In each edition of Gimmick Some Lovin', we take a look at one iteration of a gimmick match available on the WWE Network. Some are iconic for their success, others for the extent to which they flopped, and some just... happened.
We defined a "gimmick match" as, in any way, adding a rule/stipulation to or removing a rule from a match, changing the physical environment of a match, changing the conditions which define a "win", or in any way moving past the simple requirement of two men/women/teams whose contest must end via a single pinfall, submission, count out, or disqualification.
This past weekend, World Wrestling Entertainment brought back the much-beloved Starrcade franchise for a lucky capacity audience at the historic Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina; while the show was lauded for its nostalgic odes to the show's long history and some apparently well-produced in-ring action, many fans expressed frustration that the show was not broadcast on WWE's signature app.
The show featured an Arn Anderson spinebuster (you know my love of those), Dustin Rhodes returning to his "Natural" roots, and a dual main event of cage matches in a cage which was built piecemeal onto the ring like the enclosures of old, not descending from the ceiling as cages do in modern sports entertainment.
While fans might never see the pair of cage matches which closed that show on the WWE Network, they can always view today's classic from Starrcade 1985: the "I Quit" Steel Cage match between Magnum T.A. and defending United States Champion Tully Blanchard.
World Championship Rasslin'
As a writer, I have to admit that the National Wrestling Alliance and Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1980s are a blind spot in pro wrestling history for me.
Becoming a wrestling fan in the 1990s, typically, meant that a fan picked one company to be loyal to and ignored the competition; my first love and only concern at that time was the World Wrestling Federation. I could name the high-profile matches at nearly every Wrestlemania prior to the turn of the millennium, but could not do the same for any pre-NWO pay per view from "the competition".
Pole matches and mega-structure cage matches excepted, digging into what I've missed from Vince's rivals for this column has been an odyssey of fantastic professional wrestling, especially when considered in the context of what "New York" was able to put in the ring at the same time (but more on that later).
A lot of the breakdown of this feud reminds me of an exchange between the above Randy "The Ram" Robinson (left) and Ayatollah (right) in the 2008 film The Wrestler: when plotting out their big comeback match, Ram asks The Ayatollah (out of character, of course) what the plan was for the match.
The man playing the Iranian villain (a character himself played by former WCW Commissioner Ernest "The Cat" Miller) responds, “How about this? I’m the heel and you’re the face.” What results, in the world of the movie, is a match that transports the Ring of Honor crowd back to the days when that feud sold out stadiums and not just small New York theatres.
I had to research the feud because conditioned to WWE(then WWF) storytelling, the lack of a pre-match video package left me wondering where the hatred between these two originated and what necessitated the brutality that unfolded in a steel cage in Greensboro 32 years ago today.
In essence, the feud boils down to the fact that Blanchard was a Horseman and Magnum was a man-of-the-people babyface, which fueled more than its fair share of bloodshed all over the American South during the Reagan years.
More specifically, Blanchard had stolen away Magnum's US Title the previous summer when Blanchard's valet, Baby Doll, provided Blanchard a foreign object (while disguising herself as a security guard); Blanchard would use that advantage to knock Magnum out cold, leaving the mulleted and mustachioed Magnum with a thirst for vengeance.
The performers themselves were exact opposites in terms of character and presentation; Blanchard flaunted his Horseman wealth and privilege, entering the Coliseum that night to a cocky rock-and-roll guitar riff while Magnum waited in the cage.
Magnum T.A., meanwhile, looked like an amalgamation of Hulk Hogan and Jake "The Snake" Roberts, but with the charisma of Randy Savage and the in-ring acumen of "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair (with whom Magnum had his fair share of classics in the year preceding this contest). It's hard to imagine the McMahon family dominating the wrestling business the way they did had Magnum T.A. not had his career tragically cut short by a paralyzing car crash in less than a year after Starrcade.
Unlike the WWF's spin on the classic caged combat, the cage in this contest is entirely present to enhance and contain the violence; there is no pinfall and no escape. The only way for one man to win is for his opponent to quit, announcing his capitulation to the entire audience on a hot mic.
