Thursday, May 29, 2014
The title change has also had many uses on the business end of pro wrestling. Does a certain town need a shot in the arm? Switch a title to prove that "anything can happen" and that the fans cannot afford to miss a single show. Maybe a certain star needs a special moment to prove that they have what it takes to make it on top.
Regardless of the reasons, title changes are one aspect of the business that always make the proverbial "record books." Whereas "wins" and "losses" weren't tabulated until fans began to do so a few years ago, some record was kept of most title changes. In modern times, the images of these wins are the stuff that classic magazine covers are made of. But what about a record from the night of the win. A printed listing of the match that would go on to make history. That would be, of course, the program.
Wrestling event programs have become somewhat of a lost art. What once existed at nearly every wrestling show in some way, shape, or form became a relic somewhere along the line. As far as WWE goes, the company selling shows on the brand name rather than its stars often leaves paying fans wondering right up until belltime just exactly who will be on the show. To its credit, the company does still sell a large, elegantly designed book at each event that is labeled a program, but it is usually devoid of match info.
A month shy of thirty years prior to Bryan's thrilling win, another title change occurred that had roots tied both into real life and into the hearts of thousands of Texans. The place? Texas Stadium. The title? The NWA World Heavyweight Championship. The man? Kerry Von Erich. Just a few months prior, David Von Erich, considered by many WCCW fans to be the next world champion, passed away suddenly. At the first of several Parade of Champions events to honor David, Kerry went on to capture the title from "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. The celebration is a video that needs to be seen in order to comprehend the fan reaction. There's no doubt that many fans had program in-hand while celebrating. The publication is a fun mix of modern and traditional wrestlng programs. Like with much of what WCCW did, the program is ahead of its time by being oversized and printed on much nicer stock paper than was the norm at the time. The then-recently deceased David is the focus of the cover, but the championship match and its participants are not forgotten.
Of course, the big switch doesn't always have to involve the main championship prize. Tag team championships can be just as prized, and when you're talking decorated tandems, you have to mention The Midnight Express. On the July 10, 1988 Great American Bash stop, Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane took the United States tag team championship from one of their best rival teams, The Fantastics. In this instance, the manager of the Midnight Express, Jim Cornette himself, was suspended above the ring in a small steel cage and confined to a straight jacket. It was a match-of-the-night candidate to be sure, as was usually the case when these two teams met. Two different programs were sold along the 1988 Bash tour, but the one sold that particular night featured these two teams right on the back cover.
Programs are among my favorite wrestling items to collect. Pinpointing them to a great match or moment sets them aside from the newsstand magazines. If the particular show is on video as all of the ones mentioned here are, it's fun to peer into the audience and maybe catching a glimpse of what is now a collectible. If we only knew then what we know now...
Thursday, May 22, 2014
If you've been watching WWE Legends House, you can't help being entertained by Gene Okerlund. As one of the eldest members of the crew, Gene's almost Fred Mertz-esque curmudgeonly character has been a highlight of the WWE Network reality show. Initially, I questioned why both Okerlund and ring announcer Howard Finkel would be included in the same cast, as if there was a singular "announcers spot" in the lineup. As we've come to find out, they each bring something very different to the table.
Mean Gene was an icon long before his Legends House stint. Interviewing his way through Verne Gagne's AWA in the '70s and early '80s, Okerlund would become a household name in the era of "Rock N Wrestling." Mean Gene had a way of making even the most insignificant interview segment appear like a feature on the nightly news. With the turn of the microphone, the balding broadcaster could switch that importance into pure entertainment.
Mean Gene is one of two LJN figures, along with fellow Legends Housemate Hillbilly Jim, that I distinctly remember seeing on store shelves early in my wrestling fandom. Who could forget the shrugging, tuxedoed gentleman with the befuddled look on his face? In recent years it has come to light that a prototype of the figure actually had arms outstretched down and to the front with a microphone nowhere in sight. I think we're all glad that we received what turned out to be the finished product.
Cards, promo photos, and even toy microphones were also produced with the Gene Okerlund's likeness featured. Gordon Solie appeared on some merchandise, but those were mostly regional items. Gorilla Monsoon's memorabilia was largely confined to his wrestling days until some other items became available after his passing. Mean Gene Okerlund was the first truly marketed wrestling announcer.
Why did it work for all of those years? Probably because, like most great wrestling characters, what you see is what you get. Self-appointed bartender for a night of drinks? Checking out and coyly flirting with the vivacious Ashley Roberts? Tossing a pickled pigs foot onto the lawn? It's all Gene Okerlund, on-screen and off. To many of us, he's a voice and persona that we all grew up with. To the world, he's one of the most distinct personalities to come from the wrestling business. You would think that he's done it all, but one can only imagine the response he would give if presented with such a thought...
"Give me a break!"
Thursday, May 15, 2014
As of yet, CM Punk has not fully been scraped from the consciousness of wrestling fans. His merchandise is said to still be sold at WWE events. Items sold at retail will take even longer to disappear, as Mattel is still releasing figures of Punk that were planned long in advance. One of these just began to hit collectors hands in the past few days. An online retailer exclusive, the newest CM Punk figure in Mattel's Elite line is a Flashback entry.
The figure is a look back to Punk's reign as ECW Champion. This was not the original incarnation of ECW, but rather its revival as a WWE brand. For the various men that held the championship during this era, Punk was probably the closest to what Paul Heyman envisioned an ECW wrestler to be. Even then, Heyman was a "CM Punk Guy" and there is little doubt that Punk would have been a standout in the original Extreme Championship Wrestling.
The attire is red and black which was one of his more frequently used color combinations. Jakks figures from the time were produced in a similar design. The shirt is the familiar skeleton design that he wore on many occasions. Mattel has a fixation on rubber shirts, likely due to cost. I'd much rather see fabric shirts, but it does properly fit onto the figure with some patience.
Online exclusives can be very hit-or-miss sales-wise. Some will sell quickly and become sought after while others will languish for years as $11.99 Arbor Day specials. I fully expect this to be the former due to the recent interest in Punk, the accessories, and the fact that it really is a nice figure, in and out of the packaging.
Going back to the beginning and the question of 2014: will that Savage-level of stubbornness keep Punk away from the ring forever? As a thirteen-year fan of CM Punk I can honestly say that I do not know and I do not care. Punk walked away from the business for a variety of speculated reasons. The chants of his name at events absolutely boggle my mind. At first, the chants were likely due to confusion as to why he left and an attempt to copy the Daniel Bryan uproar. The Bryan situation was a case of fans trying to get what they wanted from a company. On the other hand, if Punk isn't there, the WWE can't present him. Continual chants do nothing but interrupt other stars who are trying to entertain and further feed the ego of someone who would likely deny having one.
The most recent word is that Punk is tired of handling the fame and fortune. Looking in from the outside, it's easy for any of us to be disgusted by that thought and think that we would easily exchange those problems with our own. Allow me to be the first to volunteer.
Before we get too dramatic and I feel the need to call noted wrestling psychologist Dr. Sydney M. Basil for his opinion, I will simply say that Punk has given us a lot to enjoy. An absolutely fantastic career where, if it is indeed over, we never had to see a drop in quality. That's something that we can all be satisfied with.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
The basis of the life of the late Sylvester Ritter is already known by many fans. Ritter was, for all intents and purposes, your average territorial wrestler. Once he was given the gimmick of "The Junkyard Dog," he became an undeniable superstar. With average wrestling skills but an unreal amount of charisma and an amazing ability to connect with fans, JYD took Mid-South Wrestling, and later the WWF, by storm.
As has been the case with success in countless walks of life, the downward spiral came for Ritter just as fast as did the ascension to the top. Drug abuse and other factors that come packaged with fame and the fast life took the Junkyard Dog from the bright lights of WrestleMania to the dimly lit armories much faster than should have been, ultimately contributing to his death just a decade after leaving the spotlight.
I'm not saying that the two paragraphs above summarize the entire story of Sylvester Ritter as told in "King of New Orleans," but it's not far off. When I began the book, I kept waiting for the personal stories told by those who knew him. I was expecting tales from Ritter's rise to fame and maybe even nuggets about how he handled going from the second banana behind Hulk Hogan in the mid-1980s to an almost forgotten undercarder just a few years later. None of that was here.
Perhaps I was expecting too much, as the books subtitle is in fact "How The Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling's First Black Superstar." Maybe the author never intended to delve too far into the WWF's "Grab Them Cakes" version of JYD. But even if the intention was just to chronicle his rise to fame in New Orleans, there just isn't enough about Junkyard to make an intimate account of his life. I will say that a good history of Mid-South and UWF Wrestling is provided. These segments seem to take up the majority of the book and, at times, rarely seem to mention Ritter at all.
A very casual fan with an interest in recalling the basic JYD story and various Mid-South Wrestling memories will get something from "The King of New Orleans." Most other types of fans will have already absorbed these facts from other media sources. The story of an individual who lived an unstructured life as Ritter did is never an easy one to tell, but not impossible. Unfortunately in the case of the Junkyard Dog, this isn't the book to do it.
Thursday, May 1, 2014
It's obvious today when unearthing Von Erich memorabilia from its previous owners that these fans truly cared. Their screams of terror when the boys found trouble in the ring were equally as loud as when Kerry, Kevin, and the others triumphed in victory. Worries about the next group of Von Erich opposition, be it the Fabulous Freebirds, Devestation Inc., or any number of others, followed these fans throughout their days until the next glimpse of WCCW action. They believed.
While Kerry may have been dubbed "The Modern Day Warrior" and several WCCW events entitled "Star Wars," these were not the Von Erich family's only ventures into fantasy. In 1988, Sage Productions out of Tyler, Texas produced a comic book entitled "Saga Of The Von Erich Warriors." While the family's battles with Michael Hayes, Chris Adams, and Gary Hart easily could have filled a comic book, somewhere along the line it was decided that Fritz, Kevin, and Kerry would instead...go into outer space.
But the excitement just begins there. Kerry battling an otherworldly tiger. An attacking alien motorcyclist. Fritz using shocking language such as "Hog Wash" and "Hell." This is truly an out-of-this-world adventure. I'd love to know exactly how this idea came about, but that's probably a secret that only those who were in on the brainstorming sessions between World Class Championship Wrestling and Sage Productions will ever know.
Perhaps the only WCCW reference comes in a full-page ad on page 16. Shirts! Hats! Jackets! Photos! And of course, a bumper sticker. Apparently the promotion had a large backlog of photos available, as the Dingo Warrior was still available despite being long gone from WCCW. What so many of us wouldn't give to order twelve of everything off of this page. It's not like the Simpson Brothers have that many gimmicks available!
It's not the Von Erich Family album or any of the other treasured WCCW items, but it's fun. It's relatively easy to find (I'm sure loads were printed...) and no WCCW/Von Erich collection is complete without it. Who knows, maybe Luke Skywalker will mention a trip to Namoria in the next Star Wars movie. I'd be all for a Kevin Von Erich cameo...May The Force Be With Him!