Thursday, June 20, 2019

Pro Wrestling: A Mark's History, part 4 (I Love the NWA)

As WrestleMania IV loomed I eagerly anticipated my hero Hulk Hogan winning the WWF Title tournament and once again becoming the Champion.  My #2 choice at the time was Randy Savage, but in my mind the ideal place for him was as the Intercontinental Champion (partly because I still saw the World Title as a Big Man Belt).  I once again didn't get to watch the PPV, but my friend Greg went to see it on closed-circuit TV and called me with a full recap immediately upon returning home.  He was ecstatic to see Savage emerge with the Title, and while he wasn't my first choice, I was relieved the belt didn't end up around Ted Dibiase's waist (I absolutely hated him. HATED. HIM.).

With Savage as the Champion I was definitely interested to see where things would go.  It was a real change from Hogan's perennial David vs. Goliath feuds, and Savage got to bring his technical prowess to the WWF's main event scene.

The First Couple of Wrestling

The most emotionally charged feud of that period was Rick Rude vs. Jake Roberts, which was sparked by Rude unwittingly propositioning Jake's wife at ringside.  It was a great way to start a feud and was first time I can recall seeing a wrestler's real-life spouse being part of a storyline (Miss Elizabeth excepted).
Around this time two things started to change my perception of the product.  The first was that thanks to my friend Greg I started reading some of the independent wrestling magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated and Wrestling Superstars (which featured my favorite regular, um, feature - the Superstar Dream Match).  These magazines offered a much more objective view of the various North American wrestling promotions of the day, and while maintaining kayfabe, still mentioned things like Vince McMahon actually being the owner of the WWF and not just the play-by-play announcer (again, MIND-BLOWING).  They were also very candid about whether a PPV event was good or not.

Where the WWF Magazine's sole purpose was to get more eyes on the WWF product, PWI actually evaluated shows like WrestleMania IV and pointed out how much less entertaining it was than the previous edition, and how superior the NWA's Clash of the Champions (and general in-ring product) was.  This frankness started to open my eyes about what constituted a good wrestler, a good match, a good card, and I began to look at the overall product a little differently.

The first issue of PWI I ever bought. 
And it changed my whole perception.

The second game-changer for me was that because PWI covered other companies it also exposed me to a whole world of non-WWF wrestlers, and I became much more intrigued than before about the NWA and its more athletic-based style.  For one thing the NWA frequently ran cage matches and scaffold matches (I'll never forget the first ad I saw for the VHS release of Starrcade '86: The Night of the Skywalkers - seeing the Road Warriors and Midnight Express precariously balanced on a catwalk 20 feet above the ring blew my frickin' mind.), and I was hungry to see something more than just a traditional wrestling bout.

Around this time Lex Luger had just split from the Four Horsemen, making him yet another new babyface it was okay to root for.  Luger formed a tag team with Barry Windham and together they won the NWA Tag Team belts, which was huge.  Clash of the Champions also brought newcomer Sting to the forefront, and I immediately became a fan of his as well.  But most importantly The Road Warriors, with whom I was fascinated from the first time I watched that old AWA VHS tape, were now in the NWA and feuding with their evil twins, The Powers of Pain.  Wait, what?  There are TWO Road Warrior teams??  This was the coolest superfeud I had ever seen.

I discovered the syndicated NWA Pro Wrestling show, which ran Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons and featured top-notch TV and house show matches.  It was on this program that I watched Barry Windham turn heel on Lex Luger (joining the reviled Four Horsemen in the process) and allow Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard to recapture the Tag belts.  This was heinous!  Almost as big an outrage as the Hart Foundation-British Bulldogs angle the previous year.

Damn you Windham!!!

Back in the WWF over the summer, Savage and Hogan started spending much more TV time together, really bringing the MegaPowers angle to the forefront as they united against common enemies Ted Dibiase and Andre the Giant.  The announcement of a tag team match at a new PPV called SummerSlam was a major bombshell at the time.  The inaugural edition would take place at Madison Square Garden, and actually resembled the first WrestleMania in many ways.  Besides the tag team main event, the show also had some curious matchups between guys who weren't really feuding with each other.  The Hart Foundation challenged Demolition for the Tag belts, even though they were feuding with The Rougeau Brothers, who fought the Bulldogs instead; Rick Rude fought the Junkyard Dog but was feuding with Jake Roberts, who fought Hercules instead.  Very odd. 

The WWF also introduced two major tag team acquisitions that summer - The Rockers (who I had read about in the AWA thanks to PWI), and The Powers of Pain, now a babyface team.  The fact that the evil Road Warrior clones jumped ship and were now good guys was totally surreal to me.  I came back from a month away at summer camp and the whole place had changed!

The NWA had its share of wrestlers changing places in 1988 - Luger turned face, Windham turned heel, Ronnie Garvin turned heel out of nowhere and then left the company, The Midnight Express turned face and won the Tag belts from the departing Anderson & Blanchard (who suddenly showed up in the WWF one Saturday morning), and then the unthinkable happened - The Road Warriors turned heel and destroyed the Midnights for said Tag belts. 

This was too much for me.  I was legitimately pissed at Hawk & Animal.  How could one of my favorite teams turn on Sting and the fans, and be on the same side as The Four Horsemen??  I wondered if they would replace Anderson & Blanchard as the 3rd and 4th members.  Over the next few weeks I watched the syndicated NWA shows and my revulsion for the heel Road Warriors very quickly turned into "These guys are better than ever!  Total f*cking badasses!"

Still the greatest tag team of all time according to me.

Late 1988 was a big turning point, where I went from strictly cheering babyfaces and booing heels (except Demolition - those guys were cool to me from the start) to really liking some of the villains.  I had just entered my teen years and subconsciously must have become attracted to the idea of anti-heroes.  Suddenly it didn't matter to me whether a wrestler was face or heel; it only mattered if he could wrestle and/or had a cool gimmick.  I owe a lot of this epiphany to being exposed to PWI and its sister publications.  They really reshaped my perspective of what I was watching and what I wanted to see.

But it was in February of 1989 that my whole outlook as a wrestling fan would change forever.

Part 3                                                                                                                                             
Part 5

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