Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Lex Luger: My Hero, 1993

Happy 4th of July to all those in the US celebrating.  Hope you’re having a great day of cookouts, swimming and fireworks with the people who matter most in your life.
On this Independence Day I wanted to look back on one of the most memorable wrestling storylines of the Golden Age, which kicked off exactly 19 years ago today. 

The Slam Heard ‘Round the World

In the summer of 1993, Yokozuna was on top of his game.  He was the WWF Champion, and he was fresh off of beating Hulk Hogan and sending him packing from the company at the first King of the Ring pay per view.  Feeling supremely confident in himself, the 550+ lb champion and his manager Mr. Fuji scheduled an open challenge onboard the historic USS Intrepid aircraft carrier in New York for any athlete, wrestler or otherwise, to try to slam Yokozuna.  If they could do it, they won a new Chevy pick-up truck.  A number of football players, hockey players, basketball players and wrestlers tried to slam the mammoth champion, but nobody could.  Yokozuna taunted the contestants and the crowd by taking time out to eat rice.  Then, one final contestant stepped up to the challenge: Macho Man Randy Savage.  The crowd thought he might be the guy to do it—but it wasn’t meant to be.  The champ was just too big, and he and Fuji had succeeded in proving Japan’s superiority on July 4th.

But just then, as the dejected crowd began to accept that it was over, a helicopter appeared and landed onboard the Intrepid.  The crowd buzzed with excitement wondering who would step out of the chopper to potentially save the day.  It was---Lex Luger…?!?  Up to that point, Lex had been a self-absorbed bad guy.  But on this day he was dressed in red white and blue, walking toward the ring with a purpose, throwing long-time supporter Bobby Heenan out of the way as he went.

When he got to the ring, Lex had a few choice words for Yoko and Fuji, telling them that bloodsuckers like them were the only thing wrong with America.  Despite their assertions that the contest was over, the crowd wouldn’t let the day end without Lex getting his shot.  They squared off and Yoko charged, which Lex dodged like a matador sending Yoko into the turnbuckle.  As he turned around, a bit staggered, Lex picked him up and bodyslammed him.  The crowd went wild and Luger celebrated like a mad man.  Other wrestlers picked him up on their shoulders as he waved American flags.  It was quickly dubbed “The Slam Heard ‘Round the World”. 

And with that, the Summer of Lex Luger was officially kicked off.

The Call to Action Campaign

Lex immediately challenged Yokozuna for the title at Summerslam, but Yoko and Fuji declined the match.  So, Lex did what any warm-blooded American would do—he took his campaign to the people.  Dubbed the “Call to Action Campaign”, Lex spent several weeks in the Summer of ’93 traversing the country on a bus called “The Lex Express”.  He was shaking hands, kissing babies, signing autographs and making his case to the American people.  Now, why exactly he needed to make his case to the American people when the challenger for the title was not decided by popular vote is not completely clear.  But it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the Call to Action Campaign produced the single most epic montage video in the history of professional wrestling.  I present to you, “I’ll Be Your Hero”:

There are so many great things about this video that it’s difficult to list them all. But a few of my favorites include:

  • the 80s-esque soundtrack
  • the “dramatic” camera shot of the Lex Express in the distance, gradually getting closer
  • Overlaid images of great Americans like a soldier, the Iwo Jima Memorial, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln
  • Lex wearing lightweight “stars and bars” sweats seemingly everywhere, including while sleeping on the Lex Express, hugging an American Flag pillow
  • Lex flexing in front of Niagra falls
  • Lex standing on top of the Lex Express and posing in front of Mount Rushmore
  • Lex’s expression at 3:15
  • Lex posing with a number of disabled kids
  • Lex wearing a fanny pack seemingly everywhere

Eventually the campaign accomplished its goal, and Lex was awarded his title shot against Yokozuna at Summerslam 1993.  

The Match

The stipulations indicated that it would be Lex’s one and only shot at the WWF tile.  As the crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills waved flags and chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A”, Lex battled it out with the monstrous champion.  Lex eventually slammed Yoko once more, slightly less cleanly than the Slam Heard ‘Round the World.  With his patented running forearm, Lex was able to knock the behemoth out of the ring and win the match via count-out.  Unfortunately, the title cannot change hands via count-out.  As balloons fell from the ceiling and “The Stars & Stripes Forever” blared, Lex celebrated the win with other wrestlers, but it was a bittersweet victory as he was not able to win the title.

