Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jabroni Companion #2

If that’s not enough for you, then maybe WWE’s greatest legacy, WrestleMania might satisfy you. This year’s card was a few weeks ago, and so maybe the rush of it is still flowing in your veins, and you’re still energized. Rather than attempting to analyze all of it, I’m going to limit myself a little, with a nifty little exercise that looks at what is ostensibly the most important part of the show.

II. Ranking the WrestleMania Main Events

Oftentimes, when fans look back at WrestleMania, they remember the matches that stole the show, and they aren’t always the main event. In fact, although the hype traditionally rests at the top of the card, it’s perhaps just as traditional for superstars other than those who perform last to leave the lasting memories. You may know those better, actually, so rather than preamble further, let’s jump into the list, and revisit the intended attractions.

1. XII (1996) Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels
This is the famous Iron Man match, which in itself is perhaps special in the annals of WWE lore, but as many purists will tell you, broadways have often been used to test, and on a regular and frequent basis, the best wrestlers in a given promotion. That WWE actually headlined a WrestleMania in such fashion, however, required a ton of hype, and two very particular competitors. Hart had been champion off an on since 1992, and that’s the year he and Michaels first clashed for the title, at Survivor Series. Nicknamed the “Heartbreak Kid,” Shawn had for years pushed himself to be one of the best wrestlers in the world, but had long been denied headliner status because of his comparatively small stature. WWE had attempted to fill the vacancy of Hulk Hogan in many ways, and seemed as happy as it was reluctant to do it with the “Hitman” for the past several years. His most notable opponent over the past four years was Yokozuna, who was not exactly best attuned to fight the kind of match Hart was best suited for. Neither was Ric Flair, or Randy Savage, or maybe the company simply believed Bret deserved someone of his own generation. That would turn out to be HBK. By the time this match took place, Hart’s time as champion was effectively over. He’d have another run in 1997, and another Survivor Series title match with Shawn, but the perfect confluence was here, when all points came together, and the best pure wrestling match WWE had seen was finally allowed to happen.

2. XIV (1998) Shawn Michaels vs. Steve Austin
It’s ironic, since 1996 also saw Steve Austin’s transformation from gifted but generic wrestler to a bona fide star, when he preached the “Stone Cold” gospel at King of the Ring, and he still had to wait, like HBK, several years before he was granted what he had earned. So despite a lot of pain, Shawn helped make the transition official, took the next four years off, and allowed the Austin era to begin. It might be said that the only stars WrestleMania itself was ever allowed to make were HBK and “Stone Cold,” and so that’s reason enough to place those main events at the top of this list. Hulk Hogan had a succession of these things to make his legacy, but it only took once to make it stick for the main event to make the appropriate statement and moment for these two.

3. XXVI (2010) Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels
The other great legacy of WrestleMania is “the Streak.” The Undertaker, since WrestleMania VII in 1991, has overcome each and every one of his opponents, a total record as of 2011 of 19-0. A couple of stars (Kane, Triple H), he’s defeated twice, and this match marked another one, but there was even more significance. There have been a few deliberate rematches in WrestleMania history, but none moreso, when HBK chose to end his career in much the same way he’d helped Ric Flair two years earlier. I had something of a problem with this match initially for that very reason. It seemed too obvious, and didn’t seem to honor Shawn in the right way. The match itself, as it first seemed to me, seemed nothing more than a methodical rehash of the original encounter, a classic version of “epic encounter” where the point really seems to be to slip almost immediately into desperation mode, into one giant climax. Then I watched it again. And then again. The final moments of the match are what really make it, when Shawn finally brings his own unique stamp to the occasion. He briefly flares up into the defiant imp he’d become in his original DX days, when everyone started to legitimately hate him, when they thought the selfishness and destructive impulses he himself would admit to truly had permeated his professional career. All that in a flash, a show of defiance in the face of what Undertaker, and everyone watching already knew, from that other match, that Shawn couldn’t win. Suddenly the booking made sense. All of it made sense. If Shawn wasn’t ready for this moment a year earlier, he helped make it better by making everyone stew on it for a little while longer. A WrestleMania main event where a world title isn’t defended is pretty rare. This was the best of them.

