Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Night The Championship Changed Hands

Is there any greater thrill for a wrestling fan than seeing a championship change hands live before their very eyes?  The pin.  The pop.  The emotion.  It's one of the great concepts that makes professional wrestling the amazing spectacle that it is.  The big win is often the culmination of a long and arduous struggle.  Other times the win is completely out of the blue and shocks the fans as much as it thrills them.

The title change has also had many uses on the business end of pro wrestling.  Does a certain town need a shot in the arm?  Switch a title to prove that "anything can happen" and that the fans cannot afford to miss a single show.  Maybe a certain star needs a special moment to prove that they have what it takes to make it on top.

Regardless of the reasons, title changes are one aspect of the business that always make the proverbial "record books."  Whereas "wins" and "losses" weren't tabulated until fans began to do so a few years ago, some record was kept of most title changes.  In modern times, the images of these wins are the stuff that classic magazine covers are made of.  But what about a record from the night of the win. A printed listing of the match that would go on to make history.  That would be, of course, the program.

Wrestling event programs have become somewhat of a lost art.  What once existed at nearly every wrestling show in some way, shape, or form became a relic somewhere along the line.  As far as WWE goes, the company selling shows on the brand name rather than its stars often leaves paying fans wondering right up until belltime just exactly who will be on the show.  To its credit, the company does still sell a large, elegantly designed book at each event that is labeled a program, but it is usually devoid of match info.

The company has continued to produce an event-specific program each year for WrestleMania and has done similar efforts for a few select SummerSlam and Survivor Series shows of the past five years.  Of course, most pay-per-view event programs will contain a match where a championship changed hands, but none in recent memory were more grand than WrestleMania XXX.  Daniel Bryan's show-ending championship celebration was unlike most title wins seen in the modern era.  The fans wanted it, had rabidly followed the progression, and were absolutely ready to explode into their favorite one-word chant.

A month shy of thirty years prior to Bryan's thrilling win, another title change occurred that had roots tied both into real life and into the hearts of thousands of Texans.  The place?  Texas Stadium.  The title?  The NWA World Heavyweight Championship.  The man?  Kerry Von Erich.  Just a few months prior, David Von Erich, considered by many WCCW fans to be the next world champion, passed away suddenly.  At the first of several Parade of Champions events to honor David, Kerry went on to capture the title from "Nature Boy" Ric Flair.  The celebration is a video that needs to be seen in order to comprehend the fan reaction.  There's no doubt that many fans had program in-hand while celebrating.  The publication is a fun mix of modern and traditional wrestlng programs.  Like with much of what WCCW did, the program is ahead of its time by being oversized and printed on much nicer stock paper than was the norm at the time.  The then-recently deceased David is the focus of the cover, but the championship match and its participants are not forgotten.

Occasionally, it's the lineup sheet itself where the actual match info is located.  For many years, the WWF produced a program magazine sold at events that had the lineup sheet either attached or on an included piece of paper.  By 1998, the company had ceased producing the program publication and instead would print copies of their monthly magazine with a $5.00 price tag to be sold at events.  That is the case with King of the Ring 1998.  The event may be most remembered for two mind-blowing falls, but there was also a shocking WWF Championship change.  No one in the Pittsburgh Civic Arena or around the world expected Stone Cold Steve Austin to lose to Kane in the First Blood Match, but that was indeed the end of a shocking night in the Attitude Era.

Of course, the big switch doesn't always have to involve the main championship prize.  Tag team championships can be just as prized, and when you're talking decorated tandems, you have to mention The Midnight Express.  On the July 10, 1988 Great American Bash stop, Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane took the United States tag team championship from one of their best rival teams, The Fantastics.  In this instance, the manager of the Midnight Express, Jim Cornette himself, was suspended above the ring in a small steel cage and confined to a straight jacket.  It was a match-of-the-night candidate to be sure, as was usually the case when these two teams met.  Two different programs were sold along the 1988 Bash tour, but the one sold that particular night featured these two teams right on the back cover.

Programs are among my favorite wrestling items to collect.  Pinpointing them to a great match or moment sets them aside from the newsstand magazines.  If the particular show is on video as all of the ones mentioned here are, it's fun to peer into the audience and maybe catching a glimpse of what is now a collectible.  If we only knew then what we know now...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Wrestling's Greatest Pitchman--Mean Gene Okerlund

Sure, there were some great talents of the past who had the ability to talk you out of a few bucks and into a wrestling arena.  After all, a tookus every eighteen inches is the name of the game, but it takes some magic to get there.  When the wrestlers couldn't quite entice you to an event, there were men (and occasionally women) to help them along.  Whether it was an extra boost of confidence or maybe just a way to get the interview back on track, the individual holding the microphone was an integral part of the package.  When you heard the familiar lead in of "Come on in," you knew that it was the one and only Mean Gene getting down to business and attempting to keep order.

