RINGSIDE REMEMBRANCES: 50 YEARS OF MEMORIES

Posted July 7th, 2015 by jshannon

Ringside Remembrances: 50 years of memories

Jay Shannon draws upon a half century as a devout wrestling fan to look at the past, present and future of professional wrestling.

Well, they said I’d never make it. I’ve reached 50 years old. I’ve lived through 9 different Presidents, 5 Popes and dozens of “World Champions”. I’ve gone from grainy black and white broadcasts of local wrestling to watching international events via the Internet. Many of my heroes are now gone but the memories will always be there. For my annual Birthday Column, I wanted to look at the “Best of the last 50 Years”.

Best Arena: The Dallas Sportatorium

I’ve mentioned it a million times in the past. It was a serious Rat Hole of a metal building. Located on the corner of Cadiz and Industrial (those street names have recently been changed), the former horse auction barn was bought by Big Time Wrestling back before I was born. It had no heat or air conditioning (always fun in the Dallas summers) and an alleged “curse”. I’ve been to fantastic sports palaces around the world (nod to Atlas Arena in Lodz, Poland) but there was just something beyond special about the Sportatorium. I was there to cry with my extended “Family” when David and Kerry died. It was a bonding place for myself and my grandfather…later myself and my step-father. Like those two great men, the Sportatorium is gone. If you go to where the legendary home of the Von Erichs used to be, all you will find, now, is a parking lot. However, the spirits of Brody, Von Erichs, Adams and so many others still return from time to time, according to legend. When I sell my book and become a millionaire (grin), I swear I will buy some property in or around my adopted home town of Reno, Nevada and create a new Sportatorium.

Best Announcer: Gordon Solie

This one was seriously hard for me to choose. Bill Mercer, a former Professor of mine at North Texas, was my first choice (out of respect). Jim Ross also was right up there at the top of my list. Same for Mike Tenay. Then I stopped to think about who was the absolute best beyond my own personal experiences. Solie was an encyclopedia of knowledge. He was a man that I studied before I did my run as play-by-play man for Pro Wrestling Destination. Solie also influenced me when I began to write reviews and recaps. Solie knew every move and interjected fantastically interesting trivia between calls of Snap Mares and Suplexes. He had a sense of humor but didn’t try to overplay to the crowd for cheap pops. He walked in, did his job (excellently) and went home. Solie influenced hundreds of announcers, both inside and outside wrestling. Sadly, he left us before the modern fans could really appreciate his talent. He is one of the few people in the industry that I truly regret never getting to meet.

Best Manager: Bobby “The Brain” Heenan

There have been so many great managers, over the last 50 years. “Captain Lou”, Jimmy Hart, Mr. Fuji, James J. Dillon, Gary Hart, etc… All of them have had exceptional success but “The Brain” was, in my humble opinion, just a half step above them all. He was there when Andre finally ended Hulk Hogan’s first amazing run as World Champ. He was also present when Ric Flair bested Hogan and others in the Royal Rumble to become World Champ. He spent many years keeping Nick Bockwinkel atop the AWA pantheon. The Heenan Family was a model for so many other groupings during the decades. Heenan, a former pro wrestler, took his Gift of Gab and turned it into solid gold. His promos were always enjoyable. He wasn’t afraid to get involved on behalf of his charges, if the need was there. He even took his share of beatings (including being forced into a Weasel Suit, after losing to Ultimate Warrior). Bobby has had to retire, due to health issues and advancing age, but still makes appearances at conventions. I got to meet him, for just a few moments, last year in New Orleans. I thanked him for being so wonderful as a performer. He smiled at me and it meant the world. No disrespect to men from Funky Brewster to Stu Stone to Jimmy Hart, but Bobby just stands on top of the mountain, at least for me.

