Category Archives: Essential Viewing

#ECWWeek: Essential Viewing

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 Day Two of #ECWWeek, the fifteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series. As (almost) always, we started by making ECW a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better. Today, we give you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewing AND a Highlight Reel . Tomorrow, we discuss the idea of ECW and Another Fan’s Treasure before quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List on Thursday. Finally we’ll sum everything up on Friday with a “Difference of Opinion” that will likely be closer to a “Difference in Levels of Disdain”. Let’s get Extreme?

In 1994, Jim Crockett Jr. himself approached Tri-State Wrestling Alliance/Eastern Championship Wrestling promoter Todd Gordon about carrying the standard for the NWA. Based on nearly 50 years of NWA tradition, the move should have been an honor for the relatively small territory.

But Gordon and new booker Paul Heyman understood that following the death of Jim Crockett Promotions, the appearance of the title on WWF television, and the belt shuffling at WCW’s Disney tapings, the NWA Title had been devalued past the point of no return.

So, they — along with “The Franchise” Shane Douglas — did this:

Douglas’ promo isn’t great, with a “substitute news anchor reading off the prompter” feel to it, but he hits the right bullet points, successfully creating the sense of rebellion and anti-authority sentiment that made this dimly-lit moment the spark from which ECW’s “revolution” was ignited.

ECW had the attitude from that moment forward, but what really made the company work was that they offered an in-ring product that neither WWF nor WCW could even approach. The ECW-style was rooted in the super hard-hitting, fast-paced style of early 1990s Japanese wrestling. Matches like this one — between Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko — is a perfect showcase of what ECW brought to the United States. Both men are nearly subatomic by the standards of height and bulk required in big-time operations of the day, but their work is so simultaneously smooth and physical that it seems like a well-choreographed dance performance compared to the awkward, herky-jerky main event style of the day.

If ECW was built on unapologetic, in-your-face attitude and high-level in-ring work, then Steve Austin was the perfect ECW star. He had only a short stint in the territory between his exit from WCW and debut into the WWF, but Steve Austin made the most of the time he had there. With the encouragement of Paul Heyman, Austin began developing the promo style that would make him one of the most successful wrestlers of all time.

Fifteen years before CM Punk, Steve Austin helped establish himself as one of the great characters in wrestling with this scathing shoot promo. Austin vented his frustration with the inner politics of wrestling, using impressions of Dusty Rhodes, Hulk Hogan, and Eric Bischoff that were as scathing and dead-on as Punk calling Triple H a doofus during his “Pipe Bomb” promo. Even if you were oblivious to the history of the Attitude Era, if you saw this promo from ECW in 1995, you would look at Steve Austin and say, “That’s a huge star.”

Austin put it well when he said that ECW was mostly “a bunch of violent crap.” The territory saw many great workers and historically significant moments, but everything was reduced in prestige and respectability by the fact that the company’s wrestlers treated each other like kidnapping victims in a snuff film. The unofficial motto of ECW was “more is more.” More spots. More risk. More violence.

When wrestling was at its white-hottest in 1997, both the WWF and WCW were borrowing heavily from the ECW playbook: outrageous injury angles, scantily clad women “spontaneously” bursting out of tight dresses, and a near-constant barrage of weapon shots and juice. Rather than reinvent themselves in the face of imitators, though, ECW decided to stick to the same tricks and turn them up to eleven.

The following match from Hardcore TV features three of the greatest tag teams in ECW history: The Dudleys, The Gangstas and The Eliminators. All three teams were crazy over, and fans loved their matches, but two of the three groups had the same gimmick: “guys who brutally beat up other guys” (The Gangstas had been involved in the notorious “Mass Transit Incident” less than six months earlier — I won’t link you to it, but you can look it up…). The result is a match that engages the crowd, but exposes the unsustainable nature of ECW’s booking for all to see. You could take this match “around the circuit” once, but how many times will fans pay to watch a six men sloppily beat the crap out of each other?

The escalating violence of ECW reached its crescendo at 1997’s Born to Be Wired in an ECW Title match between Sabu and Terry Funk. This match is possibly one of the worst ideas ever. It pits a then-53-year-old Funk against a then-seemingly-indestructible Sabu in a match that makes Funk look very old and Sabu look very destructible. The match, straight out of FMW, is every bit as gruesome as you would expect a match with barbed wire ring ropes to be.

