WWE HALL OF FAME 2004
Induction ceremony DVD offers fans a look back.
"There were giants in the earth in those days..."
- Genesis Chapter 6:4
Review by Mike Rickard II
Vince McMahon is coming to the conclusion that for all intents and purposes, he is now the caretaker for the preservation of wrestling history. While this may chill some wrestling fans' hearts, the fact remains that Vince McMahon owns the libraries to the biggest wrestling promotions of the last thirty years (WWF, AWA, ECW, and much of the NWA) and it is his to do with as he pleases. 'Who controls the past,' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'" George Orwell, "1984." Vince McMahon controls all three.
At one point in time it would not have been a stretch of the imagination to picture Vince McMahon burying all of the footage from his former rivals' promotions. After all, isn't Vince McMahon the same promoter who never acknowledged the existence of other promotions in the 1980's? The Vince McMahon would acted as if NWA legends such as Terry Funk and Harley Race simply fell from the sky when they entered the World Wrestling Federation? It would be easy to sit on the vast tape libraries and act as if the promotions of However, the WWE's prolific releases of home videos such as "The Ultimate Ric Flair Collection", "Mick Foley's Greatest Hits and Misses", and "Bloodbath: Wrestling's Most Incredible Steel Cage Matches" have featured matches from the NWA, AWA, and ECW (including the original commentary) and it is clear that McMahon intends to showcase the stars of yesteryear.
Even so, many question whether or not Vince McMahon will put his own spin on history. "WWE Confidential" has been rightly accused of presenting its stories in the light most favorable to Vince McMahon and WWE. Mistakes on Vince's part have been glossed over or even omitted. The biggest problem with this is that there is no one to point out when WWE rewrites history. The mainstream media is typically very lazy when reporting on the WWE and often ignores much of what happens therein so one cannot count on an outside source to point out Vince's revisionist history. The wrestling press such as the Wrestling Observer and Pro Wrestling Torch do their best to point out McMahon's retelling of history but for all intents and purposes, their reading audience comprises but a fraction of wrestling's audience. The potential for abuse is there as well as a strong likelihood of getting away with it.
Despite this tremendous power, Vince McMahon and the WWE thus far are doing a good job of preserving the history of professional wrestling and sports entertainment in America. Their recent DVD releases as well as their plans for a WWE 24/7 cable channel offers hope that the wrestling of yesteryear will not fade away. Whatever his motive, Vince McMahon has taken it upon himself to preserve the wrestling of days gone by and to give younger fans a look at the wrestlers who paved the way for today's generation of superstars. "WWE Hall of Fame 2004 Induction Ceremony" does all this and more. It brings together some of the legends of yesterday with the legends of tomorrow and honors the superstars from yesterday.
For many years the WWE Hall of Fame has been seen as a reward for Vince's cronies. In it are some great wrestlers such as Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Andre the Giant, and Gorilla Monsoon but where are legends such as Bruno Sammartino and Hulk Hogan? Recent news reports indicate that Vince has been trying to get Bruno Sammartino to appear for a Hall of Fame induction and that Hulk Hogan is being considered for next year. McMahon has stated that he recognizes the need for the Hall of Fame to be a legitimate institution and hopefully he will continue these efforts.
For several years the Hall of Fame was dormant, this year Vince McMahon decided to bring it back into the spotlight and to make up for the recent inactivity by inducting eleven new members. Most of these inductees wrestled in the WWF during its Rock-n-Wrestling era, when Hulkamania was first becoming a national phenomenon and the WWF first began its transformation from a regional promotion to a national one.
