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...