Building an Empire: Episode 5

We return for another episode of the column that looks at the development of the WWF as they looked to take over the world on the shoulders of Hulk Hogan. When we last left off, Hogan had been involved in a couple of battles with The Masked Superstar, but two bigger challenges stood on the horizon for the champion: ‘Mr Wonderful’ Paul Orndorff and Big John Studd.

Vince McMahon is initially joined by Hulk Hogan before what would arguably be the biggest defense of Hogan’s WWF Heavyweight Championship tenure against Paul Orndorff. Hogan is on fire for this short promo, talking about how he has been ‘hanging and banging’ in preparation for the match, and that MSG is his place and Orndorff isn’t ready to take him on.

I’m looking forward to seeing more Hogan vs Orndorff matches across this project, as I feel that they have really good chemistry – not only from this match, but from other (higher profile) matches I’ve seen the two have. It helps because the WWF position Orndorff almost as Hogan’s equal. Whilst the matches against The Masked Superstar never had a clean finish, Hogan never seemed in danger of being defeated. Against Orndorff, that threat seems all too real. He has the physicality to match up against Hogan, coupled with a sounder technical game which makes him a real threat. For a ten minute match that doesn’t do anything above and beyond what you’d expect, it just feels bigger than anything Hogan has been involved in so far. When Orndorff drops him with the piledriver, fans in attendance worry that Hogan will be defeated and lose the title. Though I’d normally hate the idea of a man kicking out of a piledriver, Orndorff’s cocky nature before the pin adds some kayfabe understanding to why the piledriver doesn’t put Hogan away. A second attempted piledriver is reversed, the back body drop sending Orndorff outside to the concrete floor. A ten count later, Hogan has retained his title – but nothing is truly settled. A return match has me excited, and this happened almost thirty years ago!

A bloodied and bitter Orndorff with Vince McMahon claiming a conspiracy and a slow count on the pinfall after the piledriver. The blood coming from the mouth adds to the promo, and we know that we haven’t seen the last of this feud.

Almost a month without any action, we get an update on Hulk Hogan’s popularity. Vince McMahon tells the fans that ‘Hulkamania is running wild’, and it is hard to argue, as we see video footage of the crowd reaction when Hogan comes down to the ring to fight The Iron Sheik for the WWF Title.

Meanwhile…

Whilst this column has mostly looked at Hulk Hogan, we begin to see the segue into the build for Wrestlemania 1, even this far in advance. Naturally, Hogan eventually becomes a huge part of the build for the event. However, the wheels are set in motion by one of the most famous angles in wrestling history.

I’ll be honest, this is the first time I’ve ever watched it in full. What makes this angle work, a subtle little thing, is the dropping of the coconuts on the table by Piper. I’ve always assumed that they coconut must have been doctored in some way, but this little act adds that suspension of disbelief that wrestling angles always need. He drills him with the coconut, and the fall through the backdrop always looks arguably more painful. The racial element of the promo is uncomfortable, but is understandable during the time period, and we are left hoping that Snuka gets his hands on Piper sooner rather than later.

Heading back to Hogan, and we see a clearly irate champion talking to Mean Gene Okerlund. It isn’t quite clear as to what he is referring to, but he promises Okerlund and the fans watching that he could beat Studd. During the interview, mention is made of a match between Hogan and Studd that will be set in a fifteen foot high steel cage. Hogan also addresses a lot of his vitriol at ‘Rodney’ Piper, seemingly Roddy’s evil twin brother. The first potential chink in the armour of the champion?

Whether it is the first major chink in the armour of the champion or not, we do see his first loss in highlight form. Having hit Studd with a big legdrop (using the ‘wrong’ leg, which makes it look more painful if anything), Hogan follows him out to ringside after Piper pulls his charge to the floor. Not content with posting Studd, Hogan begins to beat on Piper, allowing Studd to roll back in the ring and pick up the victory by countout. Hogan eventually runs Piper and Studd away from ringside, and is outraged when he realises that he has lost. An interesting finish to the match, although it is hard to gauge the quality of the match from such a short cross section. I do feel that Studd doesn’t look as impressive in size and stature when he stands next to Hogan, which fairly negates the idea of him as a giant. However, I also believe that a more mobile Studd (considering I’d only seen him a couple of years after this) is much more entertaining prospect.

