Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Comparative (f)Analysis #2 "Winners of Survivor"

The Sunday before Christmas featured the season finale of “Survivor: South Pacific,” the twenty-third edition of the pioneering network reality series. I would consider the season itself to be among the most memorable seasons, strictly for the incredible characters in Cochran, Brandon, and the returning Coach and Ozzy, each of whom had memorable games to play, though eventual winner Sophie is among the least deserving in the show’s history. But, let’s not just make that statement; let’s examine each of the winners, in my specially ranked order, starting at the bottom:

22. Sophie Clarke (“South Pacific,” fall 2011)
Sophie did virtually nothing to make it to the finals, relying on the inexplicable alliance that sprang up around Coach and working pretty much the same game as Albert, constantly scheming big ideas without actually executing any of them, all the while being the opposite socially, speaking more to the camera, but being borderline unpleasant. Without the immunity win, she wouldn’t have won, and for that reason, and for a typically bitter jury unable to give the best player (Coach) his due, I find it difficult to give her any credit.

21. Vecepia Towery (“Marquesas,” spring 2002)
The fourth season of “Survivor” is notable for producing Boston Rob, but was otherwise virtually an attempt to recreate the first season after the comparatively disastrous experiment of “Thailand,” and as such everyone knew the game extremely well, so that someone who wasn’t particularly memorable won for the first time. That would be Vecepia.

20. Natalie White (“Samoa,” fall 2009)
This is not to take anything away from Natalie, because she was probably the most likable contestant that season (and thank goodness!), but “Samoa” is thoroughly dominated by Russell, the most unlikable villain ever to appear on the show. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Natalie actually was likable, but anyone would have gotten more votes than Russell.

19. Danni Boatwright (“Guatemala,” fall 2005)
Danni is one of my sister’s favorite winners, but I still have to be a little bitter that Stephanie didn’t win, because although my sister conversely never liked her, Stephanie was a favorite since before Ulong self-destructed in “Palau.” Danni’s win has got to be considered an upset, no matter what she brought to the game herself (and I personally don’t really remember what that was, other than being the first person to realize that Gary used to play pro football).

18. Jud “Fabio” Birza (“Nicaragua,” fall 2010)
I think Fabio was a rare instance of a season actually producing just a competitive winner, which is good for Fabio and his season, but wasn’t hugely compelling (though compelling, as with Sophie, Natalie, and Danni above, isn’t always a good thing).

17. Jenna Morasca (“Amazon,” spring 2003)
Aside from producing idiot “Survivor expert” Rob Cesternino (first coming of Cochran!), this is another season that was considerably refreshing, taking the game to a different level by proving the alliance strategy all over again in a completely new way, by showing that a bunch of chicks can do it just as well as anyone else. That’s Jenna’s real legacy (not the peanut butter).

16. Tina Wesson (“Australian Outback,” spring 2001)
Everyone knows that it’s Colby who helped get Tina to the finals, that alliance. The fact that Tina was in the alliance proves that she had game, but that Colby didn’t win is still one of the biggest goofs in “Survivor” history.

15. Ethan Zohn (“Africa,” fall 2001)
The third season seems to catch a lot of flack from fans, but I found it to be just as compelling as the previous two, especially with characters like Lex and Big Tom around. Ethan stands as the first competitive winner, which is definitely something to be proud of.

14. Todd Herzog (“China,” fall 2007)
I still don’t understand how the hell Amanda didn’t win. Yes, Todd was a master strategist, but the dude is one of the biggest rats in “Survivor” history, a textbook example of what Sue Hawk talked about in her famous tirade from the first season. Call it the Colby Curse?

13. James “J.T.” Thomas, Jr. (“Tocantins,” spring 2009)
Coach stole this season, too, but it was another competitive winner, J.T., who walked away with the million. J.T. was someone fans could really root for, too, something of a character and a strategist.

12. Sandra Diaz-Twine (“Pearl Islands,” fall 2003/“Heroes vs. Villains,” spring 2010)
It’s probably tempting to award her at least a spot in the top ten, but truth is, Sandra used the same strategy to win both times, holding back while other, stronger contestants self-destructed, the first time very notably Rupert and the second a season of egos that happened to include Russell and Parvati making her own bid to win a second time, very notably her second shot playing with “Survivor” all-stars.

11. Aras Basauskas (“Panama,” spring 2006)
Want to play a game? Who the fuck else remembers Aras, or this season in general? Inexplicably beloved Cirie originated from this season, and there was also Terry (another favorite of my sister’s), but it was Aras being awesome that won. (That’s how I remember it, anyway.)

10. Earl Cole (“Fiji,” spring 2007)
The first landslide victor, Earl’s another one who doesn’t receive a lot of respect, possibly because most fans wished Yau-Man would have reached the finals.

9. Yul Kwon (“Cook Islands,” fall 2006)
In a season that also featured Ozzy and Parvati, this was a deceptively awesome one that split viewers because everyone feared that the initial tribal divisions represented more than they actually did. Hey, would we have gotten Ozzy or Parvati otherwise, much less Yul, another consummate competitive winner?

8. Amber Brkich (“All-Stars,” spring 2004)
I would honestly rate her higher except it’d probably be accurate to admit that Boston Rob deserved to win slightly more than she did. But this is a rare instance of the top two both winning, for strategic as well as entirely personal reasons.

7. Parvati Shallow (“Micronesia,” spring 2008)
The Fans vs. Favorites season was the second time all-stars were deliberately featured, which makes Parvati’s win more impressive than her underdog win that most would probably compare either to Jenna’s in “Amazon” or Sandra’s in (take your pick), because she was dismissed as just another pretty face (and shameless flirt). Girl had game.

6. Chris Daugherty (“Vanuatu,” fall 2004)
Still the gold standard of mind-boggling upsets, considering he was the lone male standing against a wall of women who failed to back up their bite.

5. “Boston” Rob Mariano (“Redemption Island,” spring 2011)
A mastermind who finally got to officially call himself sole survivor, Boston Rob completely understood who to take to the finals (possibly crazy Phillip, for instance), in the first season smart and stupid enough to eject Russell early.

4. Bob Crowley (“Gabon,” fall 2008)
By far one of the smartest players to ever play the game, Bob rarely gets respect from fans, even though his closest competitor (Randy) only managed to outsmart himself.

3. Brian Heidik (“Thailand,” fall 2002)
Few fans seem to want to give Brian credit, focusing on external elements of his character rather than acknowledging that he’s one of the few winners anyone could have seen coming a mile away.

2. Richard Hatch (“Borneo,” summer 2000)
The first winner really helped set a template, at least for the scores of later contestants who heavily relied on alliances, sometimes absolutely to their detriment, and I think far too many of them have never once stopped to consider that. Richard was less devious than his reputation suggests, which really stems from the first bitter jury, rather than how he actually played, more cocky than arrogant (he crossed that line in “All-Stars,” though, and it showed). He simply took advantage of the fact that few contestants, then or now, come to the game with working strategies.

1. Tom Westman (“Palau,” spring 2005)
My sister and I agree that it’s ridiculous how little respect Tom gets from fans, considering that he’s near-inarguably the greatest player ever in “Survivor” (at least in that one season), and that has nothing to do with Ulong’s implosion or Koror’s dominance, but that Tom could do everything, whether it was catching a shark, lasting eleven hours in an endurance challenge, or forming an incredibly intricate alliance with players as seemingly diametrically opposed as Katie and Ian (who was uncomfortably smack in between the maturity of them), which made his path to victory more harrowing than it really needed to be. A lot of fans seem to base their opinions on how relatable a contestant is (which is why someone like Cirie, prepackaged for the couch crowd, can come off as a fan favorite when she’s next to useless and a worse strategist than Rupert but still somehow more popular than Tom), but that’s what I love about “Survivor,” that it literally is a social experiment, both for those who compete and those who watch from home (and how many people have unsuccessfully made that transition now?), how you react to and perceive others, whether in relation to yourself or to a group of other individuals also struggling to make those distinctions. Tom had vocal detractors on his own tribe, even though he clearly didn’t do anything to overtly draw anyone’s ire, other than be himself and therefore be considered a personal threat. Plenty of contestants have been voted out first opportunity for that very reason, but Tom was able to play the Colby game successfully, be charismatic and competitive and strategic, and that alone should make him a memorable winner at the very least.

Where would “Survivor” be without Jeff Probst? In a very real sense, he was the show’s first winner, somehow holding everything together from the very start and finding himself in a position where he not only agreed to repeat his experience over and over again, but possibly becoming the game’s biggest fan. I’m constantly amazed that anyone could consider any other reality show host Jeff’s superior. But he’s also humble, so there’s that.

And with that, it’s time for me to go.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Comparative (f)Analysis #1 "TV Guide Fall Preview"

“TV Guide Fall Previews 1997-2003”

What follows will be an analysis of TV Guide’s predictions for seven seasons of network television. Each year will feature listings for show the magazine chose as highlights and another that were either personal favorites or successes that TV Guide failed to predict. There will be a tally at the end of each year concerning the overall success rate of the magazine’s selections. Successes are defined by shows that lasted more than two seasons. Extended Experiments are shows that lasted only two seasons. Failures are considered selections that lasted a season or less. Successes that TV Guide did not select, however, can be defined as shows that lasted at least two seasons, since they had, by the magazine’s standards, more to prove.

I will state for the record that I still hate the fact that TV Guide is no longer digest-sized. It’s been more than half a decade since the format change, and I have never gone back to being as avid a reader as I once was. That’s half the reason why I still have these Fall TV Preview issues and am still referencing them to this day, because it was an ideal format for the magazine. However, having made this survey, I have discovered some alarming trends I didn’t notice originally. I will save those comments until later. For now, the basic results:


TV Guide Favorites

Featured Naomi Watts, Bruce Greenwood; didn’t last half a season.

“Alright Already”
Lasted one season.

“The Wonderful World of Disney”
Lasted twelve seasons.

“Ally McBeal”
Lasted five seasons.

“George & Leo”
Featured Bob Newhart, Judd Hirsch; lasted one season.

“Michael Hayes”
Featured David Caruso; lasted one season

“Dharma & Greg”
Lasted five seasons.

Featured Fred Savage; lasted two seasons.

“Veronica’s Closet”
Lasted three seasons.

“Nothing Sacred”
Featured Kevin Anderson; lasted one season.

Featured Robert Pastorelli; lasted one season.

“The Gregory Hines Show”
Personal Favorite; lasted one season.

Featured Costas Mandylor, Ice-T; lasted one season.

“The Visitor”
Featured John Corbett; lasted half a season.

Not Favorites

“Brooklyn South”
Lasted one season.

Season tally: 3 successes (“Ally McBeal,” “Dharma & Greg,” “Veronica’s Closet”) 1 long-running variety program (“Wonderful World of Disney”) 1 extended experiment (“Working”)

Accuracy: 3/14 (.214)



TV Guide Favorites

“Fantasy Island”
Featured Malcolm McDowell; lasted half a season.

“That ’70s Show”
Lasted eight seasons.

“The King of Queens”
Lasted nine seasons.

“The Brian Benben Show”
Lasted a few episodes.

“Will & Grace”
Lasted eight seasons.

Lasted four seasons.

“The Hughleys”
Lasted four seasons.

“Maggie Winters”
Featured Faith Ford; lasted one season.

“Seven Days”
Personal favorite; lasted three seasons.

Lasted eight seasons.

Featured Christina Applegate; lasted two seasons.

“Two of a Kind”
Featured the Olsen twins; lasted one season.

“Buddy Faro”
Featured Dennis Farina; lasted half a season.

“Brother’s Keeper”
Featured Justin Cooper; lasted one season.

Not Favorites

“Martial Law”
Lasted two seasons.

“The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeifer”
Personal favorite; highly controversial; did not last long.

“Mercy Point”
Personal favorite; lasted less than half a season.

“Sports Night”
Lasted two seasons.

Personal favorite; lasted one season.

Season tally: 7 successes (“That ’70s Show,” “The King of Queens,” “Will & Grace,” “Felicity,” “The Hughleys,” “Seven Days,” “Charmed”) 1 extended experiment (“Jesse”) 2 glaring omissions (“Sports Night,” “Martial Law”)

Accuracy: 7/14 (.500)



TV Guide Favorites

“Freaks and Geeks”
Lasted one season.

“Malcolm in the Middle”
Lasted seven seasons.

“Law & Order: SVU”

“Once and Again”
Featured Sela Ward, Billy Campbell; lasted three seasons.

Lasted five seasons.

Lasted three seasons.

“The West Wing”
Lasted seven seasons.

Star Illeana Dougas, Jay Mohr; lasted half a season.

“Now and Again”
Featured Eric Close, Dennis Haysbert; lasted one season.

“Harsh Realm”
Featured Terry O’Quinn, D.B. Sweeney; lasted half a season.

Not Favorites

“Third Watch”
Lasted six seasons.

“The Parkers”
Lasted five seasons.

“Family Law”
Lasted three seasons.

“Judging Amy”
Lasted six seasons.


Featured Leslie Bibb, Christopher Gorham; lasted two seasons.

Season Tally: 6 successes (“Malcolm in the Middle,” “Law & Order: SVU,” “Once and Again,” “Angel,” “Roswell,” “The West Wing”) 6 glaring omissions (“Third Watch,” “The Parkers,” “Family Law,” “Judging Amy,” “Smackdown,” “Popular”)

Accuracy: 6/10 (.600)



TV Guide Favorites

Personal favorite; lasted four seasons.

Lasted one season.

“Boston Public”
Lasted four seasons.

“Dark Angel”
Personal favorite; lasted two seasons.

Featured Bette Midler; lasted one season.

“Gilmore Girls”
Lasted seven seasons.

“The Fugitive”
Featured Tim Daly, Mykelti Williamson; lasted one season.

Not Favorites

“Yes, Dear”
Lasted six seasons.

Lasted eight seasons.

“The Michael Richards Show”
Personal favorite; lasted half a season.

“Cursed” (“The Weber Show”)
Featured Steven Weber, Chris Elliot; lasted one season.


Season Tally: 3 successes (“Ed,” “Boston Public,” “Gilmore Girls”) 1 extended experiment (“Dark Angel”) 3 glaring omissions (“Yes, Dear,” “Girlfriends,” “CSI”)

Accuracy: 3/7 (.429)



TV Guide Favorites

Personal favorite; lasted five seasons.

Personal favorite; lasted eight seasons.

Lasted one season.

Lasted ten seasons.

Personal favorite; lasted nine seasons.

“Star Trek: Enterprise”
Personal favorite; lasted four seasons.

“The Amazing Race”

“The Bernie Mac Show”
Lasted five seasons.

“The Tick”
Personal favorite; featured Patrick Warburton, Nestor Carbonell; lasted half a season.

“The Ellen Show”
Lasted one season.

“Maybe It’s Me”
Featured Fred Willard; lasted one season.

Not Favorites

“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”
Lasted ten seasons.

“Crossing Jordan”
Lasted six seasons.

“One on One”
Lasted five seasons.

“Bob Patterson”
Personal favorite; featured Jason Alexander; lasted less than half a season.

“The Guardian”
Featured Simon Baker; lasted three seasons.

“According to Jim”
Lasted eight seasons.

“The Agency”
Featured Will Paton, Gil Bellows; lasted two seasons.

Lasted six seasons.

Season Tally: 7 successes (“Alias,” “24,” “Smallville,” “Scrubs,” “Star Trek: Enterprise,” “The Amazing Race,” “The Bernie Mac Show”) 7 glaring omissions (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Crossing Jordan,” “One on One,” “The Guardian,” “According to Jim,” “The Agency,” “Reba”)

Accuracy: 7/11 (.636)



TV Guide Favorites

Personal favorite; lasted two seasons.

“CSI: Miami”

“Life with Bonnie”
Featured Bonnie Hunt; lasted two seasons.

“Birds of Prey”
Lasted half a season.

Lasted one season.

“The Twilight Zone”
Personal favorite; lasted one season.

“Without a Trace”
Lasted seven seasons.

Not Favorites

“American Dreams”
Lasted three seasons.

Lasted four seasons.

“Half and Half”
Lasted four seasons.

“Still Standing”
Lasted four seasons.

“8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter”
Featured Kaley Cuoco, John Ritter; lasted three seasons.

Featured Matthew Fox; lasted half a season.

“Less than Perfect”
Featured Sara Rue, Andy Dick; lasted four seasons.

“John Doe”
Personal favorite; featured Dominic Purcell; lasted one season.

Lasted half a season.

Season Tally: 2 successes (“CSI: Miami,” “Without a Trace”) 2 extended experiments (“Boomtown,” “Life with Bonnie”) 6 glaring omissions (“American Dreams,” “Everwood,” “Half and Half,” “Still Standing,” “8 Simple Rules,” “Less than Perfect”)

Accuracy: 2/7 (.286)



TV Guide Favorites

“The Lyon’s Den”
Featured Rob Lowe, Kyle Chandler; lasted half a season.

“Arrested Development”
Lasted three seasons.

Featured Olivia Wilde, Kevin Anderson; lasted half a season.

“Las Vegas”
Lasted five seasons.

“Two and a Half Men”

“Karen Sisco”
Featured Carla Gugino, Robert Forster; lasted half a season.

“A Minute with Stan Hooper”
Personal favorite; featured Norm McDonald, Fred Willard; lasted half a season.

“Jake 2.0”
Featured Christopher Gorham; lasted one season.

“Steve Harvey’s Big Time”
Lasted two seasons.

“Miss Match”
Featured Alicia Silverstone, Lake Bell; lasted one season.

“Joan of Arcadia”
Personal favorite; lasted two seasons.

“The Handler”
Featured Joe Pantoliano; lasted one season.

Not Favorites

“Cold Case”
Lasted seven seasons.

Lasted three seasons.


“All of Us”
Lasted four seasons.

“I’m with Her”
Personal favorite; featured Teri Polo; lasted one season.

“One Tree Hill”

“Tru Calling”
Featured Eliza Dushku; lasted two seasons.

“Hope & Faith”
Featured Kelly Ripa, Faith Ford; lasted three seasons.

Season Tally: 3 successes (“Arrested Development,” “Las Vegas,” “Two and a Half Men”) 2 extended experiments (“Steve Harvey’s Big Time,” “Joan of Arcadia”) 7 glaring omissions (“Cold Case,” “Eve,” “NCIS,” “All of Us,” “One Tree Hill,” “Tru Calling,” “Hope & Faith”)

Accuracy: 3/12 (.250)


As a whole, success rate breaks down as follows:

2001 (.636)
1999 (.600)
1998 (.500)
2000 (.429)
2002 (.286)
2003 (.250)
1997 (.214)

2001, obviously, is the winner, with TV Guide accurately predicting hit TV shows more than half the time, something accomplished only one other time (1999), while 1998 reached exactly half that mark. These results are somewhat misleading, however, since in both 2001 and 1999, they missed as many shows as they guessed correctly, which is pretty horrible. 1998, then, becomes their most accurate year, when you consider their two omissions (“Martial Law” and “Sports Night”) still didn’t last very long, even though one of them was a critical darling that was missed for years after its cancellation and remains one of the most influential shows in TV history.

There are many instances where TV Guide’s tastes were indeed in-line with actual audiences, but more often than not, the magazine tended to let itself become misled by predilections that were not proven to be accurate, whether in praising shows that lasted for only a few episodes, or rejecting ones that became wildly popular (“CSI,” for instance). In addition, TV Guide presents an alarming impulse to reject programming that would become successful with African American audiences, rejecting nearly all of them, regardless of their actual appeal (“The Hughleys” is a rare exception, but is still atypical). It seems motivated as much by nostalgia as identifying innovative television, and just as often misguidedly rejects anything that may put a fresh twist on a familiar genre, or simply offers a stimulating cast.

It’s admittedly impossible to be a hundred percent accurate, and perhaps a greater analysis might take into account the complete season slate, shows I omitted that didn’t last and therefore might effect a different set of numbers. It’s also extremely difficult to be completely objective, even in hindsight, or to predict how audiences will react to the overall quality of the material (hence why I was as spare as possible). Still, it’s worth considering, especially since TV Guide is an admitted authority. One way it may improve its accuracy would be to place a bigger spotlight on those shows it has deemed to be ahead of the creative curve.

And return to the digest format.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jabroni Companion #4

The third major topic I’d like to breech is one that still very much concerns wrestling today. Variously known as a faction, a stable, a clique, I’m talking about a collection of wrestlers united for a single cause, and famous examples through the years have included the Four Horsemen, D-Generation X, Evolution, the Main Event Mafia, the Nexus, but today I will spend my time with the one version I still believe to this day dominates the idea in its most perfect form,

IV. New World Order

Spelling it all out like that is a tad less glamorous and familiar than simply saying, the nWo. I like to using the capitalization featured in the group’s logo, because it looks cooler, and is more representative of what it eventually came to symbolize, breaking all the rules, a rebellion that led directly into the Attitude Era, when wrestling vaulted back into the popular consciousness after the hot early years of Hulkamania died down, which only made it fair that Hulk Hogan was once again at the center of things.

