Saturday, 23 June 2012

Retreading the path to Glory

My approach to this blog has usually been video and commentary, show and tell if you will. This week I offer an aberration and a State of the Union, inspired somewhat by Grantland’s excellent The Masked Man. As he concerns himself with story telling, I’m all bout the style.

I am not just a wrestling fan; I’m a music fan to. Back in the mid nineties I had a favourite band, The Ataris. Being a punk I loved their attitude, their “for the cause” realism matched up with explosive pop punk. They had shows that where joyous parties of exclamation. They rocked in short. Then they signed to a major. Their attitude changed somewhat. It was slow, but I saw every faltering step. By their second album on the major they had essentially split up. I felt for them, all they wanted was a bigger audience after all, but I knew that would be the way things played out. I had a slight sense of disappointment when they joined up to the major. It wasn’t that I thought they’d sold out; it was that I thought they wouldn’t be treated right. I have seen to many bands fall by the wayside or seem out of their depth, a story in Kerrang confirmed it to me; gone was the relaxed attitude, the turning up late for interviews and goofing off, on was the serious face of being a professional rock musician. I feel the same way about wrestlers that go to Vince after being darlings of the indie circuit. Certainly it felt that way people came up from ECW around the same time as my beloved Atari’s signed with Columbia. Essentially though it was the same thing, some drowned, some made it. A lot of that was to do with Vince Macmahon and talent relations. However for every Mick Foley that got down to work to reinvent themselves, there was a Dean Douglas who got lost in the shuffle. Whose fault is it? The front office? The wrestler? The fans for not caring enough? As Paul Heyman recently let loose on his twitter feed, wrestlers need to take every opportunity afforded to them. Looking back at the great careers of the past, indeed of the people who made me fans. I look at every open door the purposefully strode across. Would Dynamite have had as many great matches in his career had he not got on the plane to Canada? What would have happened if Ric Flair had staid in Minnesota? If Hulk Hogan hadn’t had been pushed into taking the job with WWF by Verne Gagne? This is where as a wrestling fan thing gets tricky, you can hate Vince for what he did to the territories, but he only really put out of the business the men who didn’t happen to be hungry enough, or the places in which his product did not relate to its audience. This is especially true of Japan, the style doesn’t work and they are all hungrier than he is. All these opportunities, some times they come, and some times they go. Two guys who have had opportunities most recently at the highest level are Colt Cabana and CM Punk. The NWA and WWE Champions and two best friends who this week presented the Art of Wrestling podcast and essentially explained not only the differences between being today’s NWA champion and WWE champions, but as representatives of their respective styles of wrestling. Back in the eighties when the territories crumbled, it took with it individual booking styles. They way things could be presented varied all over the world. When WWE became top dog essentially that was all we had left for mainstream consumption. The WWE became the biggest thing in the world and that too many people is wrestling. Not to me though, I would fantasise about matches between Wayne Bridges and Hulk Hogan (Joint and WWE world Champs) as I tried to figure out in my little kayfabe heart where everything lay. Out of the ashes of the territories though grew and underground. Just like in music, more specifically Punk. The underground is currently represented by Cabana as NWA champion, king of the Indies, most popular worker in the North America outside of the WWE bubble, probably in the UK to aside from the darlings of TNA. CM Punk is probably the most popular wrestler in the world aside from John Cena. They both learned how to wrestle at the same time; they both went to the same school and gyms and still do. They are both self made men. What they have done for the wrestling industry is bring the mainstream a little closer to the underground (Punk) and given the underground a model from which to work (Cabana). So what I hear you cry has this got do with British wrestling? The links in the chain go through Punk, Cabana and indeed Chris Hero, Daniel Bryan, Claudio Castignoli, Sara Del Ray, Mike Qaukenbush, Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries and many more. This generation of stars took influence from what came before, but never have so many given credit to the people who it was due to. They name check their heroes and heroines constantly and encourage their research in the finer arts of pro wrestling. They look back at the glory days of British Wrestling and bring it full circle; they find people like Robbie Brookside, Les Thatcher and Steve Regal and encourage them to train themselves and others. Their hard work and dedication to British pro wrestling is paramount into revitalising what was once thought of as a dead style. When the FWA was a fledgling promotion I remember Power Slam magazine reviewing one of their cards, exclaiming that the match between Johnny Saint and Steve Grey was an anachronism to that spoiled the card of excellent wrestling in the ECW style. Putting that match on then it turns out was around fifteen years to early. LDN wrestling recently put on a match with Johnny Kidd and Johnny Saint that tore the house down as people now had something to appreciate in the sense of history. They didn’t learn it from Saturday afternoon ITV broadcasts. they learnt it from youtube, they learnt it from watching and listening to Steve Regal, they learnt it and watched it from Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, Colt Cabana and Chris Hero. These men who loved our wrestling more than we did; enough to embrace it, reinvent it, cross breed it, develop it and produce something new.

When Punk went full on mainstream last summer, and more so when Daniel Bryan did, that evolution was complete. Looking around the wrestling world we have a mat technician in Austin Aries in the main event of the next TNA PPV, Bryan and Punk at the very top of the card in the WWE, Cabana as NWA Champ. Castignoli and Hero ready to be reborn to that new audience. Of course I still feel protective of some talents, just like my small and perfectly formed punk bands. Would Sara Del Ray make it in the WWE? I think so, would she want to be a WWE Superstar is another question. The woman who helped reinvent Joshi for a new North American audience is unlikely to want to be considered a Diva, but then again Punk only ever wanted to be a wrestler and he managed to make that change in the WWE happen. Back home we have the strongest scene we have had for a very long time; I just hope it remembers its roots as well as our friends cross the pond do.                     

Monday, 11 June 2012

Oh when the Saint . . .

So it’s been a while; this partly due to my commitments at Bomcast, and partly due to my diligence in watching lots of lovely DVD’s from the fine people at Rudo Reels and Smart Mark Video. These things of course feed into one another. So when I left you all hanging I was going to break down how All Star became dominant and left Joint in its wake. My watching of Smart Mark DVD’s has led me into re-watching a lot of Johnny Saint. His performance at Chikara’s Chikarasaurus Rex last year (at the age of 71 I may add) was incredible. This was partly down to a red hot crowd in Reading, Pennsylvania who adored his match with Johnny Kidd, but also the incredibly knowledgeable and respectful fans of South Philly. They always loved their wrestling. They just liked their blood and guts as well. And so it was that in a place where Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho and Rey Misterio broke the US market wide open for pure wrestlers Johnny Saint and Johnny Kidd reinvigorated their somewhat dormant careers, with the help of Mike Quakenbush and Colt Cobana . So where does this fit in with how All Star broke the Saturday afternoon mould? Take a look at this.

This is late eighties and classic All Star presentation; a catch weight contest between two of the top drawing cards in the country. Something Joint would never have done. Brian Dixon ensured that the TV was there to support the live gate not replace it. He built feuds in the arenas from feuds he had going for him on TV. The episodic cliff hanger format that was pioneered by Bill Watts presented with an original twist. The pre-match interview favoured Dave Finlay, always ahead of his time. The subtle and down played reply by Johnny Saint belies an incredible voice that if you listen to his Art of Wrestling Podcast is both insightful, funny and warm. What really paid of though is what happens between the ropes. The short format three minute rounds, championship style, kind of cuts into the flow, but the bell goes and we have the classic roles of heel and face played out. Dave’s stall and taunt tactics give a nice pace to the match, his minimalist style goes against the grain of Johnny’s all action outings. The Sandman (a technical wizard if ever there was one) once recounted how Dave, then working as a road agent for WWE, didn’t like a match because someone had taken to many bumps. He then proceeded to have a one bump match to prove his point. Everything makes sense.

And of course with Dave being full on heel, Johnny can relax and go on being viciously effective full on face, something the Philly fans did not see. Note the torque on the whip at 1:26. Of course Dave has not really evolved his style much in the ring over the years. He has just got more vicious. His chilling promo for his Ring of Honor match with Roderick Strong at Border Wars attests to which basically boiled down to “Finlay’s coming” attests to that. Paula of course always attracted white hot heat from the crowd, but its Dave who seals the deal in the ring; the bemused heel chasing ghosts and of course when you get frustrated resort to punches. Punching was so looked down up on and was almost an instant DQ in the British ring because rules still mattered. Throwing a punch was enough to get major heat and Dave’s perfect hidden deliveries. So the story goes on; the heel gets mad so the face gets even madder. This is Johnny’s downfall as he slips into the Celtic Cross.

Round four brings us back to action Johnny sells the Celtic Cross very believably, as with much of everything he did; his usual matches against smaller opponents where usually affairs of escape and defence, he had plenty of chances to seal the submissions and pin falls so when he really got hit with something big he looked perfect. Moderation is the key after all. The escape and release style resurfaces as Johnny hits his second wind. Simplicity is the key as Johnny takes down Dave Finlay with a School boy. As Kent Walton rightly says “all done with speed”, in fact the only thing missing from Chikarasaurous Rex was Kent Walton’s commentary; however he was mentioned in passing. I would have dearly loved to have heard him commentate on the singles match. The other issue of this time was camera presentation. The low camera shot from the side of the ring was something new, but it also helped impact of each moved to be presented in a much more hard hitting way. What is also amazing is that the one big bump of the match happens so late. These two men had the crowd oohing and ahhing without leaving their feet that often. This says a lot for their ability. Doing the most with minimal effort, this had an impact on their careers in that both are wrestling to a very high level twenty five years later. There is a somewhat anti climatic ending to the bout which manages to achieve a lot and could only happen in a British ring. Dave keeps his heat as a heel and his dominance as a larger man; Johnny retains his heat as a face by losing in less than perfect circumstances. Everyone’s a winner. Certainly All Star fans where. Joint fan’s not so much. They had to deal with this.

