Into the Indies 03.09.10: NWA On the Mat
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Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Into the Indies, the only column on 411mania that knows when it’s business time.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when I reviewed a little bit of Perros Del Mal, a lot of people tend to think of this as a column about Japanese professional wrestling, when, in reality, my goal has always been to highlight lower level professional wrestling from all countries other than the United States. Unfortunately, I haven’t done too horribly well in accomplishing that goal, primarily because my best sources for international grappling just happen to be those that provide me with footage from the Land of the Rising Sun.
However, in recent weeks I’ve made a concerted effort to branch out more, and the most recent fruit of that labor has been my stumbling across a little website called NZ on Screen, which, as near as I can tell, is dedicated to archiving some of the best film and television to come out of the island nation of New Zealand. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, there was always at least one television station in every major market which aired a professional wrestling show shot in a local studio in order to add some inexpensive yet popular programming to its lineup. Given that fact, it’s not surprising at all to learn that a little bit of wrestling history has been archived as part of the NZ on Screen project.
The show in question is NWA On the Mat, the television show of an NWA-affiliated promotion run by Steve Rickard. Rickard was a former police officer from Wellington who wrestled regularly in Australia throughout the 1960’s and became a part of the very popular promotion named World Championship Wrestling that American Jim Barnett ran in Oz for roughly a decade. Towards the end of his run promoting in the country, Barnett attempted to expand his territory into New Zealand, assisted by Rickard. However, before the project could go very far, Barnett sold his interest in the WCW promotion so that he could return to working in the United States. Rickard, undeterred, decided that he was going to open his own NWA territory in his home country, and “On the Mat” became the weekly television show for that promotion. The show lasted from 1975 through 1983, and, during that time, it featured both local wrestlers as well as major stars from overseas, including guys like the Sheik, Harley Race, and King Curtis Iaukea.
There are two episodes of NWA On the Mat currently online at NZ on TV, the first of which aired on July 29, 1980 and the second of which aired on March 17, 1981, and I’ve decided to take a look at the both in today’s column. Because it only makes sense, let’s go ahead and get started with the 1980 episode . . .
Ernie Leonard and promoter Steve Rickard are your hosts, and they open the show by introducing the fans to Billy T. James, apparently some kind of radio personality who is in the crowd. Rickard runs down the card for the evening in a very thick accent, and we go to the ring~!
Match Numero Uno: Larry O’ Day & Merv Fortune vs. Kid Hardie & Ricky Rickard
Things we need more of in modern professional wrestling: Guys named Merv.
O’ Day (alternatively spelled O’ Dea) is an Australian who has come over to New Zealand for Rickard’s promotion. He was one of the bigger native stars of the Barnett World Championship Wrestling promotion and even owned a portion of the company at one point. Territorial wrestling fans from the United States might remember him as one half of a creatively named tag team called “The Australians” with partner Ron Miller, as the two appeared in Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia over the years. In some territories, for reasons that I do not understand, they were billed as “Alaskans” instead of Australians. O’Day’s partner for this match, Merv Fortune, is perhaps one of the ten plum-ugliest heels in wrestling history and a native New Zealander who spent the majority of his career there in addition to doing periodic tours of Australia and Southeast Asia.
They’re up against a couple of young, white meat babyfaces here. Hardie is one of the more obscure wrestlers here, as, quite frankly, I can’t find any information about him aside from the fact that he wrestled on the two episodes of On the Mat that I’m reviewing today. Rickard, meanwhile, is the son of Steve Rickard and appears to be in his early twenties at the time of this match. My understanding is that his in-ring professional wrestling career was relatively short but that he continued to promote his own tours for several years thereafter. His brother – and Steve’s other son – Tony Rickard is also the referee for this bout, so, in what is probably a bit of a rarity, we’ve got members of the same family wrestling in, refereeing, and commentating on the same match at the same time without it being part of an active storyline.
