Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas In The Squared Circle

Just like Thanksgiving, Christmas was once a major night to head to the matches.  What greater gift than a pair of tickets to see your favorite stars?  Of course, it wasn't so great for the talent who had to be out working instead of home with their loved ones. Today, Christmas themed wrestling events and seasonal stops are instead positioned before and after the actual holiday.  It may be better for the talent themselves, but the events don't have quite the same feeling when pre-taped.

The most famous Christmas wrestling event was undoubtedly the 1982 WCCW Christmas Star Wars event. Ric Flair successfully defended the NWA World Heavyweight Championship against Kerry Von Erich in a cage match. Special referee Michael PS Hayes seemed to be calling the match evenly when the unthinkable happened.  Just as Von Erich was about to exit the cage, Hayes' Fabulous Freebird "brother" Terry "Bam Bam" Gordy sent the steel door crashing into Von Erich's skull.  This event began the legendary Von Erich-Freebirds feud that is credited for making World Class Championship Wrestling one of the hottest promotions of the '80s.

Of course, WWE has been no stranger to holiday themed events, even in recent years.  The company has received a lot of positive press for its annual Tribute To The Troops event.  Although in the past few years it has become more of a USO-style variety show taped in the U.S., original incarnations of the event were actual wrestling cards taped at overseas military bases.  While any version of these events are a wonderful holiday gesture, those first events were extra special, playing to an audience that needed such an escape brought directly to them.  It should be noted that Vince McMahon and a group of WWE Superstars and Divas still personally visit the troops overseas each holiday season.

Closer to home, wrestling can be part of your Christmas motif right along with Rudolph, Frosty, and Snoopy. WWE regularly rolls out a full line of Christmas decor featuring all of your favorite WWE Superstars.  In the late 1990's WCW produced a line of ornaments featuring the best of WCW and the nWo including "Santa With Muscles" himself, Hulk Hogan.  But perhaps my favorite Christmas themed wrestling items are the various publications with grapplers "enjoying" the holidays.  Bundy Claus?  It happened!  And what better holiday gift than Jameson Winger?

From my heart to yours, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!  We'll see you in 2015 where all of January the blog will be celebrating the silver anniversary of a retro wrestling favorite!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Fallen Warriors of 2014

As the year comes to a close, we once again remember those from the wrestling business that left us over the past twelve months.  Although a few were still very young considering longevity in this day and age, many that were lost had actually lived long, full lives.  That is something rare for the wrestling business, an occupation that has a tendency to eat up those who give so much to it.  That being said, so many notable names that fans had an opportunity to see in a public capacity not long before their deaths (one in particular, just hours earlier) make the losses all the more shocking. 

The wrestling deaths of 2014 included Billy Robinson, George Scott, Rodger Kent, Mae Young, The Ultimate Warrior, Nelson "King Mabel/Viscera" Frazier, Lee Marshall, Jerry Kozak, Cowboy Bob Kelly, Sean O'Haire, Bob Geigel, Larry Nelson, Ken Lucas, Ox Baker, Ricki Starr, Bonnie Watson, Jimmy Del Ray/Jimmy Backlund, Dr. Ken Ramey, and Don Chuy.

The AWA fraternity took a huge hit with the loss of one it's biggest stars, Billy Robinson, as well as three very memorable voices from the promotion.  Robinson was still very active in training young athletes for the mixed martial arts.  In the several instances that I was able to meet Mr. Robinson, he seemed very proud that wrestler/MMA fighter Josh Barnett was one of his pupils, mentioning it since my first name is Josh as well.  Rodger Kent, Larry Nelson, and Lee Marshall are all well remembered for their work hosting various AWA events.  Marshall may be even better remembered for his work on WCW Monday Nitro and most recently as the voice of Tony the Tiger in Frosted Flakes commercials.

Nelson Frazier was still very active on the independent scene, and one could almost guarantee that appearances as Mabel, Viscera, and Big Daddy V would have continued for WWE.  Struck down by a heart attack at just 42, that would not end up being the case.  Due to his massive size, it's hard to believe that Frazier was just in his early twenties for his biggest run in the WWF as King Mabel.  His agility and ability to make all of his various characters come to life will always be remembered fondly.  Personally, he will always hold a special place in my own fandom as he main evented SummerSlam 1995, the first pay-per-view event that I attended live.

