Thursday, May 25, 2023

Eternally Sweeter Than A German Chocolate Cake…

Pioneering. Legendary. Controversial. I think that if I were asked for three words to describe Superstar Billy Graham, those would be the three. He was ahead of his time decades ago when chiseled physiques were not the norm in pro wrestling. He was sizzle over steak and made it work. While men like Hulk Hogan and Jesse Ventura took this style and ran with it, they always credited The Superstar. Had he come along a decade later it quite possibly would’ve been Graham to be the face of the national wrestling expansion. We’ll never know. But what we got is something that we’ll never forget.

Something that Graham isn’t often credited for, but possibly should be, is his ability to change with the times. Ok, so “Kung Fu” Billy Graham didn’t set the world on fire, but he did extend his career a few years with the gimmick. It’s very possible that the ‘80s, bald Superstar would’ve taken off well, too, had injuries not plagued him due to his years of abuse. Nonetheless, like Chris Jericho is celebrated for today, Graham did indeed know the art of reinvention. I’ve actually always preferred the ‘80s Superstar look despite the run not going as planned. It’s the first version of Graham that I remember and it definitely modernized the character into the ‘80s.

The camera loved Graham as did magazine photographers Bill Apter and George Napolitano. The Superstar was featured in the classic magazines from cover to cover. As the years went on he was also a big part of the late Scott Epstein’s Wrestling Training Illustrated, a magazine that was designed as a cross between wrestling and weightlifting. And while WWE may deny it in an issue well covered here on this blog, we can’t forget that Graham was the cover boy of the debut issue of the very first in-house WWWF/WWF Magazine, Wrestling Action.

Graham seemed like a natural for an LJN figure during his late ‘80s WWF comeback. I’m sure that he was in the planning stages at some point given the ballyhoo around his return. He did get a shirt, posters and is on the official promo photo for Hulk Hogan’s 1987 Survivor Series team where he was eventually replaced by Don Muraco. It wasn’t until around 2006, when we lived through what I consider to be the “resurgence” of Superstar Graham, that modern merchandise really began to kick in for him. He’d had an entry into the beloved Figures Toy Company Legends of Professional Wrestling figure line, but thanks to his return to WWE he now had Classic Superstars figures in several looks as well as a book and DVD. It was in fact at a book signing where I first met Graham. He was great to all who showed up.

I’ve never believed in sugarcoating things after people pass away, at least not fully. Graham had erratic behavior towards promoters, fans and even WWE for many years. It’s well documented and in today’s information era it won’t ever fully go away. After reading about so much of it, it isn’t something that’s able to be ignored fully. Instead, like many wrestlers and celebrities, I try to focus more on their body of work. Superstar Billy Graham was revolutionary in that respect and on many levels. I choose to remember the battles with Dusty Rhodes and Bob Backlund, the endless triumphant returns and the style and showmanship that was largely unheard of before his arrival.

Superstar Billy Graham


Thursday, May 18, 2023

The Isle Of Samoa’s Finest

Last year when they were first unveiled I knew that Mattel WWE Legends Series 18 was going to be something special. You had a “First Time In The Line” character, his partner not made in this look in nearly thirty years, a legendary manager being made in his initial guise for the very first time and the all-time legend, always a huge seller, finally coming to the actual named Legends line. Even if we do have to suffer through the pain of not one but TWO chase variant figures this time, it’s worth it in order to get one of the most figurally (new word!) underrepresented tag teams in an even earlier look. While Paul E. Dangerously and The Hulkster in WCW form are great, for the entry today we’re focusing on that very team. Whether you know them as The Samoan SWAT Team or The Headshrinkers, we’re covering all the bases here on the blog.

Once again a Target exclusive series, Legends 18 retains the packaging that we’re all familiar with. There is word that this will change in the future, though I’m not sure if that will be with the next set (Brother Love, D’Lo Brown, Kama Mustafa and The Undertaker) or not. From what I’ve seen of the new packaging it sort of gives me a Classic Superstars vibe. This is surprising in the day and age where manufacturers are falsely citing concerns for the environment in order to cut down on their own packaging costs (it actually backfired on Hasbro recently…), but the new design does seem to be more elaborate. Nevertheless, Samu, Fatu, Paulie and Hulk are all in the traditional boxes.

Usually you can tell where they scrimped on the budget for one or two figures in order to produce a more elaborate one in the same series. Aside from the disappointing torso (again) and coloring on Hogan, it’s pretty hard to tell how they fit all four of these figures into one series. Our Samoan boys are chalk full of accessories including spears (which detach in the center for easier storage), soft goods sarongs, ankle coverings and chest covers. Two sets of hands are included, too, and I think we may have gotten a third had there not been so many other accessories included with these guys. I’m not complaining about that!

