Thursday, February 28, 2019

Strike Force vs. The Brain Busters 4/2/89 – WrestleMania V

I know what your initial thought is here. “What the hell – DJ starts off his blog with two epic classics, and for his first WWF/WWE entry, he picks a meaningless throwaway tag team match from a horrible WrestleMania? What gives?”

Look, it's easy and fun to write about classic matches. Flair/Steamboat, Omega/Tanahashi – the stories are right there, in plain sight. Deconstructing them is a blast, and hopefully someone who hasn't seen those matches is encouraged to check them out. In the same way, though, it's a fun challenge to look at the undercard and mine the gold that happens in matches that are immediately forgotten because of the overall focus of the show.

The beauty of pro wrestling is in the art of telling an athletic story inside the conventions of a match, and in a 20, 30, even 60-minute contest, there's plenty of time to let that story breathe and develop within three acts. But what if you're on the undercard and the bookers and producers tell you you have nine minutes to tell your tale?

Back in the 1980s peak of Hulkamania-era WWF, the 17-minute main event of WrestleMania V qualified as an “epic” (which is especially amusing when considering that the Flair/Steamboat best-of-three-falls match was on the same day). So working a televised match in the WWF in this era usually meant that you were going to get ten minutes or less to get your point across in the ring. Judging by the quality of the average WrestleMania match in this era, either this was extremely difficult to accomplish, or no one really tried very hard. So it stood out a few years ago, during a writing project where I was watching all the early 'Manias, that the teams of Strike Force (Tito Santana and Rick Martel) and the Brain Busters (Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson) managed to tell a cool little tale with subtle story beats in the span of about nine minutes.

It's a largely forgettable match buried in a fourteen-match card of forgettable nonsense. It's certainly not a five-star classic. But it serves a purpose. Rick Martel had taken time off from the WWF for what was, in storyline, a number of injuries suffered at the hands of the men who had taken the WWF Tag Team titles from Strike Force, Demolition. When he came back, he started working some singles matches to get back into the swing of things, but was eventually approached by his partner, the underrated babyface and WWF Hall of Famer Santana, to reform the wildly popular Strike Force and try to recapture the magic of their title run.

Strike Force had a hot run in late 1987 into 1988, piggybacking on the breakup of Martel's previous pretty-boy babyface tag team, the Can-Am Connection, with Tom Zenk. Santana's desire for a tag team comeback felt logical on paper – Demolition held the WWF Tag Titles uninterrupted since beating Strike Force for them a year earlier, and the title change happened under controversial means that had yet to be avenged. In other words, Demolition had cheated, and it wasn't fair that they still had the belts! So, like the kid who graduates high school but still comes back to hover around the old lockers when they're home on break, Tito lobbied for a comeback. And Martel semi-reluctantly played along.

And what better place to make that comeback than at the biggest show of the year, WrestleMania? It was a storybook comeback—the team that were robbed of the titles a year earlier (curse you, Mr. Fuji's cane) would return to the same building, the Atlantic City Convention Hall, and take on Bobby Heenan's latest acquisitions, the former NWA World Tag Team Champions and Four Horsemen members, Anderson and Blanchard. What Santana didn't anticipate, though, was how a rusty tag team that hadn't worked together in over six months would fare against one of the most cohesive units in the history of tag team wrestling.

The Brain Busters' WWF run was my first exposure to the magic that is Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson's tag team expertise. Like I mentioned in my first post, until 1989 everything I knew about Jim Crockett Promotions/Mid-Atlantic/the “NWA” I got out of magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated, so the arrival of the Brain Busters was certainly a pulse-raiser. I immediately sensed big things for them just based on their reputation, and a showcase against former WWF Tag Team champs at WrestleMania was just the beginning.

At the risk of a spoiler, let's cut right to the chase – this match exists for Rick Martel to turn heel and betray Tito Santana, one of the 80s WWF's most pure babyfaces. After years as a tag team wrestler in the WWF (he had two title reigns with Tony Garea during an earlier run), it was time to see if Martel could get over on his own. Heck, he was AWA World Champion between WWF tag title reigns! And the best way to kickstart a singles career is with a shocking heel turn. And as is the case with the best heel turns, there's a case to be made for Martel being in the right on this one – except for the part where he's a total dick about it. But the story of Strike Force's breakup wouldn't be as effective without the stark contrast with the Brain Busters.

