Shining a Spotlight 1.25.13: The Hollywood Blonds
Posted by Michael Weyer on 01.25.2013
Examining a great tag team that showed both the best and worst of WCW at work.
1993 is not a very good year to remember for wrestling fans. And that's especially true if you were a fan of WCW. They may have had worse financial years (‘99/2000 where they went down the crapper) but '93 still stands as a horrific creative year. The mini-movies for SuperBrawl and Beach Blast. Cactus Jack's "Lost in Cleveland." The Disney-MGM tapings. Davey Boy Smith pushed as a main eventer. Master P. The Shockmaster. The unique saga of Sid. But amid all that garbage, there is one bright spot to WCW that year that bears remembering.
The Hollywood Blonds.
It's the classic case of two guys thrown together without much hope but turn into something magic. Two brilliant workers, amazing on the mic even more than in the ring, gelling perfectly as friends and partners. A pair capable of getting the heat of crowds like no one else and dominating in the tag ranks back when those titles meant something. It's also a fascinating (and frustrating) case of what happens when upper management doesn't like two guys getting over on their own and insists on interfering. Basically, it sums up WCW in a nutshell, a company that came so close to coming out on top only to fall apart due to their own issues. But at least they gave us a great thing to remember along the way, a team that twenty years later still stands tall among the list of best WCW tag teams ever.
The Cincinnati Kid and the Stunner
The key to the Blondes was that it was the perfect pairing of two very different stars. Brian Pillman had grown up in hardship with the need for throat surgery as a child that led to his raspy voice. After becoming a star with football in high school and college, he moved to wrestling, coming to fame in Stampede, teaming with Bruce Hart as Bad Company. Yes, much of their success was due to Bruce booking at the time but Pillman was wowing fans with his stunning flying across the ring with technical work. He came into WCW in 1989 as your typical babyface with handsome looks and long hair, breaking out with a feud against Lex Luger. He soon teamed with Tom Zenk, the two winning the newly revived U.S. tag titles to hold them for a bit. Pillman then moved to singles action, winning the Light Heavyweight title and engaging in a fantastic feud with Jushin Liger, the two stealing the show with their classic SuperBrawl II match.
However, the arrival of Bill Watts changed all that. Among his directives, Watts banned all moves from the top rope, which completely killed the Cruiserweight division. He was no fan of Pillman, Watts disliking smaller wrestlers and kept pushing him down the card. He also cut Pillman's pay drastically, leading to a huge row with Pillman making it clear he wasn't leaving and snapping "I'll be the world's highest paid jobber." He had to put up with rough stuff that clashed with his personal life to lead to trouble. So when the opportunity came for him to turn heel, Pillman embraced it. He was soon paired with Barry Windham, who had been a face teaming with Dustin Rhodes to win the WCW and NWA tag team titles but turned on his partner. However, Windham was being set for a singles push so they did a promo of Windham picking a new partner for Pillman, one they knew quite well.
It's interesting how pretty much every person who saw Steve Austin from his debut in 1990 on knew this guy was going to be a superstar. Austin was just one of those guys blasting with charisma and drive from the get-go, there was no way he couldn't make it. WCW had used him fairly well with a long reign as TV champion and working with the Dangerous Alliance to dominate throughout 1992. Watts wasn't a fan of Austin due to him looking like a "pretty boy" which is highly ironic considering Austin would achieve his great fame as exactly the sort of hell-raising tough guy Watts loved. When the Alliance fell apart, Austin seemed set for a singles run himself and was thrown when Dusty Rhodes informed him he'd be teaming with Pillman.
The two were just thrown together, not a priority at all for WCW. They knew it too and that's what pushed them to go out of their way to be stars. And they more than made it work.
On the face of it, "The Hollywood Blonds" seemed an odd name as Austin was from Texas and Pillman was from Ohio. The name had been used by Dale Roberts and Jerry Brown, who ruled as tag team champ heels in the Tri-State area in the 1970's. Roberts would change his first name to Buddy and achieve far greater fame as a member of the Fabulous Freebirds. The name was revived by Rip Rogers and Ted Oates for a brief run in Mid-Atlantic in 1984. But it was a good name and Austin and Pillman made it work not just with their ring work but their attitude as well.
Pillman had long been a face but took to being a heel with great ease. Some would say that being a scumbag was closer to his real persona as the tales of his pill-popping and ring affairs are still legendary even for wrestlers. The popular joke is that while you wondered if the letters in Penthouse Forum were real or fake, the truth was that they were all real and all written by Pillman. Austin was still new to the business but taking to it quite well and he and Pillman soon became fast friends. It was a bond that would last for the rest of Pillman's life and add to his already famous name. At first coming out to their normal names, the two got help from Scotty Flamingo (the future Raven) to become the Blondes. Pillman got them matching star-covered trunks and they soon added sequined jackets and would carry those old-styled "snap-boards" used by moviemakers. A wild idea was to take some safety lights and cut them into their boots so they would flash whenever they moved, an idea I'm shocked no one else has come up with since. Pillman also got them gold chain necklaces, Austin still wearing his today as a tribute to his friend.
