The Toys That Made Us: Professional Wrestling!
By Dave Newman on 12th December 2020
Going to get back into the swing of things next week when I have some time off to watch and review stuff, but I thought I’d warm up by having a re-watch of the wrestling episode of The Toys That Made Us. I have a bit of a gripe with the goofy editing of the show, but it does appeal to areas of interest I’ve been into for a long time, so I forgive it that.
This was filmed in 2019 and seemingly had some cooperation with both WWE and AEW given the clips used and commentators involved.
Aubrey Sitterson, who had a controversial run as the writer of a GI Joe comic for IDW before making 9/11 comments that saw him out, talks about how ancient wrestling was boring, so professional wrestling as a fixed business was fixed to be entertaining and make money. Cody Rhodes talks about how Vince McMahon had little regard for the territory system and went into other areas to make more money with big stars and celebrities at the helm. This provided massive merchandising opportunities. Robby “Jewish Lightning” Kanoff of Galoob (who I believe is good friends with Ric Flair and features in the story of his argument at a nightclub with the Nasty Boys) was one of the guys that saw that potential.
Kanoff recognised that a lot of wrestling fans were kids, so Galoob went after the WWF to get their licence, with executive Saul Jodel posing as David Galoob because he was anxious about talking to Vince. Vince was talking to Remco at the time, so Saul worked Vince into a meeting with him. He offered him more than double what Remco were offering to secure the licence, but when he referred them to check with Universal as one of their previous partners, they swooped in with LJN and offered even more money to take it.
LJN had to make the toys look like the wrestlers and bendy, and a toy industry convention is to make the prototypes twice the size, but Vince liked them that big (shock, horror!), so they kept them that way, but without the bendy limbs. Hulk Hogan and Jake Roberts were guests at the toy launch to boost interest.
Remco had lurked in the background, though, and teamed up with the AWA to release All Star Wrestlers, with figures like the Road Warriors, Ric Flair and Stan Hansen. LJN weren’t threatened by them because the toys were blander. LJN eventually ended up getting sold to Acclaim in 1990 after a toy gun controversy, with the excess stock sold to Grand Toys of Canada, with the black card figures being much rarer.
Hasbro picked up the WWF licence in 1990. They didn’t really count or want to continue the LJN style, which they call dog toys here. Hasbro were more about sculpting, action features and articulation, with the figures down to four inches to make them more affordable and collectable. The giant figures for them were the talking figures with the pull string, which now sound like Hulk Hogan’s inhaled helium. Wrestling Buddies were released by Tonka at the same time, but then Hasbro bought Tonka, so they added them to their catalogue.
Jewish Lightning returned to the fray with Galoob making WCW action figures. He actually gets picked up on camera at ringside during a Nasty Boys vs. Cactus Jack and Kevin Sullivan match. Due to the short turnaround time they had to make them solid figures with no articulation, but they are still thought well of due to the likenesses to the wrestlers, plus it gave the only opportunities for WWF vs. WCW matches. However, they didn’t get the same distribution at stores as the WWF show and Galoob lost the licence around the same time David Galoob, Kanoff and Jodel left the company.
The WWF action figures stopped being made in the nineties too due to a dip in popularity (and steroid and sexual harassment scandals, which don’t get mentioned). Hulk jumped to WCW in ’94, so the ex-Galoob trio formed the Original San Francisco Toymakers and created new toys for WCW based on the stars of ’95, like the Hulkster, Lex Luger and the Giant. This also leads to a weird wrestling story of Hogan shitting in Kanoff’s bed as a “rib” to initiate him into the business proper. WCW was also gaining the advantage over the WWF with Monday Nitro too.
Murray Bass, formerly of LJN, formed Jakks Pacific and started making new WWF figures, and the initial run was crap, but new computer technology allowed them to make more accurate figures on the second go. ECW also entered the picture too – the Original San Francisco Toymarkers had been supplanted by Toy Biz, who had taken the WCW licence, so they switched to ECW action figures with wrestling reaching a peak in the late nineties. They packed them in with foreign objects as accessories.
All good things must come to an end, though, with the deaths of ECW and WCW in 2001. Four millions dollars from the WWF to buy WCW was less than the five million dollars Toy Biz had paid for the WCW licence. The toy companies backed out of the race as Jakks had won by being attached to the winning group, now being able to make figures of anyone from history within reason, including Bruiser Brody, Andy Kaufman and Gorilla Monsoon, but not the Gobbledy Gooker (update: a figure of him has now been made, although we’re never likely to get Owen Hart because of his widow’s objections). They made highly collectable figures, included short runs of guys like Ric Flair that go for five thousand dollars now due to the highly details and crafted robes.
The now-WWE/Jakks relationship came to an end because of a fraud scandal. Not mentioned here (sadly) is the crooked activities of WWE executive Jim Bell, who ended up going to prison over it. Mattel picked up the licence after that and hold it until today. Summer Rae turns up under her real name to remark upon how they’ve made female wrestling figures a priority, including Barbie figures. There was also an insistence on scale, which even Jakks didn’t do. Not mentioned, but shown, is the Hasbro-style figures they made too.
The show wraps up by paying homage to the original guys who led the wrestling merchandising rush in the eighties, which with bumps in the road is in great shape today.
The Bottom Line: A flawed but OK documentary, less goofy than most episodes of the show, but not as deep. It really just jumps from company to company without getting into any real detail about the interesting figures or rare finds, like Greg Valentine in his Rhythm ‘n’ Blues outfit or the Al Snow Head controversy. The choice of guests on the wrestling side is odd as well, with Cody seemingly having talked himself into a spot, and Sean Waltman making a bizarre cameo just to talk up the Attitude Era. Where was Zack Ryder or Curt Hawkins? So, fun to watch, but a missed opportunity. Not a massive audience, I’m sure, for a programme about wrestling figures, but surely you make the most of it?