Thursday, May 31, 2012

Coming This Summer...In Wrestling!

Remember when the last months of the year, leading into the holidays, seemed like the season for spending?  I'm not sure that those months have anything on summer as far as lightening the wallet.  Huge meals for cookouts on "eating" holidays, blockbuster "popcorn" movies, and even "staycation" vacations can cost an arm and a leg.  And why shouldn't they?  I can remember hearing and reading the three-word phrase of "Coming this Summer!" ever since I was a kid in every medium you could think of.  Although those words carried a lot of excitement with them, they also meant that money was going to be spent on any and all fun activities.  All except for wrestling.

Many wrestling promoters traditionally did not like running shows in the summer.  It was thought that fans had "better things to do" than go to a wrestling show, though eventually The Great American Bash and SummerSlam ripped the misconception to shreds.

If you ask me, a true wrestling fan will be able to give up at least one night in Porchville to take in an evening of matches.  These days many fans do just that.  In fact, with all of the exciting releases and happenings in wrestling they may have to give up a few cases of beer in Porchville just to afford it all.  Collectibles, events, and even a milestone or two pepper this upcoming season of sunshine with tons of mat action.

TNA, that little company that many said wouldn't last a year, will celebrate their 10th anniversary this June.  Whether you think of it as Total Nonstop Action or the newer name of Impact Wrestling, the company has had more than a fair share of memorable moments over the past decade.  Their upcoming Slammiversary pay-per-view event looks to be serving as the official celebration of this milestone, and as always I recommend checking out one of their house shows if they come through your area.

One of the most valuable assets to the company, especially at the aforementioned house shows, is reportedly departing after ten years.  Don West, who began his career in the company as an announcer, is said to be finishing up his tenure shortly.  In recent years Mr. West has been credited with the company performing well financially in the merchandise department.  Anyone who has attended a live TNA/Impact show can attest to his tireless work and promotion for both the company and the countless wares.

Never to be outdone, WWE will be celebrating a milestone as well.  On August 19th, the company will hold the 25th edition of it's SummerSlam event.  This will be the fourth consecutive time that the event will emanate from the Staples Center in Los Angeles and if you plan on attending you may just want to pick up a program.  Not only are programs probably my favorite items to pick up at shows, but if you decide you want one in the future you'll be kicking yourself: programs from the last few SummerSlam's have been selling for as much as $60 in recent auctions.

Of course programs aren't the only new merchandise coming in the next few months.  Figures from both companies are on tap, with a new TNA series finally coming from Jakks.  The problem with the set is that no new characters are included.  Slated for an August release the set is to include Jeff Hardy, Velvet Sky, Bobby Roode, James Storm, and Mr. Anderson.  All figures will have new decor and while four of the five should be good sellers, at least one new name would've been nice.  Anderson, the one who won't sell, could've been freshened up by being released dressed as Sting.  Jakks has showcased Anderson as Sting prototypes in the past and comes across as lazy for not releasing one.

Mattel's WWE line continues to move along with continual new releases and new characters.  Their issue, as I've discussed previously, is the odd distribution of the new characters.  The company needs to learn that female figures WILL sell.  Limiting them only causes the prices to go up on the secondary market, something that Mattel is making no money off of whatsoever.

Sin Cara's return to WWE television could not have come at a better time for Mattel.  The first figures of the masked luchador are hitting stores now.  Being a popular character with kids, it isn't like the figure will need any help flying off of the shelves and it into toy rings everywhere.

For fans who would rather watch matches in the comfort of their air conditioned homes, plenty of new multimedia releases are on tap for the coming months.  WWE is planning new DVD and Blu-Ray releases for classic ECW matches and The Undertaker along with compilation sets for concepts like Falls Count Anywhere matches and Greatest Finishing Moves.  Just last week WWE reaped some gems in their vault with a best of the WCW Clash of the Champions which is hosted by "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes and is available in both formats.

