Thursday, February 28, 2013

We The People...Of Dutch's World

"We The People."  For the past 2 1/2 weeks, these three words have dominated the wrestling world.  Who knew that, in an era in the industry where youth is king, a creative veteran would become not only a focal point of a company but also a mainstream news talking point?  It's happened.  In WWE.  In 2013.  Monday Night Raw has, for the moment, become a very entertaining show for the "WWE Universe" and wrestling fans alike, but that's another story for another time.

After nearly forty years in the wrestling business, "Dirty" Dutch Mantell is not a household name.  Wrestling fans such as myself have long revered the man for his work both in front of and behind the curtain.  Unfortunately, rather short national runs in both WCW and WWF have denied many fans the opportunity to take in the Dutchman's talent.  WWE has suddenly changed all of that.

In a creative move right out of my own heart, Dutch Mantell recently returned to WWE seconding Jack Swagger.  Shortly thereafter we learned that Mantell is now known as Zeb Colter.  While the name Zeb is an obvious nod to his Uncle Zebekiah character from 1995-1996 WWF, the character is no longer a mountain hillbilly.  Zeb is now a Vietnam veteran (a fact mirroring Mantell's real-life history) with a staunch and vocal stance against illegal immigration.

The Colter character and angle pitting Swagger against Alberto Del Rio have picked up quite a bit of controversy, but Mantell is no stranger to being in the center of the action.  Most in the current audience have no clue that Mantell has been a key figure in wrestling history.  Thanks to a blog started by Mantell a few years ago, fans were finally able to take an entertaining peek into his rich career in the business.  That blog eventually evolved into two different books.  We're taking a look at the first of those books, titled "The World According to Dutch."

Although you could categorize the book as an autobiography, I would be more inclined to simply call it a wrestling book.  A very good wrestling book at that.  While there are some amazing autobiographies by wrestlers available, more often than not the early years of the individuals are less than interesting.  Those early years are often followed by college football stories that simply don't resonate with someone like me who has no interest in that sport.  In this book, Dutch dives into wrestling after a paragraph or so of background.  You can't argue with that approach.

Dutch's book, while definitely full of memories from his own career, also features stories that were told to him in his early days in the business.  The Dutchman points out that he may very well be the last living person that knows these stories, so we are indeed fortunate that they are told here.  The book rarely delves into Dutch's personal life outside of the wrestling world, but still manages to keep a rather steady flow from the beginnings of his career to more recent happenings circa around three years ago.

Mantell spent time in many of the most beloved territories and promotions of the past thirty years including the aforementioned "big two," Memphis, Smoky Mountain, and Florida.  One area that many fans associate Dutch with is Puerto Rico.  It seems that no one leaves that particular island without some crazy stories.  With as many years as Dutch spent there, the craziest of those tales are right here in the book.  You'll also learn why Mantell made just two trips to Japan, a country often revered by wrestlers from that era.

Books by those who spent time changing the wrestling industry behind the curtain are often a level above publications by talent that was simply in-ring.  J.J. Dillon's book is a great example of this.  Mantell's book easily places in the ranks here as well with a history as a booker and a more modern "member of creative."  Not only will you learn the story of the creation of TNA, but also the birth of Dutch's own brainchild within the company that evolved into one of their most popular brands.  It stands to reason that Mantell has much creative input in his current Zeb Colter character based upon his track record.

Other highlights are chapters dedicate to stars in the business who Mantell considers to be "graduates" of "The University of Dutch."  These are talents that you definitely know but may be less aware of what an impact Mantell had on their formative years in the business.  Fans of The Undertaker will want this book.  I shall say no more on the subject, but it's interesting to think what tidbits of knowledge Mantell may still be passing on to these talents in today's WWE locker room. 

Since many of these stories were edited from Dutch's blog, it's surprising as to how well the book flows and rarely repeats itself.  Notations of stories that can be enhanced by footage present on YouTube are included with the caveat that the footage could be removed at anytime.  Thankfully, the ones that I felt the urge to check on are still there. 

One chapter that I could've done without is a somewhat confusing tale entitled "The Ballad of Dirty Dutch."  This seems to be a history of the character, but really didn't make much sense to me.  I was also disappointed by the chapter on Bruiser Brody's murder.  Many are aware that Dutch was one of the wrestlers present for the tragedy thanks to a story Mantell gave to an Internet journalist over a decade ago.  Mantell references that piece and offers little new to the story.  I understand that it would be a difficult topic to discuss, but the chapter should have instead gone to another of Mantell's entertaining stories.