As is often the case with big matches in the 1980s, the commentary of Jesse “The Body” Ventura and Gorilla Monsoon excels at enhancing the action in the ring, and right off the bat, as Strike Force heads to ringside to the Loggins-lite strains of Robbie Dupree's “Girls in Cars,” Ventura establishes the narrative. “I'll say this – Strike Force was – and I say WAS – a tremendous tag team. But this is the first time they've teamed up in a long time, and when you talk about tag team wrestling, Gorilla, you gotta talk about the Brain Busters.” But Jesse, the Brain Busters didn't even come to the ring with any music. Strike Force has GIRLS IN CARS. I think we know where the advantage lies, here.

Jesus, Robbie Dupree even looks like the thrift store version of Kenny Loggins. Remember when you asked your grandma for Transformers and she got you GoBots? Strike Force asked Vince for Kenny Loggins and McMahon wasn't about to pay retail price for the top shelf goods.

For as much as Ventura shills for the heels, Gorilla is a complete homer for all babyfaces, and to be perfectly honest, it sounds like Monsoon is bending reality to fit hit narrative far more than The Body is for his. At one point Ventura goes back to the “they have to be rusty” talking point, to which Monsoon responds with “Jess, you're out in Hollywood, I'm all over the country—you and I don't know what these two guys have been doing. Only they do!” And sure, at first it looks like all is fine, as the babyfaces get some early shine and Martel is fired up. He gets whipped by Blanchard into an Arn Anderson knee from the apron, but as the Busters think they have the early advantage, double-teaming Martel in their corner, Rick starts fighting back with fists to both men, and soon Strike Force is double-dropkicking both Tully and Arn out of the ring.

When the teams reset, Martel's back in the ring against Arn Anderson, putting in quality work and carrying the load for his team early, turning Anderson around into his trademark Boston Crab finisher before getting caught with a thumb to the eye by Blanchard that breaks up the hold. Martel cinched in the move too close to the Brain Busters' corner, and it's his first mistake. But Tully, now the legal man, also makes a mistake as he lets Martel get too close to his corner, and Rick tags in Santana while in a Blanchard headlock. Santana puts Tully into a figure-four leglock, and when Arn runs in to break it up, he's cut off at the pass by Martel, who locks him in a figure-four of his own! But ultimately it's another mistake by Strike Force, and evidence of the cohesion and teamwork of the former NWA Tag Champs. As referee Joey Marella yells at Martel to release his hold, Anderson reaches over and gouges Tito's eyes, forcing him to break the hold on the legal man, Blanchard. It doesn't matter that the figure-four stays on Arn for a few seconds more—he's not legal and has time to recover. It was a little more convoluted than planned, but he bailed out his partner after all.

Shortly thereafter, while Santana continues an offensive flurry, Anderson hops into the ring to distract the ref, which prevents Marella from seeing the action as Tully lifts Tito up for an atomic drop and, again, allowing Tito to tag Martel. The ref doesn't see it, but he does see Martel step into the ring just as Tito goes for a flying forearm on Blanchard. Tully ducks, and BAM! Santana collides with Martel, sending Rick flying out of the ring and swinging the momentum toward the heels. And here's where the story kicks into gear.

As Martel licks his wounds on the floor, Tully and Arn start to work over Santana, and while the Strike Force chemistry starts to break down, the Brain Busters' work just becomes more and more cohesive. In fact, shortly after the Strike Force collision, Santana reverses a Blanchard Irish Whip and sends Tully head first into Arn's knee, which was poking into the ring in anticipation of Tito's body. But instead of the tide turning back toward the babyfaces, Arn calmly tags Tully and cuts Tito off from his partner, who's back on the apron. Tito fights back and catches Arn in a sunset flip, but the pin attempt lands too close to the Busters' corner, and Tully immediately tags Arn out of trouble. “Look at those Brain Busters – Heenan's got them working like machinery.” Jesse's right on top of what's developing here.

