FAQ: Gimmicks, Angles and Storylines

What was a penalty box match?

If you have a copy of the five-DVD Wrestling Gold set, you're no doubt familiar with one of the most ridiculous and ill-conceived matches in the sport's history: a mid-'70s bout in which Chief Jay Strongbow battled -- or attempted to battle -- Don Kent inside a shark cage, the type used by deep sea divers.  Having almost no room to move (which resulted in the cage door being knocked open more than once during the course of the match), the two men could do little other than punch and choke one another, leaving one to wonder exactly who thought this was a good idea.

Shark cages were also used in Dallas-Fort Worth as early as 1981, but in a far more sensible way:  they served as "penalty boxes" (similar to those in hockey) in a tag team match where infractions of the rules could land a wrestler in one of the cages for periods that increased by increments of one minute for each violation.  This gimmick, which was good for creating plenty of "outnumbered babyface in peril" tension, resulted in a number of classic tag bouts in WCCW over the years.

One of WCCW's last matches of this type, a wild February 1988 bout in Fort Worth pitting the Fantastics against John Tatum and Jack Victory, took the possibilities of the gimmick to their logical extreme, with all four combatants being "penalized" at once.  After both teams were locked in the cages, referee/keyholder Bronko Lubich apologized to the crowd for the brief delay and promised that one man from each team would be released shortly to continue with the match.  In a somewhat comical finish, when the cages were unlocked, all four men naturally burst out to resume their furious brawl, knocking the refs on their backsides and leaving them no choice but to declare a double DQ.

What was a Thunderdome match?

Obviously inspired by the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, this was an elimination (usually ten-man) tag match in a cage. Each wrestler who was eliminated was handcuffed to the cage, and the winning team was awarded five minutes to inflict as much punishment on the manacled losers as they could...which turned out to be very little, at least in the one Thunderdome bout that was televised as a "taped feature" on Championship Sports. We're sure you can guess why: the cuffed wrestlers were still perfectly free to fend off their attackers by kicking at them, which they did for the full five minutes.

Like the Triple Dome of Terror, this gimmick was introduced in 1988, shortly after Ken Mantell's return to World Class. It was mostly abandoned when Jerry Jarrett took over the territory, although a couple of Thunderdome matches did take place in mid-1989.

How did the pole battle royals in WCCW work? What was attached to the top of the pole?

Unlike some of the goofy pole matches that later took place in other promotions (who could forget the AWA's turkey-on-a-pole fiasco in 1990, or WCW's Judy Bagwell-on-a-pole bout in 2000?), most of those taking place in Big Time/World Class Wrestling had ten or more wrestlers simply competing for an envelope containing a cash prize.  Some of the early ones, in fact, actually had two winners, continuing under standard battle royal rules after the money had been retrieved from atop the pole.

The pole battle royal at Christmas Star Wars '87 (in which the keys to a new car were up for grabs) may have been one of the most memorable, at least for the ladies in the audience.  On the TV shows that aired prior to the Reunion Arena card, commentator Marc Lowrance hyped the match with not-so-subtle hints that fans "might get to see an X-rated bout" -- meaning that, with so many men trying to climb the pole at once, it was all but inevitable that someone would get their tights pulled all the way down in back.  Sure enough, there was a full moon over the WCCW ring on Christmas night...that of Kerry Von Erich (the eventual winner), to be exact.

Some old results and newspaper clippings I've seen mention something called a "Russian roulette" match.  WTF?!

What a battle royal had to do with the suicidal "game" of Russian roulette is hard to fathom...but that's what this was, just another name for the standard, over-the-top-rope battle royal.  The term largely fell into disuse (in wrestling, at least) in the 1980s.

I started watching WCCW too late to see the buildup to the Freebirds' heel turn. Can you recap it for me?  

Although they probably weren't planning to go in that direction at the time (as Michael Hayes would not debut in World Class for another two months), the buildup really began with the Kerry Von Erich-Ric Flair match on 8/15/82 at Reunion Arena, in which Kerry would have won in two straight falls if not for a reversed decision in the first fall by "special NWA referee" Alfred Neely; the final fall, of course, ended in a double DQ.  Because Kerry would require legit knee surgery a few weeks later, an angle was booked in which his knee was injured in an attack by the Great Kabuki. 

