Sorry for the late one this time, guys. With the long-awaited “WWE Network 2.0” update landing on the same day as the latest hidden gem, I decided it was best to wait until everything had settled down. As it turns out, that took quite a bit longer than expected (in fact, it’d be wrong of me to suggest that we’re truly settled down even now). Either way, we’re here now, so let’s get on with this rare 1980s pro wrestling goodness, shall we?
For those of you not aware, this past Thursday graced us with a near-2-hour event from the ill-fated Pro Wrestling USA alliance. Pro Wrestling USA was an attempt to combine the resources Of the American Wrestling Alliance, Jim Crockett Promotions, World Class Championship Wrestling and others to create a supported powerhouse that would put a stop to Vince McMahon Jr’s attempted steamrolling of the regional territory in pursuit of national expansion. With how few people mention this alliance now, you can probably guess how well it went. Egos got in the way in short order and the whole thing was over and done with by the end of 1985, barely lasting a full year. During that glorious year though, the allied promotions did pull out all the stops to produce some major “supershows”. April 19, 1985, was one of those times and in fact, was one of the truest “shots across the bow” that this “alliance to kill sports entertainment” ever attempted, as it took place in Meadowlands, New Jersey, part of the heartland of WWF’s territory at the time. And just to rub salt in the wound, one of the main events saw Larry Zbyszko defending his AWA Americas Heavyweight Championship against none other than the last long-running Champion before Hulk Hogan, Bob Backlund.
And so, with that brief history lesson out of the way, let’s get on with this interesting time capsule of a review.
Pro Wrestling USA Supershow
Name: Meadowlands Mayhem
Location: Brendan Byrne Arena, East Rutherford, New Jersey
Larry Sharpe vs. Bobby Duncum
The Samoans vs. Tom Zenk and Steve Olsonoski
Kendo Nagasaki vs. Jim Duggan
Jimmy Garvin vs. Baron von Raschke
The Fabulous Freebirds vs. The Highflyers and Tonga Kid
AWA World Heavyweight Championship: Rick Martel © vs. King Tonga (Haku)
Ugandan Deathmatch: Kamala vs. Sgt Slaughter
AWA Americas Heavyweight Championship: Larry Zbyszko © vs. Bob Backlund
Thoughts: A few quick notes to get out of the way for this WWE Network hidden gem: this event seems to be sourced from multiple places as it features matches with commentary and without. A lot of the camerawork is extremely rudimentary (to the point where the cameraman even stops focusing on the ring entirely at times). The most likely answer is that at least some of these matches made it to TV, while others were recorded for posterity. The original full card included 10 matches. Here we have 8. The two bouts missing are Buck Zumhofe vs. Steve Regal (most likely due to Zumhofe’s multiple sex crime convictions) and The Road Warriors vs. Curt and Larry “The Axe” Hennig For the AWA World Tag Team Championships. Still, it’s a full enough card to the point where 8/10 ain’t bad, right?
In truth though, the first half of the show (at least as far as the number of matches goes) is over very rapidly, with the first four being wrapped up within about half-an-hour. Larry Sharpe vs. Bobby Duncum is about as basic a lower card match as you’ll find, with Duncum playing the heel. This is pretty much the typical 1980s fare, where the match is short but never really gets out of first gear. You start to think that things are picking up with some more aggressive punches and kicks, only for things to start slowing down again. However, there is one moment that perhaps makes the whole match worth watching, as Sharpe gets thrown head over heels out of the ring and onto a table at ringside. It is at this point that we hear who I believe is the timekeeper (or perhaps the second commentator who isn’t mic’d up yet) yell “Goddamn, Larry! Get off my f***ing table!” that, my friends, is comedy gold. Other than that though, there isn’t much to write home about. The pair exchange strikes and basic holds until Duncum gets the win with a rudimentary bulldog.
C+ grade, though I fully admit that I’m bumping up the score because of that tremendous blooper (even if WWE did their half-hearted best to semi-mute the offending dialogue).
