Sunday, August 21, 2011

Everything I Needed To Know I Learned From Pro Wrestling (Pt. 2--Cage Matches)

As I've already noted in this space, I have been a fan of professional wrestling for over thirty years.  One of the things I appreciate about wrestling is the storyline aspect of a good match.  When things are done right, two grapplers will battle over and over again, sometimes exchanging victories, until there is a final showdown.  This showdown (known as the "blow-off" in wrestling vernacular) is often timed to take place at a major event; which in the case of large national promotions like the WWE,  would be a Pay Per View (PPV) event.

Of course, it isn't always cut and dried.  Many times the rivalry is between a good guy (a "babyface") and a bad guy (a "heel").  In these cases, you can never expect the heel to play by the rules.  Chances are, at some point in the build up he will have won by cheating, perhaps using one of the following methods:
  • using a foreign object, like a chair
  • getting assistance from a partner, a manager, or a valet
  • distracting the referee so that he misses an obvious violation of the rules
Regardless of how it happens, if enough tension has built up between the two wrestlers, the blow-off needs to be something that guarantees a final victory for one of the contestants.  For decades, the best way to ensure this is to have the match take place "inside a steel cage". In a cage match, the wrestling ring is enclosed in a cage, and the victory can only be had by pinfall, submission or escaping the cage.  In many cases the referee is actually OUTSIDE the cage, so inside the walls, anything goes.  

Recently the Sassy Librarian and I got a treadmill for our house. I have come to enjoy using it in conjunction with Netflix on my iPad.  I just set up a video to stream, and the miles go by in a snap.  Today I traversed my 4+ miles while watching WWE: The Greatest Cage Matches of All Time.  I hadn't previously watched any of the WWE sets on Netflix, but I was quite impressed with this one.  It contained a half dozen matches covering the mid-1970's through 2009 (the actual DVD set has many more matches, but this is 2 hours of fun for free).  I was worried that I wouldn't be able to get into the matches, since I wasn't party to the build up of the rivalries, but I was quite wrong.  Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross provided so much plot exposition that I quickly caught on to the excitement. Two matches stood out in particular:

  1.  Lex Luger v. Ric Flair (1990) for the WCW Heavyweight Championship
  2. The Rock v. Triple H (1999) for the WWF World Title

In the first match,  the challenger Lex Luger came down to the ring first, followed by WCW champ Ric Flair.  Parenthetically, I was on an airplane with Flair the previous year, and it was amazing to see him maintain his persona in the airport and during the flight.  He was "stylin' and profilin'" with the flight attendants--it was a sight to see! 

For this match, Flair was accompanied by his valet, "Woman".  Woman later went on to marry wrestler Chris Benoit, who tragically murdered her and their son before taking his own life.  Before the match went on, the referee frisked both wrestlers, looking for foreign objects.  Luger demanded that the ref check Woman, which caused Flair to erupt in anger.  But when a blade was found in Woman's glove, it proved to have been a wise move.  

The cage used in this match was not like the one pictured above--it also had a roof.  There was no way out of this cage--a final victory by pinfall or submission was the only way to win.  As the match began, Ross told us that Luger had only just got out of the hospital, where a knee infection had kept him for the past two weeks.  The announcers wondered whether this would restrict his legendary strength, but when Luger slammed Flair twice with military presses, it seemed that his knee was fine.  This was important, of course, because Flair's most famous move, the "figure four leg lock" was known to target weak knees. 

Luger dominated the match early on, with Flair showing his craven cowardice (like all heels) by trying vainly to escape the steel structure.  During one of these attempts, Luger slammed his head repeatedly ("like a tennis ball" as we were told) into the cage, busting Flair's head open, and making him wear the crimson mask. Eventually Flair turned the tide while working over Luger's knee, illegally using the ropes for leverage while the ref's back was turned.  Then suddenly all Hell broke loose!  Flair's posse, the Four Horsemen ran down to the ring and tried to get into the cage.  And they succeeded!  As the cage rose, they ran into the ring to attack Luger.  Then Luger's fellow "Dude With Attitude", Sting (in real life, business partners in a well known bodybuilding gym in Atlanta) came down with the late "El Gigante" to make the save.  Flair was disqualified, but you can't lose a title by DQ, so he was able to leave with the belt, while making a frightening spectacle (something like the one above) in the post match interview.