Which would you rather watch? I shall at this point give a shameless plug to those folks at Rudo Reels, not for any other reason other than they are supportive of wrestling, offer great value and give incredible service. I strongly recommend their download service which can build your collection cheaply and effectively. A word of warning though it’s addictive. I’d start with their excellent Luche Libre sampler which has some mid nineties classics and shows the growth of AAA, EMLL and the careers of Rey Misterio, Psycosis and La Parka and is free. Have a good week, till next week.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The times they are a changing

So last time out we had a rather wordy account of what happened in the UK scene throughout the decades. This column looks at one specific sea change in direction. As mentioned last time the British scene went into upheaval in 1986. The TV contract that had been the bread and butter for Joint Promotions suddenly was up for grabs and ended up falling three ways. Joint received a share, but also the WWF and the upstart All Star promotions. The WWF was putting out a show specifically aimed at a British audience, but the difference was staggering. Mean Gene himself giving us matches from Madison Square Garden featuring Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and of course the British Bulldogs. All Star Promotions couldn’t surely be that different from Joint right? Well in comparison to the WWF, it wouldn’t be that different, but as for booking and content, that was like night and day. Take this example. Mark “Rollerball” Rocco versus Fuji Yamada (Jushin “Thunder” Liger), for the Heavy Middleweight Champion ship and belt, the commentator as always; Kent Walton.


All Star where branching out from their north western roots and where deep in Joint territory here in Lewisham. The title had been dropped to Yamada some time earlier, truly a case of opportunism as Yamada was on one of his short seasoning trips from New Japan. Even before the bell we have typical Rocco fair of intimidating his opponent before the match starts, so far so normal. The match kicks off at a hell of a pace, with a hot crowd it would be churlish not to, but the thing is that pace doesn’t let up. Knowing what we know now as to how these two careers panned out, it feels like a big fight and looks like a big fight. This is a battle for supremacy in Junior Heavyweight wrestling. The old guard versus the up and comer, a story as old as wrestling itself, however the pacing and psychology of this match doesn’t really come from British wrestling. It’s like someone put Budakon Hall in Lewisham for one night. Remembering back in time to when I watched this as young fan was the build up Mark Rocco received in the run up to this TV debut for All Star. Having been in Max Crabtree’s bad books once to often for being over aggressive on TV he upped and left with the world title, it proved a shrewd move. Brian Dixon’s economic and freewheeling booking style gave him the leeway he wanted artistically to have the matches he wanted. Unsurprisingly it was a hit at the box office to. His more realistic approach looked light years ahead of Joint and it showed in matches like this. The other helpful issue is that the referee is somewhat lenient in applying the rules which for British wrestling is an advantage as they are so restrictive. Whilst Rocco was away he had also improved immeasurably as a wrestler, his move set, already all action, had benefited by development from years spent in New Japan watching and wrestling the greatest era of Junior Heavyweights ever. People including myself rave about Tiger Mask and Dynamite, but really looking elsewhere in the division, Tatsumi Fujinami, Bret Hart, Davey Boy Smith, The Cobra; it was an all time world class field and all in the same place at the same time. They wrestled each other a lot. Here he borrows a move from Bret Hart; the hammer lock drop sending your opponent out of the ring. It is also not only a one man show, as we now know 28 years later Fuji is still the main draw of the NJPW Junior Heavy division and still looks exactly like this, except under a black suit and I would say quite rightly considered to be the greatest pure Junior Heavyweight wrestler of all time.

As they both hit hold and counter holds, this style is certainly something different to what we had been used to. A kind of mix of British Wrestling and Japanese Strong style that transcended boundaries as far as race where concerned. As mentioned in a previous episode Dave Finlay would often be singled out as heel by just being Irish, in his Steve Wright’s only World title match on British soil he got over purely by pretending to be a German heel. Xenophobia was never that far away in British rings, but for some reason Japanese boys from the time of Saturo Sayama, everyone got over fine, especially if they where young boys like Fuji here. What was even more interesting is what Mark Rocco comes out with verbally. Mark hits a abdominal stretch at the 9:10 mark in this clip and starts calling out Antonio Inoki whilst chastising Kent Walton for not knowing the correct name of the move. He does this later in the bout while applying a Scorpion Deathlock and calling out Chosu Ricki. This mild insider message was no doubt lost on anyone in the hall who would have no idea who either of these people where lost in our insular British wrestling worlds. We had only just found out about Hulk Hogan how where we supposed out know about Inoki and Ricki?

For his part Fuji opens round four with a handspring elbow snap brain buster and an elbow off the top rope. Kent as always oblivious to any move invented after 1956 does not call it correctly getting confused with the Power Lock of Andy Robbins and Marty Jones, which both start the same way but end up more like a figure four. Though it is somewhat sloppily applied it is better than the Rocks. What hadn’t changed was Rocco’s ability to bait a crowd. His highly effective pantomime of grabbing the title was a heat getter in Lewisham, but they where on the edge of the seats already, did they know they where watching two of the greatest ever? Probably not, context is everything and nothing. Rocco’s rather vicious looking neck breaker also makes a debut in this match, again unnamed by Walton who by this point was somewhat losing the plot when it came to the state of the art matches. He certainly didn’t know what to call the German Suplex that gets the first fall. What is more remarkable is that it is won Japanese style in pin fall; go till you knock the guy out. As we move on into round six the classic Rocco gambit of uncovering the ring post comes into play. In all the years I saw him do this I think Rocco came out on top about 50% of the time.

Subtle things make this match different as well, Rocco’s insistence of hooking the leg during a pin fall goes against the British tradition of pinning the shoulders only and hoping after a knock out move. So we are all tied up at round seven and things are going to have to heat up, even if they have not already. This match has so far been a logical progression of speed and intensity that only two great performers can give, so why was it on free TV? World title matches on TV up until this point had been few and far between. Understandably Joint felt they where giving away the golden goose. But Brian Dixon’s point was get them into the halls, show the best stuff we can and deliver it again live then we can all make money. Once again calling his own moves, an innovative approach, Rocco gets on top with a grovit, another Lancastrian classic. A pescado from Fuji brings him back on top; this match was bringing out all the moves and really created something special as a title match should be. Finishing up with the pile driver Rocco takes the title back. So what do we have here? We have an independent promotion taking established veterans and using them to get over younger talent developing, an ultra stiff style and an episodic TV presentation. Remind you of anyone? Well the influence clearly came from Bill Watt’s Mid South promotion, and was the basis for ECW some years later. I even remember Taz cutting promos on Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan during title matches. Though routed in the British style and environment, it had elements and aspirations in different places. Still do not believe me? Next time we shall look at another match from the Brian Dixon’s boys. Have a good time till next time.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

A brief bit of history

British wrestling history is a tale of three halves. Pre World War II, Post World War II and Post network TV. As the entertainment we know and love today the Pre WWII wrestling establishment bore little relation to what would come to pass after it. The matches could be wild to say the least and came from the folk styles of wrestling that occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What occurred after the war set up the way things went for quite some time.

After World War II Britain had become a social melting pot, an NHS, better education, more jobs; the world was still in austerity but things where getting better. Working class folk had more money to spend on entertainments. They now had many more places to entertain themselves to; specifically what was to become the Club Circuit. With national service still in full swing Services Men’s clubs cropped up all over the UK. With unions not only strong but still based in industry, working men’s clubs also popped up on estates in small towns. Club Land as it was to become known was the place to play in entertainment, just as Music Hall had been before that. The key link between those two eras of British entertainment was variety. A club could not put on a comedian seven nights a week, so new ways of entertaining people had to be found. Boxing and other sports that could be put on in a confined space became popular. Another beneficiary was wrestling.

The newly minted Mountevans committee determined a set of rules that got away from the pre war free for all and helped promote a lively but wholesome sport for the whole family to enjoy or promoters to exploit, depending on how you looked at it. One of the quick developments was the linking of promoters nationwide. Having seen how the NWA had managed to sooth tensions in the USA to the point where everyone made money. British promoters pulled the same trick and called it Joint Promotions. In reality much like in the US it was a closed shop. No one could run in anyone else’s territory. As TV contracts became more lucrative this was an important issue but back in the late forties and early fifties it left two lasting marks. One; The town halls and exhibition centres of the UK would run the big companies from Joint Promotions such as Dale Martin in London or Best promotions in Liverpool. Two; there had to be other places to wrestle specifically in the North. Wrestling in the North, thanks to the pre war era, was a shooters heartland. So as clubs began to run weekly wrestling shows (a different night in each club) it provided an independent circuit for smaller promoters and wrestlers to earn a living. As Johnny Saint recently pointed out in his Art of Wrestling Podcast with Colt Cabana; he could work shows all around Manchester all week long and earn more than he could in his day job. As he worked his way through the club scene he got noticed by Joint Promotions and went to wrestle for them and then on and up to be one of their champions. Colt likened it to being an indie star now that goes on to being picked up by the WWE. These rival promotions would sometimes get a “little to big for their boots” and take on the major promotions, as Paul Lincoln did to Dale Martin promotions in the 1950s, but overall everyone kept the peace because everyone was making money.

