Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ringside With CM Punk, Sin Cara, & Ungrateful A.J.

 I am a wrestling fan.  No matter the ups and downs of the business, I'm fairly sure that I always will be.  In that fandom, I'd like to think that I'm one of the more respectful fans.  I've come to realize that I'm seen that way by the industry's stars that I've met through both those encounters and my written word.  Even when I've had a less than favorable experience (a rare occurrence), I tend to overlook it publicly and rather keep it as an anecdote to tell at the right time.  Those encounters do not show up here, although I feel it may be time to break the rules a bit.

This past Saturday the annual Ringside Fest was held in New York City.  With CM Punk, Sin Cara, and A.J. Lee on the bill, it made for a nice weekend trip to The Big Apple.  Reviews and feedback of this event are always positive and seeing as that it was a paid event and not simply an "appearance" piqued my interest.  In recent years, "appearances" of WWE contracted stars are usually events that I avoid.  Overcrowding, poor-crowd control, and limits on what exactly a fan will get out of it (i.e. autographs, photo ops) usually keep me away.

Seeing as this was an event that you paid to attend, you are to get exactly what you paid for.  I believe everyone did, as I heard no complaints at the event nor have I seen any in the little feedback that I've come across on the internet since.  Crowd control got a bit out of hand near the middle of the event, but that can happen at any appearance and was ultimately remedied.

Any veteran of autograph collecting knows that no matter how they plan on getting the items signed, they have those items planned out well in advance.  You have your items ready to go and ready to be signed.  Often collectors will go back and forth for weeks over the decision of just what to get signed.  For a star like Punk you have a multitude of items from which to choose.  For someone like A.J., it's a bit more cut and dry.  The WWE's resident "crazy chick" (a PG-Rated version of a ring rat character) has about three trading cards and a few official photos.  Her action figure is not yet released, although, along with Vickie Guerrero and Eve Torres, she recently graced the cover of Inside Wrestling.  This was to join my collection of many other signed covers from the Stanley Weston family of wrestling magazines.

Approaching A.J., the ticket taker informed me that Miss Lee would not sign the magazine.  I did a bit of respectful protesting, but even A.J. herself chimed in that she could not sign it, and could only sign "official WWE items."  She was kind enough, but friendliness means nil when scribbling two tiny letters on a piece of paper is the issue at hand.  A Ringside Fest staff member made a really nice gesture by bringing me, at no charge, one of the official 8x10 glossy licensed Photo File photos to use as my signed item.  These were being sold at the event, and I wasn't asked to pay for it at this point.  A Top Loader protector was even included.

While I did get what I had paid for, nowhere was it ever said that certain items would not be autographed.  At a free signing, this type of behavior can be tolerated.  When an item is of questionable taste, this can also be excused.  But the star in question's first magazine cover?  The same type of cover signed just an hour later by one of the industry's biggest stars?  I can't say that it tainted the event nor a day in an amazing city, but it was just a bit troubling.

Is this behavior that someone in the company told her to follow?  It must not apply to the champion or various other stars under contact who have signed similar items over the years.  Does she understand that the Weston publications often use WWE-licensed photos nowadays?  For someone who claims to be a lifelong fan of the business, she certainly doesn't seem to understand that a magazine cover is an extremely high honor.  One of the same magazines that someone she claims to have looked up to, Miss Elizabeth, often graced herself.

I'm not spiteful.  I'm not mad.  I just hope to get a point across.  Miss Lee may or may not ever see this.  Based upon her actions, she probably would not even care.  My point is that just as I am respectful as a fan of the business that I love, Miss Lee needs to learn to be respectful to the business that's currently putting food on her table...although...she could use an extra sandwich or two.

Ringside Fest was not just a place for photo ops and autographs, but a showcase for the Mattel WWE toy line as well.  Mattel representatives were on hand to show off current and upcoming product and answer questions.  They were also very patient with the throngs of young fans who wanted to touch and play with everything on display.

