365 Wrestling, Day 60: Bruno Sammartino vs. Ernie Ladd (WWWF, 3/1/76)

365 Wrestling, Day 60: Bruno Sammartino vs. Ernie Ladd (WWWF, 3/1/76)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

We’re kicking off the March portion of the project with another Guest Contribution, this time from Al Getz. You might know Al as a former manager on the independent circuit in the Southeast. He’s also worked as a commentator, and even dabbled as a promoter on one occasion in Asheville in the 1990s. Currently he’s delving deep into the history of wrestling through his Charting the Territories website and companion podcast.

Given Al’s taste for wrestling history, it’s no surprise he went deep into the days of yore for this match: Bruno Sammartino against Ernie Ladd from Madison Square Garden on March 1, 1976. At this time, the WWF was known as the WWWF.

Why did Al pick this match?

“When John asked me to recommend a match for his series, I had Ernie Ladd on the brain. I had just been reading about the 1965 AFL All-Star Game that Ladd had been a part of, which was moved from New Orleans to Houston on two days’ notice. So I looked for a match that Ladd had against a ‘marquee opponent’ in early March of any year and found this match against Bruno from MSG.”

You can watch this match on the WWE Youtube channel, and I’ve also embedded it below:

The Context

Sammartino is into his second reign as WWWF Champion, which began in December of 1973. Holding a title for two-plus years sounds impressive but also consider that Sammartino’s first run as champion lasted a decade.

His foe here is “The Big Cat” Ernie Ladd, and one of the most well-known crossover stars in wrestling. Ladd played in the AFL from 1961-68, and is best known for being part of the Fearsome Foursome that propelled the Chargers to the AFL crown in 1963. Ladd started wrestling around the same time his pro football career began, and when knee troubles curtailed his time on the gridiron, Ladd shifted to the squared circle on a full-time basis.

Ladd worked as a heel for the vast majority of his career as a wrestler, and was known for using his taped thumb to wreak havoc on the windpipes of his foes. He was also a phenomenal talker, and here’s a taste of that, from a WWWF TV broadcast just a couple of months before this title bout:

The Match

You saw him in the above segment and Vince McMahon is on solo commentary for this match from the Garden. At this time, the promotion is still being owned and run by Vince’s dad, Vince McMahon, Sr.

Ladd’s size jumps out at you. He’s a monster in this or any era, with incredibly long limbs. I’ve always thought more of Ladd as a character and a talker than a wrestler, but that could be attributed to just not seeing enough of his work before mobility started to be a factor. I wasn’t expecting him to take a backdrop, certainly, or to go to the top rope for what sets up the finish.

I mentioned Ladd’s taped thumb in the context portion and it’s a crucial storytelling device in this match. The referee searches Ladd before the bell, and he promptly turns and deposits something into his trunks. Later, after getting knocked around by Bruno, Ladd goes to the trunks and places a foreign object on the thumb to waylay the champion. Ladd’s got some slick sleight of hand on this, turning away from the referee before inflicting a blow with the gimmicked thumb and then dropping the foreign object back out of sight when the official tries to investigate.

Sammartino is the barrel-chested, brawny, beloved, longtime champion. After withstanding a several-minute barrage of offense from Ladd, the champ makes his comeback and just starts thrashing the Big Cat. There’s very little wrestling here and lots of brawling: punches,. jumping stomps, and smashing Ladd’s head into the mat. Ladd’s sell is great here as he just clutches his skull with both hands and writhes slightly in pain.

Ladd controls the majority of the match and Vince is teasing the upset hard on commentary, but after Ladd misses his dive off the top, Sammartino makes a quick cover for a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion.

Al’s Take: This is your standard Bruno Sammartino match against an opponent that they’re not building up a rematch for. Modern wrestling fans would probably hate it. When I watch wrestling footage from the 70s and earlier, I always try to keep in mind that the matches weren’t meant to be “evergreen”, i.e., watched years later for analysis. These matches were geared towards the fans that paid for their ticket to see the good guy whup the bad guy.

They get to see Bruno being superman, and they get to see Ernie do some badass things for a man of his size. When he hip-tosses Bruno, the size disparity between the two makes it look particularly effective. After some shenanigans with a foreign object and some karate-type thrusts that Bruno sells really well, Bruno moves out of the way as Ladd attempts to splash him off the top, then quickly covers him for the pin.

What stuck out to me was how ginormous Ladd was. He was always billed as 6-9. Given his prior career in football, I imagine his real height was well-known and thus they couldn’t exaggerate it. When he wrestles Andre in the Garden two months later, it looks like Andre maybe has 2-3 inches on him.

Random Thoughts

–There’s semi-regular debate about great punchers in pro wrestling, and I think Bruno should be in the conversation. His shots to Ladd during the comeback look great here, and Ladd certainly does his part by selling them as huge blows.