The match’s signature moment occurs at the ten minute mark, with Sabu tearing open his bicep by flying into the barbed wire. Few moments embody the legacy and philosophy of ECW better. The match should have stopped for the sake of safety, but in the name of the religion of ECW (created in equal parts by Paul Heyman in order to control talent and stereotypical Philadelphians in order to feed their bloodlust), Sabu tapes his arm up with white athletic tape and finishes the match.

For all its fame, this match contains the most abysmal clean finish of all time. The two men become inextricably tangled in the barbed wire, with their clothes torn to the point that they seem in danger of being stripped naked. A terrified-looking Bill Alfonzo tries to interject, cutting the wire in hopes of freeing the men to the point where they can actually wrestle, but it doesn’t work. Ultimately, Fonzie and a referee have to gingerly lift and roll Sabu and Funk back in the ring in order to go home on the worst pin ever executed. You know what would have prevented all that? One iota of restraint.

***

ECW finally got a national television deal just as they were finding themselves unable to deal with the constant brain drain of talent leaving for WCW and the WWF. By early 2000, Taz(z), Raven, the Dudley Boys, and The Radicalz were all in the WWE and Lance Storm and Mike Awesome were in WCW. The result was a mixture of wrestlers with blind faith in ECW (Tommy Dreamer) and wrestlers that nobody wanted (Balls Mahoney). ECW, the company where wrestlers tore their bodies to shreds to make their home team relevant had failed supremely: they weren’t relevant, and the wrestlers’ bodies were still torn to shreds.

The dying days of ECW were hard to watch on many levels, but one redeeming feature was that ECW on TNN gave many talented, hungry workers a place to ply their craft on TV. This match between Taijiri and Psicosis is a gem in the coal dust, a wonderful, albeit feeble beat in the fading pulse of ECW.

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

nWonew

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.

***
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.

#4HorsemenWeek: Essential Viewing

4horsemen

It’s Day Two 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 started by making The Horsemen a Stable You (Should) Probably Know Better. Today, we give you the finer points of their oeuvre with some Essential Viewing. 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.) 

The entire Horsemen catalogue is Essential Viewing. They are the measuring stick for all wrestling alliances that came after them, cutting the best promos of all time, and working legendary matches that made them the quintessential heels for an entire generation in-and-out of the ring.

Because of their perfect mix of chemistry and the gravitas their in-ring credibility lent them, interview segments helped create the mystique of The Four Horsemen just as much as any five star match could. Everybody had their moment with the mic to get across their individual personality, but the segment always successfully communicated the group dynamic and the collective agenda. This early offering shows the Andersons, Flair, and Tully Blanchard all have time with the mic while displaying their shiny title belts:

The great target of the 1980s Horsemen was Dusty Rhodes. From a creative standpoint, Dusty was the perfect foil for The Four Horsemen. He was on par with the group’s leader Ric Flair in terms of promo ability and represented the honesty and fundamental goodness of which The Horsemen were bankrupt. Practically speaking, however, Rhodes, the booker of Jim Crockett Promotions at the time, knew a good thing when he saw it and kept himself as close to the white-hot Horsemen as possible. Even in light of these blatant political machinations, Dusty vs. The Horsemen was a great feud.

Rhodes and Flair main evented Starrcade ’84, but in the subsequent year, The Four Horsemen were assembled, which allowed the NWA to build towards another Flair-Rhodes showdown with a powerful, natural way to stack the odds against superface Dusty. In the buildup to Starrcade ’85, Flair and The Horsemen jumped Dusty in one of the most memorable moments in NWA history, breaking his leg inside a steel cage in a vicious attack that shocked the fanbase.

