Thursday, December 4, 2014

30 Years of "Those Big, Rubber Wrestlers"

You see might see the description in a badly listed eBay auction or even used during a nostalgic wrestling conversation.  They were the WWF Wrestling Superstars by LJN, but to many, they were "those big, rubber wrestlers."  It would have been very hard to be a wrestling fan and not encounter those "big, rubber" wrestling figures at some point in the past thirty years.  They depicted Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, The Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff and dozens of other WWF Superstars in a larger-than-life way that has never quite been duplicated.  They've shown up in film, on television, and in print.  They aren't action figures in the traditional sense, yet to not include them in the genre would be blasphemy.  You, your neighbor, your cousin, and your classmates had at least one, and even with paint and rubber wear all of these years later, it's still a relic to be cherished.

The LJN WWF figure line began in 1984.  While it was not the first wrestling figure line (that distinction falls to a series produced by Popy in Japan), it was the first in America, beating out Remco's AWA collection by months.  Some, including a few of the wrestlers themselves, refer to the products as dolls.  There will never be a definitive answer to the old "It's not a doll, it's an action figure" argument, but these replica wrestlers weren't playing dress-up, they were seeing action in and out of the ring.

What I most love about the LJN line was the inclusion of non-wrestler figures.  Sure, it's amazing to be able to have dream matches like Hulk Hogan against Bruno Sammartino and Ricky Steamboat versus Dynamite Kid, but figures of managers, announcers, and referees only add to the depth of play.  It's no wonder that so many loose examples these days have so much paint wear; these wrestlers WRESTLED!

"Twist Em, Turn Em" was one of LJN's selling point catchphrases for the line, and it was true.  While the figures were not articulated, with the exception of a few pointlessly posed examples (Paul Orndorff, Rick Rude) the design of the toys made them extremely playable.  The Hulkster could slam any other figure while Randy Savage was perfectly poised for a patented flying elbow drop.  God-like figures for God-like superstars.

The figures had a pumped-up look which was very lifelike for the wrestlers of the day.  Unlike today when bulging muscles look out of place on wrestling figures, the wrestlers themselves didn't look like the guy down the street.  There was much more individuality, which in turn made many more stars stand out.

Like companies today, LJN wasn't satisfied with just one standard line.  Attempts to branch out were made, but none lasted as long as the 8-inch original figures.  A lower cost line of Bendies were introduced about a year into the life of the license.  Wires inside of these smaller figures helped hold their poses.  Aside from the wrestlers, a ring/cage and two managers were produced, but the line did not sustain.  Prototype pictures of further releases have surfaced since, proving that LJN had high hopes.

In 1987, a half dozen figures were released as Stretch Wrestlers.  These figures were a takeoff on the decades-old Stretch Armstrong figure concept, where a cornstarch mix inside of a pliable "skin" allows the figure to be stretched into all kinds of contortions.  Sadly, the design of all of these kinds of figures does not lend itself to good condition over time.  Many that remain are in poor condition or are too brittle to really even touch.

Thirty years.  While much of the paint and shine of these figures is gone, the memories remain.  I can still recall going into the.long gone but beloved Hills Department Store and seeing the large LJN merchandising footprint in the toy aisles.  Stretch Wrestlers stacked to the ceiling.  Individual figures like Hillbilly Jim, Miss Elizabeth, and Mean Gene Okerlund (or "the farmer," "the girl," and "the announcer" as I naively named them) filling the pegs.  The feeling that this unusual yet compelling sport was at the height of its popularity, and that the characters produced from it were genuine celebrities.  Household names forever immortalized as "those big, rubber wrestlers."


Bix said...

Don't know if you've seen this, but going by some eBay auctions and other accounts I've seen online, the stretch wrestlers are even more fragile than we ever realized. All sorts of air pressure changes can cause the figures to explode at their knees without anyone touching them. One guy had his MOC collection explode in his closet at one point while another sold his and it happened from the pressure changes on the plane that carried the package.

So if someone is trying to collect them still, if you're able to get ground shipping, you should, but the figures seem so sensitive that they could still explode later as the seasons change.

J\/\/ said...

Yeah I saw the one guy trying to sell just the boxes (I think) after he sold them and they exploded. Sad!