Lots of people have tried to downplay Hogan’s role in wrestling’s resurgence during this time. Even though his heel turn galvanized fans as he himself hadn’t been able to do in years (and in reality, he’d only waited about five years for this moment to arrive), Hogan was seen as past his prime. Fans embraced Steve Austin as the new Hogan only two years after the formation of the nWo, and it took another five years for Hogan to be cool again (only that time, no one realized that the fans now wanted an unmitigated hero again).

Anyway, before I get completely ahead of myself, let’s back up a little. Wrestling is only really popular in the mainstream when it breaks free of its own constraints. A lot of great wrestlers toil for years under very little recognition because they can’t transcend expectations. Ric Flair is probably the prototype. There’s no doubt that he became one of the most successful, charismatic, and beloved wrestlers of several generations, but he excelled at all the things a wrestler was supposed to, rather than completely reinventing the rules. It’s exactly the opposite of what Hulk Hogan did during the very same years. On paper, Flair and Hogan are fairly similar wrestlers, believe it or not. Both of them know exactly the kind of match, exactly the kinds of things to do to involve the crowd, to get them excited or concerns based on the current chances of success. It doesn’t matter that Flair was usually the heel, and that Hogan was usually the face. Both knew what needed to be done, and they did it well, and very consistently. But while Flair would have been at home in any era (as he proved for years), Hogan was something new, which the AWA and WWE itself didn’t realize for years. He had to appear in a movie (ROCKY III) to appear larger than life, for his sheer size to be realized. From that moment on, he was accepted as the new standard for professional wrestling, and the entire industry had to realign itself to compensate.

It’s the same thing that happened with The Rock years later, though as it turned out, charisma is something that’s a lot harder to match than mere presence (just ask Chris Jericho, the wrestler who most benefited from this phenomenon, and who tried the hardest to live up to it), and why WWE had to completely revamp itself around Austin, a process that took years (from a period that actually predated the formation of the nWo, no less).

All of this is to say, true wrestling success, success that the mainstream readily accepts, is incredibly rare, and is probably routinely impossible. When WCW originally acquired Hogan in 1994, the company no doubt believed that it could buy that kind of success outright, even though Hogan hadn’t been relevant for about three years by that point. By dragging everyone to Hogan’s level, the novelty of Hogan himself had worn off. WCW wasn’t a place to develop talent comparable to him, and WWE, faced with lawsuit and scandal, had backed off of the oversize game. A spin-off of the NWA, one of the oldest promotions in wrestling, WCW was far more traditionalist than Hogan was used to, and most of what he had to play with there was already familiar, whether it was Flair (with whom, admittedly, he’d never really done much work, by his own design, when the “Nature Boy” had briefly competed in WWE a few years earlier) or Randy Savage, or…Well, there really weren’t too many options. Paul Whyte debuted as the Giant in 1995, but he was new to wrestling, and so didn’t know what kind of role he should play (think Matt Morgan). Vader might have been a perfect opponent, exactly the kind of foe Hogan would have enjoyed in WWE just a few years earlier, but that wasn’t the way WCW did business (though that’s exactly the kind of program Sting used to enjoy, for some reason, and Flair, too).

No, instead it was WWE who had the likes of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, charismatic big men who didn’t have the same kind of opportunities Hogan had enjoyed for years, and so ended up looking somewhat average, even though they were pushed as some of the company’s biggest stars. “Average” was exactly what they’d been for years until they’d adopted, respectively, the Diesel and Razor Ramon personas, when they became bona fide stars. Ironically, the same thing that made their careers also inhibited them. “Big Daddy Cool” and the “Bad Guy” weren’t exactly immortal. The business, as I said, had adapted to Hulk Hogan, and not for the better.

So that’s what made the summer of 1996 so perfect, because WCW finally seemed to realize what it needed to reach the next level. It needed, not just Hogan, but Hall and Nash, and the only concept that was big enough for all three of them was the ultimate heel faction, the New World Order. I like to maintain to this day that Scott Hall got the bum deal of all bum deals in his career, since out of the three of them, he alone never became a world champion. Yet he was the only one who could have introduced the concept and been taken seriously. He had indefinable charisma, trapped in a vaguely foreign package that was just strange enough to be cool. Most wrestlers who aren’t outright Americans are relegated to jobbers for the biggest stars. Hall never became that. He also never became anything else.

Anyway, Hall set up the WCW debut (or rather, return of) Nash, so that Nash could finally just be himself and be taken seriously (I still can’t understand how the company had found it so easy to ignore his upside years earlier, when Shawn Michaels saw it so clearly from the other side of the pond), and in turn allow Hogan to become relevant again by completely inverting his appeal. He didn’t become a better wrestler, it’s true, but it’s almost as if allowing fans to hate him made everyone forget that he was using the same tactics, the same basic charisma, to prove the same point. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself again.

The formation of the New World Order completely transformed WCW. Beyond Ric Flair only one man truly symbolized the company as it had been before Hogan’s arrival, and that was Sting, and he’d never meant anything in relation to Hogan for two years, and now suddenly, someone seemed to realize that if there was anything that was the complete opposite of Hogan, who blatantly went after the approval of the crowd, it was Sting, who had once been built up as the next generation, and evolution of the Ric Flair archetype. It’s why he didn’t go by Steve Borden, and why he wore paint on his face. But that wasn’t enough in the world of Hulk Hogan. To be the opposite of Hogan, he had to truly be too cool for school, as it were (I swear, that terminology would have been relevant in 1996). Instead of continuing to wrestle, in fact, Sting abandoned the ring for more than a year. And became more popular.

Sure, he changed his look, became more mysterious, less predictable. But the main thing was, while nWo ran wild (as it were), Sting did anything but. He stayed back, looked on from the rafters. One of the most popular wrestlers of that period never even wrestled. While Hogan (in reverse) continued to appeal to the crowd by the same tactics (via different methods) as usual, Sting beckoned for their approval by doing nothing more than looking on in disapproval. He had, in essence, become one with them. He was, as the story went, disgusted, not only with Hogan and his gang, but with the company in general, which had failed to trust him (there’s an excellent War Games match from 1996 that illustrates this whole arc, and has been included in multiple WWE DVDs, which I will reference again later in the Jabroni Companion).

It’s exactly the opposite, too, of what would make Steve Austin so popular, because of all the things the nWo did, it flaunted authority more than it challenged it. A lot of people, though, started to care about WCW precisely because of the nWo, whether because of Sting or alongside him. From the early months of 1996 most of the group remained Hogan, Hall, and Nash, but slowly grew to include many other members, and it’s said that adding to this select group diluted it, but that wasn’t how it originally played. The greater its influence grew, the greater the menace of the nWo grew. It was unlike anything wrestling had seen before. The whole idea of Hall and Nash’s introduction as the Outsiders was that they secretly represented a war between WCW and WWE. It was, in the imagination of the fans, what the later WCW/ECW Invasion was supposed to look like, a whole new company not just challenging but dominating the status quo.

Sting abandoned his allies. Ric Flair was humiliated. The Giant swapped sides (several times). Randy Savage eventually decided, if you can’t beat them, join them. Lex Luger put up a valiant effort, and was actually the first wrestler to defeat Hogan for the strap during the war. But it simply wasn’t enough. 1997 was much like 1996, except nWo was now a way of life. At the end of the year, Sting finally staged his return, and his clash with Hogan at Starrcade was dubbed the match of the century. Austin never had anything like that. Still, the idea of the match was different from the reality of the match, and in reality, Sting was not exactly the Ultimate Warrior (you can do some research and discovery the irony of that statement for yourself). He had done everything he could do. WCW had done everything it could do. But the simple fact was, Sting meant more as an idea than he did as a wrestler at this point. He won the battle (twice), but couldn’t win the war. Wrestling craves, in the end, a lot more than a silent warrior. That’s why Hogan and the nWo were back to dominating before long.

It was okay, too, since there was another warrior on the horizon, by the name of Bill Goldberg. By the time Sting was preparing for his comeback, Goldberg was building a different kind of mystique, not by presence alone, but in the ring. He was a different kind of transcendent star, much as Hogan had been, much as Austin had now become in WWE. He was the rare star who could captivate an audience simply by his performance, not with a lot of fancy tricks, the way Ric Flair would, but by convincing dominance. He truly seemed unstoppable.

By the summer of 1998, two years after the formation of the New World Order, Goldberg was ready for his moment. Roddy Piper had tried already (no, really). Sting had tried. This time it was Goldberg’s chance. He did it on TV. That’s all he needed. The idea of Goldberg alone demanded it. He got the job done with very little fanfare, again, another opposite, the reverse of how Sting had accomplished it. Incredibly, Hogan and the nWo kept chugging along during Goldberg’s whole reign. Part of the reason was that “Diamond” Dallas Page had reached a point where he was a viable contender, a worthy adversary, in ways that Goldberg couldn’t be. DDP could do all the nonsense that Goldberg couldn’t, appear in mixed matches with celebrities. In fact, Goldberg’s biggest world title match during his reign wasn’t against an nWo opponent, but against DDP.

Of course, he didn’t lose the title to Page. Goldberg didn’t lose matches. Although Hogan was no longer a viable contender for “Da Man,” there remained one other foe in the nWo fold who was, Kevin Nash. This was the beginning of the end for Goldberg’s popularity, when he was forced into a position that didn’t suit his character, when he was forced to face the regular realities of other wrestlers (much as had felled Hogan years earlier), when he was forced to become just like everyone else. Make him seem less special and he becomes just another man. Nash defeats Goldberg, nWo takes over again. Goldberg is forced to compete just like anyone else, to prove himself again, and the bullies once again dominate.

The story of the nWo doesn’t get better than that. There are no more glorious chapters, at least in WCW. Jeff Jarrett eventually forms nWo 2000, a version that is only relevant for bringing Jarrett to the main event level for the first time (in hindsight, if not a highlight of the nWo legacy, still incredibly significant in wrestling lore). The group, if not outright disbanding, finally fades. Without a true challenge, whether the intangible threat of Sting, or the awesome power of Goldberg, this ultimate version of the heel means nothing. Still, the idea of the nWo remains. When Vince McMahon conjures the boogeyman (no, not that one) years later, it comes in the form of Hall, Nash, and Hogan. 2002 is not exactly 1996, but the idea of these big names coming at opponents all at the same time is much the same. The only problem is, there are too many targets. Austin and The Rock together are more than even Sting and Goldberg coming at you at the same time. They have charisma to spare. They’re more than just wrestlers. They transcend the ring exactly in the same way the nWo does. So what happens is, this war becomes more about Hogan than his band, more about the epic clash with The Rock, and that brings the nWo right back to where it started. Originally, it brought star power to WCW. Now, it brings star power back to Hogan, if only for a little while. He’s older now, less capable of fulfilling the routine demands of the crowd. (No wonder his presence now means virtually nothing to TNA. He couldn’t surprise the fans even if he wanted to.)

