The Shelf Is Half Full

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

Archive for the category “Wrestling”

A Tribute to Dusty Rhodes

“I have wined and dined with kings and queens, and I have slept in alleys and dined on pork and beans.” – Dusty Rhodes.

Dusty

The world of professional wrestling lost one of its true legends today; the man born Virgil Runnels but not all around the world as “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes. Blessed with unlimited charisma and the gift of gab, the son of a plumber sang the working man’s rap and earned a place in the heart of millions of wrestling fans. Battling the likes of Harley Race, “Superstar” Billy Graham and “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Dusty became a three-time NWA World Heavyweight champion and one of the biggest box office draws of the 1970’s and ’80’s. Rhodes also possessed an astute mind for the creative aspect of wrestling, working behind the scenes to help deliver quality programming to the devoted fans of Jim Crockett Promotions, the company that would one day become World Championship Wrestling.

Dusty was, without question, one of the best promo men in the history of the business. His pronounced lisp, high-pitched voice and penchant for jive talking created a unique presentation in his interviews, and he was able to deliver memorable and quality lines that stuck with people. More than that, he was able to connect directly with his audience. He spoke the language of the common man, addressing the problems that concerned them most and told those fans that he was fighting for them, and for that he became beloved and revered.

Rhodes

“Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell them “Go home”. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job for thirty years. THIRTY years! They give him a watch, kick him in the butt, and say ‘Hey, a computer took your place, daddy!’ That’s hard times!”

Dusty’s ability to communicate may be unrivaled; he was funny, he was intense, he was smart, and most of all, his words had power. It never mattered that he was a chubby, out of shape performer who spent more time dancing than he did trading holds; Dusty’s words always carried more weight than his physical appearance. And while he was never the most sound technician, Dusty knew how to entertain, and he knew how to fight. His matches were hard-hitting, often bloody, and always had a molten crowd cheering for him and booing his opponent.

Dusty’s legacy as a performer is unparalleled, but he also deserves recognition for his work in developing young talent. For the last decade or so Dusty’s work has primarily been coaching aspiring WWE superstars in the company’s developmental territory FCW, which eventually evolved into NXT. The impact he has had on their careers and lives is almost impossible to quantify; the superstars of tomorrow were just as vocal about expressing their grief as Dusty’s peers.

The Family

“I don’t look the way the athlete of the day’s supposed to look. My belly’s just a little big, my hiney’s just a little big, but brother I am bad and they know I’m bad!”

Dusty is also the father of professional wrestlers Dustin and Cody Runnels, known as Goldust and Cody Rhodes respectively. Both were blessed with much of their father’s charisma and ability to captivate audiences; Goldust is a legend in his own right and Cody is perhaps a future legend himself. While the wrestling world lost one of it’s brightest stars and many fans lost someone they consider to be a hero, Cody and Dustin lost a father, and my heart goes out to them during this sad time.

Dusty’s in-ring career was a bit before my time, but the impact he has on the industry can still be felt today. Through the magic of video, I have been able to see this man perform and very few wrestlers have been able to give me goosebumps just by grabbing a microphone and talking. Dusty did that every time. He will be deeply and sorely missed.

Advertisements

NXT – Professional Wrestling You Should Be Watching

In its purest form, a professional wrestling show should be an episodic television show where characters are developed, stories are told, and entertaining matches are made to feel important. This ideal is not often reality; anything from a weak roster of talent to a poor creative direction to things such as corporate influence can prevent a show from firing on all cylinders. This has largely been the problem with the most widely seen wrestling program, WWE, for many years.

Fortunately, if NXT is any indication, the future of the WWE is in good hands. Run almost entirely by Paul Levesque (heir to the WWE and better known by his wrestling persona Triple H), NXT is a developmental brand where talent is molded and given opportunities to develop their personas, in-ring skills and how to build a connection with the crowd. Levesque is an old-school fan of wrestling who prefers to give audiences logical, easy to understand and relate to stories that build to intriguing matches that deliver the goods. It is a formula that will always lead to success.