It's become a sad fact over the past few years that Mid-Atlantic Fanfest often becomes the final place that wrestlers make a public appearance.  80-year-old Ox Baker did not look well at the event this past summer, but he was still signing autographs, taking photos, and crooning ditty's to his many fans.  Just a little over two months later, Baker was gone.  David Ferrier, best known as either Jimmy Del Ray or Jimmy Backlund, made his first modern-day convention appearance at the same event, reuniting with his "Heavenly Bodies" tag team partner Dr. Tom Prichard and their manager Jim Cornette.  Though his appearance was much different than in his wrestling days, Ferrier seemed to enjoy the event.  On December 6th, the former Florida and SMW star died in a car accident that may have been caused by a heart attack. 

As always, this is just a small listing of some of the more notable wrestling deaths of 2014.  For all of its faults, the wrestling community always shows a great amount of respect and dignity when one of the seemingly larger-than-life names has fallen.  This final look serves as a last remembrance of their passing, so that we, instead, can continue to remember the greatness of their lives.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The 2014 J\/\/ Awards

How unimaginable is it that another year has passed?  Even more unreal is that this year is the fifth annual installment of The J\/\/ Awards, celebrating the best in wrestling memorabilia over the past twelve months. Each year the design of "The Joshie" changes, but it is always "based" upon a classic wrestling figure or collectible.  This year, the award could go flying through the air with a 747 splash or even magically transform into a dancing, yellow and blue clad, African Dream!  The design isn't the only change in 2014, with one award being retired and another one born.  The wrestling world as a whole has seen a lot of change this year, from the way that some of the product is presented to losing some of its most memorable names.  Without further ado, let the awards begin!

2014 Best Figure

Mattel's WWE Wyatt Family win "The Joshie" for 2014 Best Figure(s).  For the second year in a row, a trio of figures take this one home.  In contrast to last years winners, each figure here is very different in appearance.  Though the Elite versions of the boys were chosen due to their accessories, each release of Bray Wyatt, Luke Harper, and Erick Rowan have been great efforts by Mattel.  That being said, the accessories are almost as great as the figures themselves.  With all three members of the family embarking on their own paths, it will be interesting to see where they go, both in WWE and on store shelves, in 2015.

2014 Best Buy (Non-Figure)

WWE Network wins "The Joshie" for 2014 Best Buy.  For whatever reason that you may have subscribed, you automatically got the best deal of 2014.  If you haven't yet subscribed, we may have to bring back the "Turnbuckle Turkey" award for you.  Sure there are deserved criticisms, but that comes with the territory. You can pick just about any one thing from the Network and justify $9.99 per month.  The current pay-per-view live?  Yep, that's worth $9.99.  Four or five NXT episodes a month?  Yep, that's worth $9.99.  On-Demand access to the WWE, WCW, and ECW pay-per-view libraries?  Yep, that's worth...ok...enough of the commercial.  But it's true.  It's a Helluva deal and should only get bigger and better as time goes on.

2014 Best Product Line

Mattel wins "The Joshie" for 2014 Best Product Line.  Longtime readers know that when Mattel first started churning out WWE product, I was less than impressed.  Poor lineups, poor distribution, poor creativity, and that God-awful red packaging design. Things have changed for the better and for the third time, Mattel takes home the gold.  Although there's always room for improvement (could we get that Magnum TA?), 2015 already looks like a very good year.  Come on, we're getting Bayley!  What could be better than that?  A Bayley hug, perhaps, but the figure will be almost as cool.

2014 Future Holy Grail

NECA's The Simpsons Bret Hart Figure wins "The Joshie" for 2014 Future Holy Grail.  I've already said a lot about this figure, but I really can't say enough.  It combines The Simpsons and wrestling into one great collectible.  It captures a moment when a wrestler, who despite having a huge fanbase never truly crossed over into the mainstream, became a part of animated pop culture.  Thanks to that crossover appeal, the figure flew off of shelves as soon as it hit.  A New York Comic Con version has proven to be equally as popular.  Bret Hart.  The Simpsons.  Action figures.  It's a great recipe that should stand the test of time.

Normally our awards end with the "Future Holy Grail."  You may have noticed the absence of the "Best Publication" award which usually went to books or magazines.  As of 2015, Pro Wrestling Illustrated will be the only remaining U.S. wrestling magazine and although there are some great authors churning out amazing wrestling books, I just do not have the time and resources to be objective and read them all.  Thus, "Best Publication" has been retired.  However, in the spirit of PWI's year-end "Editors Award," this year we introduce our "Thanks For The Memories" honor.  Since this blog celebrates "The Best in Wrestling Memorabilia & Memories" on a weekly basis, this award will focus on the latter.  The winner can be a person (living or dead) or concept that somehow made all of us fondly recall wrestling's past in the last twelve months.