New figures of current stars such as Ryback, Brock Lesnar, Brodus Clay, and others were on display as were figures of legends like Jerry Lawler, Shawn Michaels, and Randy "Macho Man" Savage.  The two highlights for myself and many others were prototypes of the upcoming Miss Elizabeth and Honky Tonk Man figures.  Although I still dread the in-store searches for Elizabeth, it is a beautifully done figure of someone who never saw as much merchandise as was deserved.

The Honky Tonk Man figure did not yet have a jumpsuit but is clad in red tights.  I particularly appreciate the fact that the hair is sculpted to be a bit messed up in the front as if he is in the middle of a match or one of the legendary five-hour television tapings of the era.  Hopefully a guitar will be added to the jumpsuit.  Many fans are hoping for a red jumpsuit as it is one of the few that Jakks did not produce with their figures of HTM.

Miss Elizabeth marks the last legend who has not been overdone that we will see in figure form.  By inserting the legends into their Elite line, going forward we are only likely to see characters that are known by both diehard and casual fans.  The days of seeing figures of largely territorial stars are dead.  While the Mattel product is well-produced and usually visually impressive, it's not going to sustain the interest of fans that Jakks brought to the table with their Classic Superstars.  A sad but true reality, for sure.

A WrestleMania XXVIII version of The Undertaker was shown and is already hitting Toys "R" Us stores in purple "20-0" packaging.  Wal Mart will see their own exclusives with a line of current stars clad in t-shirts painted directly onto the figures.  Ryback will be hitting the shelves first (well...first as in not as Skip Sheffield) in a pack with Jinder Mahal, and Lesnar will have both basic and elite figures.

The Mattel license continues to roll on.  If distribution issues were addressed concerning fans who don't want Royal Rumbles full of John Cena, Randy Orton, and Rey Mysterio, I think the line would really be on the right track.  With figures now in four or five series, I predict that Sin Cara will soon join the shelfwarming regulars. And if you ever felt that your area alone was stuffed with endless Cena's, I can assure you that even the "crossroads of the world," Times Square, is feeling your pain as well.  All Cena, All The Time...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

PWI: COVERing Wrestling For Over 3 Decades

September 1979 was quite a long time ago.  That is the cover date of the first issue of Pro Wrestling Illustrated.  It's also quite a long time for a product to last on the shelves.  Despite ups and downs in the wrestling industry, not to mention with magazines in general, PWI has stood the test of time.  With the cover being a huge selling point of any periodical, you have to sit back and think that PWI's amazing gallery of cover photos has helped that success.

You would have to think that even in the jaded world of the year 2012, making it to the cover of PWI should still mean something to a wrestler.  Like that first action figure or appearance in a video game, it is definitely a career highlight.  In some cases, wrestlers have never looked better than on the cover of PWI.

The Road Warriors almost always looked intimidating, but possible never more so than on the famous PWI March 1984 cover featuring "the boys" highlighted in "horror-style" lighting.  The infamous Four Horsemen?  Drenched in gold, the elite stable proved that the NWA contained the top heels in the business on the cover of PWI's December 1988 issue.  Even Shawn Michaels has told the story of imitating Ric Flair on the April 1984 cover right before entering the business himself.

Personally, I can't pick just one.  Like all of my other "favorite" things in pro wrestling, I've narrowed it down to a top five list.  With thirty-three years of magazines in the can, it was no easy task.  These are simply the issues that appeal to me the most visually while simultaneously capturing the feel of what professional wrestling is all about.

*May 1981--Ricky Steamboat

One of the best in one of his early successes.  A vintage wrestling champion pose from one of the greatest wrestling champions of all-time.  And we cannot forget what many of you will undoubtedly point out...Ricky Steamboat with a mustache.  Wrap it all up into one package and you have this cover.  This is the first of several memorable PWI covers featuring Steamboat, but in my opinion the best.

The cover also illustrates the variety of press given to the various regional territories of the time.  Steamboat is wearing my favorite version of the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship.  Barry Windham is listed as "Florida Titleholder."  Although in just a few years the business would be heading towards national domination, it's interesting to look back and realize that so many fans got their glimpse of a variety of stars solely from publications like PWI.