Indeed, there are chase variants for both Samu and Fatu. The flowered tights variants are from their pre-Headshrinkers run as The Samoan SWAT Team and this is the first time that either have been produced in that look. I will say that packaged The SST are a bit off as they didn’t have the same entrance gear as they did in the WWF, but I’m certainly up to letting it slide. The Samu variant is easy to spot with the strikingly lighter hair on the figure. Likenesses for both guys are great, though Samu’s facial likeness has the slight edge. In most lighting they twosome actually looks frighteningly real. The Headshrinkers version of Samu is also passable for his earlier WWF run as Samoan #3 or Samula when he was associated with Afa and Sika.

The boys seem to share the same torso. It’s not too noticeable at a glance, but Fatu should be a tad thicker. Mattel did go out of their way to create a different gluteus maximus part for Fatu. Let’s face it, the man who eventually made “The Stinkface” known worldwide has always had a generous backside. Where Mattel got it wrong is a bit lower on the anatomy. Like some other Mattel figure offerings, the legs here are just a bit too thin, especially for Fatu. In many poses, and especially with the sarongs applied, it isn’t that noticeable, but it’s still something that could be improved upon. The great designs on either version also help cloud the visual of the thinner legs.

If you’re reading this I can’t imagine that you won’t want these. While they’ve not been impossible to come across, neither Samu or Fatu are in the situation of several of the chase variants in the Legends line where it seems to be a 50/50 shot of finding them. The SST versions are definitely more limited and The Headshrinkers versions, while equally as desirable for a fan, are starting to pile up. Honestly, I wouldn’t sleep on either set. I was surprised recently when checking on secondary market prices on some of the Legends figures that had little fanfare like Kevin Nash. The prices are going up. As always, if you see these guys just grab them. I could also see additions coming down the line to make them even more coveted. My most wanted is their partner Kokina. Seeing as that we’ve gotten other contracted legends in earlier guises, why not Yoko to celebrate his Samoan heritage? With Captain Lou Albano now part of the Mattel roster I could see a version of him to join The Headshrinkers being a possibility, too.

The Samoan Dynasty just goes on and on…

Thursday, May 11, 2023

JW’s Wrestling Memorabilia Vlog Vol. 2

You want more vlogs? You got em! This time the vlog is back with two vintage figure unboxing sessions!

Enjoy and, as always, thanks for watching!

Thursday, May 4, 2023

Ram Jam!

Looking back at the past fourteen years, I’m really surprised that I’ve never done an entry on “The Wrestler.” I did do one on the very different 1974 version, which we’ll talk about a little here. I’m sure that, considering it was a very hot movie the year that this blog started, the Mickey Rourke version was mentioned somewhere along the line. There isn’t too much merchandise for the film itself, but it does have connections to other bits of wrestling memorabilia. It also happens to be one of my favorite movies of all-time.

I tell people who haven’t seen it that it really isn’t a wrestling movie at all. Wrestling is a theme and major backdrop, for sure, but really it’s a human interest story. I hate to admit it, but if it didn’t have the wrestling connection I probably never would have seen it. Also admittedly, I’d be greatly missing out. It’s a tragic, but very familiar, story interlaced with a lot of humor. Humor? Yes, humor. And I’m sure that I’m not the only one who sees a lot of the humorous bits. I find that it’s good to laugh, even when confronted with less than great prospects in life. If you truly sit down and take the film in, you’ll see it.

If you haven’t seen it, the film follows Randy “The Ram” Robinson played to perfection by Mickey Rourke. The character is an amalgamation of several wrestlers, notably Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Lex Luger with a dash of Hulk Hogan thrown in. The Robinson character seems to have reached the heights that Hogan did in the ‘80s, so his name has to be included. It also could viewed as somewhat autobiographical for Rourke himself. It takes place in a fictional world where “WrestleJam” replaces WrestleMania and the big wrestling group is referred to as “The Show” rather than “The Fed.” These details aren’t totally fleshed out and we don’t need them to be. This story is about the rise and fall of Randy the Ram from the ‘80s until the then-present day of the late ‘00s. Like many real life wrestlers, Randy struggles with the fall from grace, personal relationships, finances and the inability to give up the glory.

