A ‘No Holds Barred’ look at WWE Studios.
As the man-monsters from the WWE are about to grace our shores for an Australian Tour, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the origins of WWE Studios. What?!! You had no idea they made films? It took them over twenty years to get started and this is the story of how it almost didn’t happen.
So I’m just going to say it. What the hell is pro wrestling? Is it a vaudevillian act? A sport expedition? Is it real, fake, fixed or something in between? It’s a form of athletic storytelling that merges elements of fact and fiction together to create a unique art form that has all the risks and rewards of an athletic competition and the emotional impact of a fictional narrative. You see, a wrestling match is nothing more than a story. It’s told by two storytellers who express emotions without words. Who use their bodies to tell the story. It’s very primal. In many ways it’s acting at its purest. You’d think these attributes would make a seamless transition into the silver screen.
The WWE thought so. So in 1989 they produced No Holds Barred, a cinematic vehicle designed to showcase the talents of their most popular wrestler, Hulk Hogan. Hogan plays (not surprisingly) a wrestler called Rip. An evil money hungry chairman of a rival television station wants Rip for his new fighting show, and he’ll do anything to get him including hospitalising his loved ones. Rip has no choice but to get revenge by fighting the maniacal Zeus (Tiny Lister) in a ‘No Holds Barred’ match.
The WWE devised a groundbreaking multi-platform marketing campaign to go with the film. Something that has never been done again. They made the movie come to life. Zeus: The Human Wrecking, come down from the silver screen and entered the ranks of the WWE. He wanted to prove to everyone that he was the real star of No Holds Barred and he would do this by defeating Hulk Hogan in real life. The original plan was for Zeus and Hogan to have several high profile matches that would end at Wrestlemania 6, where Zeus would defeat Hogan for his Heavyweight Championship belt. This was a big deal considering Hogan had never lost his title via a pinfall (The only other time was due to the interference of an evil twin referee) or a match at Wrestlemania; the worlds biggest wrestling event. Zeus would be a walk-in’, talk-in’ ‘Rassl-in’ advertisement for the film. What could possibly go wrong?
Two things! Hogan couldn’t act. Lister couldn’t wrestle.
Granted Hogan didn’t have a lot to work with. The script itself seemed like it was spat out of the “Script-o-matic 3000” then run through the “Cliché-o-tron” for good measure. It plays out a little like Rocky 3 minus the good bits. As for his performance…well… How can I say this? Stage acting and film acting are two different things. The level of energy needed on stage is far greater than that of film. A stage actor needs to reach the people in the back rows, while in film the audience is as close as the camera. Most stage actors, who are new to film acting, often misjudge and come off as hammy. So with that in mind, if feels like Hogan is performing for an audience on Mars. There’s nothing natural or relatable about his performance so we don’t care for him as a character or his problems. On top of that his character was rather off-putting. Wrestling fans wanted to see Hogan play self, not a pale imitation. Why have him play a rip off character (bad pun intended) when you can have the real deal?
Lister wasn’t much better. Clearly the WWE wanted him to be the new Mister T. Lister misses the mark as he doesn’t have his charisma or cool. In his defence, it’s a hard thing to pull off when you look fucking ridiculous. Zeus sports a mono brow, a Z shaved into the side of his head, a crazy eye and a vest… my goodness, his vest. It’s massive! The top of the vest sits just under his ears and it expands out past his shoulders. It’s black underneath with a silver bird wing design on top. The only thing more overdone than his costume is his acting. Just like Hogan he comes from the “more is more” school of acting. His body is filled with pure hatred that means he’s constantly in a state of convulsions. He shouts out his words, ONE! AT! A! TIME! Ensuring he E-M-P-A-T-H-A-S-I-S-E-S each one.
Zeus’ presence brought up deep philosophical questions about wrestling too. This was a period in which everyone in the business had to keep ‘kayfabe’. That is, they had to maintain that the storylines were 100% real. For example if Hulk Hogan was having an on-screen feud with ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage he would have to swear black and blue to his fans that they actually hated each other (despite that might actually being the case).
Lets take a moment to really think about this.
By bringing Zeus to ‘real life’ (and by real life I mean into the fictitious wrestling narrative) it raises many philosophical questions about the nature of existence. If Zeus was literally ripped from the movie he shouldn’t be aware that he was in a film, nor that Hogan played Rip. He should be searching for Rip himself. I don’t blame him for getting the two confused, it’s an honest mistake. By using this logic it would actually be impossible for this to be the Zeus from the film, as Zeus gets killed at the end. That’s what you get when you go ‘No Holds Barred’.
The only way any of this could have made sense would be if a) Hogan had played himself in the movie, b) Lister had become the character of Zeus in ‘real life’, (once again for ‘real life’, I mean within the fictitious wrestling narrative), or c) if Zeus was a real life person to begin with and he went on to play himself in the film. This theory almost fits except or the fact that Lister was already an established actor.
Sadly the WWE doesn’t attempt to answer any of these existential questions. I suspect they hoped that the audience would be so swept away with the story (and his vest) that they wouldn’t think to question things like this.
So let’s talk about Zeus as a wrestler. In wrestling there is a term called ‘selling’. Selling is when a wrestler gives an appropriate reaction to his opponents move. This isn’t a problem most of the time due to the fact that most moves actually hurt. When someone reacts too much it’s called ‘overselling’, and too little is called ‘no-sold’. Lister would only exist in those latter extremes.
As Lister could only do the most basic of moves, his opponents had no choice but to oversell everything. What else could they do? Wrestling was out of the question. Conversely, Zeus no-sold his opponents moves. Wrestling is dangerous enough when you have two opponents that know what they’re doing, even more so when you have someone that doesn’t. In reality it just would have been too dangerous for him to wrestle. So everyone had to sell the fact that his fists were like cement and that he was so strong that punches, kicks, and body slams did nothing to hurt him. This was even less entertaining to watch than it sounds. I suspect that the WWE knew they were in trouble, so they team him up with arguably their best wrestler: ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage. Hogan teamed up with Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake and they went on to battle each other over three pay per views. By having tag-team matches Savage could do most of the work and disguise how terrible Zeus was.
No Hold Barred was released in June 1989 to lukewarm reactions. The WWE decided to strike when the iron was cold, and waited two whole months before having the first tag-team match at Summerslam. I should point out that the WWE only had four pay per view events per year. The stories from the weekly TV shows would climax at the pay per views. So being the main event of any of the four was a big deal. As it was clear No Hold Barred was not going to be a box office success, one wonders why they kept up with the storyline, let alone made it the main event of two pay per views?!!
The first match wasn’t that bad as Savage did most of the wrestling for his team. It won’t shock you to find out that Hogan and Beefcake won. The second match was scheduled for November, but by this time the writing was on the wall: NO ONE CARED! It was at Survivor Series. This was a special four aside, the instant elimination styled match. Zeus lasted only a few minutes before being disqualified. They had the good sense not to make this the main event. It was buried in the middle of the show. This probably would have been a good time to end the feud, but it wasn’t. Quick! Call the RSPCA because the WWE is beating a dead horse! They decided to have a discounted pay per view event called No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie in which those WWE fans who missed the movie at the cinema (which seemed to be most of them) could watch the movie at home, followed by a steel cage match between the four men. Yes, you guessed it, Hogan and Beefcake won once again. Thankfully they decided to end the story there. No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie ended up being one of the lowest purchase pay per views of the decade.
Macho Man cutting one of the craziest promos of all time, for No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie.
The WWE decided not to have Zeus beat Hogan at Wrestlemania 6 for the title, nor did they ever have him ‘wrestle’ for them again. In fact, over his entire (short) career Zeus didn’t win a single match. It’s hardly the result you’d expect from a Human Wrecking Machine.
In theory it was was a great plan. It should have been very successful. It failed because of two things: the story and the storytellers. No Holds Barred wasn’t an engaging story, nor was Tiny Lister an engaging storyteller. Both failed to connect with its intended audience.
The film wasn’t technically a failure. It broke even, but it wasn’t the success they were hoping for. The WWE put WWE Studios to rest, resurrecting it 22 years later to showcase the talents of their most popular wrestler: The Rock. Needless to say things went a lot better for them a second time around.
No Holds Barred was released last year by the WWE. The marketing campaign was a lot simpler this time. They mocked it endlessly, hailing it as one of the best worst movies ever made. I’m going to leave you with the original trailer and the re-release trailer so you can see the difference – Enjoy.
Original Trailer (1989)
DVD Release. (2012)