Category Archives: A Wrestler You Should Probably Know Better

A Promotion You Should Probably Know Better: ECW

After having so much fun with the stables last month in celebration of the Survivor Series, we’ve decided to turn this December — and all Decembers in perpetuity — into Promotions Month. This week we have Paul Heyman’s Extreme Championship Wrestling. This is the First Day of #ECWWeek, the fifteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series. As (almost) always, we’ll start by making ECW a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better. Tomorrow, we’ll give you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewings. On Wednesday, we’ll discussing the idea of ECW and Another Fan’s Treasure. After Hump Day we’ll be quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List, before summing everything with a “Difference of Opinion” that will likely be closer to a “Difference in Levels of Disdain”. Let’s get Extreme?

There’s no such thing as indifference when it comes to Extreme Championship Wrestling.  It’s a promotion that many fans choose to look back on through rose-colored glasses, as the company that changed the face of wrestling.  Nearly as many consider it the group that ruined it.  They’re both probably right.

ECW started generating buzz with wrestling fans far before it went extreme.  Eastern Championship Wrestling had a reputation for strong shows, amazing athleticism, and of course, some wild brawls.  And where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

Enter Paul Heyman—with a giant can of gasoline.

Paul Heyman and his group of circus freaks did everything they could to turn the volume up to 11, and get the attention of the wrestling world.  It worked.  Violent, bloody brawls.  Colorful but (mostly) believable  — or in the case of Amish Roadkill, so completely non-sequitur that it didn’t matter — gimmicks.  Logical storylines.

The company grew to amazing heights, despite ultimately appealing to an incredible small niche — fans of “hardcore” or “garbage” wrestling. Some will say that ECW was more than that, and it was for a short period, but make no mistake: ECW’s shadow did as much damage to the careers of people like Chris Jericho and Dean Malenko as ECW the company helped the careers of people like Chris Jericho and Dean Malenko by bringing them into the American spotlight in the first place.

But it wasn’t all bad, and ECW’s unique (to American audiences, anyways) style helped save American wrestling.  The then-WWF was having extreme difficulty finding its identity in post-Hulk Hogan world in 1995 and 1996,  struggling to catch up to WCW in the wrestling war.  WWF couldn’t touch the nWo.  The rough style and risque promos it stole from a little promotion in Philadelphia helped turn business around.

Less-than-PG matches and promos made legends of a million promos in WWE.  Triple H went from midcard to main event thanks to the crude antics of D-Generation X and Mick Foley will never escape the clip of him being thrown from the Hell in a Cell through a table no matter how many New York Times best sellers he writes.  Forget Austin 3:16—Austin passing out to the Sharpshooter, while wearing a crimson mask, made him a star.  The list goes on.

Without ECW’s influence, WWF might not have survived.  Considering WCW’s awful business practices bankrupted the company a few years later, pro wrestling as we know it now could have died more than a decade ago.  Instead, ECW gave WWF an identity to call its own, and to grow upon.  In a way, ECW saved WWF.  ECW saved pro wrestling, at least when it wasn’t trying to destroy it.

While the land of extreme may have provided an unintentional safe haven for the pro wrestling industry, it was anything but for pro wrestlers.  Extreme Championship Wrestling introduced a lot of dangerous trends to American pro wrestling, pro wrestlers, and pro wrestling fans.  Crazy bumps and “extreme” violence stopped being special, and became commonplace.  A Muta-level blade job became just another spot.  Proper selling went out the window, in exchange for rapid-fire spot exchanges (still the norm on the indies).  And in a post-Benoit world, we don’t need to go too far in depth on the consequences of too many unprotected chair shots and undiagnosed head injuries.

ECW made all of this commonplace, to a dangerous degree. To quote JMS Internet Technician Daron “Action” Jackson, those unprotected chair shots became the equivalent of dropkicks, and fans forgot how to appreciate good, technical wrestling.  They started refusing rest holds, or any slowdown in the action whatsoever.  It familiarized the crowd with three of the most offensive chants in all of professional wrestling: “you can’t wrestle,” “you fucked up,” and “boring.” ECW ruined pro wrestling – and its fans.  It’s taken nearly a decade (and a lot of PG programming) to reverse the damage done at the ECW Arena.

ECW had its pros and cons, ups and downs, stars and flops.  And despite catering to a very niche audience, the company’s impact on pro wrestling was vast and pervasive.  While that impact helped to revive a mainstream love of pro wrestling, it also did irreparable damage to the industry, the workers and the fans.

It’s why fans look back on the company with, pardon the pun, such extreme feelings.  It’s easy to love the group that changed the face of pro wrestling and brought genuine excitement to the product. And it’s  just as easy to loathe the promotion that helped teach pro wrestling fans to hate professional wrestling.

#JCPWCWWeek: Essentially Viewing A Promotion You Should Probably Know Better, Part Two

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After having so much fun with the stables last month in celebration of the Survivor Series, we’ve decided to turn this December — and all Decembers in perpetuity — into Promotions Month. For a curtain jerker, we have WCW and its predecessor, Jim Crockett Promotions. This is Day Two of #JCPWCWWeek, the fourteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series. We mixed it up by making JCP and WCW a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better in two parts. Yesterday, we talked about the transition from JCP to WCW, and today we’re giving you the finer points of JCP’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewing then finishing the epic story of the great lost promotion of our time. On Wednesday, we’ll expose some harsh truths with the debut of Lies The WWE Told Us. After Hump Day — and throughout the week — we’ll be quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List and a couple of odds, before ending everything with a Difference of Opinion, where JMS HQ erupts in a civil war, which will take place inside of a Doomsday Cage.

