Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Greatest Feud of All-Time: Misawa vs. Kawada - Part 1 of 15

The pro-wrestling world was saddened last summer when Mitsuharu Misawa, heralded as one of the greatest performers that the sports has ever seen, died following injuries from a match.  He was not only one of the biggest stars of puroresu, one of the most influential personalities in pro-wrestling, but one of the most gifted pro-wrestlers of all-time.  Throughout his career, he wrestled many legendary names in legendary matches, but one name and one series stands out above all the others.

Toshiaki Kawada was a "kohai" (junior) of Misawa's for many years.  As amateur wrestlers and professional wrestlers, Kawada often walked a step or two behind Misawa.  2010 marks the twentieth anniversary of Misawa's ascension from Tiger Mask (II) to being his own man.  Appropriately, Kawada was his partner that summer night and the man who untied his mask, allowing Mitsuharu Misawa to explode onto the All Japan scene.  Before the year was through, Misawa had become locked in an epic feud with Jumbo Tsuruta, which propelled him into a top spot in All Japan Pro-Wrestling.  Kawada, again, was a few steps behind.

(this is the middle part of the match in which Misawa unmasked, at approximately the 4:20 mark.)

Kawada continued to fight his way up the ladder and in 1992, these two forces finally met one-on-one.  This match marked the beginning of a rivalry that is undoubtedly one of pro-wrestling's finest. From the athleticism and technical excellence to the intensity and natural storyline, this feud had it all.

Here is a collection of highlights from that first epic encounter with my review of the match itself below.

They hype this first big match between these two by showing their history, namely their win over the Miracle Violence Combo (Steve Williams & Terry Gordy) for the Double Tag titles and when Kawada unmasked Misawa. They also show the build for this particular match with Misawa winning his first Triple Crown by defeating Stan Hansen and Kawada defeating Akira Taue to get this shot.

1. Mitsuharu Misawa (c) vs. Toshiaki Kawada [Triple Crown Championship] (10/21/92)
The crowd is really hungry for this and knowing All Japan's undercards, I'm not surprised. The pacing is really slow as it's clear they have a great story to tell and you give the fans their money's worth by not making it a brief action flick. Kawada jump starts things with a great looking back suplex and that's really the only big move in the first 15 minutes. They use a lot of submissions, going back-and-fourth and throwing in a strike here and there to pop the crowd. The strikes are so well-timed and placed that it's ridiculous and the crowd pops for every one of them. It's not like throwing a few punches in there to stun people between moves, it is a pivotal part of the match and it's all building. Kawada enjoys much of the offense, which is logical because he's the challenger and that's how you do it. Misawa is the champion though and he's not going to be hope spotting his way through this. Their movesets are so well established and individualized that the crowd and announcer get really into a lot of it. This is fun to watch because they're able to do things so much better than we're used to seeing in the past few years, but there are still some rough patches that would be worked out. Kawada's selling is there, but it'd get much better as he became perhaps the greatest seller ever. The finish
is good and it seems appropriate for this stage of the feud. Simple post-match handshake that adds a nice dimension to it all.

The Rating: ****1/4
Chair Shots and Other Obstacles: Winning Life's Wrestling Matches
Author: Bobby Heenan
Publisher: Sports Publishing LLC
Released: 3/04

The Good
Bobby Heenan is one of the most sharp-witted personalities in pro-wrestling history, although he can be a bit formulaic.  His first book, an autobiography, was like his RF Video shoot and any other shoot interview that talks about his career.  He has a rolodex of joke in his brain that he always mentions.  We've heard about Andre the Giant and the screwdriver enough and Heenan certainly has fresher material.  This book provides that hilarity.  What is unique about this is the approach.  Heenan gives his perspective on life in pro-wrestling terms -  “Don't Be a Jobber” and “Cancer, the Ultimate Heel.”  He is a great humorist and this is well edited and compiled.  While the reader may not agree with everything that Heenan says, he comes across as honest and thoughtful.  Heenan chimes in on issues like Vince McMahon and his family, the Montreal screwjob, Owen Hart's death, Hulk Hogan's legacy and hardcore wrestling.  This is not your typical pro-wrestling book, but it is certainly enjoyable if you understand its approach.

