Thursday, March 26, 2015

From The Musty Yellowed Pages--WrestleMania XI Program

Here we are once again, just days before the annual tradition known as WrestleMania. This year, we're all anxious to see the in-ring WWE/WrestleMania debut of Sting, The Undertaker's first WrestleMania match that will not be part of "The Streak," and just exactly how the WWE will handle a title picture that some fans aren't happy about. You can read my predictions on WrestleMania 31 (or "Play Button") on my other blog here, but for now we're going back twenty years to 1995. It must be long ago, as the champion going in and coming out of that WrestleMania is going into the Hall of Fame this year. Yes, the WWF was running on "Diesel Power."

The WrestleMania XI program is the first one to be over-sized. It was also not sold on newsstands. Technically the program from the year before was not either, although a variation of what was offered did show up. Since it wasn't sold outside of that weekend's events, it's the first of the WrestleMania programs that has seen a rise in demand. A complete version will include a poster stapled in the center. For the record, the poster is just a larger version of the logo/cover design.

Upon opening the program, we are treated to celebrities before we see any actual WWF Superstars. Nick Turturro, Salt-N-Pepa, Jonathan Taylor-Thomas, and Jenny McCarthy all appear. Even twenty years ago, I was very underwhelmed by this grouping. Though I may have raised an eyebrow or two at McCarthy, it wasn't until a few years later that she was singled out on my radar. Regardless, this was a fairly relevant cast of characters for the era, even if I was personally unimpressed.

The biggest celebrity of the evening appears on the next pages with the WWF Championship match. She was, of course, Pamela Anderson. The winner of the 1995 Royal Rumble won the WrestleMania title shot and Pam's accompaniment. I'd have preferred to see Dick Murdoch and Pam together, but we don't always get what we want. Like the celebrities, this main event was a product of the times. The show was "New Generation" through and through.

The last match of the show is next in the program, and certainly garnered the WWF a ton of mainstream attention at a time when the company was failing in that regard. The grudge match between Bam Bam Bigelow and football legend Lawrence Taylor was standard at best, but the angle itself was well-crafted and, as mentioned, gained the company the press that it wanted...then, now, and forever. The poster was placed right here, blocking out Nikolai Volkoff, Steve McMichael, or any of the other teammates of the participants that you might want to see.

Next we have the championship matches for the Intercontinental and Tag Team titles, respectively, with Razor Ramon battling Jeff Jarrett for the former. The tag team champions, The Smoking Gunns, put their titles on the line against Owen Hart and a mystery partner. Just as it was in the television build, the silhouette of Owen's partner is obviously not who it turned out to be, the mighty Yokozuna. Between my love for Yoko and Owen and not caring too much for the Gunns, I do believe that this was the most memorable moment of the night for me.

Our last two pages finish up the event with three more matches. Mr. Bob Backlund battled Bret Hart in an "I, Quit" match, The Undertaker faced King Kong Bundy, and The Allied Powers (Lex Luger and Davey Boy Smith) went up against Jacob and Eli Blu. King Kong Bundy receiving another WrestleMania match eight years after his last was yet another highlight for me, a kid always fascinated by monster heels. On the other foot, Luger's final WrestleMania match is as lackluster as his first two. Dutch Mantell makes his WrestleMania debut here managing the Blu twins as Uncle Zebekiah. He would return to the big show eighteen years later as Zeb Colter.

WrestleMania XI is a favorite of very few fans and, aside from Bigelow-Taylor, the event largely plays out like an "In Your House" event, which were first announced at this show. While some events and moments from this era still hold up or contain special memories for fans (SummerSlam 1995 is a personal favorite as I was there), it is easily one of the weakest times in all of wrestling history. The glorious "bright" WWF era of the late '80s and early '90s was trying to mesh with the "edginess" of the rest of pop culture. It didn't work.

In any event, grab yourself a copy of this years program and enjoy WrestleMania XXXI!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sting, Hulk, & NXT Highlight Topps WWE 2015

 With each set that is released, I tell myself "no more." The cards are usually fairly nice, but do I really need another box of glossy WWE cards taking up space? If they were matte finished "retro" styled Heritage cards it would be a different story, but we haven't seen those since 2012. Topps seems to be following a pattern of two regular and one chrome set per year. I am able to resist the latter (the rehashed chrome sets do nothing for me) but I always end up with the other two sets in one form or another.

For WWE 2015 I opted to go with a blaster box. Those are the $20 boxes found in retail stores. Wal Mart is the place to pick these cards up. In each jumbo pack, there is a coupon for $3 off of a blaster box. Wal Mart's jumbo packs and blaster boxes also include exclusive Sting cards and a chance at Sting autograph cards. If you're a fan of "The Vigilante," it's the only way to go.

The base set is, as usual, very basic. This is not one of the years where the design particularly excites me. It isn't bad, but it just doesn't stick out very much either. You get your basic helping of WWE Superstars, Divas, and Legends as well as other on-air talent. Any time that Tony Chimel gets a card is a plus. I will say that it's cool that Topps takes their WWE product just as seriously as their main sports releases by releasing them in the same design as their baseball sets.