It’s fundamentally impossible to provide an Essential Viewing of pre-80s Jim Crockett Promotions: there isn’t a lot of decent-quality surviving tape out there because it was over thirty years ago, and (as fans of Dr. Who know) it wasn’t uncommon practice as a cost-cutting measure to tape over old shows in the days of syndication and even if the video had survived, to internet generation types who post videos of wrestling online, anything before the computer revolution might as well be a blurry daguerreotype of a Civil War soldier’s ass.

And so, in spite of thirty years of prior history, we’ll touch on the biggest (and last) decade of JCP’s existence: the 1980s, before Nick provides undeniable video evidence that they took all of the greatness they had in North Carolina, moved to Atlanta, became WCW and crapped all over it.

In the 1970s, Wahoo had been a huge part of the Mid-Atlantic’s transition from featuring mostly tag teams (as I covered yesterday) to being a territory with legitimate main event singles matches. McDaniel legitimized first the Mid-Atlantic Heavyweight Championship through his feuds with Johnny and Greg Valentine and then later the United States Title when it became JCP’s top singles title (not counting the traveling NWA’s World’s Champion.)

So when he took on Flair — who for anyone that managed to watch wrestling outside of the WWF’s considerable shadow was the 1980s in professional wrestling — it was undeniably fascinating, even if only to see the spectacle of the territory’s top star of ’75-’80 wrestling the top star of ’80-’88.

The fact that Flair and Wahoo held the World and U.S. title belts respectively places this match in the fall of ’81 during Flair’s first run as “The Man.” and while the match isn’t either man’s best, as Wahoo was past his prime at this point, Flair was a fantastic athlete at the time (as he was for much of his career) and coming into his own as a character. Furthermore, it’s interesting to see the tricks that Flair took from Wahoo and made his own: the way he paces the match early, the stiff chops to pop the crowd, the well-timed color, among others.

As the 80s took shape, Ric Flair’s talent and charisma were so evident that the Crocketts would have been fools not to hitch their wagon to him. Pushing Flair became the top priority of JCP (and by extension the NWA who they largely steered) to the point that the first Starrcade was literally called Starrcade ’83: A Flair For The Gold (which should have carried the subtitle: Spoiler Alert, He Wins).

In the build to Starrcade, the Crocketts cast Flair as the hometown boy about to make good by taking on big bad Midwesterner Harley Race. Flair wasn’t as magnificent a babyface as he was a heel, but he knew what to say and do and how to play to the fans in the Mid-Atlantic. This set of promos from the build-up to Starrcade shows Flair cutting promos on Race and pledging assistance and brotherhood to babyface (and once and future rival) Ricky Steamboat.

As we touched on last week with our Tully Blanchard feature, Jim Crockett Promotions at its height wasn’t just about Flair and Dusty, it was about robust cards filled from top to bottom with some of the greatest role players of all time. The mid-to-late 80s were a deep era for tag team wrestling in both the NWA and the WWF, and one of the Crocketts’ most valuable acts at the time was The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express.

Neither Ricky Morton nor Robert Gibson was a total package as a wrestler, but as a team they were one of the top ten acts of the 1980s. Even on worn out old tapes, their matches sound like Beatles concerts with near-constant high-pitched feminine screams throughout. Ricky Morton got the heat on heels with his selling as well as anybody every did, and Robert Gibson cleaned house in a way few wrestlers of his size ever could. If men (or in this case tag teams) are to be measured by the mark the make on history, The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express are one of the most important tag teams of all time. Easily half of the babyface tag teams that followed them from The Rockers to The Hardy Boyz were direct imitations of the The Express.

This match sees The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express take on NWA Tag Team Champions Ivan Koloff & Krusher Krueschev (two evil Soviets played by a Canadian and a guy from Minnesota). The match is ‘80s tag team psychology at its best and helps illustrate how good both wrestlers and promoters were at giving the fans what they wanted to see at this point.

As our journey finds us in 1985, it would be impossible to write anything about Jim Crockett Promotions resembling Essential Viewing without talking about Hard Times. As we covered last week, The Four Horsemen broke Dusty Rhodes’ ankle in maybe the biggest injury angle of all time. When Dusty came back, he cut the now-legendary Hard Times promo, connecting his own suffering as a wrestler to that of working class Americans whose industrial jobs were suffering in the early days of Reaganomics. Hard Times is to wrestling as Born in the U.S.A. is to rock music. Was it presumptuous for the rich and famous Rhodes to compare himself to struggling laborers? Probably. Did it get him white hot over? You know it!

In the latter half of the 80s, Jim Crockett Promotions’ goal was to wrap up the pantheon-level Dusty-Horsemen feud in a way that created the next big star to lead the NWA. The Crocketts and booker Dusty Rhodes were heavily invested in pushing Terry Allen, known as Magnum T.A. (Tom Selleck pun? Yeah, we’re in the 80s.) as the next top babyface in the territory. Allen brought a lot to the table: he had a good look, could talk so well he often did color commentary, and understood how to build sympathy and build a comeback.

Dusty rubbed Magnum T.A. the only way he knew how: by putting him storylines with the great Dusty Rhodes. Rhodes’ self-centeredness aside, the plan worked, and following a fantastic feud with Tully Blanchard (some things just keep coming up, don’t they?) that culminated in their brutal, amazing I Quit cage match at Starrcade ’85, Terry Allen looked well on his way to becoming the next face of Jim Crockett Promotions.

This match shows Magnum at the height of his babyface powers taking on Nikita Koloff. Nikita was not a great worker, but he had tons of Cold War heat and played his character well. This match displays everything that was right with Terry Allen. If you close your eyes and imagine an alternate course of history, you can see how the guy who wrestled this match could have gone on to do big things.

Unfortunately for JCP, wrestling fans, and most of all, Terry Allen himself, Allen was involved in a horrific car wreck in the fall of ’86 that left him paralyzed and ended his career. In addition to being a tragedy on a human level, Allen’s accident was a kick between the legs to JCP and the NWA, who were close to putting their eggs in his basket.

