Over the last few months, my column has centered on milestone anniversaries in our sport, relating specific incidents that happened on a particular date in history. Last month's, for example, detailed how OJ Simpson created Stone Cold Steve Austin, and that OJ still owes me $5,000.00. If that's not enough of a tease to make you search for a back issue or head to the internet, I don't know what is. This month's column, however, is more a remembrance of a season, a time of the year when some of the biggest wrestling events were held, that sadly, much like so many other time-honored traditions in the grappling game, no longer exists.
That season is the summer, and specifically the Fourth of July. As you may know, the 4th of July is the United States' Independence Day, where we celebrate the day in 1776 when America threw off the yoke of imperialism, broke the bonds of our oppressors and.....oh, wait, wrong audience. The 4th of July is when America celebrates stealing the property of the British Crown and showing ingratitude to it's European benefactors. Regardless of which side of the ocean you reside on, Independence Day has become the big summer celebration in the US, and alongside fireworks, parades, music and hot dogs, another unique American staple, pro wrestling, was always heavily featured in summer celebrations from small town fairs to major arenas.
For years, many of the wrestling territories' biggest summer shows were held on July 4th or the holiday weekend surrounding it. Summertime, especially for the Southern territories, was always a big season for box office with kids out of school and plenty of good weather. Most notably, the NWA's Great American Bash tour, the brainchild of the "American Dream" Dusty Rhodes himself, was born on July 6, 1985 when over 27,000 people, still the most fans ever to see a live match in the state of North Carolina, packed Charlotte's Memorial Stadium and paid nearly $300,000 to see NWA Champion Ric Flair defend the title in his hometown against the Russian menace of Nikita Koloff. Flair electrified the crowd from his stadium entrance in a helicopter to his thrilling defense of the title in the name of America against the premier athlete from "behind the Iron Curtain".
The stakes were raised the following year when the Bash tour expanded to 14 dates in stadiums and major arenas, all promotion centered around the biggest live wrestling and music show of the year to celebrate our nation's independence. In 1987, the dates were doubled, and Dusty's latest brainstorm was revealed to the world--The War Games. Two rings, a cage around both with a top on it to prevent escape and rules that included a staggered entrance for competitors on the two teams of five, a submission or surrender rule as the only way the match could end, and a guarantee of it lasting at least twenty minutes since the match could not end until all ten men had entered the fray. This match, an updating of the decades-old cage match showdown, was built for Dusty and his crew of babyfaces like newly-turned Nikita and the Road Warriors to battle the Four Horsemen led by manager JJ Dillon. On July 4, 1987 this match debuted in Atlanta's Omni drawing about 14,000 fans paying over $250,000, and in one memorable contest became the ultimate showdown match, and WCW's biggest-drawing match anywhere it was presented for the next several years, until being prostituted and overdone by TBS management in the 90's. No one who was a fan at that time can ever forget the classic promo spots leading up to the match, with the ominous voiceover "They're building a dome of steel in Atlanta!" Even the wrestlers, jaded as they were, were excited at this new concept. In 1988, this match was brought back several times, and the Bash dates expanded to run from the end of June to the first week of August.
Yes, the summer was the time in cities big and small to take the family to see pro wrestling, and some of the biggest gates and most anticipated matches took place on that magical holiday weekend in July. But fast forward 25 years, and where does pro wrestling stand? All the other traditions are still alive--you can see fireworks anywhere from a stadium to countless back yards across America, parades, concerts, even the over-the-top Nathan's Hot Dog Eating contest at Coney Island, New York where upwards of 10,000 people gather in oppressive heat to see the world's best competitive eaters consume an obscene amount of hot dogs, America's summer food, with a rapt audience watching on national TV--but good luck trying to find a big wrestling show. The WWE does a pay-per-view, or "special event" as they now call it, in July just like every other month, but it's never on July 4. TNA or the local indy promotion may run on July 4 if it falls on a weekend night, but these shows are generally about as well attended as the average backyard barbecue. No, much like the Thanksgiving and Christmas Day traditions, July 4 is no longer a day for major pro wrestling activities. So how does a wrestling fan in America, especially one with his wife out of town and time to kill, as I found myself on this past 4th of July weekend, get his pro wrestling fix? Well, there's this little thing called UFC.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship, helmed by it's fearless leader Dana White, the Toots Mondt of MMA (look it up), has made a concerted effort over the past few years to make the July 4th weekend it's own version of the Great American Bash. In their home base of Las Vegas, America's playground, they have built nearly a week of seminars, parties, concerts, fan expos and fighting exhibitions culminating in a pay-per-view that has become, depending on the main event they can put together, their biggest event of the year. Since UFC 100 on July 11, 2009 when the Brock Lesnar-Frank Mir rematch did over 1 million PPV buys, they have cultivated the holiday weekend with fans wanting a vacation or their fighting fix fulfilled flocking to Vegas for an ever-increasing array of events. This year, it was UFC 175, and while the PPV numbers may not match that of Brock's (the pro wrestling connection proving strong even in another form of combat sport), suffice it to say that those PPV buys will amount to something that Vince McMahon hasn't seen outside Wrestlemania in several years, and due to the Network, never will again.