4. 21 (2005) Triple H vs. Batista
Triple H is kind of a funny case. He has appeared in six of the twenty-seven WrestleMania main events to date, more than Hulk Hogan, more than Shawn Michaels, more than any other WWE superstar. About the only year of the modern era when he was healthy that Hunter skipped that honor, ironically, was 2003, the year everyone agreed he’d reached the apex of insufferability. Part of what skewers his legacy, despite a sustained and inspired career, is the fact that, unlike HBK and Steve Austin, he didn’t have his championship breakthrough at WrestleMania. “Stone Cold” had to pass the torch in the summer of 1999 so he could go off and have career-salvaging surgery, and that’s how Triple H finally won the gold. We’ll get to his first WrestleMania main event with it a little later, but there’s a sense that his momentum was a tad sabotaged before it was even begun (something of the story of his career). But Hunter still did wrestling good. He built a whole stable, along with one of his primary inspirations, Ric Flair, around Randy Orton and Batista, both of whom would go on to have arguably even more successful careers. What makes this particular main event so fascinating is that it was exactly the opposite of what everyone expected. Orton was supposed to be “The Man,” and 2004 was all about making that happen, but “The Game” instead tapped the relatively unproven Batista for the WrestleMania honors. It turned out to be the right move. “The Animal” proved to be WWE’s revision of Ultimate Warrior and Goldberg, a reliable and consummate champion with his own brand of unusual charisma, and this match had the whole story. Batista might not be Shawn Michaels, or even Triple H, but he’s as close to the next Hulk Hogan that the company has ever found.

5. 25th Anniversary (2009) Triple H vs. Randy Orton
But getting back to Orton, he’s perhaps still more fascinating. As I said, he was, by all signs, intended to be the main beneficiary of the Evolution stable (even in the early days, when it seemed like just a bunch of goons to keep the gold around Hunter’s waist). The “Legend Killer” came into WWE in the same year as John Cena, 2002, but was fast-tracked to world champion status almost a year sooner than “The Champ.” Turns out, however, it was a little premature. Orton spent three years waiting for his next run with a heavyweight title, during which Cena spent the majority of that time with just such a title firmly around his (neck?), and Triple H not so far away with another. He spent that time developing a calculating persona even more coiled than his mentor’s, becoming “The Viper,” and turning his attacks on and relationship with the McMahon clan even more personal than Triple H’s from the McMahon-Helmsley Era. Much of it was a new version of what had made Steve Austin a star, but what made this match so special was that it inverted just about every bit of conventional wisdom, from the fact that Hunter would finally draw inspiration from his real marriage with Stephanie McMahon to having a grudge match that was constrained to conventional rules. Even an Orton-Hunter match, which had been seen many times, felt special. Most WrestleMania matches should be exceptions because they’re uncommon encounters. This one really was the reverse of everything fans had grown to know.

6. 2000 (2000) Triple H vs. The Rock vs. Big Show vs. Mick Foley
I don’t know how many other fans have a special place in their hearts for WrestleMania 2000 (fun trivia that never gets old: this is the only card in WrestleMania history to not feature a single one-on-one match), but it’s the only one I’ve seen on PPV, so there’s that at least, and beyond that, it’s almost the one most like the first WrestleMania, at least in terms of the main event, that WWE has done since. This match should have been Triple H and The Rock. Everyone knows that, or at least should. The two had engaged in feuds long before either one was a world champion, and this particular feud continued for several months afterward. Mick Foley, one of the most unlikely world champions ever (whether you consider his titles in WWE or TNA), won his way to the main event thanks to sentiment (and, no doubt, literary prowess, having become the most successful wrestling memoirist ever at that point). Big Show had his only WrestleMania main event, probably to round out the match, make it even less predictable. Hunter had done his best to enrage Vince McMahon, as only Steve Austin had managed to accomplish previously, by stealing power, and the boss’s daughter, and there was a McMahon in every corner for this match (watch out for Linda!). The finish is still a classic for me, even though the exact same thing was done the next year, with Vince screwing over The Rock to give Hunter the win. It was a win Triple H needed to be a legitimate champion, even though I still kinda wish Rock would have been successful (his anemic wins later in the feud did nothing to make him look better, but it’s not as if his legacy needed a strong run as champion).