In an interesting turn of events, with Magnum T.A. unable to wrestle, Dusty and the Crocketts decided to turn his rival Nikita Koloff babyface. In a move that shook the foundations of Cold War wrestling booking, Koloff showed sympathy for his injured opponent and essentially claimed to fight in his honor in spite of their political differences.

Two years later, Jim Crockett Promotions would be out of gas and out of money. The loss of Magnum T.A., the cost of jet fuel, and the company’s decision to serve two masters by promoting nationally while still trying to stay a regional company all came together into a thick, meaty stew of failure. The Crocketts, The Horsemen, and Dusty Rhodes had created some of the greatest wrestling moments of all time during the ‘80s, but they had been crushed by the weight of their own ambitions. Even though Ted Turner acquired JCP’s roster, title belts, and lineage, something died when the last great regional promotion became a cable TV show.

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After making it through much of the pre-nWo fiascoes following the transition of the organization from the wrestling offshoot of a promotions company to the wrestling offshoot of a media company.

Even though it marked a paradigm shift as massive as anything the industry had seen before, Hulk Hogan turn into “Hollywood” Hogan at 1996’s Bash at the Beach wasn’t even the most remarkable thing that happened that night, nor would it have the longest-lasting impact on the industry. That distinction belong to the first match of the night, a lucha libre barnburner between Psicosis and Rey Mysterio, Jr:

The bout, which ends after a top-rope powerbomb from Psicosis being reversed into a hurricanrana by Mysterio, gives a delicious slice of the true lesson/legacy of WCW, and its predecessor, Jim Crockett Promotions, the idea that being a global phenomenon in the world of professional wrestling means doing everything, and doing it well. A card from the golden era of post-NWA WCW — essentially between the ‘96 Great American Bash, from just one month before this match to July 6, 1998, when Goldberg defeated Hulk Hogan on an episode of Nitro (for free) — is like remind you of what most of the cards for WWE PPVs look like today, with an eclectic mix of performers, gimmicks and story lines that scream “there’s something here for everyone, we promise!”.

But, as we talked about yesterday, this was the Terry Bollea show. Instead of allowing the things that needed to happen to build a company around the wattage and heat that came from the nWo’s name on the marquee, Bollea — along with Nash, Hall and eventually Vince Russo — would do seemingly whatever it took to keep their names in lights.

The nuts and bolts story of WCW’s downfall is well-tread, even by yours truly. There are pressures points that are brought up constantly: ending Goldberg’s streak with a cattle prod, the Fingerpoke of Doom, Ric Flair being declared insane and ending up at a mental institution, the Russo-Hogan incident, Ed Ferrara’s raison d’etre:

Which makes sense, as these moments, and the moments like them are “what” caused WCW to fail. The “why”, comes from a much different place, though. Someone in charge thought most of these were a good idea, whether it was for the company, for wrestling or for themselves. That’s the only explanation for letting people like Chris Jericho, William Regal, Eddy Guerrero, Dean Malenko, HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED and Brian Pillman go, even after matches like these:

Unlike JCP, who was put out of business WWF largely through backroom political/business maneuvering and machinations, WCW’s “lost” the battle against Vince McMahon much more than he won it. And because of this, WCW’s demise meant something much larger. Ending the way it did didn’t just mean that the WWE had lost a competitor for cultural hegemony. It meant it had lost competition for cultural hegemony, period.

By proving unable to beat out WWE even with piles of Ted Turner’s money, it created a vacuum both inside the industry — by leaving almost the entirety of recorded wrestling in the hands of one entity — and wreaked havoc on any other high-profile media company — the only people who could possibly match WWE’s production values and marketing muscle — ever trying to reach for the throne again.

We’ll spend more time this week talking about what that all means, but ultimately, it means that professional wrestling is worse off for what happened to WCW, and because of that, we’re all worse off. Period.

A Promotion You Should Probably Know Better: JCP and WCW, Part One

After having so much fun with the stables last month in celebration of the Survivor Series, we’ve decided to turn this December — and all Decembers in perpetuity — into Promotions Month. For a curtain jerker, we have WCW and its predecessor, Jim Crockett Promotions. This is the First Day of #JCPWCWWeek, the fourteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series and we’re going to mix it up, by making JCP and WCW a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better in two parts. Today, we’re talking about the transition from JCP to WCW and tomorrow, in addition to giving you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewings, we’ll finish the epic story of the great lost promotion of our time. On Wednesday, we’ll expose some harsh truths with the debut of Lies The WWE Told Us. After Hump Day — and throughout the week — we’ll be quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List and a couple of odds and ends, where JMS HQ erupts in a civil war, which will take place inside of a Doomsday Cage.

The history of Jim Crockett Promotions is in some ways the chronological inverse of the history of the WWE. JCP started out as, well, a promotion company. Jim Crockett Sr. put together wrestling cards starting in the 1930s, but he wasn’t just in the wrestling game, he was in the live event game. JCP helped bring popular music acts of the day to the Charlotte, North Carolina area while also organizing and marketing legitimate sporting exhibitions in a region that did not yet have any professional teams. When the NWA formed, Crockett was granted exclusive rights to promote in the Carolinas and Virginia (branded as “the Mid-Atlantic”). This instantly made wrestling the moneymaking backbone of JCP because they didn’t have to compete with other promoters for talent – they owned wrestling in the Carolinas.

Looking back, it’s fascinating to think that JCP started out promoting music and legitimate sport and then transitioned into wrestling in order to have absolute control over a particular market. WWE, the biggest wrestling company of all time, started as a powerful wrestling promotion with absolute control over a particular region, but sought to branch out into more competitive arenas such as movies and sport. Jim Crockett Sr. promoted outdoor sporting events seventy years before the XFL – and he was much more successful at it!

