Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jabroni Companion #5

Now that we’ve established my absolute favorite wrestler (Eddie Guerrero, remember?) and thoughts on several historic angles, not to mention touching on WrestleMania, I thought it would be fun to dive into the nitty gritty of a fan’s regular appreciation of wrestling, some more of my favorite superstars. Let’s start with someone who hasn’t always been easy to appreciate. Let’s start with

V. Mr. Anderson

Anderson. (Sorry, had to do that.) Here’s a guy who came to prominence in 2005 (no, really!), and ironically had his first significant match against Eddie (which was, in fact, Eddie’s final televised match). The encounter was plenty indicative of the way WWE chose to push Anderson. He had struggled for years on the independent circuit, but once someone realized that he had the gift of gab (and probably when he started introducing himself, the routine everyone knows), he shot onto the track of superstardom. In fact, when he debuted in WWE, on the seldom-seen B-show Velocity, he really was Mr. Anderson, but by the time he arrived on Smackdown had been rechristened Mr. Kennedy (which you might recall happens to be Vince McMahon’s middle name…another suggestion that a certain angle was supposed to reveal our hero as the boss’s bastard son). At the time Smackdown certainly liked to give humongous pushes to newcomers (think Carlito and MVP), but Kennedy/Anderson was almost a different case entirely. He famously defeated a series of former world champions, which, of course, became regularly referenced by the ringside commentators during his matches. What the company obviously expected was that this guy was going to become an overnight member of the main event scene.

Maybe Vince forgot about a dude named Rocky Maivia. Okay, you don’t exactly forget about The Rock, but what I mean is that maybe Vince forgot that you can’t engineer crowd favorites. It’s something Hollywood does time and time again, find an actor it really likes, and then push that actor in countless projects. It seldom works. Those actors either catch on, or they become the next “where are they now” trivia answers. That’s what happened to Kennedy/Anderson.

You’ll constantly hear the argument that what did him in is his wrestling ability, and that’s partially true. He’s unorthodox in the ring. He’s the rare wrestler who will relish the chance to sell his opponents, not cartoonishly, like a Ric Flair or Shawn Michaels, but enough so that maybe it’s a little too easy to believe that he’s allowed the match to get out of hand. It’s probably a holdover from his former jobber status (and probably what helped him get out of it, too, because anyone who can make beatdowns truly look good can probably do other things, too), and so rare most fans will never even think of a good wrestler competing that way. When it comes to offense, he prefers striking, but also has some striking, as it were, sentons, which is another baffling element of his repertoire, because it’s also not routine for most wrestlers to depend on sentons, whether delivered from a standing position or from the turnbuckle. When you’ve got a distinctive style, it either means that you’re playing directly to the crowd, performing time-tested and anticipated maneuvers, or simply getting it done in the match. Kennedy/Anderson never really draws himself out of matches. His style has drawn comparison to Steve Austin because of that. That and his brash personality.

The other thing you’ll hear about him is that injuries and controversies undid his WWE career. I would argue that WWE screwed him, as it were, by failing to understand that they had a far more literal next Rock on their hands than they ever seemed to realize. They couldn’t push him successfully the way they wanted. He needed feuds with competitors at his experience level, not at the status he deserved. Instead of Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, he should have had more matches with Bobby Lashley, MVP. Hell, imagine if he had ever had a program with Chris Jericho. During their mutual time in the company, Jericho hadn’t definitively established his world champion credentials (other than that run as undisputed champion, which both he and WWE had determined to be something of a failure).

Anyway, instead of establishing a list of defeats against former world champions, Kennedy/Anderson might’ve simply ingratiated himself to the fans, what every wrestler is supposed to do. Randy Orton became a “Legend Killer” so that he could better represent his arrogance, not put himself at a specific level (though his was another career that WWE had to constantly play catch-up with, until things finally leveled out, which reminds me, that the Legacy stable was delayed for something like a year because both Orton and Batista kept getting themselves injured during their early runs with the company, something Orton seems plenty eager to ignore when considering Anderson’s prospects).