Lex went on to captain a team of “All-Americans” to a victory over The Foreign Fanatics at Summerslam 1993.  At the 1994 Royal Rumble, he was named co-winner along with Bret Hart, which set up a rematch with Yokozuna for the championship at Wrestlemania X.  While Luger clearly outwrestled Yokozuna and had him pinned, special guest referee (and former Luger nemesis) Mr. Perfect disqualified Lex for putting his hands on an official.  Lex would never reach his goal of winning the WWF title.  After feuding with Tatanka and the Million Dollar Corporation through the rest of 1994 and briefly teaming with the British Bulldog in early 1995, Lex left the WWF to return to WCW.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

This is one of my favorite wrestling angles of all time, because I feel that it really captured the essence of wrestling in the Golden Age.  All of the patriotism, the oversized and seemingly unbeatable heel, the muscle-bound face, the flag-waving, the cheesy montage… others may sneer at that paradigm for wrestling, writing it off as “wrestlecrap”.  But in its time it was awesome, and I love going back to watch it.  It was an era when wrestlers were larger than life, giants among men.  And wrestling matches weren’t just contests to see who got to wear a piece of gold around their waist, they were clashes of the titans to determine who was the best in the world.   

Conventional wisdom among the internet wrestling fan community is that the All-American storyline was a major failure for the WWF.  I wouldn’t deny that maybe it wasn’t exactly what they thought it would be.  From the moment the chopper began its descent onto the Intrepid, fans clearly thought it was going to be Hulk Hogan coming out to slam Yoko and save the day for the USA.  That was perfectly logical since after all, Hulk had wrestled at WWF King of the Ring just 3 weeks earlier, and back then nobody had the internet to clue us in when wrestlers were changing companies.  When it was Lex who showed up, people were clearly a bit disappointed; and since he had up to that point been a heel, fans were not as quick to latch on to him. 

WWE put the full strength of their hype machine behind Lex, and I personally enjoyed it.  But in truth, they were clearly trying to make Lex their new Hulk overnight which was simply impossible.  Lex may have been good, but nobody can walk in Hogan’s footsteps.  You can’t just recreate Hulkamania in the span of a month or two, no matter how good your marketing people are.  I think the summer of 1993 probably made that clear for Vince McMahon, who prior to that liked to think that his creativity and marketing were what really made Hulkamania explode.

Plus, by 1993, it wasn’t really what fans wanted anymore.  It was still a few years before the formal beginning of the Attitude Era, but by '93 fans had had enough of super-faces.  The crowd may not have been ready for the full-out anti-hero like Stone Cold Steve Austin yet, but they’d had enough of muscle-bound, flag-waiving, baby kissing good guys and they wanted something different.  Lex, in his stars and bars sweatpants and fanny pack, represented more of the same.  To that extent, I think WWF/Vince McMahon inadvertently set Lex up to fail by failing to realize that consumer preferences had evolved from the late 1980s.

But overall, I still think that angle went fairly well.  If you listen to the crowd at Summerslam 1993, they’re still very solidly in Lex’s corner.  A good portion of the fans were rooting for him to be crowned the winner of the Royal Rumble the next year and fans were solidly behind him again at Wrestlemania X.  Whatever his reasons were, Vince decided not to go through with the title change at Summerslam 1993, giving the fans a very unsatisfying count-out finish instead.  The common refrain about the storyline has thus become “Well, Lex just wasn’t getting over enough.  It just wasn’t working.  So they couldn’t give him the title.”  I disagree.  I don’t think giving the title to Lex at Summerslam 1993 would have been a disaster at all.  I think it would have been met with a favorable reaction from the crowd, just like Bret’s title wins in 1992 and 1994 were.  The decision to not give Lex the belt has changed most people’s perspectives on how the storyline actually went, in my opinion.  People assume that Lex must not have been too well-received if Vince didn’t give him the title, but in truth, the casual fan was very much behind Lex in ‘93.  I certainly have my issues with Lex Luger, particularly around his treatment of Miss Elizabeth in the weeks and months leading up to her death, and he doesn’t seem to have the greatest of reputations among other wrestlers of the era.  But I think his performance in the All American role was as much as you could have asked for, and I certainly have fond memories of what I consider to be a great summer for wrestling.

Until next time, enjoy the musical stylings of "Rappin'" Randy Savage and M.O.M.:

Happy 4th!