What made this match so cool, of course was the swerve. We had been conditioned to believe that the cage was impregnable, and that a final verdict would have to come (and, of course, that justice would be served with a Flair loss), but it didn't happen.   Despite this match being over 20 years old, from a promotion that doesn't exist anymore, I was totally gripped by this match.  The wrestlers (with the help of the announcers and referee) told a great story.

The second match took place in the WWF (now WWE, after complaints from the World Wildlife Fund), during a PPV from Manchester, England in 1999.  This match pitted two "young" (according to JR) superstars against each other, the emerging face hero "The Rock", versus the villianous Triple H.  HHH was affiliated at the time with his real-life girlfriend Chyna, a very muscular female bodybuilder who now does X-rated movies. HHH's name comes from his initials, which stand for "Hunter Hearst Helmsley".  Back in the '90's this was supposed to symbolize his wealth (like Leona Helmsley).  What is ironic about this is that in 2003 he married Stephanie McMahon, whose father owns the WWE.  This marriage was for real, unlike the storyline marriage they had in the 90's.  Now in 2011, HHH is in senior management of the company, and even campaigned heavily for his mother-in-law when she ran for the Senate. During this match, the announcers went back and forth between calling him Triple H and "Helmsley".  Nowadays, while some wrestlers call him "Hunter", the other two H's are forgotten.

Anyway, back to the match.  It was a back and forth affair for quite a long time, with several false-finishes where each man NEARLY, but not quite, escaped over the top of the cage.  At one point, HHH had his head and arms out the door, with The Rock hanging on to his feet.  While the door was open, HHH "accidentally" punched the referee, Earl Hebner, knocking him unconscious.  While the ref lay prone, The Rock managed to escape, earning him the victory.  But the official did not see it!  When Rocky realized what had happened, he and HHH took the match outside the ring, beating each other into the crowd and over to the announcer's table.  Then The Rock grabbed a microphone, and treated us all to a little "Attitude Era" dialogue:  

ROCK: Now The Rock obviously had the match won, but that jabroni, rooty-toot candy-ass obviously didn't see The Rock win.  So before The Rock whips your monkey-ass some more, in front of all of his fans, The People's Champ's got a little gift, compliments of The Rock and the fans of Birmingham...

FANS: (cheer)

HHH: (rolls around barely conscious)

ROCK: (picks up a chair, and beats HHH over the head)

JIM ROSS: Oh my God!  Great God Almighty! The Rock just hit HHH with a steel chair!

ROCK: (putting on announcer's headphones conveniently waiting for him): You're damn right that's what The Rock did.  That's exactly what The Rock does best: lays the smack down on his candy ass! Look at his ass!  There's the blood---the blood of HHH.  It's not the People's blood; it's monkey piss!  Monkey piss is oozing out of his head! Come here jabroni!  Have some more you sonofabitch (slamming HHH into the tv monitor). What do you think of that?

And then, after setting HHH ("deeply lacerated") onto the announce table, The Rock climbed onto the ring apron and leaped onto HHH, shattering the table.

At this point, The Rock  (to loud "Rocky Rocky") chants dragged his opponent back into the ring, while Hebner slowly regained his consciousness.  Then, just as The Rock had nearly climbed out of the cage, out of the back came England's own British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith! The Bulldog was a heel at this time, and he began fighting with The Rock. And then Shane McMahon (now HHH's real life brother-in-law) came down and assaulted the Bulldog, until he was viciously bodyslammed onto the concrete floor.  Then the British Bulldog went into the ring to keep fighting the Rock, while Chyna came down to help.  At one point she slammed the door into The Rock's face so hard that the whole cage shuddered--pretty sick!  While The Rock was being assaulted by the Bulldog, HHH escaped the cage over the top.  

Then, to cap things off, while a bloody HHH was celebrating with Chyna, a pissed-off looking Vince McMahon (who at that time was a regular character on the show, as well as real-life boss) stalked to the ring, and padlocked the door while The Rock and the Bulldog were inside!  At that point The Rock proceeded to beat Davey Boy senseless, ending the match with his trademark raised eyebrow.

What made this match so engaging was that it was kind of like two matches in one.  As Jim Ross noted, "The Rock had this match won twice", but to no avail.  We were treated to two (at least) cage matches AND the brawl outside.  And while The Rock and his fans got satisfaction from his pummeling HHH, the heel still left with the gold.  While contemporary viewers were ensured further storyline development for the coming weeks, this match is great on its own.  With excitement, brutality and two wrestlers fully exploiting their characters, this was a lot of fun to watch.