The New World Order, when you strip it down to its component parts, seems very familiar. A group of wrestlers united for a common cause. But it’s the intangible that makes the difference. Bigger than the sum of its parts, but still dependent on those parts, with the intrinsic need for something to work off of, and blessed three times with exactly that. It always gets the job done. It motivates the fans. That’s what it’s all about.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Jabroni Companion #30

Splitting off into the diverse legacy of ECW now…

Subject 58: CM Punk

I suggested months ago that it’d be interesting to see where Punk had gotten to after his summer revival, and now he’s competing at Survivor Series for his latest WWE championship opportunity, having become a fixture of the main event scene.

Punk’s journey began with Ring of Honor, where he was an acknowledged attraction who was probably Samoa Joe’s biggest rival, but that feud didn’t lead directly into his first world title. For whatever reason, Joe dropped the title to Austin Aries, who held it for half a year, and only then did Punk capture the belt, holding it for a couple months during the summer of 2005 (before dropping it to James Gibson, otherwise known as Jamie Noble).

Punk resurfaced for WWE’s ECW in 2006, quickly emerging as a fan favorite for a brand that tried to combine veterans with emerging stars (almost a precursor to NXT in some respects). Many expected that Punk would become champion before long, but Rob Van Dam dropped the ECW title to Big Show, who eventually lost it to Bobby Lashley, and then the intended switch to Chris Benoit was interrupted by tragedy, and at Night of Champions in June of 2007, John Morrison defeated Punk to capture the vacant championship.

Throughout the summer, Punk and Morrison battled over the title. The fans who’d been eager for months to see Punk represent ECW as champion became restless and lost interest, even when Punk finally emerged victorious in September, setting off a long reign that included PPV defenses, including the improbable fan-selected challenger of The Miz at Cyber Sunday (which led to a three-way dance at that year’s Survivor Series along with Morrison, and was probably the reason Miz and Morrison became a tag team). When Chavo Guerrero beat Punk for the title early in 2008, it opened the door for him to win Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 24, switch to Raw, cash in the briefcase against Edge, and capture his first World championship.

Some observers were unhappy that Punk’s method for success was exactly the same as how Edge himself had done it in 2006 (and again in 2007) (though the pattern has since proven that everyone except RVD and likely Daniel Bryan will handle their guaranteed contract in this manner), stealing the victory and title from an incapacitated opponent. PPV title defenses against Batista and JBL followed, before a combination of Randy Orton and Chris Jericho ended the run at Unforgiven.

Punk again won Money in the Bank, at WrestleMania 25 in 2009, which led to PPV battles against Kane and Umaga, and then cashing in against Jeff Hardy (who had just captured the World title) at Extreme Rules following the main event. Their feud continued for months, with Hardy winning the title back at Night of Champions, and then Punk once more reclaiming it in a sensational TLC match to main event Summer Slam.

As champion on Smackdown, Punk didn’t necessarily have a storyline. He defeated Undertaker in worked controversial fashion at Breaking Point, but lost to him (and lost the title) in a Hell in a Cell match in the PPV of the same name. He began forming his Straight Edge Society, building on the cult of personality he’d developed in the feud against Hardy, and this led to a prominent match against Rey Mysterio at WrestleMania 26 in 2010, a protracted feud, and then another war, this time with Big Show, which spanned Summer Slam and Night of Champions.

The SES imploded in time, and Punk, after a successful tenure as color commentator on Raw, assumed leadership of the Nexus from Wade Barrett in the early weeks of 2011, initiating feuds with John Cena and Randy Orton, which led to a match with Orton at WrestleMania XXVII. It wasn’t until his WWE contract was expiring that Punk truly seemed to become inspired, however, bragging that he would defeat Cena at Money in the Bank (now a PPV), capture the WWE title (for the first time) and then gracefully disappear (as champion), angry that the politics of the company had so often kept him down (you could actually argue that throughout his career, whether in ROH, ECW, or WWE, he was never seen by the front desk as someone the fans would rally around).

As you may be aware, Punk did win at Money in the Bank, much to the surprise of WWE, which had counted on an Alberto Del Rio program against Cena in the closing months of the summer, and so all three were folded into a single program, until we’ve reached this point, where Punk and Del Rio will meet for the WWE title at Survivor Series. Win, lose or draw, CM Punk has now solidified himself as one of the top names in the company, and in the wrestling world as a whole, someone even TNA would take seriously (did you know, for instance, that he worked for them in their early days?), and will probably permanently reside in the main event scene.

Subject 59: Christian.

Emerging onto the world scene as Edge’s tag team partner in 1998, Christian was a key component of WWE programming through 2005, when he grew dissatisfied with his lack of career progress, and decided to make the jump to TNA, where he was almost immediately crowned a world champion, which led to his crowning and extended run as ECW champion upon his WWE return in 2009, and finally string of World title victories in 2011.

Edge had been primed to compete as WWE’s newest sensation upon his debut, but he almost immediately paired with Canadian friend Christian, who was booked as his brother, and together the two became one of the most prominent aspects of the company’s tag team boom in the Attitude Era, even though much of their early work was as members of Gangrel’s Brood or Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness. It wasn’t until the Hardy Boys emerged in the fall of 1999 that Edge & Christian truly broke out, especially after the acquisition of the Dudley Boys in early 2000, which led to all three teams making history at WrestleMania 2000, and then over and over again as they established the TLC (tables, ladders and chairs) style that punctuated the new millennium.

By 2001, Edge once more transitioned into a solo career, which might have been a bad thing for Christian (traditionally, only one member of a successful tag team goes on to enjoy singles success), but he capitalized on these expectations by becoming a petulant heel, competing against Edge during the Alliance angle over the Intercontinental championship, and against “Diamond” Dallas Page for the European championship at WrestleMania X8 in 2002.

While his prominence as a competitor struggled to form, Christian began working on his persona, which was given a big push when Steve Austin began referring to him as a “creepy little bastard,” or CLB. He started referring to his fans as “Peeps,” and formed a working relationship with Chris Jericho. He was a key player in the revival of the Intercontinental championship in 2003, but his greatest moment came at WrestleMania XX, when his secret alliance with Trish Stratus at the end of an epic match against Jericho, which led to a feud that stretched throughout 2004, in which he gained a key ally in Travis Tomko.

Still, like Jericho WWE seemed to lose interest in Christian by 2005. Where Jericho chose to take a sabbatical, Christian made the jump to TNA, debuting at Genesis on 11/13/05, the same day fans learned of the death of Eddie Guerrero. Christian marked the occasion with an emphatic in-ring promo. He became a world champion for the first time at Against All Odds in 2006, defeating Jeff Jarrett, holding the title for four months before dropping it back to Jarrett at Slammiversary. He recaptured the title at Final Resolution in 2007, after the much-touted acquisition of Kurt Angle, and defeated his fellow WWE alum at Against All Odds. Tomko resurfaced as one of Christian’s allies during this time, though it wasn’t quite enough; Angle finally beat Christian in a five-man “King of the Mountain” match at that year’s Slammiversary, snapping a near-six-month reign. He remained a featured member of the TNA roster, until he made his WWE return in 2009.

Many fans expected Christian to be revealed as Jeff Hardy’s mysterious assailant (actually revealed to be Jeff’s brother, Matt), but he instead debuted as part of ECW’s roster. He competed in Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 25, and then defeated Jack Swagger to become ECW champion at Backlash. After a program that saw Tommy Dreamer finally hold the title for more than a few minutes, Christian regained the ECW belt at Night of Champions, and holding it until ECW folded in 2010, dropping it on the brand’s final show to Ezekiel Jackson.

In the closing months of 2010, Christian became one of Alberto Del Rio’s first WWE rivals, a position that led to a lucrative opportunity in 2011, after Del Rio had feuded with Edge, whose retirement left a power vacuum on Smackdown. Christian quickly took advantage, defeating Del Rio for the World title and entering into a feud with Randy Orton that continued for much of the year. Clearly, success in TNA was something Christian relished, but prominence in WWE was probably all the more sweet for “Captain Charisma.”

Subject 60: RVD

Rob Van Dam was the AJ Styles of the original ECW, but only ever achieved championship success with the TV title. He was the biggest winner in the 2001 Invasion angle in WWE, capturing an incredibly high profile as a member of the Alliance, where he became a rival to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, encouraging fans to believe that he would become a regular member of the main event scene, something he flirted with for the next two years before settling into a more utilitarian role. Pro Wrestling Illustrated was so energized that the magazine made him their top star in the 2002 PWI 500 despite having failed to capture a world title, not just during their grading period, but in his professional career at any time to that point.

RVD won Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 22 in 2006, and famously called his shot for ECW One Night Stand three months later, in front of a hometown crowd, who heavily favored him over John Cena. He was considered both WWE and ECW champion at that point, since WWE had just decided to launch a full-time ECW brand. RVD lent instant credibility to the experiment. Unfortunately, this particular phase of the experiment ended fairly quickly, with Edge defeating RVD for the WWE title and Big Show capturing the ECW soon after RVW was caught driving under the influence.

Incredibly, he stuck around WWE for about another year, long enough to help represent the ECW Originals at WrestleMania 23 in 2007 and defeating Randy Orton at One Night Stand, and then going on an extended sabbatical.

He was one of several stars to show up for the dawn of the Hulk Hogan era in TNA at the start of 2010, and ended AJ Styles’ lengthy run as world champion at Sacrifice, holding onto the title through the Hardcore Justice PPV that saw another ECW revival, then being forced to relinquish it in October. It was a return that seemed out of nowhere, but fans were happy to discover that he’d hardly missed a beat. Though he seemed to have finally achieved all his goals in WWE and then just as quickly burn away his prospects, RVD came back as a fan favorite in TNA and a world champion, finally fulfilling his potential.

Subject 61: Team 3D.

One of the most prominent, if not the most dominant, tag teams of the modern era, Bubba Ray and Devon Dudley debuted as just another couple of members in the eccentric Dudley family in ECW. It wasn’t until they debuted in WWE and started putting everyone through tables that they put the whole world on notice.

