The Forgotten Tag Teams Pt. IX - Where It All Began
By James Truepenny
Posted On 21-06-2015 19:24 GMT
Tags: WWE, WCW, TNA, NJPW, ROH, ECW




In this final episode, I am going to round out this series with look at what got us here and why tag team wrestling itself has become largely forgotten in the greater scheme of things in the mainstream of pro wrestling. While tag teams do exist, the division's heyday is long behind it when we consider the longterm ongoing stories within in pro wrestling. While we do have stellar teams around at the moment, major North American companies have several issues when it comes to pushing teams and divisions. The focus tends to fall on singles wrestling, and while there is nothing wrong with that, it can have a detrimental effect on the long term growth of talent. This instalment looks at what got us started, and where do we go from here.

Toots Mondt is the man responsible for giving us tag team wrestling as we know it today. Alongside his Gold Dust Trio partners Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Billy Sandow. Toots was a creative mind in much the same mould as Vince McMahon Junior, in fact one could argue he was even more ambitious in his planning given the starting point wrestling had at the time. Mondt learned his craft via correspondence course from the first true superstar of wrestling Martin "Farmer" Burns, in the late Nineteenth century. He would become a carnival circuit regular at the age of sixteen and a protégé of Burns, touring with the shoot and hook specialist as the century turned.

Mondt was a "Policeman", he would be the one that was most feared in a locker room, a judge, jury and executioner of the promoter. If it was looking like a wrestler wasn't going to toe the line, it would be Toots' less than gentle persuasion that would get them back with the programme for the good of the company.

Wrestling at the time was nothing like what we see today. It was based strongly in the sports format, and while some of the matches were worked, the rules were enforced by the State Athletic commissions with great zeal. This meant contests that were largely shoot affairs would go on literally for hours. Main events would be best of three falls, often with an interval between each fall (better for selling concessions), the action was slow and ponderous. Wrestling's first phase of popularity that had flourished when George Hackenschmidt was champion had started to dry up, one of those cyclical moments we are all too familiar with.

The timing of the Gold Dust Trio's business arrangement was fortuitous. Lewis had worked his way into contention to the World's title by the early twenties. He moved on from the management of Jerry Walls and started a relationship with Billy Sandow. Sandow was another hooker but a lighter wrestler and with a business man's mind. Unafraid of taking risks, he once lost his entire health club chain in a wrestling match bet, he had the right attitude in a business that needed to be changed to be brought to the masses. In turn Sandow looked for a new "Policeman", a sparring partner and an alternate opponent should things go awry. "Farmer" Burns recommend Mondt, and the three worked their way to the World's title in the coming years. Mondt then began to apply his visionary zeal.

While wrestling up until then had been sports orientated, "The Fix" was often in. Mondt took that as an opportunity and started to apply theatrical thought processes to it. Wrestling would keep some of the mat work, required for pacing and good storytelling, but add some elements of boxing and stand up fighting. The object of a match would be to work towards a finish. While wrestling had always been "Three falls to a finish" it was now shortened up to a time limit. This gave it a narrative edge, leaving the ring also became permissible with the introduction of count outs. Around 90% of what you see in wrestling today was invented by Mondt in this time period. One of his other great inventions would be tag team wrestling.

While "Slam Bang Western Style" as Mondt called it was a hit, it also changed the business dynamic. Promoters now wanted total control of a packaged product. Lewis may well have been the dominant star and champion, but he realised that he needed other marketable challengers to keep interest in himself, the title and wrestling itself. Hackenschmidt had been great, but boring. The idea of The Feud was born. While singles wrestling flourished, the introduction of a boxing style ring at all events, allowed for tag team wrestling. Realising that if two stars in a match would be a great draw then logically four stars would make even more money. While the prestige would always be with the championship matches, tag wrestling popped houses across the country. While tag team wrestling itself had been around since the turn of the century, San Francisco had promoted tag bouts in 1901, the faster pace of Mondt's style, it's acrobatic nature under the new rules and the fact matches where no longer three hours long heightened the excitement and allowed for double team manoeuvres. It was a whole new world.