–I’d recommend young wrestlers watch this for Ladd’s facial expressions alone, whether he is selling or protesting to the referee after another illegal tactic. Ladd also cheats early and often, but always tries to turn away or cheat out of the ref’s point of view so as not to bury the official.

Final Rating: 5.4

This match reminded me in several ways of the Jerry Lawler-Jos LeDuc match we watched in January. You have the strong fan favorite headliner taking on another monstrous rulebreaker. The Memphis match has more shenanigans (imagine that), but I found the emotions and the level of action to be similar. Worth watching for historical value and some of the small details I mention in the above section.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Up Next

A dream match (on paper, at least) from the early 2000s.

Are YOU interested in making a match suggestion for the 365 Wrestling project? I’m accepting limited guest submissions for the remaining entries in the year. Just reach out on Twitter or fill out the contact form on the site.

365 Wrestling, Day 45: Steel Cage, Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon (WWF St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, 2/14/99)

365 Wrestling, Day 45: Steel Cage, Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon (WWF St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, 2/14/99)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

Nothing warms my heart like hearing from readers who are enjoying the project, and also seeing people share, retweet and like the social media posts promoting entries. So far, one of the biggest supporters of the 365 Wrestling project and this site has been Matt Griffin, who currently is the promoter of ACTION Wrestling (which this site sponsors).

I want to make things here a bit more interactive, so when I came up with the concept of offering guests the chance to pick matches, Matt was an easy choice.

His selection? Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon in a steel cage, from the main event of WWF’s St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1999.

Why did Matt choose this match?

“It’s Vince — the figure that has dominated and changed wrestling. Everything in the Wrestlemania era, always comes down to Vince McMahon. And Austin vs. Vince is his first real singles match up, when he was well into his 50s. Never let anyone say that for better or worse, Vince will show his locker room that he will step in the ring and do the same thing he asks them to.

“Vince vs. Austin is likely the most important feud in WWF history in any case, it carried the water to take the 83 week dominance away from WCW, but this match also happened on the show that was the lead-in to Wrestlemania XV.”

You can watch this match on Peacock.

The Context

The Austin-McMahon feud began about a year ago when Stone Cold first became champion and this is hyped as the “final chapter” between them. As we all know, this was far from the end of the hostilities between Austin and Vince, but there is a transition after this as The Undertaker’s group, The Ministry of Darkness, also gets involved… along with the McMahon kids, Shane and Stephanie.

This specific match came about after Vince won the Royal Rumble in January and, with it, a shot at the WWF World Title at WrestleMania. Vince didn’t want that match, since at the time The Rock — part of McMahon’s Corporation stable — was champion, so he turned down the title shot… only to have WWF Commissioner Shawn Michaels explain the honors would go to the runner-up in the Rumble, Austin. That led to Austin putting his WrestleMania title shot at stake to get Vince inside the cage for this match. In the build-up, Vince agreed no members of his Corporation faction would interfere, while Austin wasn’t allowed to touch McMahon until the match.

Vince does his best to trick Austin out of the match with various antics, including spitting in Austin’s face during a segment also involving Michaels on the Sunday Night Heat pre-show earlier in the evening.

The Match

My take: The WWF held this pay-per-view in Memphis, and I can’t think of a more fitting setting for a match that relies heavily on smoke and mirrors and shenanigans. What we see here is an updated, amped-up, more “adult” version of the battles between Jerry Lawler (who is on commentary and fights an ongoing battle with laryngitis) and Jimmy Hart from the early 1980s.

This match is all schtick from beginning to end. It’s also another example of what we saw in the entry for February 11, with the bad guys — or bad-guy boss in this case — finally getting a comeuppance. There are a few minutes of stalling but that just brings an already-engaged crowd to a proper boil. When Austin feigns a knee injury on the floor to lure Vince within reach and then levels him with a clothesline, there’s a huge roar.

Everyone remembers this match for Vince’s huge bump, where he falls off the side of the cage through a table. It’s a gruesome landing; Vince hits the table and bounces off it before it collapses under him. Based on my research, Vince fractured his tailbone on the spot, and I am not surprised. That would have been enough but when Howard Finkel comes in the ring to announce Austin the winner due to injury, Stone Cold grabs the mic and says he’s not finished. It’s a great touch that further engages the crowd, and gives Vince several valuable minutes to recover, also extending the match through smoke and mirrors.

A beatdown ensues inside the cage that leaves Vince a bloody, battered mess… but when Austin goes to leave the ring, McMahon lures him back in by taunting Stone Cold with what my father once called “the single digit of friendship.”

