Thursday, July 28, 2011

Jabroni Companion #14

Just to warn you in advance, I’m going to make a fairly shocking juxtaposition with this batch of wrestlers. It’ll be obvious soon enough…

XXVIII. Bruno Sammartino

For a generation of wrestling fans, “Da Brune” was the biggest star in all of professional wrestling, and like their idol came to believe, things were never the same, never quite as good again, when that era came to an end. That era, specifically, runs from about 1963, when he captured the WWE championship for the first time, to 1980, when he lost a bloody steel cage match to one-time pupil Larry Zbyszko.

This was well before my time. I knew about Bruno from his reputation, but never had a chance to see him in action, except later, on DVDs. I quickly deduced that his remarkable fleetness indeed made him a standout, despite whatever other differences in overall style might have made his matches difficult to follow from a modern perspective. I probably would have been a fan.

I was disturbed, however, the more I heard about him, his bitterness toward professional wrestling so overwhelming that he essentially deleted himself from the public record. He was not a fan of the changes Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan brought about only a few years after his heyday. I guess I’ll never really understand why, and will just have to suspect that it’s because Bruno himself was not involved in the explosion of popularity that resulted. Anything else, any other consideration, is superfluous. Wrestling is wrestling. It’s not as if he attempted to bring his fame to another promotion, one that more closely adhered to his ethics (imagine a Ric Flair-Sammartino feud!). He simply withdrew, after of course attempting to oversee his son’s potential in-ring career, which quickly fizzled. Perhaps he was a victim of politics.

Or maybe he couldn’t stand believing that the man who was a legend in New York didn’t have as much crossover appeal as everyone used to believe, that he simply didn’t have as much to offer as he liked to believe, at least in a form he would have preferred.

Bruno, if Bret Hart can make peace with professional wrestling after the Montreal screwjob and his brother Owen’s death, so can you. I’m just saying. You cared about it for twenty years. I don’t believe you can just switch off that kind of devotion. Maybe you can, but you’re doing more damage than good. But then, newer generations won’t care. Maybe you’re okay with that.

XXIX. Kevin Nash

Nash is basically the opposite of Sammartino. He struggled for years to find a role in professional wrestling, and WWE finally made him its top star for a short while, and based on that, he made a career of basically giving back.

It sounds absolutely ridiculous to make that assertion, given the popular opinion of the guy for years, how he was seen in WCW as a Hogan-in-the-making. But that impression itself was always a little absurd, when you think about it. WWE wanted him to be its new Hogan, and that simply didn’t happen. He hardly made an impression as champion in WCW, even though he was a driving force of its creative resurgence with the New World Order. He later staged the mother of all comebacks with TNA, and never once served as its heavyweight champion. Think about that. Even after the point where he finally figured out how to maintain a steady schedule and remain healthy, he never so much as sniffed the title. For a man as tall as he was, he seemed more interested in working with the wrestlers who were several feet shorter. He did the same in WCW, when he helped elevate Rey Mysterio’s stature (figuratively speaking), even if that’s a fact that’s conveniently overlooked in most retrospectives. He did with same with Alex Shelley, and Eric Young. The sad fact is, fans hate to give him any credit.

But they cheered like crazy at this year’s Royal Rumble, all the same, when “Diesel” made his appearance. Consider this one an argument to rebuild Kevin Nash’s reputation.

XXX. Scott Hall

Included in this block not so much for his Outsiders association with Nash, so much as his even more ironic association with the legacy of Bruno Sammartino, Scott Hall is perhaps one of the most tragic stories in professional wrestling history.

Not even to mention his career before “Razor Ramon,” Hall still struggled to get any respect, from fans and peers, even when “The Bad Guy” became one of WWE’s most popular stars. He was probably never even in the running to become a world champion. He never sniffed the title in WCW, either. You will probably hear that it was because of his reliability, which became a greater and greater concern as the years advanced and he found it harder to hide substance abuse.

