Thursday, January 30, 2014

"The Great" Mae Young

 Despite often being the oldest superstar on the roster, Mae Young always lived up to her last name.  How would an elderly woman do the things that she did?  Why would she?  Certainly a woman of such an advanced age would be content watching the next generation of her rough profession?  Not "The Great" Mae Young.  If someone was taking a powerbomb off a stage through a table, it was her.  Perhaps she should have been nicknamed "Mae Young-At-Heart."

When Mae passed away on January 14th at the age of 90, it was not unexpected.  Due to various stories of ill health and an erroneous report of her death a few days earlier, the wrestling community had already begun to say their goodbyes.  It was the fact that this tough-as-nails woman could possible be mortal that stunned most fans.  As she often spoke of her wish to compete at the age of 100, most of us thought that the legendary female grappler would be around forever.

Although she competed in nine different decades, much of the existing career of Young is from her WWF/WWE career that began in 1999.  As the tag team partner and companion of The Fabulous Moolah, Young's appearances on Raw, Smackdown, and various pay-per-view events catapulted her from an unsung legend to one of the most beloved characters in the history of the company.

Little footage is known to be available of Young's early career.  Even photos from her wrestling days are few and far between.  Many fans are surprised to see that Young was a beautiful young woman whose toughness probably took many off-guard.  She was often seen wearing a crown even into her WWF days and was sometimes billed as "Queen" Mae Young.  The May 1969 issue of Wrestling Revue magazine featured a multi-page spread on the "Queen."  It's hard to believe that Mae was already three decades into her career at that point.

The stories told by Young herself and those who were around in her earlier career certainly paint a picture that mirrors her later years.  Wild, unflinching, and even pioneering seem to best describe Mae's days on the road, and we'll probably never begin to hear the craziest tales surrounding her life and times.  If ever a wrestler's life could translate into an entertaining motion picture, it just might have been Mae's.

Her wild past aside, Young seemed to truly enjoy the admiration of her peers and fans.  It has been said that her 2008 induction into the WWE Hall of Fame was one of the greatest days of her life.  Showing off her ring recognizing that honor, as well as her ring from the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, was something that she loved to do.  Though some observers may only view her induction as reliving her often hilarious WWF/WWE exploits, the educated fan recognizes that this honor was for a woman who succeeded at her craft at a time when it was not a popular vocation for her gender to participate in.

Mae is often associated with The Fabulous Moolah, but many of Moolah's students did not have the same association with Young.  Although Mae trained many wrestlers (including Moolah) during her career, she was not part of the golden age of Moolah's school that produced such women's wrestling stars as Donna Christanello, Toni Rose, Judy Martin, Leilani Kai, and Joyce Grable.  The west coast-based Young instead came to live at the Moolah estate in the early 1990's.  Although Christanello lived there for a number of years, it was Katie Glass, aka midget wrestler Diamond Lil, that Mae became particularly close to.  Our thoughts go out to  Ms. Glass at this time.

Every wrestling entity and even some mainstream news outlets have paid their respects to Mae Young in an outpouring not seen since the passing of Paul Bearer in 2013.  While it is undoubtedly a testament to her famous WWF/WWE role of the past fifteen years, it also gives hope to myself and many other true wrestling fans that her earlier contributions to the business will continue to be learned.  Godspeed, Johnnie Mae Young, and "Muah!"...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hulkamania Turns 30

Thirty years to the night of press time, Hulkamania was born.  Yes, the term was used before January 23, 1984, but that was simply the seed being planted.  That night in MSG was when the term, concept, and phenomenon burst upon not just New York City, but the world.  Despite what any historian may want you to believe, nothing so immense had ever happened to the wrestling world.  Despite what some revisionist history may tell you, Austin 3:16 is but a close second.  Hulkamania is immortal.

Three decades later, Hulk Hogan is still as relevant in both wrestling and pop culture as ever.  He has adapted with the times, and despite negative press here and there, he is still the ultimate iconic American hero.  In my mind, I used to measure Hogan's mainstream visibility with one phrase: "Even grandmothers know who Hulk Hogan is!"  Take a poll.  I'd venture to guess that's still the case even opposed against wrestling megastars that have come and gone since. 

What exactly makes Hulkamania so irresistible?  It's a larger-than-life superhero who captivated an industry and the world watching it.  It's a character that stood for ideals that, thirty years ago especially, were still held in reverence by the public at large.  It's a brand that just goes on and on.  Wrestling, television, film, the toy store...both then and now, Hulkamania is omnipresent.

