Tributes II

 

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"For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile."
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Henry V Act 4 Scene 3

TRIBUTES II: Remembering More of the World’s Greatest Professional Wrestlers

by Dave Meltzer


Fascinating profiles of 15 remarkable individuals who left their mark upon the world of professional wrestling.

Review by Mike Rickard II

The holiday season is fast approaching us, that magical time when a well thought out gift can show someone how special they are. Before you find yourself in the unenviable position of trying to figure out how to explain to Grandma why you really don’t want that copy of Hulk Hogan’s autobiography (What do you mean you don’t like the Hulkster?), get to work on your holiday wish list and put Tributes II at the top.

The 239 page tome is a great addition to any wrestling fan’s library. It’s a nicely put together coffee table book with an eye-pleasing layout and selection of color pictures that tell the story of fifteen of wrestling’s all-time greats. Just as he did in Tributes, Dave Meltzer draws upon his sage-like knowledge of professional wrestling to craft entertaining and informative mini-biographies of wrestlers as diverse as the Sheik, Davey Boy Smith, and Miss Elizabeth. The hardcover is a great value for $24.95 because not only do you get the book but you get a companion DVD containing an interview with Dave Meltzer wherein he elaborates further on each of the wrestlers profiled in the book. For example, in the Hawk section, he discusses the Hawk suicide angle in WWE, compares the Road Warriors’ run in WWF to their previous runs in the NWA and AWA, and comments on why the Road Warriors were brought back to the WWE in 2003.

With only 239 pages to tell the story of 15 wrestlers, you know that you’re not going to get exhaustive profiles of each superstar. Still, Meltzer gives readers an excellent assessment of each wrestler’s contributions to the industry and how they left their mark on the business. Each chapter is packed with fascinating glimpses into the lives of each wrestler. Whether it’s the story of a jealous Randy Savage making Elizabeth drive with her convertible top up to prevent men from ogling her or the fact that Curt Hennig preferred his cowboy gimmick to that of Mr. Perfect, Meltzer packs each chapter with absorbing anecdotes and tidbits.

Fans enjoying the current crop of quality wrestling books can thank the success of Mick Foley’s Have A Nice Day! and Foley is Good. As Meltzer points out in the Tributes II companion DVD, Foley’s well-crafted best sellers showed the publishing world that not only can wrestling fans read but that it can be literature. While there’s certainly room for ghost written fluff like The Rock Says: The Most Electrifying Man in Sports-Entertainment and It’s True! It’s True, it’s encouraging to see analytical pieces like Sex, Lies, and Headlocks and Ric Flair’s To Be The Man appearing more frequently in bookstores. And why not? There’s always been a market for show business biographies and tell-alls and what could be more fascinating than the lives of professional wrestlers? For every incredible story going on in the ring, there was an equally (if not more) astonishing story behind the scenes. Tributes II tells each story. It’s moot whether you don’t know or care who the Sheik was (and let’s face it, there are probably lots of people who have trouble remembering who the Iron Sheik is, let alone the original Sheik), his story is fascinating.

It’s refreshing to read a book that acknowledges the rich history of professional wrestling and the territories that produced some of the sport’s most memorable angles and matches. The World Wrestling Federation has produced some fantastic storylines, wrestlers, and matches but it’s important to recognize that they are not the Alpha and Omega of professional wrestling. One of the things that really struck me about this book was the incredible amount of business that regional promotions did during their heyday. Once upon a time there were dozens of promotions that dotted the U.S. and Canadian maps, many of them very successful. More often than not promoters sold out monthly house shows despite the lack of major television access (Sure, there was wrestling on network television during the wrestling boom of the 50’s but that did not last forever). Instead, promoters relied on hot angles and more importantly, performers who could piss off the fans enough where they’d pay good money to see them get their comeuppance.

