Thursday, June 30, 2011

Jabroni Companion #10

The modern era of professional wrestling is a fairly curious beast. Before Vince McMahon supersized his father’s company and created what we know today as WWE, most promotions were solidly territorial in nature, and you had to be a diehard fan to know who most of the top stars in the industry were, without likely ever having seen them personally.

…Hell, I just made most of that up. By the time I was born, that era was drawing to a close. The 1980s saw the death rattle of the territorial era. The AWA, the biggest competition for WWE and the longstanding NWA, folded, without much fanfare. NWA, for all intents and purposes, was transformed by Ted Turner into WCW, an almost exact duplicate of WWE. And from that moment on, the only wrestlers who really mattered were centered squarely in two companies, and everyone else became independent bush leagues, feeding their developmental talent one way or the other, and you weren’t really anyone unless you broke onto the big stage.

Anyway, all of this is to try and set that stage for the modern era, and attempt to explain the why and what of Total Nonstop Action, otherwise known as


As with WWE, WCW, ECW, and god knows how many other promotions before it, TNA began as an offshoot of the NWA, the National Wrestling Alliance, which is recognized as the oldest continuously run wrestling agency in the sport’s history (and still running, I might add). The company was formed in 2002, and has since developed into a legitimate rival on the national stage for WWE. Just what that means has often been interpreted loosely as TNA being the second coming of WCW, which has always been misleading. As the earliest days of the company itself will attest, TNA has always been a little more like ECW, with definite WCW leanings.

As a startup, and with WWE having dominated the wrestling scene for more than a year at that point, TNA in 2002 had two channels of access for its original lineup of talent: either stars who had once been famous for performing in WWE or WCW and for some reasons were no longer doing so, or a batch of new talent that could be found on the independent scene. From the beginning, then, what you thought of, say, Ken Shamrock or Jeff Jarrett and what the implications of their lack of activity within WWE at the time, meant just as much to you as unknowns like AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels, both of whom had become legends on the independent scene within just a few years of activity.

Shamrock hadn’t been active in WWE since the fall of 1999, and Jarrett had been one of the most prominent stars of WCW’s final days, and perhaps not so coincidentally had also been active in WWE during the tail-end of the last millennium. Along with Ron Killings, who’d had a brief, undistinguished run with WWE, these were to be the major stars of the company; not only had none of them been world title contenders in WWE, which had at this point apparently proven that it really was the stage of the immortals (and well into the development of a hot new talent in the form of Brock Lesnar, no less), but between them they had never really energized a significant fanbase before, either.

Shamrock left soon after TNA’s earliest days were over. Whatever he might have had to contribute, and whatever novelty Killings might represent as an unlikely champion, Jarrett soon established dominance as the face of the company. His most obvious rival now became Styles, who was fast impressing fans with his dynamic and energetic, fresh approach to wrestling, not only as the figurehead of the X-division (a revamp of the cruiserweight phenomenon which swore it was anything but…even though its stars almost exclusively amounted to cruiserweights, and fought only cruiserweights, with Styles being the rare exception). For TNA, Styles was the franchise player, the unique talent WWE had nothing to do with; he was basically the company’s Sting.

As the company developed, and the years passed, it became clear that this original model was something it would have to learn to accept. WWE, which had not only defeated WCW and ECW, but bought up most of their talent, and strung their debuts along at a leisurely pace. If TNA had counted on stars like Scott Steiner, Rey Mysterio, or even Bill Goldberg for a little extra juice, once the initial “invasion” of talent in 2001 petered out, one by one, those stars showed up in WWE. There was an influx of ECW talent in the company’s second year (a precursor to EV2.0, if you will), and Raven quickly established himself as one of TNA’s most prominent wrestlers, quickly vaulting back to world title status, which he’d enjoyed back in Pennsylvania, but never in WWE or WCW.

Though the wrestling scene had ultimately proven that it couldn’t support two, let alone three, national promotions, buzz quickly developed that WWE had finally found another challenger. That’s been the constant bane of TNA, the demand that it somehow automatically replicate an experience that ultimately failed. Wrestling will never be able to continuously capture the attention of a mainstream audience. Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and The Rock are exceptions, not the rule. That may be a little tough to swallow, a context that’s difficult to understand, when even the core wrestling audience exhibits mainstream opinions more often than a basic interest in the art and science of what everyone has theoretically come to enjoy. Then again, the appeal of pure wrestling still has the 2007 stink on it, when the momentum that WWE’s Smackdown brand ran with for years collapsed in on itself in a couple of murders and a suicide.

I don’t mean to be too expansive here, but to be a tad realistic. ECW, for all the rabid support it had from its fanbase, something that far outlived the company itself, could never really compete with WWE or WCW, even when either company was at their lowest. The international flavor of wrestling that drew many fans to the matches that weren’t blood-soaked in hardcore mayhem had the effect of initiating the cruiserweight phenomenon, which was really just a way of reversing the trend Hulk Hogan had begun a decade earlier, when athleticism was less important than displays of power. Of course, the dirty secret was that the Hogan style if not the exact size was always the predominant form of professional wrestling. Even the fleet-footed Bruno Sammartino could never have gotten away with being champion for so long if he didn’t at least have the look of a bruiser. Ric Flair established a new style by stripping away the extraneous power elements of his most famous opponents, Harley Race and Dusty Rhodes, both of whom were far bigger than him, and let wrestling be as pure as possible. But he was more the exception than the rule, which was why Ricky Steamboat, Sting, and even “Macho Man” Randy Savage, all of whom were closer in style to Flair than Hogan, never quite reached the same level, even though they were routinely praised as the best wrestlers of their generation.

I don’t mean to obscure my points here, but what TNA offered was the best version of almost exactly the opposite of what most wrestling fans demanded, then and perhaps even now. It was like a supersized version of a territorial promotion, or the perfect example of what the independent scene that had replaced that idea could be. It offered dynamic wrestling, but without ready access to outsize personalities (and here I should add “in their prime,” because many older stars continued to appear, and on a more regular basis, as the years continued), that wrestling would always tend more toward what was never going to galvanize a wide audience. The cruiserweight phenomenon was a far bigger success than anyone ever realized. In fact, until TNA developed the X-division, cruiserweights had finally been accepted into the mainstream, as represented by Shawn Michaels’ 2002 comeback, when he was at last embraced as a fan favorite, a position he enjoyed until his retirement. (Anyone who argues his breakthrough came in 1996 wasn’t paying attention.)

This is not to say TNA hasn’t overly indulged in farcical antics over the years, but that these instincts are the lifeblood of a wrestling organization, and have been routinely relied upon for decades, by every single promotion, in any country you can think of, by the proudest and most shameless stars the industry has ever seen. So yeah, I’m a little tired of the argument that TNA doesn’t get any respect because it hasn’t earned any. The basic truth is, TNA is exactly the success, on whatever level you calculate it, that it is because that’s what is actually possible at the moment. It has produced a wide range of classic wrestling moments, built and enriched careers, established a legacy many times over, and is more than deserving of any wrestling fan’s respect. No, I don’t expect anything I have to say here to change the balance of the current landscape, but to suggest that for those currently working for, or anyone who may in the future, TNA, it’s okay to have a little pride. It was not such a bad decision for Sting to once again choose TNA over WWE.