Before Jim Crockett Jr. became NWA President in the early 80s, JCP was known mostly as a tag team territory. Tag team wrestling was extremely popular with fans in the 70s because the format provided natural drama and, in an era with fewer professional sports teams, babyface tag teams gave fans a local brand to believe in.

More fundamentally, tag team wrestling was extremely popular with promoters because you could pack a card with wrestlers and keep costs down. The line of thought went something like this: “All the workers know I have 100 beans to pay out for my main event. If I have a singles main event, I will pay each of those men 50 beans, which will set the precedent that wrestlers can expect to make 50 beans per night. If I have a tag team main event, each man gets 25 beans, which is an amount I’m comfortable paying people.” The goal was control, and in the tag team era, Jim Crockett Promotions were masters of it, which helped them become one of the most profitable and powerful promotions in the country.

In the early 80s, largely due to Jim Jr.’s presidency of the NWA, Jim Crockett Promotions scored several major coups.

The company partnered with Dusty Rhodes, one of the creative masterminds of the day, to put together Starrcade, wrestling’s first nationally-televised supercard. Dusty understood the importance of bringing wrestling national, and the Crocketts had the money to make it happen with the production values the show would need to get over.

The Crocketts built the entire show around hometown hero Ric Flair winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from Harley Race. Flair had held the title before, but the platform created by the pageantry of Starrcade made his win one of the biggest moments many NWA fans had ever seen. It also, more importantly to the Crocketts, gave meant that “their guy” would be the champion, giving the promotion a significant amount of control over the title. This meant even more money for the promotion, as they could make extra money booking Flair out around the world and control the overall direction of the NWA.

The final coup that put JCP on the top of the heap was reclaiming the Saturday afternoon timeslot that Vince McMahon had snatched away from the NWA on the legendary “Black Saturday.” This put Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling on a nationwide cable system and made them partners with Ted Turner, the most influential businessman of the era in television.

David Crockett and Jim Jr. were not the savvy, bottom-line businessmen that their father had been, however. They were just as into living The Four Horsemen lifestyle as The Horsemen, and while they were drawing great gates, the expenses of their superior production values were catching up to them. Famously, the Crocketts bought two private jets to shuttle their stars around the country to various shows. While the price of jet fuel alone did not tip the balance sheet towards loss, the use of the jets was the ultimate example for how the company had fallen into 1980s excess.

Ultimately, the expenses and the aggressive growth of the WWF caught up to the Crocketts, and by late 1988, they were struggling to keep the lights on. Their television partner, Ted Turner, who loved professional wrestling and felt it an important building block of his network, bought the company for a song as it teetered on bankruptcy (an action that would be repeated less than 15 years later) and renamed it World Championship Wrestling.

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And transition from JCP to WCW is a strange one, significantly stranger than the one between Dave and I for this piece.

For all the pomp and circumstance that the lifestyle of the Horsemen entitled, anyone watching a  JCP show wasn’t going to find much in the way of WWF-style Sports Entertainment. A rugged bunch of Good Ole Boys, like the aforementioned Horsemen and Dusty, along with highly athletic performers like Sting and the Steiners formed the backbone of the preeminent wrestling company in the US.

Which is why it was so odd when WCW decided to get into bed with Hulk Hogan, the avatar for Vince McMahon’s Grecian wet dream/vision for what professional wrestling was supposed to be. And along with Hogan — and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, who actually received a fond farewell from then-only-a-announcer-on-TV Vince McMahon after leaving the company for the greener pastures of Ted Turner’s money — came the exact type of over-the-top spectacle tied in a stale storyline that had left the WWF in financial shambles for several years after Hogan’s departure.

Even things like a three-story Doomsday Cage (no, not the Dave Arquette one from Ready to Rumble/Vince Russo’s WCW) match would be overshadowed in terms of weirdness, contrivance and, most importantly, public ridicule by things like a Monster Truck Sumo Match ON TOP OF A BUILDING. That the reason for the (pardon the pun) over-the-top location was so that The Giant (The Big Show, Paul Wight) could pretend to fall off the roof before coming back during the main event (read: aborted match-cum-Hulk Hogan promo) to win the WCW championship BY DISQUALIFICATION.

Needless to say, fans were not buying into an even worse version of the exact things they hated about Hogan, no matter how many times he flexed. Which is why what happened at 1996’s edition of Bash at the Beach felt so epic (which it was), unprecedented (which it essentially was), and like a portent of positive things to come and the possible end of WWF’s reign as the top promotion in the top market for wrestling in the entire world (which it absolutely was not).

While Hogan turning on the frenemies like Randy Savage and the fans appeared to be the important part of what happened, much more significant was him turning on “the company Up North”, and by extension, his entire legacy of as the Immortal Hulk Hogan. In turning heel, he was rejecting not just his former character, but the notion that his success was due to anyone other than Terry Bollea. Tomorrow, we’ll see just how well that turned out.

A Stable You Should Probably Know Better: The Four Horsemen

Four Horsemen

It’s the First Day of #4HorsemenWeek. In celebration of this month’s Survivor Series, we’re taking a look at famous stables from the wonderful world of wrestling. This is the thirteenth installment in our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. As always we’ll start by making The Horsemen a Stable You (Should) Probably Know Better, then give you the finer points of their oeuvre tomorrow with some Essential Viewing, and on Wednesday, we’ll be asking you to  Watch and Learn. After Hump Day, we get our Buzzfeed on  with a Top 10 List before finishing everything off on Friday with a Difference of Opinion (or, more likely, a celebration of the Horsemen’s specific brand of awesome.) 