This summer will also mark a traditional company throwing its hat into the wrestling ring without a WWE or TNA affiliation..  Leaf Trading Cards is releasing a card set called "Leaf Originals Wrestling."  Each card is autographed directly on the card and there are five cards per pack.  Cost per pack?  Just $80.  While I appreciate any company producing wrestling merchandise, my opinion is that these will appeal more to card collectors than actual wrestling memorabilia collectors.  Each card has an artists rendering of the legend as opposed to a photo and I've already heard negative feedback on the depictions from collectors.  It has also been announced that due to contractual obligations (most likely from WWE) Shawn Michaels is already out of the set.

Great events, action figures, cards, and matches to watch until the sun rises in Porchville.  What more could a wrestling fan ask for?  Keep it locked here on the blog throughout the next few months for even more wrestling events, happenings, and swag that are...

                                 COMING THIS SUMMER!!!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Wrestling Figures From The Land Of The Rising Sun

A silent crowd, polite applause, perhaps a few crepe paper streamers, and some of the best in-ring action you'll ever see.  These were the glory days of puroresu aka professional wrestling in Japan.  Antonio Inoki, Giant Baba, Mitsuharu Misawa, Tiger Mask, and even domestically known names like Stan Hansen, Andre the Giant, The Funk's, and Abdullah the Butcher dominated Japanese culture for years perhaps even more than the country's other sports and entertainment icons.

It's actually quite unimaginable in the United States as to just how big professional wrestling and its stars were in the Land of the Rising Sun.  While domestic wrestling has always had niche fans and "boom" periods of fad popularity, wrestling in Japan enjoyed mainstream popularity and coverage for several decades.

That is, of course, where the memorabilia comes into the picture.

Not only was Japan the birthplace of many gimmicks, moves, angles, and ideas in pro wrestling, but it was also the home country to the very first wrestling action figures.  A company called Popy, also manufacturer of the Tiger Mask action figure line (based on the cartoon from which the Tiger Mask character was born), created a small line of wrestling figures in the early 1980's.  This series, including Inoki, Andre, Hulk Hogan, and Harley Race among others, is very hard to find and valued highly to this day.

In the 1990's when the Japanese in-ring product was often regarded as the best in the world, several lines of quality figures began being produced.  Every promotion of the time including New Japan Pro Wrestling, All Japan Pro Wrestling, Pro Wrestling NOAH and others got into the act with figures produced by a wide variety of companies such as Hyper Heroes, HAO, Character Product, and more.

Although figures were produced in several different sizes, the most popular would likely be the five inch figures which were made under each company's banner.  As much as the Jakks Classic Superstars line should be celebrated for including stars from so many different eras, these five inch Japanese figures cover eras, companies, and countries with stars ranging from Mil Mascaras and the Funk's to Jushin Liger and Ultimo Dragon.  Special outfits, accessories, and other "deluxe" features were included with many of the figures while others commemorated special matches or events based on their design.  Ring announcers, referees, managers, and even a pair of ring girls known as the "Break Bunnies" were produced into figures along with rings, belts, and even ring accessories such as barbed wire and (plastic) flames!

Nearly all of the five inch figures included a universal feature: removable arms.  For some of the figures this fact made no difference at all.  For others, like Jinsei Shinzaki/Hakushi, two pairs of arms were included with the figure to create different poses.  Others yet, like Satoru Sayama, included a different torso to transform the popular light heavyweight into his guise as the original Tiger Mask.

These figures hit the height of their popularity in the early 2000's which was a time when MMA was heavily crossing over with pro wrestling in Japan.  Many MMA figures were produced in the country by the same manufacturers and collections often include figures from both, especially of those who starred in both sports.  One notable example would be American "The Beast" Bob Sapp who was one of the biggest cultural stars in Japan at the time.

American collectors often wonder just how these figures measure up in size compared to popular lines from their country.  The main five inch Japanese figures fit perfectly with the Hasbro WWF and Galoob WCW lines making many dream matches...or displays...possible.

Of course the five inch figures were just one style.  Large figures, small figures, "big head" figures, and even 3 3/4 inch G.I. Joe-esque figures were released of stars from across the span of puroresu.  While some may argue that many of these pieces were more statues than figures, the attention to detail and quality craftsmanship place these at the top of any collection.