Sports entertainment is built on so much smoke and mirrors that the very existence of such a DVD is almost surreal. Mention the word ceremony to a wrestling fan and they immediately think of someone getting blasted over the head with an awards plaque or a trophy, of Vince McMahon singing "Stand Back", or some equally ridiculous situation. There is none of that here and for a moment you ask yourself what is going on. This is real. These are real people being honored for their
life's work in an industry based on make believe. Still their dedication to their craft is no different than an actor's or actress' work in theatre, television, or film. It takes a moment to sink in but as you watch the Hall of Fame ceremony, you get a look at the people behind the characters you've grown up watching.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the recipient's acceptance speeches. The Hall of Fame honors eleven legends of wrestling: Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, "Magnificent" Don Muraco, "Big" John Studd, Junkyard Dog, "Superstar" Billy Graham, Sgt. Slaughter, Tito Santana, Harley Race, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, and Pete Rose (okay, he's not a wrestling legend but he has become a mainstay of Wrestlemania as he does his penance so he can enter baseball's Hall of Fame). It is fascinating to watch as the
recipients give their acceptance speeches (In the case of "Big John Studd and Junkyard Dog, family members accept the awards on their behalf), some
quite eloquently, some not so eloquently. As the camera pans the audience which is composed of today's superstars, you see the awe in some of their faces. Many of the people on the podium are the very wrestlers who inspired them to enter the squared circle. As the legends talk about the triumphs and tragedies in their lives, you wonder if the superstars of today will learn from their predecessor's past.
"Superstar" Billy Graham inspired two generations of superstars. His powerful physique and off-the-wall promos gave Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Hulk Hogan, and Hunter Hearst Helmsley all the motivation they needed to work their way into professional wrestling. Graham was a rarity in the WWWF, the heel champion who was more than a transitional champion. After defeating Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF Title, he held onto the belt for over a year before dropping it to Bob Backlund. Sadly, the steroids that helped Graham build his god-like physique also destroyed his body from within, leaving him disabled. It is sad to watch as he hobbles from his chair to the podium. Back in the early 90's he damned Vince McMahon for the proliferation of drugs and steroids in the WWE but
tonight he spoke much differently, telling the audience that he is grateful to the McMahons for all they have done. Those who accuse McMahon of rewriting history will point to Graham's comments as further proof of Vince's twisting the facts to make his own version of reality.
Greg "The Hammer" Valentine is one of the most overlooked and underrated wrestlers of the past thirty years. A solid worker and the son of legend Johnny Valentine, Greg typically played the heel and was involved in some of the hottest feuds of the 70's and 80's. "The Hammer" provided fans with plenty of reasons to hate him but his figure four leglock inevitably proved to be the best way of getting him over as he gave the "Snap, Crackle, and Pop" treatment to the legs of fan favorites such as Wahoo McDaniel, Chief Jay Strongbow, and Tito Santana (to name a few). Whenever a babyface wrestled Valentine, they inevitably got hurt whether it was Ric Flair getting a broken nose due to Valentine's nefariousness or Roddy Piper having his ear ground into hamburger
courtesy of a beating by the Hammer. Whatever the circumstances, Valentine's violence equaled big money for promoters as fans came out in droves to see Valentine get his. Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart managed Valentine during his days in the WWF and he reflects on how he and Valentine both entered the WWF around the same time. While Valentine was always a solid behind the mic, he seems almost shy as he gives his acceptance speech, perhaps not sure if he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Make no mistake about it Greg, you do.
Pete Rose's induction into the Hall of Fame hearkens back to the days when every Wrestlemania featured celebrity guest appearances as Vince McMahon pushed for mainstream publicity. Rose's induction into the Hall of Fame seems like yet another grab for mainstream publicity by the WWE. Still, Pete Rose's Wrestlemania appearances are by far the most memorable of any celebrity guest so it is not like his induction is without any kind of merit. Fittingly, Kane introduces Rose and takes some good natured jabs at Rose which are returned when Rose makes his acceptance speech.
