Friday, December 10, 2004

Steve Howarth

Professional wrestling

In America, professional wrestling is termed Sports Entertainment. Its a cliche to term it big business but it does command a lot of attention and revenue over there as opposed to this country, where it gets laughed off as visions of middle aged men rolling around and grunting is met with absurdity.

I first began regularly watching the WWF when we got Sky in late 1989. For about six years I don't think I missed a thing or one single show. Wrestling in America is very slick and expertly executed. It may not be wholly competitive but it does take athleticism. For about the first three years I honestly thought it was real. When I began watching Hulk Hogan was world champion, the Ultimate Warrior was intercontinental champion and Demolition were tag team champions. Wrestling is the greatest soap opera in existense but with ultraviolence. For every gimmick to turn you off, there is one to turn you on. You laugh, you cry, you feel disgusted when the baddies get away with murder and you feel insulted when the absurd occurs revealing a tad too much fiction. I was a 14 year old with an Andre The Giant action figure and wrestling ring (and I still have them tucked away upstairs somewhere. You can stick your re-issue Star Wars figures right up your arse).

It was Hulk Hogan that made wrestling big business aided by the marketing methods of Vince McMahon, owner of the WWF. As the first wrestling promotion to attempt to cover the whole of the USA, it used corporate like techniques to do so and as a result put many regional promotions out of business garnering criticism from wrestling purists. They roped in Cyndi Lauper for Rock'n'rasslin' thus getting the MTV crowd on board. In 1985 Hulk Hogan wrestled Roddy Piper live on MTV, can you imagine this happening these days? The event led to the first huge wrestling event, Wrestlemania, where they got Mr T to be Hulk Hogan's tag team partner, thus getting the A Team crowd on board. Wrestlemania, wrestling's first big event came live and direct from New York's world famous Madison Square Garden venue. From there Hogan would appear on any piece of merchandise he could, from lunchboxes to toddler chairs and baby bibs. He ruled the wrestling world for ten years, undisputed until around Wrestlemania IX when along with his hair growing thin, also did his youth, ability and appeal. After semi retiring a number of times over the previous years he was finally gone but his ghost (and influence) remained. This was apparently the end of an era and the wrestling boom, although still a stable industry, was long gone.

This is only half the story as in the US there are two main bodies who run wrestling. The other federation was and is the NWA which was later renamed WCW by its owner Ted Turner (CNN, Warner, Atlanta Braves etc etc). Unfortunately the WCW has never received proper coverage in this country. The WWF and WCW are bitter rivals to the extreme who to only recently wouldn't even acknowledge the existence of eachover. And such acknowledgement since has been in the form of on screen slanging matchs and a couple of off screen lawsuits. Its true, the action often occurs away from the ring and TV shows.

Post Hogan the wrestling world initially struggled. The WWF became more absurd and gimmick led (although it already was pretty far down this road) and the WCW was seemingly trying to copy this. The WWF tried a number times to fill the hole. The Ulitmate Warrior had initially seemed destined to fill the hole but he blew it big style, probably before Hogan had even left. As Hogan seemed more and more reluctant to stick around, Ric Flair had been brought in by the WWF for the feud the wrestling world had been waiting for but that never really happened how it was intended. With Flair still around Hogan basically packed it in. To fill his void the WWF wheeled out Macho Man Randy Savage but he was, and is, long past it. Flair had two runs as champion until Bret Hart finally fulfilled his potential. His first run though was cut short by obese Japanese Sumo wrestler Yokozuna (although actually Samoan). Yokozuna should also go down as the grappler that put Hogan out the WWF and for too long he reigned champion. The next great superstar for the WWF would be the healthy again Lex Luger (a former WCW champion) as Hart got tied up in stiffling feuds with Jerry Lawler and then his brother Owen. Luger totally blew his chance, floundered and eventually returned to the WCW after getting stuck in a waste of time tag team with Davey Boy Smith. Hart finally regained the WWF title at Wrestlemania X from Yokozuna and kept crossing paths with his brother. In the meantime Shawn Michaels was emerging as a fine singles wrestler himself.