7. 23 (2007) John Cena vs. Shawn Michaels
The constant knock on John Cena is that he isn’t much of a wrestler, and this match was clearly designed to counteract that argument (well, beyond the fact that HBK was subbing for an injured Triple H). For an improvised feud, it worked surprisingly well, and it really didn’t hurt that it was probably Shawn’s last great card (the two would but on an even better match several weeks later on Raw), the better for its spontaneity (not to knock the ones with Chris Jericho or Undertaker, but you can still hear the same desperation from them that Edge wrung from HBK not long before this match). Not surprising, then, that Shawn’s next three WrestleMania matches basically summed up his career. He really had nothing left to prove.

8. III (1987) Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant
It seems a little perverse to list this one so low, but that has nothing to do with the momentous nature of seeing these two titans clash so much as the actual quality of the match. Andre was a living legend, the Undertaker of his day, with a mystique that had seen him, to this point, remain undefeated, and he was basically retired by the time he agreed to it. He enjoyed a career resurgence, and in turn gave Hogan the legitimacy two previous WrestleManias couldn’t. Still, maybe there’s a reason why everyone still argues that the best match from this card was Savage-Steamboat, the first time in WrestleMania history, in the first one that lived up to the hype, where a match other than the main event stole the show. That has got to say something. But it’s still weird to say that this match shouldn’t, by definition, be at the top of the list. That’s the evolution of wrestling, folks.

9. XV (1999) The Rock vs. Steve Austin
In a perfect world, the first time Austin and The Rock clashed should have been something like Hogan-Andre, but the truth is, Rock hadn’t hit his stride yet (that was the thing that was basically squandered at WrestleMania 2000, even though it turned out to be a good thing), so as good as The Rock was at this point, he was basically cannon fodder for “Stone Cold,” even more blatantly than Andre. That’s what makes a blockbuster encounter like this rank so low. The Rock’s greatest WrestleMania match was against Hogan. Everyone knows it. That’s where the magic is. It’s not here.

10. XXVII (2011) John Cena vs. The Miz
This year’s WrestleMania is still pretty fresh, and in point of fact, I haven’t even seen it yet, but I am still willing to rank it, in terms of importance, because of what was quickly announced in its aftermath. If it really happens, it’ll be the biggest thing to happen to WrestleMania since Hogan-Andre. I’m talking Cena-Rock. WrestleMania III ignited an arc that continued at least through WrestleMania V, an uninterrupted story that saw Hogan’s quest to regain the title after his war with Andre evolve with the emergence of Randy Savage as an unexpected threat. So this is not to say that The Miz is akin to Andre the Giant, much less Hulk Hogan. But John Cena is on that level, and The Rock, even though he has not actively participated in a wrestling match since 2004, is beyond even that. To have The Rock push around the company’s top star is comparable to Vince McMahon helping Triple H win at WrestleMania 2000, and to have the promise of Cena-Rock finally happening (a dream match Cena has actively pursued for years) is like having the biggest blockbuster imaginable, and between two stars who will actually be able to perform at more or less the same level. So cheer up Miz, that’s what you’ve accomplished so far!

11. V (1989) Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage
If Hogan were at the same level as the “Macho Man,” this match would serve as a precursor to the kind of action we might expect next year. But while Savage was at his best (though reports have it otherwise, much like Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XIV), bouncing and leaping all over the place, Hogan does his usual, almost making a mockery of the occasion. I’ve never really gotten around to actively loathing the “Hulkster,” but I can see how he came to actively support his own career at the detriment of others. Charisma is not the only thing that makes a career, but Hogan came as close as anyone to creating that illusion.

12. VI (1990) Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior
What Savage couldn’t do, Jim Hellwig did his best to achieve, which was to meet Hogan at his own level, and this was an epic clash that had all the kids in the schoolyard buzzing, which is something I remember vividly to this day. If anyone ever came close to truly subverting Hulkamania, it was the Ultimate Warrior, who offered an equally overblown and one-dimensional hero for fans to believe in, and a limited ring presence worked to its most efficient capacity. Warrior had a better match with Savage, not surprisingly, one year later (and just imagine if that had been a WrestleMania main event; you’ll hear about that one again later in the Jabroni Companion), and Hogan subsequently did everything he could to get the attention back on himself. More on that later.