Any discussion of factions or stables in professional wrestling takes place in the long, dark shadow of The Four Horsemen. The Horsemen were such a successful, over act that they achieved the ultimate goal of professional wrestling: they convinced fans all around the world that they were “the best competitors” in a sport of cooperative fights and predetermined outcomes. To this day, no faction can form without the question “How do they compare to The Four Horsemen?” coming up, and the answer is always the same: “They’re no Four Horsemen.”

So, why is it that The Four Horsemen became the all-time great collection of wrestlers? Was it the charisma of Ric Flair, one of the two definitive stars of the 1980s? Yes, partly. Was it the standard-setting in-ring work ethic of all the group’s members? Yes, partly.  Was it the massive talent pool of strong supporting characters in the mid-to-late 80s NWA? Yes, partly that too.

Like all great moments and movements throughout history, The Four Horsemen were a perfect storm of causes, characters, and culture. As such, nailing down the reasons for their greatness as the definitive stable is difficult, but consider the following five-point-plan to explain what made The Horsemen so special:

1. The Horsemen were an organically-created group

The Four Horsemen didn’t suddenly appear on NWA TV wearing matching trunks and proclaiming themselves the measuring stick of professional wrestling. Rather, they came together naturally over time. The Minnesota Wrecking Crew (in its third incarnation) of Arn and Ole Anderson were fake cousins, and Ric Flair was their fake second cousin. They worked together in trio feuds against the likes of Dusty Rhodes and The Road Warriors, but they were hardly a stable. The Crew were decidedly a tag team, and Ric Flair was a top champion who didn’t need anybody’s help to defend the title. However, as they worked more and more together, it became apparent to anybody who was watching that the future Horsemen had uncanny chemistry. It was never planned ahead of time, but the group was just so good that they couldn’t break them up when the trio angle was over.

To understand the value of the way The Horsemen came together naturally, consider the following counter-example: every faction in the history of TNA. All TNA’s stables from S.E.X. to The Frontline to Aces & Eights have failed because each was created artificially for a specific angle. The groups came together because a writer had a story to tell and needed a group of rude young guys or homegrown heroes or scumbag bikers to tell it. The Four Horsemen, on the other hand, lasted and thrived because they were a group that existed and became involved in angles, not a group that existed for them.

2. The Horsemen were consummate champions

If there’s any objective way to measure success in the crazy world of professional wrestling, it has to be title reigns. The various members of The Four Horsemen had over 30 different championship reigns with various titles, counting only their time in the group. Ric Flair was the default World Champion for the NWA/WCW throughout the Horsemen years, Arn Anderson was the default Television Champion from ’86 – ’91, and Horsemen teams held Tag Team Titles on five separate occasions.

With that said, there’s more to being a champion than being booked to win a title and hold it. Real, historic champions defend their titles in memorable matches against a variety of opponents, cut promos that enhance the story of their reign, and carry themselves in a way that shows fans and other wrestlers alike that they are the cream of the crop. The Horsemen were collectively better at these intangible skills than any group of wrestlers ever.

Consider a current critically acclaimed stable (and recent JMS honoree), The Shield. The Shield had long title reigns with the U.S. and Tag Titles, but did they have memorable title defenses? Did their reigns effectively raise their own profile as well as that of the titles? Did they feel any more special than they would have without the belts? They’re no Horsemen.

3. The Horsemen were taken care of by the bookers

Let’s go example-first with this one: TNA built around Aces & Eights for over a year. Their leader, Bully Ray, held the World Heavyweight Title for nearly a year, and everybody else in the group… was a jobber. Sure, Devon held a Television Title that was never established as anything but a hideously ugly prop, but the Aces & Eights, in spite of their numbers, were never Tag Team Title or X Division Title contenders. They were just an army of lackeys being portrayed as a dominant group. The Four Horsemen, on the other hand, were an actual dominant group.

Tully Blanchard was a bumping chickenshit heel. Ric Flair was a bumping chickenshit heel. The Andersons were bumping tough guy heels. All the great Horsemen, from the originals to Dean Malenko and HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED were givers in the ring – guys who spent the majority of their matches bumping and getting worked over. In spite of their talents largely lying in enhancing their opponents, The Four Horsemen were always portrayed as top talents by the powers that be. This allowed them to work their magic making stiffs look good but also maintain their credibility and never be seen as weak. Even though Tully Blanchard was largely an enhancement talent, he got his wins and held his titles, which made him one of the most useful stars of an era.

Consider 3MB: they can bump, they have a good connection with the crowd, and they always make their opponents look good. Unlike The Horsemen, however, 3MB have never been taken care of whatsoever. All they do is lose, lose, lose. If the WWE just gave them the occasional win, their act would have credibility that would make their losses mean so much more.

4. The Horsemen were a group of individuals with a unified identity

The Four Horsemen were always a unified brotherhood: if you messed with one of them, you messed with all of them; if one of them wanted you taken out, all of them would be fully dedicated to taking you out. With that said, each man had his own personality. Ric Flair was flamboyant and loud-mouthed, Arn Anderson was serious and no-nonsense, Brian Pillman was intense but unhinged. The Horsemen were a club of badasses, and being a Horseman was an honor, but it didn’t mean sacrificing who you were as an individual. This allowed the group’s members two opportunities to get over: once for being their own badass self, another for being a Horseman.

Last week, Nick took a close look at The Nation of Domination, a group that never got as over as they could have because the WWE failed to establish each member’s individual personality fully. Sure, they were The Nation of Domination (Nation. Of Domination.), but who was Kama? Some kind of boxer dude? Who was D’Lo Brown? Some guy with a head tick? Who was Mark Henry? A strong guy? Who was Farooq? Some guy with no personality? The Nation represented a united front well, but the heat was entirely on “The Nation” brand, not any of its actual members. The Four Horsemen found a divine balance of presenting themselves as a top group while also maintaining their identities as individual wrestlers.