Future

Triple H also tirelessly promotes the brand, and when the WWE launched their streaming service the WWE Network in 2014, the weekly show that was only featured locally was now available for the entire world to see. The production values improved to accommodate the new, larger audience. Popular international stars were hired and prominently featured as a way to attract fans who were familiar with their work outside of WWE. But what stayed consistent was that the storytelling was direct, the characters were given a chance to develop, and talents were used in ways that maximized their effectiveness.

There are very few people that are featured regularly on NXT’s programming that I do not enjoy for one reason. Wrestlers like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Hideo Itami, Adrian Neville, Kalisto and Finn Balor are talents that I have enjoyed for years in smaller companies and it is great to see them get a chance on the big stage. Neville, Zayn, Kalisto and Owens have all made their presence known on WWE Raw in the last couple of months, showing what we all know; they are ready for the big time and as good as anybody on WWE’s roster. Hideo Itami got a guest appearance at Wrestlemania and was made to look good in front of over 70,000 people at the biggest show of the year.

As for Finn Balor? Well, the guy is one high profile entrance away from being the coolest dude in WWE. Because he is already the coolest guy in NXT, possessing a unique charisma, creativity and presence that transcend the need for powerful words.

Balor

Of course, is talking is your thing, there’s plenty of that to go around. Sami Zayn and Adrian Neville used their real life friendship and rivalry to tell a months long story where Zayn was pushed to become ever more desperate in order to find the strength to defeat Neville for the NXT Championship. Neville was the longest running champion in WWE at the time and had grown increasingly comfortable with cheating to keep his prize. It was a story about two good men pushed to their moral limits but ultimately coming out good in the end.

If you prefer shorter, more direct interviews, Kevin Owens is as good on the microphone as he is in the ring. And while they don’t excel in delivering quality matches, the tag team of Enzo Amore and Big Cass are incredibly gifted talkers; I would compare them to the New Age Outlaws, for fans of that tag team.

Oh, and did I mention the women’s division is just as good as the men’s? And featured with just as much respect and care?

The Boss

Charlotte was the centerpiece of the NXT women in 2014, and was a good choice; she is the daughter of wrestling legend “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and possesses plenty of athleticism and charisma, and something few women carry at this point; name value. Being the daughter of Flair matters, and she has lived up to that pressure. But she also has plenty of great women to work with. Bayley is one of the most lovable babyface characters I have ever seen; she likes to have fun and give hugs, but when people underestimate her she has a lot of fight in her. And the current champion Sasha Banks is, without hyperbole, one of my ten favorite wrestlers on the planet right now.

Simply put, in NXT, the women are treated the way they should be. Talent is rewarded regardless of gender.

Neville and Zayn

If you want to see current wrestling that is easy to get into and worth watching every week, I greatly recommend checking out NXT on the WWE Network or Hulu. It is a constant reminder of why I became a wrestling fan in the first place. It is good wrestling, and it is good television.

“We Clash Like Two Titans” – Savage vs. Steamboat

When I choose to introduce my friends to this particular hobby of mine, there is always one match that I start out with: the WrestleMania III classic between “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. It’s no coincidence that my first two “Superstar Spotlights” were on these two men; I wanted to talk about this match sooner rather than later and it helps to have a frame of reference for who each participant is.

There are many reasons I choose this match over others. One is the epic scale of the event at which it takes place; the crowd at WrestleMania III is enormous and I feel helps to legitimize wrestling to new viewers who may not realize just how popular the sports drama really is. Another key reason is that in 1980’s it was still customary for every wrestler (or his manager) to give a brief interview explaining why a match was taking place, and this match is no exception. Randy Savage’s interview is excellent as it puts over his arrogant and intense character, his flying elbow finish, the athleticism of the two wrestlers, his intent to put Steamboat out of the business, and the match’s prize: the Intercontinental Championship.

