RoboCop’s Brief Career in Professional Wrestling

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An often misunderstood political satire, Paul Verhoven’s darkly comical scif-fi action classic RoboCop is one of those strange ultraviolent 80s properties that, despite its exceedingly dark content, was cartoonish enough (perhaps by design) to appeal to small children. Bare breasts, bullet wounds, drug abuse, threatened sexual violence, and f-bombs aside, RoboCop boasted a titular cyborg protagonist seemingly designed specifically to make for a kickass action figure for little kids to drool over. Indeed, children did latch onto the futuristic law enforcer’s look (assuming they weren’t intellectually engaged by the film’s attack on the privatization of law enforcement), so much so that the movie inspired a surprisingly wide range of kid-friendly mutations. Almost immediately after its release, RoboCop launched an ostensibly still-alive comic book series, a corny live-action TV series, two separate animated shows, and such unlikely oddities as this Korean fried chicken ad, all with content designed to appeal to a younger crowd than its R-Rated source material.

The absurdity of that fried chicken ad aside, the most fascinating RoboCop mutation of all (to me anyway), was the crime-fighting cyborg’s brief career in professional wrestling, an art form that by design has to appeal both to children and to child-like adults alike. This magical three minutes of pop culture content was staged in Washington, D.C., 25 years ago, at a WCW pay-per-view event titled Capital Combat ’90: The Return of RoboCop. Now, that title may have you wondering how RoboCop could be “returning” to a pro wrestling career he never began, which is fair. The truth is that he wasn’t returning to the ring, but rather returning to existence. The PPV was a cross-promotional effort between WCW & Orion Pictures as a means of hyping the theatrical release of RoboCop 2. The really, really sad truth is that even if RoboCop were to step into the squared circle in 2015, he still technically wouldn’t be “returning” to the ring, since in an event named after him, his appearance was so brief that he never made it into the wrestling ring in the first place.

Not only was Capital Combat ’90: The Return of RoboCop an egregious corporate synergy cash-grab, it was also just a blatant false promise. It might have been too much to ask for pro wrestling fans to expect RoboCop to perform any power-bombs or pile-drivers, but surely they must’ve been livid by the measly three minutes of RoboCop content actually delivered. Considering the character’s appearance in the context of the (standard) three hour runtime of the PPV event, less than 2% of the product was actually RoboCop-related. If his appearance had been a surprise, this might have been less of a blatant rip-off & more of a strange novelty, but keep in mind that RoboCop was featured prominently on the poster of the event, which was named after him. That kind of bait & switch might not be punishable by RoboLaw, but it’s still incredibly cruel.

This cruelty was not helped at all by the booking, which made the odd choice to place the RoboCop segment halfway into the show. Every match that leads up to RoboCop’s pro-wrestling debut features announcers just salivating over what’s to come. The show continuously promises the arrival of crowd-favorite Sting & “his buddy RoboCop”, who was present to protect Sting’s younger fans “the Little Stingers” (Oh, won’t somebody please think of the Little Stingers?). While other wrestlers were performing (in some occasionally great matches), announcers would turn up the volume little by little, reminding the audience to stay tuned-in with phrases like “As we anxiously await RoboCop and, of course, Sting” & “Still to come, Sting & RoboCop,” trying to visit the unlikely “buddies’” locker room, struggling with a feed that “cuts out”, etc. Then, when the big moment finally comes, it’s essentially a two-minute sketch that briefly interrupts the show before the next match. It’s no wonder that RoboCop’s appearance disappointed so many fans, given that it was tossed away so casually after such a ludicrous build-up instead of being saved for a show-ending gimmick or at the very least a surprise swerve.