Just typical behavior by the CEO …

Everything works until the finish, which is like the wrestling equivalent of a goofy Looney Tunes comic where a faux pas by Elmer Fudd allows Bugs Bunny to escape down the rabbit hole. Vince just coaxed Austin back in the ring a second time and eats a Stunner when the Big Show (or, as he’s announced here, Paul Wight) comes up through the ring in his WWF debut after jumping from WCW. Wight manhandles Austin a bit, then throws Austin into the cage, which snaps a section free, allowing Stone Cold to drop to the floor and win the match.    

Matt’s Take: “This was great! Vince as a performer has always been fantastic and a character. He looks completely jacked as he walks to the ring, a lifetime interest in bodybuilding paying off in spades. Several times before Vince flies off the cage, you can catch him quickly looking back and making sure he is in the right place to land. Austin rams Vince’s head into the cage and he explodes backward, downward and through a table as if launched from a high powered slingshot.  A requisite gurney spot (oh yes, the match hasn’t started officially) with Austin jumping him in the aisle is pure heat, tossing refs and officials aside to get Vince back in the cage.

“A heating beating ensues, with Vince taking multiple cage shots to the face (to ensure he has reason to blade for extra heat). A stunner, with Austin talking trash to Vince’s face and then… “THAT’S PAUL WIGHT, THAT’S PAUL WIGHT!”  The former Big Show is in WWF and lays Austin out. At Vince’s behest he throws Stone Cold into a section of the cage… which busts completely through. Austin ends up on the floor and wins, keeping his shot at the WWF title at WMXV.”

Random Thoughts

–Lawler sums up the appeal of the Austin-McMahon feud in a single line during the ring entrances: “How many rednecks around the world would love to get the chance to slap around their boss?”

–Speaking of commentary, Michael Cole is the lead broadcaster for this one, part of a several-month stint in late 1998 and early 1999 when he stepped in after Jim Ross suffered his initial bout of Bell’s Palsy.

–Some of the Austin-McMahon stuff has been affected by the fact that the wrestling business as a whole took the “evil authority figure” concept and proceeded to drive it into the ground over the ensuing two decades, but the energy and heat here still cannot be topped.

–Is there a more dramatic and more effective transformation in wrestling that Austin evolving from Stunning Steve into Stone Cold?

–It’s influenced by hindsight but the entire debut of the Big Show here just reminds me of all the later instances in TNA where a former WWE wrestler would make a surprise appearance and, to avoid any copyright infringement, Mike Tenay and Don West would introduce them with something ambiguous like, “We all know who THAT is…”

Final Rating: 6.7

This is one of the best matches I’ve seen involving a non-wrestler. It’s got historic value because, as Matt mentioned, this is Vince’s first match ever. Austin beats Vince to a bloody pulp after about a year of build. This would have been an ideal time for Vince to take an extended break in front of the cameras, but I guess that works better for a territory than a major televised wrestling company. There may not be a better example of a match working on nearly every level despite very little wrestling actually taking place. It would rate higher for me but the finish knocked it down a peg or two.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Up Next

Another gimmick match. This time, we head to the Carolinas for a match that’s all about making your opponent say those two little words…

Are YOU interested in making a match suggestion for the 365 Wrestling project? I’m accepting limited guest submissions for the remaining entries in the year. Just reach out on Twitter or fill out the contact form on the site.

365 Wrestling, Day 39: Undertaker vs. Hunter Hearst Helmsley (WWF Shotgun Saturday Night, 2/8/97)

365 Wrestling, Day 39: Undertaker vs. Hunter Hearst Helmsley (WWF Shotgun Saturday Night, 2/8/97)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

Wrestling fans can debate and argue over anything: whether they choose to do so in public, on message boards, or via social media. What makes someone a good wrestler? What makes a good match? And, when evaluating a match, how much does what happen before and after the bell influence things?

This latter question is an excellent one to consider, as it pertains to this entry of 365 Wrestling: The Undertaker taking on Hunter Hearst Helmsley in this episode of Shotgun Saturday Night from 1997.

Lest we offend the copyright gods, I’ll just tell you you can find this match on YouTube through a little bit of shrewd searching.

The Context

You probably know him better now as Triple H, the many-time champion turned high-ranking executive and son-in-law of Vince McMahon himself. We’re a far field away from Hunter having that level of prominence and power here. He’s still firmly entrenched in the upper midcard, and using his snobbish character. Helmsley is Intercontinental Champion here — the first of his five reigns — and the title is on the line.

Undertaker is entrenched firmly as one of the WWF’s top and most popular acts. He’s also on his own at the time of this match, having split with Paul Bearer at Summerslam the previous year.

The match itself happens on Shotgun Saturday Night, which started at the beginning of 1997. The initial goal of Shotgun Saturday Night was to present an edgier product than typical WWF programming, and the initial run of episodes, which actually ended here, occurred at unlikely venues for wrestling all over New York City — such as Penn Station, the site of this match.

I was surprised to find out that these two already had had several singles matches before this.

The Match

There are two ways to look at this match.

If you’re going to judge solely by what happens from bell to bell, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s a commercial break right as Undertaker hits the ring, at which point Helmsley jumps him. When the action resumes from the break, the referee gets sandwiched in the corner and Hunter wallops the Deadman with his title belt to gain the control… only to go to another commercial. Back from the break, and the action is moving at a brisk pace, although most of it unfolds in the punchy-kicky style that was more common than it should have been during the Attitude Era. The match ends when Undertaker drills Helmsley in the head with the belt, as payback for what happened earlier. However, this vengeance happens right in front of the referee, leading to a quick DQ.

If you’re going to judge this match from the beginning of entrances all the way through the post-match, it gets elevated to another plane. The setting — smackdab in the middle of Penn Station — adds so much to the presentation. Helmsley arrives in a stretch limo that pulls up outside, says a few quick words about how he wouldn’t get caught dead riding one of the trains at the station, and then descends a staircase into the concourse. Undertaker’s entrance is even more surreal in the context of Penn Station. After getting down the stairs, he makes his way to the ring through the crowd.

The setting stands out because it is so unlike standard WWF/WWE programming, which usually seeks a sameness from show to show and week to week… and has since the promotion truly “went national” in the late 1980s. Here, we get wide panning shots to take in the crowd and the limited space, unlike the glut of camera cuts that embodies current programming from WWE. The ring looks considerably smaller than the 20-by-20-foot squared circle WWE typically uses. It catches the eye and draws your interest.

The post-match is the best part of the entire endeavor. Frustrated at the DQ and Helmsley’s chicanery, Undertaker delivers a chokeslam (even while the fans chant for a tombstone). Helmsley tries to retreat and a chase ensues up the stairs, until the Deadman grabs Hunter and delivers a tombstone at the top of the escalator. Helmsley stands tall, soaking in the cheers of the crowd as Helmsley’s unconscious carcass heads down the escalator.

Random Thoughts

–Vince is on commentary and if you’re up for a quick drinking game that will lead to a buzz, do a shot every time he says “what a maneuver!”

Sunny joins Vince on commentary. It’s easy to forgot how smooth and comfortable she was as a talker.

–For some reason, Vince describing Helmsley as “Mr. Pompisity” cracked me up.

–It’s a shame the WWF strayed away from the format on these initial episodes of Shotgun Saturday Night. Instead, the show quickly became a B-show that was held at the same venues where Monday Night Raw was filmed. I’m a big fan of wrestling filmed in unique venues with the opportunity for unusual angles.

–So, fun fact, my original plan for this entry was going to be Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomohiro Ishii from New Japan in 2016. Except that match happened on February 11, not the 8th! Calendar fail … for what it’s worth I was already a bit dodgy about it, because those Shibata headbutt spots are downright uncomfortable to watch after a similar headbutt against Kazuchika Okada ended Shibata’s career and nearly killed him.

Final Rating: 6.1

The atmosphere, the entrances, and the post-match make this highly entertaining even if the in-ring action is nothing special. Given the status that both Undertaker and Triple H have achieved in WWE lore since then, it’s surprising to me that this match — and especially the tombstone on the escalator — aren’t remembered or called back more often through the years, or at least got more notice while both were active wrestlers.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Up Next

We head south of the border for trios action.

I love having feedback from readers. Send it to me — good or bad — along with any match recommendations you have! Just reach out on Twitter or fill out the contact form on the site.

365 Wrestling, Day 37: Los Guerreros vs. Team Angle (WWE SmackDown, 2/6/03)

365 Wrestling, Day 37: Los Guerreros vs. Team Angle (WWE SmackDown, 2/6/03)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

Underrated and unappreciated.

These are just a few of the words I would choose to describe how Shelton Benjamin has been used — or not used — in WWE.

This project has allowed me the chance to reflect and pontificate on my various favorites in the realm of costumed murder gymnastics: Jushin Liger, William Regal, and Stan Hansen, just to name a few.

Shelton caught my eye in a dark match before watching RAW in Knoxville in the spring of 2001. His legitimate wrestling background combined with some freakish feats of athleticism always made him stand out to me. We all have our personal favorites, and he’s one of mine.

He’s also in action in this, the 37th installment of 365 Wrestling, pairing with Charlie Haas in the still-new-to-WWE Team Angle gimmick against Los Guerreros with the WWE Tag Titles on the line.

