Since the inception of professional wrestling, it could be argued that the culture of Japanese wrestling, or puroresu, has existed on a forefront of society that American wrestling could never quite achieve. In America, professional wrestling has always been viewed as a side-act or as a carnival show. In Japan, puroresu events are often covered as legitimate sporting events and the wrestlers themselves are regarded as competent athletes and competitors. This translates to an entirely different projected image on the shows themselves. Puroresu shows often push and promote the most gifted wrestlers based on their in-ring performance first and their character or charisma second. The major American promotions will often book their shows based on the opposite premise of glitz and glamour over the practical application of solid in-ring ability.
These philosophies of booking led to differences in the concept of cross-promoting as well. From the 1980s on through to today, Vince McMahon’s dream was to involve celebrities in matches to help draw for his major events, most specifically for WrestleMania. Celebrities like Mr. T and former pro athletes like Lawrence Taylor were featured in matches with WWE Superstars for the spectacle of the event.
In New Japan Pro Wrestling in the 1970s, however, promoter and wrestler Antonio Inoki envisioned cross-promoting on the purely competitive level. With pro wrestling in Japan being considered more of an actual sport, entertainment celebrities were rarely in the discussion for use in actual matches. On top of which, Inoki was a man with a great amount of training in shooting, hooking, and catch wrestling. In turn, his fascination with all forms of competitive combat led to an idea to combine as many of these avenues as possible with the promotion of both himself and of NJPW. Inoki sought out notable practitioners of boxing, karate, judo and kung fu to hold matches with, as well as any relatable “strong men.” The culmination of this was arguably the first mainstream MMA contest that pitted the wrestler and grappler Antonio Inoki against famed boxer Muhammad Ali in 1976.
(The match was highly controversial and will be featured in a future installment of Psych 101)
In the following year, Inoki would compete against a unique individual that crossed over from the world of strongmen competitions: Croatian Great Antonio.
Great Antonio was quite the character. He was a strongman, but to the untrained eye appeared as nothing more than a large, overweight man that could be promoted as a “monster” in a professional wrestling ring. He claimed that he was able to uproot trees by pulling it with a cable tied around his neck, as well as claimed numerous other hyperbolic feats. He’d arrive in New Japan for a match with Inoki in 1977, with his only notable previous stint being in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, where he was allegedly inciting riots for how unpopular he was. Perhaps against better judgment, Inoki booked the man against himself in a match that now lives in infamy thanks to the advent of the internet and youtube. This edition of Psych 101 shall examine how one of the greatest workers of all time attempts to salvage a match with a green, unathletic, and entirely uncoordinated novice.
After the typical pleasantries at the start of the match (including Great Antonio having to lean against the ropes to allow the ref to check his boots because he cannot balance himself) Inoki begins after the bell with a dramatic roll and then quick run off the rope. It’s clear Inoki is setting up the only logical story for this match: The smaller, quicker wrestler versus the big, lumbering power fighter. Inoki then circles the ring and evades Antonio while the big man haphazardly stumbles and tries to aimlessly grab at Inoki’s head with only one arm. It’s a very awkward motion that is really puzzling in terms of figuring out whether or not Antonio is trying to lock up or not, with Inoki’s body movement seemingly asking the same question.
Inoki’s attempt to cover up this strange motion is to finally clasp hands with Great Antonio and perform a “test of strength” spot, but in an arm-wrestling position. After a few seconds Antonio throws Inoki away, with Inoki making the effort to fall stumbling across the ring to put over the power of the big man. As Inoki circles towards Antonio again, Antonio swats with his one arm in the same manner as before. This time, however, Inoki clearly just slaps his hand away as he’s not about to uselessly perform the same spot again. Both men move to the corner where Great Antonio applies a headlock with the non-traditional right arm. In traditional training, most holds and submissions are performed using the left hand or left side. It’s possible that Great Antonio was taught in a different, right-handed style, however it would make more sense that he just had no idea what he was doing… The ref considers this a choke and breaks it up at a 4 count.
Following the headlock there is then a series of non sequential spots performed by Inoki, including a dropkick which Great Antonio makes no effort to sell, as well as a running shoulder block by Inoki that Antonio again decides not to sell. It’s very possible these were meant to lead to Great Antonio finally bumping. However, with that not being the case, Inoki just appears weak and foolish. The frustration of working with Great Antonio begins to show as Inoki whips him off the ropes and then simply walks away from Antonio as he waddles back. From this point forward, Inoki is clearly fed up with how difficult Great Antonio is being and begins to simply walk around the big man with his hands on his waist, casually looks to engage with the man.