5. The Horsemen were an insider group, not an outsider group

The major mistake made in the booking of almost every faction over the last fifteen years is that they’ve all been portrayed as outsider groups that are somehow a threat to the promotion in which they wrestle. Let’s take a break to examine the logic of that tactic… Suppose you ran a frozen yogurt stand. Now, suppose that out of your six employees, three of them worked for Baskin-Robbins and wanted to destroy you and everything you stood for. Would you let them man the register?

Unlike the nWo or Aces & Eights, The Four Horsemen were a dominant, destructive force from within the NWA – heck, they embodied the NWA. They were the bad guys, but they were bad guys that NWA fans could be proud of. They were worthy, legitimate opponents for the top babyfaces of Jim Crockett promotions. They didn’t want to destroy the territory, they wanted to prove that they were the alpha males within a great territory. The nWo were all about proving that WCW wrestlers were pussies, effectively destroying the name value of their employer, but The Horsemen successfully fortified the prestige of the company for which they worked.

***

If the goal was to wax poetic or spill ink, it would be easy to write volumes about why The Four Horsemen are the definitive wrestling stable of all time. The short version is easy to write too, though: the Horsemen were great wrestlers, great talkers, and great champions. They were booked and protected intelligently, and their bosses understood how to put them in positions to shine while also helping others look good. The Horsemen were collectively everything that you’d want to see in a group of wrestlers, and individually, each man was great in his own right. Fifty years from now, wrestling stables will still be compared to The Four Horsemen, and for good reason. They set the standard and they set it high.

A Stable You Should Probably Know Better: The Nation of Domination

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It’s the First Day of #TheNationWeek. In celebration of this month’s Survivor Series, we’re taking a look at famous stables from the wonderful world of wrestling. This is the twelfth installment in our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. As always we’ll start by making The Nation a Stable You (Should) Probably Know Better, then give you the finer points of their oeuvre tomorrow with some Essential Viewing. On Wednesday, we’ll be asking you to  Watch and Learn. After Hump Day, we get our Buzzfeed  with a Top 10 List before finishing everything off on Friday with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ hopefully doesn’t erupt in a giant race kerfuffle like that episode of Community.) 

Race is, of course a societal construct, but it is still a thing in society. There’s any number of things that are affected by “race”  — like “personal identity” and “your worldview” (see: privilege, White) — and within the context of those things, it is still necessary to acknowledge it.

faarooq_display_imageI didn’t know any of this when I was 9. So, when Ron Simmons — by then going by not just Faarooq, but Faarooq Asaad and wearing the worst ring gear in the history of wrestling (no, that picture on the right isn’t Photoshopped) — decided to form what was essentially the Nation of Islam in the WWF, I didn’t understand the gravity of what was happening.

As David Shoemaker’s brilliant piece — an excerpt from his pretty swell book — highlights, wrestling history is wrought with embarrassing examples of what could most generously described as “some racist ass shit”. Stars as prominent and recently relevant as Booker T — easily the most decorated African-American wrestler ever — had to deal with the type of overt racism insensitivity that most of us have only read about in history books. In a storyline that seems like it was pulled directly from 12 Years a Slave, T and his brother debuted their seminal tag team, Harlem Heat, as two “wrestling prisoners” who were WON IN A CARD GAME by plantation-owner-themed-wrestling-promoter Colonel Parker.

To go from that — which happened in 1993, a full year after the Rodney King riots — to a militant Black Power stable just 3 years later highlights precisely how schizophrenic professional wrestling can be when there is money to be made.

And boy, howdy, did they make some money.

Like the Montreal Expos of the mid-90s, the Nation of Domination is nearly as significant for its “on the field” performance as for the careers it helped spawn. Headlined initially by the aforementioned Simmons — the first African-American World’s Champion — the stable would help launch the careers of two more “first ballot” Hall of Famers, Mark Henry and The Rock, help Charles Wright (AKA Kama Mustafa AKA The Godfather) achieve his lifelong dream of being Intercontinental Champion — and manager of a strip club.

While there are stables that match the sheer star power of the Nation, few were more successful doing EVERYTHING that NOD managed to do in its relatively short existence: transition D-X past the Shawn Michaels era, turning Triple H-The Rock into super megastars through those feuds, created midcard stars like The Godfather and D’Lo Brown, while still managing to feel A) culturally significant and B) relevant to the storylines of the organization.

What allowed  the Nation to do this was obvious: while they were undoubtedly heels, what they were saying made sense. Wrestling treated pretty much every minority for much of its existence almost hilariously bad, only using them to fill in stock stereotypes or to appeal to very specific audiences as Stepin Fetchit caricatures of whatever group the poor sap represented.

“By Any Means Necessary”, while so obviously cribbed from Malcolm X, worked as a rallying cry for the group because it was their means of acquiring what they wanted — and not their belief that they deserved it — that made them heels. It’s hard to imagine that they thought it through to that level, but the Nation functioned largely in a symbolic sense as the line between heels and faces. And there was ample evidence that taking what they thought they deserved “by any means necessary” was precisely what young black performers needed  to do to get over in the company.

Ahmed Johnson — who you can check out by taking a look at #AhmedJohnsonWeek — shows you what a “face” African American looked like for much of the WWE’s history: someone unable to connect with fans because of any number of personality and health issues, presented essentially as an “amazing athlete with a rough upbringing” and little else.

Which is why, ultimately, the WWE needed the Nation just as much in front of the camera as it did behind the camera, and has most certainly paved the way for some of the young African American stars you see today like Big E. Langston and the Prime Time Players. Unable to figure out how to market young black men to a predominantly white audience, they needed a group of talented young men who happened to be black to show them how to do it: working to get what you think you deserve, and grabbing it, By Any Means Necessary.