Following the announcement of the cage match, there are two ways an interview with the heel could go: they could be happy or scared. Piper and Studd going the scared route is funny, neither man happy that Studd might end up falling off of the top of a 15 foot high steel cage. Piper’s high pitched squeal perfectly gets across how put out he feels by this, though they finish the promo promising to defeat Hogan and take the title.

Another match where we only see highlights, which is a bit of a shame as I would like to have seen more. What we do get is sections of what looks like a heated, engaging brawl. Unsurprisingly, it is the race for the door rather than a race to exit over the top rope that becomes the order of the day, Studd consistently being stopped from making his way outside of the ring by a Hogan that was clawing onto his title by his fingernails. Both men bleed heavily, adding to the drama. The ending comes a bit out of nowhere, as Hogan drops Studd with a clothesline, nails the big legdrop and heads out of the door. It feels like his finishing sequence is still yet to be fine tuned in the same way it was in a few years time. Studd isn’t completely out of it, and grabs at Hogan’s feet, only to eat a couple of vicious boots to the face. Hogan exits the cage and wins the match, only for the brawl to continue outside of the ring. As far as booking goes, I liked this – it keeps Studd still a viable contender, yet gives Hogan a big victory. Believe me, we’ll be seeing a lot more Hogan vs Studd as this column progresses.

That’s it for this week – Hogan’s two big feuds are simmering away nicely, but there are yet more names on the horizon waiting to take him on. Who will be able to stop The Immortal One?

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Building an Empire – Episode 4

As left off at the end of Episode 3, Hulk Hogan had just been crowned the new WWF World Heavyweight Champion after defeating the Iron Sheik with the big legdrop that would become a move synonymous with Hogan’s rise to the top of the wrestling world. However, it is 1984, and there are any number of top heels queuing up to knock this brash newcomer off of his perch.

One of the men in question is himself a relative newcomer in Paul Orndorff. Orndorff had signed with the WWF in late 1983 and had all the credentials needed to be a star: he was a good wrestler, had an excellent physique and the necessary charisma to go far. Add his manger into the mix, Roddy Piper, and Hogan had a potentially dangerous duo gunning for his title. In this interview, Hogan doesn’t seem too concerned – why would you though, if you’ve butted heads with a Sherman tank, arm-wrestled a rhino and hammerlocked a polar bear? One of the more obviously ‘out there’ promos we’ve seen from Hogan so far, and part of the package that made him so interesting during this ascension.

Another name that Hogan will inevitably cross paths with down the line is the Iron Sheik, a re-match for his title surely not too far away. Blassie is in good form here as he bemoans the switch from Backlund to Hogan as number one contender, and promises that The Iron Sheik won’t get caught cold next time the two men meet in the ring.

The first actual title defence we see from Hulk Hogan is against The Masked Superstar, a match that had previously been alluded to by Hogan in an interview prior to winning the championship. As a booking angle goes, I always liked when matches like this were kept – Hogan was going to face Superstar anyway, now it is just for the title and it takes on a much larger significance. This is an edited version of the match, so it is hard to draw too many conclusions from it. As a fan who grew up watching Demolition, it always surprised me that Bill Eadie was once a man who contested World Title matches, yet you can see why – in his younger years, he was physically strong but also offered some quickness and technical ability where needed. The finish is interesting, as Hogan removes a foreign object from Superstar’s mask, which is enough for Hogan to be given the win by DQ even though the referee technically hasn’t seen it being utilised. Still, first title defence for Hogan.

The two men would also end up in the ring with each other during a big name Battle Royal, though arguably the inclusion of names such Andre the Giant and Big John Studd eclipses that of The Masked Superstar. The quality on the video isn’t great, which hurt my enjoyment somewhat, but I did like to see Big John Studd playing the cowardly giant, spending a lot of time out at ringside rather than in a position where he could conceivably be eliminated. The pile-on on the poor jobber was eye opening, as it was a spot I’ve never seen in a battle royal, and really gets over the potential dangers of having so many men in one right at one time. Paul Orndorff also looks excellent in this, taking out Rocky Johnson at ringside and busting him wide open on the ringpost. Eventually, Big John Studd picks up the victory, sneaking up on an entangled Hogan and Andre to throw them both over the top rope. A surprise victory, though it does chalk up another potential threat in Hogan’s title reign. Andre and Hogan torment Studd after the victory.