The main subset that you'll be seeing the most of in a pack or box is titled "Crowd Chants." There are seventy cards in this subset, with ten cards for each of seven different chants ranging from "One More Match" to "You Still Got It" and yes, the one that makes so many of us cringe, "This Is Awesome." It's a new and different idea that allows cards for a wide array of stars.

NXT is back once again with its own subset. You have to believe that the hottest "brand" in WWE will soon have its stars integrated into the main product. I'd like to see Topps take the risk and release an entirely separate NXT set, but who's to say if that will happen. I think it'd be a great seller, and if they're worried about not having "main roster" talent involved, just throw some NXT Alumni cards into the set. Sadly, this subset is limited to just ten cards, but includes the NXT rookie card of Hideo Itami, formerly known as KENTA.

As always there are relic, autograph, and even "Diva Kiss" subsets (the latter featuring the Topps returns of Lita and Trish Stratus), but the hardest subsets to complete without those "pull" extras are tribute sets for Sting and Hulk Hogan. Both sets feature great vintage photographs of the two legends, and the Sting cards are exclusive to Wal-Mart, as mentioned above. The Sting set is a whopping forty cards, while the Hogan set will ultimately be forty, but just ten are included in this particular set.

The Commemorative Championship Plate cards that debuted in 2014 are back this year. These cards are well-designed and honestly are a bit more attractive to me than most relic cards with a bland shirt or mat swatch. You can argue that Bruno Sammartino shouldn't be on a card with the current design WWE Championship and so on, but Topps simply isn't going to create plates for every design that each championship has gone through, not to mention rights issues in doing so. My blaster box pull was the Nikki Bella Divas Championship Plate card. I don't need to once again go through what a female "pull" means as far as being more desirable, so I'll leave that to you, eBay, and the creepy collectors. Nonetheless, I was satisfied with that, especially after using the $3 coupon for the box itself.

If the Topps WWE sets are your thing, you'll probably enjoy this set. If you're more of a pick-and-choose collector, I could see skipping this set. It might be more interesting to try and complete the Sting set, as so many of those images will never again see the light of day on a trading card. I think that many collectors will be disappointed in that NXT's established talent such as Sami Zayn, Charlotte, and Bayley are nowhere to be found. Maybe an individual set isn't out of the realm of possibility after all. With word of a "high-end" set titled "Undisputed" coming from Topps, the company may just be looking to step outside of the box with WWE. In any event, it's WrestleMania season (which you can read my thoughts on in the latest entry of my other blog, JoshCulture) and these cards will sell.

But if there's one card that we can all agree should be here, it's the gentleman who rounds out the base set with card #100. A legend in every sense of the word, it's hard to say which of his many personas should have been included. Soul Train Jones. Vincent. Shane. Curly Bill, perhaps? Regardless, he is here in all of his glory, and as much crap as he gets from fans, I'll always have a soft spot for the guy. If you do pick up some of these cards and luck upon pulling him from a pack, never leave home without it. You may be at a convention, home show, RV show, subway platform, public library or McDonalds, and there will be standing with a smile, the one and only Virgil...

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A "New School" Hope For "Old School" Figures

 Ever since Mattel took over the WWE toy license, collectors have been taken on a roller coaster ride regarding figures of past stars. At first, hopes seemed bright as Mattel would have been crazy to not capitalize on the success of Jakks Classic Superstars line. The company did put out three series of "old school" figures in their Legends line, but then decided to make future releases available through their online shop. When that did not work out as they had hoped, the legends were then relegated to occasional "Flashback" releases in their "Elite" series. I was not the only collector who gave up hope when this last change occurred.

For whatever reason, Mattel has seemingly gotten back into the swing of things regarding legends over the past few months. The "Flashback" Elite figures have increased in number, and even the "Basic" figure series are often peppered with a legend or two. I recently took a look at the return of the legend-based Defining Moments line and the incredible Hulk Hogan figure that recently hit shelves. Even the Wal Mart exclusive Superstar Entrances series now includes Rowdy Roddy Piper.

The most recent Elite series to hit stores as of press time includes one of the most popular stars of the 1980's, the Junkyard Dog. Although the figure greatly resembles the effort by Jakks a decade ago with the same white tights/blue and red stars design, it holds up on its own with fantastic detail and a slightly trimmer waste line. Perhaps this is the pre-WWF version of JYD. The chain is a lot longer than the one included with the Jakks version, and helps recreate images of the Dog where he seemingly had it wrapped all around his massive shoulders.

Also in that series is a Flashback figure of X-Pac. While the Attitude Era isn't necessarily nostalgic for me, I do appreciate this figure. The Jakks version was a disappointment, being way too tall and bulky. If Mattel does one thing right, it nails the smaller wrestlers down perfectly. The same could be said for the Flashback Rey Mysterio Jr. figure from the previous Elite series. Each of those figures included a "classic" belt as well, being the European and Cruiserweight championships respectively.