With Kerry sidelined, the next shots at Flair's belt would go to David (10/11/82, with David flying into a rage and getting himself disqualified after Flair attacked and put the figure four leglock on Kerry, who had come to ringside on crutches to cheer David on) and Kevin (in November, ending in another double DQ).  Flair then made it known that since all three Von Erich brothers had been given title shots and had come up short, he would be giving none of them any further chances at the belt.  But shortly after this pronouncement, Fritz Von Erich confronted Gary Hart on TV with a copy of a cashier's check from Flair for $12,500, made out to Hart for "services rendered" -- payment for the attack on Kerry by Hart's man Kabuki.  When Hart denied the charge, Fritz revealed that the evidence had been presented to him by King Kong Bundy, who had recently split with Hart (and would soon join the stable of the incoming General Skandor Akbar).  Fritz stated that the NWA, upon reviewing this evidence, decreed that Flair would be forced to defend the belt against Kerry in a rematch...and that this time the Von Erichs could name their own stipulations.  The no DQ, no time limit rematch would be held in a steel cage at the Christmas Star Wars card at Reunion Arena, with a special referee to be selected by the fans in a mail-in poll. 

Meanwhile, Freebird Michael Hayes -- who was pushed strongly as a close friend of David Von Erich -- had entered WCCW in October as a wildly-cheered babyface.   Hayes brought in "brother" Terry Gordy shortly afterward, and the 'Birds began feuding with Bundy and Wild Bill Irwin.  It was announced on TV a few weeks before the big holiday card that Hayes would be one of the candidates for referee in the upcoming Kerry-Flair World title clash, with the claim that he had done an exemplary job as a special ref in several championship bouts before coming to Texas.  Naturally, he went on to "win" the fan poll and was appointed to officiate the highly anticipated Christmas night main event. 

Scheduled just prior to that match was the Freebirds' shot at the newly-created World Six-Man title, against opponents Mike Sharpe, Ben Sharpe (Kelly Kiniski) and Tom Steele (Gene Lewis, aka The Mongol), who were supposedly the other finalists in a nationwide tournament.  The crowd heard the announcement that Buddy Roberts, who was scheduled to join his fellow Freebirds for this bout, was unable to make it to Dallas due to an ice storm; David Von Erich volunteered to take Buddy's place, wound up scoring the winning pinfall, and surrendered his share of the titles to Roberts.  (This may have been a last-minute stroke of booking genius on the part of Gary Hart, as there really were legitimate, severe winter storms in several areas of the country that evening, with hundreds of flights being canceled.) 

As David celebrated alongside Hayes and Gordy in the ring with the fans cheering madly, the bond between the Von Erichs and Freebirds appeared unbreakable, and all in attendance that night were nearly breathless with the anticipation that in just a few short minutes, with Hayes enforcing the rules and keeping the always crafty Nature Boy in line, they were guaranteed to see the beloved Modern Day Warrior walk out of the cage with the coveted NWA belt that had long eluded him. 

And the rest -- sayeth the old cliche -- is history.  :)  

Was Fritz Von Erich really faking a heart attack when he collapsed at Christmas Star Wars '87?
Although many current wrestling fans never actually saw it at the time, the story told on numerous occasions in insider newsletters and on websites, and accepted by "smart" fans, is that this infamous angle -- the aftermath of an in-ring beatdown by Terry Gordy, Buddy Roberts, Iceman Parsons and the Angel of Death -- was a tasteless exploitation of the Adkisson family tragedies to boost ticket sales. 

In May 2007, however, video of the incident appeared briefly on YouTube, and something interesting happened: some wrestling message board posters came out in favor of the angle, saying they had liked it all along, while others seeing it for the very first time reacted almost unanimously: was THIS what those sheetwriters had been on their high horse about for all these years?  For this reason, perhaps the time is right to revisit what was allegedly one of WCCW's low points, and bust a few myths.