For those of you who judge your perception of morale in the TNA locker room based on public antics and unfortunate behavior, I might suggest that no company, wrestling or otherwise, will always be able to maintain a perfect sense of happiness for its employees. There’s always something to be said for the hope that authority figures will always have the best interests of those employees in mind when they choose how to run their business, but sadly that’s not always the case, in wrestling or otherwise. To be a little more blunt, you can’t blame TNA itself for what Jeff Hardy last did in a wrestling ring. You can blame Jeff for agreeing to participate, when he obviously was in no condition to, and even those who let him walk onto a PPV like that, but you can’t judge a whole company for this one incident. (Hardy had proved for more than a year that he could conduct himself professionally, and was rewarded with a lengthy world title reign; it’s my opinion that TNA simply asked too much of him, in the end, especially considering the legal matters that shadowed much of that period.) You might as well argue that Michael Jordan shouldn’t have been playing basketball with the flu, but then, you can’t always predict results.

In my eyes, TNA has succeeded beyond the wildest of expectations, given that it was never bankrolled by billionaires. You would never have WWE, or the heyday of WCW, without all that money. TNA is about a love of wrestling, and I’m not just saying that in tandem with the latest gimmick and shot at “superstars.” That a promotion can achieve this level of awareness, and last this long, in decidedly shaky financial times, is remarkable enough. But just wait until you see the action in the ring…

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jabroni Companion #9

Switching gears a little again, time to examine a few more individual stars, three who have made themselves into modern icons, pillars within WWE, in separate but equally enduring ways.

XIV. Randy Orton

This guy was a WWE project seemingly from conception, a generational wrestler whose father had already been fairly famous within recent memory. Okay, so maybe “Ace” Cowboy Bob Orton was better known as a goon than a legitimate competitor, but he was certainly prominent for a few years, especially that persistent cast of his. Still, Randy easily eclipsed his father, almost from the start.

Debuting on Smackdown in 2002, Randy didn’t have much to distinguish himself, but by 2003 was drafted into the Evolution concept, theoretically as the future of the company. Injuries plagued the early period of this project, but Randy soon rebounded, and by the end of that year he’d already laid the groundwork for his future, including a feud with Mick Foley that would come to define his march to the WWE championship in 2004.

Maybe it was a turnaround the company had begun to reconsider, because Randy quickly lost that championship, and never had one of its kind again until the fall of 2007, more than three years later. By the time he was drafted back to Smackdown, once aspirations on Raw were claimed by Batista, he had to prove himself all over again. Few seem to appreciate how easily Randy embraced this phase of his career. He’d lost the chip on his shoulder, but found his star quality. This is where he truly learned how he worked best in the ring. This is where he mastered the RKO. All he needed was the time to earn back the respect of the fans. When the title scene finally opened back up, Randy found himself on Raw again, and in the perfect position when John Cena went out with an injury. He inherited more from Cena than he ever did from his old man.

Ironically, Triple H was far more accommodating this time around, and together they did much more than Batista ever got out of them. This by far the most lucrative period of his career. By the time Cena was back in the title scene, Randy had a legitimate peer to contend with, and he seemed to lose his way. That’s the way I see it. He grew less inspired. He formed Legacy, a knockoff version of Evolution, where every member was patterned after himself. Sure, he was clearly in control, but where did that really lead him, or them? We’re still waiting to find out. He transformed from a heel to a face, and had no idea what to do with that momentum. He spent plenty of times chasing championships with no real inspiration. He spent actual time as champion, with even less inspiration.

What’s the deal with Randy Orton? I think he grows a little too complacent. There always seems to be talk that he’s young enough to main event for decades, but he’s that rare wrestler who does not actually thrive on success. He needs challenges that aren’t so predictable. There was that one feud with Kofi Kingston, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. Unlike a Steve Austin or Rock, if he grows too comfortable with his particular quirks, he relies on them too much. Plenty of people say this works really well for him, but in order for that trance state to mean something, he needs something around it. It’s like he’s thinking about the end of the match the whole time. He’s best when he’s a fury of motion, not when he’s standing there with that possessed look, or coiling and fist-bumping for an RKO. Those things have their worth, but not as much as he seems to think.

Anyway, he does have plenty of time to work with it.

XV. John Cena

The flipside of Randy Orton always seems to be John Cena, who also debuted on Smackdown in 2002, but who seemed to have a whole series of opportunities to prove himself to the WWE faithful, who embraced every opportunity with the same amount of apathy. It was only when the company got solidly behind him that anyone really seemed to care one way or the other. In many ways, the career of John Cena is exactly like Hulk Hogan’s. If Vince McMahon hadn’t molded WWE in Hogan’s image, Hulk would have been just another “Superstar” Billy Graham, or Jesse Ventura. The other thing that Cena and Hogan have in common is the ability to know what works for them. You know a John Cena match like you know what Hogan will do in the ring, if he ever makes that one last comeback (and you know he’s always thinking about it, even during the latest surgery).

Even though I didn’t really care for the lame rap gimmick, I was fan of Cena’s early on. He clearly had a passion for wrestling, and every gift he needed. I kept waiting for him to reach the next level, never dreaming that he would eventually come to dominate it. With all due respect to JBL, but Smackdown belonged to Cena in 2004. It was inevitable that he would be the one to finally end JBL’s championship reign. The only left was for the company to make the commitment. When he was drafted to Raw later in 2005, it was the last thing Cena needed to complete his package. Is it really any wonder that when WWE finally announces a WrestleMania main event a whole year in advance, that match involves John Cena?

Unlike Randy Orton, Cena keeps finding ways to keep himself relevant, and it doesn’t always involve a championship. That was easily the most impressive thing about the Nexus angle last year, that the company didn’t think it was necessary to involve a big gold belt. In fact, it hurt that title more than John Cena, made it less relevant. But that’s just how important Cena is. He’s bigger than a big gold belt. No one else could have made Edge a world champion the way he did. Okay, so maybe a plague of injuries to top Smackdown stars could. If the company had saw fit to put Orton into a WrestleMania match with Cena in, say, 2006 or 2007, he would have a vastly different career today.

At this point, John Cena has nothing left to prove, except that match with The Rock. Anything else he does is icing on the cake. I don’t think he’ll be a world title contender after next year’s WrestleMania. He won’t have to be.