The Bad
Obviously, this is not exactly an autobiography.  It is Raymond Heenan reflecting on aspects of his life, his career and his “Bobby the Brain” persona.  The last part was not really a focal point in his autobiography and it makes for an interesting read.  The Bobby the Brain character was that extension of the man behind it with a particular twist that made for a character that could carry territories in the 1970s.  Heenan does not kayfabe in the least, he does not get into angles and he spends much of this discussing people outside of pro-wrestling (his family, friends and past co-workers).  If you do not enjoy his humor, then you may not like his tales of pranking people at Buckingham Palace, his grandfather's Chicago haberdashery or dealing with family members' cancer.  Some might find his comments crass or disrespectful, but why would you be checking out his book?

The Rating: ****

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Lion's Tale: Around the World in Spandex

Author: Chris Jericho, Peter Thomas Fornatale
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Released: 10/07 

The Good
When it was revealed that Chris Jericho was releasing an autobiography at the age of 36, it seemed strange. Although he had so far had an impressive career, Jericho had never reached that top echelon that everyone thought he would when he jumped to the WWF in 1999. This book attempted to be not a memoir of a storied career, but rather a “dreams come true” story. In that sense, it fulfilled its goal. Jericho had many obstacles to overcome throughout his career and when made his highly touted debut in the WWF, his dream came true and that’s where this book ends. So, if you’re a WWF/WWE fan, you’re going to have to wait. This book talks about his world travels and does so in the most humorous and entertaining manner that a pro-wrestling autobiography has ever done. Jericho did not intend this to be solely for pro-wrestling fans and certainly not WWF/WWE fans, but it certainly helps the enjoyment if you are the former. He breaks it up into several parts: his childhood and years on the Canadian indies, Mexico, Germany, Smoky Mountain, Japan, ECW and WCW. This comprehensive career being captured makes this a great resource. And if you know people like Dr. Luther, Drew McDonald, El Dandy and Bruiser Bedlam, this book has a different level of enjoyment. Personally, this was very enjoyable. I grew up listening to the same music, loving hockey and, of course, marking out for all things pro-wrestling, so Jericho’s references to these in jokes made this a classic for me. This was a fast and addictive read that was well composed, well edited and well organized. This is inarguably a new must-have for pro-wrestling fans.

The Bad
Jericho’s decisions to omit his WWF/WWE run, leave in kind words and photos with Chris Benoit and seek out a non-WWE publisher could all be strikes against this. Ending at August 1999, leaves this open for a follow-up that could be published by the WWE, but the issue of his partnership/rivalry with Chris Benoit is a huge stumbling block to overcome if he decides to write that book. The jokes and references may not harm this, but it certainly caters to a small crowd. Although he has stated this is not just for pro-wrestling fans, it does not seem like a book that non-fans would necessarily enjoy. Perhaps, but this is definitely not as non-fan-friendly as other books. As with any autobiography, Chris Jericho could be knocked for having a big ego or being bitter about some things, but in comparison to some of his peers, he seems like Mr. Positive. Other than those few relatively mild knocks, this book is hard to fault.

The Rating: *****

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nick Bockwinkel Shoot Interview [Smart Mark Video]

The Good
It would be an exaggeration if I said the interviewer here was top-notch, but he had clearly done his homework and simply gave Nick Bockwinkel softballs to lob out of the park again and again.  "Slick" Nick is one of my favorite promos of all-time and his eloquence and his personality both shine here.  He is not the arrogant braggart of AWA fame, he is instead humble and honest.  Very rarely do I find excuses to get away so I can listen to more of a shoot interview, but this was truly one of the greats.  Bockwinkel has seen so much and done so much that to capture it all in three hours seems like a lofty goal, but so much ground is covered, so many great tales are told and so much wisdom is shared that one cannot feel cheated by this.  From his failed college football career and early days in LA to his experiences in Hawaii, Georgia and, of course, the AWA, Bockwinkel details so much and makes it all fascinating and often funny.  Only people like Bobby Heenan, Gary Hart and Bill Watts have done enough interviews that have been able to show other sides to revered legends, which is always a treat in quality shoot interviews.  Whether he's putting over Red Bastien, Jim Barnett or some other under-appreciated name from yesteryear or giving honest criticisms of Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen or Bill Watts, Nick Bockwinkel does not come across as a politician, a blow-hard or a bitter old man.  You, as they say, want all of this!

The Bad
My version had pretty crummy audio quality, which is always a bummer, but it was not unbearable like some other shoot interviews I've heard.  While most of Nick Bockwinkel's career was covered, his run with the WWF was not.  The questioning was really probing, but it was better prepared and organized than a typical RF Video shoot.  I received SMV's Missy Hyatt shoot as a gift and figured SMV shoots were nothing special, but this proved me way wrong.