"Big" John Studd (alias John Minton) was best known as Andre the Giant's arch-rival during the 1980's. His size and look made him one of the few credible opponents for the Eighth Wonder of the World and he feuded with Andre over the years both as a heel and babyface. His most memorable match with Andre was the famous $15,000 body slam challenge where Andre the Giant succeeded in slamming Studd (although Bobby "the Brain" has repeatedly stated that it was a hip toss) and passed the cash to the fans at ringside before Bobby Heenan snatched it from Andre and high-tailed it out of Madison Square Garden. Studd enjoyed considerable success in the WWF and was one of their top stars during the Rock-n-Wrestling Era. Sadly, "Big" John Studd's career was cut short by
Hodgkin's Disease and he died at the age of 45.
Sgt. Slaughter (alias Bob Remus) was one of wrestling's bad ass heels. He arrived in the WWF as a heel but he became a true superstar when he turned babyface and started feuding with the Iron Sheik. Slaughter could very well have become the top babyface in the WWF were it not for the arrival of Hulk Hogan. Slaughter left the WWF after failing to reach an agreement on salary (reportedly merchandise sales was a large part of the disagreement). Slaughter left the WWF for the AWA where he was one of their top babyfaces till the AWA's dying days. Slaughter then returned to the WWF and in an unexpected (and highly controversial) move, he wrestled as a heel who had turned his back on the United States and became an Iraqi sympathizer. The fact that the United States was close to war with Iraq only seemed to make Vince McMahon push Slaughter as a heel even further, culminating in his defeating the Ultimate Warrior for the WWF Title and facing Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania. During his run as a turncoat, Slaughter received numerous death threats and had to wear a bulletproof vest to ringside. After the angle had run its course, he begged the fans' forgiveness and in true wrestling fashion was welcomed back by the fans (the DVD even includes Slaughter's famous "I Want My Country Back" promos). In recent years, Slaughter has served behind the scenes for the WWE although he makes an occasional return to the ring
every now and then and he had a memorable stint as the WWF commissioner during the early days of the Monday Night Wars.
The role of the wrestling manager has pretty much gone the way of the preliminary wrestler but during the 1970's and 1980's, they were everywhere. Every territory had its share of managers who helped stir up heat at ringside and who helped wrestlers who couldn't talk get over in interviews. What was special about Bobby "The Brain" Heenan was that not only was he the top heel manager of his era, but that he stood out amongst great managers such as J.J. Dillon, Jim Cornette, Jimmy "Mouth of the South" Hart, and "Classy" Freddie Blassie. Heenan had a lengthy run as the top heel manager in the AWA (earning the fans' wrath and nickname "The Weasel") managing AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkel. When Vince raided the AWA's cream of the crop, Heenan continued his winning record in the WWF not only as a manager but as a color commentator. Heenan's family (rather than stable) of wrestlers always boasted the top talent in the WWF such as King Kong Bundy, "Big" John Studd, "Ravishing" Rick Rude, and "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff. Heenan's sharp wit served him well whether he was a manager or a color commentator. When he teamed with Gorilla Monsoon in the announce booth, an unforgettable announce team was born. While the two bickered on the air, they shared a strong friendship behind the scenes.
Heenan's acceptance speech is the highlight of the DVD. "Mean" Gene Okerlund, a longtime colleague of Heenan in the AWA, WWF, and WCW, introduces Heenan and at first, you have to wonder who this shell of a man is. Then he begins talking and although his voice is weak, you see the sparkle in his eyes as he begins making jokes and telling stories. Before long, you realize that while the man's body has been battered, his spirit is stronger than ever. Heenan's razor sharp wit and hilarious nature are impossible to conquer and he has the entire audience in stitches as he looks back on a remarkable career. If you only saw Heenan when he was in WCW, then this DVD will give you a chance to see what Heenan was all about. He's never been funnier and his appearance is worth the price of the DVD itself.