Best Wrestling Event: Wrestlemania III

It was March 29, 1987 in Pontiac, Michigan. Aretha Franklin busted loose with America the Beautiful to kick things off. There were 18 future Hall of Famers on the card (22, if you count Howard Finkel, Bob Uecker, Gorilla Monsoon, and Jesse Ventura). The event drew one of the largest crowds of that era. It was filled with celebrities, including one of my favorites, Alice Cooper (home town guy now here in the Reno area). The matches were well thought out and given plenty of time to build. Andre vs Hogan may have been listed as the main event, but they were eclipsed by the perfection offered by Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat vs “Macho Man” Randy Savage. The show had everything: tag teams, midgets, women wrestling (no, I did NOT say Divas or Knockouts), managers, snakes, bulldogs, hair cutting, a cool face turn for Brutus Beefcake, and the defeat of the undefeatable as Hogan pinned Andre (albeit after a questionable early pin attempt that I still say Hogan did not kick out of). This was the very first event that I ever had on VHS. My aunt, Wanda, bought it for me as a present and it still resides in a protective case in my trunk of special items. I’ve upgraded it to DVD but the old copy is still there as a reminder of the Good Ol’ Days. 12 stellar matches that still feel as fresh as they did almost 30 years ago.

Best Promoter: Vincent Kennedy McMahon

I know, I know, we all hate him for “destroying” the Old School style of wrestling. However, if Vince hadn’t modified, upgraded and completely changed the product, it is very unlikely that pro wrestling would still exist. Before Vinny Mac got involved, wrestling was restrictive and territorialized. The territory system had its merits and I loved having World Class, Mid-South, etc… but the expanding world called for change. Vince was there to provide just that. He bucked the system and systematically eliminated the Old Guard of regional promoters. McMahon surrounded himself with the best in the business to take the production values of the then-WWF to levels never before seen in professional sports. He risked it all, time and time again, to make sure that he broke through to the other side. Wrestlemania I could have shut down the company, had it failed. Losing Hulk Hogan was seen as a final nail in the coffin but Vince replaced him with Bret Hart and later Steve Austin. Not everything worked but at least Vince was willing to try new ideas. Vince also kept creative control over almost all performers and their characters. OK, Fake Diesel and Razor Ramon were a bit of an embarrassment but Vince showed he had the “Grapefruits” to stand his ground. Vince has moved out of the spotlight, in recent years, but you just never know when Mr. McMahon will Power Walk his way to the ring.

Best Faction: The Four Horsemen

Love them or Hate them, they made an impact beyond words. The original group was Ric Flair, Ole and Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard. They tore up Jim Crockett Promotions in the late 80s. Ole was later replaced by Barry Windham and the group just got stronger. The group, in its various incarnations, ran for just shy of 25 years. In all, there were 16 active members of the Horsemen and quite a few Associate Members. DX, the n.W.o. and tons of other collections of talented wrestlers used the Horsemen as their template. Evolution, Fourtune and some others have been direct re-launches of the Horsemen but none of them could fill the shoes of the originals.

Best Tag Team: The Road Warriors

They won Tag Team of the Year on their very first year together (and several years after that). They took the top titles in the AWA, WWF/E and the NWA/WCW. Hawk and Animal, along with “Precious” Paul Ellering, just dominated everyone in sight. They broke all the walls down, including changing a match finish on Verne Gagne (which would have normally been career suicide). Many teams would do their best to mimic the Chi-Town Brawlers but all have fallen short. The team took a break, in 1991, when Hawk went off to spend time with one of England’s chapters of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle organization. Darren “Puke” Drozdov and Heidenreich were brought in to partner with Animal but they just weren’t Hawk. Hawk got past his demons and the Road Warriors made several more appearance before Hawk’s untimely death. The Road Warriors are now just a wonderful memory but their influences will likely be part of the industry for decades to come…just look at The Ascension.