The ending sequence begins with Inoki throwing a palm strike at Antonio, which is again not sold in the least. Both men casually move over to the ropes where Great Antonio proceeds to give Inoki some very stiff forearms to the back, including one that dangerously grazes the back of Inoki’s head. Inoki, now not even bothering with keeping things structured in any way, immediately pops back up and blasts Great Antonio in the face with a couple clean, hard palm strikes. Great Antonio, still being oblivious to what he’s into, continues to try to not sell the blows even though he’s quite visibly been hurt by the strikes. Inoki then performs a go behind and single leg trip and proceeds to kick Antonio in the face until the man lays face down and flat on the mat. From there Inoki grabs the ropes for balance and begins to stomp, heel-first, on the side of Antonio’s head. The traditional style of “stomp” in a worked match is for the foot to be slightly angled so as to break up any direct line of force that may be created, and to hit the other worker with the balls of your feet as opposed to your heel. Hitting with the balls of the feet, again, will destroy any kinetic flow that many be generated from the hip to the foot while performing a stomping motion. Inoki is no longer concerned with “working” Great Antonio.
The Croatian Strongman is clearly dazed and has seemingly been cut open across the face “hard way” by Inoki’s stomps. The ref immediately calls for the match to end and awards Inoki the victor due to Antonio being unable to continue. It’s clear Inoki was likely to go over in the bout anyhow, but it’s also clear that shoot stomping Antonio into next thursday was likely not the planned finish. Inoki had made several attempts to perform some very basic spots with Great Antonio. These spots even involved no real effort on Antonio’s part, aside from perhaps wobbling to fall over or even grimace to sell a shot from Inoki (neither of which occured). Many wrestlers argue that the line that separates a great worker from an average one is the ability for that worker to seamlessly cover up mistakes or think on their feet and fix a match when everything is falling apart. It’s apparent Inoki made his best efforts to keep things moving with Great Antonio, but it seemed Antonio has no clue from step one of what he was actually doing.
The debate then becomes whether Inoki was justified in his actions or if he was taking things too far and taking too many liberties with a man who was not properly trained. Was the mentality of the business during that time period such that it made the beat down by Inoki an appropriate response? Is a shoot like that appropriate at all regardless of time period? Furthermore, do these actions change the opinion of how complete a worker Antonio Inoki was? We’ll explore these topics in Part Two of “Psych 101: Inoki Shooto Edition,” as well as have a feature on Great Antonio in the near future.
The latter part of 1997 was an epic turning point in the world of professional wrestling. WWF mainstay Bret Hart had defected to “greener” pastures, deciding to take on a large contract rather than remain under the wing of Vince McMahon. Bret, who was WWF Champion at the time, had hoped to leave on his terms without having to put over and drop the belt to Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series in November. Instead, Bret would retain the title through some manner of schmoz finish and then drop the belt the following evening on Monday Night Raw. Vince McMahon had allegedly reluctantly agreed to this behind closed doors.
As the main event unfolded, Bret was put into a Sharpshooter submission hold by Shawn Michaels, which was Bret’s own finish, and cited much ire from the Montreal crowd. As the Hitman went to continue the spot as devised and reverse the hold, Vince McMahon came running to the ring, ordering the match to be called and for Shawn Michaels to be given the title. Bret stared in amazement and shock as Michaels fled from the ring in an aggravated and perplexed demeanor. With garbage beginning to flood the ring with a chorus of boos, Hart would spit on Vince McMahon and spell out “WCW” in the air towards the hard camera. In a highly debated “shoot,” Bret Hart’s legacy in the WWF was effectively put on hold and he would be mocked in the WWF/E for nearly a decade following.
Both the WWF and WCW would use this event to change the course of their companies. In the WWF, the “Mr. McMahon” character was ignited versus the rising “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and the Shawn Michaels-led DeGeneration-X would gain more momentum heading into WrestleMania 14. In WCW, the tarnished image of Bret Hart would be used as a tool interjected into the nWo vs. Sting storyline. One company would grow stronger from their creative take on the situation, the other would begin a slippery slope that it would never quite recover from.