This video was very enjoyable (the multi-DVD set might be better) to watch, and you'll get to see some fine matches.  One of the great things about professional wrestling is that the more often you watch, the more conditioned you are to certain tropes of dialogue, movements and match outcomes.  But skillful wrestlers will always find a way to surprise viewers and confound their expectations.  That's why I'll never stop watching.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

I, Robot?

 I've always loved science fiction.  Full disclosure time here: I just spent hours trying to make my iPad look like a PADD from Star Trek!  Anyway, as a young person I spent a lot of time watching Star Trek and Jetsons reruns.   To the point that I found it very depressing that we didn't have rocket jet packs by the year 2000.  Another feature of sci- fi that always interested me was the idea of a future where robots would be our servants and humans would be freed from the mundane aspects of life.

Of course, everyone shared this belief.  I mean, Ringo even wanted Gort to become the fifth Beatle, if the album cover at left tells us anything.  And who can blame him?  Everyone wants a piece of famous robots.  To people growing up in the 1970's, the most compelling characters of the Star Wars movies were R2D2 and C3P0.  You can buy a replica R2 unit for yourself from high-end retailers, and women can even purchase the most un-sexy bathing suits of all time, if they so choose.

But let's be honest: to be able to delegate mundane tasks to a robot just makes so much sense.  This, of course, is why modern industrial robots (and there are over 8 million of them) have increased manufacturing efficiency (at the cost of jobs for real humans, of course). 

I've been particularly interested in this since my first visit to the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Indiana in the early '90's. First of all, if you have the chance to go to a car factory, you really should.  They are massive places, and you can actually watch a car go from random pieces of metal to driving out the door.  And besides the overhead conveyor belts carrying automobile carcasses through the facility, there are lots of really cool robots doing painting, assembly, welding and other tasks.  Ever since, I wondered when smaller robots would come to our aid around the home.

And then, a couple of years later, they proliferated!  The first one I heard of was the robotic swimming pool cleaner. These little chaps walk along the bottom of your pool (under water) and clean it for you.   Then came the robot vacuum cleaner, which can be programmed to sweep your floors, and even moves around your furniture.  Considering that vacuuming has always been one of my household chores, this seems very intriguing.  Plus, it could give the cats some amusement...

Since the Sassy Librarian and I bought to our dream house, I have come to love the process of mowing the lawn--something I had never done before we moved here.  I love riding around on my lawn tractor and I look forward all week to getting some "seat time".  But what if---I mean, you don't think--oh my!  They make robot lawnmowers now, too!  They wouldn't work on our property (too much land) but for a typical suburban house, this would be unbelievably awesome. I'm sure it won't be long before a professional sports team fires their head groundskeeper and replaces him with one of these babies.  I can hear the announcers talking now: "The umpires just consulted with the Robot Lawnmower to see what the rain forecast is."  The future is right around the corner.

So just as I had begun to think that there were very few jobs left that were safe from robots, I almost drove my car off the road when I saw a billboard promoting the local hospital's new service: Robotic Hysterectomies.  At first I scoffed, in my typical Phil Donahue feminist style, "I bet you won't find them doing robot vasectomies." But apparently the hospital uses robots for lots of other procedures, too, including some that only apply to men.  The surgeries actually employ a human doctor to operate the robot, but still, it just sounds so unpleasant.  I mean, if I was going to go have a major organ removed, I would prefer that a person was responsible, not a machine.  And what if you got a robot with problems, like Marvin, the Paranoid Android? I would hate to have my robot surgeon whining "brain the size of a planet, and all they ask me to do is remove this guy's enlarged prostate."  And who do you sue when they screw up?  I mean, medical malpractice is as close as most of us will ever come to winning the lottery.  And I bet Marvin has a brilliant team of lawyers, too...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pulling the Plug on Cable TV

In the fall of 1981, just as I was beginning 6th grade, my father surprised us by hooking the house up for cable tv.  I think that we were only the second house on our block to get cable, and it was wonderful.  Suddenly we didn't have to get up and adjust the large, steerable antenna on the rooftop, and we had access to channels (does anyone remember PRISM?)
that showed Phillies games, professional wrestling and feature films--without commercials!  Then there were other channels, such as MTV (which had begun airing the previous August), which gave me access to music videos, concert films, and interviews with musicians.

