Monday, December 10, 2012

My first time at Maple Leaf Gardens: September 28, 1986

For years and years, waiting for wrestling in Toronto was like waiting for a streetcar: you didn't have to wait long. Another one would be along shortly. Unlike rock concerts or home shows, which might only hit your city for one night, wrestling at Maple Leaf Gardens was a return engagement. Before my time, it was weekly, wasn't it?

By the time the Tunneys sold out the Toronto wrestling office to Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation in 1984, the shows were coming just slightly less often. When I became a fan in 1986, they were coming every two, three or four weeks.

After missing The WWF Big Event in late August at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium, I felt like absolutely had to see the next show. Lucky for me, Billy 'Red' Lyons was there on the TV to tell me about the big wrestling card coming to Toronto on September 28, 1986.

A pair of gold tickets to wrestling at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1986.

The two matches that drew me to this card were the main event -- hairy, crazy, George 'The Animal' Steele vs. flashy, sneaky, intense Intercontinental Champion Randy 'Macho Man' Savage. I think the two were at the tail end of a feud ahead of Savage's legendary feud with Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat. Steamboat, at the time, was still busy with Jake Roberts.

The Machines were also hot. It was a short-lived gimmick Vince McMahon lifted from Japan. Kind of like how he lifted the manager with the megaphone gimmick and Eric Bischoff bit the NWO schtick. Hey, when something's hot, you take it.

Super Machine has Antonio Inoki in a chinlock in NJPW
Just months later, this masked man would be repackaged as Ax of Demolition.
It was a tongue-in-cheek affair. Andre the Giant was 'suspended' after no-showing matches during the taping of The Princess Bride. Suddenly, a huge masked Japanese wrestler named The Giant Machine appeared, with tag team partner The Super Machine. The audience was supposed to understand that Giant Machine was Andre, and Super Machine was Masked Superstar (Bill Eadie, later Demolition Ax). As a new fan, I'd never heard of Masked Superstar, so it was all about Andre.

Manager of huge bad guys, Bobby Heenan, was frickin' furious. It was obvious to HIM that Andre was violating the suspension by wrestling with the mask on. He demanded promoter (and [pretend] WWF President) Jack Tunney do something about this injustice.

"We don't know who's under the mask," said Tunney. "Maybe it's....Giant Baba," he countered, in a rare acknowledgement of a wrestler from a group other than the WWF.

Heenan argued that there are no Japanese werestlers who are 7'5".

"THIRTY of 'em aren't seven-foot-five!" he sputtered.

Anyway, to see the Machines take on Heenan's biggest big men, Wrestlemania 2 headliner King Kong Bundy and enormous Big John Studd -- that was as good as a main event. Add in the excitement of a Texas Tornado Match, which promised to have all four wrestlers in the ring at once, and you could count me SOLD.

It probably took a little convincing to get my dad to pick up tickets, though. But he was awesome, so he did, right from the Toronto wrestling box office on Carlton Street.

We went to the arena and it was so exciting. So exciting it almost made me sick. I wasn't into sports or rock concerts, so having my dad take me to Maple Leaf Gardens for a wrestling show was, for me, a huge deal. I kept hyping him up about how much fun it would be.

We made our way to the seats -- GOLD seats, giving about the same perspective as the main fixed camera on the TV shows -- and the ring announcer came up the ramp. The lights dimmed. The magic was switched on.

Wrestling ring at Maple Leaf Gardens is lit from above with a ramp for the wrestlers to walk to the ring.
A bright island rises from a shadowed sea of eager onlookers. The wrestling ring at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, with a sacred ramp and a safety moat to keep the action from the people, or vice versa.
The house lights went out and the lights mounted under the Maple Leafs scoreboard came on. The direct overhead light was warm but spooky, casting shadows down the faces and bodies of those in the ring. The illumination was enough to see what was going on, but not as bright as a concert stage -- it felt like we weren't seeing everything that was going on, even when nothing was going on. Imagine a rock concert in 1982, when the band was only using one set of red lights. You can see them, but if their lips were moving, you couldn't read the lips.

When the wrestlers came out, bright, blueish lime light blazed in from the corners of the arena. The intense spotlights followed the wrestlers in and out of the ring, into the moated-off safety area between the high red railing and the distantly-seated ringside fans, and up and down the ramp. When the spotlights were not lighting up the ring, the Toronto wrestling ring only looked half-lit. Quite a contrast from today's lit-for-TV up-close spectacle.

Yes, the wrestling. Nine matches, and I only remember...well, the top two.

A writer at Da Wrestling Site commented recently on most of the matches, as they were taped and broadcast in abbreviated form a few weeks later on WWF Prime Time Wrestling.

That writer craps all over the undercard. While I can understand today's short-attention-span, hit-'em-with-hammers fan not having the patience to watch it, I think he's missing the point.

Part of the mission of the undercard in this era was to ease people into suspending their disbelief. An opening match jam-packed with high spots and flippity-flip acrobatics leaves exactly what for the rest of the show? What's someone going to do in the next eight matches to raise the stakes?

So, if the opening match is ten minutes of variations on a headlock, so be it. Watch the tapes. You'll see that even though the crowd starts out shouting "BORING!" they are beginning to buy into the action. That boring headlock turns into cheers when the good guy tackles the bad guy. That boring arm-wringer turns into a chorus of boos when the heel pulls the babyface's hair behind the referee's back.

Okay, when Sivi Afi and Iron Mike Sharpe go to a time limit draw, you must think to yourself -- gosh, maybe this IS real, huh? I mean, if it were phony, wouldn't they have Jimmy Snuka's cousin bury the groaning guy in five minutes?

So, by the time the more exciting guys come out, the Toronto wrestling crowd is primed and ready to burst. When the whole show is boom-boom-boom action, nothing means anything and people just get worn out.

The place went nuts when the Texas Tornado tag match happened. People ignored the ring announcer's earlier warning about not throwing anything at or near the ring. Crumpled-up programs were thrown. Popcorn boxes were tossed. And half-full Cokes were hurled.

In the only spot I remember from the whole match, Super Machine picked up a crushed large beverage that had just landed in the ring, smooshed it in his hand, and ground it into the eyes of one of the bad guys. Now that's inspiration, people. That's using what you're given.

The match was doubly exciting, I recall, because they left the house lights on. It added to the sense of mayhem.

In the co-main, Steele vs Savage, not much happened. The Animal was disqualified after about four and a half minutes after nailing the referee. I don't have any evidence to back this up, but I bet it was Terry Yorkston. In 1986, if a ref at MLG was going to get knocked down, it was Terry Yorkston. Or Jon Bonello. Usually Terry. I hated Terry Yorkston's refereeing. Thank goodness I never had to watch Fred Atkins ref.

Enough rambling.

Dad might've bought me a street hot dog outside the Gardens. It was a big night for me.

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