The Shelf Is Half Full

An optimistic geek's blog on comic books, movies and professional wrestling.

Archive for the category “Ric Flair”

Superstar Spotlight – Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat

If you have never watched a professional wrestling match in your life, I recommend that you start by watching work of one man. Richard Blood was an amateur wrestler in high school who decided to transition to the psuedo-sport of professional wrestling and was trained by professional wrestling legend Verne Gagne. Despite having a last name that was perfectly suited to being a villain, Ricky was perhaps more suited to the role of underdog hero than any other wrestler in history. So he was giving the last name Steamboat and would proceed to win over audiences all over the world from 1976 to 1994.

And he’s one of the few to become a legitimate superstar in the wrestling business without ever working as a heel.


Excitement and Execution – The Thrilling Style of the Dragon

When it comes to the actual in-ring action of professional wrestling, it is best to look at it as a mix of grand theatrics and action movie choreography. Sometimes an action movie can lack strong characters but can still dazzle us with the skill involved, and wrestling matches can be the same way. Professional wrestlers may not be competitors in a legitimate sport, but they are legitimate athletes and actors that do all of their own stunts. So matches can have a great deal of physicality and athleticism that makes them fun to watch in a “shut up and eat your popcorn” kind of way.

So when it comes to the artistry of wrestling choreography, Ricky Steamboat is one of the best to ever perform in a wrestling ring. Steamboat possessed a natural grace that made even the simplest moves a thing of beauty to watch. He was famous for his superbly executed armdrag takedowns (a modified, flashier version of a judo style hip toss and common move in wrestling), but also for his hard-hitting knife-edge chops to his opponents chest. Ricky was also one of the first wrestlers to work at a breakneck pace in his matches and to routinely leave his feet to hit a jumping dropkick or fly off the top rope to deliver a signature chop or crossbody attack.

This mix of exciting high-flying moves and excellent technique in his mat game endeared him to crowds who knew that he would keep the audience engaged for the entire duration of his match. The WWF capitalized on his look and signature chops by naming him “The Dragon” in tribute to Bruce Lee, giving him a new aspect to his wrestling character that didn’t compromise his ability to be taken seriously as an athlete and hero.

Steamboat and Hart

Wrestling Is Storytelling – Psychology and Selling

But the best action movies are when the actors, stuntmen and the choreographers work together to tell an emotional story. When you watch the lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s easy to tell that the interaction between the two characters is more important that the difficulty of the swordplay. Vader is infinitely more experience but has an emotional investment in testing Luke’s limits, while Luke has a personal vendetta against Vader because he believes Vader murdered his father, but he also is a hero who is trying to fight off his more negative emotions and be true to what he believes. This makes the fight infinitely more engaging than the outstanding stunt work of the Star Wars prequels that fail to tell a story with an emotional hook.

The same philosophy holds true in wrestling. At it’s most simplistic, every match is designed around causing pain to the competitors in order to generate an emotional response from the audience. The hero suffers in order to cause the audience to sympathize with them and root for them to overcome the odds and triumph, and the villain eventually gets his comeuppance in a satisfying faction. This works in pretty much any medium with an antagonist, so it’s no surprise that wrestling benefits from this basic narrative structure.

The art of a wrestler acting as if he is in pain is called selling. This incorporates both the bumps one takes off of slams and hard hits as well as the reactions to strikes and holds. As a match goes on, a good wrestler will sell that he is becoming more exhausting and that any body parts that have been attacked by the opponent are suffering and causing them problems. Ricky Steamboat is one of the all-time great sellers; he would watch boxing matches to see how men reacted to taking punches in order to make his body language more realistic. But he also knew how to emote and let the audience know how much pain he was in, and was also very good at selling his anger when his opponents broke the rules. All of this helped elevate Steamboat’s matches from a simple exhibition of moves into a compelling drama.