I don’t know, maybe I just came along when he had everything figured out, looked like a million bucks, and carried himself as well. He competed in the historic ladder match with Shawn Michaels, but found himself almost completely forgotten when anyone remembered it. How’s that for justice? He led the New World Order invasion, was probably the only man who could have done it so brilliantly and effectively, but was still an afterthought. Like I said, was never a world champion. How does that even begin to figure? Even as a transitional champion, a few months, a few minutes, that would have been fine. Not even that.

Kevin Nash has recently stated that Hall’s problems are connected to his ego, his poor self-respect. When you had all the potential in the world and were in the right place at the right time, and were still overlooked, I can figure how a guy would build a complex. Even if it’s something he’s struggled with his whole life, a little appreciation, a little acknowledgement would go a long way.

Well, in my own opinion, you, Scott Hall, are a living legend, a pillar in the sport of professional wrestling. Even on your worst days you have more charisma than most of the talent that has been better rewarded than you ever were. Maybe that’s the cruel irony, maybe that’s what disturbs everyone in the aftermath of your latest incident. You always deserved better.

The business and the fans, both of them, can sometimes be cruel.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jabroni Companion #13

This time around I’m going to write about a certain breed of wrestler, the kind that left indelible and in most cases instant impacts, who broke the rules, who were hard to deny but often hard to embrace, who should have but never quite became the icons they deserved to be, pretty much by their very natures.

XXII. Goldberg

As threatened last time, here’s a closer look at Bill Goldberg, perhaps the single greatest star WCW itself ever created. The company technically sprang from the NWA, so stars like Ric Flair and Sting, who became synonymous with the promotion, and even managed to remain prominent members of the roster at the height of the New World Order craze (when wrestlers who’d become famous in WWE came to power) don’t really count.

In the final months of 1997, a graduate of the Power Plant quietly began an undefeated streak, built a mystique as much for his quick work in the ring as for his refusal to comment about it on the mic. Believe it or not, but he competed on that year’s much-hyped Starrcade, the one featuring the culmination of Sting’s epic feud with Hollywood Hogan.

By 1998, Goldberg was starting to get noticed. Or, it was starting to get harder to ignore him. He was given the United States championship, but the title meant very little to his character. Hogan took notice, and made the virtually unprecedented move of putting the world title on him for free on television. It was the complete opposite of what he’d done with Sting, no hype, and no controversy. Goldberg ran with the title for half the year. Hogan still dominated the company (in celebrity matches and a miscalculated return feud with Warrior), but even Chris Jericho was smart enough to see that everyone really cared about “Da Man.” Jericho was hungry for his piece of the pie, and he wanted a piece of Goldberg.

Goldberg did wrestle a variety of unusual opponents as champion. He gave Curt Hennig perhaps his last significant rivalry. He elevated “Diamond” Dallas Page to the main event. He was the one who finally put Kevin Nash back into it. Okay, so that last part didn’t exactly work out for everyone. It was probably the first big mistake WCW made, the beginning of the end. At Starrcade that year, Goldberg suffered his first loss, and his last official taste of the world title. In many ways, it was a brilliant move. In many ways, it was idiotic.

He transitioned into a feud with Bam Bam Bigelow. He battled Sid Vicious. He even finally wrestled Sting. For some reason, however, he never sniffed the world title again. He actually defeated Sting for the title in the fall of 1999, but the company basically pretended like it never happened. I still have no idea why. Sure, in some ways, it did open the door for Bret Hart to finally claim the title in WCW, but such disaster befell him as a result, it’s perhaps no surprise that he eventually did the unthinkable, reconcile with WWE, and repudiate his whole run with WCW (if not right away, then by necessity when everyone had to erase Chris Benoit from their memories, and thus Hart’s favorite match from that time, too, the tribute to his brother Owen).

