Thursday, October 29, 2015

Who Was That Masked Man?

It's that time of the year again. Pick out a mask and either ask for candy, pass out candy, or just go to a party. It's a long-standing tradition. For some in the wrestling business, a mask is part of their livelihood. From American stars like The Destroyer and The Masked Superstar, Japanese names like Tiger Mask and The Great Sasuke, to the many masked luchadores of Mexico, wearing a "hood" has helped create many a wrestling legend.

It's often been said that masked wrestlers have to work all the harder. After all, facial expressions cannot be seen outside of a mask. The masked wrestlers must utilize other ways of expressing themselves. The Masked Superstar is a great example of this. While many would say that his in-ring work spoke for him, no one can forget his intelligent yet calculating interviews. Bill Eadie worked hard to make what could have been a forgettable masked heel exactly the opposite. Before the matches even began, fans knew that Superstar's heroic opponent was in for a true battle. In the opposite direction, Mr. Wrestling II worked a similar way. Throughout most of his run, Wrestling II was able to capture the hearts of fans rather than strike fear into them. Famously captivating the mother of President Jimmy Carter as one of his biggest fans, the charismatic Mr. Wrestling II became a staple of southern-based wrestling promotions for over a decade.

Sometimes two is better than one, and in the case of The Assassins it meant double trouble. The familiar black and yellow masks were honestly a bit unsettling to begin with and their in-ring work backed up their villainy. There were a few wrestlers under the Assassin masks over the years, but Tom Renesto and Jody Hamilton are probably the most celebrated. Younger fans will remember Hamilton for his involvement with WCW as The Masked Assassin in the mid-1990s. Hamilton also released a great book about his many different roles in wrestling, including running a WWE developmental territory.

It's Mexican wrestling that is probably best known for masked stars. Lucha libre was built upon superhero-style grapplers who took to the mat and the air equally. It's hard to imagine in the United States, but several legendary luchadores became God-like in their popularity in Mexico. El Santo is one of those stars. Wearing his famous silver mask, El Santo ruled both lucha libre and Mexican pop culture for decades. Appearing in the ring and starring in many motion pictures, comic books, and other media, his popularity was so that his funeral in 1984 is said to have been comparable to a president or other top state figure. Both he and his legendary rival Blue Demon have had their masks handed down thus continuing their mysterious legacies.

Another masked luchador, Mil Mascaras, has seen popularity in Mexico, the United States, and Japan. While he garnered a reputation of being somewhat difficult to work with, it should not take away from his in-ring legacy. As has been discussed before on this very blog, Mascaras is the classic masked luchador who has been merchandised the most outside of Mexico. Thanks to an omnipresence on the covers of 1970's wrestling magazines and a glut of merchandise from Japan, the many masks of Mil Mascaras have been seen the world over with no end in sight.

Japan has created its own masked stars as well, with the look and style fitting well into the wrestling culture of the far east. Tiger Mask, in various incarnations, has been thrilling wrestling fans for over thirty years. As originally portrayed by Satoru Sayama, Tiger Mask toured around the world, perhaps most famously in matches against the equally agile Dynamite Kid. Jushin Liger, with his horned mask and long black hair, became another popular lightweight star and is still gaining fans such as in his recent NXT appearance. Both of these characters were ripped from the pages of Japanese manga books, thus instantly producing real life super heroes.

Of course, it was Rey Mysterio Jr. who carried the masked legacy into the modern day mainstream world of ECW, WCW, and WWE. Mysterio's underdog personality and fighting spirit made it easy for him to connect with fans. It could even be argued that Mysterio's lowest career point was a brief stint where he was unmasked. Once again, the mask became an irreplaceable part of a wrestling career and legacy, not to mention a huge cash cow for WWE once Mysterio was properly introduced by the company's legendary marketing machine.

WWE has not fared well in trying to recreate the Mysterio magic. Still, the popularity of Lucha Underground and other recent outlets prove that it can still be done in the United States. I would love to see the return of a Masked Superstar-style star. A masked villain who is as heelish as he is mysterious. It could be done, and would actually be a fresh idea after being on the shelf for so long.

