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Boy Meets Goulet…or Thank Goodness It’s Vader!

TJ here, everyone.  Why love the ’90s?

Reason number 1,378: Cory Matthews makes the wrestling team and life seems great…until Robert Goulet and Vader show up.

An afternoon last week, I was experiencing an afternoon ritual of watching Boy Meets World on MTV2.  (Remember when The ‘M’ in MTV2 used to stand for music?)  The episode that was on first aired on May 5, 1995.

It was season 2, episode 21, entitled, “The Thrilla in Phila”–an ode, of course, to one of the great sporting events in history.

But instead of Ali vs. Frazier, we have Cory “The Cory” Matthews vs. Joey “The Rat” Epstein.

Also, the title serves as a reminder that the show is taking place in Philadelphia.

Yes, it’s the same Philly that somehow has a trailer park where Shawn lives.  If I may digress, I’ve gotta say as a longtime resident of the Philadelphia area, Boy Meets World looks nothing like Philadelphia.

(Yeah, I don’t think I ever noticed any actual physical Philadelphia landmarks, and recall only fleeting references to the Phillies in early seasons.  If I had to guess, I’d have to wager it actually takes place in Ardmore. –F13)

Most teen shows have a character most likely to be on the yearbook committee.

In this case it’s Topanga and she starts the show asking Cory and Shawn about their greatest accomplishment during their first year at John Adams High.  Both couldn’t answer, Topanga calls them pathetic, and seconds later Cory ends up on the wrestling team because the squad needed someone to fill the 108 pound division.

It’s perfect timing for the hero of our show.  He then tells Topanga of his great accomplishment of making the wrestling team, his new girl Candy (played by “The” Kelly Packard) and offers a quote for the yearbook, “Rah!!”

Topanga is secretly jealous that Cory is hanging around Candy, but of course, Cory is oblivious.  He’s excited with his new found “jockdom” and gets a little too comfortable.

Hijinks ensue as Cory faces his first challenger.

Joey “The Rat” Epstein (Blake Sennett, previously Pinsky from Salute Your Shorts; later a founding member of indie band Rilo Kiley with fellow former child star Jenny Lewis) wants that spot on the wrestling team and challenges Cory to a match, winner gets the sacred spot.

After an intense training period, Cory pins Joey fair and square, keeping the letter jacket and Candy. Then the absurdity really begins.

Joey challenges Cory to a rematch over and over again, but ever the fighting champion, Cory keeps declining.  Finally, after some egging on from the real jocks, Cory agrees to an unsanctioned fight with “The Rat” in the school gym.

And since it’s a wrestling themed episode I’ll quote Jim Ross: “Business is about to pick up!”

The tiny gym (all 90’s high school tv show gyms are insanely and unrealistically tiny) is filled with students who want to see Matthews-Epstein II. It turns into a homeless person’s Wrestlemania, celebrity appearances included.

The late, truly great Robert Goulet shows up as guest ring announcer, while Baywatch star Yasmine Bleeth sits at ringside.  And in Joey’s corner, Frankie’s father, WCW/WWF star and all-around badass, Big Van Vader!

All of the pageantry was organized by Griffin Hawkins (Adam Scott, years away from Party Down and Parks and Recreation), the charismatic bad kid who organized the spectacle on behalf of his flunkie Joey.

“Are we having fun yet?”

Griffin is so cool he makes out with Bleeth, then one of the big stars on Baywatch. She’s 27 at this time and Griffin’s a high school kid, but whatever, no charges were ever filed as we assume he’s 18.

The big clash begins and Cory defends himself well against “The Rat.” So much so that the struggling lackey tags in Frankie “The Enforcer” Stechino. (this is a tag match?)

It’s a tag match now and Cory tags in his then sane brother Eric. The future “Plays With Squirrels” does well against Frankie who, in a complete non-surprise, tags in his father, Vader.

When it looks like “The Face of Death” is ready to mutilate Eric with no consequence from law enforcement,  Mr. Feeny comes in for the rescue! (With a sweet ring entrance by the way.)

Here we learn Vader is a former student of Feeny’s, and the wise teacher gets the former world champion to back off by threatening to reveal his first name.  (It’s Leslie, though in a later episode, it’s Frankie Sr.–and in real life, it’s Leon. Yay continuity!) If only Mick Foley knew to use the “Leslie” card. He may still have that chunk of ear. Oh, and if Feeny wouldn’t lay down for Vader, why in the hell would Hulk Hogan?

The show ends with Cory quitting the wrestling team (never wrestling anyone other than Joey) and he and Topanga inching even closer to expressing their not so secret love for each other. It’s followed by a detention performance by Mr. Robert Goulet.

It’s one of the great BMW episodes in the show’s seven years. Has there ever been such a random collection of cameo appearances in any teen sitcom?

Boy certainly meets world in this episode….a world filled with D-listers.

Frankie’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, I loved Boy Meets World during my adolescence. 

Even now, seeing the comic timing of the Ben Savage-led cast, and a marvelous performance by William Daniels as the avuncular Mr. Feeny, the show continues to make me smile.  

Still, it isn’t always for the right reasons, and while this episode has its moments (and yay, Adam Scott!), there’s a big reason I can’t get behind it.  That reason is Vader.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Big Van Vader–as he was known during his salad days–was wrestling’s monstrous loose cannon heel.  Like another big man of his time, Bam Bam Bigelow, Vader was freakishly agile for a man his size, with a savage streak to rival guys like Bruiser Brody and Mick “Cactus Jack” Foley; indeed, it is he who bears the dubious reputation of tearing off Foley’s ear.  (In truth, it was an accident, although Vader was the other man in the ring, so there you go.)

Vader–born Leon White–appeared every bit the barbarian monster on any card, for any promotion, worldwide.  Though he found stateside fame initially in WCW, he spent a lot of time working for New Japan and All Japan Pro Wrestling, and it shows in his dominant, aggressively physical work.  It added to his mystique that he was often too strong for his own good, with opponents actively trying to get off the card if they saw him on the bill.  (Contrast this with his actual behind the scenes demeanor, a gentle man genuinely dismayed if he seriously hurt an opponent.)

That changed in the ’90s when every promotion needed a cartoonish supervillain–in WCW, then in WWF, where Vader ended up migrating.  His strong, stiff style–shaped by years working in Japan–was more hindrance than help in the Federation, and he never really got over very well in Vince McMahon’s more stylized world despite being placed at the top of the card in high-profile feuds with Shawn Michaels and the Undertaker.

Wrestling itself at this point–the mid-’90s–was poised to break big again in ways it hadn’t seen since the Golden Age of the ’80s.  But it hadn’t yet, and as this was still a family-friendly period for the WWF (what a difference a couple of years could have made), Vader ended up making appearances on the family-friendly (albeit popular) Boy Meets World.

If it had only been this episode, then perhaps–just perhaps I could have let it slide.  It is kind of funny to see the big, blustery Vader pop up as Ethan Suplee’s dad, and he gets legitimate comic mileage out of his ring persona in his cameo.  He’s certainly game for it, and even kind of funny.  I can forgive the mystique of Big Van Vader being diminished a bit if it gets him a bonus for his trouble.

But in subsequent episodes that tackle Frankie’s home life, Vader reappears, and while I want to save one of those episodes for later, I must say that one reason I have beef with the ’90s is that it turned legitimate monsters of the ring like Vader into buffoonish boogeymen.  


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