One interesting thing that I have come across in collecting Japanese figures is the reactions of the stars when seeing these pieces.  Dory Funk Jr. and Scott Norton were unaware that figures of themselves even existed.  Although the individual licensing rights are listed on the bottom of the back of the cards of many of the figures, perhaps the rights were attained in deals that the stars themselves were unaware of.

Over the past couple of years the figures have unfortunately ceased production.  With the popularity of wrestling on the decline in Japan, this did not come as much of a surprise.  When Jakks conceived their TNA line follow-up to the WWE Classic Superstars line, rights to New Japan Pro Wrestling figures were acquired.  The NJPW version of Hulk Hogan was ultimately the only figure to come from this deal, but at least the NJPW logo was included on the packaging.

As in America, action figures were just a tip of the iceberg as far as wrestling merchandise in Japan.  Publications chronicling wrestling far surpass those in other countries due to the aforementioned mainstream appreciation that the sport achieved there.  From newspaper coverage to the famous Weekly Gong magazine, Japanese wrestling publications are abundant and a lot of fun to collect.  Many of the magazines include coverage of American wrestling as well, often providing a different look at events well known to many of us.

Video games, trading cards, plush toys, and of course tons of recorded media are all just as treasured in puroresu collecting as action figures.  VHS tapes of Japanese wrestling shows were among the top traded wrestling shows of the 1990's due to quality of matches and talent involved.  Games like Fire Pro Wrestling are often considered the best wrestling video games which, like the action figure lines, included stars from a wide spectrum.

When it comes down to it, the figures remain king.  Prices for almost all of the figures have risen since their initial release and continue to be discovered by new collectors.  At the height of their release, some online stores would take pre-orders for some of the figures due to the process of importing the items.  While the prices were higher than domestic equivalents even then, in retrospect they seem rather low compared to the secondary market numbers now.

Here is only a small sample of this great, and often overlooked, aspect of wrestling action figure collecting.  I'm sure that we'll revisit the topic in the future on the blog, and to see many more of these figures and loads of other great memorabilia, "Like" and check out the galleries on our Facebook Fanpage.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

From The Musty Yellowed Pages--Wrestling Revue, May 1972

Anyone who collects old wrestling publications knows that there's usually a plethora of gems in the pages of each issue.  Fun old articles, dated (and sometimes very politically incorrect) advertisements, spectacular photos, and a few surprises usually comprise just a single magazine.  These nuggets of interest compelled me to start doing "bonus" features at the end of unrelated entries that I like to call "From The Musty Yellowed Pages."

Met with a great response, it hit me that some of these issues could fill up an entire entry themselves.  Until about a decade ago, there were tons of different wrestling titles to choose from on the newsstand.  From those that treated the sport seriously to others that tried that either built upon or ignored kayfabe, they're all interesting and veritable time capsules of eras gone by.

I hope to present a wide variety of magazines and programs in entries such as this, but we will begin with a look back to forty years ago this month.  Wrestling Revue claimed right in the title on the cover that they were "The World's Largest Selling Wrestling Magazine."  This may very well have been true.  While the ubiquitous Weston magazines like Inside Wrestling and The Wrestler were going strong, Wrestling Revue was widely known for worldwide wrestling coverage and excellent photography.  The magazine also seemed to steer clear from stories that created angles and instead tried to cover wrestling as an actual sport.

The May 1972 issue of Wrestling Revue features two Hall of Fame legends, Cowboy Bill Watts and the late Chief Jay Strongbow, right on the cover.  Wrestling Revue seemed to often alternate between action shots or portraits like these for their covers.

The editorial inside discusses an absence that many fans probably noted as soon as they opened the issue--wrestler rankings.  A staple of most wrestling magazines to this day, editor Norm Kietzer explains that rankings or ratings lists were simply inaccurate and making it worse was the matter of which titles deserved "World" status.  Many fans will remember when the latter became an issue regarding the WWF Championship in the Weston magazines of the 1980's.  Across from the editorial is a full-page ad for the DynaPower bodybuilding supplements that Verne Gagne endorsed for years, complete with an iconic shot of the champ himself.