While the hero vs. villain story ideas of wrestling at the time were primitive, it allowed for this basic story telling device to exist. However tag team wrestling would develop slowly. Superstar teams would not come along until later in history, when people started to see the possibilities. As always it would take someone who thought a little differently move things forward.

Al Costello was a journeyman singles wrestler who was called "Man of a Thousand Holds" but it wasn't his technical flash that would put him on the map, it was just what got him established. He developed the idea of a heel tag team that would break the mould and build heat from within the match itself as well as being a draw in a more traditional sense. Born Giacomo Cost, he was an Italian by birth but Australian by nationality who had caught on in the US. He floated the idea to Joe Blanchard, Texas native, future San Antonio promoter, father of Tully and grandfather of Tess.

He thought the idea was a goer and Costello proceeded with caution. The principle of the team would be an Ultra Nationalist Australian Tag Team called The Fabulous Kangaroos. Coming to the ring in Bush Hats, carrying Boomerang's (ideal foreign objects) and to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda", they were natural heat getters with their xenophobic ways. Blanchard recommended Roy Heffernan, a former Costello training partner for the team and Costello agreed. They began their career together in 1957 in Stu Hart's Stampede Wrestling. The Kangaroos were a smash heel hit. They would be at the top of the tag team division shortly afterwards.

What made them a success was their constant under handed tactics, and their true double team manoeuvres. They were at the pinnacle of innovation, although teams of only ten years later would have left them for dust in the double team stakes, they had some slick finishers including a rather nifty Slingshot/Backdrop combo called the "Flying Kangaroo Leap". Essentially their match plan was to get their opponent into their corner and keep hitting him until he was weak enough using every fowl tactic possible.

Moving on from Stampede their next stop would be the WWWF of Vince McMahon Senior. They got over quickly, very quickly in fact. Wrestling at Madison Square Garden one night, against the beloved Antonio Rocca and Miguel Perez they nearly caused a riot. Vince Senior's standard practice for maintaining civil obedience was put in place; turn up the lights and play the national anthem. Thankfully, the fans stopped throwing rocks and drinks at The Kangaroos long enough to put their hands on their hearts instead and they left unharmed. It was a sign of things to come and the success they would have.

Next it was off to Amarillo, for Dory Funk Senior. They would receive their first title run as the NWA World's Tag Team Champions (Texas Version). Beating Pepper Gomez and El Medico on the 17th of November 1958. They would only hold on to the belts for two weeks. A trip to New Mexico would also bare fruit, but then it was back to New York. Their aim was the NWA United States Tag Team Championship and on July the 21st 1960 they would relieve Red and Lou Bastien of the title belts. It would be a title they would hold three times over the next eighteen months. Then it would be down to Florida where they would be the "recognised" US champions, even though they had never left New York with them.

Then onto Ohio in 1962, before a run in the Japan Wrestling Association where they would hold the NWA International titles now part of the Double Cup. They went barnstorming for the next few years, heading out west to the "Outlaw" WWA where they took the WWA World Tag Team Title from Edouard Carpentier and Ernie Ladd. They would head back to Canada where they would be fixtures in NWA All Star Wrestling in Vancouver. A place they were so over as heels that one night they would be forced to hide under the ring while the fans pelted chairs at them, predating the famous Public Enemy Chair incident at ECW arena by some thirty years. Mind you even the Philly fans would probably draw the line at what happened in Vancouver; after diving for cover from the raining chairs, the fans decided to "Smoke Out" the Kangaroos and their six man partner Stan Stasiak by setting fire to the ring. Thankfully order was restored, but it showed the level of intensity they could get from the crowd and how believable they were as heels.

It wasn't that they did anything big, it was just a slow burn of continuing arrogance and xenophobia. They would start TV matches with a warm up routine, usually stretches and some arm wrestling contests.