The Rating: *****

Jimmy Valiant Shoot Interview [Highspots]

The Good
Jimmy Valiant is generally a good interview if you like his persona, his little catchphrases and understand that he tends to kayfabe.  He has led an interesting career spanning an amazing time frame and has been on top in some of the most noteworthy markets in the US.  All of this makes great fodder for a great interview.  I've heard him due interviews, usually radio shows, half a dozen times or so and he's never shocked me.  This shocked me.  He seemed to be out-of-character (as much as he probably is in real life) and was very honest about everything.  He is upbeat about everything from his career to modern pro-wrestling to his life in general, which is always nice to hear from a retired pro-wrestler.  While he's not the best talker (in contrast to his promos), Jimmy Valiant shows fascinating insight into how he created, developed and adapted his persona over the years.  Whether it was "Handsome" Jimmy, the arrogant bleach-blond heel, or the "Boogie Woogie Man," the kissin', huggin', dancin' bearded babyface, Jimmy Valiant understood how to be different, how to stand out and ultimately - how to get over!  If you clip those parts out, this is golden.

The Bad
I'll be honest, I've never cared for Jimmy Valiant.  His in-ring work, his promos, his whole presentation, it's never been my thing.  That aside, I respect the contributions he has made and have no desire to rip on him.  He was/is a great talker, he had a lot of catchphrases and integrated them to the delight of fans (much like the Rock, whose promos I generally don't care for).  That being said, when he's talking like a regular person, he seems to trip over his words and says "ya know" more than Dave Meltzer interviewing Lance Storm.  Overall, Valiant's happy-go-lucky approach plays well, but it seems like there is another side to his experiences that might be going unsaid.  If his book reads like this...well, hopefully it doesn't.

The Rating: ***3/4

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Extreme Championship Wrestling

Directors: Kevin Dunn
Distributor: WWE Home Video
Released: 11/04

Featured Talent
Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, Eric Bischoff, Ron Buffone (ECW TV Director), Dawn Marie, Tommy Dreamer, Bubba Ray Dudley, D-Von Dudley, Spike Dudley, Mick Foley, Eddy Guerrero, Paul Heyman, Chris Jericho, Jerry Lawler, Vince McMahon, Nunzio (Little Guido), Rhino, Stevie Richards, Al Snow, Lance Storm, Tazz, Rob Van Dam

The Good
Perhaps no WWE documentary has and will have the impact that this one did. This seemed like a way to get some ECW library footage out there and gauge whether or not to release more. The highlight though is a lengthy documentary that discusses the legacy of the eight-year company known as Extreme Championship Wrestling. Paul Heyman is he superstar here, his passion, vision and sorrow all come across. The first part shows ECW's development from just another indy to one with unique personalities, hardcore wrestling, highly involved fans and great booking. Then it shows how it really shocked the system. Although the violence and controversial angles are what it became known for, ECW featured excellent straight wrestling, international stars, international styles and an avenue for talent to expose their real abilities. From superstars like Steve Austin and Mick Foley to guys with a lot left in the tank like Bam Bam Bigelow and Sid, ECW provided a place to show their wares in a way that helped them get bigger gigs. Heyman's ability to accentuate positives and mask negatives is covered and demonstrated quite a bit. That really shows the recent flaws of the WWE, it is too scripted and too neat to allow for the spontaneity that pro-wrestling thrives upon. It also tells how their success - getting onto syndication, pay-per-view and finally primetime television were so vital to their survival and success. Unfortunately, Heyman could not manage the books and it led to the eventual death. This offers a fair look at the legacy of ECW and while Heyman and former stars sing its praises, Eric Bischoff and even Vince McMahon are there to prevent it from being too overblown. ECW never was and probably never could have been the #2 pro-wrestling company, they had a niche audience and probably lacked mainstream appeal, yet they unquestionably changed the landscape of pro-wrestling in the US. This DVD ended up being so popular that it spawned a "One Night Stand" pay-per-view and later an ECW brand.