But in the ring was where they truly shined. Both men were amazing athletes as most fans today don't realize how truly skilled Austin was before his 1997 neck injury forced him to adjust to a brawling style. Pillman, of course, was a sensational high flyer but could get down and dirty as well and the two clicked together like they'd been partnering for years with double-teams and special moves. They'd go old school cheating with stuff like the "Phantom Tag" where, with the ref's back turned, they'd swap places with one guy clapping his hands as if a tag had been made. They would also add their trademark pose of using an old-styled winding film camera with their hands at a downed opponent. In promos, they were even better, both oozing with arrogance and soon inventing their catchphrase "your brush with greatness is over!"
They weren't supposed to get over but their matches on TV soon had crowds responding to them so much that WCW had no choice but to push them to the top. At the time, the WCW and NWA tag titles were held by Ricky Steamboat and Shane Douglas, a great pairing on their own with the veteran Steamboat carrying the young Doulgas to good bouts. Against Austin and Pillman, magic occurred. Just pure, amazing tag-team magic, their battles calling to mind old-school ‘80's matches with the Rock N Roll vs Midnight Express. Steamboat and Douglas put up with sneak attacks and such, escaping with the belts but on the March 27th, 1993 episode of "The Power Hour," the Blonds finally got the titles after some chicanery. From there, the team truly took off, their arrogance balanced by the fact they could back up the talk in the ring. In a time when the tag divisions were a bit rough, the Blonds were a fresh of breath air with amazing excitement, you wanted to watch them lose yet you felt yourself enjoying their antics, the best cool heels wrestling had seen for some time.
They faced Steamboat and Douglas in numerous rematches, the Blonds retaining by cheating or at least DQ'ed but keeping the belts, finally announcing they were tired of the two challengers and refusing rematches. The two faced off against a pair of masked men called "Dos Hombres," who appeared to be luchadores. As everyone guessed, the Blonds dominated for a bit before one Hombre broke out a series of arm-drags only Steamboat could perform while the other showed off some of Douglas' ariel moves. Hombres won the match and while Austin and Pillman screamed over the obvious scam, they nonetheless had to defend against the masked duo at Slamboree. However, before the show, Doulgas had the first of what would be many eruptions against management and was fired from WCW. Thus, Pillman's old partner Tom Zenk was given the second mask for the cage battle. Steamboat carried the team with great stuff, unmasking mid-way through while Zenk remained masked so fans wouldn't know it wasn't Douglas. Great stuff included Steamboat leaping from the cage top onto both Blonds but in the end, the champs managed to retain the belts. The two men really worked as a team, not trying to outdo each other but really work together to gel and take off with fans responding more and more to them.
From there, the Blonds hit their true height as heels. Ric Flair had returned to WCW to great fanfare but due to contract issues with WWF, he couldn't compete for a while. So WCW gave him his fancy interview segment, "A Flair for the Gold" to use him, Flair on a large set with a French maid called Fifi around. The Blonds came on for an interview which quickly turned nasty as they mocked Flair on his age, Flair and Arn Anderson taking issue with it. Knowing they were onto something, the Blonds stoked the fires by doing "A Flare for the Old" with Pillman in a white wig, glasses and walker to impersonate Flair interviewing Austin with a hefty maid of their own. They followed that up with a better bit with Austin having a pillow under his gut to impersonate Arn Anderson as a statue. Naturally, Flair and Anderson took issue, leading to a classic battle at Clash of the Champions XXIII, a two-out-of-three falls war with more cheating than a Bernie Madoff audit. It ended with Barry Windham attacking Flair, the Horsemen winning two falls but as one was by DQ, the title didn't change hands.
So the Blonds were the hottest thing WCW had going, the fans popping for them but still loving to hate them and they elevated any opponent they faced and made the tag belts mean a lot. This couldn't end any way but fantastic, right?
You forget. This was WCW.
With Windham distracting Flair, Anderson needed a new partner to face the Blonds. Ole had already been introduced as a Four Horsemen reunion made sense. Tully Blanchard was approached but turned down the lowball offer and not many other guys in WCW who could have fit. So for reasons that still boggle the mind, WCW decided on Paul Roma. Yes, the lifelong mid-carder (to be generous) in WWF was now introduced as a member of the most elite stable in wrestling. The fans didn't buy this for a second, despite Flair and Anderson trying to carry Roma and this is seen as easily the worst version of the Horsemen ever.
Their feud against the Blonds was poor enough but what made it worse was how it had to turn out. One of the absolute worst ideas WCW ever came up with (and that's saying a hell of a lot) was the Disney-MGM tapings. It was standard practice for weekend syndicated wrestling shows to tape episodes a bit in advance. WCW, however, decided to do what they thought was the ultimate cost-cutting measure of taping three months worth of shows in a single weekend at the Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando. Crowds were given free tickets and merchandise and told specifically who to cheer and boo, the biggest shattering of kayfabe that the business had ever seen to that point. While the crowds were screened to weed out fans who'd act against this, some fans immediately reported what they'd seen to the "dirt sheets" as well as the blossoming internet forums, giving away months of planned storylines in advance. The tapings were chaotic, guys not really caring about doing good stuff as they knew it wouldn't matter to bookers and wild things like a guy doing a promo with a title, walking off stage and giving it right to someone else so they could do a promo about winning the belt to air a few weeks later.
WCW ignored that but to be fair, it would take a while for legitimate sports to grasp the impact of the internet, let alone pro wrestling. The NWA took a very hard view of this, contributing to their breaking away from WCW later that year. This pertains to the Blonds in a very important way as the tapings revealed that by Fall Brawl that September, the tag titles would be held by Anderson and Roma. When this bit of news hit the spoiler sheets, fans were outraged as the Blonds were so great as champs and should have held on longer. With Beach Blast coming, fans expected the title change but instead, WCW tried their first Internet Swerve by having the Blonds retain. But then we got to another thing that made those tapings a mess: Pillman suffered a serious ankle injury and couldn't take part in the upcoming Clash XXIV which was where the switch was to happen. Normally, they could put it off but because the tapings were set in stone, the belts had to switch, so Steve Regal (who had no connection to Austin or Pillman) was inserted into the match to allow the Horsemen to win the belts.
And then it got worse.
The Fall and Legacy
Pillman returned from his injury faster than expected. Some might argue too fast as he was never quite the same worker and no doubt added to his addictions with painkillers. He and Austin seemed ready to take off again with a confrontation taped at the Disney shows of them facing new tag champs the Nasty Boys (who hadn't actually won the belts yet when the promo took place, you see why fans hated this so much?). The Blonds were still hot as hell, still skilled and ready to go. So WCW did the only logical thing: They split them up.
The reasoning is a bit murky. On Pillman's 2007 DVD, Dusty Rhodes defends himself, saying it was other guys in the company while he backed the Blonds. You always have to take Dusty with a grain of salt but the fact is, there were guys in management who had never liked the Blonds taking off on their own rather than something WCW had created themselves (since, after all, their ideas like Shockmaster had gone over like gangbusters). But the way it happened made absolutely no sense at all. After a match, Colonel Robert Parker came up to congratulate Austin but ran down Pillman on his bad leg, saying that he should "just be put down" like a race horse. Pillman attacked Parker and despite not even knowing the man well, Austin suddenly turned on his best friend to beat him down badly. The feud was also a letdown, the two guys never allowed to cut loose as they could have with Pillman actually spending time trying to put Parker in a chicken suit.
Pillman never really recovered from that face turn, lost in WCW for a while until 1995 where he rejoined the Horsemen with Flair, Anderson and Chris Benoit. He would then move onto his famous "Loose Cannon" act that would lead to his departure and to WWF. Austin would flounder a bit in WCW before winning the US title. Ric Flair was planning to face Austin but then Hulk Hogan came in to change things, Austin and Ricky Steamboat having a fantastic program with Steamboat winning the U.S. title but injured in the process. Austin was given the belt only to lose it in 30 seconds to Hogan crony Hacksaw Jim Duggan. Recovering at home from injuries, he was fired from WCW and the rest is history. He and Pillman reunited in WWF but Austin ended up brutally attacking Pillman to sell himself as a monster heel, leading to the infamous "gun confrontation" on RAW that nearly got WWF kicked off USA. They'd pick up their feud in 1997 when Pillman joined the Hart Foundation but wouldn't really clash again before Pillman's death that October.
The Blonds remain a fascinating case of a success story undone by their own company. Two guys who saw an opportunity and took it, getting over majorly on their own talents with the fans supporting them and becoming the hottest team around. But then the company, unable to accept some guys being successful without their input, stepped in and, thanks to some already terrible management moves, ruined one of the best things they had. Austin has always said that the Blonds never got the chance to reach their full potential, they could have gone so much further and been one of the teams fans think of instantly when tag team wrestling is mentioned. Their time was far too brief but the legacy remains as one of the best heel tag teams ever, one that helped elevate Austin to super-stardom and be remembered, perhaps for the bad WCW did but also the good they were capable of.