If you've been watching WWE Legends House, you can't help being entertained by Gene Okerlund.  As one of the eldest members of the crew, Gene's almost Fred Mertz-esque curmudgeonly character has been a highlight of the WWE Network reality show.  Initially, I questioned why both Okerlund and ring announcer Howard Finkel would be included in the same cast, as if there was a singular "announcers spot" in the lineup.  As we've come to find out, they each bring something very different to the table.

Mean Gene was an icon long before his Legends House stint.  Interviewing his way through Verne Gagne's AWA in the '70s and early '80s, Okerlund would become a household name in the era of "Rock N Wrestling."  Mean Gene had a way of making even the most insignificant interview segment appear like a feature on the nightly news.  With the turn of the microphone, the balding broadcaster could switch that importance into pure entertainment.

Fans of all ages recognized Mean Gene, thanks to his WWF career, as one of the authoritative voices of pro wrestling.  Appearing in live action segments of "Hulk Hogan's Rock N Wrestling," Okerlund was further able to showcase his entertaining side.  Armed with his famous microphone, Gene was also one of the first non-wrestlers to be produced in LJNs WWF action figure line.  Along with figures of a referee and Vince McMahon, Okerlund was included in an extension of the line that mainly featured the managers of the WWF.

Mean Gene is one of two LJN figures, along with fellow Legends Housemate Hillbilly Jim, that I distinctly remember seeing on store shelves early in my wrestling fandom.  Who could forget the shrugging, tuxedoed gentleman with the befuddled look on his face?  In recent years it has come to light that a prototype of the figure actually had arms outstretched down and to the front with a microphone nowhere in sight.  I think we're all glad that we received what turned out to be the finished product.

Other figures of Okerlund have been produced both by Toybiz for WCW and by Jakks for the WWE Classic Superstars line, but none have captured the personality of the legendary mic man like the LJN version.  Seeing as that personality was such a big part of the Mean Gene character, this is no big surprise.  For anyone who has ever denounced the LJN line for lack of articulation need look no further than this figure for everything that was right with the toys.

Cards, promo photos, and even toy microphones were also produced with the Gene Okerlund's likeness featured.  Gordon Solie appeared on some merchandise, but those were mostly regional items.  Gorilla Monsoon's memorabilia was largely confined to his wrestling days until some other items became available after his passing.  Mean Gene Okerlund was the first truly marketed wrestling announcer.

Why did it work for all of those years?  Probably because, like most great wrestling characters, what you see is what you get.  Self-appointed bartender for a night of drinks?  Checking out and coyly flirting with the vivacious Ashley Roberts?  Tossing a pickled pigs foot onto the lawn?  It's all Gene Okerlund, on-screen and off.  To many of us, he's a voice and persona that we all grew up with.   To the world, he's one of the most distinct personalities to come from the wrestling business.  You would think that he's done it all, but one can only imagine the response he would give if presented with such a thought...

"Give me a break!"

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Mattel Flashback To The Unspoiled Days Of CM Punk

Long before the pink and starred "Macho Man" tribute tights, I often thought of CM Punk as a sort of modern day Randy Savage.  Punk marches to his own beat, captivated the wrestling business both in and out of the ring, and did memorable business with wrestling's "superhero" of the era.  Savage did all of that, too.  The other thing that both share could be described either as a steadfast hold on ones beliefs or as a hard streak of stubbornness.  Many point to that trait as the reason why Savage never returned to the spotlight to enjoy the accolades that so many of his legendary peers did.  Will Punk follow suit?

As of yet, CM Punk has not fully been scraped from the consciousness of wrestling fans.  His merchandise is said to still be sold at WWE events.  Items sold at retail will take even longer to disappear, as Mattel is still releasing figures of Punk that were planned long in advance.  One of these just began to hit collectors hands in the past few days.  An online retailer exclusive, the newest CM Punk figure in Mattel's Elite line is a Flashback entry.

The figure is a look back to Punk's reign as ECW Champion.  This was not the original incarnation of ECW, but rather its revival as a WWE brand.  For the various men that held the championship during this era, Punk was probably the closest to what Paul Heyman envisioned an ECW wrestler to be.  Even then, Heyman was a "CM Punk Guy" and there is little doubt that Punk would have been a standout in the original Extreme Championship Wrestling.

As a whole, this figure has a lot of red and black.  The handsome current Elite figure packaging is red with a large era-correct Punk portrait.  The window is filled, as it should be, with a variety of accessories.  Included here are an ECW microphone, rubber shirt, and the first Mattel release of the ECW Championship belt.  A lot of detail was put into the belt as well as the strap and I would not be surprised to see it show up again in a future release.

