The Column Beyond: GAB ’91 – Matt D in the World of Spartacus

wcw-bash-1991

I have a special spot in my heart for The Great American Bash 1991. I’m also fairly certain that those words have never been spoken before. It’s universally reviled, even if, over the years, certain parties have come to appreciate a match or two on the card. The terms disaster and panic switch and “Worst PPV of all time” have been bandied about, and for good reason. It was a pasted together card, one that was utterly reactionary due to the departure Ric Flair just weeks before, staged in front of a hostile crowd, and it came at a point considered by many to be WCW’s absolute lowest before the excesses of Russo and Ferrara. However, for two major reasons I’m about to explain, reasons that have nothing to do with how I usually watch and process wrestling, I absolutely love the thing.

The first reason is flat out nostalgia. Alright, both reasons involve flat out nostalgia. It’s a factor which doesn’t really shape a lot of my views on wrestling. All of the major projects I’ve been associated with have involved wrestling that took place before I was even born (79-81 Buddy Rose, for instance) or before I really watched wrestling (Demolition match reviews or the AWA 1980’s compilation). Right now, I’m spending a lot of time watching and writing about Lucha which is almost completely new to me. The frenetic action-packed style I loved as a kid is all but dead to me now as I espouse with a fevor that borders on the annoying the merits of smark work over hard work. Despite that, GAB 91 gets a pass from me when almost nothing else does. To explain why, I have to go back to the origins of my wrestling watching.

I was a bit of a late adopter when it came to wrestling. Born in 1981, it wasn’t until 1990 that I let myself get sucked into the WWF machine. I was an obstinate youth and tended to go against whatever I thought was popular with the wide majority of the playground at the time, be it GI Joe or pro wrestling. I eventually did give in though, in the fall of that year, on the promises of a Saturday Night’s Main Event and the Survivor Series that followed it. It wasn’t until six to eight months after that where I first watched WCW though. That was due to a friend, the son of my mother’s co-worker, who was also into wrestling, even more so than I was. He watched everything he had access to up in our little suburbs of Boston, which sounds impressive, but, in 1991, that probably wasn’t much more than WWF and WCW and whatever was running on ESPN, be it AWA or by that point GWF. Regardless, he got me into WCW and I would stay over at his house during nights of PPVs and we’d play Double Dragon II and watch them. Occasionally, he would tape something for me and let me borrow it, or even more rarely, keep it.

I stopped watching wrestling in 1992 due to a combination of being scared of Papa Shango (shameful, I know) and Bill Watts (even more shameful, maybe?). Don’t get me wrong, I love Watts now as a personality and a commentator. It was just that he took away all the things I was enjoying about 1992 WCW, the light heavyweights and high flying and the Dangerous Alliance and started pushing things I didn’t care about. I didn’t start watching again until 1998 when Boston was overtaken by WrestleMania fever. I would, however, occasionally get nostalgic for wrestling in the meantime. Sometimes that meant watching a PPV in scramblevision.

Most of the time, my nostalgia took the form of playing the one wrestling tape I owned, my bootleg copy of Great American Bash 1991. I have very distinct memories of that opening scene with the camera whooshing over the ticket-taking area of the Baltimore Arena and the feel that this was some sort of yearly tradition that I was just peeking my head into the first time. I live by Baltimore now and WWE still runs the Arena but I’ve never actually been. Since it opened the card, I’ve seen that scaffold match more than probably anyone else alive. In fact, that’s possibly true for the entire show, right up until halfway through Nikita vs Sting where the tape cut out. Yes, so not only was I trapped in some sort of self-imposed purgatory, pushing the boulder that was GAB 91 up the side of a cliff, it would fall down the other side before the main event each and every time. It wasn’t until years later that I saw Lex vs Barry and I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever seen the Steiner/Arn mixed match. My final memory was always Nikita coming to the ring, fearsome and dangerous, and being slightly worried for how Sting might manage to survive a chain match with him. This was in 1991, not 1985, to remind you, which brings me directly to the second reason I love the Bash.