Best Technical Wrestler: Dean Malenko

The title “Man of 1000 Holds” wasn’t just a cutesy catchphrase…it was a honest description of Dean’s abilities. He was trained, officially, by his father, Boris. I say officially because Dean learned from every person that he faced. He also shared as much as he took in. Dean performed in the Big 3 of his era (WCW, WWF/E and ECW). He was part of The Radicalz (with Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero and Perry Saturn) that rocked the wrestling world when they took off from WCW and “invaded” the WWF/E. While Malenko retired in 2001, he has been busy, working behind the scenes, for the past 15 years. He has made a few in-ring appearances but health issues have kept him out of the limelight over the last couple of years. He has helped train dozens of newer talents in the last decade and a half.

Best Brawler: Bruiser Brody

Frank Goodish was a gentle man that loved his family and had a great business sense. Bruiser Brody was a wild-haired, bearded brute that ripped through just about everyone in sight for decades. Brody battled Bruno Sammartino, Nick Bockwinkle, Ric Flair, Harley Race and many other top champions during his too short life and career. Brody’s wild bark still shows up in modern times, through tributes from other wrestlers. Brody was one of the most honored and respected battlers to ever work Japan. Brody’s life came to an end when he was murdered in 1987. His action figure holds a place of honor on my office desk.

Best “Face”: Bruno Sammartino

There have been very few wrestlers who went their entire career as either a “Face” or “Heel”. Bruno and Ricky Steamboat are the only two wrestlers that I can think of that never took a trip on the “Dark Side”. From 1963 until today, Bruno always hears the cheers of his loving fans. Bruno didn’t have to stoop to cheap tactics to stay on top, he didn’t need to. Bruno’s career was almost over when I first ran across him in action. His record setting title run was over a decade in the past when he showed up on our new cable system. Thankfully, I’ve been able to go back and see some of his best work.

Best Heel: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper

Piper set the bar so high for “heels” that very few have ever come close. He attacked wrestlers, managers, family members, celebrities and just about anyone else that irritated him. Despite never holding the top title in the WWE, Piper was definitely the biggest challenge to Hogan, early in the Hulkamania era. Piper’s coconut bash on Jimmy Snuka is still talked about, over 30 years later. Piper’s Pit took the interview segment and pushed it to the stratosphere. Piper’s promos never felt scripted, back then. He had a machine gun wit with razor-edged barbs slicing and dicing through anyone who crossed him.

Best Feud: WCW vs WWF (The Monday Night Wars)

WCW wanted to steal the fans away from the WWF. Vince McMahon took it personally and upped the ante. Talents were taken from each other, announcers tried to “spoil” the other’s show and a few even made surprise appearances on the opposite show. Rick Rude was the first performer to show up on both Raw and Nitro on the same night (Raw was pre-recorded and Nitro was live). Vince and Shane McMahon would also do the same, several years later. WCW tried to out-spend Vince and his group. Unfortunately, Time Warner pulled the plug on the unlimited bank account and WCW stumbled. The open wound of bleeding money was far too big to fix and WWF swooped in and picked the bones of the dying WCW organization. WWF would also outlast the AWA and ECW to become the dominant force in professional wrestling. It would take several years before the WWF, now WWE, had any true competition.

Best Female Wrestler: Fabulous Moolah

27 years. That is how long Moolah was a Women’s World Champion. She was halfway through that epic reign when I came into being. Moolah (born Lillian Ellison) went from being a valet to a performer and later a manager and trainer. Moolah’s compound in South Carolina helped to mold numerous generations of top female performers. Moolah refused to allow her “girls” to be turned into simple sex objects. Moolah believed that women could compete just as strongly as their male counterparts. She was the first female to go into the WWE Hall of Fame. Moolah, along with long-time friend Mae Young, appeared in more Wrestlemanias than any other female (through the time of her death).

Best Program: Monday Night Raw

Simply put, it’s the last show standing. It has outlasted all earlier competitors. The production values set the bar for those that followed. It was the very first show that I did a weekly recap of and still my favorite one to do (even at three hours long). Every top star of the last 2 decades has made one or more appearances on the show. Some of the most memorable shows showed love to those within the industry. The tribute shows to Owen Hart, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit still remain strong in my memory. The Owen show actually brought me back to wrestling after a break that I had taken from the weekly shows. The show actually began on Tuesdays as Tuesday Night Titans but quickly switched to Mondays in early 1993. 22 years later, Raw gets the highest rating of any wrestling related show.