Goldberg gave Hart a concussion, and lost the respect of most serious fans. WCW stumbled for a year with his character, even as he remained one of its most dominant personalities, and before the company was history he’d already been “retired” as part of a storyline. It made no sense. Meanwhile, Jericho had become a WWE star, and along with Triple H and the continuing fallout of the Hart incident, Goldberg lost the rest of his original momentum while he waited for his next opportunity, which didn’t come until 2003, more than two years after he’d last been seen. WWE chose to use him as a monster from the start, a looming threat for Raw’s dominating world champion, Triple H. Several months into his run, Goldberg finally became world champion again, but it was almost as if he’d become the new Hulk Hogan, of all things, the guy who was supposed to be mainstream but was more interesting when he was anything but. Hogan thrived best in the underdog role (making his name as a face, but perhaps enhancing his reputation by working as a heel). Goldberg had worked best as a wrestler the announcers talked about, but other wrestlers actually danced around, too afraid to confront directly. He was wrestling’s original boogeyman. If WWE had really wanted to understand him, they would have looked toward the Undertaker’s career for inspiration.

But as it is, maybe Goldberg himself is happy the way it all played out. He experienced superstardom, then what it was like to be pretty much just another member of the roster. Then he got out and did other things he enjoyed. Sometimes when a fan wants someone to dominate and be handled better, that wrestler actually doesn’t care as much.

XXIII. Ultimate Warrior

Here’s another wrestler whose career paralleled and contrasted with Hulk Hogan’s to a remarkable degree. But whereas Hogan was thrust almost directly, once Vince McMahon properly understood his potential, into the spotlight, Warrior came along after Hulkamania had been established. What resulted, especially since Hulkamania still ran wild, was that Warrior was never going to be given the same opportunity. Hogan was still hungry, and so while Warrior had his shot, he wasn’t allowed to keep it. Other wrestlers knew this story already.

Everyone knows what happened next. Warrior lingered, became a more sporadic presence, eventually disappeared for longer periods of time. Made several comebacks, notably in 1996, proved to not have the commitment McMahon expected (thereby substantially rewriting 1997), disappeared again, resurfaced again for a disastrous WCW engagement in 1998, then became a punchline, lost in his own diatribes, buried in a DVD release by WWE. Attempted another comeback, this time in Europe. God knows if he thought another full-blown comeback was still possible. These days, he’s pretty much the new Bruno Sammartino. Left behind.

Perhaps not so surprisingly, I’ve never quite found it so easy to forget Warrior. He had a totally unusual wrestling style, so apparently one-dimensional that he was considered a poor worker even by the standards granted Hogan. But it worked to such a degree that much of his persona was later adopted by Batista, some even suggested by devoted company man Triple H himself. In his earliest days, Warrior was in a tag team with Sting. Doesn’t seem so hard to imagine, even if their careers apparently drifted so far apart. Sting always had that touch of flare that Warrior exhibited in spades, built his whole approach around. Sting had Ric Flair. Warrior had Hogan. It’s not that hard to figure out.

XXIV. Randy Savage

The recently-departed “Macho Man” was the other guy who challenged Hulkamania, and came infinitely closer to accomplishing, because he had far more tools than Warrior to work with, and exploited all of them to perfection. So well that he probably overwhelmed everyone, more than anything. Hogan had almost nothing to work with, so Miss Elizabeth was used as a buffer. What should have been a deeply personal rivalry turned into something Savage would later duplicate with Ric Flair. Only Hogan ever saw himself as a ladies man. He could afford to be.

Savage was the best thing that ever happened to WWE, not Hogan or Roddy Piper or WrestleMania. He was an outsized personality who could also wrestle, who could unite every aspect of the business in one package. When he couldn’t wrestle, he could also sit at ringside, and only a select few superstars (Gorilla Monsoon, Jesse Ventura, Curt Hennig, Jerry Lawler, Tazz) in history have been able to make that kind of transition. Of course, Savage ached for competition, almost as much as Hennig did, and so he was quickly back inside the ring. When he couldn’t satisfy his itch in WWE, he jumped to WCW, and quickly amassed more world championships.

His later years became something of a self-imposed exile from wrestling. He made a few token appearances in the early days of TNA, but for the most part enjoyed a well-deserved retirement. Whatever else can be said about him, Randy Savage left an indelible impression behind.

XXV. Edge

Perhaps a curious name to drop in as part of this particular pattern, but Adam Copeland actually does fit in rather nicely with these wrestlers. It wasn’t until 2006 that he joined their ranks as a world champion, but from that point, after having waited for more than half a decade, longer than any of them, he was the only one who became a staple, someone Vince McMahon was perfectly comfortable relying on as champion, whenever it was needed.