*December 2002--Rob Van Dam

Beginning in 1991, the PWI 500 is the magazine's annual ranking of the top five-hundred wrestlers in the world.  Always controversial, this particular issue is always a great seller as well.  In 2002, it was Rob Van Dam who took the coveted number one position.

Featuring bright colors and RVD in his classic pose, I don't think the number one spot has ever been featured better on a PWI 500 cover.  Tearing up the then-newly rebranded WWE, Van Dam did indeed have a banner 2002 and is continuing to add accolades to his career a decade later.  My only problem with the cover is that this issue was produced during a time when the famous Pro Wrestling Illustrated logo was taking a backseat to the PWI abbreviation.  That wasn't enough to knock it out of my list.

*August 1986--Randy Savage

From his high-flying style to his endless wardrobes, The Macho Man may just have been the most visual wrestler of all-time.  In my opinion, this cover may have been the grandest that he ever looked, and that is most definitely saying something.

Entering the ring in purple and gold, Savage is stealing the spotlight as he always did.  The photograph used captured a perfect sparkle to the cape that always made the cover "pop" to me.  The opening video to the "Macho Madness" WWE DVD release had a similar sparkle, but that was video.  This was a simple photo, some luck, and an unforgettable legend.

*June 2008--Ric Flair

Celebrating a cover where the goal was to celebrate covers.  Just when you thought Flair couldn't have any more iconic PWI covers, we're thrown a curveball.

Around the time of his WWE retirement, PWI highlighted his 25 best covers from their family of magazines.  Clad in a pink feathery robe in front of a collage of his past covers, "The Nature Boy" looks as regal as he did in his entire career.  Stylin' and profilin', indeed.

*November 1983--Harley Race

Harley Race and the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.  I really don't have to go any further, but of course I will.

I've gone on and on before about how, to me, Harley Race personifies professional wrestling.  He had the perfect look to be a wrestler, the perfect voice to be a wrestler, and the technique to match it all.  He adapted himself several times to remain relevant in an ever-changing business, but it was undoubtedly his eight times as champion in which he was at the top of his game.  This cover sums it all up perfectly.  Race frequently adds "Best in Sports" to his signature.  A more fitting inscription there never has been.

Those are my "five faves."  Everyone will, and should, have their own list.  Whether it be a well-read copy from years past or a newer example suitable for framing, these covers capture wrestling regardless of condition.  And of course you just can't beat having an issue autographed in the cases where it's still able to be done.  I've witnessed countless times where the wrestlers themselves can't take their eyes off of the various items presented in front of them by fans.  Where covers like these are concerned, it's no wonder.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I admit it.  I love wrestling theme music.  Sure there are those who say that the wrestlers should be introduced, both already in the ring, solely to the tones of boos and cheers.  At times that can still be appropriate to this day, especially in important matches with the in-ring introductions after the music.  But with the pageantry of modern events like WrestleMania and even the weekly televised matches on shows like Raw and Impact, it would seem awfully empty without music.

Wrestling's musical connection didn't really start with theme music.  Like everything else, there was wrestling-related music on vinyl.  I'm not going to go on a diatribe about how "youngsters" today don't know what a vinyl record is.  Many do, but where would we be without the jokes about vinyl being antiquated?  Many music connoisseurs will tell you that a good, clean, unscratched vinyl sounds better than a digital recording any day.  My ears would tend to agree, and thankfully so many great wrestling collectibles are in fact vinyl records!

Arguably the most publicized wrestling musical release is 1985's "The Wrestling Album," a product of the WWF's Rock 'n Wrestling Connection and involving musical talents such as Rick Derringer and Cyndi Lauper.  Airplay on MTV and the aura of the wrestling industry at the time time ensured that the endeavor would be a success.  From the mass-produced main album to many rarer 45 and 12 inch singles, the product reflects wrestling's then-growing trend towards entertainment.  Many of the songs from the album eventually became iconic theme music like JYD's "Grab Them Cakes," Hillbilly Jim's "Don't Go Messin' With A Country Boy," and "Real American" which at the time was intended for Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo's U.S. Express Tag Team.  The song, by Derringer, eventually went to Hulk Hogan.