Without the perfect rivals in Edge & Christian and the Hardy Boys, it’s still doubtful that the Dudleys would have gained that reputation. In matches that went well beyond expectations, they were able to showcase their unique style, one that transcended their ECW origins, where the hardcore style was commonplace, demonstrating their ability to work against diverse opponents. The 2002 brand extension split them apart for the first time, but by 2004 they were reunited and served as one of Eddie Guerrero’s toughest challenges as WWE champion, and even proving difficult for Undertaker to handle.

All that would have been well and good, but the Dudleys made the jump to TNA in 2005, competing at the same Genesis PPV where Christian announced his arrival, renaming themselves Team 3D and further adding to their impressive tag team championship tally. In 2010 their ride came to an end at Turning Point when they failed to defeat the Motor City Machine Guns, and Bubba transformed himself into Bully Ray, rejecting Devon and ultimately becoming a key member of the Immortal stable.

In an era where even prominent and highly successful tag team combinations are temporary and last only a few years at most, Team 3D was not only the exception, but a cornerstone of the division in three different promotions. It’s unlikely their likes will be seen again anytime soon.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jabroni Companion #29

The wrestler many consider the best of all-time doesn’t need much of an introduction except to say: Woooo!

LVII. Ric Flair

The “Nature Boy” has been a wrestling institution since the 1970s. He won his first world heavyweight title in 1981 with the NWA, and famously (pretty much) retired at WrestleMania 24 in 2008. He wasn’t the first “Nature Boy” (that would be Buddy Rogers, who was also the first WWE champion), but Ric Flair became known as the standard of excellence in the ring, and also for “stylin’ and profilin’,” on his own and with the Four Horsemen and Evolution, contemporaries and successors.

He happened to break his back early in his career, too, but that didn’t stop him.

As the legend goes, Flair was all set to assume a completely different legacy when he was encouraged to adopt his own, and by claiming the tag “Nature Boy,” his natural wrestling ability and personal outspoken charisma quickly shot him to the top, first in NWA and then in WCW, helping mark the transition for one of the sports’ most cherished traditions into one of the modern era’s defining promotions. During the 1980s, with the help of Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, Sting, and others, he provided the counterargument to Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan’s WWE, the idea of supersized bodies representing the popular idea of wrestling. He’s the only wrestler WWE ever brought in from a competitor and allowed them to keep their reputation and momentum, in the glorious period between 1991 and 1992. He returned in triumph to WCW and continued his championship dominance. In 1996, he took a backseat to the New World Order, perhaps the successor to the Four Horsemen, but persevered despite great internal opposition, returned to the spotlight, ate another helping of humble pie, watched the death of WCW unfold, and then be welcomed into the WWE fold on his own terms, even if he didn’t understand them at the time.

Ric Flair became a legend very quickly, not just another dependable star that would become the face of a promotion and lay claim to the main event scene, but someone who constantly worked with every emerging face, the wrestler who could always be turned to and be capable of providing compelling action. He amassed a record number of world championships and survived upheavals and changing demographics. He lived the good life (and continues to pay for it) and constantly struggled with an ego that would have been buried if it had come from any other time and from any other man. He is the pattern for the modern champion. Anyone who holds a title for longer than a few months at a time isn’t considered respectable. They’re considered phony, manufactured. It’s enough to be considered competitive, crafty, noteworthy, the three tenets of Ric Flair’s career, the signs that you’re willing to spread the wealth around.

Competitive is what Flair was all about. He knew the business of wrestling inside and out, knew how to manage himself in the ring, against the opponent, off the reaction of the crowd, and had developed predictable but spontaneous moments in every match. If he couldn’t win by superiority, he won by sheer force of will, or by cheating (the “dirtiest player in the game”). Most times by cheating, which is strange, because he made his name by being the most respected wrestler of his generation (a conundrum only Eddie Guerrero was able to duplicate).

Crafty, yes, because he wasn’t just competitive, he knew every way out, not just the cheap way, but the true heel’s craft. He could wrestle hour-long matches, sure, probably better than anyone, probably the last guy to make his reputation that way, outside of the PPV spotlight, but the art of wrestling isn’t just about holds, about maneuvers, but all the things in-between, and every way to influence the outcome of a match that doesn’t strictly involve the rulebook.

Noteworthy because he knew that promoters love the guys who can put themselves over; Ric Flair was among the great stick men. It’s not even that the fans necessarily care that much, if they really think about it, whether or not a guy can talk. Superstar Billy Graham and Dusty Rhodes had exactly the same abilities in that regard, but the “American Dream” built a career out of his gift of gab, while Graham was always dismissed as a muscle guy (as he has sometimes been considered recently, years ahead of his time). Graham was a lot more old-fashioned as a wrestler, though, while Rhodes had figured out the formula the 1970s were popularizing, the one Ric Flair mastered. By the 1980s, everyone had to talk in order to make an impact on nationwide TV; what we consider to be of vital importance today is actually less important, more of a necessity than anything, had already been played out by the end of the 1990s and the Attitude Era, when The Rock and Steve Austin took it to unapproachable heights. Where Vince McMahon now prefers realism, to compete with no-nonsense MMA, someone like Ric Flair would now seem like an anachronism. But at the times, Flair was the best in the business, having studied his predecessors, not just Buddy Rogers but the flamboyant Gorgeous George, and he knew it. “Woooo!” was just the icing on the cake.

“To be the man, you have to beat the man.” Flair might have seen the writing on the wall when he made his first trip to WWE. WWE itself knew how to handle him, but its biggest star, Hulk Hogan, didn’t. It was believed that the two biggest stars of the 1980s couldn’t provide the blockbuster feud of the 1990s, and so Flair spent most of his time in cards with Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, and Bret Hart, which probably worked extremely well for all involved, but still suggested that Flair was not considered to be at the same level of Hogan, when it came down to it. They would engage in a protracted rivalry in WCW, but when it really counted, when everyone had been expecting it, it never happened. Flair’s mastery of professional wrestling, in the end, only went so far. It wasn’t just that the years were starting to pile up, but from that moment onward, Ric Flair was no longer considered the unchallenged rightful heir to the main event.

By the end of WCW, he was probably only about sixty percent of what he had once been. His importance to wrestling, despite how he’d been treated in recent years, warranted a bigger percentage, but his confidence was shot. By the time he came back in 2001 as a thorn in the side of Vince McMahon, he needed every boost of confidence possible to believe that he could still perform where it really counted, in the ring. It wasn’t until Triple H formed Evolution that the old “Nature Boy” truly returned. He was a supporting player throughout the existence of the united stable, but by the end, he was seen as someone who could battle Triple H himself and appear competitive, even though he was now well past his prime. By the time he fought Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24, everyone knew the end had finally been reached. As he had depended on since the 1980s, Flair relied on the support of fans who had witnessed a remarkable legacy for decades to put on one last great match.

That’s the real story of Ric Flair, getting the fans behind you, despite every obstacle, despite your best and worst impulses, and keeping them there, not just for months or years but decades, so that they cheer for you in a match like that. Bruno Sammartino had a brilliant decade, and probably could have had another one, but he fell out of love with wrestling, gave up when things changed. Lou Thesz had six NWA world title runs between 1937 and 1966. Thesz is someone whose influence long outlasted him. Sammartino is on the verge of being forgotten. Ric Flair’s accomplishments will probably last as long as professional wrestling exists.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Jabroni Companion #28

One of those truly nasty and subjective concepts for a wrestling fan would definitely be:

LVI. Wrestlers with potential

Everyone has an opinion, and every wrestler has potential, so I’ll need to illustrate this one very carefully, with a selection of eight candidates.

D’Angelo Dinero begins this group. Currently a member of the TNA roster who had a significantly more important 2010 than 2011, he’s a poster child for potential. Originally competing under the name Elijah Burke, he rose to prominence in WWE under its ECW brand, though his first appearances were on Smackdown as an associate of Sylvester Terkay. Terkay was supposed to be the hot prospect, but he disappeared quickly, and Burke’s own journey got underway. He was more than competent in the ring, but what got him noticed was his showmanship. For whatever reason, WWE chose not to retain him, and he resurfaced in TNA as the “Pope” and was quickly identified as a rising star, frequently competing in tournaments to determine the top contender for the world title. His big chance came at Lockdown in April of 2010, in which he failed to defeat AJ Styles. For many fans, it’s the ability to be dynamic and creative as a personality that sets a wrestler apart, and Dinero quickly proved he was able to do that. Ironically, if anything it was his wrestling style that got in his way in TNA, whereas as a complete package he would probably now have succeeded better in WWE. If anyone is able to figure out how to use him, Dinero has the potential to be one of the top stars in professional wrestling. I had a chance to see him live in 2008 at a taping for Smackdown and ECW, and he was easily the most impressive performer that night. At least for me, that’s all I need to know about his potential.

Jack Swagger is a former world champion in WWE, but that seems like a lifetime ago at this point, and so he falls into the category of potential. Swagger was a hot commodity before WWE acquired him for its ECW brand in 2008, and quickly became champion there, a move that took many by surprise, but clearly potential is exactly what the company saw. He was still a surprise winner of Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 26, and his defeat of Chris Jericho a few weeks later to capture the world heavyweight champion introduced an entirely new face to the main event. Many observers like to comment on his lisp, but Swagger immediately proved that if given the chance he could present a notable presence as champion. His opponents during this time were all existing main event figures, including Randy Orton and Rey Mysterio, who eventually beat him for the title. While he could make a credible champion, Swagger wasn’t given an opportunity to present a particular presence as one. On losing the title he slipped below the status he’d had before the run, and didn’t resurface until Michael Cole needed someone to support his wrestling delusions prior to this year’s WrestleMania. Suddenly Swagger meant something again, a little more generic a heel than before, while he worked to improve his performance in the ring. Some claim he’s become a rip-off of Kurt Angle, but that’s like saying Chris Benoit was exactly like the Dynamite Kid. Given a chance to truly flourish, Swagger could fulfill the potential WWE saw in him, and the promise that his first world title suggested.

Dolph Ziggler began his career in WWE as a member of the Spirit Squad, and that’s probably why he had to be so obnoxious about his new Ziggler persona when he came back repackaged. When I first saw him in action, I thought he had immediate star power, the ability to present himself in the ring with exceptional flare. So far, WWE has been extremely cautious about how far it can push him; since his skills on a microphone have not always been obvious, he’s spent a great deal of time with Vickie Guerrero as his manager and voice, but recently has displayed the ability to represent himself with the same kind of confidence his wrestling suggests. It’s not hard to see that WWE has always seen a great deal of potential in him, and that it has slowly but steadily been grooming him for greater things. That pace may work in his favor, but it might also hinder his progress, as fans become comfortable with him in a supporting rather than main event role. Time will tell.