Granted, injuries made it necessary quite a few times, and that’s how his many brief reigns came about, for the most part, but Edge settled into elder statesman far more easily than any of his predecessors in this installment. Goldberg, once he lost his groove, never really found it again. Neither did Warrior. Savage snuck in championship reigns, not as blatantly as Edge did, but with less significance.

Yet aside from his epic feud with John Cena, there’s a sense that Edge spent most of his time as champion without any specific purpose or drive, much less momentum, mostly because that’s how it tended to happen. Even his big comeback against Chris Jericho never quite had the feel it should have. It was only in his final months that Edge seemed to find peace of mind as champion. Perhaps determination is the word, like a weight had finally been lifted from his shoulders. This was one world champion who, having finally attained his goal, perhaps realized he didn’t need it. He’d made his legacy years ago, in crazy TLC matches. Even his lauded WrestleMania main event with the Undertaker feels like an afterthought. Maybe Edge is the first superstar to know what it feels like to climb the mountaintop, and look backward rather than ahead. He was great at sharing the spotlight. He wouldn’t have had the same problems as the other guys. Maybe that’s what he realized.

XXVI. Kurt Angle

Here’s one who seems to have less in common with this lot than with, say, Ric Flair or Chris Benoit, someone who actually straddles the line between the embodiment of wrestling’s grandest traditions, and the personification of its worst inclinations. The striving for perfection swings both ways. Someone like Shawn Michaels can dance all around this impulse, its twin edges. Eddie Guerrero had it ingrained so deeply, he stepped away from his own demons a fraction too late to outrun them. Angle is the wrestler who seemed to transcend every ordinary expectation from the start.

You might have heard that he’s an Olympic champion. And that he won his gold with a broken freakin’ neck. Unlike Mark Henry, he spurned WWE’s advances for years, and that might’ve been the smartest thing he ever did. When he finally stepped in the ring, he had everything figured out. At first, he seemed like the second coming of Bob Backlund, not the champion Vince McMahon counted on in the pre-Hogan era, but the nutcase who couldn’t be taken seriously ten years later. Angle became champion within a year, but it wasn’t until he shaved his head and embraced the possibilities of the brand split, methodically shaping Smackdown around himself in exactly the opposite manner Triple H had done with Raw, just as his neck was threatening to finally take it all away from him, that he came into his own. He wisely chose to take his chances on Raw just as his opportunities on Smackdown were dwindling, and then switched back. Sure, these were decisions that the company made. But Angle made it work better than anyone else. Then he made the decision to jump ship and head for the lighter schedule in TNA.

His ego to this day still believes that (pun intended) this would have made a greater impact on professional wrestling than it actually did. McMahon never made him champion for long because he still believed bigger man made better stars. Fans seemed to prove him right. TNA never really had the bigger stars. They had Angle, and for a few years, he dominated, until he became more competitive, engaging in an epic feud with AJ Styles that seemed more natural than the manufactured if equally epic feud with Samoa Joe that had been his introduction to the company.

So how exactly does he fit the pattern? Angle always deserved to be a bigger star than he actually was. There were always others getting in the way, even if he willingly played along with them. Edge might have demanded a bigger spotlight, as early as 2006, after he’d established himself against Cena. He waited, though, and found he fit more comfortably as a company man. In their own ways, each of them were company men. Warrior stepped aside for Hogan. So did Savage. It hurt their careers. Goldberg stepped aside, and lost all his momentum. He was the hottest thing WCW had, and he was basically tossed aside. Angle was a little goofy in the beginning, but became one of the most serious competitors wrestling ever saw, but with more showmanship, simply based on his repertoire, his ability to work any opponent, make anything believable, not Benoit’s pound-and-ground, anything-for-the-sake-of-the-moment (which even Edge never quite did in the TLC matches, allowing Jeff Hardy to go for that stuff), but an incredibly athletic approach that made him a legitimate threat even to WWE’s Next Big Thing, Brock Lesnar.