Fortune and Hardie start off the match, with the Kid controlling early thanks to an armbar. Rickard makes his way into the ring and continues to work the arm. Merv tries to hiptoss his way out, but Ricky holds on to the hold and rolls through with it, eventually bringing Hardie back into the ring. He drops some clubbing blows across his opponent’s limb and continues to crank on it for a while. Rickard checks back into the ring, and Fortunate again fails at reversing the armbar, getting kicked straight in the face by his opponent. Eventually Ricky’s armbar becomes a primitive version of the cross arm breaker, and, once again, we trade off to Hardie for more armbarrery. Merv manages to get a handful of hair, though, and that allows him to pull Hardie back into his corner so that Larry O’ Day can tag in for the first time in the match. Fortune and O’ Day trade off a few times, pummeling Hardie with various legal strikes, after which Merv lands a backbody drop and cranks on a chinlock. O’ Day takes over on the chinlock for a while, but he applies it oddly so that Kid can crawl on his knees to make the hot tag. Fortune runs in to cut off Ricky’s momentum. He’s taken out by a Rickard kneelift, but the distraction allows O’ Day to send Ricky shoulder-first into the post. That sets up more generic pummeling from the heels, including a bodyscissors by big, bad Merv. Rickard does manage to turn around in the hold and nail Fortune across the chest with some forearms, but that’s not enough to get him to his partner for a tag. A kneelift does get that tag, though, and now it’s Hardie’s turn to clean house. He hiptosses and bodyslams everythign that moves, after which we get a GREAT crowd shot of a grandmother in a brown overcoat who is far too in to the match. Hardie gives O’ Day a monkey flip of all things, but, as he attempts a second version of the move, Larry blocks it and sends his opponent over the top rope. It’s 1980, so that is cause for an immediate disqualification.
Match Thoughts: There was nothing mindblowing here, but it was a perfectly acceptable professional wrestling match given the era and the fact that the whole point of televised bouts at the time was holding back so that the crowds would have something special to see on the promotion’s live shows. (In fact, given the background of a guy like O’ Day, I’m surprised that they even gave a match of his away on television . . . though that may have been a rarity.) All four guys stuck to a very basic match structure and very basic offense during the course of the contest, but they were all so good at the basics – especially the heels – that it all wound up being fairly entertaining. **
O’Day and Fortune are interviewed immediately after the match is over, with Larry blaming his loss on “Dopey Hardie” falling over the top rope. Things we need more of in modern professional wrestling: Guys named Merv and grown men calling each other dopes.
The radio personality from earlier in the show has a few words with host Ernie Leonard, and, in a wink-and-nod sort of moment, he assures the fans at home that this is “all real.”
After that early insider comment, Leonard mentions that, some time ago on NWA On the Mat, there was a duo featured who went by the names of Sweet William and Brute Miller. He tells us that William and Miller have been off working in the United States for the last little while but that they are getting ready to make their return to New Zealand within the next few weeks. To hype up their return, we get to see excerpts from an old “duration match” featuring Miller and William against the Polynesian team of Lu Leota and Samoan Joe (no relation). A duration match, for those of you wondering, is an old style of match in which wrestlers would fight each other with the winner being the man or team who could score the most falls prior to the remaining television time running out, or, in the case of older live events, the curfew for the arena expiring. The clip begins, and, holy crap, Miller and William ARE THE BUSHWACKERS~! Both of them have actual ring gear and big honking mullets, which is quite the change from what most of us are used to. William tears at the face of Lu Leota, who is awesome in my book if for no other reason than because he has the old school Samoan tattoos of the sort that you would see on guys like Peter Maivia. Miller tags in but has some difficulty with the Samoan, who surprises him by ducking under a clothesline. William returns to try to reign things back in for his team, but he fares no better and Leota gets the tag. Leota has a brief offensive flurry, but he’s ultimately double teamed by the Kiwis and hit with a two-man gutbuster. That gets Miller and William a fall, at which point our excerpt comes to a close.
