Monday, March 25, 2019

The Ultimate Warrior vs. The Honky Tonk Man 8/29/88 – WWF Intercontinental Title – SummerSlam '88

When it was announced that the Honky Tonk Man would be inducted into this year's WWE Hall of Fame class of 2019, my reaction was “hey, at least he won a title once, not like Hillbilly Jim.” But it also sent me down an unexpected nostalgia spiral for how much I absolutely detested him as a youngster. It was the angle involving his shoving Miss Elizabeth to the mat after a Saturday Night's Main Event Intercontinental title defense against “Macho Man” Randy Savage that got me hooked into pro wrestling for the first time, and for many reasons, he quickly cemented himself at the top of my Most Hated Wrestler rankings.

He was, by most fan-centric standards, a poor grappler. This is all relative, of course—he certainly could take a bump, and his ability to emote in the ring and hit storytelling beats was second to none. But he was never going to tear the roof off the joint with Ricky Steamboat or anything (hell, the match where he beat Steamboat for the belt was all of 4 minutes long). His finishing move was the “Shake, Rattle, & Roll,” a swinging neckbreaker that was a routine part of many wrestler's movesets, but it was Honky Tonk's finisher because...he shook his ass before delivering it, I guess. Or because it was the one wrestling move he knew, aside from “right handed punch,” “left handed punch,” “body slam,” and “kick.” (Just 999 moves to go and he'll match Chris Jericho!)

Thus, his constant claims to the title of “Greatest Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion of All Time” were particularly galling, as his opponents during his title reign were constantly portrayed as his clear superiors. Even during his feud with Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, who was essentially his equal in the ring (right handed punch, left handed punch, body slam, kick, sleeperhold), Honky Tonk was portrayed as the clearly inferior talent.

"I can't believe I'm jobbing to this fuckin' guy"
He won the Intercontinental Title in a fluke rollup where he reversed an inside cradle by “The Dragon”and grabbed the ropes for leverage. And he never—ever—won a title defense cleanly. Actually, come to think of it, I'm not sure he ever won a title defense. He'd get counted out; his manager, “Colonel” Jimmy Hart, would interfere with his trademark megaphone; or he'd take matters into his own hands and get himself disqualified with a guitar shot to his opponent's head or back. The result was always the same—the challenger would win but Honky Tonk would hold on to his title, since WWF titles can only change hands via pinfall or submission. (Not counting cage matches, or ladder matches, know what, never mind.)

For all these reasons, as the Honky Tonk Man's Intercontinental Championship reign continued week after week, eventually becoming the longest IC title reign of all time, he became more and more hated with each passing episode of Superstars of Wrestling or Wrestling Challenge.

As the summer of 1988 marched toward August, and the premiere of the WWF's new summer pay-per-view, SummerSlam, loomed, The Honky Tonk Man was running for his life from Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, who had come within a hair (or at least several of Jimmy Hart's hairs) of taking the IC belt at WrestleMania IV. On that night, even commentator Jesse Ventura conceded “what this guy lacks in ability, he makes up for he's lucky” (always a wordsmith, that Jesse “The Mind” Ventura), and that luck manifested in Hart's megaphone, which somehow ended up in the back of the referee's head as Honky was fading to Beefcake's sleeperhold. SummerSlam was to be Beefcake's last shot at the title, but a run-in with “Outlaw” Ron Bass derailed his momentum. In a segment that American audiences saw end with a huge red 'X' over the screen, Ron Bass attacked Beefcake, bloodied him with his spurs, and dragged him around the ring with his bullwhip. Why Bass attacked Beefcake in the first place, I can't remember—maybe the roughneck Texan was threatened by dudes billed from San Francisco that wore pastel colors that showed off their butt? (It was the 80s, after all—a lot of cowboy gimmicks came off as severely repressed.) Regardless, Beefcake—who had been pushed all Spring and Summer as the all-but-certain next champion—was out of the SummerSlam match, and Honky Tonk didn't have a challenger for his title.