The injury angle got over like free money and catapulted Dusty towards a monumental title win at Starrcade. The bit was so good that it even worked the second way around less than a year later when The Horsemen broke Dusty’s arm in a legendary segment. The Horsemen kidnapped a cameraman, forced him to travel with them as they stalked Rhodes, and ultimately jumped The American Dream in the parking lot of JCP headquarters, smashing his arm with a baseball bat. (Dusty famously shouts “MAKE IT GOOD!” just before the moment of truth.) The segment was so revolutionary and gritty that fans watching on TV called local police to alert them of an assault in progress – seriously. The moment cemented The Four Horsemen as the most lowdown, despicable heels in the territory, and was so highly-regarded within the industry that it was copied over a decade later by the nWo.

Of course, these segments, in spite of their greatness, wouldn’t have meant a thing if The Horsemen hadn’t delivered in the ring with Dusty. As this match (oddly dubbed for Japanese broadcast complete with awesome Japanese commercials) illustrates, The Horsemen knew how to get heat and build anticipation for their opponents comebacks. The match sees Flair and the Andersons (The Minnesota Wrecking Crew if you will, daddy) take on Rhodes and The Rock n’ Roll Express, who were at the time just about the three biggest pure babyfaces in wrestling this side of Hulk Hogan.

Their offense, while smooth and expertly-executed, was never flashy, and the goal was always to build the next hope spot for their babyface opponents.  As seen in the above match, the Andersons worked a largely punch-kick style, an effective heel tactic of the era. However, The Horsemen came into their true prime with Ole’s retirement in 1987. This allowed Arn and Tully to become the group’s tag team in residence, which was good, considering Arn and Tully are a prominent part of the “greatest heel tag team ever” discussion.

Arn was big, strong, and no-nonsense, but could bump like a jobber – which is a compliment – while Tully was essentially a midcard version of Ric Flair. Arn looked as credible as anybody in the ring while Blanchard bumped, begged off, and strutted in a way that incensed the crowd. They were the perfect heels in that they were simultaneously dominant and beatable. Arn and Tully could — and frequently did — wrestle  jobbers and have a great match as easily as they could with two main eventers.

It’s a testament to Anderson and Blanchard that the golden age of The Four Horsemen ended the second they left for the WWF (where they were known as The Brainbusters and had a memorable feud with Demolition).

As the 80s became the 90s, it felt like the era of The Horsemen was over. During wrestling’s creative nadir in the early 90s, fans and promoters remembered the greatness of The Four Horsemen, and trying to recreate that instead of build something new felt like a good idea. Whether it was a face run incorporating Sting in the group or a heel run with “Pretty” Paul Roma, these incarnations never had the flair (no pun intended) of the original lineup.

In spite of their lack of sizzle, each subsequent group of Horsemen always fulfilled one fine tradition of The Four: they brought it in the ring. This match shows the least popular Horseman of all time (Roma) put on a great tag match with Anderson against “The Team I Really Wish Was A Real Tag Team,” Steve Austin and Steven (William) Regal.

The later versions of The Four Horsemen had some really talented members (Brian Pillman, Dean Malenko, HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED), but they always fell miles short of recapturing the original magic. Even as the act’s long-standing mystique fizzled, “The Four Horsemen” remained a brand that wrestling fans recognized and respected. When presenting the nWo as beatable finally seemed like a good idea two years too late, WCW used none other than The Horsemen (now featuring way-worse-than-Roma Mongo McMichael) as their logical opponents. By this time, though, WCW had strayed too far for any group, no matter how legendary the name, to make an impact. And so it was that along with WCW, The Four Horsemen ultimately died not with a bang, but a whimper.

#TheNationWeek: Essential Viewing

TheRockIt’s Day Two 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 started by making The Nation a Stable You (Should) Probably Know Better. Today, we give you the finer points of their oeuvre with some Essential Viewing. On Wednesday, we’ll be making lists and giving tapes. 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 hopefully doesn’t erupt in a giant race kerfuffle like that episode of Community.) 

Looking back at the The Nation of Domination is oddly like looking into the future of the WWE. Much of what happened with them was part of the non-wrestling sections of the show, the Attitude Era style that almost took the sport into full on soap-opera territory and took nearly a decade and a half to fix. And, worst of all, led to a decade of people talking about how much wrestling was happening on any given show.