Now that the WWE Network has migrated to Peacock, where, at the time of this writing, only the last three years of SmackDown are available, fret not. You still can find this match on Dailymotion, or embedded below:

The Context

Benjamin and Haas spent the bulk of their time in WWE’s developmental system working in tag teams, but not with each other. They started teaming together in the fall of 2002 in dark matches, then made their televised debut on the 12/27/02 episode of SmackDown as backup for Kurt Angle, playing off their legitimate athletic credentials. Both wrestled in college–Haas at Seton Hall and Benjamin at Minnesota, where he was a two-time All-American. New to the main roster, Haas and Benjamin made a quick rise in the tag division, getting this title shot after defeating Edge and Chris Benoit the preceding week thanks to some help from Angle himself.

Eddy Guerrero and Chavo Guerrero, Jr., are the reigning champs, winning the titles in an excellent three-way match at Survivor Series the prior November. They’ve made four televised defenses heading into this match.

The Match

This match serves as a classic example of how to establish a new act as an immediate, credible presence in a promotion. Haas and Benjamin are the rookies (or, presented that way, even though Haas started wrestling professionally back in 1996) but they have instant credibility due to their amateur backgrounds, which Michael Cole and Tazz take great pains to tout on commentary. Cole goes the standard route with resume-reading, while Tazz points out specific things the challengers are doing and techniques they are displaying that make them a threat to the Guerreros.

In a traditional match layout in American wrestling, the fan favorites outwrestle the heels, who have to take shortcuts to seize the advantage. This match flips the script. Despite their experience edge, the champs are unable to outwrestle their pesky young challengers. Instead, it’s Eddy and Chavo using the dirty tricks and pulling out all the stops to take control — after all, “lie, cheat, and steal” was the Guerrero credo at this point.

We watched another tag title match on SmackDown in the January portion of the project, and this match exceeds that one in almost every aspect. The work is superior: with more athleticism and more intensity. The early mat wrestling occurs with a purpose, unlike many instances in the last 20 years where such exchanges come off like a feeling-out process or — my pet peeve — a cooperative affair where one wrestler has a hold but is then waiting, or even assisting, in what becomes a showcase of reversals.

The titles seem like more of a prize here, as well. Both sides go for pin attempts early and often with frequent tags by each team. Overall, a greater sense of urgency is created that adds significantly to the overall presentation.

These four wrestlers aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. The true heat segment begins after a collision between Shelton and the referee knocks the official into Chavo, launching him into the commentary table at ringside. When Eddy makes the inevitable hot tag, he never leaves his feet during the initial comeback, still cleaning house on the challengers, flinging Shelton out of the ring and even taking a kick at Paul Heyman, who is in Team Angle’s corner.

The match builds to its biggest moves at the end. Superplexes from the top rope. Frog splashes. Dives, or falls, from the top rope to the floor. The drama heightens, with a couple of very credible false finishes along the way, but after all the big moves, some confusion by the champions about who the legal man is leaves Eddy prey to a rolling cradle by Haas that ends the match and Los Guerreros’ title reign.

Random Thoughts

–Team Angle spent most of their time in WWE developmental in tag divisions, but not with one another. In Ohio Valley Wrestling, Benjamin paired with Brock Lesnar, followed by a team with Redd Dogg (better known as Rodney Mack, after Lesnar got called up to the main roster. Meanwhile, in WWE’s other developmental territory, Heartland Wrestling Alliance, Haas was teaming with his brother, Russ Haas, until Russ’ untimely death in 2001.

–Is that a Burberry scarf that Heyman is rocking at ringside? Perhaps this gave early inspiration to MJF, who was 6 years old at the time of this match, by the way.

–Speaking of Heyman, at one point he starts screaming bloody murder as Shelton gets choked with the tag rope in the corner by the Guerreros. It adds to the moment.

Final Rating: 6.7

This is an all-action tag match with real stakes, a creative finish, and it’s historically significant as it marks the start of the first title reign for Benjamin and Haas. Any booker could take a lesson from the way Team Angle gets presented, and built up quickly as contenders, then champions, but without having them shoved down the throats of the audience.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Up Next

An exciting take on a longstanding narrative trope: the young up-and-comer looking to make a name against an established veteran.

Send feedback or recommend a match for one of the upcoming dates in 365 Wrestling! Just reach out on Twitter or fill out the contact form on the site.

365 Wrestling, Day 28: Last Man Standing, John Cena vs. Umaga (WWE Royal Rumble, 1/28/07)

365 Wrestling, Day 28: Last Man Standing, John Cena vs. Umaga (WWE Royal Rumble, 1/28/07)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

I don’t care if you are the most devoted fan of something, you’re going to have gaps. Especially when it comes to something as diverse as wrestling, when there are so many different varieties and flavors out there, only so many hours in the day, and the current era where there’s an overwhelming amount of footage out there to watch.

But anyway… gaps. I’ve written about these gaps before (like here and also here), And, one of those gaps was the 2007 Royal Rumble. I’ve written before about my love of the Rumble but this was one of those years that I did not watch live. I caught the Rumble several years later, but never the undercard, and in the process, I missed out on the John Cena vs. Umaga Last Man Standing match, which is generally regarded as one of the best non-Rumble matches in the history of the Rumble events.

This oversight has been addressed. If you’ve not seen the match, or just want to relive it before reading further, it’s available on Peacock. Just go to the 1:04 mark of the video.

The Context

This is Cena’s third reign with the WWE Title and he is about two years into his decade-long run as a “top guy” for WWE. He’s met quite the obstacle in Umaga, who is in his second run in the company after previously spending time in the tag division with Rosey in 3 Minute Warning. Umaga went undefeated on WWE TV from the time he debuted in the gimmick in April of 2006 until January of 2007, when he challenged Cena for the title and lost on a roll-up. That outcome led to this rematch thanks to heel authority figure Jonathan Coachman (and hasn’t THAT become an overdone storyline trope in wrestling, Dear Reader?)

On the go-home episode of Raw before the Rumble, Umaga put Cena through a table with a splash off the top, aided by Coachman and Umaga’s mouthpiece, Armando Alejandro Estrada. Cena has to be helped to the back, and earlier on the Rumble, he’s in the trainer’s room getting checked out by the doctor — complete with an unexpected visit from Vince McMahon who seems downright gleeful at Cena’s condition and the slim chances of him retaining the title.

The Match

Cena comes out with taped ribs still showing the effects of the attack by Umaga and his cohorts six days earlier. Umaga comes off super impressive and dominates the majority of the match. When Cena does rally and start mounting some offense, oftentimes it ends with Umaga clobbering him. I’ve written before about escalation of violence as an effective way to structure a match and it definitely works here. Cena, who already took a beating against Umaga in a straight-up wrestling match and won in flukey fashion, eats more punishment in this one until he ramps up the violence–first and foremost by throwing the STEEL(!) steps out of the ring and into Umaga’s face. I let out a gasp when it happened, it was so unexpected. The crowd loves it, and it draws the biggest cheers yet for Cena, but Umaga also reaches his feet well before the 10 count.

Steps become the great equalizer for Cena… for a while, that is. Eventually the steps come into the ring and Cena attempts to deliver his FU (soon to be renamed the Attitude Adjustment when WWE goes PG later in the year) across the steps, but is unable to hoist Umaga. The champ crashes facefirst into the edge of the steps, and comes up bleeding, soon forming the proverbial crimson mask that stands out as the last effective, memorable use of blood in WWE until the promotion makes its PG pivot–and also a storytelling device that WWE has continued to avoid to this day.

Since the steps aren’t getting it done anymore and a bloody Cena is being pushed to his limits, he continues to escalate the violence. He rams Umaga shoulder-first into the ringpost, leaving him dangling there while he yoinks a monitor from one of the ringside broadcast tables and smashes it into the challenger’s head, which is resting against the post. This also provokes a fabulous and completely genuine “oh Jiminy God!” call from Jim Ross on commentary.

Even through brutal moments like taking the STEEL(!) steps to the face and becoming the meat in a TV monitor concussion sandwich, there seems to be little doubt in the overall story of the match or in the crowd that Umaga is going to get to his feet. That changes when the action spills to the floor, where the two combatants take advantage of the three announce tables (one for each brand, you see). Umaga stacks Cena on the ECW commentary table, then climbs on the far edge of the far table and takes a run at Cena. He leaps off the middle table for a splash, Cena rolls out of the way, and Umaga destroys the table in a fantastic-looking moment. Umaga barely beats the 10 count in a delightfully close and completely believable false finish.

What follows? Another escalation of violence, of course. Estrada undoes one of the top rope turnbuckles and Umaga tries to wield it for a version of the Samoan Spike. Cena avoids it, uses the turnbuckle as a weapon himself, and finally fells Umaga, using the top rope to throttle the challenger into unconsciousness. The fact it takes two separate stranglings to finish the job only underscores the unstoppable monster atmosphere surrounding Umaga at this time.

What really makes this match work is the performance of Umaga, a fantastically athletic big man who ends up in a perfect position thanks to being slowly and steadily built up through booking as an unstoppable juggernaut. Would this match have so much sizzle if Umaga had been trading wins and losses, instead of a nine-month undefeated streak prior to his first meeting with Cena? Wins and losses matter.

Random Thoughts

–Of Cena’s 16 reigns with one of the two world titles in WWE, this was by far his longest reign: 380 days from winning the title on Sept. 17, 2006, until Oct. 2, 2007, when he vacated the championship due to a torn pectoral.

–Estrada really did an effective job as a manager and mouthpiece for Umaga. He got lost in the shuffle during the build to the hair vs. hair match at WrestleMania 13 that spring.

–Umaga, who was released by WWE in the summer of 2009 after two violations of the company wellness policy, died that December of a heart attack brought on by acute toxicity from taking several painkillers. He was just 36 years old.