What child of the 1980's did not own the legendary Hulk Hogan LJN?  Though two later versions in the line were a tad more lifelike, the original shirtless, belt-wearing LJN of the Hulkster was owned by children who weren't even necessarily wrestling fans.  After all, here was eight inches of rubbery wrestler to bend, fling, and slam all over the house, playground, and lunch room.  Full cases of just Hogan figures shipped to stores to meet demand.  Sure, there were a plethora of heroes and villains for kids to choose from, but you absolutely needed Hulk to make your '80s "figure federation" complete.

WWE may be branching back into cartoons in the next few months, but their original animated adventure saw the Hulkster at the helm.  Hulk Hogan's "Rock n Wrestling" burst onto CBS just a bit under two years after the birth of Hulkamania.  Hogan, along with Andre the Giant, Wendi Richter, Roddy Piper, and Mean Gene Okerlund, among others, appeared in standard cartoon plot lines each week.  Slam City, what?  "Rock n Wrestling" is still as beloved to fans in their 30s today as it was during it's original run.

Naturally, film followed television fame for the Hulkster.  Although his acting and choice of projects may not have always been top quality, they're still remembered today.  After a pre-Hulkamania taste of celluloid in Rocky III, Hogan starred in 1989's No Holds Barred.  Battling Zeus just as he would on WWF shows during the release of the film, the Hulkster stars as "Rip."  The movie, which features cameos by Bill "Masked Superstar/Demolition Ax" Eadie and Stan Hansen, is set to be released on Blu-Ray in 2014.

Hulkamania knows no bounds and of course has also spilled over into WCW and TNA.  Though the Hulkster had a few memorable moments in both promotions, he has never really seemed "at home" as he does in WWE.  The Hulkster's transformation into the villainous "Hollywood" Hogan and leader of the nWo can easily be pointed to as the legend's biggest non-WWF/WWE moment.  When that character was attempted in the WWF, it failed.  The red and yellow Hulkster is synonymous with WWF/WWE.

What does the future hold for Hulkamania?  It's all but guaranteed that Hulk Hogan will be back in WWE at any time.  What role will he play?  Time will tell, but count me in with the group of fans that is all for one last match in the ring.  This is professional wrestling.  Anything can, and will, happen.  This form of sport does not hold the limitations that others do.  Instead of complaining that a "young talent" wouldn't have a spot on a show such as WrestleMania XXX because the Hulkster does should not even be an argument.  He's more than earned his spot on any wrestling show that he pleases.  Thirty years of Hulkamania.  Thirty years of WrestleMania.  Seems like a no-brainer to me, brother.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

From The Musty Yellowed Pages--Royal Rumble 1989 Program

The first major wrestling anniversary in 2014 is absolutely "Royal."  Although the first Royal Rumble was held in 1988, it was not until 1989 that the event became a pay-per-view event.  Thus, 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the Rumble on pay-per-view.  Being the brainchild of Pat Patterson, the Rumble match itself can trace its roots to San Francisco.  For many years, the Roy Shire wrestling promotion on the west coast held a January battle royal that featured wrestlers from around the world.  Patterson spent a lot of time in the promotion and those battle royals, even going on to win several.  Fast forwarding a decade, we find Patterson as one of the top creative minds of the business and creating the Royal Rumble for the WWF.

On January 15, 1989, the Rumble made its pay-per-view debut.  Emanating from The Summit in Houston, Texas (now home megachurch to televangelist Joel Osteen), the pay-per-view seemed to be almost experimental in nature.  In addition to the Royal Rumble match itself, the show hosted a variety of events that were not normally part of the WWF's offerings at the time.

The program for the event is yet another that featured both the Rumble lineup itself as well as portions from the standard WWF program of the time.  These pages featured articles on recent happenings in the WWF, spotlights on talent, and of course the great color photography that the WWF publications were becoming known for.  Early in the program we're treated to a photo from  a then-recent Saturday Night's Main Event match.  Mr. Fuji had hired a masked assassin named Super Ninja to take out the Ultimate Warrior.  Though the match didn't last very long, the masked man was none other than Rip Oliver.  I know that I'm not the only fan who misses when this sort of wrestling randomness was commonplace.