Of course with a closed shop that meant wrestlers got what they got and not a lot more and that was pretty much that. Once you got to a good spot on the card you where earning a lot more than you would be working the Club’s and a lot more than working a day job, and doing something you loved for twenty minutes a night wasn’t really work. The independents though had their moments. The British Wrestling Federation was a promotion running out of the North West of the country and featured the British Heavyweight Champion Bert Assirati, who for want of a better word, had blackballed himself out of Joint Promotions for being his own man. As Joe Cornelius explained in his book “Thumbs up Boy” he would get called to go wrestle somewhere in the world at short notice and would find Bert waiting for him in the dressing room when he got there. The reason; Bert had probably hurt someone in his attempt to get over and no one would wrestle him so they would call Joe. By the late fifties however Bert was taking fewer and fewer matches and the Crabtree’s (for it was them who owned the BWF) started to promote Shirley Crabtree (a much more trustworthy champion, who also happened to be one of the brothers), Shirley retired not long after being given the belt, partly to do with the money, being an outsider, and partly because the belt had been given to him while Assirati had been out of town and Bert wanted a say in getting it back, the hard way if necessary. Bert was not afraid of an open challenge or two, once turning up at the Royal Albert Hall to challenge Lou Thesz. As Joint where a loose NWA affiliate, that never occurred. Knowing what we know now about Lou and what we know about Bert it would have been somewhat of a boring shoot match, but it would have made money.

That is really what did for Joint Promotions in the end, a lack of vision. As the seventies arrived the Joint banner was flying high, as they continued the flags began to dip. They had the TV money which was secure, but as the promoters and bookers all reached retirement age, there was only one man left to turn to. Max Crabtree who became the chief booker for Joint Promotions. While Crabtree once again turned to his brother to become Big Daddy, somebody else was looking at making things work in a different way.

Brian Dixon began his wrestling career by running the Jim Breaks fan club, he moved on to promotion as an independent in the late seventies. When he got there he set about changing the wrestling industry in the UK. His first major signing from Joint was John Quinn who had recently headlined a Wembley against Big Daddy. He then signed World Heavyweight Champion Wayne Bridges, and so it went on. Every year Dixon would sign a major star. But it is what he did with them that counted. His shows worked on an episodic format like Southern wrestling. No weekly TV shows though, just a weekly live show in the same venue. The result was live money cash which pulled them in every week. There where also benefits to having the stars. Marc Rocco liked wrestling the Dynamite Kid, so when Tommy came home he did not have to go far to find a match to fill a spare night. Marc also had friends in the front offices of NJPW so when they needed to season a kid they had found, Fuji Yamada or Jushin “Thunder” Liger, ended up in All Star promotions and produced similar box office and response as Akira Maeda and Satoru Sayama had done for Joint years before. When All Star got a share of the TV contract  in late 1986 they used it to their advantage booking storylines just as they had done on there weekly live events. Joint looked 30 years older in comparison. When TV was pulled in 1988 Joint went into terminal decline eking out a living for the few loyal performers left. Everyone else of note went to All Star and took their titles with them. The major money feuds that ended the TV run of All Star, Wayne Bridges and Marc Rocco versus Kendo Nagasaki and whomever they could find to get beat up, made money for All Star long after TV coverage finished. Of course free from the constraints of Joint, Marty Jones could go one last time with Marc Rocco and Dave Finlay, the money was till there for a while before decline truly set in the wake of the WWF take over.

Looking at the business now, as it all bad for British wrestlers? In the WWE there are two major British talents Wade Barret and Mason Ryan. Steve Regal is important to the WWE as a talent trainer, commentator and occasional in ring competitor and is still working 24 years after his TV debut. TNA has Doug Williams, Magnus and Rob Terry along with a very strong UK fan base. Dragon Gate has PAC. Ring of Honor has used many British talents in the past, most notably former champion Nigel McGuiness, still commentating for them now. Dave Finlay to after a successful career in WCW, WWE and now back on the indie circuit to scratch his itchy feet is working shows for Ring of Honor. Back home there are over twenty regular promotions doing strong enough business to survive and even thrive. Let us not forget to one person who links all of these eras together. Former World’s Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan, not only trained by Steven Regal and Robby Brookside, but also a very proud alumnus of All Star Promotions.                  
I would like to acknowledge this article in the writing of this piece;

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Six of the Best; Top of the Mountain

So what is the greatest moment in British Pro Wrestling history? Most people would find it hard to argue with this particular moment; Bret Hart and Davey Boy Smith for the WWF Intercontinental Title. For Davey it was the culmination of a long cmid card career, finally cracking the main event window. For Vince McMahon it cemented his control of the British market something he had being trying to crack since 1988. For Bret it was his Intercontinental swan song before moving up to the main event full time. For British wrestling one of its own had a major card Main event for a major foreign company at Heavyweight. Something that only Billy Robinson had done before in All Japan.

Summerslam Bret Hart vs British Bulldog (RIP) by BHH

 Looking at this match for the first time in 20 years I am reminded how great the WWF(E) can make a title match, and to make it matter. I am also reminded of Bret’s cooler than cool pre match ritual. 80,000 on hand, as they say for this match; easily the biggest drawing card in the UK ever and the scope of the whole project was a risk for Vince. He had taken bigger risks before and as Jim Ross has stated this card is unlikely to ever happen again. The intensity of this match also shows in the way Bret and Davey work each other. The other striking issue is that of the three people in the ring two are no longer with us. Referee Joey Morella passed in a car accident and Davey Boy has also passed, but if you are looking back at a mans body of work, you can say that they both performed at the highest level and here is the proof. Bret’s excellence is a throw back as well to the matches that made his name in New Japan alongside Davey ten years earlier. That training ground stood them both well. The issue for Davey was coming over as a technical wrestler again after a year of chasing power houses like the Warlord round the block in matches that could not be that good because of the limitations of his opponent. Bret had of course a plethora of scientific opponents since taking the title from Curt Hennig two years earlier. There is also a throwback to Davey’s days as a British middleweight; the pop for the straight arm lift is straight out of the Johnny Saint playbook. For Bret, who got over as a face by being showing heavy work rate and heart, playing the subtle heel was as easy as falling off a log and a precursor to his days as American heel/Canadian face. On this night though that was a long way off. Bret’s comeback starts with a not illegal but not really very nice low knee, telling the story of his willingness to keep his title.

 Both Davey and Bret had wrestled in front of more people; Wrestlemania 3 was 93,000, and probably had better matches. The Hart Foundation vs Bulldogs title matches when both happened to be five years younger and much more active between the ropes. The WWF style though takes time to develop, and this is perhaps one of the best examples of why a tag team division is important. This match certainly changed the main event picture in WWE. This kind of match, and these kind of wrestlers where to become the norm really until the Attitude era pushed things more towards brawling than technical wrestling. The next round of main eventers Davey, Shawn Michaels, Curt Henning where all sound technical performers who had gone under appreciated in the prior era of muscled freak-dom. There was of course The Undertaker, but looking back will anyone miss Lex Luger, Ludvig Borga and The Beserker? This match includes Davey’s first trip to the top rope since about 1988. Vince’s misleading whiley veteran line, Bret was as experienced as Davey at this point, but the excellence of execution was being pushed as the best wrestler in the business, which arguably he was.

The shot of Diana Hart-Smith looking like she needs a good curry does get annoying after a while, but it is part of that whole big fight experience. What was amazing is the classic Hart Foundation big hair pull which he Bret hadn’t used on television since wrestling the Rockers in New York two years earlier. Davey’s power based attack that had been his calling card against the Warlord is mixed in with elements of technical work from back in the day. The Crucifix pin attempt being seen back in the middle weight title eliminator we looked at with Dave Finlay back in the late seventies. The belly to back suplex from Bret, not seen regularly in his arsenal since the early eighties, makes a come back here as Bret is desperate to cling on to the title. The match ends with the most British of all pin attempts, a folding press, and a nod from Davey to times past no doubt. However the match goes beyond historical viewing points. You would have to say that Davey was the most successful of the British wrestlers from that era in terms of drawing money, the only thing that really counts. His development to a main event wrestler was cultivated through luck and judgement after leaving the Bulldogs tag team and unceremoniously dumping The Dynamite Kid in a real life heel turn that is quite shocking to believe. Due to head out got the Real World Tag League in the late eighties Dynamite was never sent a ticket as Davey had told All Japan he had been in a car accident. Davey’s return to the WWF started a slow drag to the main event where he found a niche in the market as a big guy who could wrestle, as the size of main eventers dropped in the mid nineties this became an asset as a heel and as Camp Cornette and the Hart Foundation Davey had a flourishing end to his career. That about wraps it up for this time grapple fans. When we come back as we have reached the top then we have to stop and start all over again. Have a good time, till the next time.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Six of the Best; Out of Towners

Moving away form the last Japanese obsessed edition we can now head back to Europe for our next instalment of Bus Man's Holiday. By the early nineties Dave Finlay had built a reputation for hard work and heeldom that had moved beyond these shores. Like Dynamite, Jones and Davey Boy he to was now a NJPW regular. His greater regular touring income though came from the NJPW affiliated Catch wrestling promotion of Austria, owned by former AWA champion Otto Wanz. The promotion had been a holding post for wrestlers from all over the world for years. Its annual tournament attracted huge crowds and hungry competitors from all over the world. This tournament taking place in 1990 featured another Wigan graduate Steve Wright who liked the place so much he got married and brought up a family and son future WCW star Alex Wright later to be the ill advised Berlyn. By this point Dave was well respected in the UK and now without a TV deal he was looking for work elsewhere that would eventually lead him to WCW and the WWE as an in ring talent and producer. However lets head back a few years to when Sting was just getting the big push, Hulk Hogan was still eating vitamins saying prayers and starting his downhill slide into WCW.