Page 15 features an article covering British grappler Billy Robinson's arrival in the United States.  A great photo of Robinson with AWA announcer Marty O'Neill and "Miss Minnesota Universe" is prominently featured.  In those days it looks as if Robinson was as styling as he was dangerous.  As one of the true toughmen of the sport utilizing the infamous British style, Robinson to this day teaches that style as well as MMA to young students.The article goes on to note that Robinson had a variety of tag team partners in the U.S. including Gagne and Wilbur Snyder.  Another is a very young and lean Don Muraco who appears remarkably different than he would a decade later in his NWA and WWF runs.

The next article features a blow-by-blow account of a match held in the world famous Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, California.  The match pitted Bull Ramos against Sicodelico who wore an awesome and somewhat psychadelic mask.  It should be noted that Sicodelico is the brother of Dos Caras and Mil Mascaras.  In the photos accompanying the article, the famous phone number R.I. 9-5171 appears in the background.  This was the phone number to the Olympic Auditorium's box office and was once one of the most famous phone numbers in the world.

The cover feature on Cowboy Bill Watts is quite extensive and again features some amazing photography.  It begins with a photo of Watts delivering his famous "Oklahoma Stampede" as well as one featuring Watts with fellow Oklahoma wrestling legends LeRoy McGuirk (father of former WWF ring announcer Mike McGuirk) and Danny Hodge.

Another name of note on the article is that of the author, Lil Al Vavasseur.  You'd be hard pressed to find a wrestling magazine of the era that didn't feature Vavasseur's name.  "Lil Al" was a well-known wrestling photographer of the day who created many of the most famous shots of wrestling's greatest legends.  To this day, Al's photography is circulated among collectors, still with the unique "Lil Al" name stamp in the corner.

Another place that "Lil Al" appears in not only this issue but most others of the time is in the "Fan Club Chatter" section.  Fan club's for wrestlers were all the rage at the time and you'll often be surprised as to the familiar names you will see listed as fan club presidents.  Mike Tenay, AWA/AWF Announcer Mick Karch, Ken "Lord Zoltan" Jugan, and PWI Editor Stu Saks are all listed in this issue back when they were just fans and before they went on to make their own names in the business.

Losing your hair?  Interested in girl wrestling pictures and movies?  Wrestling Revue has the answers for you!  These ads appeared in nearly every wrestling magazine of the day and are somewhat tame by standards of the day.  Other wrestling titles, sold to all ages, featured ads of much more risqué products that would have no chance of being sold to anyone under 18 today.  Even with ads like these for tamer fare, you'd probably have just as good of a chance of actually receiving these products today as you would've back then.  Caveat emptor, indeed!

One feature that I really enjoy each time that I pick up one of these old magazines is a section called "Fans' Candid Corner."  This section showcases shots taken by fans from all over the world and provides a fans-eye-view of the wrestling territories.  In this issue not only do we get to see a great shot of a pre-Mr. Wrestling II Johnny Walker, but also a bloodied Bobby Heenan being led to the back by police.  The latter photo fully illustrates a scene that we've heard described by so many stars from the era either in interviews or books: the hated heel relying on the local law enforcement to get them safely out of the arena before the angered fans are able to unleash their rage.  If this photo doesn't make you sit back and realize how great the territorial wrestling days were, nothing will!

While it would be great if more footage from these days existed, it's comforting to know that we have so many publications like this so that the era will never truly be gone.  The truth is that many of these magazines can still be purchased for under $10 per issue.  Remarkable bargains for the amount of treasures that are hidden in each one.  To see many more great wrestling magazines from the 1950's to now, be sure to "Like" our Facebook page which can be found here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Memories (And Memorabilia) Of The Territorial Wrestling Heroes

It's a lot easier to be immortal in pro wrestling these days.  Any wrestler that's made any kind of stride in WWE or TNA will have any combination of a trading card, action figure, or video game rendering.  Being captured in any of those forms guarantees immortality, but does it necessarily equate a remembrance?

