Tuesday, September 9, 2008
In my previous column, (Back in the Saddle Again, August 20th, 2008), I explained how I’d taken a hiatus from my two websites due to a personal situation. One of the lessons I re-learned during that trying period was this: it helped me see things more clearly by taking an occasional time out and stepping away from the problems. As crazy as it may seem to some, I accomplished this by looking at pro wrestling tapes that I hadn’t watched in years.
The end result was that my approach to the more serious matters at hand were affected in a positive way. Not spending much more than an hour or so in one sitting, the precious images from the past caused a surprisingly significant improvement in my outlook. Ultimately, I recognized that this method of short-term escape (which is not the same thing as avoidance) allowed me to inspect the more serious set of circumstances from different angles. The act revitalized my vigor. It really was as simple as that and, at least for me, it worked. Winding up the time machine (AKA a VCR) and indulging in a short trip was all I needed to do.
Anyway, I started the journey with some classic OLD old school matches from the 1950s and ‘60s. From there, I ventured into the future, which is to say the 1980s and ‘90s. All of the bouts were promoted by the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). As most fans know, the two were the same organization with a name change. Watching, I was quickly reminded of how captivating pro wrestling had been when there was a limited number of absurd characters and outlandish storylines. When presented as a pseudo-sport, the primary focus was to draw the fans in through the building of a credible match.
The tape I watched over a four day period was the first “WCW All-Nighter” from 1994. This “overnight pajama party” was hosted by a slightly annoying Tony Schiavone (allegedly in the basement of his home), Bobby Heenan (at this time in his career, he was a damned fine comic with an excellent sense of timing) and Gene Okerlund (in full shill mode). Eric Bischoff was also there. Most of the between-bout skits ranged from hilarious to embarrassing. (Truth to tell, I must admit that some of the shenanigans made me laugh out loud at the sheer chutzpah on display.
Bobby Heenan stood out as genuinely gifted with his constant quips and childlike behavior. Other members of the broadcasting team dropped by for brief interactions. Chris Cruise (who wore a suit the whole time and refused to talk to anyone in a very creepy fashion) stayed in the background. Gordon Solie, who clearly wanted very little to do with the whole thing, arrived and departed in haste. But make no mistake; Bobby Heenan was the standout star, playing the role of selfish inconsiderate boob to a tee. His choice of pajamas was inspired, the sort of humor that dates back to a Max Sennett two-reeler.
The bouts were among the best taken from periodic NWA/WCW specials, known as Clash of the Champions. Clashes were live Pay-Per-View quality cards meant to entice fans to pony up the bucks for just such an upcoming event. As well, the free Clashes were intended to draw viewers away from a WWE PPV, which often occurred at the same time. (This was a practice originated by Vince McMahon, one that had financially hurt his southern-based competition).
Thus, the matches on this first of two WCW All-Nighters came from any one of a number of Clashes, originally telecast live on WTBS between 1988 and ’93. I found most of the selected matches to be fun and exciting. Who won and who lost a contest was paramount. So, at long last, here is the full card I took in along with the results. Comments from yours truly are found in-between the brackets.
1. Sting (challenger) vs. Ric Flair (champion) for the NWA Heavyweight Championship. March 27, 1988.
James J. Dillon, manager of the infamous Four Horsemen (of which Flair was the penultimate member) had stipulated himself into a small wooden cage that hung high, just off to the side of the ring. The 45-minute time limit in this outstanding encounter runs out without a winner being declared, so Flair retains the title. But thanks to the great ring psychology both combatants display from start to finish, Sting becomes a made man in the world of professional wrestling.
[This was a great match. What a way to start the show! Numerous people have dubbed the event as “the official arrival of Sting as a main eventer,” and I heartily agree. Ric Flair does a superb job selling the youngster to the fans in a way that would assure the Stinger a successful future. I have to admit that as Sting’s career unfolded, I respected him but never became overly enthusiastic. Still, there’s no questioning the fact that at this stage he was inspired and very, very good.
Here, he holds his own with modern wrestling’s Grand Master. Generously, Ric gives Sting plenty of opportunities to beat the hell out of him over and over again. This drove home the point that the young man’s time had arrived. Sting’s work is also to be commended when he’s on the receiving end. One of the best Sting matches ever, in my opinion.]
2. Dustin Rhodes & Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat (challengers) vs. Arn Anderson & Larry Zbyszko (champions) for the WCW Tag Team Championship. November 19, 1991.
This match had been built up as Dustin Rhodes and Barry Windham finally achieving a long-sought-after title shot. However, Windham shows up with his arm in a sling and unable to wrestle that night. (I couldn't tell if the injury was worked or not). Therefore, Ricky Steamboat agrees to take his place, which drives Anderson and Zbyszko insane at the news of his participation. (That’s kind of an insult to Windham, isn’t it?) Anyway, in about 12 minutes, the makeshift team takes possession of the belts.
[Not bad, though I found it too short with a somewhat abrupt finish. It also seemed disjointed, too much so to be truly memorable. I was surprised to find the champions appear in the role of semi-incompetents. I suppose the message was that the unexpected entrance of Steamboat threw them for a loop. Still, the titleholders were fine wrestlers, so this aspect just didn’t add up for me. Despite these faults, the fans got what they wanted and were happy. It also looked like the dethroned champs were heading towards a feud, with each one blaming the other for the loss.
3. Ric Flair (challenger) vs. Lex Luger (champion) for the NWA U.S. championship. September 13, 1990.
This took place at a time when Lex Luger was watchable, at least in this encounter. Then again, this was also at a time when it was said Ric Flair could have a match with a broomstick and make it interesting. It ends in a no contest ruling.
[A pretty good match with Luger doing his best to keep up and Flair guiding him along. It all comes to a sudden conclusion when they take it outside of the ring and brawl on the floor. Inexplicably, Stan Hansen decides to join the festivities, as he impolitely takes Luger apart piece by piece. The match is thrown out at around the 20 minute mark. I liked it well enough, but would have preferred a clean finish rather than the outside interference routine.]
4. The Hollywood Blondes (Brian Pillman & Steve Austin) (challengers) vs. Ricky Steamboat & Shane Douglas (champions) for the Unified Tag Titles. January 13, 1993.
The babyface champions hold the Unified Tag Titles. (Yes, Shane Douglas worked as a clean cut baby in his formative years and was pretty good in the role). I have no idea what the Unified Tag Title is supposed to be, but it’s clearly not given the same regard as the WCW Tag Team belts. Anyway, this was an enjoyable match to watch. Well, until the end, anyway. That’s when Austin uses one of the belts conveniently close at hand to smack Douglas in the face, earning the Blondes a DQ.
[These four worked well together for the most part. Seeing this convinced me that the WCW bosses didn’t have the smarts to leave the Blondes together and allow them to grow. There was absolutely no reason that I’m aware of to suddenly disband the team; the meddling by the higher-ups mucked up a good thing in the making. As a twosome, Pillman and Austin blended their skills smoothly, and what could have been one of the better remembered pairings of the era faded away before they were able to really hit their stride.
I also have the sneaking suspicion that whoever booked the match lost interest somewhere along the way. Instead of devising a hot conclusion, they took the lazy way out. The decision to have the Blondes resort to everyday standard heel tactics did not enhance the match or the duo. What they’d accomplished during the bout was largely negated when Steve and Brian wound up looking like every other run-of-the-mill bad guy collective. Ugh. Still, this is a match well worth watching most of the way through.]
5. Ricky Steamboat (challenger) vs. Ric Flair (champion) for the NWA Heavyweight Title. 2 out of 3 falls. April 2, 1989.
Plain and simple, this is a match that ranks among the very best ever. Flair takes the first fall, Steamboat the second and … Steamboat wins the third to become the new NWA heavyweight champion! Well, not quite. It turns out that Ric had his feet under the ropes as referee Tommy Young made the three count. The title was therefore held up and the next encounter in this classic series took place at the Wrestlewar PPV.
[If I was to describe this match with all of its nuances, it would take a book. Since I’m already working on one, I’ll refrain. But, let it be said that the nearly perfect melding of genuine athleticism and ring psychology between two of the best in the business created a match for the ages. (Make that a series for the ages). The mutual respect Flair and Steamboat had for one another is apparent. Anybody tries telling you that sports entertainment is the same thing as wrestling (at least at this level) simply doesn’t grasp the difference. A must see.]
6. Steve Austin (with manager Colonel Robert Parker) vs. Brian Pillman, Grudge Match. November 10, 1993.
Those paying attention knew this would be a brawl. And it is. Some good high risk attempts from both men, but the match is afflicted with yet another crappy finish. Pillman, now a babyface, has the crowd solidly behind him. Nice exchanges between the two former Hollywood Blondes, each man giving the other the opportunity to show what he can do. The bout goes close to 10 minutes and … what’s this? Another controversial conclusion?