As mentioned before Steve was a classically trained British wrestler and it shows in the opening exchanges here. He was also a huge fan favourite as heard in this clip. Dave was still the ultimate heel. The Mount Evans style rules in CWA meant some more European style wrestling, the referee's whistle is blooding annoying though. The change in culture is to the size of audience, everything seems more deliberate than in a UK hall, but its clear that as for getting sympathy for the good guy Dave is the man. He makes everything look great and as hard hitting as it is supposed to be. Steve for his part wrestles a very straight up match in an English style. The slow motion with sound things are awesome and WWE should bring them back soon. What does surprise me is that no one bothered to put commentary on this, I guess the moves call themselves. This is a very good example of doing more with less, if the audience do not need that much to get the going why do it? This audience clearly love their interaction, all Dave has to do is play the inferior cheat to get over.


In fact Steve cheats more than Dave does. Cheating is popular in Austria apparently. As are incredibly slow three counts. The rules do have a little more leeway, but even Dave can't get away with beating up Steve between rounds. As the crowd erupts after the pile driver, its easy to see how Dave may prefer this to chasing Jushin Liger round the ring all night in Tokyo. This style of more through less meant a much longer career for him and when he finally did die his hair blonde it was with good reason; a for a long overdue push for a world wide company in WCW and then the WWE. Skull Murphy by contrast never really did much outside of the UK. He was however handed someone to wrestle who, as discussed last time, had a major influence on professional sports. Like Saturo Sayama before him Akira Maeda was sent to these shores for seasoning before his main event push in NJPW began. To get the bout into super over territory, Maeda is billed as Kwik Kik Lee, brother of Sammy Lee (Saturo Sayama), confused yet? This wonderful piece of jingoism was at least positive jingoism. Not far from “they all look the same”, but let us digress. Kwik Kik, and I love how Kent Walton tries to sell that as his real name, was on a tour that would proceed his push and subsequent falling out with the management in NJPW, Skull was the rising heel star, sounds like good ingredients lets take a look;


Skull, the shaven headed tearaway, (talk about do what it says on the tin) is somewhat over matched here in striking, but has the edge in submission. As the introductions and opening exchanges prove, Akira is over like gang busters. It was quite odd that while in the states the Japanese characters where always portrayed as heels in the UK they where often portrayed as the good guy, basically because they brought in something different. Their high skill sets where used to put more into a match and that demanded them to be cheered. The shout and stall tactics of the heels kept the pace slow enough to keep the moves special as Skull employs here. Clearly Skull's counter work is exemplary, but he never really got chance to show it that much. His job was to get people riled up and that's what brought him to the dance, so why change? The age old tale of the heel getting slowly frustrated before breaking out into a full on rule breaking extravaganza. This was controlled by the always vocal Peter Zachash, one of the most recognisable referees in the UK. I always liked his no nonsense style which made things much more realistic. The stalling continues which builds the tension of the match to frenzy, but we are not at frenzy stage yet. This contrasts so deeply with NJPW it is hard to see what Maeda is getting out of it. There the slow burn style didn't really need heels or faces, the story lines where not about revenge, always competition. Still different styles require different approaches and more experience anywhere is useful. Maeda's kicks are something different though, pretty stiff for the time, Skull takes them with aplomb. The over the top rope bump leads to Skull showing his agility with the suicide dive to the inside that backfires. The climax to the round brings the first public warning for Murphy, usually a sign things are going to heat up. In the big face/heel confrontations the crowd loved guys who would give as good back as they got, as seen with Marty Jones and Dynamite, Akira had learnt this lesson well.

Akira showing no mercy uses the ropes on Skull's injured arm, the classic turn-about-is-fair-play angle that drove a lot of the top line matches at the time. Though Akira to understood comedy could go a long way, the legs splits hold was a favourite of Les Kellet and older grapplers. This subversion of it raises a laugh but asks the interesting question; how much better prepared where Japanese wrestlers of the time? Well with Karl Gotch hitting you with a stick every time you did something wrong, very well prepared indeed. The Steamboat like flying chop, leg lariat back drop combination is enough to get a pin. Usually in British matches the story was always a series of moves rather than one big finisher. Skull and Marty Jones where in the process of changing that culture with their submission finishers. This helped story telling because as in this match Skull is working the neck so he can hit the Gator finisher. He does and it ends the fall. This reasoning behind certain moves came from the submission story telling style of the Wigan wrestlers and harks back to the original days of catch as catch can. A submission meant the end and a decisive result. Murphy argues with the crowd to get counted out. This really doesn’t happen often enough in my opinion. Sadly the booking of some matches reach surreal levels of ineptitude, but it did protect Skull's image some what.

Next time there will be one more round the world trip from Bus Man's holiday, and the last six of the best for a while. Thank you though for sharing some of my favourite stories from six of my favourite wrestlers. The time after the next time we will head back into the deep dark mists of time and watch more of the evolution of how Saturday afternoons should always be.

Have a good time, till the next time.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Six of the Best; Bus Man's Holiday

So we have established that the Six where worthy main eventers in the UK, so what made them so special not just to us but fans around the world? Well, their ability to change styles as time demanded, their unique characters, but their base instincts for adapting to a wrestler and adapting to an audience. They where all incredibly gifted workers, and they could make matches with anyone but when they had the right opponent, they could change wrestling history. One man was the equal to three of the six and bested them more often than not in his homeland Japan. This episode looks at three of the Six and three of their matches with Satoru Sayama. It has to start of course in New Japan. Well Madison Square Garden in 1982. This was a rare Stateside defence of the WWF Jnr. Heavyweight title, the most prestigious Junior Heavyweight title in the world at the time so without further ado, Howard away you go.

This is not their best match, but in a feud that lasted three years its hard to pick just one. This one had the most effect though, the audience was not NJPW regulars, it was the biggest audience in the world in the worlds most exposed wrestling market. Perhaps most importantly it was the audience of one, Vince MacMahon Jr., that was most impressed, telling Dynamite later that it was the “greatest match he had ever seen”. This was at the height of their feud and they knew each other so well they could put together a five star classic in seven minutes. The near miss kick out from Dynamite tells the story in itself, they where both that close. Dynamite doesn't really come off as the viscous heel he portrayed in Japan, there are elements of it there though. Having watched so much of his British stuff lately, you get the feeling it was just his style, never, ever back down. Not really breaking the rules as trying to run right over them. Sayama of course is Sayama, his aerial style honed in Mexico, his mat work honed in England, his striking honed in Japan, NJPW spent a lot of time perfecting him as wrestler and it shows. The WWF Jnr. Title would be his for the taking once Tatsumi Fujinami moved up to heavyweight, and as that was he who Dynamite had been chasing in his early NJPW forays he took the chase to Tiger Mask. The result was genius and brought together the perfect mix of styles, Dynamites submission versus Tiger Masks strikes and their more or less equal aerial majesty. The effect was breathtaking. It single handedly gave Jnr. Heavyweights a voice outside of the UK for the first time since Danny Hodge was NWA Light-heavyweight champion, and more importantly attracted the top stars from around the world to the hottest Jnr. Division on the planet. Including . . .


Mark Rocco did not have the same Japan connection that Dynamite did, Rocco came by way of the Crabtree's, eager to get shot of him after he had unfortunately split somebody open the hard way and caused a ruction with ITV. Meanwhile NJPW where expanding the Tiger Mask Universe. The original Tiger Mask was an Animé character. A masked Japanese Pro who wrestles as a heel in the US, but turns face at the bequest of his son in Japan. His arch nemesis was Black Tiger, so if it worked once in cartoon form . . . All we need is a guy who can work a similar style and go just as hard as Dynamite. . . hello is that Lancashire? Rocco had a very successful run as Black Tiger, which culminated in a WWF Jnr. Title reign in a tournament title for the vacated belt. We shall get to that in a second. As Dynamite spent a lot of time tending to Calgary and had some injury worries, Black Tiger filled the hole of top heel in the division. His heel-ish ways transferring well in what is more or less a direct transfer of his match style. What made things better for him there was no Mount -Evans rules to hold him back. This was Rocco with the breaks off. The flipside of that is though that as a heel if half the heel-ish things you do are now legal you have to up the volume elsewhere to get the heat, add in the mask which hide his facial expressions and therefore half his charm and it could have been real trouble. Much like Chris Jericho found out a few years later when NJPW tried to introduce Super Liger. Rocco though proved his worth, enough that when Sayama and even Dynamite moved on he become the chosen one.