Sure we all remember stars of years gone by who had the immense WWF marketing machine behind them, but what about the gladiators that came before them?  The true regional heroes of the mat that, while they may have had some small national exposure, largely stayed confined to just a few areas.  To be remembered today by both fans who saw their battles up close and personal as well as those of us who were not yet even born is a true testament to their talent.  It's also the stuff of which legends are made.

One of these men will be celebrating his 80th year this Sunday, May 13th.  That man would be the one and only Danny Hodge.  An absolute God in amateur wrestling, Hodge beat out Kurt Angle as the first Olympic wrestler to make a successful transition into pro wrestling.  Hodge also beat out Hulk Hogan as the first pro wrestler to make the cover of Sport Illustrated, although after reading the SI article it is apparent that the NCAA champion had no intention of going pro at the time.

Ask any wrestler over the age of fifty as to who the toughest grappler of the golden era was and they will most assuredly answer with Hodge's name.  His feats of strength were often demonstrated by crushing an apple in his fist and swiftly turning it in applesauce.  Now nearly an octogenarian, Hodge is still fully capable of this amazing skill.

A perennial holder of various forms of the NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship, Hodge's career was ended after a car accident in the mid-1970s.  Despite not being active in the ring for almost forty years, Hodge's name is still widely bandied about when the all-time greats are discussed.  Although he is a member of many Hall of Fame's, Danny Hodge's name is one that many feel should be in the WWE Hall of Fame.  This is an opinion shared by fellow Oklahoma native Jim Ross who had the honor of inducting Hodge into the NWA Hall of Heroes in 2010.

Hodge stays active as chairman of the sports commission in Oklahoma as well as by making appearances at events such as NWA Fanfest.  The former champion often seems to have as much fun at the event as the fans.  A gentleman in every sense of the word, his handshake shared with fans is much more forgiving than the grips which he uses on apples.

While getting a handshake and photo with Mr. Hodge would be enough to thrill any true wrestling fan, it's actually the fact that I've met another territorial great that seems to surprise most people in conversation.  Maybe it's because this star made almost a second wrestling career out of being a menacing, scheming manager in the NWA.  The man in question would be none other than "Number One" Paul Jones.

Classic wrestling fans from Florida to the Carolinas remember Jones as one of the best ring technicians of the day.  Fans who were largely unexposed to the territories and instead grew up watching Jim Crockett Promotions' World Championship Wrestling will remember Jones as the conniving manager of stars such as The Powers of Pain, Rick Rude & Manny Fernandez, and others while constantly feuding with "Boogie Woogie Man" Jimmy Valiant.

Although all memories of Jones are valid, it's his wrestling years where he truly shines as a superstar.  Combined with ring technique that would match up to any current star was a flare for controversy that would fit right in with today's "sports entertainment" tastes.  From throwing title belts off of bridges to turning on various "babyface" tag team partners such as a young Ricky Steamboat, (to hear Jones tell it, they turned on him) Jones was a true athlete, entertainer and, in many ways, ahead of his time.

Speaking of those ahead of their time, imagine an accomplished wrestling star from the 1960's and 1970's who went on to design and create so many of the championship wrestling belts that we've dreamed of winning?  That would be Reggie Parks.

Even if you've never seen Reggie Parks wrestle, you have still seen his work.  Creating most of the memorable championships for the WWF, NWA, AWA, WCW, and more, Mr. Parks carved out a legacy in pro wrestling that will never be matched.  Now imagine all of that on top of a fantastic wrestling career.

Originally trained by Stu Hart, Parks' career was largely on the west coast where he wrestled under both his own name and as the masked Avenger.  Capturing many regional titles, word spread of Parks' talents for creating titles as well which began his second career in wrestling.  Since then, Parks' name has been synonymous with the highest honors in the sport that he devoted his life to.

This is just three great examples of men whose blood, sweat, and tears built a territorial industry into a global pastime.  There are many more like them, some more celebrated and some less, that I hope to be able to talk about in these pages in the future.  While memories fade and memorabilia deteriorates, stories can be passed down continually until the end of time, thus providing immortality for these legends that no other medium can.