While the fans paid, the heels often paid in other ways. Guys like Freddie Blassie and the Sheik got fans riled up to the point where wrestling matches sometimes ended up in riots. In Tributes II, Meltzer tells the story of how Wahoo McDaniel turned from beloved babyface to hated heel and found himself delivering his trademark Tomahawk chops to fans so he could make it back to the dressing room in one piece. He tells the wild tale of how Freddie Blassie earned his nickname the Vampire and nearly got wrestling banned from television in Japan. These wrestlers did their jobs so well that fans lost their minds over what they thought was happening in the ring. Many times, wrestlers had to fend off fans armed with knives, guns, or whatever else they could get their hands on.

Owen Hart distinguished himself in one of wrestling’s greatest families and while he managed to escape the drug and alcohol snares that prematurely ended the lives of many of his colleagues, his life still ended early thanks to an in-ring stunt gone terribly wrong. Despite being a fantastic worker, Hart’s career was stalled by terrible gimmicks and booking such as his tenure in the WWF as the Blue Blazer and his pairing with Koko B. Ware in the team High Energy. After a memorable feud with his brother Bret, Owen went on to a major role in the WWF during the Attitude Era as a member of the Hart Foundation.

To me, Freddie Blassie will always be remembered for two things: 1) his famous “Stand Up speech” where the ancient Blassie rose up from a wheelchair and exhorted WWF wrestlers to fight against the WCW/ECE Invasion and 2) his trademark phrase “pencil neck geek”. The colorful Blassie knew how to manipulate fans whether he was a heel or face. One of his biggest fans was comedian Andy Kaufman who made the cult classic film Breakfast with Blassie. As a wrestler, Blassie earned a reputation as one of the best talkers of his day and this gift helped him make the transition from wrestler to manager. Blassie used his fame and managerial skills to help wrestlers like Adrian Adonis and Hulk Hogan become popular in Japan. Whether he was managing Jesse Ventura as the Hollywood Fashion Plate or the Iron Sheik as the Ayatollah Blassie, Classy Freddie Blassie knew how to help his men get over.

Davey Boy Smith and the Dynamite Kid formed one of the most memorable tag teams of all time- the British Bulldogs. By the time the British Bulldogs made it to the WWF, their best days were already behind them. Nevertheless, their entry into the WWF energized a stagnant tag team division and helped the WWF compete with other federations as tag team specialists everywhere golden age for WWF tag teams. When the Bulldogs lost the tag team titles, Dynamite Kid’s career was nearly over, his back so damaged that Davey Boy had to literally carry him to ringside. Unlike some tag team wrestlers, Smith found considerable success after his run with Dynamite but recurring injuries and an addiction to painkillers slowly ate away at his career.

Curt Hennig played many roles during his career but none so personified his career as his Mr. Perfect character. A second-generation wrestler, Hennig went from world champion of the dying American Wrestling Association to one of the top heels during the Rock and Wrestling Era. His Mr. Perfect character got over big thanks to some of the best and most memorable vignettes ever produced by the WWF. Still, there is no doubt who made Mr. Perfect so memorable. When the WWE tried to make lightning strike twice by having Hennig promote Shawn Stasiak as the Perfect One, it became obvious that there was only one pinnacle of perfection. . Hennig did his job so well that he managed to avoid the fate of many heels during the Rock and Wrestling Era (that is, disappearing after being fed to Hulk Hogan). He held the Intercontinental Title on two occasions and success seemed limitless a back injury forced him out of the sport for several years. Hennig came back but he never managed to achieve the success he had once attained in the WWF.

Much has been written about the career of Andre the Giant. One of the few wrestlers to achieve true mainstream success, Andre was recognized throughout the world and a beloved icon of the sport. His mind-boggling guaranteed him a spot in the exaggerated world of wrestling but his charisma and ring-savvy ensured that he would be remembered as more than a novelty act. There were few wrestlers who could challenge him without breaking all notions of credibility so he traveled frequently from promotion to promotion. The acromegaly that caused Andre to grow to his incredible height slowly killed him. Although his body eventually stopped growing taller, he continued growing and he lived in incredible pain during the latter part of his short life.

