The Column Beyond: The Great (???) Match Robbery of 1991

freebirds

There are various ways to view and judge a match, or even a performance within a match. One is focusing on how good it is, on a very subjective (though often not inconsistent) aesthetic level. This usually leads to a star rating or a letter grade. Another is to weigh things like card placement and how well it ultimately drew. This is a little more objective though maybe not quite as easy to delve into and discuss. The first looks at the little picture. The second, the big picture. Somewhere both in the middle of these and far outside as well, is the idea that you can figure out what the booking of the match was trying to accomplish and whether or not the wrestlers were able to use their performances to accomplish that goal. Every match has needs. Every match has goals that it’s trying to accomplish and every match has constraints that limit it. Too often I think we, as a wrestling community, focus on the big picture or the little, and leave this third area unexplored. That’s one reason I am trying to break down individual matches on these cards as I am. That said, sometimes a performance comes along that’s so outrageous, so subversive, and so disruptive that it needs to be explored in even more depth.

Probably the most well-known example of this would be Shawn Michaels’ overbumping hissy fit at Summerslam 2005 vs Hulk Hogan, but it’s hardly the only one in wrestling history. Some are far less malicious. JJ Dillon tells a story of his early time as a manager where he was booked for a match and after serving in a non-wrestling role for a little while, he really wanted to go out and impress the “boys in the back.” He wanted this so badly that he gave the very best performance he could. He worked hard and bumped heavily and worked the mat and was shooting for four stars (my words, not his). Afterwards he was chewed out by the promoter because no matter how good the match was, it wasn’t the match he was supposed to work. It didn’t get across the cowardly and weak manager persona he was supposed to portray, that was supposed to help draw money for the promotion in that scenario. It undermined completely what they had been going for.

Another example, and one that mostly everyone can watch easily, is the Johnny Polo vs Marty Jannetty match from the December 27, 1993 Raw. It was meant to set up the Jannetty/123 Kid tag team title win on the First Year Anniversary Raw in January and the concept behind it was that Polo was supposed to portray a craven, cheating, desperate little worm while Jannetty looked to steamroll him. In the end, after getting beat around the ring, Polo would pick up a cheap win. That’s not at all what happened. Instead, Polo, so frustrated that he was relegated to a backstage and managerial role when he was a trained wrestler, tried to have a stand out match to get noticed. He took control for large portions of it and fought back for the rest, including hitting a dive, which was a rare enough move on 1993 WWF TV for a wrestler let alone a manger. It disrupted the story being told, to the point that they washed it away on the next Raw, Vince talking about how thoroughly he had been dominated by Jannetty when that hadn’t been the case at all. It was all a little embarrassing to say the least.

Then, much more like Shawn Michaels at his conniving but brilliant worst, are the early 90s Fabulous Freebirds, embarrassing and remarkable all at once. Michael Hayes had seen better days. He was only in his early thirties, the start of the prime of many careers, but pop culture had left him behind. Buddy Jack Roberts and Terry Gordy had left him behind too, leaving him to tag with Jimmy “Jam” Garvin, who was almost forty and who, despite having a successful enough earlier career, had never quite caught up to pop culture in the first place. Garvin had started teaming with Hayes and Gordy in 1989, holding the NWA Tag Team titles with Hayes. After Gordy left, they continued to have kayfabe success, serving as transitional WCW Tag Team champions in early 1991 (they lost the titles six days before even winning them!), and holding both the US Tag Team titles and Six-Man Tag Team titles. They also changed up their act, or tried to, coming out with Oliver Humperdink as the ill-transformed Big Daddy Dink or Diamond Dallas Page and the Diamond Dolls, and taking on Brad Armstrong under a mask as Fantasia or Badstreet as the poor jerk to basically take the bumps for them now that Buddy Jack was retired. They had stopped teaming with Armstrong by the time of Halloween Havoc 91, and had, in fact, just pretended to be a team from England, the Screaming Eagles, in order to challenge the current World Tag Team champions, the Enforcers, on TV earlier in October. That had made them closer to the babyface side of the spectrum but they were still utilized as tweeners on house shows, depending on the location. To point, someone in the crowd at Havoc had brought a “Sadd Street” sign, mocking them, that was prominently featured on camera.

Michael Hayes was never a physical specimen and while he was better in the ring than he’s generally remembered to have been (due to how he was positioned as the talker in the classic Freebirds line-up), there was a duel-talent that he possessed as deeply and strongly as almost anyone else in wrestling history: he knew how to manipulate a crowd and he had the charisma to actually pull it off. When you combined that with an absolute addiction to the crowd’s adulation and maybe, just maybe, with the realization that time was passing him by early, suddenly WCW had a monstrous creature on its roster that was going to hijack matches and try to get himself over above all else. You could see it all the way back at Halloween Havoc 1989, the almost gleeful way he leeched off of the Philadelphia crowd’s disdain for the Dynamic Dudes and snatched up babyface status for the match.

If Halloween Havoc 89 had been opportunistic, a crime of the second degree, Halloween Havoc 91 was outright premeditated theft. The craziest part was that he didn’t even wrestle on the show. He was supposed to, booked to put over new prefabricated product Van Hammer in his second televised disaster of a match, but he somehow got out of it by, in character, faking an injury, and apparently convincing someone that it would add to the Freebirds’ heat and to his partner’s match. Instead, poor, talented but forgotten, Doug Somers was thrown to the guitar wielding, spot blowing, wolves. Hayes, wearing a cast, would second his partner down to the ring to face Johnny B. Badd, the #8 wrestler in the world according to the WCW Top Ten and soon to be voted both the PWI and WON Rookie of the Year. Jim Ross, announcing the match with Tony Schiavone, made sure to point out he was on a hot streak. He was someone who, through his flamboyant antics, was expected to carry part of the crowd in this match; his face turn was impending, less than a month away at this point. Badd did get something of a mixed reaction on his way out and a halfway decent one for the Badd Blaster confetti popper. So far, so good.

The problem was that three minutes before, the Freebirds had emerged. We need to set a little more context here, so bear with me. The Atlanta Braves, that frustrating baseball team which preempted WCW’s programming so very often when I was a kid, were exceptionally hot in the early 1990s. They had an amazing line-up of pitchers, one of the best in my lifetime, and due to TBS’ broadcast reach, they were popular all around the country. They won their division eight times during the decade and made it to the World Series five times, winning in 1995. On the very day of Halloween Havoc, they were in Game Seven of the World Series, playing against the Minnesota Twins. Considering that Chattanooga, despite being in Tennessee, was only one-hundred and twenty miles or so from Atlanta, half the distance that, let’s say Savannah, was from Atlanta, the hearts and minds of a lot of the fans were focused on the Braves that night. The Freebirds were billed, of course, from Badstreet, Atlanta G A. Can you see where this is going?

There are pops. There are cheap pops. And then there was this, quite possibly the cheapest pop one can imagine. The Freebirds, those vaguely over the hill tweeners, came out to face one of WCW’s up and coming stars, clad in full Atlanta Braves’ merchandise, doing the Braves’ token tomahawk chop (Hayes with his free arm, as the other was in the sling). The crowd had been chopping all night. The crowd was chopping before ring announcer Gary Michael Capetta even told the them that the Freebirds were about to appear. Once they reached the ring and climbed the corners, it was a full-on chop-a-long. I’m sure that there were some die-hard baseball fans who decided not to go to the show and some die-hard wrestling fans who couldn’t care less about baseball, but in Chattanooga, for the WCW fanbase, there sure seemed like a lot of overlap. Badd never had a chance. He, no matter the bookers’ plans on that night, or in the long term, had been sent out, to haplessly get eaten alive.

Still, no wrestling match is just an entrance, and a strong enough worker could have recovered, either feeding off of the crowd with a heel performance or winning them over with a babyface one. Badd was green as grass and Garvin and Hayes were savvy as hell. Garvin walked around the ring chopping, and Badd, when he finally went up on a corner to pose, found that Hayes, the guy not even in the match, had moved into the ring to pose in the opposite corner. Ross half-heartedly said the crowd was going to be split, but the DDT chants in support of the Freebirds (that Garvin was now doing the chop in rhythm with) said another story. Teddy Long, Badd’s manager with a few years in the business now as a referee and then the manager of Doom, saw what was going on and tried to get the crowd behind Badd from the outside, but Hayes just slammed the apron louder in response.

It wouldn’t have mattered anyway; the first big spot of the match pretty much sealed things. Badd and Garvin locked up and tussled around the ring, each trying to arm drag the other. They went all the way to the ropes with this and Badd sailed over. It made sense on some level. He was younger and could and would bump more. Once he hit the floor though, Hayes lost the sling, walloped Badd in the face, and winked to the camera in the most over the top Shawn Michaels-esque expression possible, making a farce out of pretty much everything going on, especially since his match with Hammer was supposed to be later in the night. In the ring Garvin shouted “I’m a badddddd man,” mocking Johnny more. They followed with the chops again, as JR exclaimed that the Freebirds had conned the crowd into loving them, basically, which didn’t make Chattanooga look all that great either.

The bleeding away of Johnny’s credibility continued back in the ring. After a Garvin powerslam, Badd had the unique honor of being part of the following spot: Garvin ran the ropes back and forth six or seven times as his opponent watched confused, doing nothing, until he just popped him in the head with a forearm and knocked to the floor. Schiavone tried to sell it on commentary as an experienced wrestler tricking an inexperienced one but it was pretty brutal.

Even when Badd finally got on offense, it didn’t go much better. Garvin was so far across the ring that when he went for the top rope sunset flip, he didn’t quite make it and it looked terrible. He followed up with two more top rope moves, getting nailed on the way down for the third. Immediately thereafter, Garvin moved out of the way of a shot in the corner and Badd took a bump over the top rope. After he made it back to the ring again, and they ran a collision spot, Johnny finally went for his finish, but Garvin ducked the punch and hit the DDT. Long distracted the ref who missed the pin. Then, only after Garvin went after Long, did Badd hit the punch. Even so, Garvin got his foot on the rope and the ref missed Long pushing it off. To sum up, Badd, an up and coming star who had really pressured top babyface Sting the month before, got completely clowned by the less prominent of the over the hill cheap heat tag team act, to the point where he should have lost the match after being ineffectual for the better part of ten minutes, but instead won due to two distractions and his manager pushing Garvin’s foot off the rope. Hayes rushed into the ring post match to hit Long so that Badd most certainly couldn’t celebrate his win. The last image of the match was Hayes raising Garvin’s hand while Schiavone helplessly noted that Badd only won due to Long.

The difference between the Sting match from the Clash and this was amazing. That match had managed to get over both wrestlers while protecting both, even as Sting ended Badd’s undefeated streak. Here, Badd won but came out looking completely exposed and hapless. The difference was, first Sting understanding that the better your opponent looks, the better you look in beating him and also being professional enough to work the match the way he was supposed to, and second the sheer talent that Hayes on the outside, and to a lesser extent Garvin, brought to the table. The Freebirds understood the crowd, what they wanted, and what actions would generate the responses they desired more than anything. Hayes inserted himself not just into the match but into the night as a whole, as a force that could move the crowd any which way he pleased. It was just a shame that he and his partner had decided to move them in a way that made their rookie opponent look like a fool. Out of context, a casual viewer might think that the Freebirds were WCW’s biggest stars but the next day they were really no better off than they had been the night before and Badd was actively worse off. It was the definition of using one’s powers for evil or at least for wholly selfish purposes. I almost wish Hayes hadn’t backed out of the Hammer match, just to see how much further he might have gone there. As it was, it was an incredible performance, a way to expend twice the effort in order to garnish an extreme result. Unfortunately, all that effort and skill led to not just failure at achieving the result needed, but actually managed to do quite a bit of harm.

——-

PN News and Big Josh vs The Creatures

Why does this match even exist? We take things for granted sometimes. It’s easy to do so given the sheer amount of footage available to us right now. Between YouTube and the Network and pro wrestling being on TV almost every night, we’re inundated, but somewhere in the ballpark of 120,000 people bought Halloween Havoc 1991 and watched this match. That’s a lot of people to see a mid card lumberjack and “rap master” go up against two no name masked schnooks. I want to look at what it was and why it happened, and just what it could have possibly been trying to accomplish, because it, more than any other match I can think of, is easy to take for granted and discount. That actually makes it sort of interesting to me.

It was second on the card (best as I can tell, there was no dark match for this event): not exactly a prestigious placement. Traditionally, the first match on the card is supposed to get the crowd excited, to set the mood for the night. Tito Santana talks about the honor of starting Wrestlemania I, and since it’s Tito, I believe him. No one ever talks about the second match of the card being an honor. For Wrestlemania I it was King Kong Bundy squashing SD Jones. This match was actually sort of similar to that, but for Wrestlemania XXX, it was Daniel Bryan vs Triple H (to the live crowd), so I don’t think we’re going to go further down the rabbit hole of second matches.

No, here the key wasn’t the match’s ultimate placement on the card, but instead what it followed. What it followed was about as far from Tito Santana vs Buddy Rose-under-a-hood as you could get: The Chamber of Horrors. The Chamber of Horrors was a wildly unique fiasco. It was the perfect central point between corporate marketing, hilarious mismanagement, and carny wrestling. It was pure WCW in that the high concept, a cage surrounding the ring with weapons and caskets filled with extra goons where you can only win by stuffing one of your opponents in an electric chair, came well before the actual storyline need for the match. This was obvious when you look at first, the fact they kept changing who was going to be participating (down to having newly minted babyface Barry Windham announced on the heel side weeks and weeks after his turn, to Gordon Solie’s increasing dismay in the control center), and then the fact that half the guys in the match, including Vader, the Steiners, and the Diamond Studd had no actual issue with each other. It was an outright insane spectacle, but more than that, it was hugely violent. This was a match with Vader, Cactus Jack, Abdullah the Butcher, and the Steiners, given no rules, no restraints and weapons! It was like watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon with actual blood.

