REQUESTING FLYBY: Summerslam Memories (The 1980s)
Jul 30, 2014 - 6:35:41 PM
Summerslam Memories (The 1980s)
The mid-1980s essentially saw a pay-per-view arms race between Vince McMahon’s WWF and Jim Crockett Promotions (what would later become WCW). The already established Starrcade of JCP was trumped by McMahon’s Wrestlemania gambit, because by Wrestlemania III, that brand had comprehensively assumed dominance as the marquee wrestling event of the year. Vince went on to create Survivor Series in November 1987 and aired it to clash with Starrcade, with the chairman of the WWF threatening that any cable provider who aired JCP’s event would not be allowed to broadcast Wrestlemania IV. Taken in by this thuggish piece of realpolitik, only a small proportion of cable companies offered Starrcade ‘87, assuring that Vince’s new creation won in the ratings. Soon after, the inaugural Royal Rumble was aired for free on the USA Network in January 1988, which JCP countered with the Bunkhouse Stampede PPV which did not draw well at all. Feeling on top of the battle- and correctly so as Crockett sold out to Ted Turner in October 1988- Vince McMahon created the fourth pay-per-view event in the WWF portfolio, Summerslam, to take place in August 1988 and every August since. Given its position in the wrestling “season”, four months after the preceding Wrestlemania and eight months before the next, the Summer Classic quickly became the company’s number two event and the twenty- seven editions so far have given us some unforgettable memories, which I intend to explore over four columns covering the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Of course, we only have two events to discuss for the 1980s, so a more limited selection of memories, but let’s not let that stop us. Your columnist did not start watching wrestling until 1990, but I remember buying Summerslam 1989 from Woolworth’s on the high street of my home town in a bid to learn the history of the business and it being amongst my favourite pay-per-views as a young fan. The year before, we were at the height of the Mega Powers storyline, which was one of the biggest angles in the Fed’s history. Anyway, let’s get on with identifying some key points about those events.
The Golden Age of Tag Team Wrestling
For me, the very best thing about the late-1980s was the absolutely tremendous tag team scene, and the first edition of Summerslam illustrated the strength of that division perfectly. The British Bulldogs, had been a fixture as babyfaces since 1984 when Vince bought out Stampede Wrestling, and they were matched against a new, athletic French Canadian pairing, the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers, managed by Jimmy Hart and running a heel gimmick based around relocating to the US. Although backstage relations between the teams ultimately led to the departure of the Bulldogs from the Fed, their chemistry in the ring here is impressive. The Bulldogs tag efficiently in and out to showcase their impressive athleticism, while The Rougeaus, for their part, are perfect in the chickenshit heel roles and sell the offense of their opponents with a natural theatricality perfect for the era. Once the Quebecois take control through an apparent leg injury to Davey, they work over the limb with determination and kayfabe guile, drawing heat at all the appropriate times. Smith makes for an excellent face in peril, and although some modern eyes may find that this section of the match somewhat drawn out, the crowd’s response to Davey’s plight shows you how well these guys are working the crowd, as does the hot tag to Dynamite, that leads to a couple of nicely timed near falls. The one thing that hurts the match for me is the second face in peril sequence, since it’s increasingly obvious as the match goes on how bad a shape Dynamite is in when it comes to his injuries; you can visibly see him wince through the latter portions of the bout. The ending is also very of its time, as the bout ends in a 20 minute time limit draw with Kid just getting into position to pin Jacques.
Most people remember the Powers of Pain as the monster heel team led by Mr Fuji, but they were actually still babyfaces at Summerslam ‘88, where they took on old school Russian heels The Bolsheviks, with Nikolai Volkoff singing the Soviet anthem at the outset of the match to a decent amount of heat. The big, face-painted babyfaces rush the ring to begin, stopping the singing short and quickly establishing their dominance. The power and strike based offense of the Powers is impressive visually, until Warlord gets caught by the veterans and choked out with the tag rope, while Barbarian can’t convince the referee to turn around in timeless fashion. The eventual hot tag and Powers’ comeback is somewhat sloppy in execution, and lacks some crispness, but the double tackle/powerslam/flying headbutt is certainly impactful and in keeping with their aesthetic. The point really is that two relatively minor teams- a pair of throwbacks to the earlier 80s and a transparent attempt to create a WWF version of the Road Warriors- were positioned on the card to have a fast paced match to energise the crowd, showing how seriously the division was treated at the time, and how deep it was.