This interview shows that not only does Piper have Orndorff under his wing, but he also is the man in the corner of Big John Studd. The words out of Studd’s mouth showcase his desire to prove he is the bigger and better giant than Andre, whilst also throwing out a challenge to Hogan for the title. Piper is his usual maniacal self, questioning Hogan’s hairline and telling him to hand the belt over so as not to suffer at the hands of Studd.

The final match on this episode sees Hogan defend his title once again against The Masked Superstar, but is preceded by a interview with Kal Rudman, a man I’ve never heard of before – and I’m not totally surprised, as he is pretty dull. Hogan takes a thinly vieled pop at the NWA during his talks about being champion, before promising to rip the Superstar’s mask off if he tries anything underhanded.

So, to the rematch. This is the full match, so we get a better overall look at Hogan as champion. The crowd are hot, with the Superstar almost hated as much as Hogan is loved by the crowd in attendance. Indeed, the constant cries imploring Hogan to rip off the Superstar’s mask are often picked up on the commentator’s mics. Whilst this isn’t shedding new light on Hogan in anyway, it is always amazing to note the amount of heelish tactics he uses even when wrestling as a face. There is an eye poke, he stamps on the Superstar’s fingers and he even joins him at ringside to continue his beating. Perhaps this is what endeared him to the crowds, who liked to see a face who would be willing to get down and dirty when it was needed. The finish is different this time, though Superstar’s dropping of his foreign object leading to a DQ is still obviously not a clean pinfall finish for the Hulkster. Considering how they went above and beyond to get him over in his first month, it seems weird to see Hogan not go over clean, though by protecting The Masked Superstar, this match-up could be ran again and again.

That’s all for this episode of Building an Empire. Hogan reigns supreme after working through his first two title defences, but there is a long list of heels chomping at the bit to dethrone him.

Building an Empire – Episode 3

In terms of importance, the changes that occur over the course of the two days covered in this episode are some of the biggest changes in the history of WWF/E. As we move towards the end of January, we wait with baited breath for a chance for Bob Backlund to attempt to regain his WWF World Title against the Iron Sheik, whilst we also have the prospect of a Hogan vs Masked Superstar or Big John Studd feud to look forward to…couldn’t be any simpler, could it?

I love the team of The Iron Sheik and Freddie Blassie, and though this is not an amazing promo by any stretch of the imagination, they just work so well together. Blassie tells the world that The Iron Sheik would have to be killed before he’d even consider throwing in the towel, and that puts them in good stead for the rematch on the 23rd of January.

Meanwhile, Hogan is still showing the world how best to dispatch of jobbers with consummate ease as he takes on Gilbert Guerrero, a wrestler I can only assume isn’t a member of the famous Guerrero family. In one minute, we effectively see the condensed Hogan for the next 30 years – Guerrero goes to the eyes to take advantage, Hogan hulks up, big legdrop, 1,2,3. It is interesting to see how early on that simple formula was beginning to be honed, a formula that Hogan would dine out on for years to come.

At times, I’m just going to be following the order that I’ve received these in – I assume this was recorded earlier but played on the 21st January show, though I might be wrong. As was noted in a previous episode, the WWF went all out to promote Hogan; in this promo, he is getting the rub from Andre the Giant. The physical charisma that Hogan brings to his promos is just worlds away from a lot of the more sedate interviews I’ve seen as I’ve trawled through the territories – it isn’t difficult to see why he became the big man in the eyes of the fans.

In the big switch, just two days before the WWF World Title rematch, it is revealed that Bob Backlund is not medically cleared to compete. Another brooding Backlund promo, face down, slow, deep voice – odd to see from the Backlund of that time, and feels like it comes across more like a sulky teenager than anything. Why he wasn’t allowed to fight the Iron Sheik, yet could be in a tag team match with Hogan in the meantime is a little beyond me, until the final parts of the plan fall into place.

The momentum was too much – the blue touch paper had to be lit. In only a month, Hulk Hogan goes from re-debuting to taking the spot of Bob Backlund as the number one contender to the title. What Hogan does do in these promos is really put across how important the wrestling world, and being a champ, is to him. His ranting at a still-shilling Gene Okerlund is a particular highlight of this clip. No, Gene, I don’t think you could hear what he was saying.

To the big match. No five stars. No MOTYC. It isn’t what this match was designed to be. As a way to strap a rocket to the biggest thing happening in your promotion, you couldn’t have asked for better. To their credit, the WWF made it seem like a big deal in the way it was handled before, during and after the match. The Iron Sheik and Blassie are rightfully annoyed about the switch, but don’t seem too worried about the task they will be facing – and for the most part of the match, they are right. After Hogan attacks The Iron Sheik with his own robe (a move that is a bit on the illegal side in my eyes, but I digress), Sheik works over Hogan, using a loaded boot and a couple of slams/submissions to put the big guy in real danger. The importance of a well built finish is evident here – the Camel Clutch was a match ended, period. When Hogan gets locked in, their is legitimate fear from the crowd that their hero might not be able to defeat the evil foreigner. When Hogan is able to get up and slam Sheik back into the turnbuckle, there is an audible release of emotion, one part joy to one part relief. That The Sheik ends up on his back long enough for a legdrop off of this one move is a little ludicrous, but it could be argued that it makes the moment sweeter – the breaking of the Camel Clutch, the unbreakable submission machine, leading directly to the leg drop and the new champion.

We even get several of the post-match interviews, one crashed by Andre, Ivan Putski and Rocky Johnson, whilst there is another with Hogan’s ‘parents’; I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if they are, and as Hogan refers to them by name, I feel even more doubtful. Still, the WWF really sell the title change and make it feel like something special. Hulkamania is indeed running wild, and it truly started the night that he dropped the leg on The Iron Sheik.

Building an Empire – Episode 2

As we left off last episode, the king was dead, but there was a new pretender to the throne. Hulk Hogan had re-entered the WWF and was here to aim straight for the top; the top a place that saw The Iron Sheik currently reigning as the WWF champion.

As a five year champion, Backlund was always going to hang around the main event storylines for a small while after his dethroning. Indeed, the first thing that WWF saw fit to do was work out a way in which Backlund and Hogan could be incorporated together in the storyline. This, I feel, was a clever move. Backlund’s legitimacy was a potential rub for Hogan; Hogan provided the petrol to a character who was running on fumes. In a singles match against Samoan #3 (a Samoan who doesn’t seemingly warrant a name – it is Samu, for those keeping score at home), Backlund initially is too quick and clever for the onrushing Samoan, making him look silly with quick sidesteps and sweeps. Realising that the 4-on-1 numbers game was never going to work out in his favour, Backlund returned to the locker-room, bringing back Hogan to stand in his corner. The ovation for Hogan is huge, especially when contradicted with the mixed reception Backlund received upon his entry. A crossface chicken wing attempt sees The Wild Samoans enter the ring for the DQ. Naturally, this is all just window dressing to a Hogan inspired beatdown; the Samoans going above and beyond with their bumping to make Hogan look good. A handshake in the interview that follows solidifies Hogan and Backlund as a team, whilst the reaction of the crowd apparently turns Hogan on…who can blame him?

Whilst the two biggest faces in the WWF at the time share in-ring action, The Iron Sheik sees TV time in an interview segment for Victory Corner. Interestingly, Blassie doesn’t speak for the Sheik at any point; Sheik actually produces a relatively good promo, even with the obvious barrier caused by his accent. What makes it good is that, for the most part, he is right in what he says. In the ring, on that day, he was the better man, and that is all that matters.

With Backlund still in the picture, it would seem odd to have Hogan treading water whilst waiting for his title shot. In the above interview, we see the seeds of several feuds that would be played out over the next few months. Hogan is due to face Masked Superstar at a show down the line, whilst he also promises to slam Big John Studd during the battle royal that is just around the corner. A clever move – the soon to be champ Hogan already developing a line of worthy contenders to the crown.