 2014 Thanks For The Memories Award

2014 Thanks For The Memories Honoree:  The Ultimate Warrior.  Electrifying.  Entertaining. Controversial.  Just three words that could be used to describe the man known as The Ultimate Warrior.  A generation of kids grew up mystified by him.  While Hulk Hogan was the clean cut hero, the Warrior brought a bit of an edge and a whole lot of mystery.  Just where did he run off to every night after beating Rick Rude, Andre the Giant, or Randy Savage?  Where was Parts Unknown?  Who were these skeletons and why did they make a sacrifice?  Sure, we could all envision the other WWF "good guys" going to hang out after the matches, but Warrior seemed different.  He was.  We had never seen anything like him before, nor will we ever again.  Thanks for the memories, Warrior.

And thanks to all of you for once again keeping with the blog throughout the year.  I appreciate each and every one of you.  Whether you come up and say hi at a show or simply shoot me an e-mail, those are my awards. Those people and moments remind me why I've loved wrestling for all of these years.  Thank you!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

30 Years of "Those Big, Rubber Wrestlers"

You see might see the description in a badly listed eBay auction or even used during a nostalgic wrestling conversation.  They were the WWF Wrestling Superstars by LJN, but to many, they were "those big, rubber wrestlers."  It would have been very hard to be a wrestling fan and not encounter those "big, rubber" wrestling figures at some point in the past thirty years.  They depicted Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, The Iron Sheik, Nikolai Volkoff and dozens of other WWF Superstars in a larger-than-life way that has never quite been duplicated.  They've shown up in film, on television, and in print.  They aren't action figures in the traditional sense, yet to not include them in the genre would be blasphemy.  You, your neighbor, your cousin, and your classmates had at least one, and even with paint and rubber wear all of these years later, it's still a relic to be cherished.

The LJN WWF figure line began in 1984.  While it was not the first wrestling figure line (that distinction falls to a series produced by Popy in Japan), it was the first in America, beating out Remco's AWA collection by months.  Some, including a few of the wrestlers themselves, refer to the products as dolls.  There will never be a definitive answer to the old "It's not a doll, it's an action figure" argument, but these replica wrestlers weren't playing dress-up, they were seeing action in and out of the ring.

What I most love about the LJN line was the inclusion of non-wrestler figures.  Sure, it's amazing to be able to have dream matches like Hulk Hogan against Bruno Sammartino and Ricky Steamboat versus Dynamite Kid, but figures of managers, announcers, and referees only add to the depth of play.  It's no wonder that so many loose examples these days have so much paint wear; these wrestlers WRESTLED!

"Twist Em, Turn Em" was one of LJN's selling point catchphrases for the line, and it was true.  While the figures were not articulated, with the exception of a few pointlessly posed examples (Paul Orndorff, Rick Rude) the design of the toys made them extremely playable.  The Hulkster could slam any other figure while Randy Savage was perfectly poised for a patented flying elbow drop.  God-like figures for God-like superstars.

The figures had a pumped-up look which was very lifelike for the wrestlers of the day.  Unlike today when bulging muscles look out of place on wrestling figures, the wrestlers themselves didn't look like the guy down the street.  There was much more individuality, which in turn made many more stars stand out.

Like companies today, LJN wasn't satisfied with just one standard line.  Attempts to branch out were made, but none lasted as long as the 8-inch original figures.  A lower cost line of Bendies were introduced about a year into the life of the license.  Wires inside of these smaller figures helped hold their poses.  Aside from the wrestlers, a ring/cage and two managers were produced, but the line did not sustain.  Prototype pictures of further releases have surfaced since, proving that LJN had high hopes.

In 1987, a half dozen figures were released as Stretch Wrestlers.  These figures were a takeoff on the decades-old Stretch Armstrong figure concept, where a cornstarch mix inside of a pliable "skin" allows the figure to be stretched into all kinds of contortions.  Sadly, the design of all of these kinds of figures does not lend itself to good condition over time.  Many that remain are in poor condition or are too brittle to really even touch.

Thirty years.  While much of the paint and shine of these figures is gone, the memories remain.  I can still recall going into the.long gone but beloved Hills Department Store and seeing the large LJN merchandising footprint in the toy aisles.  Stretch Wrestlers stacked to the ceiling.  Individual figures like Hillbilly Jim, Miss Elizabeth, and Mean Gene Okerlund (or "the farmer," "the girl," and "the announcer" as I naively named them) filling the pegs.  The feeling that this unusual yet compelling sport was at the height of its popularity, and that the characters produced from it were genuine celebrities.  Household names forever immortalized as "those big, rubber wrestlers."