In a lot of ways, it was my introduction to WCW. I might have been watching a few weeks before or a few weeks after, but because I went back to it so many times, my memories of that era are completely tied to this point in time. I think that going through things in a direct line watching one show and then the next and then the next, it’s hard to fully appreciate this, but WCW was hugely surreal in the summer of 1991. It’s almost like an alternate reality. Legend goes that Jim Herd wanted to repackage Ric Flair as a roman gladiator character, Spartacus. Why that instead of a Caligula gurgling on excess or a Nero who would fiddle madly while everything burned around him, I don’t know. The latter sounds almost like the character Flair DID play in the last year of WCW. The point is this: Ric Flair as Spartacus would have fit in to WCW at this period. That’s the world of the Great American Bash, 1991. Nothing is wholly familiar. Almost every character can only be fully seen just out of the corner of the eye and then only as a funhouse mirror reflection. This was my introduction to southern wrestling, to the great tradition of Jim Crockett Promotions, to WCW.

Let’s break it down quickly so that the weight of quantity can prove my point. Beautiful Bobby Eaton wasn’t the heel technician of the Midnight Express but instead a fairly over flashy and heartfelt babyface. He was one of my favorites almost instantly and the crowd was hugely behind him. He was one of their own. PN News was there, a colorful staple of the year. He was a few years behind the social trend and (of course) a few years then ahead of Vince’s attempt to capitalize on it. He was also someone the crowd wanted to get behind but didn’t have the rapping skill to carry the gimmick. Terry Taylor wasn’t Watts’ babyface or UWF’s heel. He wasn’t the Red Rooster even. He was Terrence Taylor, the Computerized Man of the 90s, ace of the York Foundation. Being a fairly nerdy outcast of a kid, I loved the York Foundation. They had Alexandra York, who was mousy and, I imagine, more than few people’s first wrestling crush, and The Computer to help decide things. They also had Richard Morton, who I had no point of reference for. I was a huge Rockers fan but I had no idea who the Rock n’ Roll Express had been. The Morton vs Gibson match was worked well enough that I got the sense of two former friends (still wearing the bandanas!) going at it, but Gibson came off as some weird looking schlub to get stomped on by the corporate team. To reiterate, for years, and in the nostalgic gaze of my ten year old sense, Ricky Morton, probably the best baby-face tag team worker of all time, is a heel who refused to live the gimmick and wear a suit. That’s how I knew him, and really the only way I knew him, for years. He did well in the role, especially late in the year working as a base for light heavyweights, but it’s all a little ridiculous when you think about it. For what it’s worth, that’s how I knew Tommy Rich too, even though he hadn’t turned quite yet, as Thomas, with his Revenge of the Nerds III ponytail.

That’s just two matches. It goes on. Billy Jack Haynes, the hugely iconic Portland babyface, was Black Blood, a French Revolution era headsman. Matt Borne, one of the most versatile wrestlers of the modern era, wasn’t Matt Borne at all, but, riding on a favor from Dusty (having been kind to Dustin in USWA Texas), was Big Josh. It takes a special sort of wrestler to be able to portray not knowing a thing about wrestling in a compelling manner. Borne was great but only about 3/4th pulled it off. I’m always going to have a problem with the Freebirds due to starting to watch wrestling in this era. It’s hard to look back at their Texas glory days and not think of Jimmy Garvin and Michael Hayes coming out with Brad Armstrong in a body suit and mask as Badstreet and with Oliver Humperdink (who I also think of immediately this way) as road boss, Big Daddy Dink. Scott Hall was the Diamond Studd, a proto Razor Ramon with a pants ripping gimmick and the deadly Diamond Death Drop (and I can’t tell you how hyped I was to see ECW for the first time years later and hear that they called the Dudley’s finisher the Dudley Death Drop). Kevin Nash was Oz, which is exactly what it sounds like, and it dropped my jaw at age 9 to see him lose so handedly to Ron Simmons after his colossal entrance.

It doesn’t just go on. It simply doesn’t stop. One Man Gang had mascara and a loose asylum gimmick. Brian Pillman was rehashing an old Florida gimmick by dressing up as the Yellow Dog. Johnny B. Badd was still a heel and full on Little Richard with Teddy Long as his second. The wild-eyed Southern Boys weren’t from Alabama at all but were cowboys from Wyoming. One disclaimer: to a kid from Boston in 1991 there was absolutely no difference between wild-eyed southern boys from Alabama and Cowboys from Wyoming. None. In fact, Wyoming and Alabama might have been next to each other on the map for all I cared at the time. I’m sure that bothered someone though. To me, looking back, it just added to that dreamlike haze. In Spartacus’ reality, they just happened to be from Wyoming instead. It was that simple. Then, the show ended with a character getting completely rebooted, as Harley Race and Mr. Hughes came out and Lex Luger turned, just like that, in the most bloodless cage match of the era. It wasn’t as blatant as his turn in 1993 when he just magically became an American hero after staring at himself in a mirror the day before (maybe it was a funhouse mirror too?), but it was all fairly jarring, though less so for me, since I hadn’t seen him much as a babyface before this. No, Lex as Race’s protege was how I remembered him for years.