The Sheik (aka Ed Farhat) was a man who worked hard and played hard. Recognized as one of the top heels of all time, he lived the good life, playing high stakes games in Las Vegas and wining and dining friends at some of the finest restaurants around. He was also known for his generosity. After an auto accident sidelined Harley Race, the Sheik sent him a check every week until he got back on his feet. Despite the Sheik’s hidden generosity, he was better known for brutalizing babyfaces around the globe, (the pencil and fireballs being two preferred weapons in his arsenal). Far from a classic scientific wrestler, the Sheik once incurred the real-life wrath of legendary grappler Lou Thesz (who had a very low opinion of guys who couldn’t wrestle in real life). After Thesz promised the Sheik that he was going to break his legs during their match, the Sheik promptly fled the ring outside into a blizzard where he hid underneath a bus as police and firefighters tried to talk him out. While the Sheik was not known for his sixty minute amateur classics, he was known for drawing the kind of heat that sold out arenas and at one point in his career, he was considered the top heel in the world.

Stu Hart lived a tough life ever since his days as a youth when his family lost their farm and he lived in a tent in the brutal Canadian winters. He began a brutal training regimen as a teenager and his indoctrination into the world of wrestling gave Hart a tremendous amount of respect for toughness. Hart’s goal of entering the Olympics ended when World War Two broke out but he turned his wrestling skills to use when he arrived home as a professional wrestler. While Stu Hart’s wrestling career was nothing spectacular, he built and influenced the careers of dozens of wrestlers in his Calgary Stampede Wrestling promotion and in the much talked about basement known as the Dungeon. Thanks to Hart’s dedication to teaching his craft to those he felt had earned this gift, the careers of legends such as Chris Benoit, Davey Boy Smith, and Brian Pillman (to name a few) were made.

Can you imagine Gorilla Monsoon as your school teacher? Monsoon studied to be a teacher but chose the better income of professional wrestling and never looked back. As one of the very few big men of his era, Monsoon wrestled as both a heel and a face. He was a shrewd businessman as well and was part owner of two wrestling promotions. Eventually he went into semi-retirement and worked for Vince McMahon Sr. as assistant booker and part-time enforcer. As he neared full retirement, he sold his interest in the WWF to Vince McMahon Jr. in a deal that set him up for life. Older fans probably remember the famous angle where Monsoon sparred with Muhammad Ali and put Ali in an airplane spin. Although the angle was a complete work, it set up the Ali-Antonio Inoki boxer vs. wrestler match. Later on, Monsoon educated fans on the human anatomy as a commentator for WWF television. Many a time fans would hear him cry out “Gimme a break” as he served as the straight man for heel color commentators Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan.

Johnny Valentine made his reputation as one of wrestling’s tough guys. Whether he was a face or a heel, he earned the fans’ respect by his refusal to back down from anyone. His feuds with Wahoo McDaniel made both men loads of cash in several promotions. Valentine spent the latter years of his career in Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling before his career (along with passenger and fellow wrestler Bob Brueggers) was ended in the infamous plane crash that sidelined Ric Flair for several months. Valentine’s son Greg would wrestle with Johnny as brothers (promoters fearing that fans would think Johnny too old if they knew he was the father of Greg) and Greg would carry on his father’s tradition of a tough as nails competitor.

As one half of the legendary tag team the Road Warriors, Mike “Hawk” Hegstrand found fantastic success in the three major promotions of his day. The power tag team was incredibly successful in all three major promotions of the day, first in the AWA, then the NWA, and finally in the WWF. What is even more impressive is that they wrestled during the 1980’s, perhaps the pinnacle of tag team wrestling. After Animal was sidelined with an injury, Hawk found additional success in Japan as one half of the tag team the Hell Raisers. Slowly, injuries slowed the Road Warriors as the steroids that fueled Hawk’s incredible physique slowly killed him. The steroids also fueled “’roid rage” that landed Hawk in real-life skirmishes with wrestlers Randy Savage, Too Cold Scorpio, and Eddie Guerrero.

“Chief” Wahoo McDaniel scored success and fame as a football player and a wrestler. The Native American wrestled during the off-season and applied some of the showmanship he learned in wrestling to his time on the football field. “Guess who? Wahoo!” became a favorite catchphrase of fans whenever McDaniel made a tackle. After being traded to the Miami Dolphins, McDaniel left football for wrestling after a wild brawl with police officers led to his being traded to San Diego. McDaniel was wildly popular with fans and his feud with Johnny Valentine in Texas was so successful that it was recreated for Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. McDaniel was never afraid to put over other wrestlers. After Johnny Valentine’s career was ended in a plane crash, he continued the feud with Valentine’s son Greg and helped build both Greg’s career and that of a young Ric Flair.

Tim Woods personified the tremendous personal sacrifice that wrestlers have made for their sport. It may be speculation but if it wasn’t for the heroic efforts of Woods, the wrestling world as we know it would have been very different. Woods was one of the passengers aboard the plane crash that injured Ric Flair and ended the careers of Bob Brueggers and Johnny Valentine. While Woods was not as severely injured as the others, he still suffered a serious back injury. Despite this, Woods appeared on television shortly after the crash to dispel the rumors that he was one of the passengers with infamous heels Valentine and Flair. Back when kayfabe was considered essential to a promotion’s success, Woods protected kayfabe by denying that he was onboard with hated rival Valentine and helped keep the Mid-Atlantic promotion intact. Of course Woods was much more known for his career as Mr. Wrestling, one of the few masked babyfaces of his era and a wizard of technical wrestling.

Like many of his peers, Terry Gordy found success in the squared circle at a very young age. Things kept getting better as he helped form the legendary tag team the Fabulous Freebirds with Michael Hayes and found continued success in Japan in both singles and tag team competition. Gordy was a phenomenal worker until a drug overdose caused brain damage from which he never fully recovered. Although he continued to wrestle, his career was never the same.

Elizabeth exuded charm and class. The First Lady of Wrestling wasn’t the first female valet but she was arguably the most memorable. Sexy but not slutty, she was loved by fans despite rarely speaking a word and not having to showcase tits and ass to win the fans’ adoration. While she was the manager for Randy Savage, one of the greatest heels during the Rock and Wrestling Era, she herself was depicted as being as good as the Macho Man was bad. In an inspired bit of booking, she served as the long-suffering manager who put up with Savage’s jealousy, possessiveness, and abuse (Interesting enough, Elizabeth was originally slated to be a heel manager). Behind the scenes, she was married to Savage who was just as possessive and jealous of her as his character was on television. Through it all, she exuded class and confidence and helped build some of the most unforgettable angles during the Rock-n-Wrestling Era such as the Megapowers, the Savage/Roberts feud, and of course Savage’s feud with Ric Flair where Flair claimed that Elizabeth was “damaged goods”.

Despite what you may have heard on WWE television, Randy Orton is not the youngest world champion. That honor belongs to Lou Thesz who captured the NWA Championship at the age of 21. While he was not flashy, his skill as a wrestler and his demeanor gave him an aura of credibility that he truly was the world champion of professional wrestling. He wrestled at a time when many people believed that wrestling matches were real and his believability in and out of the ring made him one of the biggest draws of all time. Despite the illusory nature of wrestling, there was nothing manufactured about Thesz’ in-ring skills. He set the standard in the NWA that the world champion had to be an excellent wrestler and he refused to put over anyone who he felt was lacking. He intimidated other wrestlers throughout his career and even when Thesz was a senior citizen, he made Bruiser Brody acknowledge his superiority.

The book is close to flawless. There are a couple instances where Meltzer assumes that readers are as knowledgeable as him and he explains situations in a wrestler’s life. These lapses are rare though. My only real complaint with Meltzer is one that I have with most writers of wrestling books, shoddy citing of sources. I’m still waiting for someone with Meltzer’s knowledge of wrestling to write a book that lists primary and secondary sources. This isn’t an attack on Meltzer’s credibility or ability. He is universally recognized as one of the most knowledgeable experts on professional wrestling and deservedly so. It’s time to take things a step further though and to bring his work up to the same standards of other historians. Obviously there are times when Meltzer can’t disclose his sources but for the sake of future historians, it would be helpful if they had a source list to start with so they can conduct their own research and compare their findings to Meltzer’s.



Copyright © 2005 Derek Burgan. All rights reserved.