Perhaps my favorite recent "old school" inclusion by Mattel are their latest representations of two stars who are still popping up on WWE programming, the New Age Outlaws. I was actually not that big of a fan of Billy Gunn and the Road Dogg until their WWE returns a few years ago. Now I find myself rooting for the twosome in both their on-screen stints and their work behind the scenes, as Billy Gunn works as a trainer at the WWE Performance Center while Road Dogg is a WWE producer/road agent.

Although both received the "Elite Flashback" treatment last year, a modern
representation is now one of Mattel's latest "Battle Packs." I particularly like the Road Dogg from this set, complete with short hair and "New Age Outlaws" t-shirt. It was a treat to see the two regain the WWE Tag Team Championship last year live at an otherwise lackluster Royal Rumble. And yes, even though I was not always a fan of the "schticky" duo, I have been known to throw a crotch chop or two in their presence.

Even with all of those figures, Mattel has thrown us the greatest hope for future legends figures with their Target-exclusive WWE Hall of Fame line. The first series debuted earlier this year with Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Ultimate Warrior, Sgt. Slaughter, and Trish Stratus. It was recently revealed that those four will be joined by Hulk Hogan, Eddy Guerrero, Yokozuna, and Tito Santana. A Four Horsemen set including Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard, and Barry Windham will also be released.

Does it get any better than that? It could, but we're a step in the right direction. As I've said time and time again, Jakks Classic Superstars line was the ultimate because it included superstars from all facets of the business. For every figure of Bret Hart and Dusty Rhodes, we got figures of men like Ron Bass and Danny Davis. It was a wide variety covering all levels of the business. Whether it be Mattel or a company such as Figures Toy Co. (who recently expressed interest in producing a new legends line), the "unsung" heroes of the business deserve their figures, too.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Madusa "Blayzes" Her Way Into The WWE Hall Of Fame

We go over it every year. This person should go in, that person shouldn't. It's a never-ending argument with no basis on either side that ultimately results in one of the most memorable nights of the wrestling year. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the WWE Hall of Fame is fun. An industry that is based in entertainment should have an entertaining Hall of Fame. There are some wrestling Halls of Fame that look at drawing power and money made per wrestler and yet others that induct whoever is likely to show up for the ceremony. Regardless, the WWE Hall of Fame is the one that will always be looked at by the mainstream, regardless of politics

An interesting Class of 2015 is being assembled, including a posthumous "headline" induction for "Macho Man" Randy Savage. As of press time, the most recent announcement is the induction of Alundra "Madusa" Blayze. The former women's champion has been said to have been on speaking terms with WWE for a few years now, so her induction isn't quite as surprising as Bruno Sammartino or other stars who have been long estranged from WWE.

It's also no surprise that a certain moment was included in Blayze's Hall of Fame video package, that being the WCW Monday Nitro segment where the female grappler dropped the WWF Women's Championship into a trash can. The inclusion of that clip or of Blayze into the Hall of Fame itself should really shock no one. With their ownership of WCW and constant glorification of the "Monday Night War," WWE loves featuring and spotlighting an individual who starred in one of the most replayed moments of the era.

Madusa didn't do much headlining in WCW beyond the infamous belt drop, but she did have a storied career beforehand. A good female hand with a great look, Madusa competed in the AWA and Japan before becoming the WCW valet of Ravishing Rick Rude in 1991. The twosome was part of Paul (Heyman) E. Dangerously's "Dangerous Alliance" stable. Madusa eventually broke away from Heyman and left WCW shortly after.

In late 1993, the WWF revived their women's division with a tournament won by Madusa, now known as Alundra Blayze. Great matches were had with the likes of Luna Vachon, Heidi Lee Morgan, Bull Nakano, and Bertha Faye, but there just wasn't enough variation or time given to sustain a viable division. A little over two years later, the revival was over. Blayze, back to being Madusa, returned to WCW and made her famous Nitro appearance.

Following her wrestling career, Madusa made the successful transition to monster truck driver.  Her pink and white Madusa truck is featured at Monster Jam events worldwide and has been replicated as Hot Wheels toys of various sizes produced by Mattel. Now that Alundra Blayze is entering the Hall of Fame, perhaps that very same toy company will produce the first figure of the ladies legend? It's on my Hall of Fame figure wish list, for sure!

Alundra Blayze was actually the second wrestler that I ever met.  It was the night before SummerSlam 1995 (where she dropped the title to Faye) and a local Giant Eagle (Pittsburgh's favorite overpriced supermarket chain) was hosting an appearance featuring her and Diesel.  The line stretched through a service door and to the outside of the store. The line began to move, so everyone assumed that both champions were already inside. In the hallway inside of the service entrance, a woman put her hand on my mother's shoulder and said "Excuse me." Yep, apparently Alundra was a bit late. Even so, the women's champion seemed far happier to be there than "Big Daddy Cool."

Could that signing have featured two members of the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2015?  We're only a WWE Tweet away from finding out!