Because this book was self-published, I think it unfortunately slipped through the cracks among many fans.  It's an amazingly entertaining book that will hopefully get more attention now that Dutch has been reborn as one of the top characters in WWE.  I know that I'm anticipating eventually getting my hands on the second offering from Mantell.

There's never been a better time to take a look at the career of "Dirty" Dutch.  With a horrific family tragedy occurring in Dutch's life in 2012, there has also never been a better time for Dutch to come back into prominence in an industry he has loved and nurtured for decades.

Personally, I'm hoping for a long and fruitful run for WWE's new top mouth, Zeb Colter.  Just in case there is ever a need to find a new talent for Zeb to lead, I think I have the answer...WE THE PEOPLE!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Globes, Eagles, & Spinners...The WWE Championship Belt

I'm with the wrestling fans, those that have made it into the industry and outsiders, who feel that the endless conflicts in the ring should ultimately revolve around one thing: becoming the champion.  Certainly many other issues arise from month-to-month and year-to-year in the wrestling world, but a wrestler's main goal should be to one day become the best at what he does.  Whether it's the championship of a company or the often controversy "World" champion claim, capturing that title should, in theory, signify the best.  Therefore, the championship should look as spectacular as anything ever seen inside of a wrestling ring.

Should the belt be small or should it be large?  Should the design declare the name of the company of which the belt represents or should it simply be the "World" championship?  These are the arguments that fans of championship belts and wrestling in general have debated for years now.

Being a collector of belts only dates back about a decade.  While every wrestling fan has salivated at the thought of holding one of the many beautiful belts in wrestling's history, it has only been about ten years since affordable replicas have been available to the public.  Plenty of toy representations were produced before that, but none truly captured what it would be like to actually hold the dreams of every wrestler.  Since then, replicas of belts from a variety of wrestling companies past and present have been produced.

Of course, a "true" belt fan will tell you that the only true way to enjoy a championship belt in your own collection is to have one produced from the same men who create the belts used on television.  These belts cost thousands of dollars and take anywhere from months to years to be produced.  Seeing many of these creations in person, if one has the money to invest it is truly the way to go.  For the rest of us, the mass produced replica belts are an enjoyable alternative that still wow most any fan who comes in contact with them.

WWE has wasted no time in marketing a replica of the newest design of the WWE Championship.  Literally minutes after being unveiled on television, a replica of the championship was made available at around $450.  Some are already bashing the championship without even giving it a shot.  To begin with, the design is worlds better than the belt that has to be considered the worst of all-time, the "spinner" WWE Championship.  That particular belt hit two negative chords with me.  Aside from being ridiculous as a whole, in my opinion a championship design should never be customized for a particular champion.  Novelty belts such as Ted DiBiase's Million Dollar Belt not included, a "sanctioned" company championship should not represent any individual champion in design.  While The Rock's Brahma Bull logo does appear on the side plates of the new belt, it appears that these side plates will change depending on the champion thus creating an interesting update to the "nameplate" design seen on so many belts of the past.

The new WWE Championship is flashy yet proudly announces the simple message firmly emblazoned on the front: "WWE Champion."  While it's a shame that the longest reigning and most memorable champion in recent years, CM Punk, did not have this belt for his historic reign, holding the "spinner" belt actually helped his character's cause.  The garish nature and almost universally hated design was a prime example of something that CM Punk would in fact stand against.  There's no doubt that Punk will be adding this new belt to his career record somewhere down the line.

The WWE's other major championship, their World Heavyweight Championship, carries a design largely unchanged since 1985.  The core of this belt is based on one of Ric Flair's NWA Championship designs and one that is among the all-time favorites of many fans, myself included.  "Big Gold," as it is lovingly referred to, reflected the class, glitz, and glamor of Flair's character while proudly proclaiming itself as the symbol of being the "World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion."  This design has remained as WWE's World Heavyweight Championship for over a decade now.  I've long dreaded the day when it will be replaced, as seeing so many of today's stars wear this classic looking belt around their waist is a great honor to the past.

