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CIRCA
Survivor Series Invades Thanksgiving
November 26, 2004

by Denny Burkholder
Courtesy of WrestleLine.com

 

Circa usually runs on Wednesday or Thursday; this has become a loose "deadline" of sorts for the column. But alas, it's Thanksgiving week, the start of the holiday season, and everything in the United States is a day or two behind. 
 
Including me. Just as I was about to settle in at the keyboard to bang out a few more column inches on Thursday, the affliction known worldwide as "turkey fatigue" struck me like a ton of bricks. Time that I'd set aside for writing suddenly became nap time in front of the football game, and dammit... that's what Thanksgiving is supposed to be 

about. Friday morning, I've already done my time at the doorbuster holiday sales, another seasonal pasttime. I even got to witness a way-too-exciting shoving match between two elderly ladies, fighting for the coveted THIRD IN LINE spot at the "express" cash-only register. Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen... It's beginning to look a lot like chaos.

One wonders how exactly it is that any store can name a checkout lane "express" while also letting 112-year-old women with forty coupons to pass through it, but I digress.

Years ago, Thanksgiving tradition used to include pro wrestling. The most famous Thanksgiving event in the mid-1980s was Starrcade, the Jim Crockett Promotions supercard invariably featuring any combo of Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, the Road Warriors, the Rock N' Roll Express and other stars of Georgia, the Carolinas and Florida. Starrcade was the only Thanksgiving tradition that mattered, if you were a die-hard NWA fan. The shows had big stars, and they usually did decent business. All of that changed in 1987, thanks to Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation.

In WWF-dominated territories such as upstate New York, where I grew up, wrestling fans really had to go out of their way to keep current on the happenings outside of Vince's company. The easiest and least expensive way to keep tabs was through the "Apter Mags," such as Pro Wrestling Illustrated and its sister publications. Those magazines were excellent for covering a wide variety of territories and letting fans in on the stars and storylines outside of their own geographic borders. Sure, they were kayfabed, but pro wrestling was different back then. Just about EVERYTHING was kayfabed, so it wasn't like the magazines were overstepping their bounds by following suit. If they hadn't allowed kayfabe, they'd have probably lost whatever cooperation they were getting from promotions and wrestlers, so it was a necessity more than anything. The other problem with the magazines was that they were about three months behind real time, which made TV a much better option... if you had cable.

If your cable provider offered TBS, you could watch Jim Crockett's NWA broadcasts every Saturday night. And if your cable provider offered pay-per-view - which was still a luxury item in many areas in the mid-1980s, and not all cable providers bothered to offer PPV as an option - then you might even be able to order the REALLY big shows, like Starrcade. This was probably the best shot JCP had at gaining an audience on WWF turf. While they certainly weren't anywhere near "taking over" Titan strongholds as Vince was doing to everyone else at the time, they dared to solicit business from Vince's own paying customers, via Vince's new favorite way to make money... pay-per-view extravaganzas. In 1987, the WWF was still in steamroller mode where other promotions were concerned, and they were riding high on the success of WrestleMania III at the Pontiac Silverdome in March. With a roster including Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Rick Steamboat, Jake Roberts and The British Bulldogs all at or near their primes, Vince knew his product could outsell any other wrestling offering on a national basis.

So he socked Jim Crockett Promotions right where it hurt. The WWF created its second pay-per-view spectacular after WrestleMania. They called it Survivor Series. They sold the show on the unique concept of all matches on the show - all FOUR of them - being tag team elimination matches, with the winner (or winners) being the "sole survivors." In these "teams of five strive to survive" battles would be, of course, all of the WWF's biggest superstars. The main event also had the distinction of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant's first match against each other since WrestleMania III, which was a huge deal even if it WAS in a tag team match.

The WWF would have done a nice buyrate on the 1987 Survivor Series on just about any weekend. But they chose a Thursday - Thanksgiving Day, directly opposite Starrcade. Both shows were among the biggest events of the year at a time when those did not come around every month. If you missed them, you were probably waiting another six months to a year before you had a chance to see another supercard from that promotion. As a wrestling fan, it would have been nice to have the option to see both shows on television.

But the WWF's placement of the Survivor Series prevented that, not just by running directly opposite Starrcade, but by running IN THE PLACE OF Starrcade. Vince McMahon forced cable operators to choose between the two shows, essentially taking the choice out of the hands of the viewers. If they wanted to offer the WWF's Survivor Series to their subscribers, they could not offer Starrcade as well. With the success of WrestleMania III, the choice was simple for cable companies. Starrcade was screwed before it even went on the air.

Having been a New Yorker, I grew up with the WWF and was thus more excited about the Survivor Series anyhow. It really did seem like a cool concept. Besides the Hogan-Andre match, there were tons of underlying novelties on the card. Such as newly-turned-babyface Paul "Mr. Wonderful" Orndorff on Hulk Hogan's team, just one year after his infamous attack on the Hulkster and their huge feud over the world title. Such as Ken Patera on Hogan's team as a babyface, versus Andre the Giant as a heel, when Patera had feuded with Andre in reversed roles a few years prior.

You also had Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat in his first high-profile match in the WWF since dropping the Intercontinental Title to the Honky Tonk Man in June, not only facing Honky's team, but calling Randy "Macho Man" Savage a teammate. The two men had wrestled one of the greatest matches in wrestling history just six months before the Survivor Series, with Savage a vicious heel. How were those guys gonna get along?