Perhaps Angle has simply been the most successful version of this wrestling model, the one who was supposed to last the shortest amount of time but will probably keep going for years, as long as he wants to. His transition to TNA was the next step the others never found, something he was uniquely suited to, a second phase that wasn’t so different from the first, but better, more refined, with opponents perhaps better suited to his style.

XXVII. Paul London & Brian Kendrick

Okay, so now you’re definitely scratching your heads. His victory at Destination X notwithstanding, Kendrick will never quite succeed his one-time mentor Shawn Michaels as a world champion. London’s career is all but over at this point, and he never even came close. So how does this figure? Simple: as a tag team, they fit the model than any other combination. They served as Smackdown’s champions for almost a year, dominating against a variety of opponents, thanks to a unique offense that still leaves most observers wondering what they were actually doing. Looked like a lot of meaningless, fancy flipping around. Looked innovative to me, new, interesting. Looked like a truly unique tag team. Most of those follow the basic templates. This one worked as a team and as a distinctive unit. They held the tag team straps for so long because they deserved to.

London had been looking for a WWE spotlight since arriving in WWE in 2003, and most people thought he fit in as the new face of the cruiserweight division. But that division’s best days were long gone before London could say anything about it. Kendrick had been trying to find a role for longer. He had a longer opportunity after the team died, too, and nearly completed his quest, but eventually found himself on Raw, out of his element, and out of WWE.

Few people seem to have ever truly comprehended the potential of the tag team division. For most fans, they look at the past and see nothing but glory, some brilliant combinations who deserved their moments in the spotlight, who established legacies that can never be equaled. I’d guess most of those fans are about a decade too late in their estimations, and so when they complain that tag teams are a lost art in this day and age, especially in WWE, I just have to laugh, because even when good tag teams have been around, fans for the most part seem patently incapable of appreciating them. I’m not here to argue that London & Kendrick were the greatest combination ever, just as I’m not saying any of the preceding solo stars were in their division, but that they were perennially underrated. At least Haas and Benjamin have another shot to be recognized for what they earned years ago. But that’s wrestling for you. You can give the fans everything they could have ever dreamed for, and they won’t come around to understanding what they had until it’s long gone, in a big yellow taxi, outta town.

Some of these guys can still earn that respect, some are long past that possibility, at least in their lifetime. Wrestling history was built on their shoulders, one way or another.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jabroni Companion #12

It’s always interesting to hear new perspectives, especially ones that intelligently challenge your own beliefs. Brock Lesnar’s new book is perhaps the first time we’ve been given a chance to hear his side of the story without any kind of bias, why he left WWE so quickly after such a meteoric rise. On the one hand, what he has to say isn’t all that surprising, because variations of his burnout have been circulating since his departure in 2004. But it’s far more revealing to hear the details from the man himself, especially since, far too often when we read the memoirs of a wrestler, it’s from the point of view of someone who never really did leave, the way he did. It’s become common to hear locker room complaints and gripes, but Lesnar’s honesty about the circumstances that drove him from wrestling serves as a new watermark for an insider’s take on a business many of us, even those who consider themselves to be insiders, rarely get to glimpse so frankly.

All of this is to say, Lesnar himself remains a touchstone for fans of the past decade, even though his time in the ring was relatively brief, and in many ways, his best year is the subject of my next topic:

XXI. 2003

It’s a little weird to suggest that 2003 was all that important. In many ways, it’s the year that solidified the apathy of today’s silent, inactive fanbase, the separating line between the golden years of the Attitude Era boom and the current generation. You might argue that 2001 might mark that divide better, especially considering that WWE effectively bought out all its competition that year, or the brand split of 2002 and dawn of TNA, which has still yet to reach its maximum potential (arguably). But for me, 2003 will always be special.

Let me start over a little. The whole reason I’m writing this particular topic is something of a fluke that just kept expanding. Back in 2004, my DVD collection was still just getting started (talk about your generation markers; most people who consider themselves culturally hep these days are probably scratching their heads about even referencing that format, and will no doubt be all the more perplexed to learn I still count on it today). It was the first time I bought a WWE PPV from 2003, and was the fateful start of an odyssey that would see me complete the collection over the course of the next five years. Most of the time, I was hoping to collect the Goldberg appearances, but at some point, I realized how close I was to completing the set, and decided to scoop up the stragglers. Inexplicably, every PPV was available to me, which is all the more perplexing given that as the years advanced this should have become harder, since I never went to the Internet for support. I cruised local stores, used media outlets, whatever worked. And it all worked out.

