Monday, 23 March 2009

WWF Wrestlemania IV - Retro Review

With Wrestlemania 25 only a couple of weeks or so away, it’s time for me to resurrect my tradition of reviewing a past “big four” pay-per-view, and this time it’s a big one, a one night tournament held at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey to crown a new WWF Champion. Yep, we’re going back to 1988, and Wrestlemania IV, with the legendary team of Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Gorilla Monsoon handling commentary duties.

The show begins with a battle royal, featuring the Hart Foundation, the Young Stallions, Sika, “Dangerous” Danny Davis, the Killer Bees, Bad News Brown, Sam Houston, the Rougeau Brothers, Ken Patera, “Outlaw” Ron Bass, the Junkyard Dog, the Bolsheviks, Hillbilly Jim, King Harley Race, and George “The Animal” Steele, with a big ass trophy up for grabs. It’s the usual kind of battle royal fare here, entertaining in it’s own way but a bit hard to follow when it begins, with all of those arms and legs flailing away. The final four were Paul Roma, Bret Hart, Junkyard Dog and Bad News Brown. News and the Hitman formed a brief alliance to take out the Dog, and after he was eliminated both men stood in the middle of the ring to celebrate, before Brown took Hart down with his ghetto blaster kick, dishing out more punishment before eventually throwing him over the top rope for the victory. This didn’t sit too well with the Hitman though, who got back into the ring and attacked Brown from behind, before taking out his frustrations on the massive trophy. Nothing like a good old fashioned double cross!

Then it’s on to the first round of the WWF title tournament. First up, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan against “The Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase, who is not only accompanied by his bodyguard Virgil, but by Andre the Giant as well. It’s you classic brawler v technician battle here. Duggan uses his fists to do the talking, while Dibiase counters with his superior technical skill. It’s a reminder to this particular writer just how good these guys were. Interference from Andre cost Duggan the match here, as the Giant grabbed Duggan’s leg just as he was about to deliver his football tackle. A big punch later and a knee from behind, and Dibiase got the pin to take him into the second round.

Up next, Dino Bravo, accompanied by Frenchy Martin, against “The Rock” Don Muraco, accompanied by “Superstar” Billy Graham. Muraco, of course, replaced Graham in the tournament, because the former champion was unable to compete because of injury. An interesting power v power battle here, which has a couple of dodgy moments at the beginning, sees the two big guys basically beating the hell out of each other, and with a somewhat controversial ending. After Bravo pulled the referee so he took a hit from Muraco, Bravo took his man out with his side slam finisher. But when the ref came to, he didn’t count the pin, he disqualified Bravo. Not a bad match here, but it was let down by the mistakes at the beginning.

The battle of the strongmen was followed by the battle of the technical wizards, with Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, accompanied by Jimmy Hart, facing Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. A really good little match here between two of the top wrestlers of the time, with Valentine and Steamboat matching each other move for move. Countless false finishes throughout, before Valentine reversed Steamboat’s top rope body block, grabbed a handful of tights and got the winning pin. A very good match here, which many at the time would have considered something of an upset.

The action continued with “The Natural” Butch Reed, accompanied by his manager Slick, taking on “Macho Man” Randy Savage, accompanied, of course, by Elizabeth. It’s a battle of power against speed here, with the future Doom member controlling the match early on with his superior strength. Savage has a couple of moments, but it’s all Reed until he goes up to the top rope, momentarily distracted by Elizabeth. This gave Savage the time he needed to recover as he threw Reed off the top rope, then went upstairs himself to deliver his patented flying elbow. Not bad I suppose.

It’s the battle of the big men next, with the One Man Gang, Slick’s second man in the tournament, facing Bam Bam Bigelow, accompanied by his manager Oliver Humperdink. If you’re looking for an outstanding technical contest, then this isn’t the match for you. It’s two big guys with a combined weight of nearly eight hundred pounds beating away on each other, and it’s damn entertaining to watch, and a reminder of how good the late Bam Bam was back then. However, another controversial ending. As Bigelow was about to take the Gang out, Slick pulled down the top rope, with Bam Bam crashing down to the ringside area. The Gang then stopped him from getting back in, which lead to the referee counting him out. As I said before, entertaining, even if the ending was a little disappointing.

The final match of the first round saw “Ravishing” Rick Rude, accompanied by his manager, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, going up against Jake “The Snake” Roberts. This was by far the best match of the first round, with two well matched guys at the top of their game. This match had everything, great psychology, great moves, and two of the greatest personalities in wrestling history. Sadly, the one thing this match didn’t have was a winner. After tons of great action, Rude looked like he was about to get the pin with his feet on the ropes, but just as the referee was making his three count, the bell rang. The announcement was then made that the time limit had expired. I don’t really need to go on again about how good this match was. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a winner!

So with the first round over, it’s on to non-tournament action, with Hercules, accompanied by Bobby Heenan, against the Ultimate Warrior, making his first Wrestlemania appearance. No hammerlocks here in this one folks, it’s just two big guys beating on each other. If you like brawls, then this is the match for you. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective, giving you the impression that these guys really hate each other. The old double pin was used at the end of this one. As Hercules tried to apply the full nelson, the Warrior pushed his feet off the ropes, and as both men went down to the mat, Hercules bridged, thinking that he could get the pin. However, he failed to notice the Warrior raising his shoulder as the referee counted to three. Herc wasn’t happy, and brought his chain into the ring, only for the Warrior to grab it off him, sending the Heenan family member running for cover.

Then it’s on to the quarter-finals of the tournament, with Andre the Giant, accompanied by Ted Dibiase and Virgil, taking on Hulk Hogan. The crowd went absolutely wild for this one, and although this one had been done at lengthy by this time, it still made for a good match, although it wasn’t nearly as good as their match at the previous Wrestlemania. Good action between the two men to begin with, but interference from Dibiase and Virgil saw a steel chair brought into the equation, with Hogan and Andre using it on each other. As Hogan chased Dibiase out of the arena, he then suplexed Virgil on the arena floor, before returning to ring to slam the Giant. However, by then it didn’t mean a thing, as the referee announced that both men had been disqualified and eliminated from the tournament.

The second quarter-final saw Don Muraco against Ted Dibiase, who came to the ring on his own this time. This didn’t sit too well with Dibiase, and Muraco took advantage early on, controlling Dibiase with some crisp looking power moves, but in the end Dibiase’s cunning came through, and after taking Muraco down with a stun gun-like move onto the top rope, Dibiase got the winning pin, earning himself a bye right through to the final.

With the One Man Gang having earned a bye to the semi-finals, it was on to the final quarter-final, Greg Valentine against Randy Savage. This match was almost all Valentine, as he took Savage apart from the outset. The Macho Man had a couple of brief flurries, but Valentine was soon able to gain control, thanks to a little distraction from Jimmy Hart. However, despite his dominance, Savage got the pin to take him through to the semi-finals, countering Valentine’s figure four attempt into a small package to earn a semi-final match against the Gang.

The first title match of the evening follows, with Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake challenging the Honkytonk Man for the Intercontinental title. Old Honky is accompanied to the ring here by Jimmy Hart and Peggy Sue, who is looking quite sensational here, if you know what I mean. You know, I used to really hate the Honkytonk Man back in the day. But then again, as he was a heel I suppose this means that he was just doing his job, and doing it well. Enjoyable stuff this, especially if, like me, you were a massive mark for the Barber all those years ago. Sadly, the Barber didn’t quite get the job done here. Having taken Honky out with his trademark sleeper hold (known as a rear naked choke these days), little Jimmy Hart clobbered the referee with his megaphone, knocking the poor guy out. All this did was infuriate the Barber. The Colonel, despite grabbing hold of Beefcake’s bag, got a haircut for his troubles. It didn’t get him the title though, although it got him a disqualification victory. Nothing like a good old fashioned haircut now, is there?

Then it’s on to tag-team action, with the Islanders and their manager, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, taking on the British Bulldogs and Koko B. Ware. Heenan, petrified by a certain mutt called Matilda, is wearing a dog protection suit thing here. Although not the best remembered match in their history, this was another example of how great Davey Boy Smith and the Dynamite Kid where as a team. The Islanders weren’t too bad either, but performance of the match must go to the Brain for his hilarious dog attack suit. Victory went to the bad guys in this one. After a brief multi-man brawl, a stunned Heenan was slammed onto Koko by Tama and Haku, earning his team the pinfall victory. The Brain was soon running for his life though, as the Bulldogs unleashed Matilda onto him as he ran up the aisle.

With Ted Dibiase having earned a bye to the tournament final, the only semi-final saw the One Man Gang face Randy Savage. The proverbial David v Goliath battle sees the Gang handle the Macho Man like a small child, before Savage used some neat hit and run tactics to take the big man down momentarily. However, the Gang’s use of Slick’s cane only served to earn him a disqualification, giving the Macho Man the place in the final against Dibiase. More nice stuff from Savage here. Boy was this guy good when he was in his prime.

The second title match of the evening follows, with Demolition, accompanied by their manager Mr. Fuji, challenging Strike Force for the Tag-Team Championship. This was one of those matches I was really looking forward to seeing again, mainly because I was a massive Demolition mark back in the day. Okay, they weren’t exactly a great technical team, but they had a great gimmick, and their style suited that gimmick. This match reminded me of how just poor the tag-team division in the WWE is these days. This is another great example of tag-team wrestling, between two teams well suited to each other. Tito Santana once again sold his heart out, which seemed to be his speciality back then in tag-team matches, with Rick Martel the perfect foil for his skills. However, the power of Ax and Smash, as well as Fuji’s cane, proved too much for the champions. As Martel applied the Boston Crab to Smash, and as the referee tried to stop Santana from clobbering Fuji, Ax came into the ring and clobbered Martel with his manager’s cane, before draping his stunned partner onto Martel for the title winning victory. A very good match was had by all in what was the beginning of the end for the Martel/Santana team.

Main event time, the WWF Championship tournament final, with Ted Dibiase, accompanied to the ring by Andre the Giant, taking on Randy Savage, accompanied by Miss Elizabeth. As the old saying goes, they saved the best for last, and this was, by far, the best match of the tournament. For the first time in the show, Savage seemed to be on an equal footing against an opponent, even though Andre interfered on Dibiase’s behalf a few times. Andre’s threat saw Savage sending Elizabeth to the back, where she returned to get some back-up of her own in the form of Hulk Hogan. The plan worked, as the Hulkster took care of the Giant when he tried to interfere, and clobbered Dibiase with a steel chair as he applied the Million Dollar Dream as the referee was distracted by Andre. A top rope elbow and a three count later, and Savage was the new WWF Champion in what was not only the best match of the tournament but the best match on the show.

In conclusion - although this show is now twenty-one years old, it still stands the test of time. The tournament, despite a few blown spots early on, was played out to perfection, with Randy Savage a worthy winner, although, looking back, it was pretty obvious that Hulk Hogan would have a part to play in the final outcome, despite the fact that he was eliminated from the tournament in the second round. As for the non-tournament matches, they were okay, but they clearly played second fiddle to the tournament. So in all, this is a very enjoyable show, and one I’d recommend to the old school fans who want to relive some classic Wrestlemania moments before the big twenty-fifth show in a couple of weeks.

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