Saturday, July 14, 2012

Everything I Needed To Know I Learned From Pro Wrestling (Pt. 3--The Original Pearl Harbor Job)

As you may have seen from my previous posts, I have been a fan of pro wrestling for most of my life.  I have already written about the art and artistry of cage matches, but today I want to write about tag teams.  In wrestling, a "tag team" involves teams of two or more wrestlers, only one of whom can (legally) be in the ring at the same time.  To switch places, the wrestlers must "tag" each other (usually on the hand). In most televised pro wrestling, the "babyface" or good guy team is in the upper left of your screen, while the "heel" or bad guy team is in the lower right.  Often during a tag match something will happen to "distract" the referee;  while his back is turned, the heels work over the face in full view of the fans.  Meanwhile the other babyface is emotionally worked up, waiting for the "hot tag" to come in and "clean house". 

It should be obvious by now that there is lots of specialized jargon in professional wrestling.  This has always been part of what I loved about "sports entertainment".  For instance, when I was a kid we boys would often play a game called "mercy", where we would try to twist the other person's hands until they cried for surcease.  Well, the others called it "mercy", but as a wrestling fan, I always thought of it as "the test of strength".  I have also picked up other catch phrases from wrestling broadcasters.  In my youth, a prominent commentator on wrestling shows was the late, legendary Gorilla Monsoon.  Monsoon, who grew up in the 1940's did not have a "politically correct" bone in his body, and so some of his expressions were tinged with what would nowadays be an unacceptable level of, shall we say, ethnic references.  One of them is when a wrestler (a heel, or a former face becoming bad who was making a "heel turn") would make an unexpected sneak attack on the babyface.  Monsoon called this a "Pearl Harbor Job".

I have written previously about a match that I have never forgotten, which to me was the ORIGINAL "Pearl Harbor Job".  The end of the match is indelibly burned into my brain as the prime example of wrestling treachery.  Well, thanks to the magic of YouTube, I just watched the match again for the first time in 31 years.  It is as I remembered, but there were so many other awesome details, that I thought I would do an in-depth analysis of the match.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

The tape begins with Gorilla Monsoon giving an overview of the match.  The announcers of the match appear to be Vince McMahon (the owner of the company, though that was not public knowledge in those days) and Pat Patterson (with the French-Canadian accent). This match is for the Tag Team Championship, pitting the babyface champs Tony Garea and Rick Martel against the heel team of Mr. Fuji and Mr. Saito, accompanied by their manager Captain Lou Albano (two years before gaining mainstream appeal thanks to Cyndi Lauper).

The videotape states that the match took place on October 31, 1981 in "Philidelphia" [sic].  In other sources I have seen the date written as October 13th, in Allentown.   But regardless, the show went on air when I was 11 years old, in sixth grade. Mr. Fuji (who is really American) and Mr. Saito are introduced as two "international stars", though Garea and Martel (New Zealander and Canadian) are implied to be American.  Monsoon mentions that the challengers are joined by Captain Lou, seeking to once again manage tag team champs.  Albano is wearing a kimono of sorts, which probably explains Monsoon's anachronistic description ("Captain Louis Albano, who as you will see, has gone completely Oriental").  Prior to the match, Fuji and Saito bless the ring with salt in the manner of Japanese sumo wrestlers.  Mr. Fuji even wrestles barefoot to strengthen the reference to sumo, though he is not nearly heavy enough to look like a sumo wrestler.

The match starts out with Mr. Fuji facing Rick Martel.  They circle each other warily, but Martel, 20 years younger and world champ, has a confident spring in his step.  A leapfrog, followed by an arm drag, followed by a body slam followed by another arm drag has Martel dancing in the ring, while Mr. Fuji tags out to Mr. Saito.  It makes no difference, as Martel immediately drops his opponent with an arm drag followed by an arm bar.  Tony Garea tags in, while the announcers tell us that he and his partner are "fighting champions" who are not reluctant to defend their titles in a "series of matches with Fuji and Saito".   Garea continued to dominate Saito, and after a tag to Fuji, rapidly took down the fresh man, stomping on his shoulder over by the babyface corner.  Martel tags back in and continues to work on Fuji's shoulder.  Fuji throws Martel off the ropes, but Rick counters with a cross body press that gets a count of two for a near fall.  Then right back to the attack on Mr. Fuji's right arm. 

What with that move, and all the arm bars, it would seem that the champions' strategy was to focus on weakening the shoulders of their opponents.  In wrestling, the grapplers try to tell a story and utilize "ring psychology".  In other words, spectators should be able to discern the wrestlers' tactics and see for themselves what is happening (and why) without the benefit of announcers.  And for the TV audience, the announcers should reinforce this with graphic descriptions of the pain and suffering of the combatants.  Something interesting about this video is that there are long stretches where the announcers are silent, but the crowd is constantly cheering, whistling and exclaiming their interest.  Clearly these tag teams managed to "get over" with the audience.

About three minutes into the match, things turn about suddenly when Mr. Saito took Tony Garea into the corner and chopped him hard across the chest, followed by running him over to the heel corner, where he slammed the champ's head into Mr. Fuji's fist.  At this point the heels went to work in classic fashion.  Saito tagged in Fuji, but on his way out distracted the referee, who did not see Fuji chop Garea across the windpipe.  When I was young I would get SO ANGRY about distracted refs in tag team matches.  Which is exactly the point: "marks" should be taken in and made upset by the bad guys breaking the rules. 