As a fine feud between Michaels, Hart and the impressive Diesel, with walk on parts by Sid, The Undertaker and Owen Hart, was taking place Ted Turner signed Hulk Hogan for WCW after his movie career in Hollywood was a dismal failure. He re-entered wrestling as the goodguy he always had been and the Hogan-Flair feud occurred proper. The WWF also seemed to be finally flourishing since the loss of its icon figure. Its biggest quartet of grapplers were all fan favourites and all competing with eachother. A genuine rivalry was taking place between Hart and Michaels.

Seemingly at the height of their WWF careers Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) and Diesel (Kevin Nash) chose not to renew their contracts and left. They resurfaced in WCW as the Outsiders and then revealed themselves to be part of an organisation within the WCW taking over, ruled by Hulk Hogan turning from wrestlings most popular man (although this when his ability had been diminishing further). The NWO, full of former WWF stars, was supposed to be the WWF attempting to take the WCW over from inside. The WWF denied this on air thus breaking down the barriers and finally accepting the existence of its fiercest rival.

The WCW was building a plot around paranoia and behind the scenes, literally spliting the federation in two. The WWF carried on with Hart and Michaels leading the way and Michaels finally capturing the title from Hart causing him to go into semi retirement for nearly a year. Steve Austin meanwhile came into his own in the federation. When Hart finally returned he feuded with Steve Austin. Once more in contention he aimed his targets towards Michaels and his newly formed DeGeneration X. Hart's feud with Austin would seem a mistake. Austin became popular as a result and Hart would turn heal for the first time since his time with Jimmy Hart. Hart responded by reunited the Hart family as the Hart Foundation. In the meantime DeGeneration X were just as crooked. Hart regained the belt and turned dirtier. He continuously criticised America. It was now USA v Canada. Events were held in Canada and Britain where the Hart Foundation were cheered but everywhere else (America) the crowd just about took Michaels side. The federation was at its most exciting for years. Unfortunately things were happening behind the scenes. Hart really despised how Michaels carried himself and acted. The rivalry already more than professional worsened. Hart was also having troubles with scripts with Vince McMahon. It is said when a racial attack on the Black Panther-esqe group The Nation Of Domination supposed by the Harts occured, Hart was very displeased at being made to appear a racist. It was all reaching a crisis point. The main event pitting Hart against Michaels at Survivor Series 97 ended everything. Strangely McMahon spent this match at ringside. It ended with Michaels using Harts finishing move on Hart! McMahon waved for the match to stop. Never was a match so overtly fixed. Hart could not believe the doublecross and nor could the Canadian crowd. Hart spat at his boss McMahon as Michaels quickly fled the venue for his life. Hart stuck around and destroy any WWF equipment he could lay his hands on, made WCW signs and returned to his locker room to destroy. The Pay-Per-View broadcast had long ended, trying to mask what was happening. This incident seriously harmed McMahon's reputation and ended possibly the most exciting period in the second half of the nineties for the WWF.

Over a year later Steve Austin has taken over the WWF. Michaels lost the belt to him soon after the tainted victory and had to give wrestling a break due to further back problems. Austin was initially involved in a four way tie up with Mankind, The Undertaker and Kane. It lacked the grace and excitement of previous title feuds due to the whole absurdity of it. Vince McMahon has a more visible major role in the WWF ring activites now. The shocking truth of his handling of the Hart incident has aided him in creating a corporate monster persona. Michaels is close to a return to the ring, which could bring a much needed spark to the federation.

Hart has in the meantime resurfaced in WCW just as the increasingly popular NWO itself has split in two. Hart initially targeted the aging and now mid-carder Ric Flair who has since been sacked by the federation. Rumours abound of a return for him to the WWF but retirement would be more dignified. Hogan still ran supreme until a bulkier Austin clone called Goldberg took the federation by storm and is currently champion. Hogan's contract may soon be up. His NWO adventure has seemed to have undone his previous 10+ years work. A longshot rumour is a return to the WWF but this will almost definitely not happen. Hart is causing havoc now in WCW. He has targeted the Crow clone Sting and teased with joining the NWO, although which one is also questionable. He should really aim towards the main title.