Who were those masked men? Maybe you'll be inspired to hit the Halloween streets dressed in honor of one of them. After all, many wrestling masks were designed to instill fear in the hearts of opponents. Other wrestlers had faces that were designed perfectly to be right on masks themselves...

Happy Halloween, pencil-necked geeks!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Wrestling's "All-American Boy" Tells His Story

For various reasons, I was unsure how a Bob Backlund autobiography would turn out. He was the top guy in what is certainly one of the most celebrated eras in wrestling history, but I just couldn't picture how well his own experiences would translate into a good story. Once announced and in production, the book also had several delays as far as release date. I also had some concerns about how much content would cover pro wrestling. Many remember how he mainly dwelled on his early life in his speech at his WWE Hall of Fame induction in 2013. Little if any time was devoted to his wrestling career. Fans of the squared circle will be happy to know that it is much the opposite here. Backlund and his co-author Rob Miller know that the target audience here wants to read about pro wrestling.

"Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling's World Champion" was quite a surprise. One of the first public appearances that Backlund made with the book was at Legends of the Ring in New Jersey (where Bill Apter also appeared with his new book) in October 2015. The book is nearly 500 pages and, with that kind of heft, feels like a bible in your hands. He may have had a nearly six-year run with the WWWF/WWF Championship, but could Bob Backlund, known for living a clean life as a family man, have that many stories? The answer is "yes."

To begin the book, we get enough of his early life and schooling to know how he was molded into the man and athlete that he became. It isn't long before he has a chance meeting, with someone who would also figure into a high point in his career, that directs him into the world of wrestling. In somewhat of a surprise to me, we also learn, and hear from, some fellow wrestling legends that I was unaware had such an influence on Backlund's early career.

Fans of the very New York, very Madison Square Garden, very Vince Sr. era of the WWWF will be in Heaven. This is one of the best opportunities we've ever had to take a peak behind the fabled MSG curtain. It isn't just Backlund providing the view, either. Harley Race, Don Muraco, Ken Patera, Bruno Sammartino, and others help to further the story of both Backlund and those years in pro wrestling with their own spaces in certain chapters. It should also be noted that the foreword is provided by the late, great, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. "The All-American Boy" and "The Hot Rod" didn't have too much interaction during their careers, but you will read about the match that they did have early on.

Why did Backlund fit as WWWF champion but did not figure into NWA World Championship plans? Why did Backlund go to the top so quickly after entering the WWWF? What was the relationship between Backlund and Bruno? Backlund and the McMahon family? Backlund and Andre the Giant? All of these questions are answered by both Backlund and some of his "guests" in the book, occasionally giving you two sides to one story.

Although I'm sure that some research was done to flesh out the small details, Backlund's recollections of certain opponents, programs, and angles is meticulous. The fun that Backlund had during his long run completely comes through, as does the enjoyment that he had working with different styles of opponents. Someone, like me, who goes into the book thinking that Backlund only enjoyed wrestling foes who shared his patented technical in-ring style will come out quite surprised.

Of particular note is the segement dedicated to the night that Backlund took the WWWF Championship from Superstar Billy Graham. Obviously there weren't any cameras filming a "WWE 24" style show on Backlund's day, so his recollections are just about the only record. If there is ever a Bob Backlund movie, I hope that the sequence covering that day is as detailed and dramatic as this book portrays it to be.

At one point, Backlund describes those championship years as "passing by in the blink of an eye." Thanks to how well they were recreated in the chapters, the reader gets a good sense of that, despite those years taking up a majority of the book. Although we get a good synopsis of Backlund's post-World Championship life, it's near the end of the book. Backlund really did go back to being a full-time family man after fading from the wrestling conscious. Even the "Mr. Backlund" era of the mid-1990s is taken care of in about a chapter. Bob Backlund is proudest of those six World Championship years, so that is what we get the best look at.

In addition to being a thick book, it is also elegantly published. The book itself is styled the way that you would expect the memoirs coming from a politician or major celebrity to be. It's a handsome and well-edited book. Only two brief stories stuck out to me as being repeated earlier in the book. A few times the shaded areas marking the words of a "guest" writer didn't quite match up to the passage. A small printing error that did not detract from my enjoyment.