Match Numero Dos: Jack Clayborne vs. Ron Miller
Miller, as I mentioned earlier, was one of the big stars of Australian wrestling’s heyday alongside Larry O’ Day, and he was also O’ Day’s tag team partner in the United States as well as his business partner as one of the co-owners of World Championship Wrestling. During his in-ring career in Australia, Miller was usually the local favorite chosen to go up against NWA Champions Dory Funk and Harley Race when they would come in to work the NWA circuits in that country. His opponent here is billed as Jack Claybourne, but fans in North America probably know him better as Eddie Morrow. He’s the brother of “Champagne” Gerry Morrow, and, though both Eddie and Gerry worked regularly in Canadian territories throughout the 1970’s, Gerry became the bigger star of the two in that country while Eddie moved on to Australia. I don’t know why he was renamed Jack Claybourne, but it may be a reference to any early African American wrestling star of the same name who was popular in the 1930’s and 1940’s when segregation required that he could not wrestle white opponents in many U.S. states.
This, like the match the Bushwacker highlights were taken from, is a duration bout. What we need more of in modern wrestling: Guys named Merv, grown men calling each other dopes, and duration matches.
The wrestlers lock up at the bell, and Claybourne surprises his man with a quick hiptoss. Another lockup leads to the same result, so Miller responds with a hammerlock. Claybourne regains a vertical base and picks his opponent’s leg to escape, after which Miller tries to beal Claybourne when he runs off the ropes, only for Miller to avoid it with a cartwheel. Claybourne goes to a cravate and takes his man down in that hold. Miller is eventually able to stand up and tries to escape with a bodyslam, but Claybourne holds on and rolls with the slam so that he still has the cravate applied when the move is completed. Eventually Miller forces his man into the ropes to force a break and shoots Claybourne in for a back body drop. It gets a nearfall, but Claybourne sees an opening and immediately goes back to the cravate. He hits a knee strike out of the hold, but that was a bit of a mistake, as it gives Miller an opening to work a headlock for a bit. Claybourne responds by rolling him up for two and hitting a hiptoss, though. A second rollup by Claybourne is reversed, and, before you know it, Ron Miller uses a sunset flip to win the first fall of this duration match.
Shoulderblocks start the second fall, and Miller wins on those before taking his man down with a drop toe hold and follows it up with a leglock of sorts. Claybourne grabs one of Miller’s free arms and tries to crank on it to get Ron to release the toehold. Eventually the tactic works, after which Claybourne gets another armdrag and a somewhat bastardized version of a judo throw to set up another armbar. Miller reverses briefly but winds up getting kicked, and now Claybourne gets the sunset flip. Miller manages to kick out at two, but Jack stays on him and hits a backbreaker for another nearfall. The two men jockey for position and roll into the ropes, getting stood up by the referee. Claybourne’s next trick is a dropkick, and, as soon as he hits it, the bell rings.
As a result, Ron Miller is your winner of this duration match, leading one fall to zero when time expired.
Match Thoughts: The duration rules make this match a little bit difficult to compare to regular matches, as usually the point of a regular match is to build up to some kind of finish whereas the point of a duration match is quite literally just to fill up the remaining amount of time left on the show. I suppose that, if the wrestlers kept close track of time, they could attempt to build to some kind of finish related to the time limit, but, by and large, the structure of the match seems to be based more around giving the fans a couple of highspots that they can remember combined with a lot of simple grappling meant to fill in the time in between the highspots. It was entertaining for what it was, and Claybourne in particular seemed to have some real athletic prowess, even though this would have been towards the end of his career. **1/2
Miller, in his post-match interview puts over Claybourne as a fine opponent and then informs Larry O’ Day that he’s gunning for him in any sort of match. Steve Rickard, conducting the interview, says “I’d really like to see that match very much.” What we need more of in modern wrestling: Guys named Merv, grown men calling each other dopes, duration matches, and understated announcers.
That’s where episode one closes . . . now on to March 17, 1981!
Barry Holland has replaced Ernie Leonard as our host, and he explains that Ernie has taken on a new role in production of the show. Steve Rickard is back, however, and he’s apparently been on some international tours of Southeast Asia and Africa, where he claims that NWA On the Mat airs. He lists several big names who will be coming to the promotion “this season,” including Abdullah the Butcher, Bret Hart, and, “hopefully,” the Sheik. Rickard reads a letter that he has received from Larry O’ Day, which challenges Steve to a match for his Commonwealth Title. The basis for the challenge? Apparently O’ Day at some point broke the leg of Rickard’s son. I’m assuming that’s Ricky.