The tag team champions at the first edition of Summerslam were Demolition, an awe inspiring pair of brawlers in Kiss make-up and studded leather, and they had cut a swathe through the competition, taking down Rick Martel and Tito Santana in the process to win the belts at ‘Mania IV. They defended their belts here against The Hart Foundation, who had recently turned babyface and had that classic big man/technical man dynamic that always works so well. There was a nice story going into this one too as Jimmy Hart had betrayed the former Stampede workers and offered his services to Demolition as a consultant to work alongside Mr Fuji and pass on his knowledge of the Harts. Ax and Smash’s awesome power is showcased at the start against Bret Hart, who gives away a good fifty pounds to his face painted rivals, but the ingenuity of The Hitman puts him back in control with good old fashioned technical smarts. The two teams match up well in this respect, until inevitably, some villainous tactics take down the Anvil and then an ill-advised shoulder charge into the corner sets up The Excellence of Execution to play the face in peril for a while. Of course, very few bumped and sold as well as Bret, so it’s a great sequence, particularly when he gets bundled outside like a sack of potatoes. We also get the classic “face tag goes unseen” moment, which draws the crowd further into hoping for a Hart Foundation renaissance, which finally comes with a hot tag to Neidhart. Jim is very impressive in making an impact, hitting a 300 ib plancha over the top rope even Luke Harper would be proud to call his own! As the match eventually breaks down into chaos, two managers prove better than one and a megaphone shot allows Demolition to escape with their titles intact. Great ten minute match and everything a tag title match should be.
A year later at Summerslam ‘89, the tag division was still in rude health as the Hart Foundation took the curtain jerking role against the two technicians recruited from WCW, The Brainbusters. Arn and Tully were absolutely awesome workers, and these two teams put on a real treat of a contest to open up proceedings. The only odd thing about the match is that the titles, owned by Bobby Heenan’s squad, are not on the line, a curious piece of booking that even Jesse Ventura on commentary calls “a no win situation”. There is just so much to like about the action here, with the two technicians, Bret and Tully, starting things out, with Bret’s deep arm drags impressing in the early going. We then get some enforcer vs enforcer action as The Anvil and Arn Anderson go toe to toe, but the swift tags of the Foundation allow them to dominate the first few stanzas of the match. There are some terrific, characterful spots such as Jim no selling Arn’s chops, The Hitman bridging out of a double team move and the Hart Foundation clearing the ring despite the sneaky heel tactics of the Brainbusters around half way through. The opening for the Heenan backed team comes when a signature Anvil charge is telegraphed and they get to wear down big Jim, until we get to the point where all four men are battling as the referee loses control (something essential to all great tag wrestling). There’s a fantastic brawl outside the ring between Jim and Arn, until the Harts create the opportunity to hit the double team finisher, which seems to be the decisive moment but in fact is not, as The Brain lives up to his moniker by distracting the ref long enough for Anderson to come off the middle rope onto Bret, and turning Tully onto the prone Hitman for the three. A fantastic curtain jerker that showed the strength in the division was still very much evident a year down the line.
While the singles matches from the 1980s often age poorly, that is not the case with the tag division, and I would certainly recommend you all checking out the matches I’ve discussed above. You won’t be disappointed. The tag scene is the best thing about that era for me, with exceptional work rate and charisma from all the teams, and these first two Summerslams place the genre front and centre in a way that is a joy to behold.
The Irresistible Rise Of The Ultimate Warrior
We all know that Vince McMahon based his entire business empire on the creation of huge babyfaces that could be booked strongly as heroes to the young, and he was always alert to the possible creation of a new superman. Hogan and Savage were the top two faces in 1988, but a certain jacked up, full throttle wildman had just entered the WWF fray. The Ultimate Warrior gathered support quickly, with his high octane ring entrance, pumping music, face paint and tassels getting over with young fans. After defeating Hercules at Wrestlemania IV, the man from parts unknown was ready to take that next step, and he was able to do so on a sufficiently large stage that the episode is well remembered to this day and regularly features on countdowns of the best PPV segments of all time.