The attire is red and black which was one of his more frequently used color combinations.  Jakks figures from the time were produced in a similar design.  The shirt is the familiar skeleton design that he wore on many occasions.  Mattel has a fixation on rubber shirts, likely due to cost. I'd much rather see fabric shirts, but it does properly fit onto the figure with some patience.

From the tattoos (the Pepsi and Cobra logos are not present) to the tights, there is a very nice amount of detail here.  "DRUG FREE" is spelled out on the fingers and there's even black nail polish.  Everything that the angsty and angry wrestling fan could want.  The face isn't quite as spot on as the Jakks representations were, but it's very very good.  There's no doubt that this is Punk.

Online exclusives can be very hit-or-miss sales-wise.  Some will sell quickly and become sought after while others will languish for years as $11.99 Arbor Day specials.  I fully expect this to be the former due to the recent interest in Punk, the accessories, and the fact that it really is a nice figure, in and out of the packaging.

Going back to the beginning and the question of 2014: will that Savage-level of stubbornness keep Punk away from the ring forever?  As a thirteen-year fan of CM Punk I can honestly say that I do not know and I do not care.  Punk walked away from the business for a variety of speculated reasons.  The chants of his name at events absolutely boggle my mind. At first, the chants were likely due to confusion as to why he left and an attempt to copy the Daniel Bryan uproar.  The Bryan situation was a case of fans trying to get what they wanted from a company.  On the other hand, if Punk isn't there, the WWE can't present him.  Continual chants do nothing but interrupt other stars who are trying to entertain and further feed the ego of someone who would likely deny having one.

The most recent word is that Punk is tired of handling the fame and fortune.  Looking in from the outside, it's easy for any of us to be disgusted by that thought and think that we would easily exchange those problems with our own.  Allow me to be the first to volunteer.

I've previously chronicled in this blog that I've followed Punk since 2001.  I don't care for the "even then, I knew he was something special" cliche, but in this case it's true. You could also tell, even then, that his lifestyle wasn't always conducive with that of a professional wrestler.  If you look into that mindset through the attitude he displays, you have to wonder if he hates that idea of money and success so much that he has begun to despise himself.  Once again, I'll take both the money and success off of his hands if that's the case.

Before we get too dramatic and I feel the need to call noted wrestling psychologist Dr. Sydney M. Basil for his opinion, I will simply say that Punk has given us a lot to enjoy.  An absolutely fantastic career where, if it is indeed over, we never had to see a drop in quality.  That's something that we can all be satisfied with.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Book About JYD Missing One Thing....JYD

 I've come to find that the best books on the topic of pro wrestling are those written by the talent themselves or at least with their involvement.  Some of the stories may be stretched and facts a bit muddled by the passage of time, but that's part of wrestling's charm.  Sadly, many of wrestling's most colorful personalities and stories are forever lost to that same concept of time.  Occasionally an author will come along and be able to salvage some of these lost treasures.  That is exactly what I was hoping for when I opened up "The King of New Orleans" by Greg Klein.

The basis of the life of the late Sylvester Ritter is already known by many fans.  Ritter was, for all intents and purposes, your average territorial wrestler.  Once he was given the gimmick of "The Junkyard Dog," he became an undeniable superstar.  With average wrestling skills but an unreal amount of charisma and an amazing ability to connect with fans, JYD took Mid-South Wrestling, and later the WWF, by storm.

As has been the case with success in countless walks of life, the downward spiral came for Ritter just as fast as did the ascension to the top.  Drug abuse and other factors that come packaged with fame and the fast life took the Junkyard Dog from the bright lights of WrestleMania to the dimly lit armories much faster than should have been, ultimately contributing to his death just a decade after leaving the spotlight.

I'm not saying that the two paragraphs above summarize the entire story of Sylvester Ritter as told in "King of New Orleans," but it's not far off.  When I began the book, I kept waiting for the personal stories told by those who knew him.  I was expecting tales from Ritter's rise to fame and maybe even nuggets about how he handled going from the second banana behind Hulk Hogan in the mid-1980s to an almost forgotten undercarder just a few years later.  None of that was here.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, as the books subtitle is in fact "How The Junkyard Dog Became Professional Wrestling's First Black Superstar."  Maybe the author never intended to delve too far into the WWF's "Grab Them Cakes" version of JYD.  But even if the intention was just to chronicle his rise to fame in New Orleans, there just isn't enough about Junkyard to make an intimate account of his life.  I will say that a good history of Mid-South and UWF Wrestling is provided.  These segments seem to take up the majority of the book and, at times, rarely seem to mention Ritter at all.

Because of very little in the way of interviews done for the purpose of this book (many quotes are borrowed from publications by Bill Watts, Ted DiBiase, and other sources), the JYD story almost seems to become a backdrop.  I know for a fact that wrestlers love to talk.  They especially enjoy discussing the old days and their fallen brothers. As colorful a life as he led, I'm sure that Watts and DiBiase aren't the only two living wrestlers who knew JYD well.  And though LaToya Ritter, the daughter who accepted the Junkyard Dog's WWE 2004 Hall of Fame induction, passed away suddenly a few years ago, there have to be other family and friends who could have provided valuable insight.