Thanks to the following 25 years of emotional healing and the advent of YouTube, however, these three minutes of RoboCop pro wrestling content can now be enjoyed in a void as a novelty, which is often the best way to consume some of WCW’s trashier antics. Here’s a rundown of the entirety of what RoboCop does as a professional wrestler. He walks down the entrance ramp to the intro, “The nation’s number one law enforcer. He serves the public trust, protects the innocent, upholds the law. The ultimate police officer, RoboCop!”. Noticing his longtime “buddy” Sting has been locked in a cage prop (leftover from a ridiculous match in which a crooked manager had to be restrained earlier in the evening), RoboCop springs into action by calmly walking over to the cage, bending its “steel” bars, and lifting the door of its hinges. And that’s pretty much it. The Four Horsemen heels that had locked Sting in the cage are freaked out by his newfound buddy and run off without a physical altercation (probably afraid that they will be shot to death) and without missing a beat the ring announcer begins to shill for the next upcoming WCW PPV event, Bash at the Beach. And thus RoboCop’s pro wrestling career began and ended.

This, of course, is far from the worst stunt in the history of pro wrestling, or even the history of the WCW. Hell, this isn’t even the worst movie-promotion stunt in the history of WCW, considering that they gave David Arquette (as himself) the Heavy-Weight Championship belt as a way of promoting the film Ready to Rumble in a stunt that disgusted even Arquette. It is an odd footnote in both pro wrestling & RoboCop history, though, one that probably confused both adult & child fans alike. I’m still trying to make sense of it myself. In a three-hour event that boasts actually-decent matches featuring the likes of Cactus Jack, Rick Flair, and Lex Luger it’s the three minutes of RoboCop content that stands out as something truly special, for better or for worse. Sometimes even when pro wrestling is at its trashiest depths, it can be memorable in a way that a lot of mediums can’t touch. Bad movies have a way of achieving that special kind of trash as well, and for a brief three minutes in 1990, Capital Combat: The Return of RoboCop found both art forms failing spectacularly in unison: a rare, but wonderful sight that’s to be cherished . . . as soon as the pain of being let down & ripped off fades away.

-Brandon Ledet

Body Slam (1986) and the Often Superfluous Nature of Bloated Spectacle in Pro Wrestling

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Like most adults find themselves doing from time to time, I spent this past Friday night yelling myself hoarse at sweaty, costumed men as they wrestled each other in a middle school gymnasium. It was my first exposure to New Orleans’ own pro wrestling promotion Wildkat Sports, at an event called Wildkat Strikes Back. Sitting in a cramped, hot gymnasium with a crowd that ranged from screeching children to their elderly grandparents to hardcore, middle-aged wrestling nerds to roving gangs of way-out-of-place crust punks was a welcome alternative to the way I usually enjoy the sport: in the cold, TV-provided glow of living rooms. There was an intense, communal vibe in that gym that can be lacking in the larger, televised promotions and it made me realize just how much of a spectacle the sport can be on its own merit. When stripped down to its bare bones (sans the slapstick comedy sketches, celebrity cameos, pyrotechnics and half-baked stunts that can exhaust a more bloated program), pro wrestling is still entertaining in a genuine, visceral way.

Sometime in mid-80s pro wrestling had reached its most bloated point in history. With the rise of Hulkamania, the undeniably potent likeability of Andre the Giant, and the cutthroat business-sense of juggernaut promoter Vince McMahon, WWE (then WWF) reached the pinnacle of its cultural dominance when WrestleMania III broke the all-time attendance record of an in-door sporting event with more than 93,000 fans present in the stands (a record that still holds today). The level of sheer spectacle that accompanies events like WrestleMania is as disparate from the brand of pro wrestling you’d see at events like Wildkat Strikes Back as the difference in size of their respective crowds, but that spectacle isn’t exactly necessary to make “sports entertainment” . . . entertaining.

Arriving just a year before that record-breaking crowd at WrestleMania III (and a whole three years before WWE got into the film business themselves with No Holds Barred), the 1986 film Body Slam similarly gets confused about what makes pro wrestling entertaining, putting more value into the spectacle surrounding the sport than the sport itself. In the film’s laughably convoluted plot (it is a comedy, after all) rock ‘n’ roll manager Harry Smilac is struggling to make it with only one client under his wing (a band called KICKS) when he fortunately expands his roster by signing on pro wrestler “Quick” Rick Roberts (played by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper), mistakenly assuming that he is a musical act. Despite his initial repugnance toward pro wrestling, Smilac discovers that there’s good money in the sport and pretty much dives head first into the wrestling business until he (late in the film) has the brilliant idea of combining KICKS & Quick Rick’s talents and voila! Smilac gives birth to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Wrestling”. The spectacle of a live rock band playing while sports entertainers perform is treated here like the discovery of the cure for cancer. Smilac is lauded as a genius.