A Stable You Should Probably Know Better: The Shield

The Shield

It’s the First Day of #TheShieldWeek, the eleventh installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. In celebration of this month’s Survivor Series, we’re taking a look at famous stables from the wonderful world of wrestling. As always we’ll start by making The Hounds of Justice a Wrestler Stable You (Should) Probably Know Better, then give you the finer points of their oeuvre tomorrow with some Essential Viewing. But then we’re going to do something different with #TheShieldWeek and give each member their own day. Wednesday will be Seth Rollins’ — and we’ll Watch and Learn him but good, and give him his own GIF parade after —  with Roman and Dean coming after him to finish out the week.  And, don’t worry, we will still be making our “Amazon.com on steroids” dreams come true with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…” on Thursday before finishing everything off on Friday with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a Triple Powerbomb-fueled civil war.) 

I actually missed their arrival. This was before Juice Make Sugar started in earnest, and I was broke, so the chances of me spending any type of money for anything was non-existent. I had known from watching a lot of wrestling — or, you know, at least more than two shows consecutively — that CM Punk was leaving Survivor Series with the WWE Championship. How they were going to do it was the confusing bit.

So, when I heard what happened I was VERY ready to call “Shenanigans”. I understood why they were doing what they were doing: having these three quasi-mystery men — Cole identified them from NXT almost immediately on air — destroy Ryback paved the way for Punk to pin Cena and give Ryback an out by allowing Cena to take a loss that wouldn’t affect his standing in the least. However, unless the “mystery” is The Big Show, and it’s a match between Stone Cold and Vince McMahon, the use of human deus ex machina in wrestling — especially at a PPV — is not a good idea.

This is partially because the crowd reaction is almost never big enough to justify the “damage” done to the promise of a clean ending (however much there is one) on a PPV. But it’s more than that. Bringing someone out this way automatically puts an expectation on their future prospects, and it’s very hard to live up to the anticipation of what comes next when someone makes a splash in a title match. Especially when the inevitable “I’m here to explain why I did what I did” promo comes in.

That’s when the wheels fall off, as not only is the crowd reaction never big enough, but the reasons behind the betrayal or ambush are usually so weird, convoluted or just downright idiotic that whatever heat they managed to get is quickly extinguished.

But then, The Shield explained themselves and set the world on fire.

All of the ideas we had, all of the reasons we could come up with evaporated in a mushroom cloud the first time Dean Ambrose opened his mouth. Ambrose, who had made his way up through the independent scene as Jon Moxley, was the perfect choice as the de facto mouthpiece of the group.

Ambrose’s speech pattern and mannerisms give off an immediate sense of agency: the Shield was doing this because they chose to. They were the ones moving things forward, they were the ones deciding when and where to dole out “justice” and it was up to everyone else to stop them.

And they still haven’t.

In the last year, they’ve moved from a narrative device to legitimate superstars, and have done so as rapidly as anything not named “Brock Lesnar” in the history of wrestling. Which, in a weird way, is their best comparison: a destructive force that exists largely outside of the tropes and rules of the program, creating a destroying convention through sheer force of will. Instead of becoming repetitive or complacent, the group has moved from paramilitary revolutionaries to the gatekeepers to the corporate throne while their message of “stopping injustice” has rang as beautifully hollow as it did when they first said it.

They are mercenaries and always have been, that they were willing to lie to our faces about it has been a bit of genius storytelling that manages to feel fresh — because it’s essentially new to WWE programming — and classic — because it’s been an essential component to basically every action movie worth its salt ever — without also feeling like a typical WWE matter of telling you something is the truth. No one ever “really” believed they were working for justice, but had no proof otherwise until poor Brad Maddox made one mistake too many.

And the entire time, as the group’s profile has evolved and elevated, they’ve changed the nature of the business, pumped new blood into stagnant belts and set themselves up for what seems to be long and illustrious careers.

Rollins and Reigns’ run as tag team champions — and their work alongside Ambrose in six-man tags — has been a sea change for the Tag Team division, creating actual intrigue around the titles that had been missing since the TLC-era. For the first time in a generation, the WWE has begun growing tag teams from the ground up instead of pushing together stars with nothing better to do, and nearly all of it is because of the performances of the Shield on the heels of Team Hell No’s reestablishment of the genre as a viable part of the show. And they’ve done it without having to “Hug It Out” a single time.

And while the Shield are DEFINITELY the youngest performers we’ve profiled for Wrestler of the Week, the amount they’ve done in the last year has made them a necessity to talk about. While it’s hard to say who will or won’t make it in a business as unpredictable as professional wrestling, it’s probably safe to say that these three have some of the brightest futures in the business right now and that we should all believe. Believe in The Shield.

A Stable You Should Probably Know Better: The Varsity Club

varsityClub2

It’s the First Day of #VarsityClubWeek. In celebration of this month’s Survivor Series, we’re taking a look at famous stables from the wonderful world of wrestling. This is the tenth installment in our patent-pending Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. As always we’ll start with A Stable You Should Probably Know Better, then give you the finer points of their oeuvre tomorrow with some Essential Viewing. On Wednesday, we’ll be asking Some Serious Questions. After Hump Day, we make our “Amazon.com on steroids” dreams come true with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…“. before finishing everything off on Friday with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a Letterman-jacket-fueled civil war.) 

The last two years have seen an unprecedented return of powerful factions to professional wrestling. The Wyatt Family, The Shield, and Paul Heyman’s Guys have been among the most pushed and praised acts in the WWE over that time span, and TNA, while less successful, has also been built around Aces & Eights and EGO. Wrestling fans today are being treated to a renaissance of an idea that worked for decades: the heel faction.

The Varsity Club, who ran roughshod over Jim Crockett promotions as it morphed into WCW, are a perfect example of the deepness from the great era of heel factions, and the pervasiveness of the official WWE version of wrestling history.

