Thursday, August 27, 2015

My Favorite Events--WWF SummerSlam 1995

Twenty years. Two full decades. I won't lie and say that it feels like yesterday, because it honestly doesn't. It was the Summer of 1995 and the World Wrestling Federation was bringing a pay-per-view extravaganza to Pittsburgh for the first time. In those days before the WWF began taping shows in large arenas, we hadn't even had a Monday Night Raw in the 'Burgh. My one and only live wrestling experience to that point had been a WWF house show in early 1992. Despite lineups that appealed to me in the time between, we just didn't find time to go back. Now that SummerSlam was coming to the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, I knew that I had to be there.

Although the Internet was beginning its rush into mainstream consciousness, the way to get tickets was still largely restricted to a physical box office. The on-sale date was July 8th, a Saturday morning. We purchased our SummerSlam tickets at the TicketMaster location in the Kaufmann's department store in the Monroeville Mall. There weren't any living dead hanging around, but I'll always remember the girl in front of me in line. She appeared to be a few years older than me, but not by much. In her then-trendy halter top and overalls, she somehow convinced her father to purchase a front row ticket for her alone. As far back as we were in line, those ringside tickets must have been a small fortune as she did end up getting one. She is visible on the show itself, most notably during the ladder match entrances, clad in the famous Shawn Michaels "all-over" shirt. In my mind, she's still in those overalls. Regardless, I had my tickets and eagerly anticipated August 27, 1995.

That Spring and Summer had, in a way, introduced a new side of pro wrestling into my life. Growing up I'd had plenty of friends who liked wrestling, but none who truly loved it as I did. Occasionally one would get into it a bit deeper for a spell, but I was the only real consistent fan among those that I knew. Then came along cyberspace. I hesitate to use the term "Internet" again, as my first introduction to this much larger world was through something called a BBS, which stood for Bulletin Board System. These were small, independently owned and operated programs where you could chat, play games, send and receive e-mail, and share files. If you were remember the original America Online, picture that on a much smaller scale. Since you used your phone line through your computer to dial into these BBSes, you generally only joined local systems. It was through these BBSes that I got my first taste of just how things worked in wrestling (I'd always known the "predetermined" aspect) and finally met some fans who were just as hardcore as I was.

Chatting and sharing anticipation with these fellow Pittsburgh fans only helped to build the anticipation for SummerSlam. Somewhere along the line, I also learned that WWF Champion Diesel and WWF Women's Champion Alundra Blayze would be appearing the day before SummerSlam at a local Giant Eagle supermarket. Even when the business is an alleged slump, free autograph signings are usually packed. This was no exception. I left with a few autographs, some really cool promotional bumper stickers, and the feeling that Kevin "Diesel" Nash was sort of a jerk. He just didn't say anything. My opinions of him have since changed for the most part. On the flip side, Alundra "Madusa" Blayze was nice and cordial as she still is today. My dad caught a cool snapshot of me in my one second of eye contact with Nash.

The day of the show was fun, although there really wasn't much on the event itself that went unseen by the cameras. Waiting on the outside to get into the Civic Arena, one odd did thing did happen. For some inexplicable reason, The Fabulous Moolah made her way from the direction of the arena through the large crowd. An audible wave of "It's Moolah!" carried through the gathering of fans, but I've otherwise never learned anything more regarding her appearance.

Some alleged "fans" will tell you that the show was bad, but it wasn't. Even today it holds up, especially when put into perspective of the time. Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon had a superior ladder match to their overrated WrestleMania encounter, Diesel fought King Mabel in an attempt to recreate the Hogan magic formula of "Super Babyface Champion versus Monster Heel", and the rest of "The New Generation" rounded out a fun undercard. The show also saw my first live title change when Bertha Faye defeated Blayze and anytime you get to see Jinsei "Hakushi" Shinzaki wrestle live is a real treat.

The now very rare program was available as soon as we entered the building, and we immediately bought one. It's wider than a magazine, but not quite as long as other programs from that era. Shirts were also available, as was a cool laminated poster that my dad surprised me with after returning to our seats from a restroom break.