This would of course delay the start of the match while the referee looked on bewildered. There was of course a need to show how Australian they were so rampant flag waving was in vogue. From there they would actually wrestle in a fairly scientific way. Showing that they could if they wanted play it straight, which infuriated the fans all the more when they took to rule bending. What would really wind the crowd up was the double teams which were basic, but advanced for the time, all done within the five count. Face teams wouldn't do double teams back then, especially in TV matches where teams were thrown together almost at random. They would prove their superiority by fair means AND foul. Hefferman grew tired of the grind though, after five years on the road at the top of every card they appeared on he decided to go home. He had set out in 1953 to travel the world, a bid in which he had succeeded. So The Kangaroos were no more.

Costello would continue in North America. He found a partner Karl Von Brauer and formed The Internationals. After that he floated around with several partners, but in 1967 he decided it was time to bring back The Kangaroos. He contacted Tinker Todd, a British wrestler who he thought would fit the mould. He changed his name to Ray Saint Clair, no relation to the Cornish Saint Clair family, and took up an Australian persona. With the Kangaroos back in full swing they set about taking on the territories that they had missed out on first time around. George "Crybaby" Cannon who had managed The Internationals was brought in as an added heater, and they would prove a success, heading first to where Cannon would become a national star; The Original Sheikh's Big Time Wrestling in Detroit. They also got back into the swing of heat; forcing another riot in Cincinnati when the predominately African American crowd did not take kindly to them spitting in the eye of Bob Brazil. After being chased out the building and sleeping in a dumpster to avoid detection they returned to their car the following morning and found all four tires slashed. The team was not long for this world apparently. Saint Clair returned to Blighty after six months with a severe case of homesickness and after a knee injury ended his career.

Costello found a third partner in Don Kent. A Michigan native, he took up the Australian gimmick well, so well in fact it eclipsed the popularity of the original Kangaroos. Kent was born Leo Joseph Smith Jr. In 1933. A natural athlete, he was recruited by the Boston Red Sox straight out of High School as a catcher, but was advised by his father to go to College. Upon graduating Saint Benedict's in Kansas he began working for the Veteran's Administration where he would be trained by "Leaping'" Larry Chene.

Kent would have a solo career before The Kangaroos, he was booked as a sadistic heel and gained great success in Arizona. That helped him understand the art of heat and made him a perfect choice for the often wilfully evil Australian team. Keeping his American accent for promos also added heat; what was more disrespected in American life than a turncoat?

They had a great run as an established team, after a while a pattern would emerge. If a company wanted to debut a new title, the Kangaroos would come in with the new belts. The 'Roos had the reputation of being world beaters and it meant that the company didn't have to run a disruptive time consuming tournament. They would be awarded the IWE Trans-World Wrestling Alliance World Tag Team Championship on a tour of Japan, dropping the gold Toyonobori and Thunder Sugiyama. Just as it had worked in Florida years earlier, it was a neat promotional trick that gave the team a sense of dominance and menace.

This version of the team would find a natural home on the other side of the Pacific Rim, working all over Asia and Australia. ~they also worked Canada in the new Nova Scotian territory of the ESA, as well as stints back in the WWA for Dick The Bruiser and steady appearances for Vince McMahon's Sr's WWWF. As well as having the most diverse appeal and travel time, they would also be the most popular, until a return trip to Cincinnati ended Costello's in ring career. Having caused another riotous response, an angry fan threw a fire extinguisher from the balcony. It hit Costello in the hip leaving him requiring replacement surgery. The fan was charged and spent ten days in prison and fined fifteen dollars for damaging the extinguisher, not Costello.