The latest twists have seen the McMahon corporate persona go into overdrive, having him seemingly pursuing a "genuine" vendetta against Steve Austin. This has included the introduction of his son and the rest of his family to the ranks of the WWF, the formation of the supergroup the Corporate Ministry in association with the Undertaker and McMahon himself has entered the ring himself on numerous occasions. In the midst of all this confussion the title has exchanged hands many times between Austin, the Undertaker and the superimproved Rocky Maivia. The latest contender to emerge has become Hunter Hearst Helmsley, now a McMahon lacky after the disintegration of the flailing DeGeneration X. With McMahon now supposedly barred from his own business the WWF is moving from strength to strength. The scenarios have genuinely seemed to get absurded as McMahon has played out on screen a storyline based on the behind the scenes Bret Hart altercation. It has seen the WWF trounce the WCW in the monday night ratings war with record numbers.

The WCW carries on itself now seeing Ric Flair in position as the federation madman as Hogan made a swift exit perhaps to running for president of the United States! Currently in the WCW Flair is control freak commissioner, as persona fitting his gift of character coinciding with his physical disintegration with age. And amongst him is Arn Anderson and Roddy Piper to back him up. The WCW remains a waste land for ex-WWF superstars. The NWO now seems a distant memory as the same faces now play slightly different roles. Still, its not enough to beat the current WWF by wheeling out its past.

Professional wrestling is too estrablished to go away. Although it may seem to be struggling, it is still flourishing. The WCW/WWF rivalry keeps things hot. Both try to outdo eachother's Pay Per View events and weekly jostle for viewers of their Monday night TV shows, a war the WWF is now winning.

Owen San Lorenzo has many friends, one of which is training to become a professional wrestler. Its someone chasing a dream. A unique dream, which deserves support and attention.

Steve The wrestler

What have you been up to?
Writing a couple of film scripts for a competition, one on Bridge. The other about faking your own death. Training down gym as usual, running 800s an all for something special planned.

Where are you from?
Staplehurst, a small village 9 miles south of Maidstone, Kent. The Garden of England.

Do you have a ring name?
You don't get names until you've really trained and worked on a gimmick. I always used to like Hanuman. He was the hardest guy in the Buddhist religion but people refused to call me it 'cause I looked like a monkey.

How heavy and tall are you?
Somewhere around 13 stone 8 lbs. Six foot one.

What made you want to become wrestler?
I was always thin and kinda weedy. I feel in love with the sport first time I saw it and my interest never declined. I couldn't handle a normal job and want to prove you can achieve your dreams if you really want to. I love attention and think the mix of athleticism and charisma would suit me well.

What have you done about trying to become a wrestler?
For the past three years I've trained heavy weights 4 or 5 times a week. I've adapted my diet and taken safe supplements. I've visited a wrestling school in Cincinnatti and taken a few bumps in the ring to see how it feels. I've been spending ages trying to sort out a job/visa over there.

Who have you spoken to?
A guy called Les Thatcher, an ex-pro wrestler who's been in the business most of his life. He's a real exponent of the sport and a great personality.

How far do you hope to get?
What I achieve is of secondary importance really. I've gained some weight but I'm still small for a wrestler. My body type means there is very little chance I'd ever be a "name" but some smaller guys have done well. What's important is that I don't chuck it in. Even if I only end up working behind the scenes it'll be enough 'cause I love the sport.

What injuries are the biggest risk?
Joints. Taking big bumps, knees, ankles, lower back and neck can all get serious injuries. A pro at the end of his career will generally have some form of replacement/modified joints.

Do you fancy cage matchs?
They're an easy way to get a pop, that's a good reaction from the crowd. But they tend to get away from actual wrestling plus risk injuries a bit more. I'd do one for the crack, no pun intended.