Talent is Rewarded

Steamboat was a very special performer and one of the absolute best in his era. He saw great success both in Jim Crockett Promotions (the regional promotion that would later become the mega-company WCW) and in the World Wrestling Federation, winning championships in both companies. The high-point of his WWF career was defeating “Macho Man” Randy Savage for the Intercontinental Championship at WrestleMania III. In front of 90,000 fans in the Pontiac Silverdome and on a show headlined by the biggest main event in history (Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant), it was this confrontation that stole the show and inspired generations of smaller, faster, more athletic wrestlers who realized that you didn’t have to be a giant to be larger than life.

While that match is a classic, it isn’t the first thing I think of when I think of Ricky Steamboat. After his WWF career ended, Ricky spent a year in retirement staying at home with his family before returning to WCW to work a program with Ric Flair for the promotion’s prestigious World Heavyweight Championship. Steamboat and Flair had already worked with each other almost a decade earlier and immediately formed a chemistry with each other that defies expectations. Steamboat was amazing and Flair was perhaps the greatest of all time, but working against each other they elevated each other to an even higher level.

Flair vs. Steamboat

It was the perfect mix of a pure, squeaky clean hero fighting the most despicable villain. “The Dragon” was all about sportsmanship and family values, while Flair surrounded himself with women and booze and material possessions and prided himself on being “The Dirtiest Player in the Game”. Their trilogy of televised matches in 1989, including a 55-minute draw at Clash of the Champions VI, is revered by many as perhaps the greatest matches of all time. If you want to know what makes wrestling a unique and truly special artform, watch Steamboat and Flair go at each other.

It’s perfection.


The Natural Transition From Comic Books to Pro Wrestling

Depending on whether or not you’re a fan of professional wrestling and comic books, you probably find this article title to be either ironic or fairly obvious. If you are not a fan of pro wrestling, but enjoy my articles on comic books, I encourage you to at least give this article a read so you can understand why one genre influenced me to love the other.

Unfortunately, the name of the title is a bit misleading. While this originally started as a blog dedicated to comic books springing forth from daily posts on Facebook, I write about other things too. I’m a film critic and an absolute nut for the wacky world of professional wrestling. In fact, wrestling was my first love. When I was barely even old enough to remember things, I was introduced to the genre by my brother and it’s just kind of stuck with me ever since.

Wrestling influenced my interest in comic books. And if you don’t understand why, let me explain it. Wrestling, like comic books, is a morality play featuring an idealized heroic figure against a hated villain in over-the-top, exciting combat with a pre-determined outcome. Some characters are dark and gritty, some characters are bright and colorful, but it all boils down to this core idea of a hero of the people overcoming some horrible villain so that viewers can live vicariously through that experience.

Sound familiar?

Superman vs. Lex Luthor

Wrestling is not a sport, and any fan knows that by now, so let’s please skip that line of conversation. Professional wrestling is more appropriately described as “episodic action drama where everyone does their own stunts in front of a live audience.”  Once you accept professional wrestling for what it is instead of focusing on what it isn’t, you can learn to appreciate it for what it is. And maybe you’ll realize why being a comic book nerd and a wrestling nerd are actually pretty similar.

I posted the picture about Superman battling Lex Luthor for a reason. If you strip away the fact that Superman is a solar-powered alien with a grab-bag of abilities no mortal man is capable of and Lex is a mad scientist, you are left with the two characters at their essential, archetypal core. We have the hero of the people, defender of the innocent underdog and virtuous champion of all that is right in Superman. Lex Luthor is the rich, privileged and manipulative jerk that shoves his superiority in your face; physically weaker but smarter and with more resources. It’s a classic trope; Superman and Lex Luthor are polar opposites of each other by design. It’s why the rivalry will always be iconic and successful.

Now let me show you where I first discovered this trope as a kid.