–The crowd proves whatever negative stereotype you prefer regarding wrestling fans when they start a “we want tables” chant while there are STEEL(!) steps lying in the ring and being used.

Final Rating: 9.0

This is a fantastic match. I know plenty of people, especially those who are wrestlers themselves, who hold up the Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit match from the 2003 Rumble as not only the best non-Rumble match ever, but one of the best wrestling matches ever. If Angle-Benoit is the wrestling equivalent of a symphony, this is the equivalent of a blockbuster action movie. Is one better than the other? That’s really in the eye of the beholder, as the two products are so different that it’s difficult to compare them outside of the shared setting of a WWE ring.

Cena is at the peak of his fan favorite status, before a sizable percentage of the WWE audience starts turning against him. It helps that his act still has some edge to it at this time; Cena, and everyone else, end up de-fanged when WWE tames down its product in the wake of the Benoit murder-suicide that summer. Umaga ends up losing his monstrous aura after losing to Bobby Lashley at WrestleMania in the hair vs. hair match that involved McMahon and Donald Trump as managers.

The only match thus far in the project that has been on this level, to me, was the Rockers vs. New Orient Express tag match from the ’91 Rumble. I personally give this one the edge because of the higher stakes. Now, let’s see what can top it.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Up Next

We head to 1999 and a packed high-school gym in the Carolinas to see one of the most beloved tag teams in wrestling… as heels?

What’s your favorite non-Rumble match from Royal Rumble pay-per-views? Agree or disagree with my take on this match? Let me know by using the contact form on this site, or reach me on Twitter.

365 Wrestling, Day 12: Paul London & Brian Kendrick vs. William Regal & Dave Taylor (SmackDown, 1/12/07)

365 Wrestling, Day 12: Paul London & Brian Kendrick vs. William Regal & Dave Taylor (SmackDown, 1/12/07)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

I’ve tried to think of this project in stages, with January serving as the introduction. In this first month, I’m trying to spotlight some of my favorite wrestlers and tag teams, so you can learn a little more about my preferences during this yearlong deep dive into wrestling history.

Today I want to talk a little about William Regal, an all-time favorite of mine. He can bust out some smooth technical wresling, or throw down in a brawl. He’s shined as both a singles and tag wrestler, as a standalone character, part of a group, or in a henchman-type role. While he spent the bulk of his career as a heel, he did some fine work on the babyface side of things during alliances with Eugene and Tajiri that both led to eventual tag title runs. I honestly think that Regal was on track for a run as a world champion in WWE in 2008 when he was both general manager of the Raw brand and won King of the Ring only to have his push promptly stopped due to a violation of the company wellness policy.

Today, we’re taking a look at a match from SmackDown in 2007, where Regal teams with fellow Englishman Dave Taylor to challenge Paul London and Brian Kendrick for the WWE Tag Titles.

You can watch this match on Dailymotion, or below:

The Context

These are the tag titles that WWE first introduced in 2002, a few months after the initial brand split. London and Kendrick have been champs since the previous May, an eight-month reign that already had set the record as the longest run with the titles. They’ve crossed paths with the two Brits a few times before this, most notably in a four-team ladder match titles the prior month at the Armageddon pay-per-view that is worth watching (but not for the squeamish as Joey Mercury suffers a ghastly facial injury).

On this episode of SmackDown, prior to the match, Regal and Taylor approach the champs backstage reminding them this will be a straight-up wrestling match, with no ladders or other shenanigans. Regal , who does all the talking, doesn’t actually say shenanigans, even though this is a very Regal-esque type of word for him to use in such a scenario.

The Match

I’m a sucker for the rugged wrestlers with technical skill playing the part of the heel, and it’s a role perfectly suited for the duo of Regal and Taylor. They spend the first few minutes feeding into the fast-paced, occasionally high-flying offense of the champions. London and Kendrick are also giving up a lot of size in this match, so they tag in and out often. Note the sequence with three straight tags and immediate attacks off the top targeting the back of Regal, punctuated by a London double stomp.

Momentum changes when Regal delivers a wicked clothesline to London. A solid beating from the challengers follows, but London never feels to be in any real particular peril or especially dire straits. That said, Regal unloads a fun series of strikes bludgeoning London in the Englishmen’s corner.

This match took place during the era when SmackDown was taped, and sweetened crowd noise became the norm for the blue brand. It’s off-putting to hear these big oooh’s and ahhh’s during the hot tag by Kendrick and finishing stretch, while all the fans on camera are sitting there, silent and passive. Regal reverses a cross body by Kendrick into a pin attempt for a convincing near-fall, and shortly thereafter, Kendrick catches Regal in a backslide for the sudden victory. The facial expressions and mannerisms of both challengers selling this sudden and crushing loss are pretty great.