XVI. Rey Mysterio

Never has a more peculiar superstar dominated the imaginations of fans quite like Rey Mysterio. He’s far smaller than anyone could ever have expected from such a star, that’s so obvious that it doesn’t really need repeating. He’s a classic underdog story, but WWE has done the David/Goliath story so many times that it doesn’t even begin to explain him anymore. He is, simply put, one of the most spectacular performers to ever step foot into the squared circle.

His fans know that already, too, naturally. He’s had classic battles with the best wrestlers in the world, and he’s the rare opponent who can create magic by constantly and consistently doing the unexpected. Sure, in later years he’s developed a formula, but that’s only like patenting an invention. Who else could do what he does, anyway? John Morrison has been attempting to replicate this template, but the secret really does seem to lie in Rey’s size. Where Morrison can do amazing things, it’s really because no one else is doing them (or in the case of AJ Styles, not doing them anymore). He defies belief. Fans unconsciously interpret what they seem as unnatural, even though he constantly does it. When Rey does it, he gets away with it because that seems to be exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. He’s the perfect cruiserweight. Where others were exhibiting a style, Rey seems to be doing exactly what comes naturally. Mind you, I’m not actually making the case against John Morrison. That’s my only explanation, for why it works for one wrestler, and why it doesn’t for another.

Many fans today probably won’t realize it, but Rey actually went without the mask for a few years, during the last days of WCW. Kevin Nash, who later did the very same thing in TNA, chose to support the very kind of wrestler he wasn’t, and fans didn’t appreciate it then, either. Rey flew around the ropes with a pair of horns glued onto his head. I swear to god. But yeah, I think the mask is a part of it, too, because he looks so completely natural with it. Masks are a tradition for Mexican wrestlers, so there are plenty of wrestlers who compete with them on. Sin Cara, who was previously known as Mistico, is another in a long line of crossover stars who have proven that not all masks are created equal. Maybe Ultimo Dragon competes with Rey in this regard, but clearly not on equal footing. Rey’s is simple, and yet incredibly versatile. His mask is his charisma, and his ability in the ring, and the fact that when he does speak, he still seems likable, no matter the culture or language you bring with you.

I don’t have to try very hard to make Rey sound good, because he’s been doing it himself for years, and most often without the benefit of what many of the other top stars, whether in WWE or elsewhere, often enjoy. I think the only time he wrestled Shawn Michaels was for one of the Eddie Guerrero tribute shows. Can you imagine? His WrestleMania list of opponents and quality of matches rivals Undertaker’s. If you think about it, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. But the fans love him, and the company loves him. His knees don’t love him, though.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jabroni Companion #8

When you actually listen to other wrestling fans talk or comment on wrestling itself, you find that they often have a funny relationship with the action inside the ring. It’s weird, but more often than not they’re not really all that impressed with most matches, as if the thing they’re actively enjoying doesn’t really interest them all that much, that they’re simply waiting for that one moment, that one match, that truly seems to fulfill the potential of what they follow. In essence, they regard most of wrestling itself as so routine as to hardly be worth considering all that seriously. Take any blow-by-blow commentary of a typical wrestling show, and if you look at results for the most recent Raw or Impact Wrestling, you’ll quickly see what I mean. In one sense, maybe these guys are right, and maybe most wrestling really is junk wrestling, instantly disposable, and maybe most wrestlers, faced with the pressure of constantly performing throw just any old match together, completely uninspired, focused more on the demands of the particular timeslot they have than entertaining the fans. I would rather believe otherwise. When I watch a wrestling show, I actually have an easier time following a TV show than a PPV, when the pressure should theoretically be reversed, that the wrestlers should put more effort for the big card than the smaller one, but it’s always the reverse. It’s the TV matches where they must establish themselves, work what makes them special. On PPV, they’re expected to shine, and for some wrestlers, that’s the way they always wrestle (and for some of them, this always works). I’m not saying a quick match that’s designed to put one particular wrestler over is preferable to a competitive match, but rather that distinction shouldn’t always be necessary. A short match can be a competitive one, and if you make the distinction that a short match is a TV match, and a long one is a PPV match, if that makes it easier, than fine, we’ll go with that. I happen to like short matches. There are few wrestlers who can have compelling long matches, fewer than many observers usually recognize.

Anyway, that only brushes the top of what makes good wrestling matches, and I could probably write a whole series of columns just on that, and still only brush the top (and that’s essentially what makes a truly committed wrestling fan, not just the personalities that bring in viewers). The topic today narrows this subject a little, and maybe will give you an idea of what I truly appreciate in this regard:

XIII. Favorite Matches

What follows is a fairly relative ranking of encounters I’ve truly enjoyed over the years, and is something I’ve been working on for some time, and for the record, this is not particularly definitive. With time and opportunity, I would prefer to rank any number of TV matches that are eminently worthy of inclusion. Outlets like YouTube have made it far easier to access matches of this kind, but not all of us live on the Internet (and god knows I’ve certainly had my moments where I spent too many hours on it, and come to regret it every time; there’s a fair amount of addiction involved, an inability to stop once you get rolling, and I hope at some point there will be studies available to cite for exactly what kind of cumulative effect this actually has on someone), so I won’t try for that kind of list. Here’s one that references DVD listings for where these matches might be found in a physical sense.

1. Ric Flair vs. Shawn Michaels, WrestleMania XXIV (2008; DVD of same title)
The matches Michaels had with Undertaker at subsequent WrestleManias were all about WWE realizing how powerful a moment this match really was, a culmination of an entire career, of experience and familiarity, and emotion, and pure will, not to mention a mastery of ring psychology, and when all that comes together, it’s instant magic. Perfect opponents come together for the ultimate opportunity, and it has nothing to do with championships, which is something fans can sometimes forget, that a great match doesn’t have to have a title involved. That’s something Shawn Michaels realized very quickly after his comeback in 2002, the last year he wore a heavyweight belt. To imagine that he actually spent eight years without one, and maintained his status as an elite competitor (whether that was always acknowledged or not) is almost unbelievable, and something Ric Flair took years to realize himself (“Nature Boy” had after all assembled a record number of world titles in some twenty years, a trend that tapered off so gradually he never got used to the idea of not having one). Flair spent pretty much the same amount of time as Michaels’ comeback regaining his confidence, and arguably his last match was the moment he finally reclaimed it, and as a result is probably the best match of his career, the one moment he could really share with his legions of fans, and who knew that this what he’d been waiting for all that time? Just imagine if Ric Flair had been more like Ricky Steamboat…?

2. Shawn Michaels vs. Bret Hart, WrestleMania XII (1996; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
As wrestling contests of pure exhibition go, there will never really be a match that tops this one, a deliberately staged Iron Man, sixty-minute match where not a single pinfall was recorded until, technically, the time limit had expired. Before that, it was simply move for move, will versus will, a show of endurance, and not a single shenanigan to taint the results. This is what many wrestling fans have always considered the ideal, and so there’s very little argument needed to justify its inclusion. I don’t believe Hart ever had a better match, and for Michaels, it was the standard for everything that came after, which was probably a tall order, even for him. For that reason alone, can you blame him for avoiding any immediate rematches?