Match Numero Uno: Big Malumba & Kid Hardie vs. Mark Lewin & Con Iakovidis
Hardie apparently turned heel at some point in between the last show and this one. Here he’s tagging up with Big Malumba, a very large man doing a voodoo priest gimmick. I believe that this is Jerry “Big Red” Reese, a journeyman wrestler (who later became a televangelist) from Georgia who had the majority of his American wrestling success down in Texas. They’re up against Mark Lewin, whose name should be familiar to every territorial wrestling fan in the United States, though those same fans may not realize that he spent quite some time in Australia during his career and became perhaps that country’s biggest foreign wrestling star before moving on to New Zeland. He’s got Con Iakovidis on his team, who is a wrestler born in Australia of Greek extraction. Despite his Australian birth and Greek heritage, Con’s biggest fame in professional wrestling actually came in the Hart family’s Stampede Wrestling territory, as he trained in the Dungeon and then worked for the Harts for several years under the name Con Kovidis. He’s the son of a wrestler who was known as Alex Iakovidis.
Iakovidis and Hardie kick things off for their respective teams, with the Greek getting an early armdrag and an armbar. We get a very uncomfortable extended, tight camera shot of Con’s buttocks and hairy upper thighs. That’s something we DON’T need more of in modern wrestling. Hardie eventually reverses the armbar into one of his own and drops a knee for a one count before slapping on a headlock. A kneelift from the Kid sets up a tag to Malumba, but Con also manages to tag his partner. Lewin almost immediately throws the “South African” out of the ring through the ropes, then introducing him to the post before reentering the squared circle. Malumba comes back in as well, and he does land a few chops on Lewin before hitting a snap mare. It has no effect on Mark, though, as he makes a comeback until Hardie grabs him from the apron and chokes him with the tag rope. The heels pound on Lewin in their corner for an extended period of time before Lewin just sort of walks away and tags in Iakovidis. He dropkicks Hardie repeatedly to knock him over the top rope and to the floor. Malumba runs in at this point and gets caught in the Greek’s headlock . . . but he simply lifts the smaller man up and drops him crotch first over the top rope. Iakovidis sells it big time, and, in 1981, that’s enough for the heels to get disqualified.
Match Thoughts: This was an interesting match to compare and contrast with the matches on the prior episode of On the Mat reviewed here, as the early bouts focused on more of a mat-based, technical style and resembled television matches from Jim Crockett Promotions from around the same period. Lewin’s presence in the ring turned it into a smaller, more reserved version of the wild brawls for which he was famous, obviously holding a good deal back because this wasn’t a major event. However, Lewin’s opponent in the brawl wasn’t another legendary “wild man” of the time like the Sheik, Tiger Jeet Singh, or Terry Funk. It was Big Malumba, who didn’t bring nearly as much to the table as those significantly more talented wrestlers. Aside from the mediocre brawl, Iakovidis looked good in spots but didn’t have all that much of an opportunity to showcase his skills. *
Malumba attempts to continue his assault after the bell, but Lewin wards him off. Lewin gets a post-match interview and explains the reason for some very odd red marks on the side of his head. They are apparently burns from an incident which took place in “Japan,” in which he was hit by a fireball thrown by the original Sheik. He understands that the Sheik will be in New Zealand soon, and he makes it clear that the Madman from the Sudan will be dealt with as soon as he shows up on the Island.