Move over WWE 2K14!  As with many of the magazine's from that era, we're shown a full page ad for Acclaim's WWF VCR game and WrestleMania game for Nintendo.  Fans have many memories of this, the first licensed NES wrestling game, that featured Hulk Hogan, Bam Bam Bigelow, and The Honky Tonk Man among others.  Game play may have been limited and some of the design was questionable to say the least (Ted DiBiase using "Girls In Cars," bouncing "power-up" logos), but for the time it was an after-school ritual for tons of young wrestling fans.

In the program, it's the Royal Rumble match itself that comes first.  This is the Rumble where Ax and Smash of Demolition are the first two competitors and go at it much to the delight of the crowd.  There are many great moments in this Rumble, until the point where both Hogan and then-WWF Champion Randy "Macho Man" Savage are both eliminated.  The spot is integral to the growing explosion of the "Mega Powers," but the crowd simply does not buy Brutus Beefcake, Akeem, Ted DiBiase, and Big John Studd as the biggest names of the second half.

The opening match was a six-man tag team encounter that featured Hacksaw Jim Duggan and The Hart Foundation against Dino Bravo and the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers.  The match was two-out-of-three falls and featured both a past and future Rumble winner, Duggan and Bret Hart respectively, on the winning team.  It would be interesting to know why the company chose these six to not be in the Rumble match itself.  Duggan chasing a second Rumble win could have been built upon, but for a few years, the 1988 Rumble was largely forgotten in WWF lore.  The VHS video release that was supposed to feature that first Rumble, a Coliseum Video titled "Battle Royal," ultimately ended up canceled.

The next two events of the show are where the Rumble strays from normal territory.  First up is a "Super Posedown" that featured then-Intercontinental Champion The Ultimate Warrior against Ravishing Rick Rude.  This was obviously done to set up the WrestleMania V match, but I'm not the only fan who would have rather seen a short "teaser" match here instead of a posedown.  Notably, Nick Bockwinkel makes an appearance as a WWF agent and even feels a bit of the power of the Warrior.

The 1989 Rumble also featured the first singles women's pay-per-view match since WrestleMania 2.  Then-champion Rockin' Robin defended her championship against Judy Martin.  Both of these great competitors have fondly recalled their 1989 run to me, as it lasted nearly six months.  The match is also fun just for listening to the banter between Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse Ventura, and guest commentator "Sensational" Sherri Martel.  Martel had just lost the women's title to Robin and challenged the winner of this match.

Last but not least, we have my favorite match of the event.  Two of my favorites, Harley Race and Haku, collide in what was billed as a "King's Crown" match.  Race had been "The King" of the WWF until being injured going through a ringside table.  Haku was then "crowned" by Bobby Heenan which Race took offense to upon his return.  The match is under five minutes, but features nonstop action from both men and a humorous performance by Heenan who continuously switches sides depending on who has the in-ring advantage.  This match was omitted from the Coliseum Video release, but thankfully lives on in the WWE Home Video Royal Rumble Complete Anthology.  On the program photo of Race you are able to see the stomach scar that was a result of his surgery from the injury.

Near the end of the program is a two-page ad for an item that was perhaps even more iconic than the NES WrestleMania game: the WWF ice cream bar.  I'm sure that many attendees of the 1989 Rumble snacked on those slams of sweetness.  In repeating a plea from a certain WWE superstar a few years ago, I wish that they would return.  Why not at the 2014 Royal Rumble?  An event that has become steeped in surprise returns might just be the time and the place.  Thousands of Pittsburgh wrestling fans, including myself, cannot wait to take our seats for the most exciting pay-per-view of the year.  WWE, it's a great year for some major surprise!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

50 Years Of WWE Comes To Blu-Ray

When a company reaches the fifty year milestone, you have to expect them to celebrate it.  In fact, it's surprising just how little WWE, a company known for touting anniversaries of any size, actually pointed out their 50th recognized year in 2013.  A few mentions may have been made here and there on WWE programming, but to the best of my knowledge it came and went relatively quietly.  That is, except for the new WWE 50 DVD and Blu-Ray release.

To the hardcore fan, it actually appears on the outside to be a relatively useless release.  Most fans already know the history of the company and hardly need another lesson, but you can never get enough of the great quality footage that usually fills out these releases.  It was in fact some special footage included here that made me want this disc, that being an alternate view of one of the most historic matches in WWE history, but we'll get to that in a bit.

As with most WWE releases, you do get a dose of the "revisionist history" that some fans can't ever complain enough about.  Here, the revisionist history actually begins in the title itself.  If you recall, the WWE was claiming in their mid-1990's opening logo that the company had been the revolutionary force in sports entertainment "for over 50 years."  So which is it?  When did the company "officially" begin?  Does it really matter?  It's a business based on fictional history and telling fictional stories, so does "revisionist history" really make all that big of a difference?

A large portion of the beginning of the documentary celebrates the early success of the company thanks to Bruno Sammartino.  With Sammartino back in the WWE fold, it's obvious that the company wanted him back, in part, to help tell the story.  Though footage of his early days are limited, I still hope to see a dedicated Sammartino release in the future.  Hopefully WWE could obtain the rights to the epic 1960's battle between Sammartino and Giant Baba in Japan that exists on video.  The quality of the footage is absolutely amazing and would automatically qualify as an instant purchase in Blu-Ray format.

The story of the company is told not just by footage, but also by the obligatory "talking heads."  Instead of the usual troupe, here we get interviews with names not normally used such as Ivan Koloff, Jimmy Valiant, and Lex Luger as well as some with stars gone by such as Captain Lou Albano, Chief Jay Strongbow and Sensational Sherri Martel.  The one that struck me as the most interesting was none other than Linda McMahon.  Always well-spoken, Mrs. McMahon was well-utilized here as someone who definitely saw the company in good times and bad.

In addition to the normal stories of the national expansion, Hulkamania, WrestleMania, and the Attitude Era, this release also delves into darker territory that the company does not always speak of.  The 1990's steroid trial and the death of Owen Hart are both given dedicated sections and kudos should be given to the company for acknowledging both as part of its history.  The Benoit family tragedy is not mentioned here nor should it be.  Unlike the Hart death, the events did not take place anywhere near a WWE event.

The last fourth of the documentary is where my prime issues with it lie.  To begin with, we are "treated" to the opinions of "fans" in place of where we could be hearing more stories from the stars themselves.  The only "fan" of notoriety interviewed is Michelle Beadle, who WWE seems to have an obsession with.  Not being a very big sports fan, I know of Beadle solely from her constant mentions on WWE programming.  Why the company seems to get off on her attention is beyond me.  If WWE is an entertainment company, why is it any great shakes that a sports reporter (or whatever she is) is a huge fan?  If you ask me, she seems to have been someone with a casual interest who found a way to get free tickets.  Keep doing the "fake-football-team-fight-when-shown-on-camera" hun, your fifteen minutes have been long over in my eyes.

It is also around this time in the documentary where the story begins to feel as if it's transitioning into a commercial.  A large commercial.  Actually, it begins to remind me of a promotional video of a company trying to sell some sort of syndication package to a television station about two decades ago.  Obviously they're only going to promote today's product, stars, and concepts in a positive light, but it seems to go on just a bit too long here.  If I hear how great and state-of-the-art the "performance center" is one more time...

Honestly, you won't watch the documentary more than twice.  The extras, however, may be another story.  When "new-old" material is presented on a Blu-Ray, it's always intriguing, but how about something you've never seen before?  The WrestleMania III main event of Hulk Hogan versus Andre the Giant has been on countless media releases, but how about from the purely hard camera perspective?  It's here, it's amazing, and it's something that any fan needs to see at least once.  No commentary, a singular view, and the closest you'll get to watching the match live at the Pontiac Silverdome.

Also amongst matches and segments that really do capture the most celebrated moments in the company is another unexpected inclusion: my personal pick for 2013 Match of the Year.  That match would be the February 25, 2013 Monday Night Raw battle between John Cena and CM Punk.  These two always seem to make magic, but this particular match even threw the WWE's "rules" out the window with not only a piledriver but the kind of drama that wrestling's popularity was built on.  More kudos to the company for including this modern masterpiece.

This is WWE's 50th anniversary celebration.  There wasn't a televised special or even much hoopla.  Aside from an upcoming book (a flyer advertising this is included), this is how the WWE wants to be represented for their golden anniversary.  It definitely works and seems to cover the exact moments and eras that most fans covet.  Aside from a seemingly odd omission of much material related to the legendary Gorilla Monsoon (most likely unintentional), I can't think of anything else that they absolutely should have covered.  This is a definite purchase for the aforementioned extras, but if you can wait I'd do it.  With the recent heavy discounts on releases just months after their release, you may be able to pick this up as a total bargain not too far down the line.