13. XIX (2003) Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar
This was a dream match between amateur wrestling stars, and a clash of styles, and all you really needed to know was that “The Next Big Thing” was supposed to receive his crown as the new Hulk Hogan that night. Well, one botched shooting star press later, and even Lesnar seemed to have second thoughts. Gone from the company a year later. Still, those of us who experienced Lesnar know that Batista still owes him big-time. A monster who could do whatever he wanted (except, it seemed, when “the lights are on bright,” as JBL liked to say), Lesnar gave Angle his only WrestleMania main event (something that TNA clearly feels was a huge oversight, and this journalist agrees with). Another match that could be ranked higher, without a lot of argument necessary.

14. IV (1988) Randy Savage vs. Ted DiBiase
I have nothing particular against “The Million Dollar Man,” but a tournament that deliberated eliminated Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant was the only way he was ever going to find himself in a WrestleMania main event, whereas for Savage, it was exactly the scenario that would best differentiate himself from either star. He was everything they weren’t (including DiBiase), and while this was definitely a case of being in the right place at the right time, more often than not, that’s exactly the opposite of what the career of the “Macho Man” came to symbolize.

15. X (1994) Yokozuna vs. Bret Hart
I loved the idea of an unstoppable monster being champion of WWE, and Yokozuna was far more capable of filling that role than just about any other big man the company has seen before or since. He was predictable and unpredictable. He could do anything that was required of him. The only problem here is that the truth could not be said of Bret Hart. I love Bret Hart, but he never had any business competing against Yokozuna. That much was proved the first time around (more on that later), and only because Vince was annoyed that Lex Luger told somebody what would have been obvious to anyone, he was given the chance to do it against, this time even more lamely. Still, on Yokozuna’s end, this particular main event was still pretty awesome, at least the build-up.

16. X-SEVEN (2001) The Rock vs. Steve Austin
Much like HBK-Undertaker II, very little was done to make this sequel very sensical other than that, for practical reasons, it simply had to happen. The Rock was in better form, but the company was more interested in rebuilding “Stone Cold,” but that didn’t really happen until the WCW/ECW invasion (more on that later), so this just seemed lazy. But good lazy!

17. I (1985) Hulk Hogan & Mr. T vs. Roddy Piper & Paul Orndorff
I realize that in order to make it a spectacle, to make it feel like something special, something out of the ordinary had to be featured in the main event, but the first WrestleMania could have fulfilled that imperative without bloating the match. It should have been, simply, Hogan-Piper, and that match would have been, to this day, one of the greatest encounters in wrestling history. But instead, and no disrespect to “Mr. Wonderful,” we get Mr. T and Orndorff plugged in, plus a half dozen others, and nothing much at all. But at least there have been twenty-six other WrestleManias since!

18. XI (1995) Lawrence Taylor vs. Bam Bam Bigelow
Like the above, though it was good for business it’s still baffling historically. And while it’s also good that Bigelow, the “Beast from the East,” did get into a WrestleMania main event, well…

19. XXIV (2008) Edge vs. Undertaker
I’ve been one of Edge’s biggest admirers from the moment he first appeared in WWE, but I would never describe his wrestling style as anything but “controlled awkwardness.” Some argue this to be one of the best matches they’ve ever seen. It’s a good match, but I would never be able to say that. Sorry, Edge.

20. VII (1991) Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter
The only time Slaughter was relevant as a WWE competitor was when Hogan needed someone to make him seem like the greatest symbol of patriotic valor imaginable. So naturally the company turned to the only other guy who had literally built his career around that model. Yes, it makes sense. No, it is not actually compelling to watch as a match, at least not on this level. But Hogan had done worse in this regard.

21. XX (2004) Triple H vs. Shawn Michaels vs. Chris Benoit
Let me just start out by saying I’m not ranking this so low because my opinion of Benoit dropped like a stone in 2007. Quite the opposite, really. I remained a supporter of Benoit’s legacy through the most vicious reactions that year. 2004, however, belonged to Eddie Guerrero, if it belonged to any former WCW cruiserweights matriculated as Radicalz in WWE. As much as I loved to watch the “Rabid Wolverine” compete, it was always a bit like seeing, well, a rabid version of Bret Hart throwing himself around the ring, with less charisma, and to make that man world champion was like endorsing “Hitman” as champion, and I was never able to do that, either, except during the summer of 1997, when Hart really seemed to get into his character for the first time (ironically, as it turned out). Triple H and HBK are there to round out this match, in the same way Big Show was at WrestleMania 2000. How is it that two out of three competitors are there to round out a match? Exactly.

22. 22 (2006) John Cena vs. Triple H
The year after John Cena became a heavyweight champion he was still fighting to form the definitive statement for what it meant for him to have that title. He didn’t have that statement in this match, and neither did Triple H.

23. X8 (2002) Chris Jericho vs. Triple H
It’s a damn shame that “Y2J” competes in the WrestleMania main event, and becomes completely invisible, not because Triple H hogs all the glory, or Rock-Hogan had already stolen the show, but that Jericho himself is completely uninspired. If you’ve read either of his memoirs, you’re probably wishing he’d gotten a second chance. That would have been froot!

24. 13 (1997) Sycho Sid vs. Undertaker
I like Sid, and I’m a big fan of the Undertaker, but WWE had so many other plans and things going on, you could almost completely overlook this one, and also forget that it led to Undertaker’s most sustained run with the world title, and not really miss anything. Word was the Ultimate Warrior, who’d attempted a grand comeback the previous year, was supposed to be featured in this one. Against Undertaker? Well, that would have been awesome indeed.

25. IX (1993) Yokozuna vs. Bret Hart
Seriously, who booked this stuff? If anyone has any real memories of Hart’s first championship run that seem significant, please let me know, because it seems like, even though 1992 seemed to have a succession of transition champions that should have been better than that, its sole purpose was to transfer the ball to Yokozuna (and then, to Hulk Hogan, and then back to Yokozuna, and then back, improbably, to Bret Hart).

26. VIII (1992) Hulk Hogan vs. Sycho Sid
Speaking of 1992...! If he ever had a blatant misuse of influence, and a baffling one, this was it. He reportedly vetoed a match with Ric Flair, and opted for this last effort at dragon slaying, in what was basically his WWE swan song. Apparently he forgot about:

27. II (1986) Hulk Hogan vs. King Kong Bundy
Bundy, and no great offense to him, or Sid, but he was no Andre, as Andre himself had to prove a year later. Why this was a WrestleMania main event is somewhat beyond me. But as we all know, WrestleMania managed to survive it, and I guess that’s what really counts.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Jabroni Companion #1

I can’t say how exactly I became a fan of professional wrestling. I was born in 1980, and so by the time WWE began building itself around Hulk Hogan, I was concerned with many other things, but there was a happy confluence when Hogan and Junkyard Dog began starring in cartoons. If I had to guess, that would be the genesis, so you might say that wrestling itself is not the reason I started to follow wrestling. There are many fans of yesterday and today who could say the same.

Hogan remained a staple for many years, and I remember my mother asking us to turn off the TV while he was getting smashed with a steel chair, because wrestling was too violent. My father would sometimes fondly recall his days following Chief Jay Strongbow (whom I would see on TV, briefly, in later years, during an association with another Native American, Tatanka), and so I suppose it’s no great mystery as to who I can thank for my earliest exposures. In school, I remember a great amount of hype over Hogan’s epic confrontation with Ultimate Warrior, and how each had their partisans. And it kind of snowballed from there, as my access grew, and I grew up.

Because I did not, technically, grow up watching it, but only really had my chance to follow the action in adolescence, I had a lot of catching up to do, from just how important Hogan was, the context for WWE, and the rich history that preceded both of them, including other major promotions and stars who might be said to rival what had come to define for me the whole concept of wrestling. I came in just outside of the era of regional promotions that had once dominated the imaginations of fans, and besides, I was from Maine. Aside from a few famous names to call the state home (Scotty 2 Hotty, Tony Atlas), it’s not exactly what you might call a hotbed of wrestling excitement.

1993 is more or less the first year of my true infatuation with wrestling. It seems a little weird, because for a lot of fans, 1993 doesn’t seem all that significant. I can rattle off any number of reasons why it’s still significant to me, and I will no doubt repeatedly refer back to that year in the coming 100 topics, but suffice it to say, I became a fan, a devoted one, and have continued to be one through every twist and turn wrestling has seen since then, from WCW’s acquisition of Hogan, to Hogan actually becoming relevant to that company, to Steve Austin arguably eclipsing his legacy in WWE, and even to my earliest memories supporting John Cena (earlier than you’d think).