The guys not on the card were pretty much in the same surreal boat. Rich I mentioned already, but you had Dutch Mantell, Black Bart and Deadeye Dick as the Stan Hansen-searching desperados. For years, again, that’s the only way I remembered Dirty Dutch. My introduction to Dick Murdoch was looking like a C.O.P.S. bad guy as part of the Hardliners Protection Agency with Dick Slater. Rick Steiner was about to team with Bill Kazmaier for a few months. The Patriots were percolating on the lower end of the card. El Gigante was one of the top face acts. Van Hammer was about to debut.

There were a few constants. Nikita, bald and broken down, was still the Nikita of old in all the important ways, even if the world had moved past him. Dustin Rhodes was pretty much what he was supposed to be, Dusty’s son and rising up the charts. Sure, Stunning Steve had Lady Blossom but he was the all star player for the year, defining himself as the TV champ. Arn and Larry Z could have existed at any point in WCW’s history as a unit and Barry Windham was Barry Windham, even if he would turn and then be advertised on the heel side for Halloween Havoc for a month afterwards. Sting, most of all, was the static point. WCW turned and changed and Sting was there, right in the center, a point that all revolved around. These were the exceptions that helped defined the rule, because without them, it wouldn’t be WCW at all. With them, you could really see that we were no longer in our own world at all. This was the world of Ric ‘Spartacus’ Flair, and for years, it would be the only world I knew when it came to southern wrestling, a moment in amber, and even now, it’s a world I look back on and remember fondly, not in spite of the madness it contained, but very much because of it.

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Great American Bash 1991

Lex Luger vs. Barry Windham – Steel Cage Match for WCW World Heavyweight Championship

Parv (and by brutal association Chad) have asked me to contribute a bit to the ongoing project that is Where the Big Boys Play (WTBBP). That’s not entirely accurate. I went to Parv since I wanted to talk about Great American Bash 1991. Podcasts just don’t fit well into my life right now. They’re not my chosen form of communication with the world, but they especially don’t well into my life. Therefore, there was some thought of doing a monologue instead. I tried that. It went fairly poorly and I wrote a companion piece instead. In the discussion, however, Parv thought it might be a nice addition for me to break down a single match on each card, and my break-down would work into the discussion. Now that we’ve decided on a text companion piece, I’m glad to give it a shot, so here we are.

Therefore, I intend to break down one match of each PPV or Clash moving forward. What I thought would be interesting would be to not think about the match in reference to star ratings or even necessarily quality, but instead to try to examine what the wrestlers were trying to accomplish with the match and why, how they tried to accomplish it, and the ultimate success of their efforts. This means looking at elements that we often take for granted in our rush for qualification and listmaking and comparison.

The first match on the docket is Lex Luger vs Barry Windham, in a cage, for the vacant WCW World Heavyweight Championship. It’s a fascinating match, especially for the sake of this exploration, because in so many ways, it was an extraordinary match for all the wrong reasons. What Lex and Barry, two talented wrestlers with a definite connection to the crowd, were asked to do was contradictory at best and impossible at worst, and it leaned far closer to worst than best.

Everyone knows the context. Ric Flair refused contract negotiations. Ric Flair refused to drop the title to Luger. Ric Flair offered to drop it to Windham but Herd balked on the entire situation. Ric Flair left for Titan and they ended up here, with a build towards Luger finally winning the title but with no champion for him to vanquish, with Barry pulled from the mixed tag as the only viable opponent for Lex, and with a crowd who was openly hostile to the company and it’s main event, which wasn’t even a main event since it was the second to last match on the card.

What they were trying to accomplish was a mishmash of epic proportions. Lex Luger had to be established as a champion. More than that, though, he had to leave the match looking strong as a potential heel champion. There needed to be some slight question about how he won. He couldn’t wrestle the match as a heel, though. One of the few things WCW had going for them here was that a large portion of the crowd had followed him for years and wanted him to win the title. They couldn’t take that moment away from him. He couldn’t appear to look weak throughout the match, as well. Of secondary importance, Barry couldn’t look too fiendish. He was going to be one of the company’s top babyfaces in the fall. Finally, they needed to wrestle a match that at least partially would make the crowd forget about the specter of Ric Flair that was hanging over the entire event. They had to combat the “We Want Flair” chants, and as part of a live PPV, even in the best circumstances, production alone couldn’t be counted upon to manage that. It wasn’t the best circumstances, anyway, it was WCW, where they spent fifteen seconds panning over excited front row fans, or at least fans that were excited to chant “We Want Flair!” The wrestlers were very much on their own.

Let’s look at this again, because a lot of this deserves reiteration. They had to wrestle a main event caliber match, in a cage, without having any real, recent reason to be feuding, for a vacant title, in front of a hostile crowd. They couldn’t use a lot of the usual tools at their disposal. There was no real impetus for blood or hate-filled brawling. Windham couldn’t work a long heat segment on Luger, because the end goal of the match wasn’t about Luger garnering sympathy or overcoming adversity. In the end, he had to win because Harley Race and Mr. Hughes came out to refocus him/distract his opponent. At the same time, they couldn’t do a heavy double-turn within the match because there was no context for it and, more importantly, because they needed the crowd to be able to revel in the finish, even if they were, perhaps, a bit bewildered in it. WCW needed to give them this moment or else they’d turn on the night even more. Really, though, the wrestlers couldn’t even work a spotfest, which might have drawn in the crowd given the setting, because it had to feel like a legitimate NWA/WCW World Heavyweight Championship match to reestablish the title and lineage considering how Flair left with it. It had to feel legitimate in pacing and scope, but without many of the tools that previous such matches could utilize.

Ultimately and unsurprisingly, the match failed when it came to keeping the crowd and having them forget Flair. It did have some things going for it and may have succeeded in other ways. I think the fans were ready for Luger to win and they did seem to pop for it. It was his time, or at least it would have been had things gone differently. It’s impossible to know how a babyface Luger victory, with Flair still in the picture, would have gone. The announcers did a very good job protecting an artificial feel of importance to the pre-match (though the live crowd wouldn’t get to see that), bringing up the wrestlers’ respective past as teammates and rivals. At least the people at home could pretend. Barry used the cage in interesting ways, mainly as a way to steady himself for top rope moves (a flying clothesline and later a flying kick that led towards the finish) and most interestingly, as a counter to torture rack, where he used his height to push off the cage and flip out of it. They obviously had the intrigue of Race and Hughes coming down, a surprise which took the fans’ mind off of Flair, at least temporarily. Windham exited the match fairly well protected and probably a little elevated from when he came in. Luger had gained a layer of doubt (could he have won without Race coming down?) but also had a new management team, a new attitude, and a new, immediately over finisher. The fans could refocus some of their resentment in Flair being forced out (or the illusion of such) to Luger robbing them of their moment of celebration by using a shortcut and going heel.

While it may have accomplished some of WCW’s longer-term goals, at least in a watered-down manner, it was still a bit of an albatross in the moment. They worked a more measured title match style, each wrestler being careful not to make a mistake, but without a strong face/heel dynamic, the fans were restless. With every break in the action, they chants began anew. Alternatively, anytime they started to pick up the pace, they seemed to fade, but the match didn’t call for much of that faster pace. Windham tried, and the big spots were fun, but it made for an almost experimental feel. The cage ended up feeling like a goofy prop and in fact, I can’t think of another cage match where the cage had less meaning either as an imposing structure to create mood or as a tool to be used in the narrative, even in the era of WWE PG. Having Race and Hughes come down was very smart, but there was no reason they couldn’t have added drama by arriving earlier in the match. This crowd needed every distraction it could get. Frankly, there was no fooling this crowd into thinking they were witnessing history, so they should have gone all out in order to keep them engaged and entertained.

Still, Luger turned and while business was down into the fall of 1991, the heel machine this match christened in him looked pretty good on paper, at least. Barry’s babyface turn, drawn out for a few more weeks on the weekend shows, was a bit more successful, and he helped give a rub to first Ron Simmons and then Dustin Rhodes along the way. I don’t think the title would feel truly significant again until Vader took it the following year, but then there was almost no way this match could have accomplished that, even if they went sixty minutes and bled buckets and started a riot (for good reasons, not bad). This was a case of a two wrestlers put in an impossible situation, drawn into the middle of a forced storyline reset not of their making, and basically sent out there to die in front of a crowd who wanted very little to do with what they were seeing. In the face of that, they did a competent, and in Barry’s case, slightly inspired, job but one that was ultimately forgettable. The next day all anyone would remember would be Harley Race and Ric Flair; not an auspicious start to yet another new WCW era.

Author: Matt D