The Summerslam ‘88 angle was replayed a great deal upon the death of the Warrior as perhaps his most iconic moment, and the entire thing was so perfectly constructed that even today it is not hard to see why the crowd in the arena went so berserk. Honky had defied the odds by continually sneaking away with the Intercontinental Title no matter who his opponent was; he was that classic lucky champion who cheated to win. For almost a year, every midcard babyface failed to take his belt, and the audience was desperate to see him lose it. The hubris inherent in the backstage interview with Mean Gene is the ideal set up, with Honky Tonk Man insisting that he doesn’t want to know who the respondent to his open challenge is because he wants it to be a surprise and he’ll beat anyone put him front of him. There’s a great moment where Okerlund tries to insist upon the “extraordinary physical challenge” represented by his opponent, but Honky again ignores the clues.
By the time he comes out to the ring to his brilliantly annoying theme tune, The Honky Tonk Man really is cruising for a bruising, with yet more cocky posturing ahead of the Fink’s announcing of his opponent, and when Fink does not seem to know who the challenger is either, Honky gets on the mic to demand somebody to wrestle, and it’s THEN that those first bone juddering power chords kick in, the place, in Monsoon’s words, “goes bananas” and the Ultimate Warrior sprints to the ring. Even the squash that follows plays brilliantly to the strengths of both men, with Honky comically missing with attempted punches and Warrior’s high energy clothesline, slam, tackle and splash crowning a new midcard champion. The Ultimate Warrior’s ascent towards superstardom had well and truly begun, and the historical importance of that night in August 1988 can not be underestimated. And with Warrior sadly no longer with us but at least in the Hall of Fame, it’s a lot of fun to look back upon one of his greatest moments.
From one of Warrior’s greatest moments we move on to discuss one of his greatest feuds, the one with Ravishing Rick Rude that took up a large part of 1989 and led to what was, for a long time, his best match, with only the Randy Savage retirement match two years later surpassing it. It’s no exaggeration to say that Rick Rude taught Warrior to work, and after their confrontation at the Rumble where Rude beat on him with a pose bar and the short bout at Wrestlemania V where Bobby Heenan’s interference allowed the Ravishing One to win the Intercontinental Title, the stage was well set for a feature length encounter. Rude’s ability to draw heat is just exceptional, with his traditional pre-match robe routine and abuse of the crowd as “fat, out of shape, Summerslam sweathogs” getting the crowd in a lather to see the Warrior re-arrange his features. The heel commentary of Jesse Ventura is top notch too, denouncing the entrance of The Ultimate Warrior as illustrating the fact that he “doesn’t have a full deck”. Ah, Jesse, if only you took over from JBL today…
The reception from the crowd for the match beginning is rapturous, the kind of reaction that would soon catapult the face painted hero into a collision course with Hulkamania, and this is the ideal final training ground for the main event scene. The noise even for Warrior hitting a simple clothesline is deafening, gladiatorial arena style, and when he gorilla presses The Ravishing One to the outside, it rises to raise the roof levels. Rarely has an opening face shine felt as organic and vital as that. Rude is deposited outside again moments later, much to Heenan’s chagrin, and a double axe handle off the top leads to a decent early near fall. The thing about a heat magnet like Rude is that the crowd just eat up seeing him punished, and feel strongly put out when he catches Warrior napping on the top rope and takes the momentum back. The intelligence and ring smarts of the champ is what allows him to control the powerhouse, and he works on the back of the challenger in order to slow down his explosiveness.
Warrior manages to counter the Rude Awakening in a spot that makes him look a million dollars, but the Ravishing One goes straight into a sleeper hold which Warrior eventually gets out of with a facebuster. There’s terrific tension in the bout, particularly when a mid ring collision takes out both competitors and the referee. This means that the comeback and second offensive period of Warrior takes place with no official, meaning that Rude kicks out of the pin when Marella finally comes around and then manages to get the knees up to the big splash. Warrior gets to show yet more resilience by kicking out of a piledriver/powerbomb hybrid and another piledriver. In the end it is the intervention of Roddy Piper that turns things decisively against Rude, as the distraction of the kayfabe Scotsman mooning the champ allows Warrior to hit his signatures to recapture the Intercontinental Title to a madcap reception.