And because of YouTube, their promos manage to exist in their own orbit while also appearing in a vacuum separate from the worst slog of the era, that awesome time those Japanese caricatures threaten to “Choppy-Choppy” pornstar-cum-professional wrestler Val Venis’s “pee pee”. So, the entire experience feels much more reminiscent of the current product: bits and pieces of important storylines are discussed but much of the things that propel the majority of less engaging (read: shitty) storylines forward are done outside of what I choose to watch. The difference between then and now is mostly that “outside of what I choose to watch” is the WWE App and YouTube channel shows, and not “the rest of the show I would have to sit through” like it was when Raw was the only game in town.

Another odd happenstance, mostly a function of the integral part that the faction played in the history of the company’s 2nd most popular current superstar, The Rock, is that there is a surprising amount of footage of them that hasn’t been taken down by WWE using internet magic. Many of the more important pieces of the NoD history, from when Faarooq kicks everyone not named D’Lo Brown out of the group — which at that time was rather intentionally the size of a small congregation — to when The Rock has the rest of the Nation do the same to Faarooq and most of it in between can be found if one wants to look hard enough.

This “Bigger Better Blacker” version of the Nation of Domination, now rid of the Hawai’ian scourge Crush and his Hispanic partner Savio Vega, would become best known for The Rock and his eventually juggernaut push to the main event through his power struggle with Faarooq. But it was also briefly home to Ahmed Johnson, who filled largely the same role the Rock would eventually take over, as the young future main-eventer who would eventually take down Faarooq.

It’s remarkable to think about — even after spending a week talking about it — how close Ahmed Johnson was to superstardom in the eyes of Vince McMahon. Thank god for small favors like Ahmed Johnson’s inability to stop hurting people intentionally and stay away from the buffet.

When The Rock joined the Nation, he gave the squad — which, after getting Ron Simmons as close as he ever would to the WWE title with a match at the 1997 King of the Ring against the World’s Champion, The Undertaker, had immediately been turned into the “Bigger Better Blacker” version — new life, and more importantly a new purpose: make The Rock a star in a way he hadn’t been able to do himself.

Spoiler alert: it worked.
From the moment he joined the group, the former Rocky Maivia became everything that he would be known for for the rest of his career: a cocksure, extremely impressive athlete who injected electricity and style into everything he did. The fact that the official WWE video for this moment is called “Joining the Nation of Domination, The Rock embraces destiny” gives not just a glimpse into what it meant for his career and how badly the WWE wants you understand that, but how they go about their creation stories.

The Rock didn’t just embrace his destiny, he insisted upon it. And in doing so, the angle became — however hollow as it would feel looking back — about the large question of what it meant to be a black man in Vince McMahon’s WWF. In the same way Goldust served as a large discussion of the role sexually ambiguous and androgynous characters played in the, The Nation forced social taboos — along with just regular old sex, drugs and rock n’ roll (wrestling) — to the merchandise/dinner table.

Dwayne seemed like a star, and a leader almost instantaneously. Not just with his words, but his actions, like this lovely bit of subterfuge during a backstage interview segment featuring the other members of The Nation.

The disrespect that Dwayne shows for Ron in that interview doesn’t just underline how he feels about Faarooq, but how he feels about everyone. The point of that promo, and this one, right before his WrestleMania XIV match against Ken Shamrock, is to show that The Rock knows that sometimes manipulation requires strong arming, and sometimes it requires bribing people with fake rolexes.

He would eventually push the old lion out of the pride, ordering him to be ambushed after a pull apart brawl between the two following the events of the aforementioned Shamrock match. After deposing Faarooq, the Rock would lead the group following a brief feud between the two.

Eventually, the Rock would find himself in a feud with Triple H, which would produce a few of the more memorable — if not necessarily great-in-retrospect and more than a little racist — promos, like the infamous Nation parody complete with blackface.

Plus, an actually enjoyable physical altercation or two that would, more or less, lead them both to main-event careers mostly spent in the pantheon of all time greats.

While there was a lot of the Nation that existed outside of him, it’s clear why the late-period mission of the squad was to be a star making vehicle for The Rock. And, ultimately, that’s not a bad, thing necessarily. It worked out pretty okay for Jerry Seinfeld, and it feels like it worked out for Dwayne Johnson too.