What would rightfully be argued as a dream team follows, as Hogan and Backlund team up against Tiger Chung Lee and Mr Fuji. As with a lot of the interactions with Backlund, this is all about making Hogan look good. He nails ‘some kind of move’ and also hits ‘some kind of clothesline’, evidence that Mean Gene wasn’t exactly the best on commentary. The biggest thing of note is that we see the prototypical ‘Hulk Up’. No shaking, no fist clenching, no pointing of fingers – just a refusal to feel the pain from a series of Tiger Chung Lee blows, forcing Lee to back up and the crowd to pop. Naturally, it isn’t just about the man himself; the guys who are in the ring with him always try to make Hogan look a star. A bodyslam this time is the precursor to the legdrop and the inevitable three count.

With The Iron Sheik the champion, it is only right that Bob Backlund gets his rematch for the title. 23rd January is the day that the match is signed for, and Backlund cuts the closest he can offer to an intense promo. He even touches upon the mixed receptions he gets, suggesting that even if it is only one person backing him, that’s all that matters. A tad cheesy in nature, but it is good to once again show how important the title is to the ex-champ.

We leave it there for this episode – what will happen between Bob Backlund and The Iron Sheik? How does Hulk Hogan fit into it? All will be revealed in Episode 3.

Building an Empire – Episode 1

Whilst I realise I seem to start more columns than I actually commit to, this is one that has me pretty excited. Currently, I have matches/promos/angles that cover a range of initial moments in the development of WWF, working through Wrestlemania 1 through to the important moments on the way to Wrestlemania 3. Using Dailymotion, I’ll be putting the videos on a playlist which will allow people to follow along if they fancy. Shorter videos, shorter posts, easier to continue and grow (…in theory).

Thanks will need to be offered to rhljr, a member at a specific website that has made this all a hell of a lot easier. The first several columns will look at the arrival of Hulk Hogan as he began to make the moves towards the global icon he would soon become.

Before there could be a megastar pushed to the moon, there had to be an end of an era. Bob Backlund, a WWF World Champion for five years, had to be moved to the side to allow for the younger, stronger and more exciting prospect to rise to the top of the pile. However, due to the time period, the idea of a face challenging a face for the World Championship wasn’t ever going to fly.

Enter The Iron Sheik.

Backlund and Sheik had fought off against each other for the title in the late 70s, but upon his return, Sheik was finally victorious. The match was always remembered for the decision of Arnold Skaaland to throw the towel in, rather than let Backlund submit. Less well remembered is the angle leading up to the match, where we see Backlund attacked whilst attempting the Persian Clubs challenge that Sheik used to complete before each match. Two days before the World Championship match at MSG, Backlund was injured – a neck/shoulder injury.

Backlund was already on the defensive, and for the majority of the title match at MSG, Sheik took control, working over the neck. The match is dull; in some ways, it perfectly encapsulates why Hogan was needed to enliven what had become a stagnant main event scene. Backlund had very little success, each comeback cut off by a focused attack on the injury. Eventually, the Sheik locked in the camel clutch and the match lived on through the image of the towel landing inside the ring. We had a new WWF World Champion: The Iron Sheik.

A distraught Backlund is caught up with in the locker room by Lord Alfred Hayes; a mixture of pain and distress making the interview a no-go. In this day and age, an outgoing champion crying over the loss of his title just wouldn’t work, yet it does really drum home the importance of the title to Backlund. Five years is different level; it wouldn’t make sense for him to reach in any other way.

The Sheik may be the champion, but the reign was always going to be short lived. A day later, the re-debut of Hulk Hogan in the WWF effectively sealed the death knell of Sheik’s title reign before it had really begun. A comprehensive win against Bill Dixon is interesting primarily due to Hogan not having fine-tuned the performance that we would see from him for many years to come. A few more ‘wrestling’ moves on show, a big boot followed by a clothesline followed by the eventual leg drop – Hogan was exciting, and the crowd knew it.

Even though he has only just returned, it is clear where he was aiming – the WWF World Title. A Battle Royal may be in his immediate future, according to the interview with Mean Gene, but in the promo, there is no glossing over the fact – he is coming for the title.