Even more theme songs and videos came from the WWF's second musical release, "Piledriver."   Almost every song from this album was used as a theme at one point.  Although wrestling's '80s "boom" popularity was beginning to wane, you would be hard pressed to find a fan around the age of 30 that does not remember at least one "Piledriver" track.  The beloved theme songs of Demolition, Slick, The Honky Tonk Man, and Strike Force all came from Piledriver, as did Koko B. Ware reminding us that sometimes love feels just like...a piledriver.

"The Mouth of the South" Jimmy Hart may have had a song on The Wrestling Album, but that is hardly his greatest contribution to music.  A member of '60s rock group "The Gentry's," it was with the group that Hart became involved in professional wrestling.  Both with The Gentry's and wrestlers themselves, Hart wrote and performed several songs involving the talent of Memphis wrestling.  He later wrote countless pieces of music to be used as themes for many WWF and WCW stars.  One of his most played efforts would undoubtedly be "Sexy Boy," the longtime theme music of Shawn Michaels.

Hart's gimmick largely played into music, but so did that of "Freebird" Michael P.S. Hayes.  Looking like a quintessential '80s rocker, Hayes' album, "Off The Streets," was released in 1987.  This was about a decade after his in-ring debut and just a few years after becoming one of the top heels in the industry.  Hayes and his "Badstreet Band" (the other Freebirds were not musically involved) performed tracks ranging from the Freebirds' "Badstreet U.S.A." anthem to Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town."

Each album included a "special" photo of Hayes draped in the Confederate flag.  Some of those that pre-ordered the album also received a bonus autographed 8x10 photo due to delays in production and release.  It is also interesting to note that the Freebirds started using "Badstreet U.S.A." as their theme nearly four years before the release of this album.  It is said that Hayes had trouble securing a record deal for the release. 

Sometimes even the vinyl itself was visually impressive, as is the case with picture discs.  These releases had photos right on the vinyl.  As visual as pro wrestlers are, it was a perfect marriage.  It seems as if these were more popular outside of the U.S. as many of these releases are foreign.  While picture discs featuring such stars as Hulk Hogan and Stan Hansen were produced in Japan, others originated in the U.K.  A single from the WWF's third full-length album, "WrestleMania: The Album," saw a Hacksaw Jim Duggan 12 inch picture disc release in the United Kingdom.

This brings us to the long-debated question, "Who was the first wrestler to use theme music?"  Everyone thinks that they know the answer yet there are various acceptable "right" answers.  We'll never know the truth, however one of the first wrestling-related musical releases starred '50s and '60s wrestler Antonino Rocca and is appropriately titled "In This Corner...The Musical World of Antonino Rocca."  The album is full of Latin songs of various rhythms with a few, such as "Rocca's Theme," specifically tailored to the high-flyer.  A photo of Rocca conducting is shown on the back cover of the album, but I would be willing to bet that it's nothing more than a publicity photo.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of wrestling's musical connection, but rather a sample of what's out there on highly desirable vinyl.  Themes are still available in digital stores like Google Play and iTunes, but nothing beats holding a bunch of vinyl records in your hands, eagerly anticipating the sounds when you spin the next one.  What I'm really trying to say can have you digital download of "Voices."  Cue up some "Jive Soul Bro" on vinyl?  I'm there.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Von Erichs: A Family Album...Revisited

It's hard to mention the Von Erich name to a wrestling fan without eliciting a sorrowful response.  For all of the excitement, happiness, and joy that the family brought to millions around the world, it's fairly obvious that the tragedy has overcome the triumph. 

Speculation and talk will go on forever regarding the Von Erich family tragedies.  What was the deep rooted cause?  Who was ultimately to blame?  Could at least one of the deaths been prevented?  We will never know.  It seems as if even the family members themselves couldn't answer those questions.