Starrcade 1997 was meant to be a turning point for the battle between the nWo and the WCW roster. With Sting returning to assert himself as the necessary combatant to Hulk Hogan, the remaining talent that hadn’t crossed to the dark side used The Stinger as a rallying point. If Sting can get past his demons to return to glory, then certainly the other talent can do the same. The two important clashes between nWo and WCW on the undercard to Hogan-Sting were Diamond Dallas Page versus Curt Hennig for the United States Title, and an encounter between Eric Bischoff and Larry Zbyszko with control of Monday Nitro on the line. Bret Hart would make his first impact on the show as special referee for that match.
From the in-ring standpoint, DDP defeated Hennig to bring the US title back into the realm of WCW. In the worked-shoot world, Zbyszko scored a disqualification victory over Bischoff (via ruling of Bret Hart) and earned WCW control once again of their flagship program. Momentum was clearly gaining on the WCW side and the tyranny of the nWo was heavily reeling. All that remained in their favor was the World Heavyweight Title that Hulk Hogan still had in his possession.
WCW certainly made a spectacle of Sting’s return to the ring. Following the typical entrance of Hogan, fans were met with a lightning show depicting a scorpion crawling its way around the skies of the MCI Center in Washington, DC. No longer an outcast to his home, Sting would enter to the ring through the entrance way, almost as if he had granted himself the privilege to finally exist among the rest of the wrestlers. In grand fashion and to much enthusiasm from the crowd, Sting entered the ring and finally stood face-to-face with the man that helped orchestrate the destruction of his character and the destruction of the only wrestling company he had ever known. It was in this moment that loyalty had to shrine through on either side of the coin. Whether it be from the man to the company, or the company to the man, Sting was owed his retribution, and the company owed it to themselves to let him have it.
Somewhere along the road, however, the company lost sight of what it was trying to accomplish. Whether it is attributed to the politics of Hogan, the naivety of the creative team, or the cockiness of Eric Bischoff as a competitor to Vince McMahon’s WWF, the conclusion of the Hogan-Sting contest would be nothing more than a let down to anyone who followed the masterful angle to that point.
The body of the match went along as typically would’ve been expected, even with the usual heel referee of Nick Patrick governing over it. With the limitations of a worker like Hogan up against the time off Sting had for the sake of the angle, there was really never any expectation of a knock down-drag out war that could really embody the nature of the angle. Hogan worked with his usual eye pokes and back rakes, and Sting worked in flares of emotion and babyface excitement to briefly burst out of the self-loathing character he was portraying. If anything, Sting’s subtle bursts were very well done by situating himself still within the context of his character, but also exposing glimpses of the old Sting to those that wanted to see him burst from his shell.
The build of the match fell apart following one of Sting’s only true hope spots. After hitting Sting with a vertical suplex, Hogan attempted to heel up the crowd and rile them by turning his back to the babyface and giving them a double bicep flex. Sting, meanwhile, had no-sold the move, returned to his feet, gave the icon a crotch chop gesture and proceeded to beat Hollywood down in the corner. As the fans rallied behind Sting, Hogan would end the barrage with a simple eye poke, followed by dumping Sting outside the ring.
Hogan would then take Sting around the ring and put more and more heat on the situation. He whipped Sting into the post, mocked him with his own t-shirt, beat him with his own bat, sent him reeling over and over again. In one shining moment, Sting reversed an irish whip, sending Hogan into the steel barrier. With a running start, Sting took flight to attempt a Stinger Splash on the champion, but was instead met with the cold steel as Hogan ducked away at the last second. The beating continued on the floor until Hogan decided to bring the match back into the ring.
Here was the moment for the tables to turn. Here, after over a year away from the ring and after over a year of the nWo crushing the WCW roster, here was the moment for Sting to break free from the pit he was stuck in. After being beaten down and mocked all the way around the ring for the past 5 minutes, a journey that summed up the character’s journey over the past year, now was the time to fire back. This was the moment for WCW’s savior, for its’ conquering hero, to return to form, howl at the rafters and once again assume his role as WCW Champion and for WCW to assume its role as the dominant faction.
Just as the moment was right to allow the crowd to become unglued and cheer on the man they had wanted to see destroy Hogan for 14 months, Hogan would hit Sting with a big boot. Hogan cupped his ear at each side of the ring as Sting was motionless on the mat. As Hogan bounced off the ropes, everyone assumed Sting would move out of the way and then begin the epic comeback that was due. Instead, he was met with the same leg drop that other competitors to Hogan had met metaphorically in the past. Hogan went for the cover as the crowd awaited the gigantic kickout that Sting was sure to do. Nick Patrick went down for his patented fast three count, except this time it wasn’t fast at all.
1 …2 …3. Hulk Hogan had just pinned Sting or, the company man that was due his title run was sabotaged, or the damned babyface that was to the conquer the unstoppable evil was silenced. The crowd was confused, as was anyone else who understood how effective story telling should unfold.
With Bret Hart still at ringside, the Hitman interjected once again to stop the time keeper from ringing the bell. Audibly screaming “I’m not gonna let it happen again” in reference to both Nick Patrick’s fast counts and his own Montreal Screw job, the Hitman laid waste to Patrick and threw Hogan back in the ring for the match to restart with himself as the new referee. Two minutes behind schedule and finally occurring at a time where whatever happened was essentially worthless, Sting roared with a Stinger Splash on Hogan in the corner. Buff Bagwell and Scott Norton of the nWo ran out to intervene, with Sting dropping both with hard right hands, and Norton having noticeably no enthusiasm to be featured for a brief appearance.
With the henchmen done with, Sting hit Hogan with another Stinger Splash, then followed with a Scorpion Deadlock, seemingly in ode to Bret. Bret quickly checked on Hogan who then submitted in rather quick fashion. Sting was crowned the new WCW Heavyweight Champion as the entire WCW locker room made their way to the ring to celebrate their hero.
WCW caught a lot of grief back then for the booking of the match just as they continue to today. In context of the story, the obvious route was for Sting to return and overcome the oppression that Hogan and the nWo had been pushing on WCW for the past year. After a year of waiting, of zipping down from the rafters, of taking out the nWo during their beatdowns of others performers, this was the moment for the Sting character to finally win in an “official” standing in the world of professional wrestling. This was the epic, climactic battle that rather than assert Sting as the worthy victor, instead condemned him further as just another guy that couldn’t get the job done.
Imagine, if you will, that Rocky doesn’t win versus Apollo Creed. The underdog, spit on his entire way through, given grief from everybody and from all angles, comes to the climax of the biggest boxing match of his life, and fails to overcome the odds. This was WCW’s “Rocky,” and rather than put the crown on the character in the most logical manner, they instead opted to screw the character over and deny both that character of his proper retribution, and the fans of the ending that they couldn’t wait to see happen.
Assuming the finish was done at the behest of Hogan, either for his own political propaganda or the fear of his character looking weak, everything that occured after the first pinfall could’ve happened logically without needing that first pinfall to occur.
– Bret Hart had no reason to be involved in the match, period. He was useful for the Bischoff-Zbyszko match to help WCW reclaim Nitro, but the only purpose he served in the Sting-Hogan match was to simply be used as a reminder of what occurred in Montreal a month earlier. He offered no real advantage to the WCW side of things in that context. Any WCW talent could’ve been appointed in the role that he was if they had really believed in working that into the finish of the match. In fact, in context of the year-long story arc, it would’ve made more sense to have a “true” WCW talent as Bret should theoretically have no moral interest in either side of the battle at this point.
– The run-in from nWo talent would’ve been logical and expected before Sting would get his pinfall. That was the M.O. of the faction from day one. Sting could’ve easily thwarted their attempts on him during a comeback on Hogan, in fact it would’ve added to Sting’s prowess as a Super Babyface that was finally going to save WCW and himself. Furthermore, the laziness of the run-in is quite unsettling to watch. Scott Norton in particular is very clearly uninterested with playing his role for the run-in. He strolls slowly to the ring, enters extremely slowly through the ropes, takes one punch, bumps, rolls out, then is noticeably fine on the outside of the ring as he walks at an agonizingly slow pace and clearly watched Sting continue to finish off his faction’s leader. If this was done on purpose as a jab to WCW for his dislike of the match and angle, so be it, but there needs to be commitment to the story you’re telling, no matter how small your role is in it.
– The crowd erupts in a massive pop after Sting is declared champion. It could be pure speculation, but the pop seemed to be in reaction to the expectation that Sting was expected to beat Hogan anyhow. It doesn’t appear the crowd was going nuts for that entire finish sequence, but rather going nuts because they finally saw what they were waiting all night for: Sting to defeat his demons, defeat Hogan, and defeated the nWo.