The Ultimate Warrior is really the poster boy for what can be achieved with a great look, huge charisma and a willingness to learn. With the help of two veteran pros, Jim Hellwig was able to climb to the very top of the wrestling world, a path that has since also been trod by Batista and, it would now seem, Roman Reigns. Perhaps Randy Orton will play the Rick Rude role for Reigns this August? Either way, the summer classic gave us the best two Warrior moments of the 1980s, setting up future glory for the early 90s.
The Mega Powers vs. The Mega Bucks
One of the biggest angles of the decade took place right at its end. 1988 was defined by the continuation of Hogan vs. Andre from the year before, combined with the rise of Ted DiBiase to top heel and the ascent of Macho Man to the WWF Title. DiBiase’s attempt to buy the title by paying Andre to pass it to him after crooked officiating assured that the Giant would defeat The Hulkster was an absolute solid gold piece of writing, and it led to the title tournament for the vacated belt at Wrestlemania IV, easily my personal favourite of the first nine editions of the Showcase of the Immortals. The one night story of Savage winning the gold in the final over The Million Dollar Man after Hogan and Andre had taken each other out in a double disqualification earlier in the tourney is one I am deeply fond of, and the angle continued into the summer as DiBiase and Andre ambushed Randy on Superstars of Wrestling with Elizabeth forced to watch the beat down. Macho Man issued a tag challenge for Summerslam, which Heenan accepted on behalf of his clients. Bobby, Ted and Andre were delighted when Jesse Ventura was selected as guest referee but less pleased that Hulk Hogan chose to be Randy Savage’s partner, forming the Mega Powers to face the team that would become known as The Mega Bucks.
The early stages are very nicely played, with Ventura getting Heenan and Elizabeth out of the ring and getting one man from each team to step onto the apron so the action can start. An underrated aspect of this first main event of the Summerslam era is the matching attire of each team, with the Bucks in simple black and the Powers in yellow and red. A small touch admittedly, but one that adds cohesion to the two thrown together teams. There’s a lot of posing and false starts once the bell finally rings, but once DiBiase is getting rocked by punch tennis between Hogan and Savage, the crowd is able to finally invest. Randy takes to the skies to punish DiBiase with a double axehandle, but when the Hulkster attempts to engage with Andre on the apron, he gets caught by The Giant and the match turns in the favour of the heels, as Elizabeth shows her concern with customary quiet charisma. Hogan makes for an excellent face in peril as the Mega Bucks double team and tag in and out with great efficiency. There’s some great storytelling when DiBiase is able to use Ventura’s lack of refereeing experience to periodically change a chin lock to a choke hold, and Hogan is able to give the crowd false hope several times before making the hot tag to Savage.
As several of the tag matches we looked at earlier showed, the period of time when action breaks down and all four men enter the fray together is often the most exciting time, and the Mega Powers definitely get the worst of this segment, with both members tossed to the outside. It’s at this point that Elizabeth’s decisive intervention comes, as she climbs onto the apron and whips off her skirt to distract the Bucks and Ventura long enough for Hogan and Savage to take their opponents by surprise. Andre finds himself thrown out of the ring, while DiBiase gets a bodyslam, the flying elbow and a leg drop to give the babyfaces a huge victory to send the crowd home happy.
The first Summerslam main event was an object lesson in booking a huge one off happening that would draw huge numbers and advance an ongoing storyline- in this case the path towards the explosion of the Mega Powers due to Randy Savage’s jealous behaviour over Elizabeth. As we will see next time, the ability of the company to convincingly book main events at Summerslam would wane during the first half of 1990s before coming on strong again in that decade’s second half. I hope you’ll join me then!
Let me know what you think of the key trends I identified about wrestling in the 1980s as showcased by the inaugural two Summerslams below in the comments section, or tweet me here:
Part two of this mini series, covering the Summerslams of the 1990s, will be posted here this time next week. In the mean time, check out Fact Or Fiction, my brand new Smackdown/Main Event review on Friday, the next edition of ATTITUDE this weekend and the second edition of RAW-QUESTING FLYBY after Raw on Monday.
But until any of those things happen, this is Maverick, requesting flyby!