A very casual fan with an interest in recalling the basic JYD story and various Mid-South Wrestling memories will get something from "The King of New Orleans." Most other types of fans will have already absorbed these facts from other media sources.  The story of an individual who lived an unstructured life as Ritter did is never an easy one to tell, but not impossible.  Unfortunately in the case of the Junkyard Dog, this isn't the book to do it.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Von Erich Family...Conquers Space?

It may be hard for a wrestling fan to fathom, but sometimes it wasn't just the WWF unleashing odd and wacky merchandise onto the fans.  Promoters like Fritz Von Erich knew, just as Vince McMahon did, that there was a public clamoring to buy up merchandise of their favorite pro wrestling stars.  The big difference was that while McMahon featured a bevy of heroes and villains on his merchandising, Von Erich largely limited his to the top babyfaces of his promotion--his very popular and marketable sons.

It's obvious today when unearthing Von Erich memorabilia from its previous owners that these fans truly cared. Their screams of terror when the boys found trouble in the ring were equally as loud as when Kerry, Kevin, and the others triumphed in victory.  Worries about the next group of Von Erich opposition, be it the Fabulous Freebirds, Devestation Inc., or any number of others, followed these fans throughout their days until the next glimpse of WCCW action.  They believed.

The world knows how the Von Erich story progressed.  Thanks to coverage in mainstream news outlets, even many non-wrestling fans can equate the family name to tragedy.  Despite some who think that reliving the past can dredge up those bad memories, viewing and collecting the memorabilia of this family can actually be quite the opposite.  It"s obvious that the Von Erich family brought a lot of joy to a heckuva lot of people.  Seeing these items are a reminder of the good times.

While Kerry may have been dubbed "The Modern Day Warrior" and several WCCW events entitled "Star Wars," these were not the Von Erich family's only ventures into fantasy.  In 1988, Sage Productions out of Tyler, Texas produced a comic book entitled "Saga Of The Von Erich Warriors."  While the family's battles with Michael Hayes, Chris Adams, and Gary Hart easily could have filled a comic book, somewhere along the line it was decided that Fritz, Kevin, and Kerry would instead...go into outer space.

It seems that the defenseless Namorians (of Namoria, naturally) have finally found their galactic lives threatened by another race known as the (nefarious?) Nefarians.  With the upcoming wedding of Namorian Emporer Zrail to his childhood sweetheart Princess Davette, the entire race that should be celebrating is instead deeply concerned that they will become slaves of the hostile Nefarians.  The answer?  Beam the Von Erich family to Namoria, of course!

But the excitement just begins there.  Kerry battling an otherworldly tiger.  An attacking alien motorcyclist.  Fritz using shocking language such as "Hog Wash" and "Hell."   This is truly an out-of-this-world adventure.  I'd love to know exactly how this idea came about, but that's probably a secret that only those who were in on the brainstorming sessions between World Class Championship Wrestling and Sage Productions will ever know.

The all black and white art is pretty good, although you can tell that various stock photos were given to the artists for reference and copied.  Some of the Fritz shots look to date back to his "evil Nazi" days.  I'd venture to guess that the non-Von Erich characters in the comic were based off of people at the production company.  Then again, this particular Namorian named Raztar who explains the situation to the Von Erich's looks a heckuva lot like Robert Wagner.  Maybe a back issue of TV Guide was hanging around the studio.

Perhaps the only WCCW reference comes in a full-page ad on page 16.  Shirts!  Hats!  Jackets!  Photos!  And of course, a bumper sticker.  Apparently the promotion had a large backlog of photos available, as the Dingo Warrior was still available despite being long gone from WCCW.  What so many of us wouldn't give to order twelve of everything off of this page.  It's not like the Simpson Brothers have that many gimmicks available!

Of course, I don't have to tell you that Fritz, Kerry, and Kevin save the day.  It's assumed that Zrail and Davette tie the knot in intergalactic matrimony, but that's unfortunately never confirmed.  Accompanied by an almost Beatles-esque piece of artwork, we are told that although peace had been restored to the planet, the Von Erich's have decided to stick around for awhile.  Does this mean that further intergalactic Von Erich adventures were planned to be immortalized in comic form?  As far as I know, we never found out.

It's not the Von Erich Family album or any of the other treasured WCCW items, but it's fun.  It's relatively easy to find (I'm sure loads were printed...) and no WCCW/Von Erich collection is complete without it.  Who knows, maybe Luke Skywalker will mention a trip to Namoria in the next Star Wars movie.  I'd be all for a Kevin Von Erich cameo...May The Force Be With Him!