Meanwhile, the Samoans vs. Zenk and Olsonoski is a paint by the numbers tag team match. As you may expect, Zenk and Olsonoski are the obvious babyfaces here, and the Samoans are playing the same gimmick that they did in their most recent WWF run, having wrestled their last match for the company just three months earlier. The initial minutes of this tag team bout is taken up by posturing and playing up to the hardheaded caricature of the Samoans. Remember the days when a blatantly racist stereotype could be passed off as a badass trait for a wrestler to have? Those were the days, huh? But yeah, Olsonoski attempts to elbow one of the savages in the head only to hurt himself rather than his opponent. Incidentally, one of the commentators refers to the Samoans as “hairy pieces of granite”, which is quite the descriptor. I suppose it’s better than saying Big Show has hands like frying pans. I’m getting distracted. But really, this entire opening portion is dedicated to the typical Samoan character of the times so not much happens. Generally speaking, Afa and Sika are dominant, in fact Zenk and Olsonoski never really get out of the blocks and Zenk gets put away with a Samoan drop (although the ending is a bit messy as it originally appears as if Olsonoski has broken the pin only for him to get attacked and for the 3 to get counted anyway. The babyfaces try to at least fight back after the bell, only to get wiped out again. Talk about a squash.
D+ grade. This match did have commentary sure it was perfectly serviceable for television but as part of a supposed supershow, it felt rather underwhelming. Not bad per se, just completely skippable.
Duggan vs. Nagasaki does have the element going for it of two fairly big names that you thought you’d never see clash doing just that. As of this show, Duggan was still a major star in Mid-South Wrestling, though he was less than a year away from his big run in the WWF. And to clear up any potential confusion for any British fans reading, this is not the same Kendo Nagasaki that became infamous within Joint Promotions during the “Big Daddy” boom period of the 70s and 80s. Instead, this version of the gimmick was portrayed by Kazou Sakurada as opposed to Les Thornley (who was retired for a second time during this period). Cool as it is to see two big gimmicks like this face-off, there’s unfortunately very little to the actual match. Both men just trade punches and kicks with no real wrestling moves to be seen until Duggan hits a very aggressive-looking version of his three-point stance tackle for the win.
C- grade for being interesting from a historical perspective if all too brief.
As we approach roughly halfway through the card, I have to admit that I found Garvin vs. Raschke at least reasonably interesting. You see, the amount of Raschke (and in fact, the amount of AWA in general) on the WWE Network (especially the new 2.0, with its missing hidden gems) is relatively limited compared to other territories, so what little I’ve seen of Raschke from those options appeared to be very limited. So I was hoping to get a bit more of an idea of what he was capable of here. As it turns out, the answer to that question is “not a significant amount”. Then again, his in-ring style did allow him to have a career spanning from the mid-60s through the mid-90s. I guess it did pay to do less! I think the real crux of the matter for me with this match, is that Raschke is the good guy. Now obviously, I’m well aware that the Baron did have a fan-favorite run in the relative tail end of his in-ring tenure but everything about his name and gimmick just screams “foreign heel”, so I experience a bit of a disconnect whenever I see him playing up to the crowd. And make no mistake, this match features a lot of stalling. When the action does start, it’s very one-sided with Garvin blindsiding Raschke in the corner and then wearing him down in the middle of the ring, specifically with a very boring Boston crab that probably only lasted a couple of minutes but felt like at least five (granted, the match as a whole didn’t last much longer than five minutes, but as we all know it comes to poor wrestling, time is relative). Either way, Baron von Raschke eventually starts doing his version of a “Hulk up” (including a slightly awkward goose-stepping motion), quickly allowing him to clamp on “The Claw” and cause Garvin to start flopping around like a dying fish. “The Gorgeous One” manages to find brief respite in the ropes. This forces opponent to break, only for Garvin’s valet Precious to distract Raschke long enough for Jimmy pull something from his tights and hit the Baron in the forehead with it for the tainted pinfall victory. Postmatch, the Baron threatens the referee with his claw maneuver scaring the little man out of his wits and giving him no choice but to run for the hills. There’s your babyface, ladies and gentlemen!
C- grade. I really can’t be too hard on it, as the crowd was receptive and the work wasn’t outright atrocious. But still, it did just do the bare minimum and that’s not good when you’re four matches into a card that’s supposed to be the very best talent from multiple territories.