Fans can finally rejoice, the spinner belt is history!  A new design is set to be with us for the long haul.  While many of us hoped for a return to something along the lines of the famed "winged eagle" or "undisputed" championships, I feel that the new kid on the block represents exactly what WWE is, a company providing entertainment that will (hopefully) never fully leave their true roots: professional wrestling.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

From The Musty Yellowed Pages--Bruno: A Collector's Item

The mainstream media is finally catching up to me!  All it took was a new relationship with WWE and everyone and their mother is writing about Bruno Sammartino.  Never to be outdone, especially where Pittsburgh's own Living Legend is concerned, I'm giving you two Bruno blog entries in a row!  Whereas last week was my own gushing over the recent happenings between WWE and Bruno, this week is another entry in our ongoing "From The Musty Yellowed Pages" series where we take a look inside of a wrestling publication.

This particular magazine about "The Living Legend" doesn't really have a title.  It's essentially called "Bruno," but since there is a small "A Collector's Item" tagline under Bruno's cover portrait, we're officially going to refer to it as "Bruno: A Collector's Item."  Although most items labeled as a collector's item rarely reach that status, this magazine breaks the rule.

Beginning around late 1970, ads and order blanks for this magazine began appearing in Wrestling Revue.  It was not available on newsstands and thus is much harder to find some forty years later than the standard Wrestling Revue issues.  At one point several years ago, this magazine sold for several hundred dollars.  Some collectors still believe that they are able to sell their own copies for that much, but I have yet to see proof.  The large amount was probably the result of two overzealous collectors bidding on one copy.  That being said, anyone owning this magazine should know that they own one of the nicest vintage Bruno collectibles around.

One striking feature of the magazine is that the cover folds out to a full-color poster of one of Bruno's most iconic shots.  On examples found today there is often much wear and tear on the cover and spine.  This is most likely due to fans folding and unfolding the poster.  Although there is some text, this is mainly a photo album covering Mr. Sammartino's entire life to that point.

There are no known photographs of very young Bruno due to his family's situation in his home country of Italy.  The earliest photos of Bruno were taken once his family had settled in America after World War II.  Many of these shots include his parents and siblings.  These photos are included here, as are pictures of Bruno's wife and children including David.  Many photos in this section and throughout the magazine were used in Bruno's 1990 autobiography.

Aside from posed photos, anything "backstage" in those days was relatively rare.  In a section entitled "Bruno And His Fans" we see a shot of Bruno visiting with a disabled child during the course of a show.  The ever-gracious champion did a lot of this kind of thing, something that many wrestlers, such as John Cena, continue to do today.  Also on this page are shots of Bruno signing autographs including a great in-ring shot where the champ is accompanied by tag team partner Tony Marino, dressed in his complete "Battman" costume.

One full-page shot features Bruno and one of his heroes, the legendary Primo Carnera.  Carnera, largely known as a professional boxer in his heyday, became a professional wrestler after World War II.  Also dabbling in acting, most notably in the original "Mighty Joe Young," Carnera teamed with Bruno in the twilight of his career.  Bruno has said that while teaming with his hero was a great thrill for both himself and his family, the fact that Carnera was in less than spectacular shape and still forced to wrestle made it somewhat bittersweet.

Bruno was also no stranger to personal appearances.  A section entitled "Bruno At The Fair" shows the champ at the "Shaefer Circle of Sports Exhibit" signing his name in cement and posing while mightily hoisting two beer barrels in the air.  The latter is actually one of the final stories told in his autobiography.  The press set up the stunt for a photo op and even the mighty Bruno could barely wait to put the huge barrels back down on the ground.  After the event was over, Bruno removed his sports jacket only to see his white shirt stained with blood.  The barrels dug so deep into the strongman's arms that they cut into his skin.

For many, the highlights of this magazine would be a collection of sections featuring Bruno against his top opponents.  Many of wrestling's all-time greats from Gorilla Monsoon to Fred Blassie to Bill Watts are included here.  In the section featuring Ivan Koloff, it notes that the Russian Bear has never defeated Sammartino.  We now know that not long after publication this fact would change.  Wrestling Revue featured great writing over its run on the newsstands but the amazing action photography is what truly sold the magazines.  Those fine photos are what we see here.  Since so much of his early career was not captured on film, these photos provide an excellent view into the Hall of Fame career of Bruno Sammartino. 

Another top opponent of Sammartino featured is Killer Kowalski.  The feud between these two classic grapplers raged on throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  A deep mutual respect developed between the two that Bruno still talks about to this day.  In recent media coverage, Sammartino has cited Triple H's respect for Kowalski (who trained the WWE star) as a point that Sammartino in-turn respects regarding Triple H.  In the magazine we get an amazing photo of a presumed contract signing between the two legends.

The magazine concludes with a look at Bruno wrestling in other countries including Australia and Japan.  Sammartino was fiercely loyal to Giant Baba who went on to found All Japan Pro Wrestling.  Two action shots of Bruno and Baba are included.  A classic mail-order ad for Bruno Sammartino Buttons is to the left of these photos.

Bruno Sammartino is one of the few 1960's stars that has a seemingly endless supply of merchandise.  It's a true testament to his popularity, in an era when merchandising was virtually non-existent in wrestling.  There's no doubt that we will be seeing new Bruno DVDs, trading cards, action figures, and video game appearances thanks to his new deal with WWE.  As soon as they're available, you'll be hearing about it right here, but I'm not quite sure that any of them will measure up with "Bruno: A Collector's Item."

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Living Legend Comes Home

The rumors are over.  The speculation is done.  A twenty-five year silence is finally ended.  Bruno Sammartino is taking his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame.

So much has been written of the issues between Sammartino and the company over the years.  He's being stubborn.  They're being stubborn.  The company isn't what it once was.  They're leaving him out just to spite him.  Guess what?  None of it matters now.  A deal has been made.  The news has been bigger than perhaps even those of us that wanted it to happen the most ever could've dreamed.  From the legendary KDKA here in Pittsburgh to ESPN, it's front page news.  It's a colossal event happening at just the right time.

While the announcement is even sweeter seeing as that the induction will take place in the house the Bruno built, Madison Square Garden, little or no attention has been paid to the fact that it is actually the 50th anniversary of Sammartino capturing the WWWF Championship for the first time.  It also marks 25 years since Bruno made his last "new" appearance on WWF television.  March of 1988 saw the end of Bruno as a color analyst on WWF Superstars of Wrestling.

Bruno has already publicly stated that he is doing this for the fans.  Is there money involved?  Absolutely.  There should be.  The man has an absolute right to it.  I've met Bruno many times.  I've watched him interact with the fans that, especially here in Pittsburgh, still idolize the champ.  Trust me when I say, he is doing this for the fans.  Others can raise their eyebrow and claim the name all that they want, but Bruno Sammartino will always be "The People's Champion."

At 77 years old, this is yet another gift to the fans who have already enjoyed so much from Mr. Sammartino.  After all of this time, we will finally get to see one of the men who built the company come back and participate in the future.  This is important not as much to the legacy of Sammartino but to the WWE itself.  The "Universe" of fans deserve to learn about the man who took a regional wrestling promotion and placed it on the launching pad to global recognition.  They deserve to know about a man who never went out and proclaimed to be a role model, but instead let his real life actions speak for him in a largely fictional world.  They deserve to know why Bruno Sammartino is indeed "The Living Legend."

Early discussion of the deal claims that Sammartino will appear as part of several home video releases as well as on WWE television in one form or another.  Seeing as that the deal was reached at all indicates that he will be treated as he should be: with dignity and respect.  While some will continue to bash the legend for his years of holding out, I find it impossible to believe that the deal was made with even the smallest chance of Sammartino being dragged into the content that he has always been so strongly against.  Will we see Bruno singing "Santa Lucia" with Santino?  Absolutely not.  We will see him presented the way that a honorable elder statesman of the industry should be treated.

I've described my own personal feelings about Mr. Sammartino in these pages many times before, and I don't think that my happiness over this development is any big secret.  Although I planned on attending before the possibility of Bruno finally accepting was even discussed, this has made my ecstatic over my decision.  As the son of original Pittsburgh Bruno fans from his glory days and becoming a fan myself over the years, I can honestly say that April 6, 2013 will be one of the highlights of my wrestling fandom.  Sitting in MSG for the first time was going to be emotional enough, but now it feels as if my legacy as a wrestling fan will have come full circle.  On that night, I'm positive that we will be hearing one particular chant, but I want to take the time and say it in advance.  From the bottom of my heart and on behalf of my family, Pittsburgh, and all of your fans all over the world...

Thank you, Bruno.