Every time one of the Brain Busters is even remotely in trouble, they are able to tag out with no difficulty. Santana lands a cross-body block for a two count? Tully immediately shoots over to his corner and tags Arn back in. Finally, Tito catches Arn on the top turnbuckle and launches him off, which gives him the opportunity to dramatically drag himself toward his corner to tag his partner, who is still selling the forearm shot to the head a full two or three minutes after the fact. As Tito reaches out in desperation, Martel completely ignores him, walking down the apron, holding the side of his head, as if he can't see his partner. And boy, does the crowd let him have it. BOOOOOOOO!

As Gorilla and Jesse argue over the merits of Martel's actions, Rick looks into the ring, sees his partner getting the snot kicked out of him, and makes an exasperated “nuts to this crap, I'm out of here” dismissing arm wave as he hops to the floor and walks back toward the dressing room. “I don't understand this at all!” protests Monsoon. “I told ya, Gorilla Monsoon!” Jesse crows. “These guys hadn't teamed up in too long!” His English may be a little mangled here, but it's so great when a heel commentator gets to say “I told you so.” Any keen WWF fan in the 80s likely knew that the bad guys often told the truth—at least, a version of truth that was relatable if not assholish. In the case of this match, Ventura's perspective was way more on point than Gorilla's.

And holy crap, are the Brain Busters a delight when they get to preen and get cocky. Arn claws at Tito's face in the ropes, screaming “where's your partner? Where's your partner?” He tags in Tully, who minces across the ring like a peacock before picking Santana up to deliver more punishment. He's tiptoeing around the ring between Irish Whips and right hands, and it's totally hilarious. At one point Sanata reverses Tully and whips him into the corner, but when he tries to monkey flip Tully out, Arn grabs onto Blanchard and keeps him stationary as Tito crashes onto his back. Mince, mince, mince, tag. Arn's back and Tito's fucked. Arn gets Santana into a piledriver position, and Tully leaps off the turnbuckle, shoving Tito's legs down in a vicious spike, giving the piledriver an extra dose of future CTE and neck trauma. One, two, three. It's mercifully over in just over nine minutes.

The post-match interview is a thing of unscripted beauty. “Mean” Gene Okerlund is backstage with Rick Martel, who's delivering his first heel promo in years, or maybe ever? And it's clunky as hell. “When I come back to the WWF, it was as a single wrestler! But no, Mr. Santana wants to ride my coattails once more!” Ya know, modern interviews are way too slick sometimes. This is good old fashioned adrenaline-fueled stammering, and it's outstanding. Poor Gene protests. “Strike Force was supposed to be a team! A team!” A TEAM! “I'm sick of him riding my coattails! You're lucky I'm a gentleman and I just walked off! That could have been a lot worse for you, Tito Santana!”

Martel, of course, goes on to become “The Model,” one of the late 80s/early 90s all-time great ridiculous WWF heels. Within two years he's blinding Jake “The Snake” Roberts with his comedically gigantic atomizer full of “Arrogance” perfume and having one of the worst/greatest matches in early WrestleMania history in the 'Mania VII blindfold match, which we will someday cover on this blog if we're in the mood for self-torture. The best part of the gimmick is that even in 1989/1990, there is no goddamn way in hell a single real-life model would be caught dead wearing a purple nylon bow tie, but here we are.

Just look at this asshole
Tito Santana eventually morphs into “El Matador,” a degree of ethnic stereotyping you'd think a two-time former Intercontinental Champion would be spared, especially in light of Bobby Heenan referring to his flying forearm as “the flying jalapeno,” but alas, no non-white Hulkamania era WWF superstar was spared, even if they had put in ten years of service before being forced into the hat and red cape. Arriba!
He looks so happy
The Brain Busters, of course, go on to end Demolition's record-setting title reign in July of 1989 on Saturday Night's Main Event – achieving the goal Santana no doubt had in mind for the reunited Strike Force. While the Brain Busters/Strike Force clash is all but forgotten by then, it's an additional delayed poetic grace note to the WrestleMania contest—while Santana and Martel are deep into their feud, Blanchard and Anderson become the first team in history to hold both the NWA and WWF Tag Team Titles. While the former Strike Force is beating each other up across the country, the best team in the world in 1989 keeps rolling along.

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