Tito Santana is that all too rare person in wrestling. Not only was he incredibly successful in the WWF during the 70's and 80's, but he managed to avoid the many pitfalls of life on the road such as broken marriages, substance abuse problems, and other personal demons. Santana was one of the WWF's top babyfaces, winning the WWF Tag Team Titles (early on in his career with "Polish Power" Ivan Putski and towards the end of his career with Rick Martel as a member of "Strike Force") and holding the
Intercontinental Title on two separate occasions. He managed to remain a star in WWF, despite the fact that his look and wrestling style didn't really fit into the Rock-n-Wrestling mold of the 80's. Santana retired from the WWE and works as a Spanish teacher and focuses his time and energy on raising his family. His acceptance speech doesn't light the audience on fire but his
commitment to family and his unquestionable integrity earn their respect.
By the time Harley Race had entered the WWF during the mid 80's his best years were clearly behind him. His legacy was unquestionable- he had held the NWA World Title on seven separate occasions (a feat that was simply incredible given the fact that the World Championship rarely changed hands) but like all wrestlers entering the WWF from another federation, his past accomplishments were never mentioned. Instead, Vince McMahon introduced Race as "The King" of professional wrestling, a colorful character that seemed like a far cry from his days in the NWA but a role which Race nevertheless played to perfection. His stint in the WWF was short but his contribution to the world of professional wrestling is unquestioned and it is for that reason that the WWF honors him. It is good to see Vince McMahon acknowledging the contributions of wrestlers whose careers were largely spent in rival promotions because it gives more credibility to the Hall of Fame as an institution honoring wrestlers for their accomplishments in the industry rather than their loyalty to Vince McMahon. If Vince McMahon is as sincere about legitimizing the Hall of Fame as he claims, the induction of Harley Race is a good start. "Nature Boy" Ric Flair introduces Harly and recalls how Race taught him so much about being a champion and how Race graciously passed the torch to Flair.
Don Muraco, "The Magnificent Muraco" had a solid career in many promotions such as Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, Georgia Championship Wrestling, and of course, the World Wrestling Federation. He held the Intercontinental Championship in the WWF as a heel, battling such babyface superstars as Pedro Morales, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, and Tito Santana. His interviews were memorable. He could start an interview with his raspy voice kept to nearly a whisper, only to explode into a tirade as he promised to destroy his opponent. He was one of wrestling's cool heels, always doing his best to liven up a match whether it was against a preliminary wrestler or a main event star. I'll never forget the time Muraco wrestled perennial loser Rudy Diamond. During his match he had his manager Lou Albano feed him a meatball submarine sandwich while he wrestled. To add insult to injury, he also drank a Pepsi as he piledrived his opponent into the mat. Muraco's feud with Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka led to his historical steel cage match in Madison Square Garden (where Snuka did his Superfly Splash off the top of the steel cage). A young Mick Foley was one of several wrestling fans there who would later become wrestlers themselves. Foley introduces Muraco and sadly, Foley seems more concerned on putting himself over rather than expounding on Muraco's contributions to professional wrestling. Perhaps someone needs to explain to Foley that he will get his induction into the Hall of Fame somewhere down the road and that this night was not about him.
The Junkyard Dog (alias Sylvester Ritter) couldn't have picked a better time to be in the WWF than during the Rock-n-Wrestling era. His ability as a worker was average but his charisma was off the charts. His unique interview style and crossover popularity in the Mid-South promotion caught Vince McMahon's eye as he built the WWF from a Northeastern promotion into a national promotion. As Ernie "The Cat" Ladd explains during JYD"s introduction, Vince McMahon didn't care if you were black or white as long as you put people in the seats. JYD put people in the seats and his charisma and comedic match style earned him the love of WWF fans everywhere. He was a top babyface during the peak of Hulkamania and his feud with Terry Funk and "King" Harley Race entertained WWF fans around the world. Sadly, JYD died in an automobile crash several years ago and his daughter speaks on his behalf.
