In the 1989 Wrestling Observer Yearbook, Jeff Bowdren staked his claim as to the 100 greatest matches of the 80s. Over thirty years down the line and with the benefit of the internet and streaming services, Liam Byrne aims to take a look back at each match (where available) that made the list. With a focus on the context in which these contests took place, take a walk back through time as we look at The Wrestling Classic.
Bruiser Brody & Jimmy Snuka vs. Dory & Terry Funk (December 12, 1981)
One of the joys of retro wrestling and the various online repositories that chart the sport’s storied history is the ability to look back at cards from different eras, promotions and countries. Though the amount of footage available pales into comparison to what actually took place in arenas globally, sometimes just looking at the names that had a run in a specific place at a specific time was enough to create intrigue and excitement about the possibilities of what happened when.
Speaking for (I believe) a number of fans, few things interested me more than the line-ups you’d see run historical Japanese tours, especially any of the annual tournaments that were booked with heavy reliance on the top natives and the best gaijin wrestlers available. Highest in terms of fascination generated was always the World’s Strongest Tag Determination League or, as a mistranslation and the use by Giant Baba of ‘Engrish’ for promotional purposes rendered it for many fans, The Real World Tag League. Beginning in 1977, the annual tournament in the early weeks of December has seen a who’s who of wrestlers grace the ring.
In the opening four iterations of the tournament, wrestlers such as Billy Robinson, The Destroyer, The Sheik, Abdullah the Butcher, Nick Bockwinkel, Mil Mascaras, Mr. Wrestling, Wahoo McDaniel, Dick Slater, and Ricky Steamboat competed, whilst the debut tournament also included a rookie just entering the second year of his career: Genichiro Tenryu. However, the earliest versions of the tag league were largely dominated by two teams and two teams alone – The Funk Brothers (Dory and Terry Funk) and the homegrown team of Giant Baba and Jumbo Tsuruta.
Indeed, the duos had shared the first four tournaments. Fought under round-robin rules, there wasn’t a final match per se, yet the booking always meant something was on the line come the final night. Interestingly, it was the team of Abdullah the Butcher and the Sheik who were the losers that gifted the tournament to the Funks in 1977 and 1979. When it came to Baba and Tsuruta being crowned victorious in 1978 and 1980, it was a time limit draw and a countout victory over the Funks that saw them rise to the top of the standings.
By 1981, there was a new team about to force a break from the norm. As names such as Harley Race, Larry Hennig, Mark Lewin and Baron Von Raschke added themselves to the list of luminaries who had been involved in the tournament, it was the debuting duo of Bruiser Brody and Jimmy Snuka who added another legitimate challenger to the competition. Whilst the wild action and crowd-dispersing brawls were often the remit of The Sheik and Abdullah the Butcher, Brody and Snuka offered a cutting edge alongside all of the carnage.
The beauty of a tournament that spans multiple weeks and matches is that it allows for narratives to build. Teams start strong and then fall apart, whilst others need to overcome slow beginnings in order to challenge at the top. An opening night defeat to Tiger Jeet Singh and Umanosuke Ueda effectively came back to haunt the Funks as Baba and Tsuruta as well as Brody and Snuka racked up the wins. The biggest barrier to each others’ aspirations of winning was each other: a forty-five minute time limit draw between the Funks and the team of Baba and Tsuruta was followed the next night by a double countout between the native duo and the new pretenders, the first points dropped by Brody and Snuka.
Tiger Jeet Singh and Umanosuke Ueda were the team who tried their best to play spoiler for all of the main challengers. Alongside a double disqualification to take another point from Brody and Snuka, they sat in the semi-main position of the final evening up against the popular ‘home team’ duo of Baba and Tsuruta. Things threatened to boil over before the match could even take place – Singh and Ueda charged their way through the crowd before the former got into a sword-assisted brawl with The Sheik.
Even with all of the extra-curricular activity, it was the heels who controlled the arguable weak link, Tsuruta, with chokes and strikes for large stretches. He got off lightly compared to Baba, who was sent into the ringpost and jabbed multiple times with a metal spike as Singh liberally bent the rules throughout. Having seemingly never got the match truly under control, the referee did decide to count as Tsuruta and Singh brawled once more at ringside. A double countout wasn’t simply one point dropped, it was enough to cost Baba and Tsuruta the whole tournament.