Aside from my earlier given concerns, I was also worried that Backlund would dominate his book with academic and athletic stories other than pro wrestling as George Steele and Lex Luger did in their books. This was not the case by any means. Backlund knew that this was to be a wrestling book. He may not have gone out with the boys nightly, but he still had many a story to tell. Those stories make the hundreds of pages go by in a flash. Enjoy them. I did.

It's All-American!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Can Mattel Elite Figures Actually Be Posed In 1,000 Holds?

The Iceman. The Shooter. The Man of 1,000 Holds. Dean Malenko certainly had a wide variety of nicknames, including some humorous ones that I've neglected to list, but did he really have one thousand different holds? His career was based on his being a technical master in the ring, probably a decade or so later than he really would have thrived. Make no mistake, Malenko is well-remembered for what he did accomplish, but one has to wonder just how much better he may have fared had he come up in the business during the era of his father, Professor Boris Malenko. The same can be wondered about many stars, but nevertheless Dean Malenko has become a legend in the eyes of many.

Since his retirement in 2001, Malenko has been passing his knowledge on to the next generation in his role as a WWE "producer" or "road agent." That affiliation with the world's largest wrestling promotion has gained Malenko continual merchandise including action figures and trading cards. In Mattel's WWE Elite Series 37, Malenko is the latest addition to the "Flashback" figures, showcasing stars of past eras.

Malenko is packaged in the familiar (and soon to be changed) Elite window box complete with his trademark vest and the Cruiserweight Championship belt. Thanks to the accessories, there's no hint of figure "float" that the Elite's sometimes suffer from, but it is here that we see a mistake in the packaging. The label on the box proclaims that the figure includes the "United States Championship Title." While Malenko did indeed hold that championship during his WCW run, the belt included is the Cruiserweight title which had previously been released with last year's Rey Mysterio Jr. Flashback figure.

As far as likeness is concerned, this is indeed Dean Malenko. The head reminds me a lot of the ToyBiz Malenko figure that was part of the WCW Four Horsemen boxed set. Jakks had a very good Malenko likeness as well in their Classic Superstars line, but in my opinion this one is just a bit better than both. The stone-faced likeness is just what we need out of a figure of "The Iceman." The familiar hairstyle is captured perfectly, too.

The body is reused, but works well here. "1,000" is emblazoned on the back of his tights, and that's about the extent of the flashiness that you're going to get from Malenko. "The Shooter" let his in-ring work speak for itself and flamboyance was never a part of his act. Those kind of wrestlers don't often make for the most exciting action figures, but there is still a lot of appeal here. Malenko was cold and calculating in his approach to opponents, and that comes across here. I only wish that the arms could be manipulated for his famous wrist-wringing walk to the ring, but there are limits to joints made of plastic.

I think that the figure looks best with both the vest and belt on. He goes well with the other WCW names that have been released, and of course the Four Horsemen Hall of Fame set. I wouldn't say that Malenko is a vital figure to every collection, but fans of "The Shooter" will want him. I can't see him getting more releases anytime soon, so this might be your one and only shot if you intend to grab one. And no, before you wonder about it, the packaging error won't be fixed.

Mattel has a lot of new "first time" figures coming soon, as well as the aforementioned packaging change. In what now seems to be an annual event, the design and style of Mattel's WWE figure cardbacks and boxes will be changing again. A red tone, similar to the look at the beginning of Mattel's run, is returning with the lower left corner cutting off at an angle. I'll reserve my opinions on the packaging until I see it in person, but I've always thought that the bluish combinations of the past few years were much more appealing.

No matter what the packaging looks like, Mattel continues to provide a lot of interesting and fun figures on the inside. Recent showings at public events have shown that a lot more are coming, and I'm sure that I'm not the only one who wants the first, and probably only, figure of...The Bunny!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bill Apter Will See YOU At The Bookshelf

There are various uses for the word "icon" in the world of professional wrestling. Some have used it as an in-ring moniker. Others have truly earned it for their years in the profession. Still, a few more should have it used to describe themselves, yet would likely argue against it due to their own humility. The last example fits one man to a "T." He wasn't known for wrestling, managing, or even commentating. He had television exposure, but next to none with the powerhouse WWF/WWE. He resembled Jerry Lewis more than he did any hulking wrestling star. But despite all of this, Bill Apter had a major impact on wrestling fans from the 1970s to today. He is indeed a wrestling icon. Now, his expansive career is being opened up in the form of a book.