Costello it would appear was done. So it came as a bit of surprise then that he would reappear in 1975 as a manager and even more of a surprise when at the tender age of 56 he would bring back the Kangaroos for one last blast with Tony Charles. They even pulled the same old tricks in the territories that had yet to see them. Tony Charles passed away in February of this year. He was a very technical British wrestler in the mould of Les Thornton and Billy Robinson, two long term opponents for him in the US. He was an ideal Costello partner; technically sound in Catch style with non-American roots. They trod the boards in much the same manner as their predecessors, in fact they even did the same angles. Moving into Carlos Colon's WWC, one of the few territories they hadn't been too, they were announced as the WWC World Tag Team Champions. They would defend those titles throughout 1977, and keep on chasing them for a two years stretch. Once again the legitimacy of the Kangaroos had established a title, in this case one that is still defended today some 38 years later. This version of the team would come to an end in 1978 as Charles went solo once again and Costello began managing.

The next version of the team would bring Don Kent back into the fold as well as the addition of an New Zealander Bruno Bekker, I guess he "passed" for an Australian. Bekker would head "Down Under" after a short run, he was to be replaced by Montreal mainstay Bob Della, now to become "Johnny Heffernan" an apparent cousin to Kangaroos original Roy. They would hit pay dirt quickly. Upending the Funks for the WWC World Tag Team title, a pair of belts Amarillo Brothers had had for eighteen months on May the 1st 1982. Costello was still in charge of management duties and he would guide them into Championship Wrestling from Florida in 1983. He would also farm them off to young manager JJ Dillon while "away on business".

When he came back, at least in the storyline, the Kangaroos preferred their new, face, manager. In an effort to explain Costello's management career coming to an end, CFW had a lot of forethought. They actually tied up loose ends very well enabling Costello to ride off into the sunset of a thirty year career well over twenty of it as part of one team in one way or another. Quite a remarkable run, and while they did not invent tag team wrestling they were the first team to truly sell themselves as the whole package, top to bottom as a unit, from the matching outfits, the pre match rituals, the synchronised foreign objects, the publicity shots, their willingness to sell themselves and their slick presentation in the ring. That was even before they got near their opponents whom they treated with disdain at best. The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame welcomed them in 2003 as the very first tag team to be balloted in. One last time they were champions on arrival.

So where did all the tag teams go, and indeed what made tag team wrestling itself seem forgotten? Who is the natural heirs to the heat getting brilliance of The 'Roos? Well the undoing of tag team wrestling in the mainstream has mainly come along since the Attitude Era. While the older territories in the 90s often delivered quality tag teams, WWF started to move in a different direction.

The early nineties tag team division was pretty woeful from where it had been just a few short years earlier. Part of the problem was forward motion, The Legion of Doom and been there, done that and gone their separate ways. The Nasty Boys had gone back to WCW. In some cases it was age and over exposure. Demolition called it a day more or less the same time Bill "Ax" Eadie had had more than his fair share of health issues. Some of it was down to solo success, Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart were clearly ready to move on from The Rockers and The Hart Foundation respectively.

By the time The Steiner Brothers turned up they really only had The Beverley Brothers, The Quebecers and The Wild Samoans to contend with. While some of the teams that came in over the next five years were solid, The Smoking Guns and The Godwins for instance. None of them were spectacular, in fact the undoubted star of the division at that time was the management skill of Sunny. With this less that stellar set of stars, one of the main reasons for having a tag team division was no longer there; exciting and unpredictable action. The other main reason, a safe place for potential stars to learn and grow, was there but of all those nineties tag teams only Billy Gunn had anything more than a modicum of success as a singles wrestler.

The tag team division did have some shining lights, Owen Hart and Davey Boy Smith had a shared sense of humour, but they also had a great chemistry. While not as genre defining as The British Bulldogs or the Hart Foundation, they had plenty of character and an ongoing bickering in laws vibe that made them very watchable and incredibly over. Vince had hit upon the basic premise for the tag team titles for the next few years as set teams made way for solo acts looking for a lift off platform. When Steve Austin & Shawn Michaels became champions, and sometime later Austin & Dude Love the nature of the tag team division changed. The reliance on highly specialised units waned and the reason for the belts existence became to elevate singles wrestlers.