It is definitely true that for me (and many of my friends), cable provided the same shared cultural references that were supplied to previous generations by literature, theatre or the Bible.  It isn't going to far to say that the person I became was highly influenced by the large amounts of television I watched on cable in the 1980's. And since then I have always had cable--in college dorms, in summer housing, in numerous rented apartments, through thick and thin I always paid for cable television. 

But over the past twelve months or more, I have begun to question my cable purchase.  Since we moved to our dream house two years ago, the Sassy Librarian and I have been customers of Comcast (we get high speed internet from them, as well as tv).  The picture has been good, but the price is rather high--to be able to get Comcast SportsNet in HD, we have to buy no less than three different tiers of service, paying over $85 just for the tv part of the bill.  Over the years our tv watching has become more refined, to the point where pretty much all that we ever have on is sports and professional wrestling.  Lately it has been harder and harder for me to justify paying so much money to watch Phillies games and Monday Night Raw.  So I tried an experiment.

After doing some research at, I became convinced that with an indoor tv antenna I could probably get some channels in HD (I can definitely do it with a roof antenna, but we aren't prepared to install one at this time).  I went to the local BuyMore, and picked up a reasonably priced amplified antenna, and was pleased to see that I can get about a dozen channels, with super reception (including ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CW, WB, ION and 3 PBS channels)! And the major networks are all in beautiful High Definition!

So I called Comcast first thing Monday morning and cancelled the tv coverage. Initially I had a bad case of television withdrawal, but a few days later, I have to say that I feel pretty good!  A major reason is that it isn't as hard as I had feared to find the stuff I want to watch.  Within a day of the tv show, the WWE posts their Raw and Smackdown shows on YouTube in HD. I can watch those shows on my computer, or my iPad, or (by plugging an HDMI cable to the iPad) on my actual television set.  On the down side I have to wait for the clips to load, but on the upside there are no commercials and I don't have to watch matches that don't interest me.  I simply read the summary of RAW and Smackdown on the Lords of Pain website, and look at the sections that seem like they'll be compelling.

For watching Phillies games, I have a slight dilemma. Even though we live 130 miles from Philadelphia, we are still technically in their blackout zone (also the blackout zone for both New York teams and the Pittsburgh Pirates).  This means that even if we purchased MLB.TV, we couldn't watch live web telecasts of games for the Phillies, Pirates, Mets or Yankees.  This has been the gating factor keeping me from dropping cable for quite some time.

But lately I've begun to listen to the Phillies radio broadcast using MLB At Bat (we get terrible radio reception at the house), and I realize that I like listening to the games on the radio.    While former Phillie Gary "Sarge" Matthews provides excellent color coverage on tv, he's only on for the middle three innings.  Otherwise, the play by play duties are handled by the very bland and boring Tom McCarthy and color is done by Chris Wheeler. Wheeler has been with the Phils my whole life, and while he is a great fan and has a great memory for old players, his style on the mic is not felicitous.  On the other hand, the Phils radio duo of Scott Franzke and Larry Anderson is quite good--they have a wonderful rapport with each other, and they don't let their boring stories get in the way of the game, like McCarthy does.  Listening on the radio, I find that I can go an entire game without saying "God, what a bad announcer"--which hasn't happened since I moved away from Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy's Red Sox games in 2003.

This week I've listened to the Phils on the "radio" (actually my iPad), and it has been a fun experience.  Besides better announcing, I also found that it was easier to read while listening on the radio than watching on tv.  Also, instead of being chained to the television, I was able to consume the game in my office, on my porch watching the sunset, in bed, and on the treadmill doing a brisk two miles.  I even signed up for a one month trial of MLB.TV.  Last night we watched the "archived" version of yesterday's day game from Colorado (the games are available to watch 90 minutes after the final pitch).  It was pretty cool!

I'm sure that the adjustment will continue to take time, but this first week has been much easier than I expected.  A quick perusal of the NFL schedule shows me that the Iggles should be on a channel that I get in HD 15 of 16 games, so I shouldn't miss much there, though I did always like watching Comcast's post game show starring "V-Heb" (Vaughn Hebron), "R-Diddy" (Ray Didinger) and "The Gov" (Ed Rendell).

It seems that this concept of dropping cable tv is growing in popularity.  Maybe it's the terrible economy, or the "57 channels and nothing on" phenomenon, but I definitely feel good about having made this decision (and saving over $800 per year sounds pretty good right now).  At least so far, Comcast seems to be doing ok, so I guess you could call this one Win-Win-Win.