The tag teams had a particularly daunting task on their hands, as there were five DUOs per team, making it a 20-man elimination match where one partner's loss eliminates the tag team as a unit. Strike Force (Rick Martel & Tito Santana) were getting a big title program with the Hart Foundation, but the match also had the British Bulldogs, who were always a pleasure to watch. Another new tag team called Demolition would work their first WWF PPV as part of the heel squad.

There would even be a ladie's match featuring the legendary Fabulous Moolah as a babyface, the somewhat new Sherri Martel, and an impressive female tag team from Japan known as the Jumping Bomb Angels.

Never before had a card with just four matches seemed like such a can't-miss broadcast. We plunked down our money, ordered the PPV, and the WWF offered us the first of what it promised would become a new "Thanksgiving tradition."

And the show really was very entertaining. It all kicked off with Randy Savage, Rick Steamboat, Jake Roberts, Brutus Beefcake and Jim Duggan facing the Honky Tonk Man, "Outlaw" Ron Bass, Harley Race, Hercules and Danny Davis. This was the famous finish where the babyface team was incredibly over (all but Duggan were hot at the time, even Beefcake), and Savage, Steamboat and Roberts survived after Honky Tonk took one of his soon-to-be-famous hikes to lose via countout.

Even the women's match was better than expected, as Sherri Martel, Leilani Kai, Judy Martin, Dawn Marie (not who you think it is) and Donna Christenello took on Moolah, the Jumping Bomb Angels, Velvet MacIntyre, and Rockin' Robin. Velvet MacIntyre, for whatever reason, was incredibly focused and wrestled a very good match. The Bomb Angels were such a unique duo that they entertained in spite of being virtually unknown to fans. It was different to say the least to see Moolah on the babyface team.

Then came the big tag team elimination match, which was at times exhausting to watch due to the sheer number of people tagging into and out of the ring after a few quick moves. We had The Hart Foundation (Bret Hart & Jim Neidhart), The Dream Team (Greg Valentine & Dino Bravo), Demolition (Ax & Smash), The Bolsheviks (Nikolai Volkoff & Boris Zukhov), & The Islanders (Haku & Tama) vs. Strike Force, The British Bulldogs, The Killer Bees, The Young Stallions (Paul Roma & Jim Powers), & The Rougeau Brothers. In the end, the Killer Bees and the Young Stallions were the unlikely survivors, in what can only be considered a blatant (and ultimately failed) attempt to make fans believe that either team were on par with the Bulldogs, the Hart Foundation, or even Strike Force and the Islanders.

As the show progressed, a vignette for WWF newcomer Ted DiBiase aired. DiBiase summed up a few of his previous weekly exploits to prove that everybody had a price for the "Million Dollar Man." By February, DiBiase would find himself smack dab in the middle of a huge storyline in which he paid off Andre the Giant to give him the WWF Title after winning it from Hogan in the infamous "twin Hebners" match on NBC. The title was declared vacant, which set up DiBiase to lose in the WrestleMania IV tournament finals to Randy Savage, as Savage won his first world championship. Considering the Million Dollar Man character was so new in late November of 1987, it's a testament to DiBiase's talent that they not only pushed him so much so fast, but that he actually carried the ball when they handed it off.

What I remember most about the main event isn't the match itself, but the way Hogan played his character and Jesse "The Body" Ventura's spot-on heel commentary that illustrated just how big of an ass Hogan was. It was Hulk Hogan, Paul Orndorff, Ken Patera, Don Muraco & Bam Bam Bigelow vs. Andre the Giant, King Kong Bundy, One Man Gang, Rick Rude & Butch Reed. Andre the Giant won the match as the sole survivor, marking the first major WWF show since his title run began where Hogan didn't walk out of the main event with a decisive win, or at least a justified DQ loss. After the match, Hogan attacked Andre and cleared the ring so that his theme song could play, and he posed for the fans as if he were the big winner. Ventura blasted the Hulkster for being so hypocritical as to preach good sportsmanship and clean living to the fans, and then be such a poor sport after losing the match. Even as a young, impressionable kid who cheered the babyfaces on command, I saw Jesse's point. It was probably the first time I ever stopped and compared the behavior of Hogan to that of his heel opponents, and realized the only thing different about it was that Hogan got cheered for it and had a friendlier smile.

And so the WWF began its own "Thanksgiving tradition" and dealt a big blow to Jim Crockett's pay-per-view buyrate for Starrcade. Ric Flair regained the NWA World Title from Ronnie Garvin in a cage match main event seen by far fewer people than the promotion hoped. And while nobody will ever accuse NWA Champ Ronnie Garvin of drawing a dime on PPV with or without competition, Vince McMahon was a major reason why the show bombed.

Of course, the 1987 Survivor Series wasn't about Thanksgiving at all, beyond the fact that McMahon wanted to hit Crockett where it hurt. As soon as Starrcade moved away from Thanksgiving PPV broadcasts, so did the WWF. The Survivor Series remains one of the biggest events of the year, and it remains a November pastime. But the days when it was associated with Thanksgiving are long gone. Nowadays, WWE can barely tread water with a free-TV Smackdown broadcast on Thanksgiving night, let alone sell PPVs on the holiday.

But McMahon got what he wanted by directly competing with Crockett for his audience and winning big. Those of you who own the WWE's Monday Night Wars DVD may want to remember this the next time you watch the part where McMahon complains that Ted Turner only put Nitro on at the same time as Raw to hurt the WWF, and note the similarities.

Thanksgiving may be a national pastime, but on Thanksgiving 1987, it was all about business.

 
E-MAIL DENNY
BROWSE THE CIRCA ARCHIVES


  
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