The Bad
Like any rise and fall story, this has some doses of bitterness, nostalgic sentiments and fuzzy memories. Paul Heyman, Tommy Dreamer and several others genuinely loved ECW and everything it was and provided them. There are some inaccuracies that are glaring. One is that ECW was this complete split from the old, which it certainly was not. If anything, it was a return to the old. It used blood and brawling like pro-wrestling in the late 60s and 70s had to combat the style of TV pro-wrestling from the 1950s. However, there was still plenty of excellent wrestling featured and even veteran talent, specifically Terry Funk. Second issue is the romanticizing of ECW. This company, like any company, put out some garbage, but often dressed it up. Their first pay-per-view, Barely Legal, was not very good, yet it was so well hyped, so well remembered and so important that its lack of quality is overlooked. That illustrates the biggest problem with this documentary. One feels as if they are hearing half of the story. Since they only used WWE contracted talent (other than Ron Buffone), the contributions of people like Raven, Shane Douglas, The Sandman, Sabu and even Terry Funk are not fully appreciated. Others, like Steve Corino, Justin Credible, Jerry Lynn and even Tajiri are basically left out of the ECW story. For those perspectives, there is the documentary Forever Hardcore, which is excellent at filling in some of the gaps left by this WWE effort.

The Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lipstick & Dynamite: 
The First Ladies of Wrestling
Directors: Ruth Leitman
Distributor: Koch Lorber Films
Released: 9/05
Featured Talent

Mary Aquaviva (fan), Rita Cortez-Lee, Penny Banner, Marie Bernardi, Cathy Branch, Karin Dromo, 
The Fabulous Moolah, Gladys “Killem” Gillem, Judy Grable,  Joyce Grable, Sylvia Hackney, Joe Hamilton [The Assassin], Karl Lauer (promoter), Marie Laverne, Sara Lee, Ida May Martinez, Jim Melby (referee/magazine publisher), Sputnik Monroe, Sandy Parker, Anthony Piazza (fan & collector),
Stu Schwartz (referee), Millie Stafford, Ella Waldek, Johnny Wall Jr. (Gladys Gillem's son), Bonnie Watson, “The Great” Mae Young

The Good
This may very well be the greatest documentary ever made about pro-wrestling.  It has the shocking moments like Beyond the Mat, it has the scope of Heroes of World Class, it has production value better than all of the WWE's documentaries and it succinctly investigates one dimension of pro-wrestling.  The overall feel of this is fantastic with a post-war art deco and rockabilly combination that adds greatly.  It should also be noted that much of the music is provided by Memphis-based surf rockers Los Straightjackets who are known for wearing luchador masks.  The stories and anecdotes are tremendous and only add to the overall package, although it seems likely that some great ones were left on the cutting room floor.  The stories of political maneuvering, sexual promiscuity and bitterness between the stars adds a lot of zest to this effort.  Furthermore, the openness of the ladies featured is incredible and the perfume is practically radiating through the camera lens.  The overall story is simple.  Women's wrestling went from the carnivals to arenas through the manipulation of seedy men like Jack Pfefer and Billy Wolfe, but eventually the Fabulous Moolah seized control and helped transition the control to the McMahon family where it is today.  It is interesting to hear linkage from the carnies to Vince McMahon.  There are numerous morsels of intrigue to this from the Fabulous Moolah's disturbing relationship with “girl midget wrestler” Diamond Lil to Penny Banner describing her abusive relationship with legendary babyface Johnny Weaver.  This documentary is exactly what it aims to be and it ends up being one of, if not the best documentary of its kind.

The Bad
While any documentary on pro-wrestling has its flaws, this one has very few.  Clearly, it only takes a small portion of pro-wrestling (women's wrestling) and is mostly limited to a certain time period (1940s-1980s), although it talks about the time before and after.  There is a level of kayfabe from some of the ladies that you expect from old-schoolers.  Yes, they had tough matches and yes, sometime people took liberties or went into business on their own, but there is a feeling that there was a level of shooting going on that seems implausible.  The other facet that bothers me is burying the “divas” of today, specifically those in the WWE.  One is led to believe that the women's wrestlers of today are purely sex objects with no athletic ability, but that is simply untrue.  While sex is perhaps the strongest part of the package, it is only a part and demeaning the athleticism (as opposed to the working ability) of current female pro-wrestlers is unnecessary.  The cult of Japanese women's wrestling is never acknowledged, although it was more successful and arguably better than the generation of wrestling featured here, but you can always check out Gaea Girls for that.  Another strong knock I've heard about this is that Moolah & Mae Young snatched up filmmaker Ruth Leitman and led her to believe that they were the pioneers of women's wrestling, so people outside the clique like Penny Banner and others did not get accurately depicted.  Thankfully Penny has a book out and I'm sure it is much better and more credible than Moolah's.  Overall this documentary is excellent and an example for any that follow it.

The Rating: *****