In Body Slam’s logic, Smilac not only improves pro wrestling with this invention, but he also improves rock ‘n’ roll. These are two forms of art that don’t need improvement. Both rock and wrestling are perfectly appealing when reduced to their most basic parts; they don’t need 80s-tinged grandstanding to make them worthwhile. It’s fitting, then, that the band Smilac manages, KICKS, is an obvious stand-in for the band KISS, who are no strangers to using theatrics & merchandising to distract audiences from their okay-at-best brand of rock ‘n’ roll. In the movie’s logic, KICKS’ songs (as well as their deep love of pyrotechnics) are not only a draw for the crowd, but they also give the wrestlers (well, the faces at least) strength to overpower their opponents. They’re breathing life into a far-from-dead brand of entertainment that really didn’t need their help in the first place.

Of course, Body Slam is a silly trifle of a film that shouldn’t be judged too harshly about what it has to say about pro wrestling as a sport, because it doesn’t have too much to say about anything at all, much less wrestling. However, the film does have some charms as a campy delight. The 80s cheese is thick enough to choke you as early as the opening scene, which features Smilac hanging out of a convertible, hair slicked back, hitting on bikini babes by showing off his gigantic car phone. There’s also some corny humor in exchanges like when a friend asks Smilac, “What are you gonna do, Harry?” and he responds “What I always do: manage!” The campy appeal of the rock ‘n’ roll wrestling plot doesn’t really get going until the last third of the film, but the montages are so worth it, especially the one that’s accompanied by the Body Slam theme song. There’s also, of course, a wide range of 80s wresters to gawk at here. Besides the aforementioned Roddy Piper, the film includes “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, “Captain” Lou Albano, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, “The Barbarian” Sione Vailahi, and several members of the Samoan Anoaʻi family (including Roman Reigns’ father Sika), among others. Besides the innate fun of seeing them all in a feature film, they’re also more or less abysmal at acting, which helps keep the mood light. With all of this 80s-specific cheese flying around, the inclusion of always-welcome Billy Barty & Charles Nelson Reilly is somehow just icing on the cake.

It’s not a great movie, but Body Slam is effective as a time capsule of the 80s as an era of corny comedies, show-off musicians, and the birth of bloated spectacle in wrestling. The time capsule aspect goes both ways, though, both funny in its quaintly out-of-date aesthetic and disturbing in its penchant for finding cheap humor in topics like misogyny, racial caricature, cross-dressing and pedophilia. Those offenses aside, there are moments late in the film when they finally get the basic appeal of pro wrestling down when during a rock ‘n’ roll wrestling performance the band KICKS is attacked by a group of heels and the whole show devolves into chaos. There’s also a particularly bloody street fight match involving chains that feels pretty close to what a lot of hardcore fans are looking for in the sport, despite an announcer’s exclamation that “This is setting wrestling back 1000 years!”

When considered from the perspective of an enterprising showman (like a Harry Smilac or an Eric Bischoff), Body Slam is an interesting case study of what outsiders often get wrong in their assumptions about what makes pro wrestling entertaining. I’m not saying that local promotions like Wildkat Sports are inherently better than their televised, large scale, rock ‘n’ roll wrestling competitors; I’ll still be eagerly watching all 4 bloated-spectacle hours of WrestleMania XXXI this coming Sunday. I’m just saying that the sport is entertaining enough on its own merit, even when stripped of the fireworks, the KISS-knockoffs, and the David Arquettes. There’s a basic appeal to its violence & pageantry that’s evident whether you’re in a middle school gym with 1,000 sweaty nerds or an outrageously packed stadium of 90,000 rabid fans. The bloated spectacle is delicious lagniappe at its best and unnecessarily excessive at its worst. In Body Slam, it’s mostly the latter, though the film argues otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet