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..."

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Wonderful (& Forgotten) World of Bobby Shane

From this point forward, nearly every wrestler who has even a fleeting brush with success will have their career highly documented.  Their matches, even at an indy level, will be recorded by someone and kept whether the wrestler has a career of two months or twenty years.  Forty years ago, that was not the case at all.  Unless your matches were filmed at the arena or you wrestled in an area that miraculously didn't tape over or destroy their tapes, your work could largely be lost to history.  Such is the case of Bobby Shane.

Thankfully, wrestling has quite the number of followers who enjoy documenting history.  Many undercard or journeyman wrestlers would be completely forgotten without these folks.  It wasn't that their in-ring work was sub-par, it was just that due to their positioning on the card, these wrestlers didn't get the press and fame that the larger stars did.  Bobby Shane is a relatively unknown name to fans my age and younger, but not for these reasons.  Instead, Shane was struck down just as his career began to rise.

There are many great biographies of Shane available on the net by those who've studied him.  My intentions are to instead familiarize those who, like myself, knew the name from two particular instances that are often retold, as well as various magazine covers and stories.  Like so many of us, Shane grew up as a fan of pro wrestling.  He got his foot in the door of the business like others in that era, doing odd jobs for the local wrestling promotion, St. Louis in his case.

Shane fulfilled his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, and wrestled through much of the 1960's as "Wonder Boy" Bobby Shane.  Accounts say that Shane was a popular babyface, but much of the reverence for the young grappler comes from his run as "The King of Wrestling" that he adopted in roughly the last five or so years of his career.  Sadly, there is little footage of Shane remaining.  Although a clip of the end of a match pitting Shane against Jack Brisco is currently available and old discussions seem to indicate that a bit more exist, Shane is mostly lost to time.

Still, an interested fan that does research on Shane will see a wrestler that could probably even fit into the scene today, were he born twenty years ago.  His charisma comes through with the many still photos of him, especially in his "King of Wrestling" stint.  A 1972 issue of Wrestling Monthly proclaims Shane to be one of the top five most hated wrestlers, along with the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Ivan Koloff, The Sheik, and Pampero Firpo.  That's quite the "evil" company right there.  His promos were said to be very good and had the tone of a spoiled brat always wanting to get his own way.  One can only wonder if he'd have eventually became another great manager in the era of Bobby Heenan, Jim Cornette, and Jimmy Hart.  He was also said to have had a great mind for the creative end of the business, and began to work in that capacity at the time of his death.

The two tales that you may remember regarding Shane are from the end of his life.  A young wrestler named Jerry Lawler approached Shane to inquire about how he could obtain similar "King" attire.  Shane provided Lawler with the name of the company that he ordered his garb from.  Since Shane was shortly thereafter going on a tour of Australia where he would not be using the gimmick, he lent Lawler his crown. Shane returned from that trip and began wrestling in Florida, but never did retrieve the crown from Lawler. On a February night in 1975, Shane boarded a small plane piloted by top wrestler Buddy Colt.  Gary Hart and Mike McCord, later to be known as Austin Idol, were also aboard.  Bad conditions contributed to the plane never reaching its intended destination.  Although Colt, Hart, and McCord suffered horrible injuries, Shane did not survive.  He was 29 years old.

While he'll never have an action figure or appear in a video game, Shane memorabilia does exist.   He and fellow wrestler Gerry Monti had a fan club sometime in the '60s which featured some well-produced publications.  An exotic-looking color post card is another Shane item that features probably his most often seen pre-King image.  It was that "royal" look that saw Shane appear on many magazine covers, often with his valet and then-wife Miss Sherri.  The mustache and colorful attire that he wore may date the images, but actually shows Shane in an "old school cool" air that keeps him timeless.

It isn't likely that WWE is going to teach their universe about Bobby Shane any time soon. It's up to fans who truly want to learn about the lost past of the business.  Men and women who have every right to be remembered just as well as the names that are, but who are forgotten for whatever reason.  They're unsung heroes who, had life played just a bit differently, might be looking back fondly on the fruits of their labor today.  By learning and remembering, we can help make up for it.