So how did Mark become the chosen one? Surely with two class acts like Dynamite and Tiger Mask, the two hottest properties in town you don't let them go do you? Oh yes you can. Thanks to this kick, Akira Maeda was out of a job. What he did next was form a company that not only changed wrestling but the whole aspect of martial arts world wide. They formed a seed that would become MMA as we know it, as well as having a long lasting effect on the wrestling business. Maeda's issues in New Japan stemmed from a reluctance to put new men at the top of the card by then booker Ricki Chosu, he was also not fond of the NJPW Strong Style that was the companies mainstay. What Maeda wanted to do was to work an environment that supported a more realistic mat game, something stiffer and more like wrestling used to be in its original incarnation, this shoot style would become the original Universal Wrestling Promotion of Japan. His wrestling masters at NJPW would not allow such a thing to happen so with perhaps the most direct resignation letter in history (a kick to the face on national TV) he was let go and he took several young NJPW regulars with him, including Sayama. This left Dynamite as the top dog (if you will pardon the pun) and he went on to win the vacated title. Sayama for his part actually tried to persuade Dynamite to go with him, but Dynamite saw the risk and staid where he was until someone came calling. That someone would be Giant Baba, with a briefcase full of money and a guaranteed tour fee. Dynamite seeing how strong All Japan had become, seeing his greatest opponent leave and realising his high impact style maybe better suited to All Japan and its regular income decided to up ship and move taking Davey Boy with him. This left the new UWF in a hole, Dynamite was Tiger Mask's, now for contractual reasons Super Tiger, best money making opponent. But who could excel at a more mat based style with, no aerials and no pin falls, who could take a lot of punishment and make others look great while getting himself over? Hello is that Lancashire again? We seem to need a Mid-heavyweight shooter with a string track record of mat wrestling. Marty Jones? That will do nicely.

Marty actually doesn’t have to change his style that much, aside from not having to run the ropes, it is pretty much what you would expect to see him do in Croydon. Les Kellet never hit this hard though. Sayama is clearly trying to kick through brick walls, but the match itself is a good set piece of give and take one-upmanship the kind that Jones excelled at with Mark Rocco and Dave Finlay. He even tries the power lock but has to settle for an Indian death lock, but notice how the crowd turn to him through the match, only ever a face, he had no bother in getting the crowd on his side with one well placed stiff slap and his clear submissions advantage.

Of course with Tiger and Dynamite gone it left an even bigger hole for NJPW. It was filled by, you've guessed it, Mark Rocco who won the vacated title and began a series with the Cobra that continued the momentum that Dynamite and Tiger Mask had started. These matches sum up what could be achieved by British wrestling at the time, the ability to adapt had come from many different catch weight contests from international competitors in different towns all over the country. Put them in a mask, change the rules, give them the biggest audience in the world and they could prove they where the best.

Have a good time till next time grapple fans.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Six of the Best; Best of the Best

Welcome back grapple fans and in this post we have something special, my personal favourite British feud of all time. The six at their height and the most artistically interesting feud that joint promotions produced. The zenith of the British style for me. In fact looking at the date I have waited nearly thirty years to discuss this match with anyone aside from my Dad. Dave “Fit” Finlay versus Marty Jones, the feud for Joint promotions most coveted title, the World Mid Heavyweight Title and Belt. The two best regular workers in the weight division, an inspired and revolutionary managerial presence, the Crabtree's best booking ever, Kent Walton on top form. This my friends is as good as it gets.

Fit Finlay vs. Marty Jones (England 4/14/84) by ragingnoodles

This match is billed as a none title grudge match, being round-less it meant there would be more flow, that was the idea anyway, and to be fair with two artists such as this you wanted to give them as much room as possible. Marty Jones was my regular favourite, while Dynamite was away he accrued a sense of mystique that was only compounded on his infrequent return visits switching between face and heel, depending on the opponent. Marty, however, was solid and dependable, he was the man. As you have seen over previous posts Marty took a while to get into the top spot in the UK debuting in the early seventies, Finlay a little bit younger had that air of youthful arrogance about him that made him his perfect foil. The young pretender who actually dethroned the Champ. The story of this bout also belongs to the story of that red belt around Dave's waist. Stretching back to the 1940s, this title was the most prized possession in all of British wrestling thanks to one man; Mike Marino, the greatest ambassador for the pure sport of wrestling we ever had. He held the belt from 1957 till 1982 in four reigns, that included dropping the title to Vic Hessle and Lord Alfred Hayes no less. When Marino sadly passed the belt was vacant and a tournament was held for a new champion. With the passing of Marino came the passing of the torch and Marty was destined to follow in the great man's shoes. Being the ambassador for the sport much in the same way John Cena is seen as now, as an ambassador for the WWE. Jones took to the job with gusto, but the new champion faced new problems, not least of which was keeping the title picture interesting. His greatest challenger would send him home belt less four times that would be Dave Finlay.

Finlay and Jones where the perfect match, not in how different they where, English/Irish, Heel/Face. But in how alike they where, strong amateurs, from wrestling hot beds, strong club back grounds, well trained. This meant face paced, stiff in your face bouts that made everything else on the card look tame. It also made the live events, the real money of British wrestling, important again. They swapped the titles that often it could happen anywhere any time and at last the promoters where using TV as a tool to make the live gate swell. Over the space of 18 months Jones would drop the title four times. Hot shotting the belt like this got both men over and made Finlay indispensable to British promoters for the next fifteen years. Jones would stay in the title picture for the next seventeen years. To a seven year old fan like me though it made me love the game. I can remember the feeling of loss when I saw Marty lose the title just as hard today. I was invested, the feeling of elation when I would see him with the belt again made me think everything was right with the world. This was story telling at its best. The match opens with the feeling out period exclaimed by the finger pointing. The threats always made things look more antagonistic and you knew things would come to a head. The chain wrestling that opens the bout was typical of the two but the intensity and precision always gave me this impression Finlay didn't need to cheat he just did it anyway. What a despicable person.

Speaking of which I should also give Princess Paula her top billing. Paula was Dave's then wife, and a fair hand in the ring herself. Her managerial influence was great because no one had seen anything like it before. Women’s matches where never on TV, so we had no experience of her in the ring, but her actions could be just perfect. She never interfered so much as gave advice from the sidelines. But the kiss between rounds was the key tell tale sign of how well Dave was doing. Doing well kiss, doing badly no kiss. Something that Francine Fournier amped up to the max in ECW later on; belt = sex, no belt = no sex. This was an embryonic version of that, but pull heat and help tell the story it did. Bearing in mind that this match is only two minutes old and after one exchange the crowd are stomping and hollering already, this was a highly anticipated rivalry. The slaps and head butts worked for Finlay like a boxers jab, wearing down, constantly annoying and added realism to the match. In return so did Marty's crisp matt work, the ying and yang of each style fitting together. The key thing in the early exchanges is for Marty prove his superiority, Dave escapes the leg scissor once, so Marty remembers how he gets out of it and delivers the perfect drop kick to get the most out of the move. Small things like that made these bouts so watch-able and compelling. It is Marty's clear strategy as well to take Finlay apart limb by limb if he has to, the wicked arm wrenches where not his usual style preferring to head for the legs. Kent Walton again helps things along referencing back to title bouts in the past. Kent really was underrated as a commentator, I recently saw someone comparing him to Gordon Solie and that I think is about right. Both took their wrestling very seriously, not easy when you had to polish up some of the dross British wrestling and WCW produced, and managed to do it with love, care and aplomb. As the first session continues Finlay's tactics gain him a public warning, Marty unhappy but calm comes back with a series of stiff shots that lead to the folding press and pin, and a very angry Paula. The cheeky folding press from Marty sums up the whole situation, asset or liability you decide. What comes after the fall is Dave's mini comeback which leads into the Power Lock attempt. There is something great about submission manoeuvres, and particularly submission finishers that give a wrestler an aura. I loved the idea of the power lock as a kid, the hold you couldn't defend against. The move much like the very similar sharp shooter in application held sway in my memory because of the few times I saw it applied. It was saved for very special occasions against the toughest opponents. The impression of the match generally is that Marty has Fit's number and an answer to every move. Jones builds up to a Swanton Bomb (yes in 1984) and gets a public warning for his trouble and a second for arguing with the referee. Paula takes matters into her own hands by leading Dave away. The count out loss in the storyline world of British wrestling was still a loss. Mount-Evans Rules giving no favour to pins and submissions. The decisive victory for Marty means a title shot and everyone is happy, except Paul by the looks of things. This bout was one of many on TV, they seemed to be wrestling each other constantly in that two year period.

On balance though it was the last great feud of the Jones years in Joint promotions. Being the top of the tree meant international challengers, something we shall look at in future episodes, but Dave went through the weight divisions holding titles at most of them and having long interesting feuds until he switched allegiances to All Star promotions, another story for another day. At the time though this left Jones as the top of the pack, leader of the six best workers the UK who had produced and was still producing top of the line bouts with Skull Murphy, Pete Roberts (another title victor), Finlay, Dynamite, occasionally Rocco and making money. Finlay became the guy who got other guys over with a large hand in promoting rising stars such as Chic Cullen, Danny Collins and other lighter but well placed young men who where going to be the stars of the future. In the present though there where places to go and people to see. In Six of the best next time we will look at the legacies on an international scale and the places people went.

Have a good time, till next time.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Six of the Best; Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Welcome back grapple fans, last time we looked at the iconic match that made both Mark Rocco and Marty Jones big players in the UK mat game. So how did they do after that? Well they both left the British title scene behind and moved on to world titles at Heavy Middleweight and Mid Heavyweight respectively. This was really the icing on the cake that proved they could deliver the goods against any opponent they may come up against. But obviously they couldn't wrestle each other all the time, what was needed was some occasional spark to liven things out of the the non title match gloom. Marty had the perfect opponent waiting for him at Mid-Heavyweight; we shall look at that legendary series next time. However this week we welcome back someone missing from the UK scene for a while. The Dynamite Kid was in Calgary building a reputation as a stellar worker, and was easily ranked by no less an authority that Stu Hart as "The man who made the most money for Stampede Wrestling." His icon status was still a way off though in the early eighties and between matches for Stu and his trips to Japan to build the biggest legacy of his career with Tiger Mask he had to time to fly home and put in a few favours for old friends like Mark Rocco and Marty Jones.

This is one of those favours, a late night booking while visiting parents. It features numerous things that had become hallmarks to their styles, but equally the changing approach in British wrestling from week to week booking, who wins wins with no consequence or reason and TV matches do not matter to, I-have-to-watch -next-week-to-see-what-happens-booking. And they did, a 1981 card from Cleethorpes Memorial Hall would undoubtedly mean a match from one of the six with a possible import like Dynamite or Bret Hart. Hard to think that my local wrestling hall was in the best in the world, but for artistic impact and legacy nothing beats Cleethorpes.

So seconds away . . .

The state of the art chain wrestling that starts this bout could not last for long. To much heat to be had and to much story to tell. The shared qualities of Rocco and Dynamite are already showing not long after the bell, Dynamites not-far-from-heel persona that carried him through his occasional visits gave him a reputation as a tough guy who would stand up to bullying in the ring. There was no way Rocco could out manoeuvre him in the story of this bout because Dynamite would just hit harder, very well then  Rocco shall have to hit harder to. None of their matches from this period are what you could term slow. This one has the chain wrestling start and the easily riled Rocco is swift to move onto the dirty tactics, heat getters true but there for a purpose. The story of the Rocco Jones matches where that Jones was susceptible to Rocco's attack, the story of these matches was that Dynamite was willing to cheat to win as well, which would serve him well in his occasional matches with Marty Jones as he had to turn full on heel to be able to put together an entertaining match. What is interesting is that they do announce the Kid as the World Junior Heavyweight Champion, a title he was not to win for another three years, or maybe they meant the Stampede Mid-Heavyweight title which Stu made up when Dynamite couldn't take the NWA belt from Nelson Royal. Anywho, back to the match. Kent does mention his trips to Japan claiming that Dynamite would be wrestling Antonio Inoki, which I don't think he did but I am sure he woudl have gone out of his way to make the boss look this good. Kent would of course been struggling to fin Japanese names familiar to UK fans, before the days of video and tap trading what you saw is what you got. it was another four seven years before anyone ever saw any WWE in the UK and another nine before WCW made it to these shores on TV. We thought what we where seeing was the best in the world because we where told so. Looking back now the commentators where not far wrong. Certainly we had some of the best workers, but would these matches work in Japan? Yes. North Carolina? Possibly. Memphis? Probably not. In fact Dynamite was once asked to go with Davey to Memphis for a series of matches after impressing Jerry Lawler and Jimmy Valiant in the All Japan Real World Tag League Tournament not long after this match. Dynamite replied, "I am not being funny Jerry but have you got anyone as good as the boys there because we can't do the same things with them as we can with these guys." Tape does exist of one match between The Bull Dogs and the Rock N Roll Express that would be Dynamites only venture into Southern style wrestling, even then it was in the AWA.

Going into round two tempers are at fever pitch and Dynamite hits out. Rocco in response heads to the top rope, this is slightly bizarre to see Dynamite, the man who brought high risk to the WWF hampered by the rules of Mountevans, thankfully referee the venerable Max Ward is oblivious enough to proceedings and let them go. Rocco gets his first public warning as he gigs away at Dynamite to get a cut going, a desperation move on Rocco's part. The pay off has to come though and dynamite heads into his comeback with a vicious looking posting . . .

The fact is British fans where not used to seeing faces be this tough. Dynamite was used to giving more to get a response in both Calgary and Tokyo so when he came home and wrestled the same style in front of UK fans it truly was something special. Even the top faces where gentleman, but Dynamite a heel everywhere else but here, knew how to get his hands dirty. Max Ward's interest in the cut above Dynamites eye is a potent warning of things to come. However the first fall comes out of nowhere after Dynamite is back on the defensive he produces a series of moves that are now world famous, Diving Head butt, posting, Belly to Back in a crisp series worthy of the legend.  And that is it, rather disappointingly, Dynamites cut is to bad to continue, yeah of course it is. Anyway, it protects Rocco, gives Dynamite the upper hand for when he comes back, if he comes back, and you have a ready made feud. If only he wanted to come visit his Dad while we have this hot angle by accident . . .  what's that you say you're coming home? Are you doing anything Friday?


Slap and tickle before the bell you say? Why why not Sir, and we are off and running. If anything this one is even stiffer, and judging by the hair a little before Dynamites famous shaven headed 1983 WWF Jr. Heavy tittle win. A title both men would hold. So we are off and running straight away, cheating, back drops stiff postings just where they left off. The disadvantage to these matches from a promoters point of view was how conservative it made everything else look. How could they compete? Rocco never took a step back neither did Dynamite and they where wrestling each other for what was essentially fun, they where helping each other out so they went hell for leather every time. But when you are wrestling for £15 a night why would you risk everything? Of course everyone can get carried away. Dynamite seems to forget the rules for a moment and delivers a beautiful series of floor attacks which gets him his first public warning. In Round 1. This is going to get hard fast. Things build to a crescendo in round two as Rocco piles on the punishment, first getting a public warning for his trouble, his second in round two, before building up to the double suplex finish that has the fans oohing and ahhing as no one had ever seen anyone get dropped on the top rope before but then would have thought of that bump before?

So the first fall is Rollerball, the Maniac, the Mean Machine Mark Rocco. A man with so much personality needs many names. The legit stitches shown off by Rocco go to show tough the six had made the British game at this point. The Dynamite comeback features the missed posting defence that cause Rocco the stitches in the first place, again showing his incredible resilience and lack of fear, much needed when Dynamite drops knees like that. Crowned with a now everyday Belly to Back suplex Dynamite shows his viciousness. Leaving Rocco in a bloody heap on the floor is a good way of being forgiven for leaving. Hopefully the Rock can do the same to John Cena. The vicious assault continues as Dynamite heads for the finish taking Rocco with him. His NJPW finishing sequence is of course illegal here but he uses it to good effect and puts Rocco away with a side suplex to seal the deal and set up the rematch should Dynamite come home.

These matches where of course few and far between. As good 'Ole JR stated on Legends of wrestling this week. Promoters hate having a big blow off because they feared a dip afterwards. When Bill Watts built towards the Superdome shows that made so much money for Mid South, he factored in there would be an inevitable drop off in interest and would have to start rebuilding programmes. 

So to add some suspense we shall look at that match another time, but next week we get to see one of my all time favourite feuds, one I got to see in person and lead me to be the wrestling fan I am today.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Six of the Best; Titles matter

Over the last few posts you will have seen the rise of the six Junior Heavyweights that defined what British wrestling was to become. I call them Jr. Heavyweights because really that is what they where by Japanese/American Standards. All six had runs with or at Jr. titles in Japan, Canada and the US, and it is a better catch all that the Lightweight-Mid Heavyweight stages they all ranged around when here.

Today we go back to Marty Jones and Mark Rocco. This match was recently praised highly by none more a legend that William Regal. He defined this match as "the one that changed the game" in the UK wrestling scene. Well if the Master says so we shall analyze.

Okay aside from Marty's rather dodgy perm (it was the seventies we can forgive him) we have the classic introduction. Rocco the ball of energy contrasted with Jones' hand on hips laid back John Wayne approach. Rocco was the British Heavy Middleweight Champ, Jones Light Heavyweight, a Catchweight contest that usually meant a big draw if it was two titleists. The crowd appear hot for this from the off and are looking for sparks to fly. As in our previous match between the two there had been a build up which ended in a fight outside the ring, something of a consistent storyline that as I have said before built up a  real tension between the two inside the ring. In reality as always the two happened to be great friends, but why wouldn't you be when you could produces matches together like this?