Tied at 11 points with the Funks, Baba and Tsuruta knew that even a draw wasn’t going to be enough, making the final match of the evening and of the whole league a winner takes all affair.
The All Japan fans had already had a hint at what might be expected when the gaijin duos met as Brody and Terry Funk had faced off in singles competition on the fourth day of the tour. Brody had faced Funk several times in the Texas region in the mid 70s, yet this was their first singles match in several years. Sold as a dream match by the Japanese commentators, this was more akin to a war as blood liberally covered both men. Even the referee was wiped out in the battle; a reversal of a Funk piledriver attempt saw him land straight on top of the official. With no-one to keep the thin veneer of control, Snuka and Brody sought to injure Terry’s knee with liberal use of the chain. The arrival of Dory not only saved his brother, but finally sparked the bodies needed to halt the onslaught.
This was a morsel to whet the appetite, a hint of what could come if the two teams ultimately met in the “final”.For fans who grew up watching late 80s WWF PPVs and had only seen the shuffling parody and cheap pop that Snuka became, the Snuka who stood alongside Brody at this time was a legitimately scary concept. The guy blended power and athleticism into an aesthetically impressive package, closer to supervillain or demigod than mere mortal. When coupled with the wild-eyed Brody, they stood as the antithesis of what the Funks outwardly represented: good ‘ol fashioned wrestling. As had been proved time and again however, the Funks didn’t back down from a fight.
To add a further wrinkle to Brody and Snuka’s run to the deciding match, Stan Hansen – having only recently jumped from New Japan – was stationed in their corner to act as a tobacco-chewing cheerleader for the team.
The marriage of impressive physicality and athleticism was showcased early on with both Snuka and Brody executing leapfrogs and dropkicks that would have impressed smaller men. The ring nous of the Funks was also highlighted, in particular when a second Snuka leapfrog attempt was blocked by Dory and turned into the stepover toehold. Though brief in application due to Brody’s interference, the response from the crowd emphasized their legitimate belief in the hold as a devastating weapon in Dory’s arsenal.
Even with the opening exchanges largely being equal, there remained an underlying tension and fear that the sheer animalistic power of Brody and Snuka was a mere moment from turning this match into a protracted assault on the Funks. An Irish whip with velocity enough to send Terry up and over the turnbuckle threatened to serve as that juncture as Brody and Snuka landed a suplex and springboard splash respectively. Not quite the man who would be classed as ‘middle aged and crazy’ just yet, Terry already had some wildness in his eyes. Not only did he find the wherewithal to make a tag to his brother, but he launched himself off of the turnbuckle to the floor on Snuka seconds later.
Unfortunately for the Funks, Hansen’s involvement in the contest eventually went beyond simple instruction. With the referee focused on the action in the ring, Hansen drilled Terry at ringside with a lariat, sending him hard to the concrete. Facing almost insurmountable odds, Dory managed to keep himself in the contest long after many may have crumbled, yet the numbers game was always going to catch up. A top rope chop from Brody broke one more attempt at the spinning toehold, followed up by a King Kong kneedrop for the win and the World’s Strongest Tag League victory.
Like previous entries on the list, the surrounding action was almost as important as the match itself. Rather than the ceremony to end the proceedings, the fight continued, leading to a bloodied Hansen coming to blows with both Baba and Tsuruta in the middle of the ring. The frenzied nature of the finish cemented this changing of the guard. Baba, Tsuruta, The Funks – they all had bigger things to be worried about going forward.
Hansen’s front and center position in the post-match fighting was symbolic of the next stage for this trio of warriors. Rather than build upon this success, Snuka was New York bound. Starting at the end of January with the WWF, ‘Superfly’ was only booked on two All Japan tours in 1982. Instead of the reigning World’s Strongest Tag League champions instilling fear in wrestlers and fans alike, it was Brody and Hansen who ultimately became a fixture in the promotion in the years to come.