So as the Honky Tonk Man, Jimmy Hart, and his “girlfriend,” Peggy Sue (aka “Sensational” Sherri Martel in a wig and shades) stood in the ring at Madison Square Garden at the midpoint of SummerSlam '88, Honky strutted, shimmied, and swiveled his hips like the cock of the walk. As his music faded, Howard Finkel raised mic to lips, intoned “and his opponent...” and shrugged his shoulders. No idea. Honky grabbed the mic.

"Howard doesn't even know!"
“Get me somebody out here to wrestle, I don't care who it is!” So confident, this guy. Sure, at this point he's held the Intercontinental title a record 454 days, but he's sounding pretty cocky. Then again, he has two people at ringside willing to interfere and get him intentionally disqualified yet again should he get in trouble. Piece of cake! The longest IC title reign in history is sure to continue.

But then! A very familiar piece of music blared over the PA system. Dun! Duhhn DUN dun dun!

Madison Square Garden went positively mental as the crowd realized that the only person in the locker room able to stun the champ before he'd have a chance to cheat was on his way to ringside—The Ultimate Warrior.

The irony here is, of course, that The Ultimate Warrior was, at the time, probably the one sports entertainer in the locker room worse at wrestling than Honky Tonk. His moveset consisted of the body slam, the clothesline, and his gorilla press-slam/running splash finisher. He didn't even have enough moves to string together a Five Moves of Doom. He'd run to the ring at full speed, overwhelm his opponents, and score the pin in under five minutes, because he generally got winded around six. But boy oh boy, did the kids love him. He growled and gave the greatest nonsense cocaine-bender promos of all time, and his trademark facepaint made him look like a cross between He-Man and Robin. And for these reasons, young impressionable lads like myself forgave the fact that he sucked rocks in the ring and helped him sell millions upon millions of dollars in merch.  Hell, for a few months there, thanks to Warrior, Sting, the Road Warriors, and Demolition, I was convinced that the future of pro wrestling was jacked superheroes with weird names that all wore face paint and were billed from Beyond Thunderdome.

Obviously, Warrior was featured prominently in three-minute-or-less squash matches because it covered for his lack of talent. The “monster squashes people so fans can't tell he's terrible” push wasn't created with the Warrior, and it certainly didn't end with him (see: Goldberg, Bill), but when combined with the man born Jim Hellwig and eventually legally renamed...yep, “Warrior,” the gimmick was mint. (Also, it being the 1980s, it was less important that he was an insane homophobe and all-around garbage person, but for the purposes of this piece, that's neither here nor there.)

Here's the thing about squash matches: when booked properly, they're a way bigger hoot that you might admit, and they often can jump-start careers, either intentionally (this match, Diesel smushing Bob Backlund in 8 seconds for the WWF Title at a house show) or unintentionally (Daniel Bryan losing the World Title to Sheamus in 18 seconds at WrestleMania 28, causing a fan revolt at the following night's Raw and jump-starting what eventually became the “Yes” movement). There's usually some sort of storyline justification for the squash—with Diesel, it was to establish him as a new headlining superman in the Hulk Hogan mold (it didn't work, but that was the idea). With Bryan, it was throwaway comedy (he had made a big production out of getting a good luck kiss from his storyline girlfriend, AJ Lee, and thus wasn't paying attention to his challenger) and a wasted opportunity to showcase a workhorse at the year's biggest show.

But never has a squash match been booked as perfectly as it was at SummerSlam '88. By the time the Warrior stormed the ring (total time sprinting from entrance to ring: roughly three seconds), Honky Tonk and his entourage were already in panic mode, somehow having forgotten Warrior was on the roster, I guess. (Wouldn't a good manager scout the roster for people not already on the card and plan accordingly? I'm shocked—SHOCKED--that Col. Jimmy hadn't done his homewor--oh, never mind.) Hart dove to ringside as Warrior peppered Honky Tonk with right hands to start the match. A body slam and flying shoulder tackle (ok, sorry, my bad—he did know five moves) put Honky on the mat, selling full-body agony while the Warrior ran around the ring like his gimmick was actually Speedy, The Hyena Who Smokes Crack. Yo, Warrior—he's over there, where you left him. Stop having a seizure and finish him off.

Clothesline, splash, and before Jimmy Hart could even process what was happening, one, two, three. Time of match: 31 seconds.

How do you take the title belt from the man who's gotten himself DQ'd for 454 straight days? Don't give him a chance to cheat. Just like that, 454 days of agony for the fans who had come to regard the Intercontinental Belt as the “workrate title” were over, as the title passed to someone with the workrate of a falling piano, so maybe the whole “workrate title” thing was something the fans were willing to look past as long as that bastard Elvis impersonator wasn't the champ anymore. Never before nor since had the Ultimate Warrior been utilized better—even when he went on to dethrone Hulk Hogan and deliver the Hulkster's first clean pinfall loss in almost a decade. Squash matches happen all the time in wrestling, but rarely do they make storyline sense at a level this perfect. Having a Tasmanian devil whirlwind into the ring to annihilate the most despised chickenshit in the WWF was a catharsis over a year in the making.

Honky Tonk Man was the quintessential chickenshit heel of 1980s WWF. Unfortunately for him, once his title run was over, his character never reached those same heights again. After a brief run in a tag team with a suddenly greaser Greg “The Hammer” Valentine as Rhythm 'N' Blues, Honky Tonk eventually left the WWF and began bouncing around the world of wrestling, making a brief comeback a few years later as the manager of “Rockabilly” Billy Gunn (woof). But obviously his IC title run was enough to cement him as a legendary WWF/E character and guarantee his eventual enshrinement in the WWE Hall of Fame (even if he turned down his first opportunity for the Hall because it conflicted with his convention schedule, which I appreciate because it shows that Honky Tonk takes the Hall about as seriously as anyone should).

WWE has tried in recent years to replicate the “chickenshit heel” template in recent years, with varying results. Seth Rollins was a cowardly WWE Champion after cashing in his Money in the Bank briefcase at WrestleMania 31 (and pinning the guy who wasn't the champion by making the match a triple threat, because that's what cowards do). He had henchmen who interfered on his behalf, and barely escaped several defenses with his title intact. Same with Kevin Owens during his 2016 Universal Championship run. Like Rollins, Owens had the blessing and favoritism of upper management/The McMahon family, was portrayed as a chicken, and often cheated to win. But that was part of the problem with both guys—they still won. And thanks to a vibrant independent wrestling scene and loads of Internet evidence, the fans knew that both these guys could go in the ring and were two of the best wrestlers in the world, so on some level, the fans knew they deserved to hold their respective World titles. Honkey Tonk maintained his heat because there was absolutely no justification for him having a yellow belt, much less the Intercontinental belt.

WWE got closer with Jinder Mahal in 2017 after his shocking upset of Randy Orton for the WWE Title, and this time, he had that similar “he doesn't deserve this” heat. Jinder is jacked and obviously works hard, but his in-ring skill doesn't even put him in the top 10 technicians in the WWE today. But yet, he still got (tainted) wins over guys like Shinsuke Nakamura, which served more to deflate the babyface's push more than get Mahal over as a red-hot heel. When AJ Styles finally dethroned him, the reaction from the crowd was more relief than euphoria.

So let's raise a toast to the Honky Tonk Man! Wayne Ferris, you took a thimble full of wrestling talent and combined it with a truckload of charisma and turned it into a million dollar gimmick, taking a 14-month run as the most hated man in wrestling and milking it for all it was worth. Hell yes. And at the end of the day, you may have been booked to be annihilated by an anthropomorphic pile of face paint, steroids, bronzer, and cocaine, as things turned out, you were probably the better, more grounded human of the two, so good on ya (not that it's a high bar to clear, but never mind that right now). Enjoy your induction.

(It's possible I'm being overly hard on the Warrior here. After all, he makes a good dance partner for Phil Collins.)

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