Best Theme Music: “Real American” (Hulk Hogan)

It wasn’t Hogan’s first Hulkamania-era theme That would have been “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. However, Real American has become the most recognizable them in the business. Hogan gave up the music when he became “Hollywood” Hogan but the replacement tune just didn’t have the strength of the old theme. When Hogan switched back to being the leading Face of his era, the well-known and beloved anthem returned. If the old game show, Name that Tune, were to return, most wrestling fans would claim “I can name that tune in four notes”.

Best Entrance: The Undertaker

The Dead Man first entrance was just the tolling of the bell and the organ music. He walked out in the trenchcoat and hat. Purple and blue fog was later added to take the creepiness to another level. Undertaker completely changed his image, at one point, to a Biker image, but eventually returned to the dark destroyer that we all knew and loved. Lightning was added to the new entrance and (often) Druids would lead their leader from the depths to dispatch most opponents in short order. Undertaker’s entrance has to be the most theatrical of any entrance in the business. Fans completely lose their collective minds as the lights go out and the bell rings out to herald the arrival of “The Dead Man”.

Best Promos: Dusty Rhodes

This was the hardest category for me to decide. Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, Ric Flair and several others were under consideration. After Dusty’s recent passing, I dug out the Dusty Rhodes DVD that I have in my collection. Hearing about Hard Times just reached into my soul. Hearing all the Common Man vignettes brought smiles to my face. So many of Dusty’s comments just seemed to come “from the hip” (not scripted). Even if they were pre-written, Dusty put his own enthusiasm into each and every time that he stood before the fans. Even his final message to the fans had the same fire that he had during the prime of his career. There just couldn’t possibly be another “American Dream”.

Best Friend: Bill Apter

I have been blessed to have met a lot of great people over the years. I’ve mentioned a lot of them in my columns (Joe, Darren, Frank, Lee, Chicago Ed, Steven, Stu Stone, Dustin, Scooter, Greg Valentine, etc…). All of them have been fantastic friends that have made my life better. None of them would have been a part of my life had it not been for Bill. I first became aware of Bill like most wrestling fans of my era, through his outstanding work in the “Apter Mags”. A dozen years ago, I was recovering from open heart surgery and I decided to try my hand at writing. I had done some online work for a mutual friend, Arnie Katz, and I summed up all my courage to submit my desire to work for this great website. Bill took a chance on me and the rest has been a dream fulfilled. I first met my mentor and friend just outside San Jose, CA at a wrestling convention. We also worked directly together, in New Jersey, to promote a show in Poland (sadly, an injury to the main eventer caused the show to be cancelled). I have a million memories of interactions with Bill…sitting at the bar with Bill and Jimmy Hart, talking about southern food and enjoying non-alcoholic beverages. I still remember my lovely bride, Dianna, rolling her eyes as Bill and I had fun doing a “Macho Man” imitation-a-thon (“Oh, Yeah! Dig It!”). Grin. It never fails to life my spirits when my cell phone rings and the display reads “Bill Apter”. I can’t begin to thank you enough for being a mentor, inspiration, friend and member of my extended family. The photo of Bill, me and Dianna still hangs in our living room, right in the center of our collection of framed “Family Pictures”.

Summing it all up:

On July 7, 1965, Doris Shannon-Dorrell went into labor and brought into the world her first child (me). 50 years later, I’ve lived my dream to levels that I could never have hoped for. I’ve met my heroes (and found a few new ones). I know that my beloved grandfather, dad and Step-fathers are looking down at me and smiling. I just have to think they are proud of me for realizing my potential and going for that elusive brass ring. Thank you to all of you have walked this crazy path that I’ve travelled during my wild life. God Bless and…

Peace

–Jay Shannon
WordSlingerJay@Gmail.com

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