As well-constructed and well-executed as this contest is, it's a careful combination of elements which, if one were removed, would send the whole thing tumbling down like a house of cards.
The cage is more than mere stage dressing, and shreds both Blanchard and Magnum T.A. into bloody oblivion; while the WWF was scaling back the violence of cage matches with the escape stipulation and making the cage as obtusely cartoonish as possible (the big blue bars are probably overdue for their own "Gimmick Some Lovin'" coverage), WCW uses the old chain link to maximum aesthetic effect.
This one resembles a wrestling match for roughly 90 seconds while the pair exchange a few takedowns and holds; once they tire of this show of respect and technical prowess, the match seems more akin to a battle between prison yard rivals. Even if the boys up north relaxed their approach to violence, this match does not work in the blue monstrosity.
That cage gives the match another crucial ingredient: the blood. Blanchard begins attacking his foe's face using the steel walls early, but by midmatch Magnum has forced the Horseman into the chain link walls so callously that the heel begins to look like John McClain confronting Hans Gruber at the end of Die Hard.
None of these elements can make the match on its own, however, and none of them is effective without the match's best element: the Greensboro crowd. This audience is whipped into a frenzy merely by the opening bell; when the blood starts flowing, their rumble becomes a roar, and the utter insanity of the finish gets an ovation that modern Chicago or New York crowds could only dream of.
The story of the match is simple: Magnum T.A. wants to murder Tully Blanchard, and Tully Blanchard wants to stay alive by murdering Magnum T.A. The satisfaction of forcing one's opponent to suffer the ultimate humiliation of admitting defeat, and the United States Championship that doing so would bring, seems secondary to this, but the match is better for it.
When either man forces the microphone into his foe's face to ask if he quits, the question is a guttural growl met by an equally ragged and desperate "no". These sequences are also usually accompanied by vicious poundings with audio equipment, with a sickening "thunk" reverberating through the building should anyone question whether the men in the ring were really trying to hurt each other.
Blanchard, for his part, plays the desperate-to-escape pretty boy to perfection; in one portion of the match he's so eager to survive that he attempts a pinfall in vain, and the finish lets this desperation backfire beautifully.
Baby Doll tosses a chair over the steel walls but, defying pro wrestling convention, it's a wooden chair, not steel. Blanchard makes plain his intention by smashing the seat into oblivion immediately and grabbing the sharpest shard, advancing on Magnum's face with a literal murder weapon.
Magnum then wrests the wooden spike away and stabs Blanchard in the face with it until Blanchard quits. Again, in a year where Hulk Hogan ruled the world by letting big men run into his outstretched foot and then dropping a leg onto their upper chests, Magnum T.A. won a secondary title on the opposition's biggest show by stabbing his opponent in the face with a splintered shard of wood until that opponent could take no more.
Magnum leaves to celebrate with his title in the crowd, letting Blanchard wallow in blood and embarrassment while Baby Doll struggles to help him to his feet as the show cuts to the next match.
I'll be the first to admit that, for someone raised on WWF sports entertainment, this match is definitely an acquired taste. I'd tried to watch it twice before (when I was 19 and again two years ago) and found it difficult to stomach, but digging into War Games made this one finally make sense.
Vince and company put on a cage match of their own a few months later at Wrestlemania 2 (which also borrowed Starrcade's multi-venue spectacular idea to less-than-spectacular results), a plodding affair between Hulk Hogan and his monster-of-the-week, King Kong Bundy.
Not having seen that contest, I can't imagine it featuring the visceral hatred, slasher film theatrics, heated crowd, and "is it real?" intensity that became the "I Quit" match's hallmarks. In fact, next to nothing the WWF produced in the 1980s, save Savage-Steamboat's intensely-planned bloodless theatrics, even come close to rivalling the story "I Quit" tells.
This isn't just a wrestling match; it's the entire ideology of the NWA and JCP distilled into a 17-minute bloodletting with a vociferous crowd drowning out the commentary. It's an easy 10/10
It's impossible to find Dave's star rating for this contest, so this two-word review for one of his Twitter followers will have to suffice: