictures of Mattel's rendition of Beefcake, I wasn't convinced. In person, I've done a complete 180. This may be the best likeness of Brutus that we've seen to date. The wild look is there, as are the signature flowing locks. Beefcake is surprisingly tall in person and this figure does reflect that. The parts used match up well for "The Barber." I do wish that Mattel had used a different color jacket than Jakks had produced, but it still works. The bow tie is removable and the "titanium blades" look great for "struttin' and cuttin'."

The Warlord has never had a bad figure. From the LJN to the Hasbro (which is the last time that we saw this particular look) all the way to the two Jakks entries (the latter of which, in what had to have been a "happy accident," reflected The Warlord in his indy attire), the former Powers of Pain member just simply makes a great action figure. And though more credit for that tag team often goes to his partner The Barbarian, The Warlord has always been a solid hand. He was a big man with an intense look. Sometimes that's all you need. But if you check out his matches with Davey Boy Smith, such as the aforementioned WrestleMania VII encounter, you see that The Warlord could bring it in the ring.

Never have we seen a figure of the monster with so many accessories. The shoulder pads, belt, and mask are all removable. We also finally see the figure-sized debut of his "W" staff. While I don't recall that accessory ever coming into play during a match, it certainly stuck out while Howard Finkel would make his signature "Introducing...The Warrrrrlorrrrd" announcement. As with "The Barber," the facial likeness is spot-on and the choices for body type could not have been better. He's big. He's powerful. He's The Warlord.

With so many style choices for Beefcake, I can definitely see Mattel producing him again. A basic styled figure in the future seems like a no-brainer. The Warlord is a bit more puzzling. With his inclusion in a recent lawsuit against WWE, I'm surprised that we saw this figure at all. I don't see Mattel going the "Powers of Pain" route, either, though they have surprised me in the past. With a figure of another lawsuit member upcoming in the form of The Berzerker, it's hard to predict what all the future will hold. I'm just going to sit back and watch these great new figures roll in and take their rightful places in collections worldwide.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

TNA Magazine...Italian Style!

I always felt that Total Nonstop Action Wrestling should have had an official magazine. They had exciting stars, beautiful "Knockouts," and plenty of stories to put into print. Heck, I even thought that I could be a dang good contributor to the effort. Nonetheless the magazine industry just isn't what it once was, even a few years ago. Although I never saw it myself, then-owner Dixie Carter pooh-poohed the idea somewhere in print. As nice as a lady as she always was to me, there honestly didn't seem to be many ideas that she turned down, for better or worse. However, the fact is that there was indeed an official TNA Magazine. In Italy. For three issues.

In 2007 an Italian publisher produced three issues of the Total Nonstop Action Wrestling Official Magazine. If there are more than three, I have yet to see them surface anywhere. Though my mastering of the Italian language is a bit rusty (aka non-existent), it isn't hard to figure out what's going on in the many sections of the magazine. There are features on the monthly pay-per-views, profiles on individual stars, and even "Top Ten" looks at the then-current goings on in the company.

There's a particular emphasis on the aforementioned TNA Knockouts, and why not? That's how you sell magazines. The ladies are featured with the superb Lee South photography that found its way onto the many trading cards and promotional photos that saw wide release, in addition to the Knockouts-branded items that were sold at live events and Shop TNA. Leticia Cline, Gail Kim, and Christy Hemme all make the cover, but SoCal Val and Traci Brooks see features as well. Speaking of Brooks, the legendary action figure that never ended up seeing the light of day is briefly mentioned in a list of upcoming figures.

Samoa Joe, Sting, and "The Fallen Angel" Christopher Daniels are the cover stars of the three respective issues. Each issue is all-color and all-slick with high-gloss covers. All three editions also feature a double-sided poster showcasing the cover superstar and Knockout, although the poster with Gail Kim also features SoCal Val. I'm not complaining. And as nice as the photography of the females appears, the action shots from matches are great as well. It's truly amazing the level of talent that was in the company at that point, a fact that often goes overlooked.

It's also cool to see so much of that talent getting press in an actual physical magazine. I often point out that it's a shame that so little of today's wrestling stars will get an actual magazine cover. Aside from Pro Wrestling Illustrated, the occasional WWE "special" release, or the scattered overseas publications, it's an opportunity that largely no longer exists. It's great to see the Christopher Daniels cover as well as talent such as Team Canada (including Bobby Roode and Eric Young), Chris Sabin, LAX, and Abyss see photo features in an age where that is basically extinct. You can argue that wrestlers get much more coverage online these days, but where are those features going to be found in ten to twenty years? For many stars, there will be little tangible to show the grandkids.

Oh what could have been. A publication like this would have done great for sale at TNA live events where anything that could be signed was be scooped up by autograph-hungry fans. Don West would have been plugging these nonstop. Personally, I regret that I was unaware of these in the days of the TNA "Interaction" events where every cover (and most of the insides) could have been fully signed. Regardless, it's fun to know that a TNA Magazine even existed at all. As much flack as the company has received at times, often rightfully so, these publications highlight many of the things that TNA did right.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Topps WWE 2017..."Something Different"

Everyone loves a surprise. When I initially saw the checklist for the Topps WWE 2017 trading cards, I was extremely surprised. Once I figured out that I wasn't reading some sort of joke, I was also very pleased. While I usually personally review two of the Topps WWE products per year, there's usually a lot of repetition. It's to be expected in trading card sets, especially annual ones. This year, we have something different. We have inclusions that I never would have imagined, for numerous reasons, but here they are. Let's take a closer look.

The 2017 WWE set from Topps, as usual, has a base set of 100 cards. There are several subsets, and many different variant and numbered cards. One of the biggest selling points were the inclusion of authentic autograph cards of both The Undertaker and Bill Goldberg. The prices seem to have gone up a bit, which some point to the addition of the aforementioned autograph cards, but they're still not "premium" priced like the WWE Undisputed sets. A hobby box can be had for an average of around $75 and contains 24 packs. The box style once again reminds me of a box of chocolates, being long and slim. It actually almost looks too nice to break open. For the record, AJ Styles, John Cena, and Sasha Banks are the faces on both the box and the packs.

Plastered right on the front of the hobby box is a guarantee of two "hits" per box, including at least one autograph. Since hits can be relics, belt/medallion cards, and autographs, I like the guarantee of at least one autograph. While many of the other hits can be very cool, it's still the autographs that I prefer. Relics are, in my opinion, a somewhat tired gimmick in the world of wrestling cards. Thankfully, occasionally we get something new to spice them up.

My hobby box did indeed yield two "hits." One was a Becky Lynch Women's Championship "medallion" card. I call these belt cards, since embedded in the card is a heavy, metallic representation of a championship. The other hit was a relic, with a twist. This relic, a SummerSlam 2016 mat card, is also signed by Seth Rollins and is numbered as one out of ten. If I have to pull a relic, it may as well include an autograph. An autograph of a top current talent is an added bonus.

The subsets this time around feature shots from three WWE programs: The Stone Cold Podcast, Breaking Ground, and Total Divas. This is another change-up that I appreciate. While I've never personally watched Total Divas, I like some of the shots used (Mandy Rose, I'm looking at you), and even Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart makes a cameo. While I don't think it was intentional, the design of these cards very much reminds me of the Topps Empire Strikes Back cards from way back in 1980. Not a direct replica, but there are similarities.

The base set is where we get really unusual and different. Highlighted are many first timers, including NXT stars (a few of which I couldn't even identify) and a passel full of referees. I'm guessing that this means that referees are once again allowed to have names and identities. The true gold here for me is the inclusion of three legendary ladies: Leilani Kai, Judy Martin, and Princess Victoria. While Kai made a return to WWE products after 30 years in the 2016 WWE Divas Revolution set, this is the first real WWE merchandise for Martin and Victoria. Considering both ladies are named in the WWE concussion lawsuit, this is extra surprising. As I've gotten to know all three of these women over the years, these three cards are the personal "hits" in the hobby box for me. It should be noted that other women from WWE's past such as Terri Runnels, Torrie Wilson, and Ivory are here as well.

The base card design is good, although it'd still be nice to see one set that featured all studio shots. As usual there are color variants (bronze, blue, silver, etc.) where really the only different is a swatch of color in the lower right corner. Some collectors thrive on these differences, but I haven't ever put too much stock into it. I will note that for the first time in year when breaking a Topps WWE hobby box, I did not receive the full 100-card base set. My box wasn't missing any particular biggie, and I probably won't put into effort into ever obtaining the card, but it was a bit of a surprise. For the record, the missing card was David Otunga.

There's a lot to like about this set. Topps took the "main" WWE card set of the year and really turned it upside down. There are no main cards for many weekly stars, yet we get announcers, referees, women's wrestling legends, and many rookies. Since Topps releases so much WWE product these days, this is something that can and should be done. I'm very excited to see what the Topps WWE Heritage 2017 set due in August will hold. There's also a WWE Legends set coming in September. Normally that would be right up my alley, but the cards do appear to be a "premium" release which my wallet just won't warm up to. That being said, Topps is still doing a great job. There's something for every type of collector. Now, even those of us who love the legendary ladies are getting some long overdue new product.