We are aware, of course, that in WWE's documentary The Triumph and Tragedy of WCCW,  Michael Hayes and Gary Hart, in separate interviews, refer to the premise of this angle as a heart attack.  While we at WCM obviously have the utmost respect for both gentlemen, we must nonetheless disagree with them when it comes to this incident.  Having carefully weighed all the available information and empirical evidence, we are confident that there is no reasonable possibility of the angle having been intentionally booked to look like anything other than an injury (as opposed to heart failure).

We'll agree, however, that the lines of taste were crossed at least once in relation to Fritz's "collapse": the night after it happened, announcer Marc Lowrance was seen in what appeared to be a live and somewhat emotional insert on Championship Sports (a procedure that, up to that point, had been reserved mostly for genuine, non-scripted tragedies, i.e. the deaths of David Von Erich and Gino Hernandez), saying that he had "canceled a scheduled appearance in San Antonio" to inform viewers of the "tragic" incident that had taken place at Reunion Arena.  After footage of the angle was run, Lowrance, seemingly at a loss for words, stated that not much more was known about Fritz's condition at that moment.  (Both of Lowrance's Championship Sports inserts from that evening can now be viewed on YouTube.)  The promotion went so far as to claim that Fritz had been transported to an actual hospital in Dallas (Baylor University Medical Center -- the same complex where Mike Von Erich had nearly died from toxic shock syndrome two years earlier), and even used an exterior shot of that facility during a brief interview segment with the apparently grief-stricken Kevin and Kerry Von Erich.  So although no details were given as to what Fritz was "suffering" from, the suggestion that fans at Reunion had witnessed something that went beyond a mere wrestling angle was unmistakable.

That said, most of the other claims that have been made about this angle over the years simply don't hold up under scrutiny.  Let's take a look at them:
"Fritz faked a heart attack." -- Again, the exact nature of Fritz's "condition" was never actually revealed.  The only time the term "heart attack" was used was when Kevin Von Erich and Marc Lowrance, responding to rumors that were evidently spreading, assured TV viewers that Fritz HAD NOT suffered one.  (It is, however, entirely possible that the way the angle was initially presented on TV inadvertently led those watching at home to assume the worst; see below.) 
"Fritz tried to capitalize on his family's tragedies to boost attendance." -- To begin with, by December of 1987, Fritz had no decision-making power within WCCW.  The angle was booked by Ken Mantell, who, along with Kevin and Kerry Adkisson, had just bought out the promotion; Fritz was appearing solely as talent. Secondly, a look at the tapes of the angle itself, and of subsequent World Class telecasts, proves that while the angle was certainly intended to give WCCW attendance a jumpstart, no mention of any real-life Adkisson family tragedy was made.  Using sympathy angles to build heat and fan interest in a feud is Pro Wrestling Booking 101 -- how is a promotion supposed to stay in business if the tried-and-true formulas of the sport can't be followed for fear of scaring the fans?
"Fritz's condition was said to be improving or worsening depending on attendance levels." -- It is true that Fritz was said to have "taken a turn for the worse" on one show; however, as is revealed in the videotapes from that period, attendance at the Sportatorium remained strong throughout the first quarter of 1988 (thanks in part to a drastic lowering of prices for several shows, with all seats going for five dollars and all food and drinks reduced to fifty cents), after which Fritz's "condition" was no longer being talked about.  Ticket sales in Dallas did begin to decline a bit in the spring, by which time the latest resurrection of the Von Erichs-Freebirds feud (which, admittedly, had been done to death by then) was pretty much fizzling out. Attendance in Fort Worth also was not fluctuating to any meaningful degree; it was, in fact, dead as the proverbial doorknob, as it had been since mid-1986.  A few weeks after the angle took place, WCCW finally began to slowly phase out its presence there; for the first time in literally decades, there were some Monday nights on which no wrestling card was held in the city. By mid-1988, KTVT was taping most of its Championship Sports telecasts at the Sportatorium.
If you have read this far and still doubt what we're saying, and if you have the angle on video, we suggest that you go back and watch it...and pay particular attention to what the Dallas paramedics are doing.  Their actions are perhaps the most solid evidence of all that there was no intent on anyone's part to fake a heart attack -- because they are doing none of the things paramedics would do in a real-life situation of that nature.  If Fritz was supposed to have collapsed due to a heart attack, why aren't they performing CPR or using a portable defibrillator?  Why do they calmly load him onto the gurney and roll him toward the ambulance at a normal rate of speed?  In a real heart attack situation, emergency medical technicians are acutely aware that they have only a very brief window of time to save the victim's life; there was clearly no sense of urgency on their part at Reunion Arena that night.  (However...it must be noted that the footage of the EMTs removing Fritz from the building did NOT air on Championship Sports the night of December 26, 1987; in its initial presentation on TV, the tape cuts off just a few seconds after he slumps to the floor.  Thus, although fans at Reunion could clearly see that Fritz's life was not in danger, those who saw the angle for the first time via KTVT could well have jumped to a far more grave conclusion.  Again, though, we stress that there is nothing to indicate that the angle was intended to look like a heart attack.) 