Flair vs. Hogan

If you’re over the age of twenty-five or so I’m sure you know the guy with a bald spot and mustache is Hulk Hogan. Other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson no other professional wrestler has been able to break into the public conscience the way Hulk Hogan did in the 1980’s. He was the face of the World Wrestling Federation during their first boom period, taking it from a regional territory in the Northeast to a national entertainment juggernaut. Consequently, he’s usually the first name the average person thinks of when they hear the phrase “pro wrestling”. Not unlike Superman for a lot of people who never really got into comic books but have some idea of what a superhero is from media.

Like Superman, the character of Hulk Hogan was a larger than life pillar of physical and moral strength. He would ramble on about the importance of “training, saying your prayers and taking your vitamins” while showing off his twenty-four inch biceps. In the ring, he would overcome the physical strengths of powerhouses like King Kong Bundy and Andre the Giant or bulldoze through smaller, smarter and slimier competitors like “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase or “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig. And much like Superman, Hogan was a defender of “The American Way” in the middle of the Cold War and faced off against “evil” foreign wrestlers like Nikolai Volkoff from Russia or The Iron Sheik from Iran.

Real American

So yeah, he was about as close to living, breathing comic book superhero as one could get. When I got into wrestling in the middle of the 1990’s, Hogan was already a legend and his image was pretty secure. He wasn’t working in the World Wrestling federation anymore, but had gone over to their rival promotion World Championship Wrestling, which is what my brother grew up on. And my first clear memory of wrestling is seeing Hulk Hogan against WCW’s most prolific villain, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair.

And no, to this day I still don’t have any idea what a “Nature Boy” is, except possibly the single greatest professional wrestler that ever lived. For over thirty years Ric Flair crafted his name by giving fans exciting and athletic matches (often going an hour), delivering memorable one liners in his interviews and by establishing himself as an object of sexual desire for women. The character was rich and famous and reveled in this, bragging about his expensive clothes and cars, making everyone around him feel inferior. He had a gang of friends called The Four Horsemen who would help him beat down the heroes of the promotion and earn the ire of every fan. But he was so entertaining doing it that many people found they had to respect the man whether they liked him or not.

World Champion

The first match I can recall watching was Hulk Hogan challenging Ric Flair for the WCW World Championship at Bash at the Beach 1994. Now, for those of you who may not be overly familiar with wrestling, the genre uses tropes of combat sports to tell their stories. Nobody truly wins championships in wrestling since the results are predetermined, but being a champion still matters in wrestling. It’s a vote of supreme confidence that an individual is everything that a promotion wants to represent their company; somebody who is the best at what they do. It is like a lifetime achievement award and means the promotion is fully behind you. So in the context of professional wrestling, Hogan beating Flair is the equivalent of Superman saving the world from Lex Luthor and proving that good is stronger than evil.

While the WWF’s business model in the 1980’s was to have Hulk Hogan as their dominant heroic champion overcoming all of the odds against villains, WCW believed there was more money in having their top villain keep a vice grip on the top prize. So while Hogan was the dominant champion of one promotion, Flair was the dominant champion of another. So this match was basically designed to settle the issue over who was the better champion once and who really was the biggest star in wrestling. Hogan won that match, proved that the good guys always won, and it was a happy ending.

I can look back now as an adult and be a bit cynical about all of this. Hogan was definitely the biggest crossover star in wrestling; he made the business grow in unprecedented ways and attracted millions of fans who never would have given the genre a chance. Nobody can take that away from him. But as a dedicated fan of the art of professional wrestling, I know that Flair was the harder worker, the more gifted athlete and the better interview. Hogan may have been the star that pulled people into reading the narrative, but Flair was the guy telling the story.

But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The whole experience of Flair vs. Hogan was thrilling to me and captivated my imagination. It influenced my interests tremendously and I can safely say that I would not have the same obsession with wrestling or comic books if I didn’t get hooked into the drama at such an early age.

So whether you came to this blog for comic books, professional wrestling or movies, just know they all matter to me and the reasons are all intertwined. I can’t celebrate my love for one without the other two.

They all have a place on my shelf.

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