Finally, five matches into an eight-match card, we get to what can finally be classed as something substantial. This six-man tag sees the Fabulous Freebirds trio of Michael Hayes, Terry Gordy and Buddy Roberts taking on Jim Brunzell, Greg Gagne and the Tonga Kid. Whereas everything else on this show has felt pressed for time or even that it couldn’t end fast enough, this six-man are given 20 minutes and make every last one of them count. The action ebbs and flows brilliantly with the heel team of the Freebirds getting multiple turns to wear down the faster opponents while the side opponents still keep doing everything they can to stay in the fight and keep the crowd alive. Yes, there are brief periods in this longer match where the antagonist team maintains control but much better chemistry just means that everything feels “right”. Even when one of the babyfaces has been slowed down to a crawl at least one of the other two is doing something to show an effort to turn things back around. This means fans in attendance never feel like the good guys are a lost cause. And then, when we do finally get to the home stretch things pick up and all hell breaks loose. By that point, the audience is genuinely enraptured and just about ready to explode. Unfortunately, the only downside to this is that the match ends in a double disqualification or no contest. Meaning that for all of the fantastic heat that these 20 minutes of carefully built action managed to earn, none of it gets paid off satisfactorily once the final bell tolls. Still, not every great match has to “pop the cherry of expectation” to be still worthwhile. So I’m not going to dock it too many points.
B grade for being a fantastic example of multi-man tag team wrestling that could very well have been mostly lost to time if it wasn’t included in this Pro Wrestling USA hidden gem on the WWE Network. This may be my first time while doing this short-lived series on WDN that I outright recommend anyone reading this goes out of their way to watch a match because while I won’t go so far as to call it an all-time classic, it probably does deserve the moniker of “hidden gem”.
Six matches in and here we are at the AWA World Heavyweight Championship match. It’s quite funny how in modern times people like to complain (understandably) about world champions being devalued by being placed in the middle of the card. And here is Rick Martel in 1985 being treated the same as he defends his World Heavyweight Championship against King Tonga (the man who would become Haku in the WWF). While Tonga did have some experience with facing top stars in various territories, he was far from one of the biggest names that could have been battling for the championship at this point. Perhaps that’s why Nick Bockwinkel makes an appearance before the match can even start, giving a message to the ring announcer that he is here to challenge the winner of this match to face him for the World Championship at a future date. While it does pretty much render this outing as a moot point, perhaps the powers that be realized that this defense wasn’t that big of a deal, to begin with, and we’re already looking ahead to something bigger. Unfortunately, that means the crowd is never really invested for the entire match. They know Martel’s reign is not in danger and that his next challenger is going to be the veteran Bockwinkel. Add to all of this that Rick is far more of a straitlaced wrestler here, and some members of the crowd even begin the dreaded “boring” chant at one point. Does that mean that it’s a bad match though? No, not really. There’s some kind of odd little storyline before any action can take place though where The Masked Superstar declares that he plans to be the manager for King Tonga here tonight. The referee immediately has none of this however and makes it clear that Superstar is not eligible to be a manager and is therefore banned from ringside. He leaves and never reappears during the match, kind of rendering the whole thing pointless other than to get a very subtle pop from the crowd when the bad guy is ejected.