What do you think is the best gimmick match?
I love ladder matches because of the thrill they usually give. Sable and Luna's Ballgown Match was quite a good one too. Generally though stipulations only work for one off shock value.

WWF or WCW? Why?
To chose one or other is really a pointless thing to do, since most wrestlers work for both at some point in their career. From a fan's perspective I prefer WWF probably because I grew up with the gimmicky side of wrestling. I think WWF has made better use of its talent in most cases. Terry Taylor (Red Rooster) and Matt Borne (Doink) notable exceptions.

Do you think ECW has an underserved bad reputution?
If bad means unnecessarilly violent then maybe. Wrestling is a violent sport and some people go to see it for that reason. If bad means not good wrestling then possibly. While most of the guys there are very talented wrestlers, excess of violence can take away from this.

Ric Flair or Hulk Hogan?
95% of fans would say Flair 'cause they think they're being a knowledgable fan. He is undoubtedly a better wrestler technically and has a charisma you couldn't teach but you cannot argue about what Hogan has done for the sport, along with Vince McMahon. They're the yin and yang of the great sport.

Bret Hart or Shawn Michaels?
On a par probably. While Bret is more professional, outside the ring Michaels is one of the best workers in the sport.

Is Sting overrated?
A little I'd say, although I admit I haven't seen a lot of his matches. Plus I'm still on the outside looking in.

Whats your all time favourite match/incident/event?
Match: Flair-Savage Wrestlemania VII. Incident/Event: Impossible to pick one but when things don't go to plan and when the wall of silence WWF vs WCW was broken.

All time favourite Pay Per View event (if different to above)?
Royal Rumble 92

Who's your all time favourite wrestler?
Ric Flair, 'cause you can learn so much watching him.

Who's your all time favourite manager?
Bobby Heenan.

All time favourite commentator?
Bobby Heenan/Jerry Lawler

What were the circumstances whereby you came very close to Sunny?
The guy who runs the school in Cincinnatti had dinner with her and her husband the week before I first visited. Les is an advisor to training Chris Candido (Skip), Sunny's husband.

What's your all time favourite ring music?
Demolition's is pretty good.

If your life could be something fictional, what would it be?
Somekind of superhero but one that actually got loads of action with birds. Maybe to have a superbird to fight crime with then go home to the superkids.

What were you like at school?
Until puberty a bit of a monster. I craved attention and the classes were too easy for the most part, so I just aggrevated teachers. During those dark years I became a bit of a recluse, stuck at an all boys school. Then when I came out of my coccoon I reverted to my previous personality but more annoying as it was no longer accepted to act like a 10 year old.

Why do people dismiss wrestling?
Most people don't see the art behind the brashness. They don't appreciate how tough the King Of Sports really is. They can't get beyond the showmanship aspect and assert the views on a very limited knowledge.

Who make up the majority of the wrestling audience?
In the US its largely young male adults although the family aspect is still important. In the UK its generally an older, working class audience but the British game is a world apart. Talking US wrestling, most fans in Europe are teenagers.

What state is wrestling in in the 90's?
The 90s is far too long a period to assign one definition. Early 90s wrestling had a push worldwide but like the push a few years earlier, it slowed considerably a few years later. The Steroids scandal amongst others (Barry Orton's sexual harassement case) affected wrestling badly plus the ratings war has made much more competitive markets. In 1998 it has a mid card placing, better than before Wrestlemania but not close to it's recent hey day. If it can flourish again it will so by sound wrestling rather than gimmicks.

Is Vince McMahon good or bad?
Good and bad too vague. Good in that he made wrestling more commercially acceptable and available. Bad in that he ran a lot of smaller promotions out of business and even today jips major stars. But its still a close doors business environment. You have to have the right personality to get things done.

Music questions: Whats your favourite band?
Mamas & Papas probably.

Favourite song?
The Next Life by Suede. Or Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

Favourite album?
Blur - Parklife.

(originally in NO PICTURES issue 9)


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