As a UFC fan, but certainly not an expert, I ordered the PPV because I wanted to see a great show, and I wasn't disappointed. Neither, I suspect, were any old-time wrestling fans watching the broadcast, because except for the obvious differences in style and presentation, it was a great old-school pro wrestling show. The undercard delivered some exciting fights with some colorful personalities, with Urijah Faber doing his thing and Uriah Hall overcoming a gruesome broken toe to defeat his opponent. But it was all about the main events with Ronda Rousey, now possibly the hottest PPV attraction in the sport, going out and making herself more of a superstar with an incredible 16 second demolition of Alexis Davis, reminding me of the many similar-timed victories of Magnum TA with his belly-to-belly that established HIM as one of the top draws in wrestling, followed by the title match. Middleweight champion Chris Weidman, fresh off two upset victories in a row against Anderson Silva, some folks' pick for the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time, defended his Middleweight crown against Brazil's Lyoto Machida, a former Light-Heavyweight Champion with a strong following internationally and a 21-4 record going into the fight.
What more could a pro wrestling fan want than seeing their champion enter the ring, draped in the American flag, to the strains of Tom Petty's classic "I Won't Back Down", on the most important weekend of the year in the United States, to battle a foreign menace that presents a major challenge, a veteran with more experience and more victories? While pro wrestling has struggled with presenting "shades of grey" babyfaces and heels over the last decade, UFC does it both effortlessly and correctly with their fight hype, much of it lifted from the pro wrestling playbook. Now, everyone with any sense knows there must be clear-cut babyfaces and heels in pro wrestling--only the Russos of the world still foolishly think there can be success with a bunch of guys with no moral compasses only out for themselves. But the UFC staff are the only ones who can do promotion of a fight right, leaving the viewer to decide who the babyface is, while still clearly having one. Machida didn't insult the fans, kick Weidman in the balls at the press conference, or have his cornermen do a run in for the DQ, but in the way he was presented in the promotion, he was the perfect foil for an American hero on Independence Day.
Not fluent in English, Machida was presented on the UFC Countdown show as a dedicated fighter with his own reasons and motivations for wanting to win the title, but his interviews were shown with English subtitles and he was training with his own countrymen. Weidman was shown, speaking fluent English of course, not only training with his fellow Americans, but with his wife, kids and friends at a holiday backyard barbecue eating those All-American hot dogs straight off the grill. At the event itself, pretty much the only people cheering for Machida were his fellow Brazillians, a large contingent of which were present in Vegas, and which prodded the American fans to cheer that much louder for THEIR champion and "hometown hero." These subtleties, especially the American flag entrance, were not only not lost on UFC officials but were clearly designed to elicit the exact response they did, straight out of the pro wrestling playbook, just not so over-the-top that it became obvious what reaction they were going for. The restraint UFC shows is predominantly the main difference between them and pro wrestling, where even the greatest minds can get caught up in the "more is better" philosophy and lay it on too thick to be believeable. That Weidman won the decision in a thrilling five-rounder, something the UFC obviously hoped for but couldn't manipulate or predetermine, was the icing on the cake.
Yes, on the 4th of July, wrestling fans of yesteryear have nowhere to go to fulfill that desire for all-American combat--except for the UFC. And as we watch them take over the magical weekend in July once reserved for the wrestling game, using all the promotional tricks that pro wrestling has abandoned, I have to wonder how long it will be until Thanksgiving and Christmas become as synonymous with watching the "fights" as they used to be with watching the "matches".