"Is Wrestling Fixed? I Didn't Know It Was Broken!" is the title of wrestling's latest autobiography. Planning a tour to launch the title, one of Apter's first stops was at the Legends of the Ring event in New Jersey. Apter is a familiar face at these events, greeting fans and wrestling stars with equal warmth. This time, however, Bill himself was given some of the spotlight. Usually, it is the famed wrestling journalist himself, running around and catching brief interviews and sound bytes from the greats of the squared circle. At this event, it was Apter being asked the questions in the form of both interviews and a question-and-answer session.

For anyone who is somehow unfamiliar with Bill Apter, the tale is in his accomplishments. For fifty years, the Queens, New York native has been covering pro wrestling. He is most closely associated with magazine titles such as Pro Wrestling Illustrated, The Wrestler, and Inside Wrestling among others. He appeared on various wrestling television broadcasts in the '70s, '80s, and '90s and continues to pop up today on the WWE Network. While he is no longer involved in any publications on a full-time basis, his regular wrestling outlet is

"Is Wrestling Fixed" is written in the style of what some call a "bathroom read." Although it is the tale of Apter's life and career, it is edited in a manner that allows you to really just pick up anywhere and start. Some don't care for books that skip around, but I wouldn't lump this into that category. You get exactly the info that you're wondering about when you want it, if you're reading it in order as I did. If you want to go back and re-read a certain story, the chapters are titled appropriately.

For fans of the famed wrestling magazines, the book is a dream come true. Though wrestling fans, especially from the 1980s, will always know them as "The Apter Mags," we're finally given a clear cut look as to why they should really be deemed "The Weston Mags." Apter's respect for the founder of the publications, Stanley Weston, comes across fully as does his loyalty to the man and the brand.

Common misconceptions and rumors about the ways that the magazines operated are addressed and clarified. Those infamous and often faceless writers whose words we hung onto like the gospel are finally fleshed out. Were Dan Shockett and Eddie Ellner really lowlifes who hated the fan favorites of the ring? Or did they really have lives at all? "Wonderful Willie" tells us for sure. How about the "Year End Awards" or the "PWI 500?" How were they compiled and how legit was the process? And why did Dusty Rhodes make the covers so often? Yes folks, it's a fun read, but Apter does not dodge the difficult questions that the magazine fans have been asking for so many years. And what about that "apartment wrestling" stuff that always made the Sports Review Wrestling title a bit more titillating? You'll learn all about that, too.

The true highlight for me was Apter's unflinching look behind the curtain of the mystery-shrouded World Wide Wrestling Federation. Even though he makes no secret of wanting to have more future work with the WWE Network, Apter gives a fair and balanced view of the often tumultuous relationship between the magazines and the WWWF. Vincent J. McMahon was guarded as to how his events and talent were showcased in the press. Apter openly demonstrates how this often put him, the public face of the magazines, in precarious and sometimes dangerous positions.

The book also contains many previously unheard tales of some of the biggest names in the industry. Hulk Hogan, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, the Von Erich, Hart, and McMahon families, Eric Bischoff, and "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers just to name a few. Let us not forget that Bill Apter was also the main catalyst for the famous feud between Andy Kaufman and Jerry "The King" Lawler. What was it like behind the scenes of Letterman the night of the famous Lawler-Kaufman slap? Apter was there and tells all. Thunderlips, MSG, Bruno, the Parade of Champions, and even the beginnings of several "extreme" stars, pick your milestone. Apter covered it.

This isn't a dishy tell-all, and Apter goes out of his way to let you know that. If something uncouth takes place in the midst of a story, it is included but not dwelled upon. Apter is a positive person, no doubt a key to his many successes, and that certainly comes through in his stories. Instead of trashy backstage stories, we are given a great life story that just happens to take place in what was, at the time, a very closed and secretive industry. The fact that we simultaneously get to learn about a very interesting individual and have many longtime questions answered combines to make one helluva book.