#TheShieldWeek: Essential Viewing

BelieveInTheShield

It’s Day Two 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 started with A Stable You Should Probably Know Better yesterday, and today we give you the finer points of their oeuvre  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.  Even with this change, we’ll still be making our “Amazon.com on steroids” dreams come true with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…” on Thursday before finishing everything off with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a Triple Powerbomb-fueled civil war.) 

There’s something to be said for making an entrance, especially when it involves putting a behemoth through a table, but much of that was done yesterday. Instead, it seems important to talk about the things that The Shield has done in changing the way the business functions and the work they did before they became the most important young workers in the company

Since the beginning, Dean Ambrose has been the talker of the group, not just in the sense that he is the one who speak for the group, but that his primary attribute — even with his prodigious in-ring talent — is what he can do on the mic. His introduction to FCW (the precursor to NXT) is the ur-example, and is a powerful statement even now as to what the goals should be for most young professional wrestlers trying to make their way in the business:

The first connection that many non-indy fans has with Dean Ambrose was in the rumor mills, where he and Mick Foley worked a Twitter angle that seemed to be building towards something bigger until Foley famously backed off because Ambrose mentioned, as Dean put it, “dumb/blind wife [and] his traumatized ignorant children who think he’s a good person”. What fans were less attune to was the brilliant work he was doing immediately prior to this with the Great William Regal. A blitz of pantheon promos followed, including this one:

There’s a real confidence in what Ambrose is saying, and with his how physically imposing he is — he’s actually taller (if slighter) than Roman Reigns, though the WWE would never mention this — it creates a very unsettling feeling. It also helps to underscore the many comparisons to The Joker — and specifically Heath Ledger’s interpretation — that have been mentioned as high up as the WWE commentary booth itself. There’s an absurd realness to his promos that permeates everything he’s saying, especially when he’s telling stories about how tough he is:

It feels like he’s making you aware of how dangerous he is just as much for his benefit as yours.

But he’s not the most dangerous member of The Shield, from a narrative perspective, anyways. That would be Roman Reigns, or as I’ve called him previously, The Hammer. The comparisons to his “cousin” the Rock (who is not *actually* related to him, even if the High Chief Peter Maivia was essentially family to the bloodline) make sense, but they seem to be of the “comparing white basketball players to each other” variety.

While he may boast a similar build, Roman Reigns exudes a quiet confidence and an internal rage that feels nearly unique. Like a kettle ready to explode, Reigns has made his bones by being the deus ex machina within the deus ex machina with his spears — easily the best ever — serving as the killing stroke in many of the Shield’s more prominent victories.
He plays the role as “the difference maker” exceptionally well for the squad, fully aware of his importance but with — and this is perhaps the defining characteristic of the group as a whole — an eye towards what’s most beneficial for the group. In a way, Reigns “wrestles to character” as well as anyone this side of Bray Wyatt. Notorious for his EPIC in-match smack talk, nearly every moment in the ring with Reigns has the undercurrent of witnessing something special or the possibility thereof.

And, like the ying to Reign’s yang, Seth Rollins specialness comes not from a particularly impressive offensive style — although the former Tyler Black is no slouch on that end either — but with selling that has redefined the Ziggler Scale. These two have combined to produce some of the more memorable PPV matches of recent vintage, and in doing so have revitalized a tag team division which has been stagnant beyond a few starclusters like Show Miz, Jeri-Show and recently, Team Hell No!, who the fellows dispatched for the titles at Extreme Rules.

But, because much of their matches have happened in the last few months, nearly none of it is available to be viewed (conveniently) for free. There’s, of course, our friends at DailyMotion, who have uploaded many of the matches with varying video quality, like their amazing match at Battleground against Cody and Goldust, but because we can’t embed them, you’ll have to trust us and follow the links below.