Finally getting into the match itself, things start hot initially. with both men trading some fast-paced offense until Martel finally gets the upper hand with a cross-body block, sending Tonga reeling to the outside. Unfortunately, Babyface champion Martel tends to rather over-rely on the grassroots technical wrestling, which doesn’t seem to quite work with the crowd as well now that they’ve just seen a high paced six-man brawl. While Martel does show some brief bursts of speed, for most of the match Tonga always cuts him off. Of course, this isn’t bad psychology in and of itself but when the crowd is already only semi-interested at best, keeping things so relatively slow (even if for a reason) means that the audience always stays rather subdued. One highlight (however minor) that I will mention is seeing King Tonga hit an enziguri kick to the head of Martel, which did at least wake the crowd up a little. The problem is that things just never get any better or at least not for any prolonged period because not only is Martel’s offense rather plodding and slow but then Tonga will also utilize maneuvers like a nerve hold, which, as we all know, is always particularly exhilarating. To be clear, there are times when the champion shows legitimate fire, picks up his pace and does something that wakes the crowd up. Every time though, it never lasts and so any enthusiasm quickly dissipates again as soon as Tonga gets back in control. I know that this may sound slightly hypocritical of me after I just praised a six-man tag team match where the momentum shifted backward and forwards far more regularly, but that’s kind of the point. The momentum shifts were done better in that tag match because they never allowed things to grow restless or boring and always gave the crowd just enough to keep them anticipating the next big burst of action. This match just doesn’t have that and that may well be down to a lack of chemistry, just like how the chemistry in the six-man tag match made things so much better. To boil it all down, I think the real problem here is that by the time the champion begins to regularly make a comeback and avoid the offense of his challenger, the crowd is just ready for things to wrap up rather than be teased with multiple false finishes. Also, the champion uses a piledriver and the challenger kicks out of it almost as if it’s nothing more than a transitional move. Bear in mind that this is 1985 and not the early 2000’s and that’s just weird. Especially when, as I said, the crowd is very audibly getting to the point where they want this to be over after little more than 10 minutes. Finally, after a little more weary brawling where the pair act as if they’re both ready to collapse, Martel gets a sudden burst of energy, jumps onto the turnbuckle and uses it to launch off into a very high cross body into the pin for the win. As you might expect, the crowd is mildly happy.
C grade. I know I sounded overly negative towards this much and my grading seems a bit high with that in mind but understands I’m only being so harsh as this is supposed to be a world championship and it feels like a slow-paced afterthought instead. My grade reflects that I in no way think this is a bad match as it is very competently wrestled and trying its best to use solid pro wrestling psychology to tell a story. In this case, the two wrestlers in the ring just didn’t seem to read the crowd correctly and so everything fell a bit flat instead of standing out as a major championship match should. In case you’re wondering, Martel held onto the belt until December 1985 when he eventually lost it to none other than Stan Hansen. Yes, the infamous reign where the World Championship ended up getting run over thanks to a dispute.
As we keep rolling along, we finally make it to the first of two matches that WWE is promoting this entire show on. Now, you may be asking what exactly a Ugandan deathmatch is. Well, quite frankly, it’s a complete and utter mess. Let’s see if everyone can keep up:
1) A wrestler must pin his opponent, this can happen in or outside the ring. Also, if a wrestler gets thrown out of the ring, they must answer a 10 count.
2) Once a wrestler is pinned or counted out, they have 30 seconds to “collect themselves”
3) After the 30-second rest period, a wrestler then has 10 seconds to get back to their feet and if needs be back in the ring
At least, I think that’s what’s going on. As I said, the rules for the match are extremely convoluted for something that is a derivative of an old school Texas deathmatch or a modern “Last Man Standing” match. As you might have guessed, these rules also stall any momentum that a potentially exciting match type like this could offer. In absolute fairness, things start fine as Slaughter goes straight on the offensive and starts throwing big rights. Both men quickly start going back and forth with brawling tactics including choking and it doesn’t least feel like the kind of atmosphere you’d expect from a blood feud. Things slow down eventually though once Kamala starts to get the upper hand. So here is my real problem with this: a lot of of the most important action takes place outside the ring where there are no cameras, meaning that we as the viewing audience have no idea what’s going on whenever a wrestler ends up outside. Considering that being thrown outside can ultimately lead to losing the match, not being able to see this is quite integral to being able to build any kind of emotional investment as a viewer. The commentators don’t even help as they can see just about as much as we can. At best, they try to guess what’s going on.
For most of this deathmatch, “The Ugandan Giant” is on the offensive but with Slaughter always managing to answer any kind of count. Of course, Sarge eventually starts to make a comeback and he’s all but ready to lock in the Cobra Clutch and does so. Kamala’s manager Skandar Akbar causes a distraction (which Slaughter’s second Baron von Raschke does his best to thwart) only for the tactic to work anyway and for Slaughter to get attacked from behind and bungled outside. Kamala and Billy Robinson take advantage of this opportunity to hit a piledriver on the concrete. The real-life GI Joe doesn’t beat the initial 10-count and after the 30-second recuperation period, valiantly tries to make his way back into the ring. The Ugandan head hunter cuts Slaughter off on the ring apron (which should surely cause the count to be restarted?) and the referee declares that Sarge didn’t make it back inside within the allotted time, so Kamala wins. That was an odd finish. After the match, Sgt Slaughter gets on the house mic to make it clear that his opponent was lucky and that he expects to get a rematch in his preferred type of brawl (a Boot Camp match). Things get oddly whiny when our hero demands that he either get this rematch at the next opportunity or he’ll refuse to wrestle ever again. Okay then. In all seriousness, I understand the point of this promo was to show how much Slaughter hates his rival. I guess the tone was just a little off.
