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Hart’s war

January 4th, 2010 No comments

WWE would have been wise to post this link to the documentary feature Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows to their Web site in the last week, especially since they’ve done a lousy job on TV explaining the history of the Montreal Screwjob in the weeks leading up to tonight’s reappearance  of Bret “the Hitman” Hart to Monday Night Raw. (That said, the WWE PR machine is in full gear with radio ads and e-mail blasts promoting Hart’s return.) For me, tonight’s WWE show offers far more intrigue than what will most likely be a TNA trainwreck with the first appearance by Hulk Hogan and his cronies. (To give you an idea, Bubba the Love Sponge, Val Venis, Scott Hall and X-Pac are all reportedly backstage, with the Sponge reportedly the new interviewer. On the bright side, Shannon Moore and Jeff Hardy are also there, but I’d be stunned if the latter wound up anywhere but WWE when he decides to return.) Granted, like most trainwrecks, I’ll have to look, I suppose.

bret

In the last 10 days, I’ve had a lot of casual fans around my age (38)–mostly men who were big WWF fans in 1997 but stopped watching less than three years later–ask me about Hart’s return. No one has mentioned Hulk Hogan and his band of outcasts taking over TNA –not a single e-mail. Hart is signed through WrestleMania, so obviously tonight’s show will be the first step toward what will hopefully be a well-crafted, well thought-out scenario for Hart on the biggest card of the year. (In other words, I’m hoping McMahon and Hart are hands-on in writing this program–not WWE Creative.) Shawn Michaels is already in the mix, so that should make things interesting from the get-go tonight.

In my opinion, TNA has been in a tailspin the moment they got away from their attempt at some semblance of a realistic sport and tried to emulate WWE’s hokey, camp approach. (Y’know, around the time TNA hired Vince Russo.) Although not a fan overall of WWE’s current direction, there’s no arguing they do what they do best. You can’t beat them at their own game. You’ve got to come up with an aggressive new approach that’s different to distinguish your product (something more than a six-sided ring). And with the popularity of UFC and MMA, you’d think that new creative direction would be obvious. Hogan clearly now fancies himself as the Vince McMahon of TNA, the man who will bring some old-school psychology and sensibility back to the business. Or has he put it, “breathe some life into these characters.” Maybe I should be more optimistic. But I guess the memories of post-1998 WCW are wounds that still run pretty deep. Second coming of the Monday Night Wars? I seriously doubt it. But I hope I’m wrong.

12 days of Christmas Choas (Days Ten, Eleven and Twelve)

January 4th, 2010 No comments

If you’re like me, your friends and family refuse to acknowledge your love for wrestling over the holidays. I suppose they figure we already have a massive collection of books, DVDs and memorabilia devoted to the business, so they’re hesitant–or in the case of my wife, resistant–to  add to our obsession. So, if you didn’t get everything on your on your rasslin’ wish list, here are a few ideas to round out the 12 Days of Christmas Chaos.

Some of it magic, some of it tragic...

Some of it magic, some of it tragic...

From the Hart: Although his book was published shortly after his death, the legacy of Gary Hart lives on in the massive 445-page effort “Playboy” Gary Hart: My Life in Wrestling…with a Little Help from My Friends. Easily the most earnest, thorough, soul-searching wrestling book since Bret Hart’s book, Hart’s bio traces his humble beginnings as a street kid from Chicago to wrestler to manager to booker–all part of one of the most fascinating careers the wrestling business has ever known.

My first exposure to Gary Hart was through World Class Championship, around the time the syndication of the Von Erichs’ cutting-edge TV program exploded. Hart was different from Bobby Heenan Jimmy Hart and Jim Cornette in that his interviews were never comical or entertaining but always effectively menacing with a little street jive thrown him that made him come off as one nasty dude. To me, he was like some sort of diabolical svengali who somehow harnessed the power of the some of the baddest heels around, like the Spoiler (Don Jardine), Kabuki and King Kong Bundy. In one of the most memorable angles of the era, Hart even managed to turn “Gentleman” Chris Adams against his “best friend” Kevin Von Erich to create a new, heated feud shortly after the brothers’ famous run with the Freebirds had run its course.

Hart pulls no punches, promising to “be as open, honest, candid and up front as possible” in the a note to the reader at the outset. In particular, Hart’s pain is evident in the chapters on the Von Erich territory, as he recounts the slow, agonizing demise of brothers David, Kerry, Mike and Chris as well as Gino Hernandez, Bruiser Brody and Adams.

The writing was on the wall as early as fall 1982, when Hart walked in a remote area of the Sportatorium to find the Von Erichs huddled around a table full of cocaine with their hated rivals the Freebirds. Although portrayed very realistically on TV as a thorn in the side of the Von Erichs, Hart was very close to the Von Erich boys, who often referred to him as “Uncle Gary.” Like little boys, the Von Erichs sheepishly apologized, vowing to never to it again after Uncle Gary chastised them. But we all know how that turned out.

Hart was booking Fritz’s territory around the time the patriarch of the Von Erich clan was winding down his in-ring career. Hart wanted to build the promotion around David, Kevin and Kerry, so he slowly, subtly began planting the seeds for Fritz to step aside without bruising his massive ego. The progressive booker correctly called that the fans were tired of Fritz on top, as the former “Nazi sympathazier” turned “Christian family man” only drew a little over 10,000 fans in his final bout against Hart protege King Kong Bundy–a crowd that looked sparse in Texas Stadium. Less than two years later, Kerry would be crowned NWA World champion in front of 32,000 fans in the same facility.

Hart had seen firsthand just how hot young stars Terry Gordy and Michael Hayes had gotten over, along with veteran Buddy Rogers, with the Freebirds gimmick in Georgia and gave them an open invitation into the Dallas territory. Instead of debuting as heels, Gary gives Fritz the credit for the idea of the Birds arriving as babyface allies who would later turn against them. They pulled the trigger on Christmas night 1982 as part of angle masterfully put together by Hart during a steel cage match between NWA World champion Ric Flair and Kerry. Easily one of the top five most remembered angles of the ’80s, Kerry gets into a scuffle with special ref Hayes, who shoves the challenger and makes a hasty exit. As Kerry tries to prevent Hayes from leaving, Gordy slams the cage door against Von Erich’s skull, rendering him nearly unconscious as Flair retains the title against seemingly impossible odds. It would be Hart’s first–and last–shot of the famed initial run of the Von Erichs vs. the Freebirds (or has the barefooted Kevin so eloquently put it once on the Sportatorium house mic, “Decency vs. Filth”). This mother of all hot angles led to a $250,000 week for Fritz’s territory.

By that time, along with executive producer Mickey Grant, Hart had helped to create the most exciting wrestling show in the country, with state-of-the-art production values: “World Class Championship Wrestling.” Hart also had the unique ability to see the future was in big shows with inflated ticket prices, like the Reunion Arena “Wrestling Star Wars” extravaganzas that preceeded Starrcarde and WrestleMania. Ironically enough, it was Hart’s booking achievements that led to his initial resignation/firing (depending on how you look at it) as Fritz apparently didn’t live up to his word with promised bonuses. With the territory on fire, Hart claims Fritz was looking to oust him to save a few thousands bucks–which sounds like most lot of territory owners at the time, most of whom were known for their “frugalness.” (For example, years earlier as part of the red-hot turn of Dusty Rhodes to babyface in Florida, Hart claims Eddie Graham lowballed him on his payoffs to the point of it being criminal.)

Unlike, say, Rhodes’s book, Hart covers all the bases of his territory stops: Florida, Georgia (including his brief period as the manager of Jerry Lawler and his controversial run-in with booker Jerry Jarrett), Texas and North Carolina. He recounts in detailed, horrifying fashion the plane crash that killed rising star Bobby Shane and injured the hated manager, pilot Buddy Colt and Dennis McCord (the future Austin Idol). Also included is the never-before-heard story (at least it was the first time I’d ever heard it) of how the wrestler “Often Idle” became “Austin Idol.”

Perhaps most fascinating is Hart’s philosophy of taking on a protege (Pak Song, Spoiler, Kabuki, “Dingo” aka “Ultimate” Warrior, Great Muta, etc.) and establishing a legit managerial-type relationship in developing the gimmick and the laying the foundation for a career.

A detailed, fascinating read, packed with photos and old poster lineups, Playboy” Gary Hart: My Life in Wrestling…with a Little Help from My Friends can be purchased here. Well worth the price. I’d also highly recommend the Heroes of World Class DVD, which Hart participated in a few years ago. The DVD chronicles the demise of World Class through the eyes of a childhood fan of the promotion and includes interviews with Kevin Von Erich (including a chilling walk into the dilapidated Sportatorium), Bill Irwin and referee David Manning.  Click the Amazon link below to order.

The Truth Isn’t Always Handsome:Equally as ambitious as Gary’s book but unfortunately not nearly as well-written or researched, “Handsome” Jimmy Valiant’s bio comes in at a whopping 566 pages. Although quite candid in recalling some less-than-savory aspects of his life, including a cocaine addiction at the height of his popularity in Jim Crockett Promotions, Jimmy sorely needs an editor to clear up his time lines (e.g., facing Ken Patera in Memphis in 1980 could not have happened and Jim Harris’s Kamala character was not created in 1978) and to establish a more consistent style, as a lot of the book teeters back and forth between kayfabe Apter-style magazine accounts and insider information. (Describing his attack of Lawler during an NWA World title bout with Harley Race on Dec. 18, 1978, he writes, “I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Lawler. I flew into Memphis without being booked that night. I held the bottle high over my head and came down hard, shattering it over a stunned Jerry Lawler’s skull. After I made my exit, the fans were in shock. No one was moving. The show was over. Some spectators started to weep softly with trembling hands covering their mouths, and others cried out loud while wringing their heads in disbelief, shock and bewilderment, while Lawler lay lifeless.”  In a way, though, Valiant gets a pass, because I believe he was retelling his story as he honestly remembered it or at least in the context of the storyline. And like most wrestlers, Valiant is prone to exaggerations (constant “sellouts” at the Mid-South Coliseum that didn’t happen), which sort of makes you question some of the other details in the book as well. For example, in the weeks that followed the attack on Lawler, he writes, “the Memphis Coliseum just kept on selling out.” In fact, Valiant vs. Lawler never sold out the Coliseum; however, they did come awfully close: 10,151 showed up to see the King get his revenge for the bottle attack on  Jan. 2, 1978, and just under 9,000 were there for a “Coward Waves the Flag” rematch on Jan. 9. However, there’s no denying that Valiant was a huge drawing card in the city. It’s a shame that people only familiar with his Boogie Woogie Man character never got to see his heel work in Mempho, because Valiant was outstanding. Lawler and Valiant headlined several straight weeks with various stipulations, usually drawing around 7,000 fans–no small feat with the same matchup.

Explosive feud: The fireworks between the King and Handsome started in 1977 and carried over into the New Year.

Explosive feud: The fireworks between the King and Handsome started in 1977 and carried over into the New Year.

Eventually, Valiant was the one babyface who promoter Jerry Jarrett could count on to spark the houses if Lawler was in a rut or on the shelf with an injury. In particular, Valiant deserves a lot of credit for saving what could have been a disastrous year for Jarrett after Lawler broke his leg in January 1980. With Valiant on top as Southern champion, Jarrett drew many crowds close to 8,000 fans throughout the year with the King gone,working with the likes of Bill Irwin and Paul Ellering. Not quite sellouts, but still very impressive.

Mercy, daddy.

Mercy, daddy.

Another unique aspect of the bio is that the voice of the book is all Valiant’s, something that can’t be said for a lot of wrestling books. (Ric Flair’s, which had two different writers assisting, immediately comes to mind.) Granted, it’s hard to imagine some of the conversations he recounts in the book going down even remotely as he describes, but you gotta give ol’ Handsome some credit: Valiant as a born storyteller. (Other conversations that he describes, like one he recalls with the long-winded Buddy Wayne, sound spot-on.) Another positive: There’s plenty of info on his Memphis days, some of it very funny and a good read.

One story that of course didn’t make the book but is one of my favorites regarding Valiant: My mother, Carole, bumped into Handsome at the Memphis airport around 1980 and shyly approached him for an autograph, explaining that it was “for my son.” According to my mom, Valiant smiled slyly and said, “Sure it is, momma. Sure it is.”

Errors aside, Valiant’s book is a pretty fun read, and it’s evident that the project was truly a labor of love between he and his wife, Angel, who is a lovely woman. You can pick it up at jimmyvaliant.com. Some of Valiant’s most memorable Memphis moments can be found on the DVD below, available through Amazon. The DVD includes rare footage of Valiant working as a heel alongside fellow Memphis baddie Lawler. (Those two were rarely heels at the same time in the promotion, given their popularity.)

Memphis Wrestling History Class Back in Session:Mark James will soon be releasing the third volume of his of his Memphis Wrestling History series, featuring the programs of 1982–one of the greatest years of the Jarrett/Lawler era.

Memphis Wrestling in the '80s: Like, Totally Awesome

Memphis Wrestling in the '80s: Like, Totally Awesome

In addition to high-quality reproductions of every single souvenir program sold at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1982, Memphis Wrestling History Vol. 3: The Programs of 1982will include comments on all the major stars and storylines of the year from Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, Dutch Mantell, Lance Russell, Dave Brown, Jerry Jarrett, Steve Keirn, Jimmy Valiant, Jackie Fargo, Jimmy Hart, Jim Cornette, Jerry Calhoun and more. Check this site or visit memphiswrestlinghistory.com periodically for information on ordering. Mark’s books are required reading for every longtime fan of Memphis wrestling.