The striking starts early with Rocco taking the advantage, then back to the mat where they both felt at home. The crisp and stiff holds and counters coming thick and fast. Rocco already established as a top line heel is getting heat for just existing. "Break it off" is the cry from the crowd as Jones, charming. Mark plays to this a little but clearly they are going to take us on an emotional ride before this story ends. The first sequence of round one though is breathtaking for speed and intensity, deep hard arm drag after arm drag meet the Rocco offense. As Marty applies a hammerlock, the correct way to do it as demonstrated by no less than Daniel Bryan. What is interesting in this bout is that Max Ward lets them go quite a bit, he normally was on top of anything entertaining, but he understood the importance of letting everyone have their moment in this match.

The first fall comes with a body slam and double knee hold. The classic British finisher, Magnus should bring it back. Rocco's constant attacks on the crowd show his love of being a heel, Marty's trademark sit on the bottom rope, his perennial message of disappointment means we should have a cracking round four. The inverted posting and coffin bump, pre-dates the Flair flip by a good few years I would say, here it signifies the beginning of the end of fall two, the crowd erupts after the flying tackle. Surely Joint promotions must have realised they had something great on their hands with these two, and to be fair the did. This second serious feud in as many years must have packed them in. A very early missile drop kick also crops up in the next sequence as the two play one-up-man-ship all through the fourth heading back to the power of the posting. TO be honest postings always looked stiffer in UK rings and I don't know why. What did look dangerous and was the downfall of Rocco in a later match was the exposed turn buckles that Marty throws him into. Back in the day the standard reversal for a posting was a foot on the middle buckle. Rocco facing Jones one night missed his footing and wrapped his leg around the pad and sliced his knee. Didn't slow him down of course.

Things are getting intense by round six. Things kick off with a stunning exchange for pace and power, the big moves coming thick and fast form both sides. The finish comes with a Jones mistake, a key part of the story.  What is as important as this match is the post match interview. Not the normal run of events to be sure, but the challenge worked. It drew money like nobodies business, Jones dropped weight in the storyline to get down to the Heavy Middleweight bracket, went through a series of qualifiers whilst defending the Light Heavyweight title and then got to face Rocco again on TV. He beat Rocco thus ending the feud neatly and allowed him to move on to the next challenge. However that gave money matches for promoters around the country and was the first real long term angle to develop from the six, a pattern that would be repeated over the next few years as we shall see next time.

Have a good time till the next time.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Six of the Best; Goldbourne's Finest

If you grew up in Lancashire in the nineteen sixties there was really three things you could be in life of note. A minor, a Rugby League player or a professional wrestler. Lancashire was one of the hot beds of pro wrestling and as I got onto the internet in the mid nineties and started researching the things that I liked more closely it appeared to me there was three places down the years that always attracted the best practitioners and had the greatest reputations. As far as hookers where concerned the original place to learn your craft was The Business Man's Gym in Saint Louis Missouri, home of one Lou Thesz. As the shooter dominance shifted Lancashire began to take over that crown. Straight up shooters and hookers like Billy Robinson and Billy Joyce spread the reputation of Lancashire through the business. Trainers like Billy Riley and Ted Betley enhanced that reputation  built on the grass roots of traditional Lancastrian amateur style, a need to wrestlers to protect themselves in a hostile environment and a willingness by the new trained workers to get away from the world of mining and Rugby League by putting the best matches on the card they could.     

The Dynamite Kid Tommy Billington in my mind exemplifies that standard better than anyone else of that era. Tommy was small when he started and in the matches we will look at he wrestled first at lightweight and then at welterweight, very quickly becoming a star and a champion in both divisions. This early match also shows that he was destined for great things, not for its quality, though it has a kind of rustic charm, but for his tag team partners and the way he was billed.

Six man tags where rare on UK TV, they had to be kept in a glass cabinet marked "break only in the event of being desperate for a TV draw". Much could be said of the Royal Brothers at this point. Fine singles wrestlers in their own right, they where the biggest drawing card in the North of England as a tag team. The cool, calm and clinical Burt contrasted the happy go lucky but unstable anger management of Vic. They where essentially a scaled down Funk Brothers. For Bert read Dory Funk Jr. for Vic read Terry Funk. the matches they had though where phenomenal, they where lightning fast when quick tags where an anathema to UK wrestling. They where the money. So when Dynamite is introduced as their hand picked partner he is getting the biggest of all main event rubs.

On the heel side we have the colourful Tally Ho' Kaye whose gimmick was of a horsey hunting land owner type, which was cool and interesting but kind of came undone when he opened his mouth and came out with broad Yorkshire. Sadly I can not tell you a lot about Ken Hogan, I've never seen him before or since this bout so its pretty safe to say he wasn't going to the hall of fame. Finally the perhaps least successful British heel of all time Blackjack Mulligan. Of course as a completely uninspired gimmick as most copyists tend to be he was never going to be like the original Blackjack Mulligan and aided the theory that a cool name and a beard isn't everything. People have to care about you one way or another, sadly few people cared of Blackjack was in the match or not so long as he got beat up as usual. Here has the opportunity to hone that skill dropping the first fall of this best of five match (best of five in a 20 minute match are you mental?) in the first twenty seconds.

Ah but I promised you focus on Dynamite so we shall, he tags in and delivers the crispness that he was to become known for. Precisions throws and escapes and finally has the wind taken out of him with a posting that turns the match. However that gave off the other side of Dynamite, the bump machine that made his name, he makes Hogan look great before taking over again and taking the fall in smooth fashion. Of course the heels have to have their comeback and its Dynamite that will be on the receiving end, burying a bunch of guys three nil would be to high a price to pay especially on TV. Even Mulligan and Hogan could be useful somewhere.

So as the heels beat on poor Tommy they get more and more vicious to the point of Max Crabtree having to employ the beard pull to get Mulligan of the Kid. A tactic I'd like to see used on Daniel Bryan more often. What is impressive is Dynamites ability to sell everything often something over looked in UK rings. As I mentioned in the last Blog Steve Logan's underselling of the Riot Squads offence took something away from the match but everything Dynamite does makes sense and enhances the story, building to the hot tag. When Burt gets tagged in from the dramatic back-breaker submission its house cleaning time for both Royal's, a dropkick and a bodyslam seal the deal.

So this shows the rise of a young star, still having to make others look good but the top of the mountain was not that far away for Dynamite. In 1977 he would defeat perennial British Lightweight Champion Jim Breaks for the belt. Breaks moved up a weight to feud with Vic Faulkner over the British Welterweight title only to be beaten by Dynamite again who took home two belts. One of the few British wrestlers to hold titles at two weights at the same time. Then Calgary came calling. The Hart brothers in the eighties became frequent visitors to UK shores, the matches they had hear became part of their training and understanding as to what would work back home for Stampede wrestling. With the tight nature of promoters of the time, it also gave chance to meet up with New Japan alumni like Satourou Sayama and Akira Maeda. Bruce and Bret liked what they saw in Dynamite and offered him a job. Off he went on a short tour that was suppose to last a couple of months and wound up being fourteen years.

However he would come back from time to time to show us what he had learned. Next time we look at one of those matches from an era when British wrestling was the place to be (if you where under twenty stone).

Till next time grapple fans. 

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Six of the Best; The Riot Squad

Welcome again grapple fans, today we look at tag team action. British wrestling featured tag teams just from time to time, and just to keep things special, not that often. In '82 someone must have upped the budget because they put a whole tournament on TV. The key element in out current six of the best being The Riot Squad. The Riot Squad in the long term ended up being a group of top notch workers who would have their biggest impact on WCW and WWE. The original Riot Squad composed of Dave Fit Finlay and ultra heel Skull Murphy. We talked a lot about Dave in the last blog, but this tag team would be the one that drew the most money for Joint Promotions in the early 80's through their TV battles with Marty Jones and any number of partners. Here they are in a tournament for the World of Sport Top Tag Team title and apparently belts against The Jets. How Alan Kilby and Steve Logan came up with The Jets I have no idea, neither of them moved that quickly. Kilby was the then British Heavy Middleweight champion. A deaf wrestler who used it to his advantage in matches but was as clean as country water. This Steve Logan is not The Steve Logan of Steve Logan and Mick MacManus fame, another Steve Logan who also happens to be a Middleweight. Because that's not confusing at all.

Anyway; seconds away . . .

This bout occurred not long after the Davey Boy Smith match we looked at last time, but already Finlay has changed his style and has headed full on heel. The disrespectful early striking and attacking his grounded man the easiest way to get heat in a British ring. Then we get to see our first look at Skull Murphy, a light heavyweight here but showing signs of heading up to the heavy bracket, his submission style on display from the start. Kent nicely explains the rules to us, the combined weight in each corner can not exceed 450lbs, well that's nice to know, someone presumably didn't try and enter Big Daddy and feather duster. This did mean close competitive action though as opposed to the usual super-heavyweight tag matches of the time.