Closing out the ceremony is Jesse "The Body" Ventura, whose exploits have transcended the world of professional wrestling. Jesse rose to fame in the AWA as one half of the "East-West Connection" (with tag team partner Adrian Adonis, combining a powerful physique with flamboyant costumes (his trademark feather boa) and interviews. Jesse's career in the WWF as a wrestler was ended prematurely by blood clots but his career in the WWF was far from over. Unable to compete in the ring, Jesse began serving as a color commentator where he earned notoriety as the man who "tells it like it is", actively cheering on heels and mocking the babyfaces. His practically unheard of announcing style made him a crowd favorite despite the fact that he ridiculed the fans and their heroes. Ventura would leave the WWF on his own terms, making several memorable appearances in action films such as "Predator" and "Running Man" before entering the political arena. Jesse is introduced by his son, and in true Jesse style, he doesn't hold back his opinions as he gives an unforgettable speech. A self-promoter to the end, Ventura hints at a presidential run in 2008 before closing out his speech.
The Hall of Fame ceremony runs close to three hours on the DVD and according to reports from people who attended it, the actual ceremony ran considerably longer. With one or two exceptions, the ceremony moves quickly and it doesn't seem like three hours. I can't think of any event like this ever being captured for posterity and it is a unique opportunity for fans to get a look at the people behind the characters. Like any awards show there are times when you want the honorees to move along but for the most part, the ceremony is nicely paced.
The DVD contains seven matches featuring many of the inductees to the Hall of Fame. Honestly speaking, most of the matches are not matches that each legend is well known for (with the exception of the steel cage match between Greg "The Hammer" Valentine and Tito Santana for the Intercontinental Title). Still, each match provides fans with a look back at the wrestlers during their prime (with the exception of Harly Race) and a few promos and skits are featured as well. The matches included on the DVD are:
"Superstar" Billy Graham vs. Bruno Sammartino (WWF Championship Match)- this is one of the matches where Graham was campaigning to captures the WWF Heavyweight Title. What's amazing about this match is the strong psychology involved. Sammartino and Graham make the match all about the battle to see who's strongest with various strength tests and strength based moves.
Sgt. Slaughter vs. Pat Patterson (Alley Fight)-this match includes an alternate commentary track with Michael Cole, Sgt. Slaughter and Pat Patterson. The commentary by the two wrestlers really helps set the match up. The only drawback to this is that Slaughter and Patterson rarely break kayfabe during the commentary. I would love to see the WWE add more commentary tracks to their matches. Just like film commentaries, wrestler commentaries can increase your appreciation and enjoyment of a match.
"Magnificent" Don Muraco vs. Pedro Morales (WWF Intercontinental Title Match)
Jesse "The Body" Ventura vs. Bob Backlund (WWF Championship Match with special referee Ivan "Polish Power" Putski)-this match is interesting if for nothing else than the blatant interference and
favoritism by special referee Ivan Putski. Watching Backlund in this match, I can see where he got his "Howdy Doody" nickname. The guy looks like a goof and he has all the charisma of yesterday's dishwater.
"Big" John Studd vs. Andre the Giant-as mentioned in the review, "Big" John Studd was one of the few credible opponents for Andre the Giant. Their match is exciting because Studd could go toe to toe with Andre, something the fans weren't all that used to seeing. This is no scientific classic but an interesting piece of nostalgia.
Greg "The Hammer" Valentine vs. Tito Santana (WWF Intercontinental Title Match in the steel cage)-the buildup for this match had been fantastic. Valentine had not only beat Santana for the Intercontinental Title, but he'd hospitalized Santana after locking in the figure four leglock for a post-match beatdown. Santana came back from surgery, fired up and eager for revenge. However, Valentine kept an iron grip on the title for months, always cheating his way to victory. Finally, Santana got Valentine in the steel cage and Valentine would have nowhere to hide (unless he ran out the steel cage door or over the top). I never understood what the reasoning was behind the WWF having steel cage match rules allow an opponent to win by escaping the cage. It always took some of the drama out of the cage match. Still, this was one of the WWF's most memorable cage matches.
Junkyard Dog vs. Harley Race-no five star classic and both wrestlers' best days are behind them but Race managed to make this match
watchable and the JYD's usual bag of tricks helped keep this entertaining.
Copyright © 2005 Derek Burgan. All rights reserved.