Here we have three men that devoted their careers to a sport that they loved.  Three men who, without the aid of an action figure or video game appearance, are remembered by the fans who cheered them in smoke-filled arenas around the country.  Three men that paved the way for the stars of today and, even if just because of this article, are now known to the fans of today and hopefully thus will be remembered by the wrestlers and fans of tomorrow.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

You Can Look, But You Can't Touch...

Never before has a theme song matched the action figure so well.

I have nothing against the Bella Twins personally.  I'm sure they're very nice girls.  Lord only knows why they wouldn't milk a WWE deal for all it's worth, but that's for them to know and the dirt sheets to find out.  That said, they're almost the Kardashians of the wrestling world, albeit much better looking.  In essence, they're famous for nothing.  They can't wrestle.  They don't seem to be particularly talented at anything else that we've seen in the PG-rated WWE Universe.  When they had the position of escorting Raw guest hosts to the ring it seemed like their talents were being used to the fullest degree.  Nonetheless, the twins have decided that they've had enough of the WWE.

Maybe I'm the crazy one.  After all, not only did I just mention the scourge of pop culture, the Kardashians, TWICE in an entry, but the rest of the entry is devoted solely to the Bella Twins.  They do have merchandise though, and one of the hottest current pieces of merchandise to boot.

I've mentioned in previous reviews that Mattel just doesn't understand that female figures will sell.  They don't have to be packed in shipping cases less than the male wrestlers.  In fact, if Mattel were to ask anyone who's been in a WWE figure aisle over the past year they would instead hear desperate pleas for them to make and ship less Randy Orton figures.  Yet, more "Viper" figures are on their way, folks.

Keeping with their one-track-minded decree of producing/shipping less females, Mattel has done the same with their first two-female figure pack, the Bella Twins.  If you see the tons of John Cena/The Rock two-packs clogging shelves, you've already missed the Twins.  You've missed Sin Cara/Daniel Bryan as well, but not to fear, more Sin Cara figures are on their way.  As for the Twins?  Never again.

Even if they weren't gone, this would most likely be their only shot at plastic immortality.  That fact actually helps answer a question that I'm often asked by non-collectors:  Why figures of less talented or less popular superstars can attain such popularity and value.  Even if they were the worst figures ever made (and they aren't), the fact that they're limited in distribution and that figures of the girls will most likely never be produced again automatically brings up that price. 

Are the figures worthy of their current position atop of the wrestling figure heap?  Let's take a look...but we can't touch.

When these figures were in the planning stages, Mattel promised that we would be buying two distinctly individual figures as opposed to two of the same figure in one package.  While they succeeded, I wouldn't call it a rousing success.  A slightly different smirk and cock of an eyebrow are the extent of the facial differences.  Though one could argue as to just how different twins can look, it would help if they looked more like the girls themselves.  Here, Brie looks passable while Nikki greatly resembles actress Alyssa Milano.  The hair mold used for each girl is different which shows some commendable effort, although the real difference is behind them.  No, really.  It's on their behinds.  "B. B." and "N. B." monograms are included on their derrieres so that children across the world can tell the difference.

As opposed to other Mattel Diva figures, you feel like you're getting something tangible here.  Their leggings are fully molded and detailed, while their tops are actually separate pieces from the figures which are not removable.  I feel I should mention that since the Bella's wore a variety of colors, black should've been the last choice for the figures.  The nice colors did wonders for the recent Layla figure and could have been repeated here.  Also included is the first-ever figure-sized replica of the WWE Diva Championship belt.  This ultimately has to factor into the popularity of this set, although only a fool would believe that we won't see it released with future Diva figures down the line.  Hopefully Mattel will actually color it in a bit for those releases.

I wouldn't advise against buying it, as if you want it grab it whenever you see it.  What I will say is that as opposed to the LJN Ultimate Warrior, Remco Buddy Rose, or even any of the rarer Jakks Classic Superstars, it isn't really worth the inflated prices.  Are any figures?  Obviously it's up to personal taste, but I'd have felt slightly ripped off had I paid more than $18.96 for the set.

Don't blame me if you end up wishing that you'd taken heed of the theme song's advice, "You can look, but you can't touch."  Honestly, I think another group of female wrestling figures deliver a Knockout to these twins, but that's just my opinion...