Since they didn’t have any historically important performers (for the E, at least) they have received short shrift in retellings, mainly surviving as historical footnotes in WWE-produced documentaries. And with their pretty unfortunate timing — the JCP-to-WCW transition is pretty much the most confusing, ill-understood shift outside of the National Wrestling Association disbanding to make way for an Alliance — they are placed firmly in the blindspot of most millennial fans.

For the uninitiated, the gimmick was simple: they were jocks — mean jocks. They were the guys who picked on you in high school. They strutted around wearing letterman’s jackets and insisting upon their credentials as great athletes and, more importantly, their credentials as men. The part that made it work was that it was true – or at least mostly true (which is as true as anything needs to be in wrestling) – they were tremendous athletes. Nobody in the group was ever going to lose a fight in a bar. They were tough. Real, mean, scary tough.

Above all, The Varsity Club embodied the top role of the legitimate athlete in NWA-style professional wrestling. Wrestling, as guided from Vince McMahon, has strayed so far from sports in favor of “sports entertainment” that it’s almost impossible to contextualize The Varsity Club to a modern audience. Ask a wrestling fan under twenty-five to tell you about wrestlers who are great athletes –They will start by telling you about Brock Lesnar (legit), then the next names on the list will probably be Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas. The correct response to this answer is to invite them to the bar for a drink, offer them a ride, open the car door for them, and then slam it on their hand as soon as they start to get in.

Although Kevin Sullivan didn’t have the stature and athleticism to be a top-flight sports star, he was tough as nails (as any short Irishman who grew up in 1960s Southie would be) and could talk a crowd into a building to see him get his ass kicked. For most of the 80s, Sullivan had been the evilest heel in Florida, leading his Satanic “Army” against the Grahams, Dusty Rhodes and other top babyfaces in the territory. While Sullivan’s previous gimmick was in a different hemisphere than the dead-serious, sports-oriented Varsity Club, his time leading The Army had prepared him well to guide a group of a different kind of monsters – monsters who could actually tear you limb-from-limb, not just pretend tear you limb-from-limb. Fans today know about The Army in Florida and “The Taskmaster” in mid-90s WCW, but not to understand the importance of Kevin Sullivan’s time in The Varsity Club is a sin against wrestling history. Sullivan was the hub to which all the spokes of the wheel were lashed, the straw that stirred the drink.

Varsity ClubSullivan’s original Club members were young studs Rick Steiner and Mike Rotunda, tremendous wrestlers out of big time programs (Michigan and Syracuse, respectively) . On top of their legitimate wrestling records, Rotunda and Steiner both looked the part of no-nonsense, killer jocks. Rotunda was big as a house, a quality that served him well even when he was awkwardly forced into a button-up shirt and red suspenders. He looked like a guy it would take you a week to walk around.

Steiner, while short for a main event-level pro wrestler, emoted the single-minded intensity of a competitive athlete as well as anybody ever. He looked like the guy who would have beat you up in the hallway for bumping into him. They weren’t the kind of monsters Sullivan had managed in Florida – they were real monsters. Fans admired The Varsity Club for their legitimate accomplishments, but found them utterly hateable as braggart, bully jerks.

Steiner and Rotunda each had long — if unspectacular as singles competitors — runs in both WCW and the WWF; and while they would settle into different gimmicks as their careers matured, fans always recognized both men as members of The Club. They were presented as real at a time when wrestling was becoming increasingly cartoony. Compare The Varsity Club to the top WWF stable of the day, The Heenan Family: Heenan’s goons, while legendary, seem like kids’ stuff comparatively.

As time went on, Steiner was spun out of the club as a babyface (a move that made him and his brother Scott a massive amount of money as one of the premier tag team attractions of the early 90s), causing “Dr. Death” Steve Williams and “Dangerous” Dan Spivey to be added in order to prop up Sullivan and The Club.

Steve Williams was the utter embodiment of The Varsity Club, perhaps more so than any of its original members. The eventual Dr. Death was terrifying to look at – a legitimate football and wrestling star from The University of Oklahoma, a football and wrestling school. Williams seamlessly bridged the gap between monster heel and super athlete; a natural fit to team with Kevin Sullivan. The two won the United States Tag Titles (JCP/WCW’s tag title at a time when the NWA Titles were still national), and Rotunda and Williams later won the NWA World Tag Titles from The Road Warriors [trivia note: a fast-count in this match led to the heel turn of then-referee Teddy Long, playa’!].

Pause for a minute and consider this: Steve Williams and Mike Rotunda beat the Road Warriors in 1989. This victory speaks equally to two important points. First, The Varsity Club were great. To put a team over The Road Warriors, even dirty, was a huge deal at the time. The Road Warriors were tag team wrestling in the late 80s. They had the best look, they had the best finisher, and they were the most over act. The idea that WCW believed there was more money to be made with the straps on The Varsity Club than The Road Warriors proves how over their act was and what a respected faction they were within the industry.

The second important message that can be gleaned from this moment is that wrestling fans should know far more about this group than they do. Maybe they are discussed and written about so little because they worked for the opposition during the Hulkamania era, that they were the replacement for the beloved Four Horsemen, or even because internet wrestling fans have so much invested in the “Kevin Sullivan killed Chris Benoit” lie (Editor’s note: “Kevin sullivan killed Chris Benoit” returned 40,900 search results on Google.) Either way it’s clear to see that The Varsity Club were a massively important part of wrestling in the late 80s, both in terms of story lines and culture.

The Varsity Club was the ultimate anti-McMahon faction. Legitimate athletes who were tough in spite of not looking like bodybuilders. Led by a short, decidedly unsexy manager, they didn’t need gimmicks and barely needed title belts. Their letterman’s jackets and their attitude were all they needed. They were the guys who pushed you into lockers, who slept with your girlfriend, who acted like they were better than you. They were real heels.