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.

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