Extreme Rules 2013: Team Hell No vs The Shield by SkeeterMcMeatBeater

Shield vs. Cody Rhodes & Goldust – RAW 10.15.13 by AndresGuilherme

Goldust & Cody Rhodes Vs The Shield… by wwedivas2013

Hell in a Cell 2013 – The Usos vs The Shield vs… by TheUsosOnline

But ultimately, their greatest legacy will be the (re?)introduction of the Trios concept, and the majesty of a properly executed six-man tag match. While there have definitely been groups before that worked well together in matches, the thematic difference between them have created one of the most efficient destruction machines the professional wrestling world will ever see. They’ve torn the house down more times than can be counted from PPVs::

2012 TLC – The Shield vs. Team Hell No & Ryback by omfgsplit

The Shield vs Sheamus, Randy Orton and Big Show… by Kyle_Dixon

and Raws

06.03.13- Daniel Bryan, Kane and Randy Orton vs… by Kyle_Dixon

08.05.13- John Cena, Randy Orton and Daniel… by Kyle_Dixon

And in doing so, have redefined an entire genre of match from the laziest possible booking into a hallmark of nearly every Raw worth watching. Not bad for their first year on the job.

#VarsityClubWeek: Essential Viewing

19890723_steiners_varsity_U

It’s Day Two 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 started by making The Club a Stable You (Should) Probably Know Better. Today, we give you the finer points of their oeuvre 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.) 

As we touched on yesterday, The Varsity Club was founded, in large part, to establish Rick Steiner as an ass-kicking heel that could eventually be spun out as a babyface fans were raring to get behind. They went about accomplishing the task in a manner worthy of 2013 WWE: they made him a lovable dumb guy.

While he was a killer in the ring, Steiner overenthusiastically sought the love and approval of his “coach” Kevin Sullivan. In stark contrast to the serious (or “wooden,” less charitably) Rotunda, Steiner began to look increasingly likable. He slowly shifted towards playing to the crowd by barking like a dog for cheers (a move cribbed from The Junkyard Dog), and he always seemed on the outside of Sullivan and Rotunda’s schemes. His distance from the group became more and more apparent, as seen in this clip where evil mindermast Sullivan plays favorites towards Rotunda by enthusiastically accepting his gift of Syracuse swag while passing over Steiner’s Michigan shirt.

When the time came for Steiner to break out and turn, The Varsity Club kicked him out in the most insulting and homoerotic way possible: by tearing off his singlet to indicate he was “off the team.” As, uh, “weird” as the visual was, it was symbolism that would make Joseph Campbell drool: the once-evil Steiner had been stripped down to his very core and could now be dressed back up as a babyface.

For the remainder of their existence, The Varsity Club would spend most of their time feuding with now-prodigal son Rick Steiner. His most frequent opponent was Rotunda, with whom he had more good matches than most fans know Mike Rotunda ever had. They feuded extensively over the NWA Television Title, which Rotunda held for nearly a year. While the TV Title would later be devalued during the Monday Night War, it was still a respected belt at this point in history, with ties to nearly every significant midcarder of the 70s and 80s.

Rotunda and Steiner’s most notable encounter came at Starrcade ’88: True Grit, a night in which The Varsity Club pulled double duty (more on that in a minute). This match was the culmination of a push years in the making, executed with patience and precision that just don’t exist anymore. The finish to the match is convoluted, but when the belt finally winds up in Steiner’s hands, the crowd goes absolutely nuts. After this match, Steiner, along with Sting and Lex Luger, was considered one of the top stars to watch as WCW headed into the 90s.



Meanwhile, earlier on that same Starrcade card, Kevin Sullivan and “Dr. Death” Steve Williams defeated The Fantastics – a “less remembered than they should be” team, much like The Club – to capture the United States Tag Team Titles, which were JCP/WCW’s in-house titles, as NWA Champions still had occasional commitments outside of the Mid-Atlantic region. As tag champions, The Club mostly feuded with – guess who – Rick Steiner. The babyface Steiner had aligned himself with more-over-than-people-know (do you detect an underlying theme this week?) “Hotstuff” Eddie Gilbert under the management of Missy Hyatt, then a certifiable bombshell.

At this time, there was a shuffling of the cards within The Varsity Club. Sullivan and Williams dropped the U.S. Belts to Gilbert and Steiner, and The Club morphed into two distinct teams: Williams and Rotunda became the top tier team opposing NWA Tag Team Champions The Road Warriors, while Sullivan and newcomer Dan Spivey continued to feud over the U.S. Titles with Steiner and Gilbert.