WWE also found that they were saving money. Tag teams cost twice the cash that a singles wrestler does. Matching gear, matching travel arrangements, it all takes time to set up for what was perceived to be a minimal gain. It wasn't until recently when tag team wrestling on the indie scene in the US has really pushed the envelope forward and tag team specialists like The Usos and The Ascension have brought back prominence to the WWE title belts in a traditional sense.

WCW, always strong on tag team wrestling since the mid-eighties years that indicative to what we think of as tag team wrestling, did have strong teams more or less until the end of the company. That southern wrestling tag team streak ran through the company like letters through a stick of rock. By the time The Outsiders turned up, they were firing on all cylinders with The Steiners, The Road Warriors, Public Enemy, Harlem Heat and numerous other less worthy, but highly decorated teams (American Males anyone?). While the importance of the tag team titles slipped through the Bischoff era, it was still as important to the company as it had been in the heydays of The Horsemen. The problem for WCW wasn't the Tag scene per se, but just a general decline in the company causing the scene to fall apart, just as the rest of the company was unravelling.

ECW had a balanced approach somewhere between WCW and ECW during the Attitude Era. While teams like The Public Enemy made the company, and The Dudleys pushed them onward and upward, there was a mix of great singles wrestlers who held the tag belts. In the early days of ECW expansion it would be the Pitbulls who would be dominant force on the scene. The Bad Breed had their short rein in the sun as well, but it would be The Eliminators who would really define what ECW's tag team story would be about. Starting out in the USWA Perry Saturn and John Kronus brought incredible size and agility to the ring. Their in-ring presentation was based loosely on the Bulldogs/Hart Foundation dichotomy of a power house and technician.

The thing was Kronus was such and able gifted power house it was hard to tell who was the technician, and for his part Saturn showed some incredible strength. Both well versed in martial arts from their days as bouncers and managers in night clubs, they added dimensions to characters that were unstable, angry and hungry for success. They debuted in the USWA under the booking of Jerry Lawler who gave them the name The Eliminators. They had a good start in the territory winning the tag team titles but it was clear that by 1994 was up they had done everything they could. They moved on to Genichiro Tenryu WAR Promotion for a long tour developing their skill sets and abilities in the King's Road style company. They would in turn be scouted by Paul Heyman.

They were excellent finds for Heyman, and the classic ECW signing; a little rough around the edges for the big leagues, but with a character all their own. When they picked up a surprise win in their opening series with The Steiner Brothers people took notice. When they went on to beat the ECW top, um, dogs, The Pit Bulls, people really took notice. Beating the best tag team and the most popular tag team in ECW in less than three months? They were going places and fast. By the time the Gangstas showed up they were being perceived as unstoppable force, just as Paul Heyman intended.

They were a far cry from a slavish Road Warriors copy though, and Heyman was lucky or smart that every team they faced was of world caliber. Each win meant they defended themselves in a different environment. They beat the pure wrestlers in The Steiners, they beat the powerhouse Pitbulls and then went on to face down the ultimate brawlers The Gangstas. While Mustapha and New Jack weren't exactly, um, any good, they had charisma to burn and they knew how to make an entrance. The Eliminators had taken the titles from the haplessly dysfunctional Mikey Whipwreck and the on-his-way-WWF-the-arrogant-sell-out Cactus Jack.

Heading straight into a feud with the Gangsters gave them depth to their personas. Sure they would out wrestle anyone, and out stunt everyone, now was the time to get down to the nitty gritty of the ECW product, violence. However the feud would be long range. Having taken the titles in February, The Eliminators wouldn't drop them until the August of 1996. They would lose the titles at "The Doctor is In" event, a portent for the future of the team. As explored in an earlier episode of this series, the Eliminators narrative demanded that they face and defeat the best competition available, who better than The Miracle Violence Connection? As was once said by Road Warrior's manager Paul Ellering "Winning titles are a matter of achievement, ruling the wrestling world is a matter of pride", that was exactly the effect that Paul Heyman was after with The Eliminators; one of his greatest creations.