Why care about wrestling? By Hogan’s time it became exceedingly clear that the action was not, technically, real, that it owed more to the circus than it did to sports, and by the time he parted ways with WWE, the first hushed whispers that there were many things to be concerned about, and this long before the parade of deaths came to justify in the minds of an increasingly skeptical public the opinion that the sideshow would be better off closing for good. Maybe I came about during an appropriately impressionable time in my development, and that seeing Hogan and JYD as animated versions of themselves didn’t adequately prepare me for what was to come.

Maybe, and then again, maybe I’ve found more reasons to admire wrestling than abhor, mock, or deride it. I take it seriously, even while I continually derive great amusement from it. But let’s get started on those 100 topics, because I have one particular individual in mind who will help illustrate my point:

I. Eddie Guerrero

In 2005, during the midst of writing the second act of what would become my first book, Eddie Guerrero died in a hotel room. I can tell you that the immediate impact was to profoundly alter the trajectory of that story, disrupting my plans and setting my characters on an entirely new path. It was a death that reverberated far more than almost any other death I had experienced before, and I’m talking about people I knew personally and those I only knew from the media. It was almost like James Dean, JFK for me, someone cut down in their prime, all their future potential suddenly lost in the blink of an eye. Eddie had already enjoyed great success in his career, but in many ways it was only just beginning.

The Guerrero family itself probably never saw Eddie coming. He came from a great tradition of wrestlers, but for all intents and purposes, he came to overshadow that tradition. There are many famous families in wrestling, and it seems that just as often as a famous father given birth to a famous son, that next generation will have greater opportunities than their predecessors ever dreamed of. Wrestling as we know it today, as practiced by WWE, TNA, ROH, and promotions all over the world, in Mexico and Japan, and in the independents ranks, has been practiced for more than a hundred years, and there has been a legion of famous names. You begin to truly appreciate it when you hear about Eddie’s upbringing, how he and his nephew Chavo were practically raised inside a wrestling ring. Eddie was born for professional wrestling, and so it was no surprised when he stepped between the ropes as a career. He plied his craft for a variety of promotions before reaching WCW at the height of the cruiserweight craze, when the international scene came crashing into the living rooms of everyday Americans, who had previously only experienced the deliberate styles demonstrated by the likes of Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Bruno Sammartino.

Cruiserweights were known for their in-ring ability, not for their outsized personalities, and I say “were” in the full knowledge that it’s a tendency that persists to this day. “Cruiserweight” is a term that doesn’t even exist anymore. WWE doesn’t have that division today, while TNA prefers to put a big “X” on it (“not about weight limits, but NO limits”). The truth is, the cruiserweight style has since been assimilated into the mainstream. You can thank early pioneers like Randy Savage and Shawn Michaels, but you can look no further than Eddie Guerrero for the one superstar who was able to combine style and personality, almost from the start (with apologies to Chris Jericho).

In his WCW prime, Eddie was a natural heel, which might have been a result of his origins in the Mexican ranks, where to this day persists a fairly black and white interpretation of ring rivalries, long after the Attitude era obliterated that concept for the average American fan. He was never a part of the mainstream, exactly (though he was not exactly excluded from it), but he took the nWo concept and crafted the Latino World Order, marshalling the company’s many masked luchadors, mostly in a war against Rey Mysterio, who flatly refused to join. Although I best remember the Eddie of this era, as many still fondly recall the Savage-Ricky Steamboat match from WrestleMania III, for his clash with Dean Malenko at Starrcade 1997. It was instantly one of the finest matches I had ever seen.

I’ll have more to say about that sort of thing later, but for now, let’s continue with the trajectory of Eddie’s career. He remained with WCW for a few more years, but became one of the Radicalz who shocked WWE fans in the early weeks of 2000. He was easily the one who fit best with the new company, especially after Jerry Lawler dubbed him “Latino Heat” (and here, I pause while you repeat that nickname in your best Lawler impersonation). I never saw someone blossom more organically and more naturally, and so instantly. The Rock, in comparison, took years to development from Rocky Maivia to “The People’s Champion.”