Savage

Ricky Steamboat will never be considered a great interview, but there is a good deal of passion in his interview, and he explains how long he has been waiting for this match making it seem more important. It’s a good babyface promo and it also establishes his character with the classic line “This Dragon is breathing fire! This Dragon will scorch your back!” It may not be one of my favorite interviews ever like Savage’s is, but it works nicely.

Another key addition to the pre-match proceedings is a short video package highlighting Savage’s brutal attack on Steamboat’s throat with a ring bell, including a great shot of the Dragon holding his throat as he’s carried off on a stretcher. This succinctly explains why the match is happening and establishes that the contest is a grudge match, as personal as it gets. I find that a match with a simple but meaningful story behind it works best to get a new audience engaged.

And of course, as any wrestling fan knows, the match itself is just a magnificent display of athleticism and intensity. Savage and Steamboat are tremendous performers in their own rights, but they had been working on house shows up to this trying new ideas and Savage carefully plotted out the entire match so that himself and Ricky could commit it to memory and get the best crowd reaction possible. While some feel that this extreme level of choreography takes away from the art of a match (including Steamboat who preferred to call matches on the fly), I would argue that Savage had such an uncanny understanding of how crowds react that it doesn’t matter. All that matter is that the crowd is engaged for the whole match.

Enraged

The opening is surprisingly tentative; Savage tries to sneak attack his challenger but Steamboat knows he is coming and keeps his eyes on the Macho Man. The Champion also takes a moment to jump outside the ring to pull his manager Miss Elizabeth away from George “The Animal” Steel, a friend of Steamboat’s and longtime adversary of Savage’s. Steele is a character that’s enamored with Miss Elizabeth and it’s clear that his mere presence has Savage unsettled.

One of the key elements of this match is that Ricky Steamboat, usually a squeaky clean good guy, is enraged at Savage because of the injury he’s returned from. He starts with what he is best at; technical wrestling, and specifically his magnificent armdrag takedowns. Still, there is a level of intensity to these armdrags that isn’t always there and Savage takes them beautifully, making them seem like more than simple takedowns. But there’s an uncharacteristic moment where the Dragon lifts Savage off the ground by his throat before returning his focus to Savage’s arm. He also takes a moment during his assault on Savage’s limb to snap it against the top rope, which for those not in the know is a taut steel cable with some decorative tape and is not fun to come into contact with.

Rage is a double edged sword of course; while Steamboat’s anger allows him to control the opening minutes, it also leads to him making small mistakes that the champion is all too willing to capitalize on. Savage rushes out of the ring and baits Steamboat into following him, then goes back in the ring and attacks the Dragon as he comes back in. He throws the Dragon out of the ring over and over again to try and catch his breath and also goes after Dragon’s throat, but this only fires up Steamboat even more, as he starts hitting the ropes and connecting with shoulder blocks and a crossbody block that very nearly pin the champion. A moment where Savage gets caught in the ropes allows them to cement the idea that Steamboat isn’t his usual sportsmanlike self as he delivers several blows to the tied up champion.

Intensity

Savage smartly uses Steamboat’s momentum against him by sidestepping a charge and hitting a flying knee to the upper spine to get his momentum back. He throws Steamboat out of the ring again and Ricky holds onto the top rope and elevates himself back into the ring in a crowd-pleasing athletic maneuver, but Savage stays on him by throwing his arm across his throat and pushing him out of the ring with a move called a “clothesline”. The Macho Man has given up on trying to catch his breath and follows the Dragon outside of the ring and hits the flying knee a second time, sending his opponent over the ringside barricade and into the crowd. It is only with George Steele’s help that the crowd’s hero is able to make it back into the ring.

Knowing that he has the advantage, Savage is relentless in his attack; he flies off the top rope to deliver devastating double axe-handle strikes and throws him overhead with suplexes in an attempt to pin him down, but can’t make it. He jumps in the air and drives a knee into Steamboat’s throat and snaps it down across the top rope, but the Dragon refuses to quit. He may not be able to get in definitive control, but he can still win. He cradles Savage with several different pinning combinations at a blistering pace, causing referee Dave Hebner to exhaust himself dropping down to count the shoulders over and over again. This leads to a key moment in which Savage throws the Dragon into the referee, too out of sorts to avoid the incoming Steamboat and falling to his back incapacitated. Referees in wrestling are usually pretty fragile. Savage ascends to the top rope and delivers his patented elbow drop, but there Hebner is unable to make the win official.