The Public Enemy may have been a groundbreaking team, but they were needs must. Thrown together due to their chemistry as opponents Heyman moulded them into world beaters. The Eliminators were naturals in the role they were given. Over the months of their title dominance they showed signs of dissension, but when it got down to it, they came up with the goods. They would take the titles back in December of '96.

The next team on the horizon was Bubba Ray and Devon, the two most talented workers of the ever evolving and heinously wicked Dudley family. Turning face by default, The Eliminators would lose the titles on Hardcore TV in December of '96. It would set up one of the most dominant title performances ever seen on PPV at the company's debut Barely Legal. After The Dudley's increasingly long introduction by Joel "Insert double entendre laced poem here" Gertner, The Eliminators stormed the ring and destroyed the Dudleys and their entourage in just over six minutes. It set them up as ECW moved forward as THE team in the company. The men to watch, and they would be the poster boys of Extreme, much like the ROH narrative has been dominated by The Briscoes, Gabe Sapolsky and his successors learned from the master.

However the mega push would turn out to be all for nought. Perry Saturn would be out for health reasons shortly afterwards with a torn ACL. Taking stock of his position, Saturn felt that Kronus was not pulling his weight in the team and refused to reform The Eliminators on his return to action. While Kronus soldiered on with a new partner, New Jack, to form the short lived Gangstonators, Saturn would be heading to WCW, and The Eliminators era in ECW was over.

ECW often used the tag team scene to elevate singles wrestlers, it offered a balance between WCW's "Tag titles are for tag teams." approach and WWF's "Let's make stars anyway we can concepts."

The next major North American company to find long term success with tag team wrestling with a strong narrative purpose would be TNA. While due is usually given to the companies X Division as to its early success, and rightly so, it was still a southern promotion helmed largely by southern bookers like Jerry Jarrett. If there was one strong narrative they understood better than anyone else, it would be tag team wrestling. While their current tag team division has been decimated to two great teams in The Dirty Heels and The Wolves, historically speaking their tag team division has produced great wrestling, and has been just as fruitful in making homegrown stars.

Chris Harris and James Storm, America's Most Wanted would be the first team to take the NWA (as it was then) Gold who were true tag team superstars. It would be the narrative of Storm's TNA tenure, shining with a partner, but never quite getting over the hump by himself. Harris was a cool calm and collected promo, but the two heavyweights were poetry in motion when it came to tag wrestling. In and out of the title picture for most of the NWA era of TNA. It wasn't just them that made the division tick, The Naturals and Team Canada vied for supremacy, but thanks to their better promo skills and their dominant style, AMW would become TNA's most wanted tag team.

Upon the demise of America's Most Wanted, with Harris eventually moving on to WWE, came Beer Money Incorporated. Seemingly an unnatural pairing on paper, the smooth, stylish, slicked back "Money" Bobby Roode and the uncouth Cowboy James Storm "Beer" was perhaps the best showcase of how to grow solo careers out of the Tag Team division. Roode had been a part of Team Canada, until they were forced to break up after a losing match stipulation to Jay Lethal, Rhyno and Team 3D. In a promo that was a sparkling parody of the Four Horsemen reunion in WCW, D'Amore singled out Roode as a future World's Champion, but how to get him from here to there? Beer Money became that vehicle. Their success, four TNA World Tag Team titles, was matched with a high standard of in ring quality and work rate as well as charisma to burn. When the team was heading for break up, it wasn't immediately obvious who would be the chosen one, in fact both ended up being World's first Heavyweight Champion, Storm first, but it was Roode who was the long term bet. However he would clearly have not gotten there without some championship calibre performances, the ones that Beer Money afforded him.

Tag wrestling has come a long way since the days of it being a new and fresh attraction under Toots Mondt. Teams like World's Cutest Tag Team, The Wolves, Sendai Sisters, Dirty Heels, The Addiction, The Usos, Bullet Club, The Kingdom, Timesplitters, and The Young Bucks are redefining what tag team wrestling is in companies from all over the world. I for one am very glad to see it.


Tags: WWE, WCW, TNA, NJPW, ROH, ECW



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