It was the beginning of a new era for wrestling in Pittsburgh, an area that had been largely ignored since the days of Bruno Sammartino. It was a very different WWF just three years later when The Undertaker flung Mankind off the top of Hell in a Cell. I was present for that too, with a unique perspective of the moment being eye-level with the top of the Cell. Still, there was something special about SummerSlam.

Without trying to sound too much like Kevin Arnold, it really was the beginning of my "wonder years." I was about to begin the seventh grade, I was beginning to see what the world was really about, and "overall girl" would be forgotten in favor of other females that were more than just a glimpse in a store line, even if they didn't care for wrestling. The Federation was running on "Diesel Power," and Pittsburgh truly "felt the heat."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A SummerSlam Of New WWE Product From Mattel

For the past few years it's seemed as if there are two times of the year when you are guaranteed to see Mattel WWE product stuffing the shelves--WrestleMania season and Christmas time. With the recent rumors that WWE is wishing to transform SummerSlam into a "second WrestleMania" as far as hype, scope, and marquee matches, it's more than likely that merchandise will follow suit. Already, SummerSlam 2015 has been bumped up to a four-hour time slot. Does the recent surge in new product and retail store space reflect this?

Since July, most Target stores have devoted an endcap to the line. The centerpieces have been the exclusive Four Horsemen set as well as the "classic" blue barred steel cage accessory. Basic and Elite figures as well as entries from the newer "Create A WWE Superstar" line have also been featured. Wal Mart stores have received giant blue cardboard displays for Basic, Elite, and Battle Pack figures. Newer series seem to be shipped with the display, but older figures that have been peg-warming for Wal Mart are frequently mixed in. These cardboard displays are far from collector friendly, often smashing the product inside. While no special displays have been rolled out, Toys "R" Us has also seen an influx of newer product, with the "Build-A-Figure" Elite Corporate Kane series being a well-selling exclusive for the retailer.

But what about the figures themselves? Although my wallet can't say the same, I have been very impressed with Mattel's recent additions to the line. For once, the company seems to want to attempt to get everyone a figure, including Divas. The company was infamous for thinking that female figures would not sell in a line traditionally marketed to boys. I'm not sure where their surveying is done, but in my childhood days, the boys were just as excited to have female G.I. Joe figures as they were the males. The same should go for wrestling, especially with all of the "Divas Revolution" talk. Lana and Summer Rae, ironically currently embroiled in a WWE feud, are two of Mattel's newest additions.

One "first" doesn't involve new names, but rather a never-before-done concept in wrestling figure collecting. With the release of El Torito last year, collectors were able to hold the first match between little people when paired against Hornswoggle. Now both have been re-released in the first wrestling figure two-pack of little people. This Battle Pack represents the feud between the two that culminated in the epically entertaining "WeeLC" match. The set even includes a mini table and chair. Torito is featured in his red attire, while Hornswoggle is in his more recent look that, to me, is reminiscent of 70s-90s wrestler Little Louie. His hair is even removable so that he can "lose" a Hair vs Mask match. Even with Lana and Rusev and the first Mattel Legion of Doom two-pack also in the series, the little guys really stand out. A friend of mine has already deemed this Hornswoggle as his "Figure of the Year." I can completely understand why.

The Elite line, figures with accessories and additional articulation, has also seen new faces. Earthquake and Diamond Dallas Page have joined the "Flashback" collection of wrestlers of yesteryear. DDP is a re-release of the WWE Legends figure, while Earthquake is fully new and comes complete with Damien the snake and his bag for the big man to "squash." New faces in the line include Stardust and Bo Dallas, the latter with his "BOLIEVE" t-shirt. Both of these stars saw their first figures in the Basic line a few months earlier. My own personal rule of thumb is to wait for the Elite when this is knowingly the case, as the included accessories are often worth the extra money spent.