Spivey was a natural addition to The Varsity Club: a massively imposing physical presence, with impressive legitimate sports credentials and the strength to do whatever he wanted in the ring. Unlike Rotunda, Williams, or Steiner, however, Spivey (who later had a short but significant run as Waylon Mercy in the WWF) had the mind and speaking ability to form a formidable promo team with the experienced Kevin Sullivan. Sullivan came across as measured and calculating, while Spivey could punctuate things with a short flurry of killer intensity.


At Clash of the Champions VI, The Varsity Club’s A-Team of Williams and Rotunda got to the top of the mountain: they beat The Road Warriors to capture the NWA World Tag Team Titles. Rotunda and Williams were perfect opponents for Hawk and Animal, as they were big, strong, and legitimate enough that The Road Warriors actually acquiesced to selling for them, but athletic enough that they could also take the great bumps that Road Warrior opponents needed to take. The result was a classic feud, and one that was historically significant, as it signaled the shift in The Road Warriors from squash match specialists who wrestled smaller heels to competitive wrestlers who had evenly-paced matches with other top teams.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xuu3fr_road-warriors-vs-varsity-club_sport

The Varsity Club’s time in the spotlight wound down with the 1980s, but before all was said and done, they still had one big job left to do. After his run with Eddie Gilbert ended, Rick Steiner had a new partner who needed to be introduced to the crowd: his brother Scott. Sullivan and Rotunda, the first and last men standing in The Club (Spivey had left to become a “Skyscraper” with Sid Vicious and Williams was spending most of his time in Japan) worked a match against Rick and a horrifyingly green Scott at The Great American Bash.

The Varsity Club’s run was largely about getting Rick Steiner over as a babyface star. While he never became World Heavywight Champion, The Steiner Brothers became the definitive tag team of the first half of the 90s and made massive money all over the world. Sullivan, Spivey, Williams, and Rotunda might not get their due, but if they look at the career the Steiners had, they can hold their heads high and say, “We did that.”

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xrrr05_steiner-brothers-rick-scott-vs-varsity-club-kevin-sullivan-mike-rotunda-great-american-bash-1989_sport

#KaneWeek: Essential Viewing

20030623_kane_hhh

It’s Day Two of #KaneWeek, a celebration of all things Big Red Monster and the ninth installment in our patent-pending Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. Yesterday, we started with A Wrestler You Should Probably Know Better. Today we give you the finer points of the Dr. Isaac Yankem oeuvre with some Essential Viewing. We mix things up tomorrow with some Hidden Gems from that very same catalog along with a GIF parade. After Hump Day, we’ll make our “Amazon 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 Hellfire-and-brimstone fueled civil war.) 

Kane posed a weird question for us as a Wrestler of the Week: is it #KaneWeek or #GlenJacobsWeek? Unlike, say, Antonio Cesaro, although his name has changed, “Antonio Cesaro” isn’t as much a character as the name of Claudio Castagnoli in the WWE. Telling the essential story of “Antonio Cesaro” isn’t the same as telling the story of “Antonio Cesaro, WWE superstar”. The idea of an Antonio Cesaro isn’t any more exclusive to WWE than AJ Styles is for TNA: the guy is the character, we just know him by a different name.

It’s not even the same as #BullyRayWeek, where someone — Mark Lomanco — had a character, developed that character and then moved on through the wrestling world using that character with basically the same name give or take a last name.

But, Kane isn’t Glen Jacobs in the way that The Undertaker isn’t Mark Callaway. He is a wholly constructed character that can’t really exist outside of the WWE’s (pardon the pun) universe. Does it take something away from the conversation to discuss “Glen Jacobs” when talking about Kane?

Which brings us to the original problem: is it #KaneWeek or #GlenJacobsWeek? It’s of course #KaneWeek, because “branding”, but if our goal with Wrestler of the Week was only to tell the story that WWE wants you to know, then I think it would be #KaneWeek, and we wouldn’t have spent any time yesterday talking about Dr. Isaac Yankem. But that isn’t the goal. The goal is to learn about the history of these men, not just their characters.