Perched

This leads to the match’s conclusion. Hoping to take advantage of the knocked out referee, Savage exits the ring and grabs a ring bell, hoping to make good on his promise to put Steamboat out of wrestling. This also serves to remind the audience of why this contest is happening and why it is so intense. Unfortunately, just like the match’s start, George Steele costs the Macho Man his advantage. Though the champion foils the Animal’s attempt to take the bell from him and climbs back up to his favorite perch, Steele recovers and shoves Savage off of the top rope in a nasty fall, getting a measure of revenge in their long lasting feud.

Hebner is recovered and Savage is still in better shape that Steamboat. He picks up off the mat, but takes a moment to place his right hand on his back; the fall has cost him badly. He lifts the Dragon up to attempt a slam but his back is too weak to complete the move and Steamboat uses the momentum to roll Savage to the mat and hook a leg, finally getting the three count. The crowd erupts as Steamboat gets his revenge and wins the Intercontinental Championship.

While Savage lost on this night, both men walked away from the match better. The contest displayed two athletes in the prime of their careers working with such speed and intensity that fans almost had to have a sense of whiplash from viewing the contest. It was a revolutionary style at the time and still remains compelling to this day.Twenty-eight years later, many fans still consider this to be their favorite match.

Superstar Spotlight – “The Macho Man” Randy Savage

Professional wrestling is a larger than life world, and that means that in order to be successful as a professional wrestler, a performer has to bring something special to the table. Very few performers in history brought “something special” as much as the man I am spotlighting today. He was a great athlete with a keen eye for storytelling, and he also had a unique charisma that allowed him to pull off the most insane costumes any wrestler has put on. The gravelly tones of his voice are so iconic that even non-wrestling fans in the 1980’s would probably be able to recognize an imitation. He was born Randy Poffo, but the world would come to know him as…

Macho Man

Randy “Macho Man” Savage

Randy Poffo was the son of professional wrestler Angelo Poffo, but his first career choice was professional baseball. Though he made it as far as the developmental programs for the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox, an injury ended that career before he could make it to the big leagues. Which was a great thing for wrestling fans, because Savage wasted little time dedicating his life to the art of professional wrestling. He changed his in-ring name at the suggestion of Ole Anderson, who told him that he “wrestled like a savage.”

Ole’s assessment of Randy’s style was certainly accurate. Savage’s muscular body, messy hair and wild eyes already made him look like a caveman, but his aggression, intensity, and habit of climbing to the top rope to crash down his opponents with his fists were frightening to behold. And mesmerizing. To this day, I haven’t seen another wrestler that moves the way Randy did or works in a similar fashion. He was wholly unique.

Savage first gained notoriety in a promotion feud between his father’s International Championship Wrestling and Jerry Lawler’s Continental Wrestling Association. Lawler was the biggest star in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had earned the nickname “The King”. Their rivalry would re-energize Lawler’s territory and served as a platform for Savage to transition to the promotion that would make a worldwide star; Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation.

Elizabeth

The First Lady of Wrestling

Already colorful and known for putting on great matches, “The Macho Man” was introduced to the WWF audiences as the hottest free agent in the wrestling business. At the time, wrestling had several non-wrestling characters called “managers”, who functioned as ringside coaches but often worked as mouthpieces for less charismatic talents. Hero managers helped the audience cheer for their guys and heel managers often helped their wrestlers cheat behind the referee’s back. Every manager in the company wanted to sign Savage, but Randy had a different plan; he brought in his real life wife Elizabeth on screen as “Miss Elizabeth”, his new manager. Gorgeous and classy, she added a new layer to Savage’s character that would largely define his career in the WWF.

While fans loved Miss Elizabeth, they were less fond of Randy Savage; his arrogant interviews, vicious wrestling style and willingness to cheat made him one of the premier villains of the 1980’s. While Hulk Hogan’s All-American superhero persona was the top attraction, Randy Savage’s contests with other heroic characters in the promotion offered something different and almost as popular. Savage defeated Mexican-American fan favorite Tito Santana to become the WWF’s Intercontinental Champion, making him officially the #2 guy in the promotion, and he held the title for over a year before losing it in his legendary battle with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat at WrestleMania III.

Most fans weren’t exactly cheering Randy Savage, but they had to recognize his athletic gifts and his charisma; they may have been paying to see him lose, but they were still paying to see him. This respect for his talents made it easy for the crowd to rally behind him when he started targeting The Honkytonk Man, a hugely unpopular Elvis impersonator wrestler who had somehow hornswoggled Ricky Steamboat out of the Intercontinental Championship. Wanting to get his title back, Savage challenged Honkytonk Man and drew the ire of Honkytonk’s manager, “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart, who used his other charges like Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and “The Hart Foundation”. Soon the fans were cheering for Savage, and an unlikely alliance with Hulk Hogan helped cement the Macho Man as a beloved character.

The Megapowers

A Race to the Top of the Mountain

With the fans on his side for the first time, Savage was riding a wave of momentum by the time WrestleMania IV was rolling around in the spring of 1988. After a controversial title change left the WWF’s World Heavyweight Championship vacant, a fourteen man tournament was arranged for the fourth WrestleMania, and Savage was naturally one of the entrants. When Hulk Hogan was eliminated in his match with hated rival Andre the Giant thanks to a double disqualification, Savage was suddenly the performer with the most fan support who had a chance of winning. It was a slim chance though; Savage had to make it through four matches in a single night in order to win, a monumental feat for anyone to accomplish.

Savage was able to get through his first round match against Butch Reed relatively unscathed, but Greg “The Hammer” Valentine proved much tougher’; while Savage was able to pin him to the mat with an inside cradle, it was obvious that he was tired going into the third match. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the massive One Man Gang was granted a bye into the semi-final round thanks to a time-limit draw in the Jake Roberts-Rick Rude first round contest. Well rested and over 400 pounds, Gang was the heavy favorite going in against Savage, but Randy had some luck on his side as Gang foolishly attacked Savage with his manager Slick’s cane in full view of the referee, getting him disqualified.

Savage had gotten to the finals by the narrowest of margins, but his opponent had the upper hand. Finalist Ted DiBiase was an excellent mat wrestler and brilliant strategist, but was also hated by fans because he was filthy rich and loved to brag about it. “The Million Dollar Man” was a bully and was also the reason the tournament was being held in the first place, having paid Andre the Giant to give him the WWF Championship he won from Hulk Hogan after paying off the referee to screw Hogan out of the title. And while his matches with “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and Don Muraco were no cakewalks, DiBiase had dodged a bullet when Andre and Hogan’s match got them both eliminated and gave him a bye into the final round.

Wrestlemania 4

Championship Glory

It was a perfect climax to a long tournament; the villain had every advantage and looked to be able to win the championship he had robbed from Hulk Hogan. In his way was a beloved but worn down man who was going to have to rely on every ounce of physical and mental toughness to survive. The Macho Man valiantly battled against the odds, but just when it seemed like he might gain the upper hand in the contest, DiBiase’s charge Andre the Giant was able to intimidate him and open the door for DiBiase to get a sneak attack on Savage. With her man in dire straits, Elizabeth rushed to the backstage area and came back out with Hulk Hogan, who came down to make sure that Andre would not interfere any further.

Ironically, Hogan would be the one interfering in the match, saving Savage from DiBiase’s “Million Dollar Dream” sleeper hold variation by cracking Ted’s spine with a metal folding chair. The Macho Man capitalized on this blow and soared off of the top rope to deliver his patented flying elbow drop and pinned DiBiase to become the new champion. It wasn’t exactly the noblest of wins, but DiBiase had more than earned his comeuppance. The important thing was that Savage had overcome all odds and was rewarded with the top prize in the company.