The holes in the match and the story weren’t just noticeable to a keen eye, but also noticeable to the average fan. It was following Starrcade 1997, and also in conjunction with a number of other questionable booking moves, that WCW would start to lose its superiority over the WWF. While it would be unjust to purely peg the booking of this match as the sole reason for WCW’s decline, it did strike a major blow to their progress. From this point, the nWo just continued to exist in a limbo state, Sting’s character moved in an undefinable direction, and Bret Hart just existed on a roster of guys where a good percentage did exactly the same – just existed. The failure to progress led WCW into stagnation and stagnation was a trait that would cling to them until 2001.
Ariel Helwani once agains nabs an interview that gets the world buzzing. This guy is trying to be some kind of MMA Geraldo or something. First he gets the infamous Undertaker-Brock exchange following Brock’s loss to Cain Velasquez, where everybody and their brother was talking about Brock abandoning MMA for a short period to work WrestleMania this year. Now, he’s the first to interview Dana and break the major news that Strikeforce has been gobbled up by the constantly growing empire that Dana and Zuffa are building.
The incredible interview has been linked or embedded above, so there’s no need to recap what Dana’s saying word-for-word. However, the most repeated phrase that Dana kept going back to is that, “It’s business as usual.”
Dana White and Vince McMahon draw constant comparisons within the pro wrestling fanbase. Dana often appears the prototypical model of what a perfect business man in the world of combat entertainment should be, whereas Vince tends to catch much wrath for the direction he chooses to take his WWE brand in. Arguably not as earth-shaking as the purchase of Pride: Fighting Championships, the acquisition of Strikeforce still amounts to another vast talent pool that could potentially be used in the UFC. If anyone reading this news didn’t instantly think “Fedor vs. Brock,” then it’s likely best you’re not booking any kind of promotion. Dana, however, has chosen to make it clear that this is a “purchase” in the truest sense of the word and not a merger of brands.
The news of this breaks almost exactly 10 years to the day that World Championship Wrestling was purchased by Vince McMahon and the WWF. Back at that time, there were several rumors floating around about what would happen with the merger. There was talk of WCW having its own timeslot on another channel, as well as buzzing about when or where the big clash of WCW “stars” versus WWF “superstars” would take place. As it would turn out, the WCW talent would be rushed onto WWF television, be featured amidst controversy for the talent selected, the major names were unavailable to be involved because of Time Warner contracts, and ultimately the entire WCW brand and legacy was quickly buried within 6 months of the greatest purchase in pro wrestling history.
Perhaps it’s a difference in finanacial standings at the time, or perhaps it’s just a difference of business strategy in general, but rather than execute a full-on absorbing of Strikeforce-contracted talent and instantly mesh divisions of both organizations, Dana has instead decided to allow Strikeforce to continue “business as usual.” Strikeforce will maintain their television contracts and deals, Strikeforce talent will be booked as they are within the context of Strikeforce events, and all business dealings will remain at the hands of Scott Coker. Strikeforce will remain Strikeforce, plain and simple.
What Dana realizes, which may have been a gigantic err in the ways of Vince McMahon with WCW, is that the Strikeforce brand has its own following and does a respectable amount of positive business by itself. It would be seem ill-advised to take a rival company, purchase it, and then instantly revoke any money-making ability it has had or could continue to have. Granted at the time of the WCW purchase the company was doing subpar television ratings and making horrid revenue off pay-per-view, but it was been well stated and theorized that whatever audience WCW did have in its final days, that those that watched Nitro and Thunder didn’t flip over to the WWF product and add to those ratings. They just disappeared, perhaps never to watch wrestling, or Vince McMahon’s version of wrestling, ever again.
There is potentially a degree of the Strikeforce fanbase that loves that brand of MMA and may not take any interest in the UFC’s brand of MMA. There may be Fedor or Overeem fans that only care to watch their matches and no one else. Rather than risk alienating that fan base, or restructuring the Showtime television deal, or re-negotiate the working relationship with K-1, Strikeforce will remain intact to make money as it has. Two entities are entirely maintained and allowed to live on their own merit. If perhaps down the road Strikeforce begins to fall apart, then I’m sure Dana would adjust the situation to best benefit all parties involved. At the moment, however, there is no reason to act in haste and destroy what Strikeforce has built itself into.
Still, this is some big, big news. Dana just continues to make major moves. He’s like Bradley Cooper, just popping them pills, banging fine hunnies, and telling the world of MMA what’s up. And wearing the sickest T-Shirts this side of Hot Topic. I mean, seriously, this dude doesn’t need fine threats. He just needs an 8×10 of Lennox Lewis, an iron, and a fresh shave and he’s ready to buy up half the United States.