Regardless, the family did not ignore the deaths publicly.  Many fans remember the melancholy episodes of World Class Championship Wrestling following the deaths of David and Mike.  What is less remembered is a book produced by the family in 1987.  The book is titled "The Von Erichs: A Family Album," and isn't exactly an easy find these days.

When I posted pictures of the book on our Facebook Fanpage, many fans began to recall commercials advertising the book during WCCW broadcasts.  The commercials instruct to viewer to "order in time for Christmas," and this very well may have been the only way that the book was available. 

A large, hardcover book, the term "album" was perfectly suited.  Originally costing $13.95, this would easily be a $25-$30 book today.  Credit for text is given to Kirk Dooley with design by Constance Flowers.  The book was published by a company called "Taylor Publishing Co." out of, surprise surprise, Dallas, TX.

What should be no big surprise is that the very first sentence in the book compares the Von Erich family to the Kennedy family.  It's a comparison made by others and, in view of their then-recent tragedies and an obvious effort to be shown in a good light, also a comparison made by the family. 

The most striking thing about this book is not the openness (for the era) regarding the Von Erich deaths but rather that the book isn't really about wrestling at all.  Sure, the family built their dynasty around the industry and plenty of photos chronicle the in-ring accomplishments of Fritz, David, Kevin, Kerry, and Mike, but this isn't a wrestling book.  It's a book telling the Adkisson-approved story of the Von Erich clan.

Those looking for a book telling the story of Fritz's Nazi gimmick or his sons battles with The Fabulous Freebirds will be greatly disappointed.  There is no mention of either.  A small, randomly placed photo of Gary Hart labeled as a "long time enemy" is pretty much the only reference to any WCCW storylines.

The book begins telling the story of Jack (Fritz) and wife Doris as they meet, marry, and simultaneously start a family and a life on the road.  While Jack becoming Fritz and his matches are a backdrop, the focus is on the family's beginnings and hardships. 

The first tragedy for the family was nearly a quarter of a century before the well-known death of David in Japan.  Six-year-old Jackie Adkisson was electrocuted and drowned in an incident that many fans probably learned of through this book.  It is speculated in the book that Fritz may have been more domineering over his other children because of young Jackie's death, a thought that has been repeated by more than one wrestling fan.

As Fritz's wrestling career grew, so did the clan.  The story of how Dallas became Von Erich territory is included, although no mention of the office being ran by Fritz at any point in time is made.  Again, this is a book about family and not the wrestling business.

Countless photos and stories take us through the childhood and early successes of the sons, with a heavy emphasis on their high school athletic accomplishments.  The amount of coverage in this area makes the reader wonder if Fritz would've rather had his sons go on to greatness in sports other than professional wrestling.

It's at this point that the book provides an interesting conundrum.  While the boys' popularity and "heartthrob" status is noted, it's not nearly emphasized to the point that it is remembered today.  It's often pointed out that all over, but especially in Texas, the Von Erich boys were treated like rock stars.  Is the downplaying of this in the book an attempt to appear humble or another move to push wrestling to the back?

The death of David is mentioned but not dwelled upon.  Mike's death, occuring the year of publication, is the last major event for the family covered in the book.  Pro wrestling does, however, play part in the end of the book.  It is in such a manner that suggests the family may have realized that their dynasty was taking a nose dive.  It is predicted that Kerry and Kevin will go on to become all-time greats as wrestlers while Chris will become a wrestling promoter.  The last thing that I need to do is remind anyone how it all ended up.

The book is in an interesting read for all fans of the Von Erich family, but especially as a time capsule.  In photos and words it displays how the family wanted to be perceived just around the time that the proverbial "rose colored glasses" were getting foggy.  Business was going down for a multitude of reasons and truths were beginning to surface.  For a student of wrestling history or a collector looking for a treasury of Von Erich photos, you couldn't find a better item. 

We also must keep in mind that Kevin seems to have found peace in his life.  Retired to Hawaii with his own family and mother Doris, Kevin is indeed the sole survivor.  Although no one wants that title, Kevin has stated that he finds comfort in the memories of his brothers and the closeness that made them a family.  One look at this book is pure evidence of that.