Skull and Finlay are clearly trying to work the American style of tag match, the quick tags that everyone is now used to, get it done in the five count. The only thing is that it is illegal under Mountevans rules so it just gets them heat, no bad thing for those concerned. That is the problem with Mountevans tag matches though. With matches few and far between on TV, great teams like the Royal Brothers managed in spite of the rules apparently disallowing excitement of any kind, but The Riot Squad are already showing a flair for showmanship that would raise the ire of a thousand hand bags. Young Logan does look incredibly out of his depth against the methodical Riot Squad, though he shows a bit of fight in his early sequences. The rather limp head to the knee of Finlay highlights how slow they where going in comparison to the stiff encounter with Davey Boy. Twenty minutes and best of three falls? Good Lord, get you're work done boys this is a tournament match. A brilliant Waltonism as well in session two "the person who lost the fall must continue into the next session first, unless he's unconscious" right, no unconscious people wrestling got it. So Logan starts his comeback to the hot tag, which suffers some credibility issues as he recovers looking in about as much pain as Jeff Hardy after a weekend on extra strong vitamins. In contrast to Logan, Finlay sells the fall like he's been shot. This is the crispness I always enjoyed in his work, as Bobby Lashley recently pointed out "Every thing Finlay does is for a reason and there is no wasted motion" Lashley claimed he learned more on match with Finlay than at any other time in his career. The downfall of this match starts about 0.35 seconds after Logan tags back in. You could announce it. "Ladies and gentleman the jobber will now be beaten". In efficient and as heelistic a style as possible. What we do see is an early version of Skull's standing submission the 'Gator. There was a change in psychology pushed by these two men, Marty Jones, Dynamite and Davey Boy. They all had definitive finishers, guaranteed to put a man away holds. Marty developed his Power Lock later used effectively by Shawn Michaels after being taught it by Jones protege William Regal. Prior to that everyone had a few regular moves that where considered deadly, but nothing like these over powering finishers.  

So grapple fans on to the final; yes two matches in one post!

Some poor fools have to take these two belts home that appear to have been designed by Adrian Street on a gin bender.


The unfortunate finalists are The Fighting Wilson Brothers (it would be really unhelpful if they didn't fight, and I'm sure the Passive Wilson Brothers never would have caught on).  Europe's number on referee Max Ward? That really shows the lack of ambition in pro-wrestling at the time, Max Ward was easily the most recognisable ref in joint Promotions but they could only find the heart to pronounce him best in Europe. Which is the equivalent of announcing him as "above adequate". Combined weight of only 450lbs? The Wilson brothers must have had a few pies after weigh in. But Skull and Dave make it all worth it turning on the bump machine for heavyweight veteran Johnny Tarzan Wilson. Which makes the lack of logic in this match all the more perplexing. The part time Peter Wilson who clearly isn't in his brothers power bracket takes on most of the match and drops the first fall, protecting his brother one might add, when you get the feeling Johnny could have handled them by himself.    

The continuous neck breakers (another American move import, you get the feeling Dave watched a lot of video tape) set up for the finish. Fit and Skull take the belts home where I assume they had a special place on the mantle. The meaning of the match though was much deeper than two belts, the dominated two heavier opponents who where an established tag team, two falls to nil. They had arrived.

The next instalment of six of the best features this man . . .

Still the best Dynamite tribute video ever, you can't whack a bit of Our Lady Peace.

Have a good time, till the next time.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Six of the Best Part 2; Young Lions

As Mark Rocco and Marty Jones moved on through the ranks that would lead to world title glory, the next round of young contenders where making they're way up the ranks. Davey Boy Smith, cousin of The Dynamite Kid, Ted Betley trained and building a reputation was an incredibly ambitious young man making a splash much the same way his cousin had done a couple of years earlier. Dave Finlay another second generation wrestler was equally  making his mark as a heel. That is important to note because it wasn't the fashion of the time. In this early match Finlay isn't even really a heel. Faces far out numbered heels and as most of what occurred in British Wrestling was well within the rules, heels where far worse off. By the early eighties, maybe the fans where craving something different. This match highlights the early stages of careers that where become synonymous with success and quality bouts.

We join the action in round one, an eliminator for the British Heavy Middleweight title now relinquished by Rocco and resting round the tried and tested Alan Kilby a very safe pair of hands.   

The first thing you notice aside from how young both of them look (baring in mind Davey's last WWE run was when he was in his forties and Dave's when when he was over fifty) is the size. But Davey was even smaller when he first went to Stampede. This was a rare trip home and already he has filled out natural, but he is still a long way away from his early nineties size hay day of around 260lbs. Though both would change their styles later in their careers, Davey to the power game demanded by his size and Finlay to his brawling demanded by being a tough old so and so, they are super smooth here. They both knew the advanced mat game well, something which stood them in good stead in New Japan, where both of them would had great success.

At the end of round one Finlay was on the receiving end of some well deserved applause, over the next ten years that wouldn't happen often. The heel persona is starting to develop in this match, note the snap to the wrist lever. The execution was something Finlay took pride in as a trainer even in his later days while looking after the Divas division in WWE. In fact given Finlay's later in ring character which didn't really change that much face or heel from 1983 until, well now, its virtually impossible to perceive him as the the clean cut title contender he portrays in this bout.

I love Kent Walton's remark "the more we see of Finlay the better", given his heelish ways in the future I'm sure the faces of the next ten years wouldn't be so keen. Davey was on his way back and between Stampede, NJPW and the UK at the time. His NJPW excursions courtesy of cousin Dynamite meant he was building technique in totally different environments which doesn't really show here. He was back to the old British style in no time, even if his tights may as well have "Stampede Junior Heavyweight Early Eighties" written on them. Dynamite by this time was not a regular tag wrestler, the Bulldogs would be a ways off, in fact Marty Jones would often go to Stampede to tag with Dynamite, as would Giant Haystacks (I am not making this up). Sadly only matches of Dynamite and Jones with each other are available on Youtube. At this point may I pay tribute to the wonderful wrestling archivist Tellyumort for looking after the legacy of great British wrestling.

The head on posting, a stampede wrestlers stand by, most notably took by Bret Hart in nearly every title match he ever had, makes an early appearance here. Bret always claimed it was more realistic and safer to take because you could see what was coming. Here Finlay uses it to get back on top while Davey sells like a good 'un. Finlay was showing in this bout what a great "wrestling heel" he was, as Dynamite puts it in his book a wrestling heel is just really good at being a wrestler, they lack the viciousness to use straight violence. As later matches will prove young Finlay got over that fairly quickly.

How these two told their story was through gathering intensity. There was a lot of truth to what Max Crabtree said about Mark Rocco, who wants to get sliced and diced when you are only earning £10 a night? However in this match both are showing things that are a little bit stiffer and a little bit harder. They would both prove their worth with some of the hardest bumps and stiffest bouts ever seen in the long run. By the early eighties crowds where demanding it. As Dynamite said in his biography, once you have come off the top rope once you all you can do is keep going up there because the next bump has to be bigger. You could argue this was a down hill slide in the terms of safety and it is something that worries Nigel McGuinness greatly after his career appears to have been cut short by an overly stiff style. He worries about his legacy, I don't think he should, he did many great things to revitalise the business we love and continues to do so. However this match was all between the ropes and has been contested in a fair style. The high risk offence of the Bulldogs and the Bruiser was yet to emerge.

By round 4 things are getting a bit needly, Davey actually starts breaking the rules first and is of course forgiven the less photogenic Finlay gets the heat. How anyone could call this match boring is beyond me, but there you have it no pleasing some people. Then again the same heckler does off mild racial abuse, so maybe he is just an idiot. The striking, usually the sign of desperation in a British match starts coming into round 5, the build up to the Celtic Cross that would be the Finlay finisher for the next 30 years. The slow build to these style of matches also helped Finlay build a philosophy of wrestling that undoubtedly maintained his career. When working as a road agent for the WWE and being an on screen talent, The Sandman reports that he was once berating a young star for taking to many bumps in a TV match. To prove his point he went out on Raw and had a twenty minute match taking only one bump and keeping the crowd on the edge of their seats. The Sandman, who lets face it never met a beer or chair shot he didn't like stood on in awe. The impact of the finisher is surprising as well. No one was using finishers at all in UK rings, submission was the thing, a high impact finisher was a suplex. Things where changing.

The crowd are won over by round six, the xenophobic buffoon leading and eng-er-land chant which really seemed fitting for a guy who mainly spit his time between Canada and Japan, but anyway the comeback for David is quick and so on to the last two rounds. Next we see the early days of the running power slam, not yet perfected but clearly on its way to invention and apparently not as decisive as the Celtic Cross.  

The final rounds start going back to the mat as the striking doesn't seem to work for either man. Even a very safe looking Back Drop Driver, (neither of these guys for the money they where on where going to take Misawa like risks they had work next day)  could not get the job done for Davey. The reversed Regal plex though (and the fact that everyone now calls it a Regal-plex says a lot about the future of British wrestling) shows where this and its bordering divisions are going in terms of stiffness and high impact offence. The continuing forearms from the knees though offers such a great visual, these guys want this match bad, the referee showing no understanding of drama breaks them up. The stiffness continues with an unheard of at the time Texas style pile-driver a-la Terry Funk, they wouldn't have liked that in Memphis Davey, but here its building to a climax and they are giving the impression they are pulling out all the stops. Which makes it all the more odd that Finlay puts Davey away with a straight suplex, but there you go. A fine actual wrestling contest with no rule breaking just bending.

Next time we shall look at Skull Murphy and his rise to infamy and start charting the influence, resilience and wrestling style of one Tommy Billington.

I had a kind word for my writing today from Mr. Simon Heath so thanks for that I shall keep on going with this labour of love.

Bye for now grapple fans.