The show opens with a montage of pictures and magazine covers from Randy’s glory days. Rourke’s head is placed onto Luger’s body for photos of the wrestler in his prime. Per the producers, permission was granted from the magazine publishers to use many of the old titles and designs. You’ll even notice some of the old back page ads. The montage features voiceovers of Larry Zbyszko and, more notably, Chris Cruise “calling” some of Randy’s old matches. In the opening moments of the film a magazine is signed by Randy. The “fan” getting the magazine autographed is actually the writer of the film, Robert Siegel.

Throughout the film Randy drives a very worn old van to various shows and other places of interest. Early on, we see the outline of a figure mounted on his dashboard. It’s supposed to be Randy himself but anyone reading this blog would know that it’s actually an LJN Wrestling Superstars Randy “Macho Man” Savage figure. As the story goes, the Savage figure, which was likely customized to resemble The Ram, was lost during production. Later, in a very well-lit outdoor scene in Elizabeth, NJ, the figure was needed again. This time it’s a Jakks WWF Bonecrunching Edge figure. We also see a child playing with this figure later on. The Japanese magazine "Cinema Rise" features a great still showing the LJN in their issue covering the film.

That’s not the only figure which we see make a big screen appearance. One scene with a mix of humor and tragedy has Randy at a wrestling legends signing at a VFW hall somewhere in Jersey. While the majority of the other “legends” are unknown extras, the one parked next to Randy who actually gets a scene hugging our star is known to all of us: the late “Luscious” Johnny Valiant. It’s never clarified if he’s playing himself or not, but he has a boxed Figures Inc. Legends of Professional Wrestling figure on his table. Could it be “brother” Jimmy? There are other tables filled with merchandise at this mock show including magazines, shirts and Coliseum Videos. This is one scene that I often had to clarify for folks back then. The scene is meant to be a letdown for Randy in that the event is poorly attended. While situations like that did occur, I can tell you that the era in which this movie was filmed is what I call the “golden age” of the wrestling convention. In real life, conventions were packing fans in and overselling tickets to the point that you weren’t sure if you’d even get what you came for. That, however, is a story for another book…

It should also be pointed out that a working NES game was created for the movie. A mix of the real-life “Pro Wrestling” and “WrestleMania” games, Randy and his neighbor are shown playing “WrestleJam ’89,” a game created in story to reflect the biggest match of The Ram’s career. The producers took pride in that the game was made specifically for the and scene and was actually playable!

I still remember word going out as to where they would be filming. Heck, I even remember when Nicholas Cage was still attached to the movie. Due to plenty of other things going on at the time, there was no traveling for me to appear in any of the show scenes, though I do recognize plenty of faces. The truth also is that up until this movie, I’d never been too enamored with wrestling on film. I had no reason to think that this one would be any different. The original 1974 version of The Wrestler, a completely different film, is a fun watch but is by no means a great movie. It stars Edward Asner and Verne Gagne with memorable scenes with other wrestlers such as Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch. It also contains a rare appearance by Vincent J. McMahon. It’s worth a viewing, but this is one time when something more modern is better than something from decades ago.

While I didn’t get to attend any of the filming, my jaw did drop several years later on a visit to Jersey. It’s become a personal tradition that the night before a trip out to The Garden State, always for a wrestling convention, I watch the film. It’s relaxing for me and has that gritty Jersey flavor. Not a flavor you want in your mouth, but it’ll pump you up for a road trip. In 2012, the Friday night before a convention, we attended an indy show with a mini-convention attached. I knew that we were going to Rahway, NJ and that some of the movie had been set around there, but I guess I never put it together just how much. As we entered the doorway/vestibule of the building I felt a feeling of déjà vu. I’d never been to Rahway before. How could this be? It was because Randy the Ram walks through the same door and into the same building for an indy show at the same venue, The Rahway Rec Center. Wow. Considering that both The Great Muta and Mil Mascaras were on the card that I was seeing that night? Triple wow.

I’m sure that this movie is streaming somewhere. A physical copy (always best!) is probably available for under $10. I don’t like when people give me viewing recommendations because I never end up getting around to them and I disappoint that person, but I’ll be a hypocrite: watch this movie. My favorite scene? The deli scenes. (‘A little moaaaaar…”) See, I told you this wasn’t a full “wrestling movie.” A word of warning: there’s enough adult content in it that I wouldn’t recommend it for kids, but that’s your decision. I will also say that, while this blog has always been family friendly, I must stray from my normal standards so that I can leave you with my favorite quote from the film…and then go and pop it in the Blu-Ray player…

“The ‘90s fuckin’ sucked!”