The first episode of the “Dark Side of the Ring” series aired on April 10, 2019. The episode was called “The Match Made in Heaven,” and centered on the relationship between immensely popular wrestler Randy Macho Man Savage, and his beatific and equally popular real life wife, Miss Elizabeth. I had a strong familiarity with the events surrounding the couple’s meteoric rise to fame, as well as the successful and tragic events that befell both of them after they were no longer married. While watching the episode, I wondered what other content the series creators were going to showcase to wrestling fans. I particularly wanted to learn about behind the scenes aspects of the wrestling business, that I wasn’t knowledgeable about; as the series has progressed, a great deal of its content I’ve heard discussed before. There are, however, exceptions, such as the episode “The Collision in Korea.” The incidents that took place in North Korea over a four day period was something that I was completely unfamiliar with, and the subject matter held me in rapt attention.
In 1995, the WWF (The World Wrestling Federation), since May of 2002, WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), dominated the wrestling television landscape. Wrestling promoter and marketing genius, Vince McMahon’s company had a vise grip on the wrestling business. The WWF had achieved its status by building characters since the 1980s, that not only adults could cheer for, such as Hulk Hogan, or root against, for example, Rowdy Roddy Piper, but the WWF was able to delineate between the good and the bad guys. This was done, not only by showcasing wrestling throughout the country, but by creating extravaganzas such as WrestleMania; from its inaugural event at Madison Square Garden on March 31, 1985, it helped to further capture the imaginations of wrestling fans. WrestleMania, at the time, helped to solidify the WWF’s place as the top company in the business. Children were the key, and McMahon knew this. If children are enamored with a product, which they were, seeing people they regarded as superheroes come to life, parents are going to bring the children, and of course, wind up spending money. In 1995, as WWF was continuing to beat its seemingly lone competition in America, WCW (World Championship Wrestling), a highly intelligent, charismatic, young man, Eric Bischoff, whose name, in the not too far off future, would become synonymous with professional wrestling, took over WCW. His main goal upon becoming president of the operation was to increase the ratings. He was not above thinking outside the box in order to compete, as well as having the foresight to renegotiate old business deals, that he felt never should have been allowed to lapse in the first place.
The first thing Bischoff did to attempt to build up “WCW” was to reestablish the business connection between his company and NJPW (New Japan Pro-Wrestling). Bischoff felt that there was a lucrative opportunity, and he was correct, to set up an exchange of talent. Wrestlers from NJPW would come to America and garner exposure to American television audiences, and, in turn, American wrestlers would go to Japan and compete on tour; it was a win, win, for both companies. Not long into the success of the talent exchange, Bischoff was approached by Antonio Inoki. The man was not just another wrestler or run of the mill promoter. Inoki was a politician, NJPW’s wrestling promoter, and one of the most popular individuals in all of Japan. In fact, it was Inoki, through his popularity and political gamesmanship, that helped to secure the release of Japanese hostages that were being held captive in Iraq. Like Bischoff, Inoki wasn’t above thinking on a grandiose scale. For example, his trips to North Korea, which didn’t sit well with the Japanese government. The government let him know that if he got into trouble in North Korea, there would be virtually nothing they could do to help him.
Inoki had a vision to bring professional wrestling, for the first time ever, to the people of North Korea. This was not going to be just another wrestling show, Inoki wanted the wrestling event to be billed as part of a peace festival. The North Korean’s, in an act of sheer surprise, agreed to Inoki’s request. Inoki had been granted permission by the North Korean government to hold a two night wrestling event in Rungrado May Day Stadium, in Pyongyang, the capital and largest city in North Korea. What Inoki needed next, was to line up talent for the event. Inoki attempted to get mega superstar, Michael Jackson, to serve as a good will ambassador, but Jackson’s people, fearing for his safety, declined the offer. Next, he approached Bischoff about asking Hulk Hogan, if he would be a part of the wrestling show, but Hogan politely declined. After the first two rejections, talent-wise, things began to take shape for Inoki. Muhammad Ali, the first fighter to ever win the heavyweight title three times, amongst his 56 victories during a 21 year career, agreed to be Inoki’s good will peace ambassador in North Korea. On the wrestling side of things, Ric Flair, who was second to Hogan in terms of being a household name, agreed to be Inoki’s opponent for the main event. Additional wrestlers and wrestling talents, included, but were not limited to: Scott Norton, Sonny Onoo, and 2 Cold Scorpio, all three of whom comment throughout the episode. (As an aside: The two night wrestling event was attended by approximately 300,000 people).
From the moment the plane took off from Japan things started to backfire for those who went on the trip. As some of the wrestlers described their time in the Hermit Kingdom, as North Korea is sometimes referred to, was like being in hell. Death threats, fights, intimidation by the North Korean government, constant supervision, and harassment are many, but not all of the things that come up during the episode. One specific example, involved Bischoff. One morning, Bischoff decided to go for a run, like he would in the states. He didn’t inform his attaché, every one of the wrestlers was assigned one, and he went for a run. He said the streets in Pyongyang were pitch black. A short while into his run the sun came out. When people saw him running down the street, they started darting in every direction. Bischoff specifically mentioned that he saw school children with terror in their eyes at the sight of him. As one of the Japanese talents mentioned, most of the people who viewed Bischoff running had never seen an American before. The North Koreans had been warning their people since the end of The Korean War on July 27, 1953, that the Americans were going to come back and help South Korea take over the country. The people on the streets who saw Bischoff, thanks to such tight government control of actual news, thought Bischoff was part of the American military, come to kill them.
“Dark Side of the Ring: The Collision in Korea,” was directed by Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun). The teleplay was co-written by Eisener along with Evan Husney (The Theater Bizarre). Parts documentary, drama, history, and sport the episode has an approximate runtime of forty minutes. Released on May 20, 2021, the episode was narrated by wrestling star Chris Jericho. In addition to wrestling, Jericho has appeared on the television series “Dancing with the Stars,” and has been the lead singer of the rock band “Fozzy,” since its inception in Atlanta, Georgia in 1999.
In closing, if I had been on that trip, after I got a sense that if I said or did the wrong thing it could cost me my life, I would have passed the time without incident. In my mind, I could go without attempting to find outlets to entertain myself, as if I were back in my home state of Florida. There would be no form of disrespect coming from me, if I managed to get through on the telephone, back to friends or family in the states. The phone calls, in those situations, are inevitably being listened to, so I believe I could refrain from stating how much I hated the host government. The room would be where I’d pass my time, and most assuredly keep my mouth shut. While passing the time, I’d inwardly pray that at the end of the four days, my passport, which would’ve been confiscated, as all of the talents’ were, would be returned to me, so I could leave North Korea. Of course, do I know if I my actions would’ve differed from anyone else on that trip, no. I’d like to think that I would have used my common sense to gauge the situation, and adjusted my behavior accordingly. “The Collision in Korea,” in my opinion, is a can’t miss episode of the “Dark Side of the Ring” series for wrestling fans.