We respect the writers of insider newsletters and websites and what they have accomplished, and they are of course entitled to their opinions regarding WCCW.  However, fabricating "facts" to support those opinions does nothing for their credibility.

UPDATE [10/20/2017]: With the uploading of numerous syndicated World Class episodes to the WWE Network, any subscriber can now see for themselves what we're talking about. WCCW episode 313 includes complete footage of the angle, including Fritz being taken to the ambulance, which should prove beyond any doubt that Fritz was supposed to have suffered a severe injury. We'd be willing to bet lots of folks didn't see the backstage portion of this footage when it first aired at the end of 1987, and simply accepted on faith what they've read in dirtsheets. We're pleased that the episode has now been made available again, and that all the nonsensical talk about a "worked heart attack" can finally be put to rest, once and for all.

World Class and Jim Crockett Promotions both booked matches that took place in a three-tiered cage. Which promotion used the gimmick first? 

While the gimmick was first conceived at JCP, World Class was the first to actually use it.  As Percy Pringle and others have stated, it was Michael Hayes who informed Ken Mantell of the NWA's plans for a match in a three-tiered cage upon leaving the NWA to return to Texas in February 1988.  The "Triple Dome of Terror", as it was called in WCCW, was first used for two matches (one pitting Hayes against Terry Gordy, the other being a "Triple Dome Texas Roundup" battle royal) at the May 8, 1988 Texas Stadium Parade of Champions card.  

JCP, on the other hand, is known to have used it only once, at the Great American Bash held on July 10 of that same year. In their "Tower of Doom" bout, the Road Warriors, Jimmy and Ronnie Garvin and Steve "Dr. Death" Williams defeated Kevin Sullivan, Mike Rotunda, Ivan Koloff, Al Perez and the Russian Assassin (Dave "Angel of Death" Sheldon under a mask).  This match was released in 2013 on WWE's three-DVD set War Games: WCW's Most Notorious Matches -- a curious choice, but perhaps it was included because the combined length of all the actual televised War Games matches was insufficient to fill three discs.

The gimmick was revived eight years later by WCW for one of the most ludicrous matches ever, in a company well known for its ludicrous booking.  At the 3/24/96 WCW Uncensored PPV, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage "overcame tremendous odds" to emerge victorious from the Tower of Doom over Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Kevin Sullivan, Lex Luger, Meng, the Barbarian, Z-Gangsta (Tom "Tiny" Lister, aka Zeus in WWF) and the Ultimate Solution (WCCW alumnus Jeep Swenson, who sadly would pass away the following year).  

How did Skandor Akbar throw fireballs? 

The General, according to former referee James Beard, did this with some sort of chemical mixture.  However, most wrestlers who have used the fireball gimmick have done it by igniting flash paper (sheets of nitrocellulose which burn brightly within a fraction of a second, commonly used by magicians) with a cigarette lighter.   The late Ed Farhat, who wrestled as The Sheik, was probably the most famous practitioner of this trick other than Akbar. 

 Flash paper is sold damp with distilled water in a resealable bag and, for obvious reasons, must be stored that way until 24 hours before you're ready to use it, whereupon it must be air-dried, one sheet at a time.  As with any pyrotechnic material, trying it at home is not recommended; although it burns quickly, it's still quite hazardous unless you know exactly what you're doing. 

For much, much more than most people would ever want to know about nitrocellulose, click here.