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.