Randy Savage would be one of the most successful box-office draws the WWF would ever had, more than proving his worth as the WWF Champion. His exciting matches and unmatched charisma led him to many more accolades for over a decade after this career defining night. I don'[t want to get into every detail because Savage’s story is distinguished and unique and I will be writing more about them in the future. But for now, what’s most important is to know that Randy Savage is one of the most recognizable, talented and brilliant performer in wrestling history. He didn’t just bring something special; he was something special.

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.

Steamboat

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.

Champion

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.

Monsters and Masterminds – Pro Wrestling’s Supervillains

A few days ago I wrote a blog comparing superhero archetypes to the heroic characters in professional wrestling. It’s only natural that I would do a companion piece for the villains. Pro wrestling bad guys are usually referred to as “heels” by those in the business and those who follow it, so don’t be surprised if I start throwing that term around liberally. I got my start as a writer by working for a wrestling news website, so a lot of the terminology is ingrained in me. Bad guys are heels and good guys are babyfaces. It’s just what I know.

As in any other form of media, a professional wrestling hero is only as good as the villain they are paired against. And just like most other forms of media, the bad guys have their fans as well. Somebody who appreciates the art of storytelling is likely to recognize a well done villain and enjoy seeing them. And because professional wrestling is a performance art, sometimes the heel is a better performer than the babyface and gets cheered by fans who value talent above the story going on.

If that seems like an odd phenomenon, consider the popularity of Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight or the fact that the character of Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds helped make Christoph Waltz a star. If a villain is more interesting and the actor playing the character is more talented, can we really be blamed for cheering them over the heroes? I think not. That is the nature of art appreciation.

Grundy

The Monster: The Destroyer of Everything

The concept of an unstoppable beast of destruction is ancient, as old as any plot device in the history of storytelling. Noble knights slay dragons, David battles the giant Goliath, Perseus survives the deadly Medusa, modern man faces the soulless threats of artificial intelligence and extraterrestrials. These monsters are usually not considered to be intelligent, and if they are than they lack any morals and present a danger to everyone around them. While easily the least complex of villains, monsters play a vital role in storytelling because of the threat they present. When Doomsday killed Superman, something nobody thought they would ever see, it was national news. That’s what a good monster can do. And when somebody manages to bring down a monster, it feels like an accomplishment. It takes a lot of effort to make Batman defeating The Riddler feel like a difficult feat, but put him up against Killer Croc or Clayface and there’s immediate tension.

Professional wrestling is a genre that thrives on the monster trope. In a world where massive size and brute strength alone can make somebody an attraction, it isn’t a surprise that many of wrestling’s most successful villains have been dominating giants. Probably the most famous match in wrestling history put the heroic Hulk Hogan in the seemingly impossible position of trying to defeat the villainous Andre the Giant. The early 1990’s saw two very successful monsters; the 600 pound Yokozuna (Samoan wrestler Rodney Anoa’i) was the WWF Champion for most of a year between WrestleMania IX and WrestleMania X. In WCW there was The Man They Call Vader, a man who was not as large as Yokozuna but compensated with startling agility and absolutely vicious punches that looked real because they are often were. Vader’s battles with Sting are of particular importance to me because they got my older brother hooked on wrestling, which led to me getting the bug as well.

Brock Lesnar

While wrestling as a whole has seen a trend towards smaller, more athletic wrestlers, that doesn’t mean the monster trope is anywhere near dead. Instead the monsters have evolved. Pictured above is Brock Lesnar, an absolute freak of nature who seems truly superhuman. He has the legitimate credentials of being a two-time NCAA heavyweight champion in amateur wrestling as well as a run as the UFC Heavyweight Champion. While he is imposing at 6’3″ and around 300 pounds, what makes Brock truly scary is the mix of strength, speed and stamina that make him a virtually perfect athlete. With all of these assets and his legitimate credentials, he’s arguably the most effective monster heel in the history of wrestling. His matches are a spectacle because every person he is pitted against is an underdog in the fight of their life.

Doom

The Mastermind: The Smarter, Unscrupulous Puppet Master

Not everyone is a physical giant. Indeed, those freaks of nature are actually pretty rare. So most villains are defined instead by the greatness of their ambition, their intelligence, and their ego. When these traits mix with unlimited resources and a lack of scruples, we are presented with perhaps the most dominant villain archetype of the last century, and certainly in comic books; the Mastermind. This is the person who is smarter than everybody else and believes this puts them above the rest of humanity; rules are for the simple minded and power is there to be obtained by those brave enough to seek it. Mad scientists, corrupt politicians, criminal millionaires, evil dictators – we all know this villain when we see it. The likes of Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom and The Red Skull have all had lengthy careers with this trope.

And wrestling has its fair share of evil masterminds as well. In fact, perhaps the most effective way to show wrestling fans you are a bad guy is by using your intelligence to target an injury or avoid some crowd pleasing but high risk attack from the babyface. Tapping the head to indicate one’s intelligence is a surefire way to get the crowd booing you. “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair was arguably the greatest bad guy in the history of pro wrestling, and he prided himself on being smarter than everyone, breaking any rule to win matches and by using his influence to have a gang of thugs called The Four Horsemen do his dirty work. The most prolific villain of the late 1990’s was Vince McMahon, the real life owner of the World Wrestling Federation. Using his position of power to play on the common man’s hatred of the evil boss, Vince used his influence and his creativity to sabotage the promotions most popular heroes.

Edge

One of the defining aspects of the wrestling mastermind in recent years has been taking advantage of injuries. Adam Copeland, pictured above, portrayed a character named Edge who was hated by most of the audience but used his intelligence to become one of the most decorated stars of all time. He revolutionized the business when he won a “Money in the Bank” Contract that allowed him to challenge the World Champion at any time of his choosing. Instead of using this opportunity in an honorable way, he waited until the champion John Cena had successfully defended his title in a grueling match against five other men in an Elimination Chamber (a massive cage with metal chains) to cash it in when he was at his weakest. Now it was not just the strongest and the toughest that could become top dog, but the smartest and most devious.

One of the reasons I choose to promote wrestling on this blog is to expose people to great characters that they may not have otherwise known. Wrestling is an episodic television show with characters that constantly evolve and add new layers forming personas that become downright iconic along the way. Even if one never acquires a taste for the specialized art that goes into creating a great wrestling match, it is possible to find a character in wrestling that resonates with you. If you enjoy heroes and villains, and if you read a blog about comic book characters, you probably are, I am willing to bet that you can find something to like in the world of professional wrestling.

Juggernauts and Underdogs – Pro Wrestling’s Superheroes

My last article that focused on professional wrestling explained the similarities between that genre and comic books. My primary reason for doing so is that comic book superheroes have become a mainstream, “acceptable” form of entertainment in the last fifteen years. Costumed superheroes are more popular than ever and most people are familiar with the basic tropes and character archetypes they will be seeing when they pick up a comic book or go to the theater to see a superhero movie. This means that I can use the language of comic books to explain the language of professional wrestling for someone who has never watched a professional wrestling match.

I discussed how wrestling is based on the idea of heroes going up against villains. It’s not just a war of punches and throws and stretch holds; it’s a bigger story about conflicting values and ethics. Today I want to take a look at the various kinds of wrestling heroes and how they compare to some common comic book tropes.

Thor

The Juggernaut: The Unstoppable Champion of Good

Okay, so in comics the term “Juggernaut” is generally associated with the X-Men character Cain Marko, who is usually a villain. But I like to use the term as shorthand for heroic characters blessed with great strength and resiliency, a champion of good who is able to stop the forces of evil that are too strong for normal men to defeat. I’m talking mythical heroes like Hercules and Achilles and Gilgamesh, and of course the Norse god Thor and his comic book interpretation. Other comic book heroes that fit into this archetype include Superman, Shazam and Colossus from the X-Men.

