Friday, March 7, 2008
Are your TV wrestling nights cold and empty? Are you so unhappy with what passes for pro wrestling nowadays that you’ve considered taking a couple of hungry cats, dressing them up in gaudy outfits, placing a bowl of tuna between them in a small, makeshift ring and then calling the action yourself? Be honest have you gone so far as to give some thought to surprising the two furry combatants with a third cat run-in?
Well, if you are missing your pro wrestling fix to that extent, then save yourself and the fightin felines the aggravation. For fans of old school regional rasslin', "Wrestling Gold (Special Edition)" is a must-have collection of matches from Kit Parker Films and VCI Entertainment. Bouts from many different territories are included throughout, with well known participants to be found in each of them. For those that weren't following the sport prior to the WWF/WWE takeover, these matches will come as an eye-opening revelation.
To discuss everything in depth that the viewer will encounter would take several columns. After all, the collection includes five discs, each of which runs for just over two hours. All told, there's a good 10 hours and 30 minutes of old school wrestling to enjoy, with one delightful remembrance after another along the way. It's a journey that fans who watched in the 70s and 80s will recall with increasing enthusiasm. It's heavy in joyful nostalgia with a small tinge of sadness, for this kind of performance art has given way to another type that is indeed a very different animal.
Disc 1, which concentrates to a large extent on action from San Antonio's Southwest Championship Wrestling of San Antonio, is labeled "Busted Open" for no apparent reason other than the title was direct and dramatic. (There doesn't appear to be any more bloodshed here than on the other four discs). But what it does have is some great memories. Right off the bat, we see Sherri Martel in her first professional match, taking on veteran Judy Martin. That's followed up by a very (make that VERY) young Shawn Michaels. At this early stage in his career, he couldn't have been in the business for more than a few months. Here, he is facing Ken Johnson. For fans of The Heartbreak Kid, this match will be something of a revelation. While his style is steeped in the traditions of a young babyface, Michaels already gives us more than a few hints at the heights he would attain after further seasoning.
There are other remarkable bouts to be found as "Busted Open" continues. For those that never had the chance to experience the charisma of Gino Hernandez, there are several samples included herein. In fact, he and Tully Blanchard were tremendously watchable as teammates and as opponents. (Two matches in particular put their considerable talent on display in both settings). If wild brawling is your preference, Bruiser Brody vs. Abdullah the Butcher is in the spotlight, along with "Dirty" Dick Slater against The Mongolian Stomper. A title match between challenger Bruiser Brody and Nick Bockwinkel closes out the first disc, and it's a honey. (Bockwinkel is managed by the always entertaining Bobby "The Brain" Heenan; no less than Lou Thesz handles the referee chores).
Disc 2 is "The Maim Event," and it floors us with an opening match that shook the wrestling world when it occurred. From Memphis, Tennessee, The Rock 'n' Roll Express (Ricky Morton & Robert Gibson) take on the Poffo Brothers (Randy Savage and Lanny Poffo), with their father Angelo in their corner. It's off the charts, and the fans never stop screaming for their teenybopper heroes. But what makes this match historic is a spot that takes place at the conclusion. On the concrete floor outside of the ring, Randy Savage attempts to set Gibson up for the dreaded Piledriver. Morton makes the save but is waylaid by Angelo, who unceremoniously tosses the mulleted grappler onto the announcer's table.
Savage then accomplishes something that was considered unthinkable at the time. He jumps up on the table and hoists Ricky into the Piledriver position. After a moment's hesitation (you can almost hear the crowd holding its breath), the twosome come crashing down through the table, Morton going head first. The resultant furor has to be seen to be believed, and old school fans denote this occurrence as a landmark in hardcore violence.
Other bouts on Disc 2 also originate in Memphis, along with San Antonio, Indianapolis, Detroit and Toronto, featuring names such as The Sheik, The Crusher, Jerry Lawler, Bruno Sammartino, Dick the Bruiser, Ernie Ladd, Ted DiBiase, Baron von Raschke, Rick Rude and on and on. Without exaggeration, it's a wrestling Who's Who of the day.