3. Shawn Michaels vs. John Cena, Raw 4/23/07 (THE SHAWN MICHAELS STORY)
This is the famous near-hour long match that followed their encounter at WrestleMania 23, put on to cover the absence of Randy Orton from the show. They had nothing to prove, and could have easily phoned it in, but instead engaged in a contest that easily eclipsed their earlier encounter, and proved that Cena was, after all, a consummate wrestler, who simply didn’t need this particular kind of match against the majority of his opponents. Who else better to bring this performance out of him than Michaels? Given that “HBK” is in the top three matches on this list, can you guess who I pick as the best pure wrestler I’ve ever seen?

4. Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin, WrestleMania 13 (1997; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
When he called himself the “Excellence of Execution,” what Bret Hart always served to obscure was that he could just have easily replaced Ric Flair as the “Dirtiest Player in the Game,” maybe something he learned in his wars with Jerry Lawler and his brother Owen. This match is the prime example of that impulse, one of the grittiest matches to never degenerate into a hardcore mess. Like the Iron Match against Shawn Michaels, this was a contest of pure will for the “Hitman,” and never was that particular moniker more appropriate than in this grudge match with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who was still making his way through the ranks of WWE at the time. The most dramatic Sharpshooter ever actually caused Austin to pass out from blood-loss, for him preferable to submitting. Hart didn’t win this match. The fans did.

5. Batista vs. Eddie Guerrero, No Mercy (2005; DVD of same title)
This might best be remembered as Guerrero’s final PPV, but for me, it’ll always be remembered as the most heartbreaking and bittersweet moment in wrestling history. You’ve got to remember that he had spent most of the preceding year as a heel, feuding with Rey Mysterio, and fans genuinely hated him. This was only a year after he’d finally become a world champion. What many fans didn’t appreciate was that the feud with Mysterio made him a legitimate player on the Smackdown brand, a man with a story and a mission, and the match and the lead-up with Batista was a direct culmination of all this work. The story of this match was that he was struggling to turn over the leaf, but Batista didn’t believe him, and so this brought everything Eddie had ever learned into the contest, both his wrestling skills and ability to draw the fans into the match, teasing heel tactics, forcing Batista to address something other than what his opponent was actually doing. Other than Flair/Michaels, this is the best story I ever saw in a match. Clearly the direction past this match would have seen a lot more from these two opponents, and all the talk from the McMahons in the tributes after Eddie’s death saying he would have been champion again…they clearly weren’t empty words. When I write about Batista directly, I’ll get into it a little more, but suffice it to say, no career was more affected by Eddie Guerrero’s death than Batista’s. This match would only have been the beginning, and it was already a classic. Now it’s simply timeless.

6. The Rock vs. Hulk Hogan, WrestleMania X8 (2002; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
The Rock had a lot of matches like this, maybe not on this scale, but with this kind of feel, but Hulk Hogan, who had tried many times, never really did, and maybe that’s why there’s such a contrast between their careers, and such electricity in this encounter. Let me explain in a little more detail. The Rock became one of the most famous wrestlers in history, but he never had to carry the company on his shoulders quite in the same way as Hogan. He had these matches against men like Steve Austin, Brock Lesnar, Bill Goldberg, and only some of these were for world titles. WWE had Hogan in this kind of match for most of the first decade of WrestleMania, and they were always for a world title, and he was always the one to come out on top. Anyway, contrasts aside, this one was history from the word “go.” You don’t need me to explain it.

7. Kurt Angle vs. Eddie Guerrero, Summer Slam (2004; DVD of same title)
Angle seems to have become something of a polarizing figure; either you’re in awe of his abilities, or you think he’s one-dimensional and boring. I’m squarely in the former category. I believe he’s incomparable, and that’s a little of why this is his first match on the list, because he’s so hard to match up with, even if your name happens to be Shawn Michaels. This match is actually a rematch from WrestleMania XX, and is equally obscured by circumstances that put the spotlight elsewhere, and subsequently a tad lost to history (both cards prominently feature Chris Benoit). It’s actually the rematch aspect that puts this one over the edge, past its predecessor, and onto this list, the momentum evident throughout the encounter, even though Angle had spent a fair number of months in between outside of the ring to help his body recover. It’s equally the most unsung story of that year, the feud between Angle and Guerrero. To watch Kurt seethe at the thought that Eddie actually outsmarted him is like watching the evolution of a wrestler who was already pretty good, but who has suddenly realized there’s a whole new level to reach for (the spirit of his early TNA days and epic feud with Samoa Joe). This one’s basically like watching Bret Hart deliberately try to reach the point where he’ll make Steve Austin pass out in that sharpshooter. Angle is bloodthirsty the whole match, looking for his ankle lock at every opportunity, and using Guerrero’s previous tactics against him (when he unlaced his boot at WrestleMania so his foot would slip out of the maneuver). It’s brilliant ring psychology.

8. The Ultimate Warrior vs. Randy Savage, WrestleMania VII (1991; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
The would-be heirs of Hulk Hogan in the match they were apparently destined to have against each other, after both had had their chances and been tossed aside by WWE, never to be trusted with the opportunity again (which was certainly true of Warrior, and pretty much with Savage). Never mind that this could easily have been the main event, and just bask in the drama of it, another culmination match, Warrior’s ultimate statement with the company (to watch his desperation for victory unfold easily eclipses anything he did with Hogan the previous year). It’s no surprise in hindsight that his career went nowhere after this, since there really was nowhere left to go. Even on shaky legs with the company, Hogan was still preferred over Warrior. How do you work with that?

9. Ric Flair vs. Lex Luger, Starrcade 1988 (STARRCADE: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION)
In many ways, this is that exact match, substituting Luger for Warrior. Watching Luger’s emotions develop during this match is a revelation for anyone who ever wondered if the “Total Package” was truly invested in wrestling. You’ll never wonder again, or that is, you’ll be wondering something else entirely, and that’s how all that passion seemed to go nowhere. You’ll wonder why Flair was perfectly happy to work extended programs with Sting, but not with Luger. You’ll certainly scratch your head over the fact that WWE found it perfectly acceptable to screw Luger out of the world title. For shear drama, no one ever quite match Ric Flair like Lex Luger. At least on this occasion.

10. Kurt Angle vs. Mr. Anderson, Lockdown (2010; DVD of same title)
I talked a little about why this match worked so perfectly when discussing Anderson directly a little earlier in the Jabroni Companion, so suffice it to say, this was a perfect moment, unlike anything he’d experienced in WWE. That’s right, I just included TNA in the phrase “perfect moment.” I would very much like to include an Angle/AJ Styles match on this list, and perhaps at some later point, when I’ve studied my DVDs a little further, I’ll slap myself for not doing so (they had certainly reached a point in their working dynamic in early 2010 to equally meet the same criteria used for many of the matches in this top ten), but for me, this Angle/Anderson encounter is more important, and better, and is directly responsible for finally making a world champion of Anderson (twice-over now!). Everyone talked about this match at the time, but it was still overlooked by the end of the year, and that’s simply incredible to me. To me, Anderson is very much like Luger and Warrior in terms of what he brought to this match, which was after all not even for a world title, yet it fought it with an intensity that reflected and augmented the kind of acumen he’d displayed throughout his career to this point, but Angle was able to bring it to another level, with a classic finish that reflects another match later in the list, sheer bravado that wasn’t necessarily called for but put the whole encounter in greater context than what came before it.

11. Sting vs. Hulk Hogan, Starrcade 1997 (STARRCADE: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION)
WCW wasn’t alone in hyping this one to a remarkable degree, and that alone helps make the case. Arguably Hogan’s most important match with that company (something he himself didn’t seem to appreciate at the time), and easily Sting’s, even though earlier in the decade he’d been groomed to be the new Ric Flair, which was already quite an accomplishment. Maybe not the greatest quality of actual competition, but that’s not always the most important factor in a truly memorable wrestling match (which as I’ve been suggesting requires intangibles that a lot of fans don’t often appreciate, much like Hogan). Also notable for the participation of Bret Hart, a moment that’s often overlooked in the overall legacy of the Montreal Screwjob (a topic that will actually round out the Jabroni Companion), an element that even overcomes the fact that, technically speaking, the finish was botched and thus obscured the impact of the match once it had actually happened.

12. Eddie Guerrero vs. Dean Malenko, Starrcade 1997 (STARRCADE: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION)
There is something a certain amount of exaggeration involved in wrestling. That is, in all fairness, one of the essential ingredients. So when I say that a lot of people tended to exaggerate the importance of the cruiserweight division in WCW, hopefully I won’t be stoned immediately. What made the division work was a confluence of elements, more than the mere existence of the division, and history has generally proven that even those elements, when moved to a different context, did not immediately prove the theory that the cruiserweights, given the chance, could have easily carried the company, if they’d simply been given the chance. Eddie Guerrero, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, and Chris Benoit, who arguably were the greatest cruiserweights to emerge from the WCW cruiserweight era, never reached the Shawn Michaels level in WWE, and even Shawn Michaels probably never reached the level of Randy Savage. So when I say the impact of the cruiserweights was exaggerated, don’t take it as a disparaging remark, or an inability to appreciate their contributions. (Even TNA, which in many ways tried even harder to make their equivalent division, “X,” dominate the spotlight, never quite succeeded, and they never had any qualms of elevating their signature star, AJ Styles, participate in the main event.) To wit, even though I just talked about the intended spotlight of Starrcade 1997, I must always acknowledge that the match that actually stole the show, much like Savage/Steamboat at WrestleMania III, was Guerrero/Malenko. Malenko was so beloved by wrestling purists that he captured the top spot on the annual PWI 500 ranking that year (to be noted is the fact that this match was well outside that particular grading period, which is something of an irony). The Guerrero in this match is far different from the one to be found in the previous matches on this ranking, which again, as I stressed when talking about him earlier in the Jabroni Companion, was one of the reasons he became my favorite wrestler. You only need to see this match to appreciate both of them all over again.

13. 40-man rumble match, Royal Rumble (2011; DVD of same title)
Easily my favorite rumble match, which I knew even before I watched it, and when I finally had the chance, it confirmed everything that I believed worked so well, the flawless execution of each participant’s actions during the match, how every single wrestler and angle as they were then relevant were used to perfection. More often than not the rumble match is chaotic, maybe with a few moments designed to facilitate certain future events, and more often than not simply geared toward the finish, with momentum for the winner toward WrestleMania. Alberto Del Rio won this one. He had barely started with WWE at this point, and he didn’t win his match against Edge a few months later, and he still isn’t champion. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there was everything right about all the other moments that made up this match.

14. Batista vs. The Great Khali, No Mercy (2007; DVD of same title)
The longer Batista pursued the Smackdown, often unsuccessfully, the less respect he got as a wrestler, and it goes without saying that Khali never really got any, and yet this Punjabi Prison Match was magic. The PPV is probably better known for Randy Orton finally reclaiming world champion status (and the series of matches that followed, also including Triple H and Umaga), but I dare you to tell me with a straight face that it wasn’t awesome when Batista leaped from the ring to the bamboo cage and narrowly beat Khali to the outside. That moment, the ending, alone deserves immortality.

15. Samoa Joe vs. CM Punk, 12/4/04 (STARS OF HONOR)
Most of my experience with Ring of Honor can be summed up with a single word: limited. This is not meant to be a judgment on the promotion that quietly amassed a reputation for some of the best wrestling, and wrestlers, of the past decade, but rather an acknowledgment that my access itself is limited, so I was pretty grateful to find a few compilation DVDs, and this is the best match from those sets. Joe is someone I’ve often considered lazier than the hype around him, a little too comfortable with his reputation, which is not to say I don’t appreciate his legacy, but that he could have been so much more than he’s currently amounted to, whereas Punk, whom I’d love to have represented more on this list, has been hungry throughout his career, and it’s shown. I don’t know that his true WWE potential has been reached yet, so this example of his ROH work will have to suffice.

16. Chris Sabin vs. Alex Shelley, Genesis (2009; DVD of same title, included in a “Cross the Line” triple pack)
Sabin and Shelley are TNA’s unsung all-stars, and this is their shining moment, easily. Most fans now know them as the Motorcity Machine Guns, and the more exposure they receive from their tag team work the better, but they’re just at the cusp of joining AJ Styles as the signature homegrown talent of the company.

17. Kurt Angle vs. Jeff Hardy, No Surrender (2010; DVD of same title, included in a twin pack)
Hardy long ago won the respect of the fans, eclipsing his familiar daredevil tactics with sound wrestling technique, but his career has been so topsy-turvy that those same fans have found it easier and easier to forget just how good he is (which may or may not be what is currently troubling him, but that’s just speculation). Anyway, he’s one of the few wrestlers who can genuinely keep up with Kurt Angle, and it’s the momentum gained from this match that propelled him to the TNA world title. Forget how that reign ended, and appreciate the work that led to it.

18. Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar, WrestleMania XX (2004; DVD of same title)
It’s easy to remember the notoriety of the match, but it was difficult even then to remember it. Yeah, even in 2011 neither is very likely to make a WWE comeback, so question where their hearts were all you want, but Goldberg and Lesnar still gave everything they needed to for a memorable clash of titans, the likes of which are so rare that is was as hard for fans to understand what they were watching as to get over the fact that neither would be around after it. So why care? Because it’s still a standout match a unique encounter, and something that absolutely refused, defied, expectations. These days old WWE stars will work a climax for an entire match, and fans will call it genius. When two dominant stars refuse to bludgeon each other like sacks of meat, it’s seen as a letdown. What else could they do but feel each other out? What else could they do but surprise each other? It was like an old school test of strength, only instead of standing there gripping each other’s fingers, they exchanged maneuvers. Sometimes a finisher really should be a finisher. Goldberg always had the edge in that department, so that probably dictated the outcome, as it always should have. And then Steve Austin gave each of them a Stunner.

19. Triple H vs. Randy Orton, WrestleMania 25 (2009; DVD of same title)
Like the above match, calculated to defy expectations, and worked better for it, once you get past said expectations. Bloodier does not always equal better.

20. Hulk Hogan vs. Goldberg, Nitro 7/6/98 (HISTORY OF THE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP)
Speaking of expectations, Goldberg is the only rookie in history to basically have his way with an icon, and have the fans totally lap it up. If WCW had somehow figured out how to maintain that momentum, it’d still be in business today. Instead a mediocre reign followed, then an ignominious defeat, no more championships, increasingly dubious fans, and bankruptcy.

21. Team WCW vs. Team nWo, Fall Brawl: War Games (1996; THE RISE AND FALL OF WCW)
Probably the best match to come out of the early days of the New World Order, and conveniently enough, the one that led directly into the climactic match between Sting and Hulk Hogan listed earlier. No real coincidence there. The best thing about the nWo was that it added a whole layer of intrigue to WCW that hadn’t existed there previously, whether with individual wrestlers or any previous angle, and there’s a whole story and momentum to this match that maybe didn’t even need a bogus Sting to exist. The company had been doing War Games cage matches for years previous to this, but all due apologies to the Four Horsemen, was never truly relevant until then.

22. Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio, Smackdown 9/9/05 (VIVA LA RAZA: THE LEGACY OF EDDIE GUERRERO)
After an extended series of PPV matches, the chemistry and potential between these two should have been exhausted, but that simply wasn’t the case. Mysterio had won all of those; now it was Guerrero’s turn, and he did it in spectacular fashion. Long after the standard cage match had been devalued and relegated to TV, Eddie won the match by climbing out the door, and then re-entering to deliver an emphatic frogsplash, an act of sheer bravado Kurt Angle would later emulate against Mr. Anderson. Who said there wasn’t any drama left?

23. Hulk Hogan vs. Randy Savage, WrestleMania V (1989; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
“Macho Man” had every reason to be bitter; after a years-long build and the chance to replace Hogan as WWE’s top star, he was about to be tossed aside and virtually forgotten. Yet once again he brought the most energy to the ring, bouncing all over the place, leaping over the top rope, doing everything possible to make the occasion special. He lost, but in that moment it didn’t matter. Rest in peace, Randy.

24. Tatanka vs. Shawn Michaels, WrestleMania IX (1993; WRESTLEMANIA: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY)
The best match on the card didn’t include Hogan, Hart, or Yokozuna, but rather the rising star Shawn Michaels, and a wrestler in the midst of an extended winning streak, who had all the potential in the world at this point, and everything to prove. That man was Tatanka. His career quickly went nowhere. But like Savage above, in this moment, that didn’t matter. He was the first man to make Michaels the “Showstopper” at WrestleMania.

25. Motorcity Machine Guns vs. Beer Money, Genesis (2011; DVD of same title)
The only real tag team match on this list may indicate to you how often this particular wrestling fan believes that division has truly reached its potential. To make it plain, not often. Yet these two teams, which during 2010 had developed a unique chemistry that had finally propelled Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley to prominence, not only eclipsed all their previous work, but clearly demonstrated how truly great tag teams should perform, with a clash of styles that actually complement each other, and propel all involved not only to a great tag team match, but a great match period.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Jabroni Companion #7

When it comes to icons, wrestling has certainly had its fair share, defining performers and personalities, but two of them are so large that they overcame incredible odds to achieve lasting success. One was an Immortal who transformed the business to accommodate his outsize physique and persona. There other was a Phenom who ignored all the rules of plausibility and grew into a role where his incredible endurance itself overcame his character.

XI. Hulk Hogan

He became so big that his reputation was something he could never actually live up to. Vince McMahon effectively began the modern era of professional wrestling by reshaping WWE around Hulk Hogan, spending years, and the formative development of WrestleMania cultivating a dominant star who only five years earlier wouldn’t have lasted more than a year with the strap (see: Superstar Billy Graham), and whose reign as champion even as it was didn’t really compare to that of Bruno Sammartino. Yet Hogan eclipsed both Graham and Sammartino (a bitterness the Italian Stallion still harbors) in short order, perfecting a match type that would prove durable through all the phases of his career, both when he was beloved, and actively reviled.

Everyone knows Hogan thrived best in his original run with WWE. The steroid scandal of the early nineties cost him heavily, took him out of the championship rotation, and led to a brief exile, only for a comeback with WCW, where he was immediately pushed back to the top. Times were different, though, and without a clear mandate, something he’d always enjoyed in WWE, Hogan began to feel like a pariah. Then he famously turned heel, and the act worked so well even industry professionals forgot that he had long ago made himself into the consummate wrestling attraction, the entity everyone had to talk about, or react against.

It’s a little weird to think, just in terms of parallels, the kinds of double standards that always seem to work against Hogan. In 1996, during the first act of the New World Order angle, he’d was celebrating only his thirteenth year as a wrestling attraction. In contrast, Sammartino, while no longer champion (the company was looking for a new face after ten years, and went through Graham, Pedro Morales, and Bob Backlund, a sort of prototypical Kurt Angle at that point in his career, before settling on Hogan), was still beloved, and still doing exactly the same routine. Thirteen years after first winning world championship gold, the Undertaker also attempted to reinvent himself, in reverse, actually, returning to the “Deadman” role after a few years as an “American Badass.” Do you even want to consider Ric Flair in this equation? Thirteen years into his championship career, the “Nature Boy” was, you guessed it, battling Hogan, much as he had Harley Race, Sting, even Ricky Steamboat.

When you think about the harassment he got for the Starrcade match against Roddy Piper, what do you honestly think about the “legends” matches Undertaker has been having not thirteen years but two decades into the peak of his career?

Hogan’s talent for reinvention, knowing what worked for him, and how it worked for the fans, was often unappreciated both by bookers and the fans themselves. The nWo for him ground to a halt sometime in 1998, and disaster really began to strike in 1999, when WCW lost all confidence in him, eve though he’d had extremely valuable programs with at least Sting and Goldberg during that run. He was seen as a past-his-prime liability. Yet somehow, just when he was at his lowest, 2002 rolls around, Vince comes calling again, and Hulkamania ends up running wild all over again, thanks to another blockbuster match, against The Rock. The thing nobody ever seemed to learn during all of this? Hulk Hogan creates seminal moments in wrestling history. He can do it in the ring (okay, not anymore, obviously), and if handled right (read: TNA, why are you hassling him with Eric Bischoff ?) with his reputation alone. By itself, a leg drop at the end of a match is not really all that exciting, especially when this is something he’d done for years. But a leg drop at the end of a match no one knew he was participating in, a moment that completely redefined his relationship with the wrestling business (something WWE has endlessly recreated, most often at the end of a WrestleMania main event, and never quite to the same effect), that’s news.

I wish more people had cared when Jeff Hardy did the same thing last year. That was TNA’s money shot. Who did he have to thank for it? Hulk Hogan.

Did he sometimes act out of paranoid egotism, effectively bury the momentum of those who might have succeeded him? No doubt. Was he better for this business than anyone else from his generation? You bet. Was he the best thing that ever happened to it? Not a chance. But you don’t need everything to have a career like that. Sometimes he was accused of putting himself before the business, but I think the real truth was, and remains, that the people who do business with him are often at a loss as what to do with him. The power of Hulkamania will always be that Hogan himself is capable of rising above a less than ideal situation.

XII. Undertaker

“The Streak” is a manufactured event for every WrestleMania we’re privileged to see this man perform in. Most of the 19-0 wins come against foes and matches that are well beneath the mystique. This doesn’t really matter. That’s not what it’s about. Undertaker is WWE’s new Hulk Hogan, which even Hogan couldn’t do anything about, which even WWE’s own early mishandling of the “Deadman” couldn’t do anything about. Where Hogan was most often defined as a champion, Undertaker has steadily represented himself as the most legitimate wrestler to ever put his name in with a bad gimmick. He used to do this by no-selling, but eventually built a repertoire that put even the most gifted technical competitors to shame, the ones everyone wished had more success, but never had the mind for the game that he assembled after a long career that in its origins almost mocks the wrestler we know and celebrate today.

Undertaker became a more serious force in WWE the moment the company realized that the only way Bret Hart or Lex Luger could be the man to topple Yokozuna was to get him out of the way. A funny thing happened. Once he came back, he became undeniable. A silly program was crafted, a fake Undertaker introduced, and the real one proved himself in more ways than was strictly necessary at this particular Summer Slam, in the transition days of 1994. The deconstruction began in earnest soon after. The treasured urn manager Paul Bearer always kept with him at ringside became the target of a restless campaign from his enemies. Bearer himself betrayed him. Mankind appeared, more bizarre and suicidal than Undertaker, who had always handled himself with dignity, could ever have been. When the company needed a savior in 1997, a year of constant turmoil, that man turned out to be the “Deadman.” It was at this point, when he was treated more like Ric Flair than Hulk Hogan, that perhaps everyone began to see just how versatile, and valuable, he really was.

Hogan never managed to craft a disciple quite like Kane, a man who blatantly copied much of the same template that had made Undertaker a cornerstone of WWE for almost a decade by that point. By making a sort of Mankind version of the “Deadman,” the company suddenly found itself with a challenge that would definitely place Undertaker at the next level, something that proved more of a challenge than it first appeared. He became more demonic, in this attempt at a place in the driving storylines of WWE. He went so far in this direction that he had to abandon the otherworldly gimmick entirely, in fact, and become a “big dog,” as close to a straight brawler as he ever came. That’s probably the only way Brock Lesnar would have ever wrestled him, the only way it would have made sense.

Then, I guess, he realized there was no future, nothing he could use to extend his career for as long as he liked. So the “Deadman” returned in 2004. It wasn’t for a few more years that he cultivated the refined tactician he remains to this day. It wasn’t for a few more years that he became a default champion, a Ric Flair AND Hulk Hogan for the Smackdown brand. Why put the belt on him? Well, why not? Who better for legitimacy? That’s what it was like for a while, and it certainly worked, but as it always seemed to, that phase ran out of steam, before anyone really seemed to appreciate it. (I’m not just saying this because I figure it would have been better for CM Punk to win that feud.)

Three straight WrestleMania career matches, two against Shawn Michaels, one (actually, a second) against Triple H, and a feud he soundly lost to Kane, and it seems clear that Undertaker, who has regularly taken sabbaticals for most of his WWE career, is almost ready to finally call it quits. You probably won’t see a lot of him in 2011. The Mayan calendar comes to an end in 2012, and so does this career. The legacy, however, is just beginning. No one creates more drama in the ring than the Undertaker. Just imagine what his final match will look like.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jabroni Companion #6

The wrestlers I talked about last time were either all big stars or those still building toward legendary careers, even John Morrison, who at this point, even without the world championships, has built a considerable legacy and mystique that will be cherished and analyzed for generations. There are others, though, who will never reach even that level, sometimes through no fault of their own, because sometimes, that’s just how this business works. These are my favorite underdogs, these are the ones lost to:

X. Wasted Potential

Inasmuch as wrestling itself is a subjective sport, where winners are based entirely on the needs of the moment and where that moment might lead, and fans have a huge part in that when they decide to respond, it’s hard to sometimes step back and objectively report on the stars who could’ve meant so much more than they ultimately did. Most of them can be identified by tentative, even perennial pushes they received in their promotions, which for those they connect with, can become agonizing after a long period rooting for them, with very little to show for it. These are the wrestlers who end up looking, and not to put this too harshly, like jokes, and seem like they can easily be forgotten, even dismissed. “They had their chance,” you’ll hear, “and they blew it.”

I don’t ken to that sort of logic. Sometimes it really is a matter of too many stars, too little time. Shawn Michaels waited years to become a world champion. So did Steve Austin. Imagine if HBK had never accomplished his goal. Can you say “Marty Jannetty”? His former Rockers partner kept resurfacing, and it wasn’t as if anyone ever said anything bad about his work in the ring. It was just, Shawn got all the attention, all the chances, and was kept on the roster until the moment finally came. It was the same for Bret Hart, even. By the time he was called on to wear the big strap, it seemed as if every other possibility had already been exhausted, and even then, the company spent a year keeping it away from him with a wrestler who was his polar opposite. John Cena first competed for a world title in 2003, and yet didn’t capture one until 2005. I could go on and on with examples just of those who eventually “fulfilled their potential,” but what about those who didn’t?

Andrew Martin, who competed for most of his career as Test, may be one of the biggest examples I can think of. He was set up to be something of the second coming of Kevin Nash, and yet, like a lot of that breed, nothing ever really came of it. He had his closest brush with success during the McMahon-Helmsley Era in 1999-2000, when he was Stephanie’s intended groom, which led into a mini feud with Triple H, who was otherwise occupied with a dozen other challengers, which happened to include Mr. McMahon himself, and not to mention The Rock, just as the “Great One” was entering the period of his greatest popularity. A lot of things can be said about what held Test back, with the biggest of them being that he was never that charismatic a personality, and that perhaps he never quite solidified a style for his matches. Still, WWE saw enough potential in him that he stuck around and was a featured player for years, in a variety of roles, many of which might have pushed him to the next level, if only a window had been there. He was a classic victim of circumstances. When he was with the company, there wasn’t a need for a Kevin Nash. Even Kevin Nash found that out. Even during a brief comeback during the early ECW brand era, when Test finally brought his physical talents to a peak, his reputation spoiled his potential. Sadly, of course, he died young, and all that potential became a moot point. That doesn’t mean that his career as a professional wrestler should be viewed as a failure.

The next man I’ll address has been known by many names, and never reached near the level of even Test. He also, if you’ll mind a little rhyming, liked to compete in a dress. His name, during this period, was Vito, and he’s easily one of the biggest victims of fans not appreciating what’s right in front of them imaginable. They treated him like he was Rico, the gay stylist who actively sought jeers as part of his gimmick, when what Vito should have elicited was cheers. “The toughest man to ever wear a dress,” is how he used to be described, and that should have been it, because his wrestling skills were phenomenal. He knew how to work a match, how to make it dynamic, how to work a submission hold (which very few wrestlers ever bother with), and how, even if it did not ultimately work in his favor, to motivate the audience. There’s no reason why Vito shouldn’t have become one of the most popular wrestlers WWE had during his brief tenure with the Smackdown brand. He had more natural charisma than John Cena, and this is coming from someone who willfully suffered through Cena’s horrid rap gimmick and considered him a breakout star in the early months of 2004, when he was becoming the secret MVP of Smackdown, a role Vito might have assumed, given the chance.

Speaking of MVP, there’s also MVP himself, a wrestler who very quickly and easily established himself as a franchise player, so easily and naturally that it was held against him, and the role he inhabited was already too good to replace. There was literally nothing he could do, unless he was finally given the nod for greater things, for world championship gold. He was never given that chance, and never even experienced a slight flirtation with that level. He’s one of the many victims of the brand era. For every John Cena, there is an MVP.

Tatanka was one of my early favorites. In hindsight he’s very much an Ultimate Warrior substitute, a wrestler with a mystical drive and energy, who can command the ring and the attention of the audience, and there was only ever one thing holding him back: lack of any charisma on the mic. You could easily argue that this was one thing he never needed, but obviously WWE thought differently, and so even a lengthy undefeated streak ultimately meant nothing, came to a dramatic defeat, repackaging, a heel turn he could do nothing with, and then obscurity, and the few odd meaningless comebacks. He could have been so much more, given the chance.

Crush was another star WWE gave an untold number of chances to, and he adapted many times and successfully fulfilled what was required of him, but what he lacked was the chance to be the spotlight heel, and he was always in the wrong era. He would have done better with just a decade’s shift, might have been that foe who forced Hulk Hogan to face a worthy challenge, and not just a manufactured one. That wasn’t something the company ever needed when Crush was actually wrestling. Yokozuna was such a massive obstacle that in his best moment Crush was still forced to play second-fiddle.

Anyway, one of my unabashed favorite was Paul Birchall, and he seems to embody everything that ever went wrong for wrestlers of this type. He had all the gifts he needed in the ring. He had the look, he had a persona, and he had the opportunity. And then Vince McMahon allowed Paul to be transformed into a pirate, and then Vince determined that this pirate gimmick had no future (this despite the movie character Jack Sparrow only just becoming a craze). I loved “Pirate” Paul Birchall. I want to make that clear. Even though it wasn’t necessarily necessary to put Paul over, it was still something he was inexplicably able to make work. Even his breathtaking C-4 somersault slam, rechristened “Walking the Plank,” fit. Except even without Vince’s kiss of death, it never went anywhere. He was made into fodder for Bobby Lashley. Paul Birchall, who could have revamped the whole face of Smackdown with the personality of a brawler who could gracefully soar through the air, was deemed to be inconsequential. Paul and the pirate were soon tossed back into the sea. He resurfaced a few years later, and actually spent more time with WWE than his previous tenure, but his spirit seemed to be broken. The price of the contract this time seemed to be that he was stripped of everything that made him special. By the end, he was busy arguing that “The Hurricane” had to be Gregory Helms. Well…Is that really what the “Ripper” was best for?

Even mentioning the name Orlando Jordan now conjures bizarre images, thanks to Orlando himself, who has updated the homophobic gimmick for the 21st century but attempting to make it cleanly bisexual. Mr. Jordan, that is a distinction that makes no difference at all. Here’s a guy who could have become something of a replacement Rock, having trained with that clan, and adopted many of the same stylings, and yet eventually found himself dismissed as the new Virgil, the “Chief of Staff” for JBL, and the guy who kept tapping out in record time to Chris Benoit’s Crippler Crossface. It didn’t seem to matter that Jordan began evolving as a performer, that he grew more comfortable on the mic, and even put on brave and innovative struggles against the Crossface, something normally reserved for talent far above his level. Once deemed a joke, always a joke, and the worst of it is that Jordan himself eventually came to embrace it. Not in a good way, sir. One of the sorriest stories possible.

Petey Williams, if TNA could ever have found itself capable of supporting an X division star not named “A.J. Styles,” could easily have become one of the biggest names in wrestling, but instead became something of an undersized joke himself. Imagine if this had happened to Rey Mysterio. Just a damn shame that everyone seems perfectly happy to have let this happen.

Same, too, with Sonjay Dutt, who couldn’t have tried harder to work the charisma he had, and the skills he possessed, all to nothing much at all. Dutt and Williams were like the Dean Malenko of TNA, the workers who didn’t seem to have to work at all. It’s no longer, sadly, a Dean Malenko world.

It never belonged to the likes of Sylvester Terkay. Whereas someone like Ken Anderson, who will always have a brash personality to fall back on, can work against having a wrestling style that defies expectations, this was never to be for Terkay, who could have been another Smackdown star to transform perceptions, but was quickly abandoned. At least Elijah Burke still has the chance to salvage some of his legacy.

Jimmy Yang, who became the most improbable redneck in wrestling history in an effort to bridge an impossible gap, is like WWE’s version of Dutt and Williams, someone with phenomenal talent, but no way to make it work effectively in the context available to him.

Jamie Noble had a number of chances available to him, but became another victim of an unfortunate gimmick. Seems wrestling fans aren’t too keen on supporting trailer trash. Sucks, too, because Noble had the ability to surpass the remarkable stature of, yes, Dean Malenko.

Marc Mero, who once competed as a wrestling version of Little Richard, and was eventually eclipsed by Rena “Sable” Lesnar, had incredible potential, but circumstances just kept getting in his way. Could have been the new “Superfly.” Could have been the first MMA-style wrestler. Could have been great. Never got the chance.

Then, of course, there’s Carlito. Grew incredibly frustrated with WWE, and there’s a damn good reason, because he was never allowed to do anything but what he had, like MVP, done from the start, which was, like Scott Hall as Razor Ramon, become an instant star. WWE, and its fans, really don’t like that sort of thing, apparently. You have to earn it. And sometimes, even when you do, it’s either not enough, or too late.

That’s just the way it goes, sometimes.
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