Yep. I guess the bosses didn’t believe in the old maxim of giving one man a clean victory then allowing the vanquished a strong return to get his own moment in the sun. Back-and-forth with winners and losers turns up the heat and tells the fans that either man is capable of coming out on top. It creates the best story, because the final result is always in doubt. That means people will buy tickets to see how it all develops. Instead of anything like that, Colonel Robert Parker rudely trips up Pillman as he’s about to fly off the top turnbuckle, resulting in a tainted victory for Austin. Another ugh finish.
[I have to go back to the same comments I made about Match 4. Why oh why did WCW think they were smart by breaking up and feuding The Hollywood Blondes? The duo had charisma a-plenty with loads of talent to spare. Handled properly as a team, they could have been a cornerstone of the company for a long time to come. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the decision was a major blunder almost as soon as it was made. Idiots.]
7. Cactus Jack vs. Van Hammer, Falls Count Anywhere. January 9, 1992.
Before extreme wrestling entered the wrestling public’s consciousness, Cactus Jack was already a veteran of the style and preparing to show the way. Mick Foley had spent quite some time in Japan, sacrificing his body to barbed wire, tacks, exploding cages and the like. Compared to the extreme stylings about to develop in North America, this match is mild.
Van Hammer, who wasn’t as awful as some would have it, was basically a middle-tier performer. Anyway, these two whack away at one another, with Cactus Foley taking some sick bumps along the way. It all led to a conclusion outside of the arena (I’ll bet the fans inside weren’t too pleased). Luckily for all concerned, a cattle show and rodeo was to take place just beyond the arena's entrance. Cactus and Van Hammer fought all over, including the insides of cow pens, causing the nervous animals to eye them warily. The duo also take it to the top of bales of hay and directly in front of Missy Hyatt, who shows up as an on-the-scene reporter.
[The finish is even weirder than what preceded it. Suddenly, Abdullah the Butcher in a cowboy hat and shirt (!?) appears out of nowhere. From his efforts to get Cactus Jack, we’re led to believe he’s in the Hammer-man’s corner. ‘Ceptin’ his aim with a shovel ain’t too good. He mistakenly smacks Van Hammer hard across the back. Cactus Jack pins the metal-head, but he’s not through yet.
Cowboy Abdullah is waiting for him, and the duo continues the brawl all around the stockyard. Missy Hyatt, whose contributions include squealing and feigning distress at the scene, creates much merriment among the viewers when she is dunked in a water trough, which just happens to be filled to the brim. (Hah!) The whole thing is so weirdly good and bad that it’s highly entertaining. Unfortunately, this type of gimmick match that should have remained as a one-off, pretty much set the tempo for what wrestling would soon become.]
8. The Samoan SWAT Team (with Paul E. Dangerously) vs. The Road Warriors (with Precious Paul Ellering). September 12, 1989.
Decent for what it was, this match ended in a little over six minutes. That’s when Hawk and Animal combine to hit the team’s finisher, The Doomsday Device, with Hawk pinning the SWATted victim.
[The two power teams run through their strongman repertoire in the first few minutes of the match, so this wound up just before it became a yawner. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. Both squads earn points by displaying quite a lot of agility along with their usual exhibitions of strength. So that made it better than the usual. Yeah, this was pretty decent.
The finish comes when the SWAT Team’s manager, Paul E. Dangerously, tosses his cell phone to one of his boys, who generously passes it along to the Roadies. Demonstrating their ability to think quickly, one of the SWAT boys is rendered helpless while the other one is conked over the head with the phone. He is then hoisted up on Animal's shoulders and Hawk heads for the top turnbuckle.
After squarely nailing him with the Warrior's patented Doomsday Device maneuver, it's a simple matter of pinning the man for the fall. Paul E. Dangerously scrambles inside the ring to protest, only to be socked in the jaw for his efforts. Precious Paul Ellering completes the SWATting by stomping Dangerously’s phone into tiny bits.]
9. The Great Muta & Terry Funk vs. Sting & Ric Flair. Halloween Havoc PPV match, in the Thunderdome cage. October 28, 1989.
A very exciting match involving four top notch wrestlers. In a special cage, no less. And this entry came from a Pay-Per-View, not a free Clash. A hot back-and-forth confrontation that sees the duo of Flair and Sting triumph, although it’s certainly not easy for them. Funk and Muta as a team are just as good, and this match is well paced from start to finish. There should have been more encounters in the series.
[When they were together in the ring (and on the floor), Terry Funk and Ric Flair resorted to in-your-face brutality of the highest order. But in several other sequences, they introduced a fair amount of psychology and subtlety, the likes of which make the best matches so good. This entire bout should be included in chapter one of the “How to Construct a Pro Wrestling Match” manual. I mean no disrespect to Muta or Sting, because they too were outstanding. But it’s the two veterans that make this match so beautiful to watch. I thoroughly enjoyed it.]
10. The Midnight Express (with Jim Cornette) vs. Ric Flair and Barry Windham with (James J. Dillon). December 6, 1988.
Another fantastic match. The Midnight Express, arguably one of the greatest tag teams ever, is obviously in their element. Ric Flair and Barry Windham, two excellent singles wrestlers, don’t have much experience as an alliance. That said, we all know they are more than capable of pulling off an upset. And they do just that, with Flair pinning Bobby Eaton. A wonderful experience for the wrestling fan, although I have the same complaint as before … the lack of a clean finish. Still, this one’s just too good to let that ruin it.
[I’ve always held The Midnight Express in high regard. Bobby Eaton and Stan Lane developed and expanded the concept of working as a fully functioning unit. The result was a seamless definition of what tag team wrestling should be. Another factor contributing to their appeal comes from the always entertaining work of manager Jim Cornette. Forever walking the tightrope between infuriating the fans with his devious tactics and cracking them up with his verbosity, Cornette was truly one of the all-time greats when fronting for his boys.
Cornette’s amazing gift of gab, coupled with the wide array of underhanded tactics he frequently used was unparalleled in this, his ideal role. With Jim (and his ever-present tennis racket) guiding the fortunes of Bobby Eaton and, during this period, Stan Lane, Midnight Express matches proved to be exceptional expressions of creativity. The trio was really that good. Watching Cornette go berserk during key moments in this match are highlights unto themselves. On the other hand, James J. Dillon’s relatively cool demeanor is in sharp contrast to the histrionics of his counterpart.]
11. Ric Flair vs. Terry Funk (with Gary Hart), I Quit Match. November 15, 1989.
And finally the coup de grace. This is the greatest match in the history of our sport! Okay, maybe not the greatest ever, but right up there with Flair vs. Steamboat. The rapidly developing psychology shown by both Flair and Funk needs to be taught to any prospective wrestler before he is allowed to lace up his boots. Ric wins in about 15 minutes after applying the Figure Four Leglock. Funk is forced to scream, “YES! I QUIT!” and the crowd’s reaction is off the charts.
The next sequence sees Terry insisting that he had agreed to shake Flair’s hand, should he lose, and that’s what he's prepared to do. Funk’s manager, Gary Hart, adamantly refuses to permit such an act of contrition to take place. You can palpably feel the genuine respect between the two wrestlers. Seeing this made me proud to be a fan. The eventual beat-down of the two former combatants, courtesy of Hart’s gang, turns Funk into an instant babyface. Just a fantastic way to end the All-Nighter.
[What distinguished this match, which I believe sets a standard (along with a very few others), is among the greatest of the great. It encompasses everything a contest between two rivals should. First, it kicks off with a logical build-up to explain why feelings ran so high between the two. (However, it cannot be ignored that the angle chosen, which saw Funk try to smother Flair by putting a plastic bag over his head, was ill-conceived and potentially dangerous. Children watched this stuff). But the end result was that it worked, which still doesn't justify that approach. The fact that the angle was never again shown after the original telecast indicates that they received enough complaints to ditch it. Still, by bringing the violent showdown to a head in an I Quit match made fans salivate at the prospects.
And these two veterans, having begun their respective journey in the late 1960s, deliver at a level above what anyone had a right to expect. The give-and-take transitions were flawless and believable. The brutality with which Flair and Funk mauled each other may well have convinced some skeptics that at least a few matches were indeed on the level. It was barbaric and it was poetry.
It was a case of two top professionals at their peak, plying their trade with remarkable panache. In this match, they showed the world that those who think the business is all about glitz and gimmicks don’t have a clue when it comes to presenting a pseudo-sport as reality. This show-stopper was an act of brilliance from all involved, including Gary Hart and his gang of cutthroats. Truly among the very best, bar none.]
There are no more matches to describe. I only wish I had something more to add, but even if you’re not sick of my blathering, I am.
I'll take my leave and invite you to visit this website periodically. I hope to have a surprise or two before long.