Sunday, November 9, 2008

Starrcade at 25: the biz changes forever

By Rick Morris

Most people tend to draw the before-and-after line in the modern history of pro wrestling in terms of the WWF's national expansion in 1984 with new champion Hulk Hogan redefining the concept of the top wrestler as a comic book superman figure. But in reality, the first shot of the modern era was fired 25 years ago this month -- by the promoter who would be the only real competition for Vince McMahon within a few years.

Jim Crockett's Mid-Atlantic Wrestling produced the first Starrcade card on November 24, 1983. It was designed as a blowoff to several storylines that had been building throughout the territory all year long with one extra-special element on top: the return of local hero Ric Flair to the position of NWA World Champion in a cage match with the man who had dethroned him and put out a bounty on him, Harley Race. The bout did what it was designed to do, cement Flair as a legitimate traveling world champion (which an NWA titleholder was, since the National Wrestling Alliance was comprised of several member territories all over the world, each of whom was entitled to appearances from the top man) poised to build on the creative successes of his first run from late 1981 to early 1983.

Starrcade was not a pay-per-view card like the later WWF efforts, but it was available on closed-circuit television in several markets in the territory. It was not even the first closed-circuit card, as the AWA and WWF had dabbled with it on a very limited basis (mostly in terms of televising a big show to an overflow crowd in a nearby arena), nor was it in a huge outdoor stadium like other promotions had done (such as the Comiskey Park and Soldiers Field events from the 1960s through the 1980s, the NWF at Cleveland Stadium in 1972 for the Super Bowl of Wrestling, the interpromotional 1978 Orange Bowl show and the WWF Shea Stadium events of 1972, 1976 and 1980). What is was was the first event with the branding of a name like "Starrcade" behind it and it carried the promise of something heretofore revolutionary in the business: the prospect of a big card to be a culmination of several angles that much of the territory could witness as opposed to one market.

Think about it: the industry had always run on a model that had shows scattered all over the various territories but the most important happenings saved for events held in the main market: Atlanta in the Georgia territory, Madison Square Garden in the WWF (and the WWWF before it), etc. Some territories like the AWA were large enough geographically to move some big doings around from time to time and others like Mid-Atlantic had a rough parity with several different cities being rabid enough for the product to merit seeing something big, but even in those instances, the rest of the territory would have to wait for the next week's TV show to learn of those events. And significant happenings tended to be spaced out with one big angle at a time culminating on one of these shows as opposed to a mega-show where several different big things might go down. The aforementioned stadium shows didn't always even blow off the MAIN angle of the promotion! Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales, past and present WWWF champions, squared off at Shea in a "dream match" in 1972, an oh-so-rare megaface vs. megaface confrontation of the day -- and fought to a draw because the promotion didn't want either man to take the loss. After (legitimately) breaking his neck in 1976, Bruno didn't even get a pinfall win in his grudge match at Shea against Stan Hanson, but rather a countout win! AWA champ Verne Gagne was also known to win by countout at stadium shows, proving that these events may have been promoted as something special and different, but certainly weren't booked that way.

Compare and contrast this to Starrcade '83. There were several extremely noteworthy bouts on this card. The Charlie Brown-Great Kabuki match was a mask vs. title bout that ended with a title change. On Roddy Piper's WWE DVD, his dog collar match with Greg "The Hammer" Valentine was referred to by Jerry Brisco as the precursor of today's showstealing matches at WrestleMania -- and it was. Speaking of Jerry Brisco, he and his brother Jack defended the NWA World Tag Team Titles against Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood in a blowoff of their classic feud. And of course, in the main event, Race and Flair put on a match for the ages that set the template for the PPV main event of the modern era just as surely as the event itself set the tone for the PPV events that followed.

Race notes in his memoirs that Vince McMahon, Jr. tried to blow up the event at the 11th hour, summoning Race to New York for a big-money offer to no-show the event and bring his belt to the WWF for a "unification" match. Although tempted, Race declined. Not to glorify McMahon's business tactics, but one can understand how a man of his value system would want to disrupt Starrcade at all costs. He had just assumed control of the Northeast-based promotion from his father with grand plans to go national and he surely was beginning to envision his own supercards like WrestleMania -- with the first Mania taking place in March 1985. The thought that one of the regional promotions that he looked down upon could beat him to the punch by structuring an event in a revolutionary style had to be galling -- and it probably explains perfectly why he took a pass on using the Starrcade name even when he purchased the rights to it along with all WCW (the successor to Jim Crockett Promotions) property in 2001.

The NWA promoters who allowed Flair to regain the belt on such a stage surely had no idea of what was in store for themselves, as Crockett became the lead bulwark against the WWF expansion by 1985-86 and subsequently ended up taking over many of their territories. In an age where fans tended to get their information about other territories from the Apter mark mags, Starrcade legitimized Mid-Atlantic as something more than "just another territory."

But Crockett's subsequent use of the show as the means to become McMahon's main national competitor, while a matter of substantial importance in the history of the last quarter-century in the industry, pales in comparison to the significance of the template he created. By decades's end, the pattern of booking from one PPV event to the next was in place in both of the remaining megapromotions, WWF and the Crockett-dominated NWA. By the middle of the next decade, the promotions were running monthly PPV shows and the revolution was taken a step further.

So on November 24, if you're a fan disillusioned with the predictable re-chewed modern business, turn off Raw and pop in a DVD (or pull up clips on YouTube) to check out moments from the night that created the modern world in the pro wrestling industry exactly 25 years before, Starrcade '83.

No comments: