Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Bunny Hops From The Easter Basket To The Ring

Depth. To me, in an action figure line, it's what it's all about. If I'm going to collect the figures, there had better be a wide range and variety including "secondary" characters. Star Wars mastered this by literally pulling creatures from dark corners of the films and immortalizing them in plastic. In wrestling, it's figures of referees, managers, and commentators that provide the depth. LJN did a great job of this with their famous WWF Wrestling Superstars line as did Remco with their AWA All-Star Wrestling figures. Over time, Jakks followed suit with their longtime WWF/WWE license and now Mattel has begun to realize that wrestling figures don't always have to be of actual wrestlers. With that in mind, we have the first figure of...The Bunny.

Yes, I know that The Bunny did wrestle, but I still consider it to be a non-wrestler figure. It/he/whatever comes together with the third figure of Adam Rose in a Battle Pack. If you're a fan of Rose or waited to add him to your collection until this set was released, this is a good thing. If not, you have your third figure of someone who has yet to really get over outside of NXT. In a way this is a good thing as far as being able to get The Bunny, as the Battle Packs tend to last longer on the shelves. As the single packed Zeb Colter and Jerry Lawler proved, the non-wrestlers move!

The Adam Rose figure does have a different design than the previous two releases. It's a good likeness and includes a top hat. I may be biased, but so far he has translated into three rather boring figures. Nothing stands out about them. I don't dislike the guy, I just have yet to find a reason to get behind him or his figures. He's even my least favorite in one of my favorite current groups. On the other hand, The Bunny is one of those instances when goofiness in wrestling just works for me, especially when it transitions over into merchandise. We haven't seen the character in a long time nor may we ever again, but the fact that it hit store shelves as an action figure makes it immortal.

Mattel designed a sculpt that they'll likely never be able to use again. Much kudos for that effort. The likeness of the complete costume is amazing, right down to the cotton tail. The vest is a completely separate piece, which again shows the detail that Mattel put into this. The figure is also heavy, which makes up for the paltry Adam Rose. The face is either the stuff of dreams or nightmares depending on your mentality, but I think that the thing is pretty darn cute.

When figures of Braun Strowman, Becky Lynch, and Alexa Bliss are released, you'll be able to have quite an Exotic Express entourage when coupled with The Bunny. Pick up that clearanced Exotic Express pendant from the WWE Shop and we're talking major diorama possibilities. Personally, I think The Bunny will headline my own Easter decor this year and for many seasons to come. And don't be surprised to find the figure in the holiday section of your local thrift store in a decade or so. Aside from a light WWE stamp on his foot, there's nothing to tell the average person that this is a wrestling figure instead of a holiday decoration.

If you want The Bunny to hop onto your shelf, you'll have to grab the Battle Pack. The character is long gone from television and was only part of a forgotten angle as is. There's virtually no chance of a second figure (although a Bunny vs Gobbledy Gooker Battle Pack would be novel...) so this will likely be a case where you'll be spending stupid money to get it on the secondary market if you pass it up initially.

Was this The Bunny that you visited at the mall in your youth? Was it perhaps the same rabbit that battled in the APA Invitational? Is this the guy that ate the carrots that you left out for him? We may never know, but now we have a figure of him to stare at while we wonder...just who is that big-eared man?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

From The Musty Yellowed Pages--1976 Wrestling Yearbook

I'm often asked where I obtain all of my items. It isn't anywhere special and hardly just one place. You never know where you'll find something, and more often than not I tend to "run into" things. Following along with the old saying, it usually is where I "least expect it." Because of that, and the fact that wrestling memorabilia is a truly undocumented collecting niche, I rarely "look" for something. Unless it's a loose end in a series of items, I wouldn't even know what to look for! In this entry, we're spotlighting an item that was in one of those random finds and slowly became one of my favorites.

Around fifteen or so years ago, my eyes centered behind the counter of a used book store. Sitting on a rolling cart piled in about three stacks was a collection of 1970's wrestling magazines. At the time, my wrestling collection was largely confined to the 1980's and 1990's, so much of what was piled up was new to me and looked absolutely fascinating. My dad and I inquired about their availability. The Janeane Garofalo-clone who worked at the store was more than happy that we were interested, but told us that they weren't priced yet. Immediately I pictured huge dollar signs for each and pretty much gave up then and there. We frequented the store, but between the inevitable prices and the knowledge of many other wrestling fans who would probably want them, I all but gave up. As I walked away, crestfallen, the fake Garofalo shouted after me: "There are even some covers with Dino Sammartino on them!"

"Dino." Yeah.

A few weeks later when we returned to the store, I had all but forgotten about the dusty, old, treasure trove. It's hardly a surprise at this point, but there they were, bundled in about seven or eight different stacks for a few dollars each. For the next few days my knowledge of 1970's wrestling swelled. The words and photography of the Stanley Weston magazines (as well as a few titles such as the legendary WWWF Wrestling Action) filled my brain. Bill Apter, Dan Shocket, and everyone's favorite perennial old crust Matt Brock were there, as were the champions. Several of these issues were the Weston "Wrestling Yearbook" titles. Published quarterly, the Yearbooks were yet another title that joined The Wrestler, Inside Wrestling, and Sports Review Wrestling on the '70s wrestling magazine shelf.

It seems as if once a year, the Wrestling Yearbook magazine was a "Special Championship Issue" that focused on the "big three" champions from the WWWF, NWA, and AWA. These were among my favorites from the magazine bounty that I had purchased. Several of these championship issues featured a motif that could have come from the opening title cards of "Love, American Style." It was red, white, blue, and stars all the way. It looked great. It looked '70s. It looked special.

In addition to the normal departments such as ratings and pen pals, the championship issue had a full article on each of the three champions. Bruno Sammartino's is titled "Wrestling's Living Legend," a label that has stuck with him to this day. Terry Funk was deemed to be the "Accidental Champion" while Nick Bockwinkel was "The Man Who Had To Win The Title." There are also "Ringside Report" sections telling of how each man respectively won the title. For fans of the era, this had to have been amazing. Almost all areas of the country would have recognized one of these men as the true world champion. To see whichever two that you DIDN'T recognize as champion right up with your own hero was likely infuriating.

While the Sammartino and Funk stories are known, the Bockwinkel article is a classic magazine tale. Bockwinkel was "the man who had to win the title" because of his wrestler father, "discovery" by Bobby Heenan, and learning from partner Ray Stevens. Although the article recognizes that the championship was Bockwinkel's "dream," they feel that because of his rulebreaking, attitude, and Heenan's constant interference that it had become a "nightmare." Only in the wrestling mags!

Although the infamous "Love Doll" ads don't show up here, other dubious product offers do. Ads for the sister publications called "Battling Girls" featuring apartment wrestling are here, as are pellet guns, miracle ginseng capsules, and many ways to either bulk up or trim down. If the kids of the '70s had written and paid for all of these valuable products, today we would have an entire fleet of 50-somethings with bulging muscles, trim wastes, endless ways to defend themselves, skills in dozens of different courses including vinyl repair, x-ray vision, and unmatched knowledge in the art of love making...with or without a partner.

Forty years later and I know that I'm not the only one who is fascinated by these publications. There's footage available from the era, but the magazines offer something different. We get a great glimpse at the wrestling industry of the time and see it through the eyes of the fans. To learn of wrestling around the country, this is basically all that you had. If you lived in the Northeast, you saw Bruno but you probably didn't know much about Funk and Bockwinkel. Here was your chance to compare the champions as well as you could from a color cover and black and white pages. This was your Internet. This was your WWE Network. This was your ultimate source of wrestling knowledge. Many fans from the time miss it being that way...

...are we sure that's such a bad thing?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Magnum T.A. Still Beloved, 3 Decades Into Retirement

No matter where you look, only one name has dominated wrestling chatter this week: Daniel Bryan. After months and months of "will he or won't he" speculation, the popular superstar announced his retirement at the age of 34. Because of his fan following, his announcement won't likely end the speculation for all. The abruptness of the announcement coupled with legal entanglements with WWE won't allow some of his fans to completely give up on someday seeing the "Yes" man back in a squared circle.

In discussions of Bryan's early retirement, I saw some trying to find a comparison. Another star who had their career ended during their prime or perhaps had yet to even see their best years. Only one name truly fits the bill and, in a way, the story is probably even more tragic than the Bryan injury. That individual was Terry Allen, known to the wrestling world as Magnum T.A.

October of 2016 will mark thirty years since the tragic automobile accident that nearly cost Magnum T.A. his life. Only a few years into his career, Magnum had already made his way through several major wrestling territories including Florida and Mid-South. He was now in Jim Crockett Promotions which at that point was by far the biggest brand under the NWA banner. He was a nationwide television star thanks to Superstation TBS, and he was the protege of "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes both in and out of the ring.

Magnum had a true gift. He was able to win over the NWA fans despite not being the most technically sound wrestler to ever step through the ropes. He had the great look and the intangibles that Dusty, as his mentor, knew how to best utilize. Truly, Magnum was on his way to the top. Feuds with hated villains of the promotion only cemented this. To this day, fans fondly remember the "Best of Seven" series of matches against Nikita Koloff or Magnum's conflict with Tully Blanchard that saw its peak at Starrcade 1985 in the brutal "I Quit" match.

Magnum also saw quite a bit of marketing despite starring in the wrestling company that was lesser known for such things. Dusty and the others recognized Magnum's fan following, especially among females. Similarly to the Rock 'n Roll Express, much of the merchandise was designed to appeal to those screaming ladies, desperate to get a glimpse or even a touch of their favorite mustached star. From bandanas to posters, Magnum's mug was one of the most marketed by Jim Crockett Promotions. An over-sized photo book, very obviously marketed to those with an eye for the rugged idol, was even produced. After Magnum's accident, many of those same images made it into the famous NWA trading card set by Wonderama. Even if he could no longer step through the ropes as a competitor, it was obvious that his image was still selling.

The comparisons with the Daniel Bryan retirement end in a place where more question marks arise in the case of Magnum. Whereas Bryan, albeit briefly, got to reach the pinnacle of the business with his World Championship win, Magnum did not get to see that. Almost all involved agree that Magnum was being primed for a run with the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, but the accident ultimately prevented it. While Bryan got to hoist "Big Gold" high, Magnum did not get the chance, ironically with the original version of that same belt.

Perhaps an even bigger question is if and when Magnum would have shown up in the WWF. Nearly every major star eventually appeared there, and there is no doubt in my mind that Magnum would have followed eventually. His television-star looks were exactly what the WWF was built upon in that era. While he may not have had much room at the top with the other star power in the company during what would have been Magnum's prime, it's easy to imagine him in the ring with the likes of Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels in the early '90s in a solid upper-mid-card position.

I've seen first hand the impact that Magnum had on the fans of the era. Despite being left with a few small reminders of his accident, fans still completely lose it when meeting the fabled star. From his regular showings at the Charlotte Fanfests to rare appearances in the Northeast, location matters little. People all over were touched by Magnum. This leaves me with no doubt that his career could have gone much further, likely in any promotion, had the accident not occurred. Just like with Bryan, it's what the fans wanted to see.

Terry Allen is not a bitter man. He recognizes his potential, but also knows that there's nothing that he can do to change history. He carved out a happy life for himself post-wrestling. If Magnum T.A. can do it, so can Daniel Bryan. Not all careers have story book endings, but that fact has little to do with cultivating a happy one.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

NXT Live: Merch & Memories

Even with WWE logos strategically placed at the event, a plug for the next Monday Night Raw in town, and on-screen ads here and there, NXT Live isn't your standard WWE production. In fact, aside from the WWE-led rebirth of ECW a decade ago, NXT is likely the most un-WWE production that you'll ever see from the sports entertainment juggernaut. That being said, it's easy to forget that NXT is still, supposedly, a developmental stage.

Recently, Pittsburgh, PA hosted its second NXT Live event. The home for NXT in the Steel City so far has been a roughly 2,000-capacity concert venue known as Stage AE. The building is nestled on Pittsburgh's North Shore right between PNC Park and Heinz Field, respective homes of the Pirates and the Steelers. The first show was in June 2015 and, as fans and wrestlers alike were preparing for the debut event, news of the death of Dusty Rhodes began to break. Despite the obvious shadow, the event was solid and featured the best that NXT had to offer.

The second show was equally as well received by the audience, but really did not come close to topping the debut. As good as the brand and its stars can be, many fans are blinded by their rabid love for it all. I am in no way putting those fans or their opinions down, but nearly everything popular has a "can do no wrong" phase. With a few exceptions, NXT is still in that "honeymoon" stage. Nothing really suffers because of it, as it is obviously a great product.

For the second show, I was a bit let down by the card initially. Between call-ups and some odd omissions, the card just seemed to come nowhere close to the first on paper. Many stars who do not get much television exposure were featured, and perhaps my favorite talent on the roster was nowhere to be found. Asuka, who can pop a crowd with a simple expression, was not on the show despite two women's matches on the card. Instead, the very inexperienced Nia Jax was included. Keeping in mind that NXT is indeed developmental and that Jax does need experience, her appearance was one that even the NXT hardcores weren't necessarily pleased about. Nepotism truly seems to be at work as far as Jax is concerned.

On the plus side, Finn Balor and Samoa Joe did an excellent job delivering a quality main event. With rumors ever-circulating as far as how long both will be part of NXT, it will be interesting to see just who can take their spot. It may just take two other concepts foreign to WWE: tag team and women's main events. Both divisions are very hot in NXT. American Alpha may be the hottest team in years thanks to a combination of appeal both in-ring and on the mic, while Dash & Dawson are an amazing throwback to teams who did indeed top territories. As far as wrestlers regardless of gender, Bayley is in a class by herself. Her connection with the fans through both her charisma and athleticism is something special. Like one of her mentors, The Dream, she has the ability to reach out and touch the fans with the simplest of ease. Should that intangible translate into her eventual WWE main roster spot, the company will have its first female megastar.

One thing that remained the same between the shows, or perhaps got even better, was the NXT merchandise. The stars are marketed as well as you'd expect coming from WWE's illustrious history in that area. Posters, belts, autographs, apparel, and accessories. If there's a star on the show, there will be likely be some sort of merchandise available there. Observing the sales, it seemed as if every order demanded the commemorative poster for the event. For $15, a beautiful, retro-styled "Steel City Showdown" poster featuring Joe, Balor, and the rest of the lineup was available. For $75 a fully-signed version was also for sale. That type of item does make a house show seem that much more special.

Given the opportunity, attending an NXT show is a unique experience that shouldn't be missed. It's a magic that has made new fans and brought lapsed ones back into the fold. How long the magic lasts is anyone's guess. Though I may have felt a bit less blown away this time around, I'm guessing that I'm one of the few. Will it be my last show? Absolutely not. Hopefully, NXT regenerates itself as talent rotates and the business continues to adapt to this new phenomenon. Without a doubt, it will be an interesting ride.