When he debuted with TNA, a company with a reputation for making all the wrong decisions, a funny thing happened. Mr. Anderson was finally handled correctly. Sure, the highlight of his first year was a feud with Kurt Angle, but at that point, and because it was both prominent and calculated, and treated Anderson nearly as an equal instead of an arrogant pretender, that one worked. Instead of constantly working pseudo main events, Anderson was allowed to be himself, develop himself. He had worked sporadic programs with Jeff Hardy in WWE, but TNA took that to another level, which is something perhaps many fans still don’t realize, how important that particular relationship has been. Never mind that Hardy had been battling personal demons, as it were, recently. In a single year, TNA did everything right with Anderson, and successfully crowned him a first-time world champion, a status he has maintained since, and a title he will reclaim, though there’s no big rush this time, either. Now everyone knows that he can make it work, and that he’s only just began to tap into his potential…

VI. John Morrison

Other than The Miz, Morrison is the most famous and accomplished veteran of the Tough Enough system WWE ever discovered. Unlike Miz, however, Morrison has had to scratch and claw his way toward recognition every step of the way. It’s somewhat ironic that Miz succeeded where Anderson failed, in almost single-handedly rising to main event and world champion status based on personality alone (but don’t worry, I’ll return to Miz directly later on in the Jabroni Companion, so if you’re not down with that description, you’ve got a few more words coming). Morrison, on the other hand, is still working on it.

And not for lack of trying. He rose to prominence within the company as Eric Bischoff’s lackey, Johnny Nitro, establishing a pattern of looking cool, before forming M-N-M with Joey Mercury and Melina (another Tough Enough alum) on Smackdown, where he had a chance to develop and present a distinctly athletic style, using the ropes for propulsion as few other wrestlers tend to, and then returning to Raw as a singles star, feuding with Jeff Hardy (there’s that name again) over the Intercontinental championship (presenting himself as proficient in ladder matches for the first time).

He caught his big break, however, when he was picked to replace Chris Benoit in 2007 as the new face of ECW, a brand WWE could never find respect for (both when it championed the company itself and when it tried to revive said company under its own auspices; this is one relationship that was never quite what fans tended to believe, but I’ll get back to that, too). I say “big break,” but Morrison (as he was soon rechristened during this period) might have just as easily considered it a curse. This was a period when fans were finally allowed to fully embrace CM Punk, which they had been clamoring to for months, but they inexplicably chose not to. Morrison and Punk engaged in a lengthy feud, which is standard procedure in wrestling (the legendary Flair-Steamboat rivalry grew throughout an entire decade; imagine if the fans who booed the ECW headliners in 2007 had been watching those guys!). The ECW brand itself was supposed to be a place to groom new talent, which it routinely did, but fans (who can’t even seem to realize what the point of a show like Superstars is, because most of them can’t seem to appreciate actual wrestling; no, I absolutely cannot explain it) only liked to comment on how little they respected WWE’s version of ECW. Might anyone point out that Paul Heyman routinely employed wrestlers no one else was able to showcase properly, that he built a cult following based on unique talent, many of whom became far bigger stars (Steve Austin, Eddie Guerrero, the Dudley Boyz; the list goes on and on; suffice to say, is not actually limited just to the hardcore wrestlers who nonetheless became synonymous with the company) for having the exposure he was able to craft.

But aside from ECW, this period developed Morrison as a personality. He adopted such nicknames as the Guru of Greatness, the Shaman of Sexy. He took residence at the Palace of Wisdom. Despite all these awesome phrases, fans didn’t really glom onto him. He developed Starship Pain in ECW, but quickly realized what maybe AJ Styles did over at TNA. Unless Morrison became a typical wrestler, instead of merely an outstanding one, it would be very hard to gain the level of respect he truly deserved. Although he now had the look, the entrance, the moves, even notoriety along with The Miz, Morrison still needed one thing: the respect of the fans.

He found himself on Smackdown, and in matches against the likes of Chris Jericho, CM Punk, and Jeff Hardy, Morrison put on some of the best TV matches anyone was likely to see, all with the express purpose of putting him over. It never worked. Because he couldn’t or didn’t conform to the demands of a typical main event personality, who regularly bark into the mic rather than simply exude natural charisma (someone tell Gorgeous George that he couldn’t have begun the modern era in the actual modern era!), Morrison developed the reputation of failed potential.

And now, of course, he’s on the injured list. He’s got all the talent required, more than anyone else could possibly handle (the only comparable performer, AJ Styles, long ago stopped wrestling this way). The fans demand a concrete reason to cheer and admire talent like this. What Morrison needs to do is put his cocky confidence to a whole different level. He needs to be like Russell Crowe in GLADIATOR. He needs to demand, “Are you not entertained?” Because he can do anything. His style could easily be presented as impossibly dominant, in an entirely unique way. If WWE, and its fans, could grow comfortable with this, John Morrison could become a legend.