Which is you have to include things like Glen Jacobs appearance at SummerSlam, against Bret Hart:

While not a masterpiece, like a young center who hasn’t quite figured out his low post game, some of the high flying work of Jacobs at this point in his career shows the flashes that would lead them to believe that he could successfully become the “evil” offshoot of the most popular single gimmick in history. This, of course, took a while, and before he could make it to his his first appearance at Badd Blood (which we will get to later), he had to deal with a character  that managed to be even damaging than the personal dentist of one the most hated heels in the company: a Kevin Nash impersonator.

For those who blocked out the Fake Diesel run, a few things need to be said, including one from a personal level. Fake Diesel, and his even worse-looking partner Fake Razor Ramon, nearly ruined wrestling for me, creating issues with my understanding of characters, acting and the very foundations of kayfabe. If Diesel and Razor were just characters, did that mean that everything that happened to them was planned out? While it made it clear Jim Ross was lying, and these weren’t the same guys, it never felt like something that needed to be addressed, and came off in the same way that someone becoming the CM Punk “character” instead of Phillip Brooks would.

Thankfully for us, and for Jacobs, this run lasted only a few weeks as everyone had the same reaction I did: this is terrible and needs to stop. With a need to extend the life span of the Undertaker and keep him fresh without changing his character, giving him the title or making new main eventers,  they decided to give him the a top-of-the-card type of storyline that he had last genuinely had during his time with Hulk Hogan during the fall of 1991. Even his main event work with Sid for WrestleMania 13 hadn’t really done what they were hoping, leaving them looking to rebuild him into an even darker (and eventually more sinister) entity than he had been previous.

Enter Kane. (Literally:)

After months of claims from Undertaker’s estranged manager, Paul Bearer, Kane arrived with what was essentially a fully formed backstory, and along with the presumption that A) he was as “powerful/big” and B) he was looking for some kind of existential revenge. With means, motive and opportunity, Kane entered our subconscious the way Voldemort did, with an immediacy that required attention.

It was a textbook example of how to make a star instantly, allowing the worker to only need to match expectations to get over. No relationship was required to be built, as this one simply just built on everything we originally knew about the Undertaker. But what allowed Kane to be Fraiser (Cheers) and not The Golden Palace (The Golden Girls) was that they took everything that worked as the subtle charms of the Undertaker — like his “supernatural abilities” essentially being “able to sit up without using his hands”  and “turn the lights on with his hands” — and supercharged them for Kane, allowing The Undertaker to not just have a blood reason to feud with his brother but an moral obligation to save the people that Kane was, among other things, setting on fire. Like this poor guy:

This lead to their match at WrestleMania XIV, which while — as will be the case for most of the matches that told great storyline stories for Kane, the ones that “we’ll remember him by” — were technically speaking, nothing to write home about. But it is the genuinely the closest we have ever been or, at least the closest we have ever felt in the moment, to the end of The Streak.  From there, Kane would weave in out of the life of The Undertaker for the next few years, going through ridiculous storyline after ridiculous storyline.

Because Andy covered much of this yesterday,  the only thing really “essential” to see from this era is the Katie Vick video. And because it’s so over the top and embarrassing, it’s nearly impossible to find, with only this muted version available on YouTube. Below it, we’ve put a video from an interview Triple H did with Opie and Anthony explaining how ridiculous shooting that was, which, if nothing else, should make you appreciate the stupid things wrestlers are willing to do for your entertainment.


While he would have better luck in recent years, it’s not like Kane hasn’t had to deal with his fair share of ridiculousness, like LOSING TO HIMSELF in a feud, but all of that practice working in that part of the wrestling world seems worth it when it produces things like the surprisingly funny — at least for the WWE “Anger Management” sketches that would not only help make Daniel Bryan into a main eventer, but helped cement Kane’s case as a “first ballot” Hall of Famer.

From their time in group therapy

to one of the most brilliant pieces of physical comedy in wrestling history

the work showed the versatility of both men and the ability to, as Andy said, “roll with the punches”.

And, ultimately, that will be the legacy of the character of Kane and more importantly, the performer, Glen Jacobs. While a great worker — which something we’ll get to tomorrow with some hidden gems — the story that Jacobs has told in, around and out of the ring is the one we will remember him by.