This has been a very common trope in wrestling, particularly in the WWE. Back in the days when the promotion was called the World Wide Wrestling Federation in the 1960’s and ’70’s their most popular star was Italian strongman Bruno Sammartino, who held the promotions World Championship for the better part of twelve years and was rarely ever defeated. When the promotion began it’s national expansion it was with Hulk Hogan as the face of the company, who was probably the closest thing to a real life superhero we’ve ever seen. The idea of this type of character is to show that the forces of good are stronger than the forces of evil and to provide an idealized hero that children and adults can aspire to be more like.

Sting

The formula even proved successful in World Championship Wrestling, who were able to create top stars like Lex Luger and Sting in an effort to appeal to that segment of the audience. And for the last ten years the WWE has stuck to their guns by promoting John Cena as the kid-friendly invincible superhero that always triumphs over the bad guys. The usage of this trope is probably the strongest connecting link between comic books and professional wrestling. It’s also an important aspect of the genre because seeing these wrestlers absorb more punishment than seems possible only to overcome and wow the audience with incredible feats of strength is a way to quickly understand the fictional nature of wrestling. When someone is able to recognize the themes of classic fiction they are able to appreciate wrestling for what it is.

Of course, these supermen aren’t always the most compelling characters for many fans. While Superman and Hulk Hogan have inspired many with their squeaky clean boyscout personas, they fall flat for others who wish for characters to be flawed and vulnerable. And much like how comic books wouldn’t be successful if they only used one type of story, wrestling has another major archetypal hero that I want to discuss.

Daredevil

The Underdog: The Hero Who Never Quits

Fans of Marvel’s Daredevil have quickly learned that not every Marvel comic book character is gifted with immense strength and the ability to shrug off bodily harm. One of the main reasons the show stands out is that Matt Murdock takes numerous severe beatings, feels pain and loses a fight or two. But he never quits. He licks his wounds and gets back up again, now a little smarter and a little tougher. This vulnerability helps to create an emotional bond between the character and the viewer by channeling our empathy. We identify with his suffering and wish to see him overcome and persevere.

There are many who would argue that this is the only way to make a compelling hero, and while I don’t fully agree with that, it is certainly the easiest way to make a character sympathetic. It also helps to emphasize a character’s other strengths beyond simple physical strength; intelligence, resourcefulness and the ability to overcome adversity. It’s easy to see examples of this in other media: Homer’s Odysseus, the Arabian legend Aladdin, super sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and even modern literature heroes like Harry Potter. These are people who aren’t blessed with any extraordinary physical gifts but their conviction and ability to endure suffering makes them heroes. Comic book examples include Daredevil, Captain America and Batman among others.

In professional wrestling, the vast majority of “babyfaces” (the good guys) who are not the top face of a promotion fit into this trope. The 1980’s had heroes like Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat who had his throat crushed when “Macho Man” Randy Savage attacked him with a steel ring bell, but came back from injury to get his vengeance. Villains would work crowds when they wrestled popular team The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, ruthlessly beating Ricky Morton for minutes at a time before Morton was able to tag his partner Robert Gibson into the match. The 1990’s saw smaller underdog heroes like Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels assume the role that Hulk Hogan had dominated for over a decade.

Bryan

Today’s wrestling scene is perhaps the golden age for the underdog hero. After roughly thirty years of seeing the top stars be unstoppable juggernauts, many fans prefer to see smaller wrestlers as WWE Champion. The most universally cheered wrestler is Daniel Bryan, pictured above. Shorter than six feet and weighing less than two hundred pounds, Bryan is a small man in a business where giants have had the most success. But because of Bryan’s athleticism, intelligence, intensity and refusal to stay down, he is a larger than life star embraced by the audience. We empathize with him; our hearts sink when he fails and we leap for joy at his successes.

And this is why professional wrestling should not be looked down upon or considered less than other forms of entertainment. The heroes in wrestling have the same ability to connect with an audience and make them relate to what they are going through and cheer for them. Professional wrestling is not a sport; it is art.

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.

Post Navigation