VII. Shawn Michaels

The wrestler most people compare Morrison to is Shawn Michaels, the only other performer who has been able to so completely perfect his craft that he has literally been able to do anything he wanted in the ring. It’s how he became known as Mr. WrestleMania. He could make anything look like he was the innovator. Even though he popularized the ladder match against an opponent, Scott Hall, who had a completely different style, it was HBK who came to dominate the legacy of that original encounter, because where Hall kept wrestling much the way a good and competent wrestler does (and I’ll get back to Hall, too), Shawn just kept pushing his game to whatever level was necessary, in whatever situation he found himself.

That’s how he became an icon. He was in the wrestling business, and WWE, for years before this talent was appreciated. That ladder match at WrestleMania X came about because Vince McMahon was finally forced to recognize that Shawn could no longer be denied. 1993 had been something of a hassle for all parties, and if things had continued the way they were then, the entire sport of professional wrestling would be different today. It was a transition year, when Yokozuna was pushed as champion simply because he was naturally what the company could no longer do artificially, which was be larger than life. While WWE tried to push Bret Hart and Lex Luger as the new faces of the company, Shawn Michaels was finally putting his Rockers tag team past completely behind himself. He was not supposed to steal the show at 1994’s WrestleMania, but steal the show he did.

He brought in Kevin Nash during this period, and Nash, thanks to Shawn’s prescience, was quickly recognized as a considerable talent, and became a featured performer on the main event and world title scene. 1995 belonged to “Big Daddy Cool,” but that year’s WrestleMania was also the first time Shawn was allowed to legitimately compete for the world title. Everyone finally seemed to realize that he belonged at that level, but on his own terms, and so he was put into a program with a competitor who might truly be able to keep up with him, and with that, Bret Hart finally met his match, and WrestleMania XII happened.

The only problem was, 1996 eventually went in the direction Shawn himself had realized a few years earlier, when he singled out Kevin Nash. The return of the era that had held wrestlers like HBK back couldn’t have come at a worse time. Shawn seemed to return to the mentality that had almost undone him in 1993, and things kind of got out of control for a while, and then he took all that energy and put it in a more useful direction, and made the momentum swing in his favor. He truly blossomed, finally, as figurehead of DX, just as his career seemed to be winding down. 1998 eventually became 2002, though, (yes, I’m horribly compressing), and Shawn found himself to be a WWE elder statesman (years before Undertaker would truly embrace a similar role).

Long story short, Shawn Michaels became the most improbable beloved figure in sports entertainment. Plenty has been said about his career, so I won’t spend a lot of time talking about this one.

VIII. Triple H

Someone who has struggled to win the respect of the fans throughout his career not named Ken Anderson would be Paul Levesque, better known as Hunter Hurst-Helmsley, better known as Triple H. Few wrestlers have as dramatically altered their original images as this man, who went from the “Blue Blood” to “The Game” during an arduous transformation process. Unlike Shawn Michaels, his career didn’t really benefit from DX shenanigans. He didn’t become a world champion until several angles after his original DX run. It was the infamous McMahon-Helmsley era that truly put him on the map, that came to define his career, as someone who got ahead by literally sleeping with the boss’s daughter. If he hadn’t made that late 1999, early 2000 run so entertaining, maybe I’d agree that it was an unholy alliance that made his career. Never even mind that his development was delayed for years after Hunter pissed off Vince McMahon back in 1996 by breaking character. Apparently something like that is easy to overlook when you really want to hate someone.

What Triple H did better than anyone else was embody the potential of the heel. He did it so well he actually did it too well. Unlike his mentor Ric Flair, Hunter was a braggart in a coward’s body. He didn’t win by accident or cheating, but by any means necessary. That’s what the program with Mick Foley was meant to convey. That’s why he adopted the trusty sledgehammer. All due respect to The Miz, but Triple H was no fluke champion. He wore the title because he’d truly earned it, and had waited long enough. Only Triple H could prevent The Rock, during The Rock’s most popular period, from being world champion.