Lewin sets up some tape from the supposed Japanese match, where he is wrestling King Curtis Iaukea. (The footage actually looks a lot more like something out of Detroit, and it may not even have been recent.) Lewin catches Iaukea in a sleeper hold, at which point the Sheik pops up on the ring apron and hits him with the fire ball. Shiek continues his assault after the match, gnawing away at Lewin’s back as Bobo Brazil and others attempt to make the save. Once the tape is done, Lewin’s rant is interrupted by Kid Hardie and Malumba, who say that they don’t care about his grudge with the Sheik. The Kid lays out a challenge to Lewin on behalf of Malumba for a no disqualification match. That segues into a Lewin-Malumba brawl, which Malumba actually wins by repeatedly driving a voodoo doll into Lewin’s throat until “foam” spews forth out from Lewin’s mouth. It was pretty hokey in retrospect, but the studio audience seemed to be buying it.
Match Numero Dos: Johnny Garcia vs. Samoan Joe
Yes, it’s another DURATION MATCH~!, this one pitting Johnny Garcia against Samoan Joe. Joe, who we last saw battling the future Bushwackers, has no real connection with the grapller who we all currently known as Samoa Joe. Competing on NWA On the Mat was probably the biggest accomplishment of his career, though he also got some work in Australia at various points. Johnny Garcia is the brother of Tony Garea, who most readers will probably know as a four-time WWWF Tag Team Champion who somehow parlayed that in to an agent’s job which, to the best of my knowledge, he continues to hold in WWE to this very day. Garea’s fame got brother Johnny in to the WWWF and various other US territories for some shots, though his career was primarily spent in New Zealand and Australia as opposed to North America.
Garcia has not been seen for a while on On the Mat according the announcers, because he has been busy running his own business in Auckland. Apparently he’s not good enough to quit his day job. The two wrestlers do some quick armbar and hammerlock exchanges early on, with niether getting a clear advantage until Joe scores with a headlock takedown. Garcia gets up to a vertical base and shoots him off the ropes, landing a hiptoss but getting caught immediately thereafter by the Samoan’s dropkick and caught again in his headlock. Johnny responds with an armbar and drops his leg across the outstretched limb. Joe eventually manages to pop up and go right back to the headlock, then connecting with another shoulderblock before getting hiptossed and trapped again in Garcia’s armbar. Joe escapes and looks for a sunset flip, but he only gets two. Garcia gets the same result off of a cradle and then a monkey flip, which is referred to by Rickard as a “Japanese stomach throw.” The two wrestlers jockey for position in a Greco-Roman knuckle lock, which ultimately turns in to Samoan Joe attempting to roll Garcia over for a Boston crab. As he looks for the hold, the bell rings and we have a zero fall to zero fall DRAW.
Match Thoughts: Well, this went back to the more technical style that I was talking about after match number one, but it still wasn’t particularly interesting. My understanding of Joe was that he was nothing more than an undercard wrestler on these shows while Garcia, as pointed out on commentary, wasn’t exactly full-time with the group at this point. The result was a crowd who sounded like it could not have cared less, especially given the fact that they’d just watched what, at the time, would have been a fairly heavy angle with Mark Lewin and Big Malumba. The crowd brought it down a fair deal, and the wrestlers weren’t doing that much to get them back with it . . . a technically competent match, though I have a hard time figuring out why anybody was supposed to care about it. *
After the match, Rickard speaks with Samoan Joe and Con Iakovidis. Zero of note is said, though it’s interesting that Iakovidis was allowed to talk given that they were talking about him earlier as though he were from Greece. Him cutting a promo pretty well kills that gimmick, as it reveals that, even though he looks very Greek, he’s got just as big of a New Zealand accent as everybody else on the show.
And that fairly unremarkable interview brings the show to a close!
Though they aren’t epic programs that I’m going to watch time and time again, these two episodes of NWA On the Mat were very fun to watch as a curiosity, a look into an old territory that I, as an American, have almost never seen or even heard discussed. There were certainly some talented wrestlers there, both in terms of the natives and in terms of the American wrestlers that Steve Rickard announced that they were bringing into the territory. O’ Day and Miller in particular seemed to be guys who could do fine jobs of carrying territories on this level and be credible contenders for World Heavyweight Champions of the era. Though it will probably never happen, these shows created an interest in me in seeing more from the New Zealand territory, if for no other reason than to document some of the forgotten career moments of US wrestlers who heavily toured abroad.
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See you all next week!