C grade. I liked some of the aggression (especially in the early stages) and I feel like this could have been even better with top-class production that allowed us to see everything. As it was, the rules slowed everything down and the camerawork limited the enjoyment.
Finally, we’ve made it to the main event. Or at least, the main event as far as how WWE has organized this video. It’s kind of weird to think that about 17 months before this show, Bob Backlund was just finishing up a multi-year WWF Heavyweight Championship reign. Now here he is, appearing for a direct competitor. It’s worth remembering too that by 1985, Backlund was far from a washed-up has-been and was still comfortably in his 30s. So, it could be argued that seeing him wrestle Larry Zbyzsko here is somewhat of a minor dream match. Before the match, there’s some odd little bit about Larry refusing to wear his Americas Championship. The referee says something in return but the sound isn’t picked up very well and the commentators do nothing to fill us in either. And then, the screen goes black only for it to come back and have the cameraman pointing both at the floor and the ring apron, meaning that for a precious few moments we can effectively see nothing. Fantastic. Interestingly, the action starts quite slowly with a feeling out process and chain wrestling. Admittedly, this does suit both men very well. Although this could be described as pure wrestling at its finest, both men still know when to have the odd burst of excitement and fast-moving action to keep the crowd alive. Generally speaking though, this is pretty much a human game of chess where Backlund keeps putting the pressure on Zbyzsko only for Larry to find a way to slow him right back down. That sounds boring but Bob has always had a way of looking like he’s always fighting no matter his current position in the flow of the match. I don’t want to sell Zbyzsko short here either. He plays a fantastic heel, always knowing exactly when to pull out an underhanded tactic and if needs be, looking vicious when doing so. I’m not going to pretend that this main event was the most exciting spectacle on the whole of the card, but it probably was one of the more smartly wrestled ones. After about 12 or 13 minutes, we begin to build to a crescendo where Backlund seems to have the number of Americas Champion Zbyzsko, with the challenger seemingly having an answer for everything that his opponent could throw at him in the closing moments. Bob even goes so far as to hit our third piledriver of the night. It doesn’t get him the win but it does get a worthy reaction from Larry who desperately rolls to the ropes to save himself. Anticipation continues to build as the former WWF Champion almost synched in his patented crossface chicken wing, only for the champion to fall into the ropes as a last-ditch saving grace. After one last brief scrap, Zbyzsko knows he can’t win and throws his challenger over the top rope, saving his title with the disqualification rule. After the match, Backlund gets his pound of flesh but not the championship.
B- grade. Maybe I’m being too nice with this one. Feel free to let me know in the comments if you think I am. But honestly, I couldn’t help but enjoy this. It wasn’t as flashy as the six-man tag or attempting to be as brutal as the Ugandan deathmatch but it was an extremely solidly wrestled match with a crowd that was growing more enthusiastic as the story built to a natural crescendo of the challenger coming so close yet the champion stooping to any lows in order to retain.
Overall video grade: C+ At nearly 2 hours long, I found that this show went very quickly and I’ve watched it twice now as part of this reviewing process. Yes, there are some slow points (which is why I’m not grading it any higher) but if you put me on the spot and asked me to give an honest appraisal of this Pro Wrestling USA supershow, I’d obviously give a strong recommendation to the six-man tag and conditional recommendations to the Ugandan deathmatch and the AWA Americas Championship bout depending on the type of wrestling you enjoy. Sure, recommending 3/8 matches from a show doesn’t sound that great but then the Pro Wrestling USA project wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders either. The fact that I’m coming out of this telling you to watch any of it is at least a mild surprise to me.
Thanks for reading, guys. Thankfully, we now seem to have confirmation directly from WWE.com that Hidden Gems will continue into the new update, (despite previous gems having gone missing since the relaunch) meaning that I’ll see you all again very soon!
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