It was also the first match on the card and not to warm people up for the night either. No, it was the first match because it had so little storyline importance (just Sting getting to fight off Abdullah and Cactus Jack) and because the cage took so much effort to set up. They either had to put it on first or put it on last, and given that ensuring the legitimacy of their fairly illegitimate World Championship was so important, Ron Simmons vs Lex Luger had to end the show. Instead of putting the crowd in the right mood for the show, it was an overproduced, discordant grind of blood and gimmicky chaos. It overstimulated them. There was almost no way to follow it with the sort of actual wrestling show WCW needed to put on in their first attempt at a PPV after the Great American Bash disaster.

Therefore, it was those unlikely heroes, Big Josh and PN News, to the rescue. This was a match where the two most cartoony babyfaces in the company completely dominated a pair of event-themed, literally faceless, opponents, in a surprisingly (yet forgettably) high-impact celebratory showcase. The Creatures (enhancement talent Johnny Rich and Joey Maggs wearing reptilian masks and tights) were at worst yet another corporate-driven tie in to make the event feel more Halloweeny and at best a smokescreen to hide the ultimate importance of the Halloween Phantom (Rick Rude) reveal later in the night. They were nothing to write home about. In a vacuum, though, News and Josh WERE something to write home about. People forget how over News was. The fans just wanted to cheer him. They wanted to interact with the rapping. It’s just that he gave them so little to latch on to between the fact he had negative rhythm and just about as much dexterity in the ring. On this night, however, he gave them as much as he ever managed, and it was enough. They popped when he was announced. They grooved to his rap, and they watched him mangle two poor fools. Maybe he was so inspired because he was with there with Josh. I don’t know if someone took the handcuffs off the hugely talented Matt Borne and told him that he didn’t have to wrestle like a bumbling rustic anymore or he just got fed up by the whole act, but there was no pretense here, down to the point where Jim Ross covered it up believably by saying that he was certainly the most improved wrestler of the year.

It was a TV squash match on steroids. The Creatures had superior teamwork and some nice little flourishes in their attempts to contain their foes (little headbutts and eyerakes and kidney punches), but they were absolutely steamrolled. There wasn’t shine or heat or anything else. There was just pomp and circumstance and devastation. News hit a giant corner splash. Josh hit a killer dropkick. Josh whipped a Creature into a News bodybump. Whenever the Creatures even tried to fight back they were shoved back into the ground. The first creature ran right into a striking Big Josh axehandle as Borne propelled himself off the top sailing right over News. The second tried to get away only for News to hang on to him so that he could eat a nasty German Suplex from Josh. News even hit this inexplicably pretty Northern Lights looking throw. They let Creature #1 tag out to Creature #2, seemingly out of mercy but really so Josh could chuck him across the ring with a belly-to-belly. At one point, the Creatures actually got their act together for about fifteen seconds, just long enough for News to pump the crowd up from the apron and Josh to get downright furious, crushing his hapless, maligned victim with some sort of over the shoulder gutwrench power bomb. When he shouted timber and hit the Northen Exposure (Earthquake) splash and let News fall off the top rope onto the already-squashed Creature, that was the only bit of real mercy in the match. It was a massacre.

More importantly, though, it brought the fans down and reminded them that they weren’t watching some sort of deathmatch from Japan anymore. They were in Chattanooga and watching Halloween Havoc 91, which was more or less a normal pro wrestling show. It was the definition of a “piss break” match, something without too much heat or emotional investment. There was simply no reason to care about the match. There was nothing at stake. There was no sense of peril. The Creatures weren’t even some sort of vaguely memorable jobber like Larry Santo or Buddy Lee Parker. They were just some masked goons, not unlike the ones who popped out of coffins to get punched in the face by a Steiner Brother, during the Chamber of Horrors. The Chamber hadn’t been a standard opening match. It’d been an alien, outlandish, suspension of belief blender of a spectacle, and this was exactly the sort of heatless mauling of a squash that reset the hearts and minds of those who saw it. When it was over, they were actually ready to sit and watch fifteen minutes of Bobby Eaton and Terrence Taylor cycling through momentum shifts. It was a surprisingly bone-jarring squash from two guys that were surprisingly over, but more than that, it was exactly the right match at exactly the right time, and hey, just because it wasn’t particularly good, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get all the credit it deserves for that. There are things more important than stars in this world after all, aren’t there?

Author: Matt D