In Defense of Cinematic Wrestling - Part 1: Flatbeds, Backlots, and Boiler Rooms

As the pandemic plays on, professional wrestling has seen a drastic change in its presentation and execution. With the lack of a live crowd, or even the use of other wrestlers and trainees at ringside, the action inside the squared circle just doesn’t feel the same. As such, some promotions have had to improvise and find ways to make things exciting, make things different. Especially with the supposed AEW Dynamite vs. WWE NXT ratings war going on, as well as WWE’s Smackdown moving to FOX this past October, the pressure has been on to deliver and, if able, over-deliver.

Since the shit hit the fan, we’ve gotten the WrestleMania double feature of the Boneyard Match and the Firefly Fun House, the Stadium Stampede from AEW’s Double or Nothing, NXT’s One Final Beat and the Backlot Brawl, and that’s not even covering the absurdity that was this year’s two-fer of a Money in the Bank Ladder Match in WWE.

And don’t get me started on the so-called “Greatest Wrestling Match Ever.” We’ll get there, promise.

While it may seem that this wave of cinematic, grand-scale style of wrestling is a product of the strange times we’ve been experiencing, it turns out that there is precedent for the wackiness and epicness that has populated the on-air product in the last several months. Over the next few entries, I hope to cover the trend of what has been dubbed “cinematic wrestling,” and examine why and how it works for these (and even I’m sick of this phrase) unprecedented times.

I am a firm believer in the saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get crafty,” and boy, have the wrestling powers that be been taking that to heart lately. That said, as it turns out, the concept of cinematic wrestling is nothing new, and goes back further than many would assume.

Part 1: Flatbeds, Boiler Rooms and Backlot Brawls - WCW and WWF, 1995-1996

For the first use of the cinematic style in a major wrasslin’ company, we go to World Championship Wrestling; specifically, their inaugural Uncensored event in March of 1995. A show built upon no-holds-barred, anything goes, toss the rulebook out the window fights had to start off with a bang, and start off it did with the King of the Road match. “The Natural” Dustin Rhodes (later known as Goldust in WWF/E) took on the Blacktop Bully (the once Demolition Smash) in the trailer of an 18-wheeler truck. The objective? Make it to the front and sound the horn of the big rig to win the “King of the Road” match.

Sounds simple enough, right? Fun, even? Something different from the pinfall and submission win conditions, at the very least, at this event that is, by name, at least, Uncensored?

To quote longtime producer Bruce Prichard, “then that damn bell rang.” Except it didn’t, because the match was taped days ahead and shown on the big screens on the stage at the event itself. While Barry Darsow, the man behind Blacktop Bully, said it was one of the best matches he ever put on in his career, it was a complicated affair full of stalling, stiff blows, and a strict no blood policy from the WCW brass. Despite this, the shots laid in in this match were stiffer than the steel beams that made up the trailer, and both men bled significantly. Due to the no blood policy, editing to show as little visible crimson as possible was necessitated.

While the Muta Scale for blood was maybe only glancingly tipped, it was enough for both men, as well as agent Mike Graham, to be shit-canned the next day, meaning the would-be hard-hitting affair accomplished precisely nothing except fill the opening fifteen or so minutes of a Pay-Per-View in one of the worst years in wrestling. You really cannot win them all.

In terms of cinematic matches, Dustin Rhodes would seek redemption one year later, this time under his Goldust persona, while holding the WWF Intercontinental Championship, no less. With the wrestling world firmly embroiled in the “Monday Night Wars” between Vince McMahon’s WWF and Ted Turner’s WCW, the pressure was on for the two foremost wrestling companies to one-up each other whenever possible. To spice things up for WrestleMania, which was to take place just a short while from Hollywood, CA, the original plan was a Miami Street Fight between Goldust and Razor Ramon at Wrestlemania XII.

It’s worth pointing out that WrestleMania XII came to us from Anaheim, CA. Even had this match gone according to the original plan, it would have made less sense than the eventual fake Razor Ramon.

The other problem was that Goldust held the Intercontinental title. Losing the title was not part of the plan, but if the champion is to be featured in a marquee match at ‘Mania, it makes sense to have the title at stake, right? As a workaround, the fracas was sold as a non-sanctioned match, therefore making the title a moot point. Since Razor Ramon tendered his resignation from the company, the legendary “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was put against The Bizarre One, and the match was named the Hollywood Backlot Brawl.

Goldust was a Golden Globes, silver screen-themed character, and Piper had his share of iconic film roles (They Live, anyone?), so as far as a Hollywood Backlot Brawl was concerned, all was right with the world. Right?

Again, then the damn bell rang.

The first part of the brawl, aka the part that was actually in a Hollywood backlot, was filmed several weeks ahead of the event in Anaheim. As Goldust drives up in what he described as a “piece of shit Cadillac that they spray-painted gold,” Piper douses the on-brand automobile with a fire hose.

I can neither confirm nor deny whether that gag was a not-so-subtle gay joke. And we’re a year or two removed from the Attitude Era here.

In the process, Goldust, who went on record years later saying he was trying to get Piper to bust him open the hard way, suffered a concussion after his head met a dumpster. Piper escaped the match with a broken hand, after his second attempt at busting Goldust open failed and Piper’s hand busted when it made contact.

During the next match, which was a so-so contest with Savio Vega and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, just before “Austin 3:16” was a thing, the commentators broke in several times to get updates on the ensuing car chase. In what could lightly be called an odd creative liberty, actual footage of the OJ Simpson car chase was spliced in, therefore justifying Piper’s car of choice as a Ford Bronco, which the ex-footballer legitimately drove in said car chase. Eventually, just before the main event, the chase made its way to Arrowhead Pond, and the fight spilled into the arena and into the squared circle. After an extended brawl, Piper stripped off Goldust’s bodysuit, revealing lingerie underneath.

If this sounds ridiculous to someone who doesn’t know about Goldust or anything pro wrestling, I’d also like to point out that when the character was pitched to Dustin Rhodes, he had no idea what the word “androgynous” meant, and following the phone call where he got his marching orders, he consulted a dictionary to get himself a clue.

Goldust’s manager Marlena covered up her client with a towel, exiting the arena as the familiar bagpipes of Piper’s theme music played over the PA. The wild brawl was a good bit of levity before the marathon of an Iron Man match that main-evented the show, and it made for one of the most infamous moments in WrestleMania history.

In a pre-Attitude Era WWF, hardcore brawls were reserved for the nastiest of blood feuds, and in 1996, no feud was more violent or unhinged as was The Undertaker versus Mankind. In what wasn’t even their final blow-off match, a Boiler Room Brawl was set for SummerSlam, with the winner being the first wrestler to escape the boiler room, make it to the ring, and take possession of the urn from Paul Bearer, manager of The Undertaker and possessor of the best falsetto this side of Tiny Tim.

As has been the case with the previous two matches, the first portion was taped ahead, only this time it was taped the night before. Allegedly, The Deadman was worn out after doing a day’s worth of promotion leading up to the event, which made the process that much more grueling. The first few minutes of the segment see The Undertaker lurking around the boiler room, looking for his opponent in the bowels of the Gund Arena in Cleveland. After Mankind gets the jump on him, the brawl kicks off, involving pipes, beams, and a botched elbow drop from atop a wooden ladder that left the real-life Mick Foley with a damaged sciatic nerve.

After some transmission interference, not to mention over ten minutes without it, the commentary team kicks in, which is jarring given that the audio was mostly grunts, groans, and the occasional crowd pop. After fighting through the backstage area, the two ended up on the stage, en route to the ring and eventually Paul Bearer. It was at this point that the at-home audience saw that production had wheeled out televisions to ringside, as if the capacity crowd was a science class on a day where they had a substitute teacher. Undertaker made it to his manager first, but the mortician turned his back on his longtime client, before The Deadman walked into a Mandible Claw from the masked madman. After a slap and an urn shot, Bearer presented the urn to Mankind, marking him as the winner, and shocking the Cleveland crowd.

While their Buried Alive match in October of 1996, as well as their now-legendary Hell in a Cell match at King of the Ring 1998, are perhaps more fondly remembered, the Boiler Room Brawl certainly walked so those matches could run.

After examining these three cinematic matches, we see a sort of formula: they’re taped ahead of their intended air date, may or may not end up in an actual wrestling ring, and at least thus far, pinfalls and submission mean nothing. As the renegade Extreme Championship Wrestling, with whom the WWF had a working relationship in 1997, rose in notoriety, the effect of the hardcore, “garbage” style of wrestling made waves in the competition. Next time, we will look at the Hardcore divisions of both WWF and WCW, featuring stars such as Crash Holly, Norman Smiley, and a handful of transfers from the Land of Extreme.