Years ago, the story would have been different. Roddy Piper, by this reasoning, would have been world champion at WrestleMania I. What Hunter’s original reigns as champion represented was Vince McMahon’s evolving appreciation of the art of professional wrestling, things he might have learned from Ric Flair, you might say, or even Steve Austin. You put the title on the wrestler with the most heat, and you’re guaranteed hot programs. It’s another overlooked aspect of Hunter’s career that his original reign as champion ended somewhat abruptly, extended though it was. By the summer of 2000, The Rock was champion, and then Kurt Angle was champion, and Hunter never even sniffed the title again. He became embroiled in other feuds. Maybe that card with Austin should have been saved for 2001’s WrestleMania, not 2000’s Survivor Series. It didn’t matter, maybe, because Hunter went out with an injury, and missed a whole year, missed the whole Invasion, missed WCW, ECW, and the crowning of the first-ever undisputed champion.

Of course, that meant that when he did return, he would be given what most wrestlers only dream of, and that’s the spot at WrestleMania, the featured spot, not one that steals the show, but the one that marks a significant moment in a wrestler’s career. Several years after attaining world champion status, Hunter was given that spot. His detractors might note that even this did not immediately return Triple H to dominance.

Brock Lesnar became pushed as the “Next Big Thing,” and suddenly Hunter was tapped as the face of continuity within WWE. In the summer of 2002, Triple H was awarded the world title, and was almost immediately placed in a hot program with the returning Shawn Michaels. When Lesnar’s push cooled , Hunter found himself in the position to try and reclaim the kind of role he’d had in the McMahon-Helmsley era, and responded by forming Evolution. The development of this stable was delayed by so many injuries between Randy Orton and Batista that fans thought they could be forgiven for confusing it with keeping Triple H champion for the sake of Triple H being champion. In fact, by 2004, Orton was finally coming into his own, and by 2005, Batista was putting his potential into the stratosphere.

With the departures of major stars like Austin and The Rock, Hunter had become an undisputed cornerstone of the company, and at the dawn of the brand era, asked to carry one of two promotions within WWE, competing against what was hoped to be the new Hulk Hogan. Triple H didn’t sweat it. By this time he knew what to do. It was the fans who were confused. They would probably have been more confused if they’d looked at an NWA or WCW scorecard, and tried explaining why Ric Flair amassed all those championship reigns, and why guys like Sting and Vader entered the main event scene without ever replacing him. His own company grew tired of relying on the “Nature Boy.” Hunter, like I said, made it look easy. He did what he had to, and for fewer years than “Naitch.”

Triple H became a more conventional company player after this, and managed a dominant as well as quiet period as world champion on Smackdown. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not so easy to explain, but “The Game” was a favorite from the start, and his many, ah, evolutions just made it all the easier to enjoy following his career.

IX. The Rock

In contrast, even WWE didn’t see The Rock coming, when it tried to make an instant sensation of Rocky Maivia in 1996. The fans famously sparked a backlash against this initial push, which forced The Rock to transform from a babyface to a heel, begin to talk in the third person, and start laying the smackdown as a member of the Nation of Domination, the only time he would ever be seen as a performer by the color of his skin (aside from Owen Hart, the Nation was more or less a gang of black wrestlers). How exactly he attained world champion status was less a matter of the fans demanding it and more Vince McMahon attempting his old tactics (the 1998 Survivor Series was the first chance Vince had to offer a true alternative to the wildly popular “Stone Cold” phenomenon, and, truth be told, The Rock was not actually there yet, and so that’s why the epic rivalry and/or relationship with Mick Foley happened).

But The Rock became a huge fan favorite all the same, and his charisma was noticed beyond wrestling thanks to a 2000 appearance hosting Saturday Night Live, and Dwayne Johnson emerged as a legitimate Hollywood star. I could go into all the performances I like best (THE RUNDOWN, BE COOL, SOUTHLAND TALES, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, FAST FIVE), but this isn’t the Film Fan, this is the Jabroni Companion. Know your role and shut your damn mouth.

The Rock made an improbable WWE comeback in 2011, and so there’s more yet of his wrestling career to speak of, which is exactly what sports entertainment needs right now. For a man who last wrestled in 2004, and even that was an exception, it speaks to how unique a personality he has become, how big a phenomenon he really is, that he doesn’t look out of place in this context, and that he can still manage two separate careers. Much can be said about how that transition was originally made, but for now, let’s just revel in the millions…and millions of the Rock’s fans. Because they’re still here.

If any one personality can truly encompass the complicated relationship between professional wrestling and the rest of the world, that would be The Rock.

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