Random Thoughts

–I forgot Ashley Massaro was managing London and Kendrick during this time until I saw her come out for the match with the champs. When people and pundits talk about individuals in the world of pro wresting who had tragic ends, they don’t mention Ashley nearly often enough. I won’t go into all the details here, but you can find them easily enough with some Internet searching.

–It’s something to go back and watch WWE television that is more than 10 years old and watch a product that looks and feels pretty much the same as the current stuff. The only difference is probably more zoom cuts in the camera work now.

–Kendrick has short hair and looks to be about 10 years old as a result.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Final Rating: 5.0

There’s plenty of good talent in this match and while there’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing, there’s also not anything to make it really stand out or that I can identify as a reason for you to go out of your way and watch it.

What’s Next

We head to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Got a match you’d like me to watch as part of this 365 Wrestling project? Agree or disagree with my take on this match? Let me know by using the contact form on this site, or reach me on Twitter.

365 Wrestling, Day 1: Rey Mysterio, Jr., vs. Tajiri (SmackDown, 1/1/04)

365 Wrestling, Day 1: Rey Mysterio, Jr., vs. Tajiri (SmackDown, 1/1/04)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

What makes someone an outstanding performer in the realm of pro wrestling? Should they be measured by their single “greatest” match? Their ability to sell tickets (when we aren’t in the middle of a plague, of course) or move merch? In recent years, I’ve placed more stock in longevity as a key determinant in wrestling–whether it be the ability to reinvent yourself time and time again to remain relevant, a gradual evolution to become one of the top practitioners of your craft, or being able to sustain excellence for years… even decades.

For me, Rey Mysterio, Jr,. falls into that latter category. He’s slowed down some, naturally, after the pile-up of years and injuries but his appeal, his style and many of his signature moves remain, in many ways, timeless. In the opening installment of 365 Wrestling, I decided to watch a match between Rey and another personal favorite, Tajiri, from the New Year’s Day episode of SmackDown back in 2004. You can check out this match, and every episode of SmackDown except the most recent four episodes, on the WWE Network. You can also watch a clip from the match in the video above.

The Context

Rey gets one more crack at Tajiri, the man who beat him for the Cruiserweight Title the previous September. Tajiri’s reign included him bringing on two lackeys to watch his back and interfere on his behalf, Akio (better known as Jimmy Yang) and Sakoda.

The Match

This culminates a four-month rivalry between Rey and Tajiri, and their familiarity shines through in this one. Rather than go flying at one another, and flying around the ring, at the opening bell, they opt for a more patient, mat-based battle in the opening minutes that runs counter to what most might expect from a matchup between these two. Each man anticipates key offense of the other: Rey blocks signature Tajiri offense like the springboard back elbow and the Tarantula, while, late in the bout, Tajiri avoids a springboard senton by Rey into a sweet counter to a half crab on the left leg, which is the main target of Tajiri’s offense for most of the match.

After relying on a distraction from Akio and interference by Sakoda to get control of the match, Tajiri really works over that leg, busting out the shin breaker best known as one of Ric Flair‘s favorite moves, the aforementioned single-leg crab and (my personal favorite) a pinpoint dropkick to the knee while Rey is hanging upside down in the Tree of Woe.

The finishing stretch is a good one. Tajiri delivers a nasty-looking running sitout powerbomb for a long two count. Rey counters the following Buzzsaw Kick with a double leg bridge for a very believable false finish. Ultimately, Rey foils interference by Akio and Sakoda, hooking Tajiri with a huracanrana into the pin to become two-time Cruiserweight Champ.

Random Thoughts

–Because this is the opening match on the show, I watched from the very beginning and was reminded of Hardcore Holly getting the rub as Brock Lesnar’s challenger at the Royal Rumble, and the SmackDown credits, which were a fine trip down memory lane as they’re the same credits and theme song from SmackDown: Here Comes The Pain, a game I played habitually for most of the mid-2000s.

–Sending out Akio and Sakoda in blue shirts with black pants wasn’t the best choice. On wide shots, they looked to similar to the uniform of the time for SmackDown referees.

–Hearing Michael Cole on commentary underscored just how long he has been a lead broadcaster for WWE. Has anyone else had a longer stretch as a key part of week-to-week TV for the company?

Final Rating: 7.8

This was an excellent match that showcases both Rey and Tajiri in their primes. Everything flowed well and looked good. At under 12 minutes (counting entrances, and minus the early portion of the match we don’t see due to the commercial break), this is a brisk, action-packed match with real stakes and a satisfying conclusion. A high bar has been set for tomorrow.

What’s Next

We head to Japan and get hardcore with a death match.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Got a match you’d like me to watch as part of this 365 Wrestling project? Agree or disagree with my take on this match? Let me know by using the contact form on this site, or reach me on Twitter.