Alberto Del Rio is someone WWE obviously saw a huge amount of potential in, straight from his days in the Mexican scene, and pushed him accordingly, right from the start. He’s a WWE champion several times over, so it seems a little strange to still be talking about him in terms of potential, but what I mean to say is that his potential hasn’t been tapped. In the short-term, he has proved to be what WWE hoped he’d be, someone they could plug almost immediately into the main event scene. It’s the fans who will ultimately determine whether or not he’ll stay there. What I mean to say, then, is that I believe Del Rio really does have what it takes to win over the fans, that he will be able to stay in the main event scene for a long time to come.

Sheamus is another former heavyweight champion, and so again it seems a little strange to see him with the label of “potential.” His surprise win over John Cena for the WWE title at TLC in 2009 thrust him into the main event scene, and for the most part he’s been able to remain in it, even having return engagements with the title, but it’s hard to say that he has truly been welcomed onto the top of the card. He’s someone who to this point has made a credible insertion in a main event, but not a superstar WWE has felt comfortable working a real angle around, and that is how I’d define true success, the real fulfillment of potential. He’s probably closer than anyone else I’ve talked about so far, however.

Cody Rhodes has made a great deal of progress in 2011 establishing himself as a second-generation star in WWE, with the plastic mask seemingly transforming him from a generic heel to a psychotic and unpredictable fiend, the likes of which his one-time mentor Randy Orton needed a lot more gimmicks to attain in a relatively shorter period of time. For someone who had a lot of encouragement from WWE bookers for an extended period of time, whether on his own, as part of Legacy, or even directly afterward, Rhodes seemed to be going nowhere fast. He might have gone down as the slimmest Rhodes, but the one who completely spoiled any concept of potential. Well, now he’s making up for lost time.

Daniel Bryan is a true underdog. The “American Dragon” made his name in Ring of Honor under his given name, Bryan Danielson, and established himself as one of the best pure wrestlers in the world, but even then, rarely received the respect he was due, spending more than a year as ROH heavyweight champion but receiving far less hype than Samoa Joe in the process. As the most famous member of the original NXT line-up, he was paired with Chris Jericho and once again everyone expected the world from him, and even though he was constantly featured as the most accomplished competitor, when he didn’t win, fans once again felt ready to abandon him. Then the Nexus angle began, he was actually released after a questionable decision in the ring, and once again became a minor indy darling. Then he made his big WWE return at Summer Slam, and got a monster push for the next several months, but again, fans were still not pleased. Daniel Bryan is someone who has time and again overcome the concept of “potential,” and he’s proven it to both ROH and WWE, but the fans seem almost dead-set against him actually receiving it. Winner of Smackdown’s 2011 Money in the Bank contract , he may be approaching his definitive moment of truth, and the fans will finally have to decide if they decide to support him as wrestling’s next big technical superstar.

Whether you know him as ROH’s Nigel McGuinness or TNA’s Desmond Wolfe, the eighth member of my posse of potential is probably the biggest underdog. He’s another ROH champion who held the title for more than a year, while in TNA and after a huge 2009 debut where he took Kurt Angle to the limit, he quickly slipped back below the surface of the average fan’s notice, and is only now working on a comeback (where he could conceivably push ROH forward in the new Sinclair era). He’s got confidence on the microphone and tremendous ability in the ring, he just needs other to believe in his potential. That’s what it’s all about.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jabroni Companion #27

I hate to break it to The Miz and R-Truth, but they have a pretty recent example to prove that their latest bid for relevance may be more short-lived than they currently imagine. They may think “making a statement” by beating up other wrestlers will help their careers, but my next subject would probably beg to differ:

LV. The Nexus

Now, hopefully, I shouldn’t have to explain what exactly the Nexus was, but just in case, it was a direct product of the first season of WWE’s NXT program, which aims to short-cut introductions to developmental talent (sometimes the inclusion of someone like Daniel Bryan will leave fans scratching their heads).

Let me just make a digression about the NXT strategy. I think it’s a little bit of backwards thinking. NXT is basically exactly the opposite of what WWE typically does, and demands of its talent. It’s a program that provides potential new talent for the regular rosters of the Raw and Smackdown brands a chance to expose themselves to fans in a soft setting, not demanding too much of them except to simply showcase their current capabilities. In essence, it’s a professional version of Tough Enough (which only complicated things when Tough Enough itself returned). Maybe NXT was a result of WWE having a hard time introducing new stars the old way, but I’m not sure it’s been entirely successful, even with the Nexus angle that followed its inception (to its credit, WWE may have finally realized that).

Typically, you’ll see a new star in what’s supposed to be a finished or near-finished form, a wrestler who’s already supposed to know how to handle themselves on the grand stage, or will be able to quickly refine themselves (or gradually see their exposure and prospects diminished). What NXT did was expose wrestlers in their basic ingredients, in their developmental phases, whether they were really at that point or otherwise (Daniel Bryan). It is and was a curious experiment.

Anyway, from that first season of NXT came the angry band of the Nexus, which quickly focused on the central figure of Wade Barrett, winner of the first season and most capable of expressing himself in a WWE-caliber capacity. That was all well and good. The Nexus made a bold impact and spent months emphasizing their unique position as rookies who immediately wanted their piece of the pie, and chose John Cena as their biggest target. This was both a good and a bad thing, because they would either get what they wanted or be vanquished and consigned back to relative obscurity. Barrett had feuds with Cena and then-WWE champion Randy Orton, and it was interesting to watch because he came from a position of strength defined almost exclusively by the numbers game. On his own he might have excelled just as far, but he constantly had the Nexus around him to explain how and why he was in that spot. In fact, without the others, none of the Nexus really meant anything.

It was a unique way to introduce new stars, but it also stunted their growth considerably, and the longer it went on, the more it fed itself at the expense of itself. When Cena finally got the big win over Barrett, the question became, What comes next? Faced with failure, change was inevitable. Barrett departed with a small faction to Smackdown and transformed into the Corre. CM Punk laid claim to the remnants and basically repeated his strategy from the Straight Edge Society. As a movement in WWE, the Nexus came to a head at the 2011 Royal Rumble, in which both factions dominated for much of the 40-man elimination match. Once dispatched, however, that was the end of the group’s effectiveness, in any form.

Faced without individual identities, the members of the Nexus soon found that they were no longer stars, even Wade Barrett, who had been such a visible presence for months, challenging the top names on Raw and WWE in general. Now they would have to sink or swim on their own. Original members were released or forgotten, stuck in tag team wrestling, or asked to develop other potential stars. The Nexus, once it had been defeated, dissipated and lost all its power. Subsequent NXT graduates more often than not opted not to participate.

Barrett remains a viable presence, though he has to fight for himself much more often now, and finds it difficult to distinguish himself, now that he lacks a de facto position of influence. Maybe that’s exactly the way most stars end up once they join the WWE roster; they’re given a chance to shine, and either make it work in the first attempt, or are given others down the road, which they must fight all the harder to maintain.

The Nexus, then, would be an outsized version of the journey every superstar faces. Maybe that example is something other graduates of NXT are meant to exceed, to build on, to learn from. Maybe the best is yet to come.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jabroni Companion #26

I’m going to enjoy this next one, because he’s not a wrestler who’s gotten a ton of respect from the fans, not the ones who should have known better, not from fans in general, but he was definitely good at provoking a reaction. I’m talking about:

LIV. John Bradshaw Layfield

Colloquially (never thought you’d see that word in conjunction with professional wrestling, did you?) known as JBL, at least starting in 2004 (and better known previously simply as Bradshaw), the self-proclaimed “Wrestling God” first came to prominence (or tried to) as the psychotic cowboy Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, transitioned into the New Blackjacks (rocking a mustache), and was absorbed into the Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness with Ron Simmons as the Acolytes, which soon enough became known as the Acolytes Protection Agency (the APA), better known for holding down a poker table with cigars and beer than their ring work (though his “Clothesline from Hell” was quickly established as midcard legendary).

Anyway, John was a minor attraction (if that) for years, a WWE mainstay who started breaking out of the pack (tentatively) in 2003 as part of the Smackdown brand. When Brock Lesnar unexpectedly quit the company early in 2004, it opened up a crucial spot in the brand. Ron Simmons went quietly into retirement, Bradshaw started becoming a braggart, starting referring to himself as JBL, picked on champion Eddie Guerrero, and actually defeated him for the title two months later.

No one really took it seriously. Some people were amused by the fresh face in the main event, many were baffled, and it was assumed that the JBL experiment would end quickly. John himself would have been the first to admit that he wasn’t necessarily at the peak of his in-ring prowess, but as a talker, he was virtually untouchable (that’s no doubt what really won him the spot). I was in awe from the moment the transition was made. I was a big Guerrero fan (still am, obviously), would have loved to see him remain champion at least as long as the late Chris Benoit at the time, but JBL was gold.

It didn’t hurt that Eddie had a fallback feud with Kurt Angle that kept getting interwoven with the JBL era in its early months. Angle was resting up at the time, spending his on-air role as Smackdown’s general manager, and proudly supporting John as a “Great American.” John Cena was supposed to be the next big Smackdown star, and I was a big fan of his, too, but he seemed to do just fine with the United States championship, biding his time until the next WrestleMania (the first of the many times Cena left fans unimpressed, unjustifiably).

Anyway, JBL kept the title. Undertaker was returning to the “Deadman” gimmick, and was his next big opponent. Undertaker was no longer as comfortable, at least at that time, in that particular role, and so it was quite easy for me to continue to root for JBL. JBL kept winning, all throughout 2004. He kept winning in 2005, too, at least until the big WrestleMania match with John Cena. After one more match, he basically disappeared.

His in-ring career resurfaced in 2006 when he picked on Rey Mysterio. He served as a perfectly awesome color commentator (“when the lights are on bright”) for Smackdown. He spent some time away, resurfaced at the end of 2007, coinciding with the return of Chris Jericho, and began an improbable comeback. It didn’t last too long, really. But he was still a “Wrestling God.”

Honestly, the man who is also a financial analyst is probably the best thing to happen to wrestling in the past ten years, and hardly anyone will ever admit it. A lot of people dismissed the JBL character as a “Million Dollar Man” knockoff, but he was more politician (with many promos making that blatantly obvious, as well as the eventual addition of his Cabinet with “Chief of Staff” Orlando Jordan and “Co-Secretaries of Defense” the Basham Brothers), a prescient image in an era somewhat besotted with the image of the politician (admittedly somewhat dubious these days).

