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.