As with any good book, you should always leave wanting a bit more. The problem is, Apter is such a good storyteller that I'm left wanting a lot more. Talking to him many times over years, I know that he is filled with an endless amount of tales that could span an entire of collection of books. That leaves me with the comfort that this may be just the beginning.

Apter ends the book by letting us know that he is busier than ever with various jobs and projects. I've seen the man in action and he is indeed the quintessential "whirling dervish." At press time, it is not long before Mr. Apter's 70th birthday. If you think that's going to slow him down, you don't know Apter. Whether you see it at retail, pick it up online or as an eBook, or encounter the author on tour, add this one to your shelf. It's one that you'll be revisiting over and over.

With all due respect to the master of wrestling impersonations himself, Bill Apter, I in turn steal HIS line...

I'll see YOU at the matches!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bruno Turns 80

Eighty years. A milestone in any lifetime. For a professional wrestler, reaching that age has, sadly, turned into an almost impossible feat. It's become common knowledge in the past decade or so that wrestlers generally do not live long lives. The rigors and vices of life on the road as well as in-ring damage and adapting to life after the squared circle have proven to be a lethal combination. If one man was going to make it, being an inspiration throughout his entire life, it's Bruno Sammartino.

Growing up, Bruno Sammartino was a wrestling name that I knew as well as Hulk Hogan or Junkyard Dog even though he had all but retired by the time that I began watching. My parents grew up in Sammartino's home base of Pittsburgh, PA, and made sure that I knew all about him. I can still remember them happily pointing out the LJN Bruno figure shown on the Wrestling Superstars cardback. They weren't the only ones in the area who remembered the Italian hero of the '60s and '70s. I know that fond memories remain of Sammartino's impact in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, but he will always be a top sports legend here in the 'Burgh. Baby boomers still talk about Sammartino with awe in their voices. He was real to their grandparents. He was real to their parents. He is real to them. The feeling was mutual. While Bruno may have ruled the entire northeast wrestling scene, the Steel City was where his heart was.

Bruno wasn't flashy. He'd briskly jog to the ring, more often than not wearing the WWWF Championship, and use his massive hands, muscles, and shoulders to dispose of his opponent. Killer Kowalski, George Steele, Ivan Koloff, or Nikolai Volkoff, the name did not matter. His fans knew that he would deal with the latest challenge and emerge "the champ" once again. Tales of those fans are partly what keep his legacy alive. The infamous "silent" reaction to Bruno's first Championship loss to Koloff in Madison Square Garden is repeated to this day, as are tales from fans in the Pittsburgh area of their grandparents throwing things at the television set when Bruno was in trouble.

Would Sammartino work in the wrestling world of today? That remains to be seen. Sammartino's ethnic hero mystique is lost in today's world, but I see a lot of Bruno in Cesaro. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Cesaro is a modern-day Sammartino. Sadly, "The Swiss Superman" is grossly misused, thus preventing any further comparisons. Still, the combination of strength and ring skill can easily make one think back to the heyday of "The Living Legend." With one flick of the pencil, Cesaro could probably be a decent replication of a Sammartino-type wrestling star. A match between the two in their primes would be an absolute classic.

After his career ended and he began publicly denouncing WWE, Bruno was the one that everyone thought would live the rest of his life opposed to returning. In 2013 we were all proven wrong, and as much as some don't like the product, WWE is the mainstream face of the modern wrestling business. Bruno's new association with them only helps cement that his name and legacy are celebrated far down through the years. Since his rejoining with the company, Bruno has been part of the Hall of Fame ceremonies, returned to the WrestleMania stage, and debuted on Monday Night Raw not to mention many new merchandising avenues.

It has been documented that 2015 has seen some health setbacks for Sammartino and subsequently a slowing of his appearance schedule. All word of late has been that "The Living Legend" is on the mend and will be in prime shape to celebrate his milestone birthday on October 6th. While no one is promised a tomorrow, it'd be foolish to bet against Bruno Sammartino celebrating many more birthdays and quite possibly setting another record--longest living pro wrestler in history.

Happy Birthday, Champ!