This is not to gloss over Eddie’s personal failings, which plagued him throughout his initial years with WWE. Although 2000 was a breakout years, for some intents and purposes, you might say his real tenure didn’t begin until 2002, when he became truly embraced as a competitor (which is certainly strange to say, because by all rights that’s how he should have been accepted in the first place). You might say he found the strength to conquer WWE by first conquering himself.

He became a world champion in 2004, and took that momentum into the next year, when his feud with Mysterio dominated Smackdown, until he was accepted as a legitimate challenge for the world title again, and against Batista, during his original run with the title, when everyone unquestionably loved him. Eddie was the only competitor who ever challenged the fans to root for the other guy. At the time, he was coming off his second great heel performance, and the whole program with Batista was designed to turn him back into a face (“heel” being wrestling parlance for villain, “face” the term for hero).

While I had appreciated Eddie’s efforts for years, it was during his reign as champion where he evolved once more, into a star capable of selling not just himself or his wrestling matches, but the purest appeal of his chosen profession, the interaction between himself and the fans. While he was never presented as a dominant champion, he was the kind of underdog you could really get behind. He didn’t take himself too seriously, and seemed to draw on his whole heritage, as if the ring really was his home, and not just acknowledge the crowd for a cheap pop, but allow them in on the joke, when he’d use the old referee distraction to pull a fast one on his opponents. Everyone else knew what Eddie was up to, but the moment the referee looked around, Eddie would be flat on his back, and it seemed like it was his opponent who had used the title belt as a weapon. Eddie would then wink again, just to make sure the joke sunk in. He didn’t have to paint his face to outclass Doink the Clown. He loved wrestling. It was clear in everything he did.

And that love was infectious. It was clear from the first time I saw him, and it was clear right up to the last time, and that’s what struck me, when I learned of his death, that it was all over. At least his character had had a chance to redeem himself. I would argue only the controversy of Chris Benoit’s death would make it a rival for the biggest impact of the loss of a professional wrestler. Only a few months later, Batista went out with an injury, and in many ways, his career never recovered. Eddie’s death affected his peers tremendously. He was my favorite wrestler then, and he still is to this day. No one better embodies professional wrestling to me, its fullest potential, its highs and lows, than Eddie Guerrero. If you ever wanted to understand it, become a student of this man’s career. Many fans criticized WWE’s apparent exploitation of his death in the months that followed, but in truth, Eddie had been building Rey Mysterio’s career not only in the year leading up to his death, but for years. And besides, you can’t escape a shadow that large very easily, and Eddie’s death left a shadow that large because his career was sheer brilliance. Remembering him is remembering what makes wrestling great.

More than Hogan, more than Shawn Michaels, even more than the Undertaker, Eddie constantly evolved, found the challenge of a long-term career something of a sport in itself. You take wrestling seriously because of that kind of devotion, that Eddie was born into it, and never grew tired of it, and always found the best of it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Film Fan Friday Flashback!

And where do we flash back to, exactly? Last Friday! And, specifically, to Source Code. Folks, I think this one has the secret of the universe in it.

I love it, I really do. It's a good year for sci-fi fans already, if you've got material as good as The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code. It's only April! I loved Duncan Jones' Moon, the movie that got a tiny release two years ago, but is the reason this one opened wide, so I was a little apprehensive when I read a crappy review in the local indy paper, but I had been curious enough by the previews I'd seen, I had to give it a chance. I'm glad I did.

The opening has some of the best atmospheric shots I've ever seen. If this were an IMAX flick, I would have developed vertigo. And that's not even the thrust of the movie! Most of it is in confined spaces, either on the train, the military base, or the capsule, and each of those are memorable locations for those who have already seen this one. Anyway, and so I don't bog you down with stars so much as wow you with starpower movie making, I'll just stick with explaining what makes it so fantastic. Yes, it actually does play a lot like Moon, and yes, a little like Groundhog Day, and a whole lot of Star Trek reboot episodes, but it transcends all of them, it really does. It's brilliant. You walk out of it trying to figure it out, but here's the secret.

Trust Jake. Ignore Jeffrey. Jake's the real expert, or becomes it. He participates, however willingly or not, in an experimental program that ends up sending his consciousness into the future, and it's in there where he finds success, and transmits that success to the past, to his own past. How do you make sense of life? You trust it. I guess that's what you might say this film's message is.

Anyway, see Source Code. You'll thank me later.
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