Things began to get very bad for Tony Garea.  Mr. Fuji took him down with a vicious chop to the chest followed by a head slam to the turnbuckle.  Mr. Saito came in and got a near fall, but Garea valiantly kicked out.  The champ tried (for the first of many times) to crawl to his corner for a tag, but Mr. Saito stopped him just short of Martel's outstretched hand.  At this point (Act II, if you will), the story of the match changed.  Tony Garea played the role of "the face in peril".  In the middle of most tag matches, the heels gang up on one of the faces and never let him tag out.  Meanwhile, his partner is desperately trying for the "hot tag", where he saves his partner and takes out his (and the fans') frustrations (listen to the oohs and ahs of the audience during the failed tags--it is awesome!).

Garea keeps getting beaten from pillar to post, kicking out of pinning predicaments and constantly failing to  make the tag.  Patterson reminds us that "Tony needs to make the tag soon or it will be big trouble", but the challengers just get stronger and stronger.   Patterson tells us that "Fuji and Saito are very vicious, very sneaky, you never know what they are going to do, you can never turn your back to them", just as Mr. Fuji makes another illegal chop to Garea's throat.

Racial and ethnic stereotypes are a key part of pro wrestling.  Part of the way that wrestlers can carry out their non-verbal communication with an audience of thousands (or millions) is by playing off the preconceived notions stuck in our lizard brains.  The WWE has shown us Iranian heels (the Iron Sheik) in the 1970's and 80's, Russian heels in the Cold War period (Nikolai Volkoff), and even French heels in the leadup to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  While the US has not been enemies with Japan since the Second World War, that epoch is emblazoned in our brains thanks to movies and TV shows.  And, of course, as Gorilla Monsoon pointed out, nothing was more "vicious" and "sneaky", than the events of the "Day that Will Live In Infamy".

The beating of Tony Garea continues, as we are told that "it looks like Garea is hurt...he seems to be in a daze".  But he refuses to give in.  Patterson muses that "Rick Martel must be frustrated...he cannot come in the ring to save Tony Garea, but once he does...I hope he does..." indicating that the announcers also support the babyfaces.   At this point, as Mr. Saito is blatantly choking Garea (though the ref cannot see it), Rick Martel has had enough, and comes charging in to break the hold.  But he is hoist on his own petard as the referee immediately sends him back to his corner.  And of course, while this is going on, Mr. Fuji and Captain Lou both join in the torture of Tony Garea.

After this is broken up, Saito and Albano leave the ring, leaving Mr. Fuji to continue the attack.  As Vince tells us, "Mr. Fuji should not be in there...he's not the legal man in the ring!"  To explain things for us, Patterson resorts to some cultural blindness: "Well, they both have the same color tights and they almost look alike, a little bit...they are very sneaky, there's no question about it".  Besides the fact that only one man was barefoot (Fuji) and only one had a full beard (Saito), this is pretty far fetched.  But the referee was fooled, and the attack continued.

Meanwhile, Rick Martel was on the ring apron loudly exhorting his partner, and the crowd got into it.  The whole building was chanting "let's go Tony", and it seemed to work.  Garea seemed to derive new energy from the fans, pulling himself to his feet, punching Fuji twice with strong right hands, and finally scooping him up and slamming him to the canvas!   Unfortunately, instead of running for the tag, he pushed his luck by trying for a dropkick.  But the canny Mr. Fuji foiled the move, and he and Mr. Saito continued to punish Tony Garea.   Vince admiringly told us that "you've gotta take your hat off to Tony Garea.  It's like he's going on pure instinct...he's had the bejeezus knocked out of him", but it was clear that Vince thought Garea was a spent force.  Then another double team in the heel corner led a frustrated Martel to rush the ring.  While the official was pushing him away, Captain Lou joined in for another 3 on 1 beatdown of the champ.

But then, a miracle!  Mr. Saito threw Garea into the corner, but Tony avoided his big splash.  Garea crawled to his corner and dove for the hot tag.  The crowd erupted in release of the tension that had been building for over five minutes.  Rick Martel came in like a house afire, clapping and dancing while "cleaning house on Mr. Saito" and slugging Mr. Fuji off the apron for good measure.  Martel gets a dropkick on Mr. Saito, and Tony Garea runs in to save his partner from Mr. Fuji's illegal entry.

Then, while the referee pushes Garea out of the ring, Mr. Fuji (still in the ring) seems to be getting some advice from Captain Lou.  He is still in the ring as Rick Martel runs to the heel corner to go to the top rope and leap onto Mr. Saito.  But as he is mounting the turnbuckle, Mr. Fuji reaches into the waistband of his tights and pulls out a foreign object of some sort.  What could it be?  Martel goes out on the apron and climbs up, while the crowd reaches a fever pitch.  But the treacherous Mr. Fuji has risen to his feet and we see that he has a handful of salt!  Just as Martel dives off the ropes Fuji throws the salt full force into the champion's face.  He lands on Saito, but the challenger rolls him over for a quick three count and there are new tag team champs!  Fuji, Saito and Captain Lou get the belts while Martel writhes in agony on the mat, impotently gripped by his partner.  All the while, Vince and Pat are saying "I can't believe it...Did you see what Mr. Fuji did?...The referee did not see what happened...

 I am not trying to convince you that this is the greatest match of all-time.  But in nine minutes and forty-eight seconds, we were able to see a match that fulfilled nearly all the tropes of an effective tag team matchup while also displaying traditional ethnic stereotypes.  The match is neat to watch for what is different back then (the ring is lower to the ground, the wrestlers' moves are more conservative) and what is surprisingly the same (both Fuji and Garea have tattoos, which was much rarer in 1981).  But for me, it is unbelievably satisfying to realize that this match imprinted itself permanently in my 11 year old mind.  And now you can see it for yourself.


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