Mount Rushmores of Wrestling is a series that breaks down the cream of the crop of professional wrestling in our quest to come to a consensus on the top 4 of any given category. In today’s edition we’re looking at merchandise.
“You talk about your psalms, you talk about John 3:16….Austin 3:16 says I just whooped your ass!”
Pat: We may not have exactly known it at the time, but with that one sentence at King of the Ring 1996, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin kicked off a revolution in professional wrestling. The World Wrestling Federation was on the defensive for the first time under Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s care, with the New World Order transforming the business down in WCW, and desperately needed some new blood at the top of the card. Steve Austin made sure that he was the one to get the rocket strapped to his back, and after winning the King of the Ring tournament in part thanks to originally penciled-in winner Hunter Hearst Helmsley taking the fall for the infamous “Curtain Call”, Stone Cold was off to the races.
The resulting T-shirt couldn’t have been any simpler: “Austin 3:16” in Impact font on the front, and the now-famous smoking skull on the back. But it instantly popped up in middle and high schools around America, and over 25 years later is still an iconic piece of wrestling history that you’ll find in the crowd of nearly any wrestling show. And that’s the bottom line.
JJ: In NJPW 2013 the villainous Prince Devitt (better known today as Finn Balor) betrayed his partner Ryusuke Taguchi and gathered a group of talented foreign wrestlers — “Machine Gun” Karl Anderson, Bad Luck Fale and Tama Tonga — to create what would become the longest running faction in wrestling today, Bullet Club. The group was a shot in the arm to NJPW and the entire wrestling world, drawing a huge amount of attention from western wrestling fans to the Japanese scene for the first time since perhaps Brock Lesnar’s tenure.
A huge component of Bullet Club’s success was the appeal of their merchandise, mainly their t-shirt. Featuring a simply black and white design that paid homage to the iconic nWo and Austin 3:16 shirts of the late ’90s, the group’s Bone Soldier t-shirt quickly became the hottest selling shirt in NJPW history. As new members arrived and the original members departed, many of Bullet Club’s t-shirt designs evolved, but the classic original design remained a hot seller. The group’s merchandise became so popular that prior to the founding of AEW, former Bullet Club members Cody Rhodes, Kenny Omega, and The Young Bucks, secured a deal with Hot Topic to put Bullet Club merchandise in stores across North America.
To this day the group continues to evolve and remains one of the most important pieces of NJPW. They’ve even begun appearing in western promotions, such as AEW.
CM Punk “Best in the World”
Pat: When CM Punk sat down at the top of the entrance ramp in June 2011, he changed the wrestling business. What started as a simple airing of grievances from a disgruntled employee on his way out the door changed the landscape of the genre, ushering in the so-called “Reality Era” — one obsessed with worked shoots, peering behind the curtain, and storylines based on the men and women behind the Superstars. It’s one of the most memorable moments in WWE history, and the resulting match at Money in the Bank the next month is every bit as memorable.
With over 14,000 fans just outside of CM Punk’s hometown of Chicago tearing the roof off the building, the self-proclaimed “Best in the World” came down the ramp wearing a new shirt — white, instead of the typical black color used in most wrestling shirts, with black rings around the sleeves and neck. On the front was Punk’s logo, a straight-edge fist grabbing a lightning bolt, adorned with stars from the Chicago flag. On the back was the proclamation that he was indeed the “Best in the World” (along with the date, if you are one of the lucky fans who have an original shirt from the arena that night and not a facsimile sold online later). Much like Austin 3:16, you’ll be hard pressed to go to a WWE show even ten years later without coming across somebody wearing this shirt, hoping the Voice of the Voiceless will one day return.
The nWo are perhaps the most popular and iconic wrestling faction of all time. They’re one of the few rare examples in wrestling history where the act was so game changing and so popular, that it not only started a revolution in the wrestling world, but broke the border into the land of standard pop culture. Everyone, and I mean everyone in the late ’90s knew someone who owned an nWo shirt.
Hulk Hogan shocking the wrestling world in 1996 by jumping ship to WCW and joining forces with Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, and in that moment the landscape of professional wrestling was forever altered. Hulkmania and the friendly red and yellow boas were officially dead. A new brand of fans along with a new breed of merchandise had arrived. Wrestling was officially cool.
At nWo’s height their shirts were so popular that WCW literally couldn’t produce them fast enough. Scott Hall has noted several times in interviews that fans would often complain to him that they couldn’t get their hands on a shirt. Heck, 25+ years later the nWo shirt is still a popular purchase among fans, and that’s because when you’re nWo, you’re nWo for life.
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