But really, his stick skills were beyond awesome. Lots of people can play cocky, but few can pull it off quite like John Bradshaw Layfield. He looks pretty much as clumsy as an ox in the ring (but can still pull off a mean power presence), but life without JBL is always a little more dull than it should be, especially when everyone knows JBL is still around, is still capable of being a blowhard. It’s a shame fans aren’t begging him to come back and be just that. He could teach plenty of students in that blessed art. Who wouldn’t want to see Layfield’s Disciples yapping away in the ring?

This message has been approved by JBL.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Jabroni Companion #25

Our trio of themed pieces concludes with:

LIII. Specialty Matches

Wrestling fans of the modern era might be scratching their heads, because “specialty matches” has almost been replaced by “specialty PPVs,” in that both TNA and WWE have taken to crafting entire PPV events around certain types of specialty matches.

But for the record, “specialty matches” refers to cage matches, ladder matches, Texas bullrope matches, Hell in the Cell, Elimination Chamber, elimination matches, no disqualification matches, time-limit matches, ambulance matches, on and on, otherwise known as gimmick matches, any time a match is conducted under anything but ordinary rules, where pinfalls and submissions are not the only things to keep in mind.

In previous eras, these matches would be the big blow off for a hot feud, the way to say, “This is the only way these two wrestlers are going to stop trying to beat each other up.” As with everything else, over time that just wasn’t good enough. To retain the attention of a wide audience these matches became more and more common. ECW built its reputation over allowing an overall hardcore style to become the norm, which in turn led to hardcore divisions in both WCW and WWE. It might even be argued that the cruiserweight division, by any other name, is basically a gimmick division, in that competitors routinely wrestle a unique, freewheeling style, not just because they’re smaller and more agile, but because they’re capable of sustaining that style over many minutes, matches, and entire careers. You’d never ask Abyss to permanently compete in TNA’s X division, but to make a point, you can feature him in a program against wrestlers who regularly do.

Anyway, gimmick matches also serve to prove how tough a wrestler is, not just in death matches, which are clearly insane, but in general. Triple H had proven himself many times over by the start of 2000, but he gained a new legitimacy by going toe-to-toe with Mick Foley in a street fight and epic Hell in a Cell encounter in the first few months of the year. Without them, it’s doubtful “The Game” would be recognizable today. Foley himself earned immortality by taking a legendary bump a few years earlier.

It doesn’t always have to be something that involves some kind of foreign object or environment, either. Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart brought the idea of an hour-long match into modern times at WrestleMania XII, when previously it had been something guys like Ric Flair did at house shows on a nightly basis, just flat-out exhibiting the best of their technical abilities for a special occasion. Long matches are one thing, but this is something else entirely, especially when you’re given an opportunity to record multiple pinfalls or submissions (something that particularly set Michaels-Hart apart, since neither recorded one until overtime). Wrestlers like Triple H, The Rock, Kurt Angle, and Brock Lesnar later demonstrated that fans liked this specialty plenty much.

WWE developed the idea of TLC (tables, ladders, and chairs) thanks to the emerging popularity of tables in the early months of the new millennium, courtesy of the Dudley Boys, whose feud with Edge & Christian and Matt & Jeff Hardy culminated, or so everyone thought, at WrestleMania 2000, which was technically a ladder match. The three teams had such great chemistry, that they reprised that match, added more elements (officially), and TLC came about, and eventually reprised at WrestleMania X-7 the next year. WWE would bring back the TLC concept several times, before making it a PPV, with various elements from that configuration either used separately or all together. Ladder matches, popularized by Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) at WrestleMania X, also gave birth to Money in the Bank and TNA’s King of the Mountain and Feast or Fired matches. Each threw several competitors into the mix for the chances of winning coveted contracts or even championships themselves. Money in the Bank, too, eventually became its own PPV.

Why bother with these matches at all? Cage matches in themselves became so routine in WWE that they rarely in themselves made it on to PPVs after a while, instead becoming almost a fixture on TV. Fans can become jaded of even the most extreme specialties (as the hardcore phenomenon proved), so it’s always a balance of providing the best and most interesting wrestling possible. A lot of fans can’t seem to be interested in even the most basic wrestling, it can sometimes seem, so there’s always some new specialty being hatched, some new gimmick, or even the tried-and-true being utilized in new and innovative ways, or used as they’ve always been. It’s part and parcel of the wrestling experience.

And here you thought wrestling was just about basic wrestling.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Jabroni Companion #24

Continuing our series of targeted topics, we now reach one every wrestler dreams of, and every fan secretly frets about:

LII. Championships

In sports entertainment, the concept of a champion is an incredibly tricky affair. Once everyone figured out that wrestling was scripted, the idea of a champion became pretty complicated. The NWA seemed incredibly eager to announce that its champions were chosen by a committee representing each of its major territories. Vince McMahon seems perfectly happy for everyone to believe his are champions of convenience, either designed to showcase the top stars, or calculated to move along a given storyline.

World champions, which can sometimes be considered heavyweight champions (but perhaps less so in the modern era) have been a staple of wrestling for more than a century, from George Hackenschmidt in 1904 to John Bradshaw Layfield in 2004. Owing to the fact that it’s very hard to appease everyone all the time, it’s always been a little difficult to determine a single, undisputed champion, not just on the world championship level, but from across the thousands of competitors at any given time, divided as they are in style, gender, weight and height, countries and languages, even permutations (it’s not all the time a tag team champion is also world champion).

Not every company competes on a global scale, naturally, so not every company can even rightly declare a world champion. So many championships have developed over the years, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of just how and why one of them should really carry any significance. The rule of thumb, as Vince McMahon will tell you, is that a championship should be given to someone who will be able to do something with it. Sometimes that means that the championship will forge a champion, and then sometimes that the champion will help define that championship. At no time is it guaranteed that either one is actually the best in that particular field, only that at that particular moment, it makes sense for the two to come together.

One of the things that really makes championships special is that they will make the wrestlers who hold them immediately involved in important matches, provided that the title is indeed on the line (this is not always the case), though any win against a champion, or a good match against them, is seen as a positive indicator. Sometimes fans will cheerfully ignore this distinction, but that’s just what fans like to do.

How many championships are too many for one company to promote? It’s too many when there’s a champion who doesn’t somehow feel special for being a champion, even in the slightest of ways. It’s too many when one of them feels redundant, when there truly seems nothing to prove or gain from its existence. No matter what that championship’s actually called (because world champions in wrestling compete just as internationally as world champions in baseball), if the idea behind it can’t properly be represented, it’s either time for reinvention, or recycling. Sometimes a good championship comes back, but it has to lay dormant for a while.

Good championships mean almost as much to a company as the wrestlers who capture them. They come to symbolize those wrestlers, the enduring legacy feeding itself, as long as that legacy is maintained, nurtured, and remembered. A championship title alone will not make or break a company’s fortunes, but if used properly it will help legitimize that company.

Fans will agonize over championships, over who has them, who’s had them many times, who may have had them too many times, those who never had them, and those who didn’t have enough time with them. Fans care more about them than they realize, and for that reason, championships are an integral part of wrestling. For all the talk that some championships have been spoiled by misuse over the years, that’s just another way of saying, the fans are obsessed with this stuff.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Jabroni Companion #23

The first of three straight weeks of specialty topics! There are so many topics to cover in professional wrestling, and I’ve only just now hit the midpoint of the Companion…So once again, less chit-chat, more discussing!

LI. Tag Teams

This is a pertinent topic these days in the sense that the particular art of tag team wrestling is probably at its lowest in decades. At the start of the millennium, there were three major promotions, and each of them had active tag team divisions, building off the momentum that still existed from the innovations of the last several decades. Eventually, thanks to the consolidation of both WCW and ECW into what became known as WWE, the wrestling scene shrank, by necessity, and the resulting landscape had less room for tag teams.

Basically, once WWE became the sole source of popular wrestling entertainment, the independent scene had to concentrate more than ever on its individual stars. Guys like Christopher Daniels and AJ Styles, who actually competed in a tag team for a brief moment in WCW, were more valuable for what they could do on their own than what they might represent in some combination. This wasn’t always the case. Families like the Briscoes (I’m talking Gerald and Jack, mind you) and the Funks, among many others, often found great success both as individuals and in combinations. Many stars even today have been known as tag team wrestlers first (and not, in typical WWE fashion these days, because they were eventually placed in that situation after having failed to capture interest on their own) and then as individual stars.

TNA’s emergence, as well as the rise of ROH, helped make it possible to broaden that landscape a little again, but aside from a few core teams putting on their own spectacles, it can’t exactly be said that there were actual tag team divisions being reborn. WWE maintained separate tag team titles for both the Raw and Smackdown brands throughout the early brand era, before realizing that it’d be easier to merge them, and as a result have even fewer active tag teams on either roster.

Like I said, it wasn’t always this way. I’m not a complete wrestling historian (though that would certainly be a fun occupation!), so my knowledge only goes so far. Aside from the outright family units I already mentioned, there were teams like the Blackjacks and the Wild Samoans. The 1980s were a particular boom period, especially as NWA/WCW was concerned. The Midnight Rockers and the Midnight Express were tag teams in the purest sense, consisting of wrestlers who were fully committed to that particular division. There were the Andersons, who became co-opted by Ric Flair’s Four Horsemen. AWA featured the Fabulous Freebirds. And then there were the Road Warriors, basically the tag team equivalent of Hulk Hogan and the Bigger! Better! mentality of Vince McMahon’s WWF. WWF, as it was then known, favored a combination of what everyone else was doing, which meant, if it couldn’t have the Road Warriors, developed Demolition instead. If it couldn’t have the Andersons, it’d have the Hart Foundation instead. If it couldn’t have the Midnight Rockers, it’d have, well, the Rockers instead. There were also the British Bulldogs, the eventual acquisition of the Road Warriors as the Legion of Doom, and any number of other combinations of wrestlers who didn’t have anything else to do at the time (I would start a list of these, but it would be too depressing).

WCW continued developing its tag team division during the 1990s, with Harlem Heat perhaps the most successful alumni of that effort, as business began to change. In ECW, there were the Eliminators (Perry Saturn’s alma mater), Public Enemy, and the whole clan of Dudleys, from whence Bubba Ray and Devon graduated. WWF had teams like the Headshrinkers (a new pair of Wild Samoans that eventually gave us Rikishi), Men on a Mission (which eventually gave us Big Daddy V, or whatever you want to call him these days), the Quebecers, the Smokin’ Gunns (which eventually gave us Billy Gunn), and more, until the Attitude Era really exploded the scene. (Gosh, have I really not mentioned the Bushwhackers yet?) Billy Gunn formed the New Age Outlaws with Jesse James. Bradshaw and Faarooq (I think I finally got his name right!) became the Acolytes for Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness, which later became the APA (short for Acolyte Protection Agency). Edge and Christian went from potential rivals to tag team partners in a heartbeat. Matt and Jeff Hardy emerged, went through growing pains, became Team Extreme with Lita. Remember the Headbangers? There was a time when WWF was swamped with gangs (I don’t really want to get into that, but it’d be fun!!!), and WCW kind of joined in, not even to speak of the Nation of Domination, D-Generation X, the New World Order, those guys, even the new Hart Foundation.

Part of how you could tell that the wrestling boom was coming to an end with the turn of the millennium was that it became harder and harder to find new tag teams. The division began to solidify around certain teams, especially in WWF. It became difficult to care about what WCW and ECW were doing. The more the system fed directly into any of the three organizations dominating the scene, the harder it was to find teams who had already formed not only strong alliances, but presence in the ring together.

So the WWE brand era produced pretty much M-N-M (Joey Mercury, Johnny Nitro, and Melina), and then it all went downhill from there. Paul London and Brian Kendrick were probably the last time anyone seriously tried to have a dynamic, thrilling tag team in WWE, and the fans crapped all over them. Lance Cade and Trevor Murdock were probably the last time WWE tried to be traditional. Once the brand titles were merged, WWE tended more toward super groups rather than true tag teams. And then you end up with random people thrown together just to have tag teams and tag team champions.

This is not to say that I believe the state of tag team wrestling is really all that different than it ever was. You still have, basically, two teams of two wrestlers competing against each other, sometimes with a title at stake. Some people have opinions about the quality of those teams, and the matches that result, but at the end of the day, how different are these matches likely to be? There is a pattern to most tag team matches, in which the team that’s supposed to win has one member that suffers throughout the match, and the other member who helps win that match. The team that’s supposed to lose basically gets to dominate however they like, whether by just tagging in and out at their convenience, or with moves that require both partners to pull off. Even with given tag teams, most wrestling promotions will have the main events of their TV programs, on a regular basis, feature tag team contests with combinations of whatever hot programs they have going on. Sometimes this will even be the main event of a PPV.

There’s a certain nostalgia for the times when wrestlers dedicated to tag teams can sell that tag team, and the whole division, as its own attraction, but no company in wrestling history has ever attempted to build itself around the tag team scene as a whole. That to me is certainly telling. It would certainly be interesting if someone tried (Mexican wrestling actually tends to do this sort of thing, but Mexican wrestling has very poor publicity as a whole), and I would be among the first to take an active interest in that company, but the fact as it remains to be revealed to most people who complain about the state of tag team wrestling is, most people don’t really care enough about, understand, appreciate, pay attention to the art of tag team wrestling, no matter what they tell you. I would even argue that wrestlers themselves these days don’t seem overly concerned about this apparent trend. Wrestling is mostly about individual spotlights.

But darned if I wouldn’t like a greater spotlight on tag teams, no matter how, or where, it’s accomplished.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Jabroni Companion #22

This one will be a peculiar mix of talent, I’m sure, so let’s just dig right in:

XLV. AJ Styles

This guy should be a living legend. Everyone from Michelle McCool to John Morrison has been accused of ripping him off; to have established a style and move-set that is that recognizable would be remarkable in any era, but certainly the modern one. Styles is at the very least the heir of Shawn Michaels, a superstar who has completely obliterated the line between light and heavyweight competitor. He just happens to be the most consistent and recognizable and acceptable face of TNA.

“Consistent” may not be a word you hear associated with Styles too often. He’s one of those wrestlers Pro Wrestling Illustrated constantly complains about, even after putting him atop the 2010 PWI 500, the first TNA star to accomplish that honor. But the truth is, AJ Styles has been consistent since at least 2002, when he first came to national prominence as one of the first pillars of TNA, having established undeniable indy credentials the likes of which friend and rival Christopher Daniels can still only dream about. Styles has had multiple runs as TNA champion, including an epic reign that spanned half a year between 2009 and 2010 that saw him perform just about every conceivable role for a company standard-bearer, which was all the more remarkable in that halfway through, he was expected to continue that reign during the dawn of the Hogan/Bischoff era. He’s the only wrestler on any talent roster who can be instantly plugged into any program and being taken seriously (except by stingy critics).

He’s everything Shawn Michaels was never able to become, actually. HBK achieved his dream, and then descended into a nightmare that eventually robbed years off his career, only to make a comeback that basically placed him in the “purgatory” Styles has enjoyed, while still amassing championships, no less. When all is said and done, AJ Styles will be known as one of the most significant superstars in the history of professional wrestling. He’s done more than Ric Flair and Sting, even, despite the lack of similar recognition and sustained acclaim. If TNA fans treat him like this, it’s no wonder no one expects he’d get any respect from WWE, because it’s everything he can do to defy his hometown critics! And to think he was going to retire in 2009. His best years are still ahead.

XLVI. Scott Steiner

No superstar ever suffered more from success than Scott Steiner. He finally reached the pinnacle of singles success in WCW, only for the company to implode around him. Probably the best-developed heel of that time, he was to become one of WWE’s prized acquisitions in the fall of 2002, but showed up on Raw in 2003 and suffered the backlash of the Triple H backlash (a true wrestling paradox!) instead. He spent the rest of that year in a program with Andrew “Test” Martin, another wrestler whose unfortunate brushings with fate forever mired his career, and then showed up again in TNA in a successful supporting role no one respected…

Yeah, so the one-time tag team partner of Rick Steiner (his actual brother!) was always known as a muscle-based wrestler, but used to be more fluid and agile before seriously pumping up (not to be morbid, but he’s also still alive!) and losing the respect of the fans. But this dude seriously had game! (No pun intended!)

All of which is to say that like AJ Styles, Scott Steiner’s legacy should hopefully age more gracefully than his career.

XLVII. Too Cool

“Grandmaster Sexay,” Brian Christopher Lawler! “Scotty 2 Hotty,” Scott Taylor! Together, they were among the most unlikely and unintended superstars in the history of the WWE! Granted, adding the still more unlikely dance sensation Rikishi to the mix probably helped a great deal, but Too Cool was itself one of the great tag teams of the last great tag team era.

Lawler probably ruined his career in the aftermath of the Benoit murder-suicide, becoming one of the worst emissaries of professional wrestling, but the Hip Hop Drop will still be legendary decades from now, surpassed in brilliance only by The Worm, a move that made Scotty 2 Hotty an icon well beyond the point where WWE seriously expected to see him on the payroll (scored him two WrestleMania appearances!). That’s all I’ve really got to say about Too Cool, that they’re infinitely worth remembering, even if in the grand scheme they didn’t pass the test of time as regular members of the wrestling community quite like the Hardys, Edge, and Christian (let alone JBL!). But who would deny them, if the circumstances presented themselves, a reunion tour?

XLVIII. Lex Luger

The juggernaut with the worst timing in wrestling, Lex Luger was supposed to be the Next Big Thing a couple of times, both in WCW and WWE, and maybe even in TNA, if things had turned out differently several times.

In WCW, he had to contend with Ric Flair and his own buddy, Sting, who probably replaced him as the new franchise player. In WWE, so the story goes, he leaked the results of WrestleMania 10, and lost his shot at the WWE title. Back in WCW, Sting once again overshadowed him as the New World Order’s greatest threat. And in the early days of TNA, he became embroiled in controversy with the death of Miss Elizabeth. The dude just could not catch a legitimate break.

So I’ll always cherish things like Summer Slam and Survivor Series 1993, when he really did seem like he was going to go all the way, or the fact that he was Nitro’s first big splash, or that he was the “Total Package” long before people refused to accept Chris Masters in a similar capacity. Maybe if WWE ended up putting together a DVD set of Luger’s greatest moments, history might better remember that he really did make an indelible contribution to professional wrestling.

XLIX. Brock Lesnar

Even before he jumped the WWE ship in 2004, the buzz had worn off of Brock Lesnar. He possessed all the talent to be a bigger star than anyone else in the history of wrestling, but you’d hardly know it. Within a few months of his departure, people were already quick to call his old stomping grounds, Smackdown, the unacknowledged red-headed stepdaughter of the WWE. If the company’s biggest star had just been competing exclusively for that brand, what was that supposed to mean, then?

Lesnar made the leap in 2002, and worked his way up the roster in rapid succession, winning the King of the Ring, and then stealing Summer Slam from Shawn Michaels’ comeback. Lesnar himself found the pattern that then emerged a little uncomfortable: repeated matches with the Big Show and Undertaker, plus the much-heralded contests with Kurt Angle, including the infamous WrestleMania XIX encounter with the botched shooting star press. Suffice to say, Brock Lesnar is the star who lost the most from the brand split. Matches against opponents like John Cena and Paul London (it really happened!) were extremely atypical. Brock himself could sometimes be difficult on that front. But the fact remains, there was never and has been since anyone quite like Brock Lesnar.

After quitting the ring for the gridiron (a bid that nearly succeeded), he took a few more matches, by necessity in Japan, at least one a return engagement with Angle, and then…MMA. I’d say that a masterpiece film like WARRIOR would never have been possible without Brock Lesnar, surely the most charismatic MMA fighter to emerge from UFC and its rivals. Should Brock ever compete in the squared circle, rather than the octagon, again, it’d be in an instant the biggest wrestling news in years. He’s still got time to make that kind of decision, too! Do his few years in WWE already constitute a lasting legacy? You bet.

L. Booker T

Almost the reverse Scott Steiner, Booker T is the tag team star who emerged as a frontliner in WCW’s final days, and just about managed to continue his momentum into WWE. With his brother Stevie Ray (who was actually the first of them to tease a ringside career) in Harlem Heat, Booker was a standout in WCW long before he worked his way through the singles ranks. As he himself reminded the fans, he started amassing a considerable amount of world championships, and headlined the Alliance once the Invasion took place in WWE. He sat on the backburner for years, and then gracefully seized the first available opportunity to reclaim his thrown (I mean, as a world champion).

Then he made the switch to TNA, and had some success there, and then came back to WWE, where he has since the start of 2011 been sitting ringside for Smackdown. Not too bad for someone who used to be accused (rightly) and using thinly-veiled versions of The Rock’s patented moves. But only Booker can pull off the Spinaroonie! He’s another star who would absolutely benefit from a DVD package, and he’s as likely as anyone to eventually get that honor from WWE. And then, Booker T would be on his way to immortality!
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