We move on to Disc 3, entitled "We Like to Hurt People." Again, there's more tremendous action to be seen, with many of the featured stars from the first two discs as well as some we've not yet encountered. Again, we're witness to crazy antics from Tennessee, and if you ever wanted to see an angry and embarrassed Rick Rude wearing a dress, this is where you'll find it. A definite high point is the "unscheduled" bout between Terry Funk and Mark Lewin that takes place in a Detroit television studio. It's a great confrontation, for it gives the small gathering of fans and the viewers at home a display of wrestling holds, counter-holds and beautifully orchestrated ring psychology, all within the framework of a personal grudge between the two men. After seeing this match, you may find yourself wondering how those living in the area that didn’t run out and purchase tickets for the Cobo Arena blow-off could rightly call themselves true wrestling fans.
Disc 4 is "No More Mr. Nice Guy" and it picks up where Disc 3 leaves off. Again, there are more top flight bouts from the various territories. Perhaps the most interesting from a wrestling standpoint is the title match from Memphis between challenger Jerry Lawler and champion Nick Bockwinkel. These are two pros that understand how to build a match in such a way that the fans can't help but become emotionally involved.
Some may find two of the gimmick matches included here to be of equal appeal. Stand back, PETA members, because Terrible Ted, the Wrestling Bear, can be seen overpowering his trainer (Gene DuBois), a referee and a preliminary boy or two that foolishly don't move out of the way quickly enough. The heyday of bears being used in the business was coming to an end, and this may be the last known bit of evidence, in the context of a full and complete match, that such an attraction ever existed.
Somewhat safer, although probably not by much, is a match from Detroit between Chief Jay Strongbow and Bulldog Don Kent. What makes it unusual is that their battle is held in the middle of the ring … inside of a shark cage. It’s akin to wrestling inside of a phone booth made of wire and steel. About as good as can be expected, given the confines of the cage and the participant's lack of mobility, but it's hard to understand just what the point was. Still, as a one-off, it's different and kind of fun, leading to an interesting conclusion.
The last disc in the collection is "Beat Me If You Can." Like the ones that preceded it, the matches are engrossing. Among the 12 bouts listed, this grouping gives us an intense fight from San Antonio between Chief Wahoo McDaniel and Tully Blanchard, a Toronto mud match between long-time rivals Tiger Jeet Singh and The Sheik, and a Memphis encounter between two legends, veteran Jerry Lawler and a young, brash Eddie Gilbert. This last one is of particular significance, as Jim Cornette informs us that it was the realization of a life-long dream for the up-and-coming grappler. As a child (and the son of wrestler Tommy Gilbert), he'd idolized Lawler. To face "The King" was, to him, confirmation that he had a place in the business. It meant everything to young Eddie, who went on to a stellar career both inside the ring and as a creative force outside of it.
And yes ... you read it right. Jim Cornette is indeed a welcome addition to the set. As if the matches with the original commentary aren't enough, there's an alternate soundtrack that features words of wisdom and humor from the encyclopedic mind and mouth of the former manager, currently a TNA employee. Complimenting Cornette with his own thoughts is none other than The Wrestling Observer's equally knowledgeable Dave Meltzer. Both do an outstanding job of providing insight by describing how matches were once constructed, as well as offering inside information and biographies on the wrestlers and the territories.
When one takes into consideration the age of the source material, the audio/video quality is surprisingly superb. As a collection, this is an absolute must for any serious old school pro wrestling fan. I simply cannot recommend "Wrestling Gold (Special Edition)" highly enough.
Richard Berger is a freelance writer and editor with an extensive background in professional wrestling. His career includes media production for Stampede Wrestling, ring announcing, regular columns for WOW Magazine and IGN.com, and special feature work for other publications. Between June, 2007 and June, 2008, he wrote a weekly column for The Fight Network and Live Audio Wrestling. To discuss Richard’s articles or just about anything else, contact him at: WriterGuy1A@hotmail.com.
The small sampling of his work found here was originally published at The Fight Network and Live Audio Wrestling. The majority will appear in a soon-to-be-released book along with new material. Stay tuned for information as it becomes available!