Finally, we have received what should be considered the first NXT figure. While we have seen figures of many who began their WWE careers on the NXT roster as well as the NXT Women's Championship being included with Paige, this is a different scenario. Sami Zayn is the first wrestler to have a figure released before an official WWE roster call-up. I'm sure that it will not be his last and the fact in itself will end up rather trivial, but this is indeed a first. As of now, Tyler Breeze and Bayley look to be next in line for figures while still fully part of NXT, but that can always change.

As the hot weather ends and the holidays fast approach, we're bound to see even more Mattel goodies pop up. Favorites such as Charlotte, Hideo Itami, The APA, Dean Malenko, and Randy Savage are all slated to debut or return, and you can be sure that most of them will pop up here. Mattel is continuing to give us reasons to care about their line, and that deserves our support. Happy hunting!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Hardcore Truth

After years of taking them in, I have all but given up on "shoot" interviews, question and answer sessions, and similar presentations. For awhile they seemed to be a novel idea, but as more and more were made, they seemed less and less truthful. Wrestlers are natural "workers." Their livelihood is based on creating a mass illusion to entertain you. Why would stories "from the back" be any different? Remember the old saying, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." Sadly, it seems like many books authored by wrestlers have gone in the same direction. That is, until "The Hardcore Truth" hit the wrestling world.

Released in 2013, "The Hardcore Truth" is the autobiography of Bob "Hardcore" Holly, the longtime WWF/WWE star. For the better part of fifteen years, Holly made his way through WWE rings in just about every position of the card that there is. He began with the company during their "New Generation" campaign, was totally reinvented during the "Attitude Era," and continued on with the company until 2009.

The book itself is an extremely enjoyable read and is very well balanced as far as content. We get just enough backstory of pre-wrestling Bob Holly to let us know how he was raised, his family life, and his early adult years that led him into the industry. The story doesn't skip around, which is one of my biggest peeves in autobiographies. Everything is presented in chronological order. If something is going to be revisited in his future, we don't suddenly skip to that part. If only every book was compiled with this consideration!

Holly and co-author Ross Williams seem to know what the target audience will be with the book--wrestling fans. Therefore, stories from throughout Holly's career completely fill most of the book. Thanks to Jim Cornette I was aware of some of Holly's early wrestling days, but not everything. Several early WCW matches were new to me and were easily found on YouTube as a nice visual companion. Some fans might be a little lost on the chapter covering Bob's racing, but it is brief and integral to telling his story.

Most importantly, from the beginning I felt that I was getting exactly what the title proclaimed--the hardcore truth. Unlike those aforementioned shoot interviews and other outlets, I didn't get the feeling that Holly was stretching the truth at all. This is a man who is very happy in semi-retirement. He does not feel the need to suck-up to the big shots in hopes of a return or one last payday, nor does he bury those individuals. He gives his honest opinions on anyone that played a factor in his career, and displays their good points just as much as the bad. In fact, I don't think that I came out of this book looking at anyone any less favorably than I did going in. His honest appraisals are refreshing as is his not wanting to bury anyone out of spite, while still disclosing the good and bad of the wrestling business.

In addition to the highs and lows of his own career, Holly takes you backstage for many of the happenings that occurred during that timeline. Survivor Series 1997, WrestleMania XX, the ill-fated ECW revival, and the Owen Hart, Eddy Guerrero, and Benoit family tragedies are all covered in a unique viewpoint that I found very different from other, possibly sanitized, accounts. The demise of Guerrero is particularly intense and tells of the weeks leading up to his death which have only been hinted at elsewhere.

Just as with the deaths, Holly does not dish dirt for the sake of salaciousness. Instead, he discloses all in an attempt to fully flesh out the story of his own career. Several stories that you have heard regarding Holly as well as others in the company are either supported or dispelled. While he goes to great lengths to let the fans know that miserable, perpetually frowning Hardcore Holly is not the true Bob Howard, the no-nonsense, no-BS approach to life is the same.

Some wrestling books are good, some are bad, while others are very bad. A few are great. I never imagined that "The Hardcore Truth" would make it into that latter, very slim, grouping, but it does. In fact, this one makes it up there with J.J. Dillon's book in my all-time favorites list. It's an extremely honest look at a surprisingly storied career. It's a behind-the-scenes view at the biggest wrestling company in history at several of its most tumultuous periods. It's the story of a man trying to make it to the top of an industry that fascinated him since childhood. It's a wrestling fan turned wrestler sharing his story with other wrestling fans. It doesn't get much better than that!

How do you like him now?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Piper's Pit Goes Silent...Far Too Soon...

The tragedies of the wrestling world have been far too numerous in 2015. Just when we have all begun accepting the passing of "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes, another crushing blow registers. The man who seemed impervious to all of the dangers that a professional wrestler endures was suddenly stricken, too weak to continue. Rowdy Roddy Piper passed away.

His name is right up there with Hogan and Savage as far as mainstream notoriety. He was not only a favorite in the wrestling world, but also cult film and 1980's pop culture. His free spirit and unlimited charisma made him a natural for Hollywood and the entertainment industry. While he may never have had that Oscar-worthy role, the admiration of his fans for the parts that he did bring to life more than made up for it.

As a wrestler, he was a big-mouthed scrapper with an intensity to back it up. He was never the biggest dog in the fight, but it didn't matter. Hulk may have towered over Hot Rod, but it was a perfect match. And even early on his career, with Roddy's tart-tongue and often controversial verbiage, he had his followers. Even then, the WWF powers-that-be had to know that an eventually turn for Piper would only further his popularity and visibility as an icon. It did, and while he may not have had the same "bite" as a fan favorite, Roddy was always a classic.

That status as an icon carried over to his interactions with his legions of fans. Ask anyone who had the opportunity to meet Roddy Piper and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't list him among the very best. Roddy didn't just thank you for coming. He took your hand in both of his. He inquired about you and your family. He looked into your eyes and listened and, as you can imagine, was always willing to share a story or two. He made sure that you had the moment that you had been waiting for.

I'm still not sure that it has fully sunk in for me. I mourned so much for Dusty, that I almost feel immune to any more wrestling-related grief. Two of my five all-time favorite wrestlers passing in the same summer is too much. Piper headlined my very first live wrestling event. I was also fortunate to meet him many times at various events. Although all of those meetings were memorable, it's the first that provided me with two moments that have gone down as legendary amongst my friends.

In the order of first meeting my five favorite wrestlers, Piper was fourth. While it was very special, I had no trepidation or worry. I'd met hundreds of wrestlers previously and I keep the line moving as I expect everyone else to do. As my crew and I inched up in line, I felt an odd sensation. What was that? Piper's Pit had suddenly rendered me incontinent. As soon as it hit me, I summonsed whichever muscle I needed in order to shut it off. Yes, I ever so slightly peed myself while about to meet Rowdy Roddy Piper.

It gets better.

Behind me in line was my friend Rick. After his warm, personal greeting, Hot Rod began to sign my items. As he did so, he kept conversation with Rick and I. While I can't remember exactly what was being discussed, Roddy's voice suddenly took a surprised and almost amused tone when he loudly proclaimed...


Yes, Rowdy Roddy Piper thought that we were a couple. We are not, nor are either of us of that persuasion, but it has gone down through the years as one of the most memorable moments of my many wresting pilgrimages. And no, in subsequent meetings Roddy never inquired as to where my "other half" was.

From the outpouring of love and memories, it's obvious that Roddy Piper is going to be fondly remembered. In this day and age we've come to learn that all of our heroes and icons have their own issues. We're all only human. Roddy had his, but I firmly believe that he worked hard to overcome them. Just as with "The Dream" and many others, he deserved a few more years to bask in the glow of his own legend, but it's really his family who were cheated. They are the ones who truly knew the man and should have had more time with him. We as fans get to see him forever more, as we knew him, thanks to the countless hours of entertainment that he left behind.

Forever loud, forever young, and forever "Rowdy."

Rowdy Roddy Piper