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.