As for what should've been left out, how about the opinions of the fans?  Or at least fans that no one cares about.  I've never witnessed anyone scan the crowd of an event to see if this Beadle woman was present.  If the company wanted to dive into it's fan base, why not talk about the legendary Ringside Rosie(s) of the territories?  MSG's own Mrs. Krieger?  1990's staple known as "Faith No More Guy?"  Or why not track down Vlad the Superfan?  I did!

Now there's a shot of two fans that have seen their share of the WWE's fifty years!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Bruno Sammartino/WWE Relationship Continues...With A Figure

The biggest wrestling news of the year 2013 for both myself and legions of other fans was Bruno Sammartino's return to WWE.  It was the one rekindled relationship between the big company and a former star that no one ever would've believed.  Forget the over-hyped, over-discussed, and overworked "Montreal Incident," the volatile feelings between Sammartino and the WWF/WWE had been boiling for over twenty five years.

It was quite the thrill for me that I was able to see so much of this reunion play out before my very eyes.  The stars somehow aligned and I was able to be present for Sammartino's Hall of Fame induction, return to WrestleMania, and Monday Night Raw debut.  Now, thanks to Mattel, we have a new figure of "The Living Legend" as a sort of icing on the cake.

The figure is part of Mattel's WWE Elite Series 25.  This is the first series to feature brand new packaging and hit various retail stores just in time for the holidays.  Just when I'd gotten used to the old design, Mattel decides to switch it up.  I really like the elegant look, with a pleasant regal blue chosen as the key color.  A large artists rendering of the wrestler is on the left side, while the figure itself is presented on the right.  Bruno is a bulky figure with a large accessory, so he utilizes all of the space inside of the window.  It will be interesting to see if this new packaging fares any better with the female figures than the last design did.  The smaller Diva figures tended to appear to be "floating" in the previous style.

Whether it was intentional or not, Mattel continues a trend that I have always appreciated since their initial Legends figure releases years ago.  The company chose a look for the figure that had not previously been done by other companies.  In this case, Bruno is given his "comb over" hair look from the 1970's.  This is perhaps the only look from Sammartino's active wrestling career that had yet to be turned into a figure.

The facial likeness is very good.  I'd hesitate to say that it's perfect, but it definitely captures the Bruno of the era.  The best Bruno figure likeness that we've gotten would be with his very first incarnation by LJN back in the 1980s.  That version was definitely aided by the size of the figure itself.  Generally, as long as Bruno's chin and nose are captured, a company will be well on their way to a great likeness of the champ.

The body is bulky, has plenty of points of articulation as the Elite figures are known for, and definitely works for Bruno despite using recycled parts.  The body hair paint app is good, but not as perfect as the Jakks version from their Classic Superstars line.  Blue trunks are chosen and are fitting, considering that is the color that Bruno is most remembered wearing.  The best part is that kneepads are not erroneously included as they were with the Jakks figure.

The accessories are fun, but do cause a blend of two "eras" of Bruno.  Included are the WWE Hall of Fame podium with microphone and a WWE Hall of Fame plaque.  I love that these accessories were produced and included in lieu of Bruno's classic championship belt which Mattel could not obtain permission to use.  Thinking about it long enough will make the combination of '70s Bruno and 2013 accessories somewhat strange, but once the figure is opened it really doesn't matter.  I'm always championing the effort of unique and screen-accurate accessories, so there's nothing to complain about here.

I do hope that the success of this figure causes Mattel to rethink their policies on Legends figures.  The Legends releases inside of Elite series are working, and I don't want to see them limited to upcoming Attitude Era characters like Rikishi and the New Age Outlaws.  At this point, Mattel collectors really only have two other figures that can be used or displayed accurately with Bruno, those being George Steele and Nikolai Volkoff.  I personally have no problem displaying this Bruno with figures from the Jakks Classic Superstars line, but if Mattel ever wants to grasp the title of "Greatest Wrestling Figure Line," they're going to have to bump up the production of Legends just a bit more.  The fans and collectors are out there.

We all knew coming into this what my final verdict would be: buy the figure!  It, sadly, could be the only Bruno Sammartino ever produced by Mattel.  It's already flying off of shelves and a new series will be appearing soon.  If Mattel could produce yet another Bruno, my pick would be from the modern era.  Although it would not come in its own packaging, I'm fully willing to meet Mattel halfway and accept it as a new entry into the "Build-A-Figure" series as most suited figures are.  2013 WWE Hall of Fame Bruno Sammartino.  Make it happen, Mattel.  We already have the accessories.  It's an easy way to make the Mattel Legends figures "legendary."