I’m still a huge Goldberg mark, the way fans were back in 1998. I was thrilled when WWE finally signed him in 2003 (but not to write too much about him now, because he’s one of the subjects for next time). Incredibly, he came into the company at the same time as another dominating monster, Brock Lesnar, who headlined most Smackdown cards while Goldberg worked his way up the Raw food chain. As everyone knows, Triple H reigned supreme on the red brand that year, a continuation of his dominance at the end of the previous year, when he was infamously handed to world title on a silver platter. From Scott Steiner to Booker T to Kevin Nash, he somehow survived a barrage of former WCW stars, only to have his greatest problems with “Da Man.” (As I will continue to argue, WWE did well by its gradual approach to employing WCW talent.)

Steiner receives the most criticism of all the opponents Triple H faced that year. He’d been one of WCW’s most notable stars in its final days, a signature champion when hardly anyone respected even the legitimate ones of that time, and was known for his jacked-up physique. His entrance into WWE in 2002 was supposed to herald a major “new” star for the company, instant credibility, and a worthy opponent for “The Game.” Instead he “wrestled the wrong way,” as observers of the Royal Rumble encounter continue to insist to this day (doesn’t hurt to have Hunter on your side for this particular opinion), and was basically buried for the remainder of his stay with the company, which was about a year. Basically he threw too many suplexes. I don’t really get that, I admit. It’s not as if, with Kurt Angle and Chris Benoit as prominent superstars at that time, WWE was unused to suplexes. Well, maybe Raw was. Tazz had made a career of being the “Human Suplex Machine.” Arguably, throwing suplexes was an innovative way for a muscle man like Steiner to carry himself in a match. He literally overpowered Triple H. Is that really such a bad thing? There’s certainly an argument to be made about mixing it up, but Steiner only really began to rely on them in the latter stages of the match, when he was supposed to be gaining momentum. Maybe Hunter was tired, and really didn’t want to deal with them at that point. (I somehow doubt that pushup artist Steiner would have been, though reports suggest he nearly “killed” Hunter at one point, and I don’t want to make light of that; on the other hand, Randy Orton has exaggerated to make a point, too.)

The match that stole that card was the other championship clash, between Angle and Benoit, which was basically the point people in the back realized Benoit could be champion. Benoit will be the very last topic of the Jabroni Companion, a perfect cap to the Montreal Screwjob I previously stated would round it out, a capsule of the dangers wrestling repeatedly skirts, one way or another, the stuff Brock Lesnar wanted to avoid at all costs. Lesnar steals the show, eventually, too, by winning the rumble match itself, thereby setting up his WrestleMania spotlight a few months later.

WrestleMania XIX was a definite crossroads for the company, across the whole card. You had Shawn Michaels competing at the show for the first time in six years, Steve Austin and The Rock going at it one last time, pretty much capping each other’s careers, Hulk Hogan actually battling Vince McMahon. To end it with Brock’s botched shooting star press, knowing he’d be gone a year later, is morbidly accurate an image to encapsulate the whole night.

Watching Brock in 2003 is as fun as watching Goldberg. Lesnar had already had a career year (and his first) in 2002; in some sense the only thing he had of note to accomplish during the year was the feud with Angle; everything else was an endless repeat cycle, a series of escalations that pushed him to his limits, and while he was able to handle all of it, there was a cost to be paid. He was without a doubt one of the most magnificent athletes wrestling ever saw, a big man with full agility, Hulk Hogan times ten, someone no one could seriously contend with, other than in the ordinary wrestling sense. The moment you brought this one down to earth, you kind of ruined his appeal. He wasn’t ordinary. Whenever someone suggested Batista could fulfill exactly the same role if given the opportunity…Well, with all due respect to Batista, he was given that chance, and he was no Brock Lesnar. He was a perfected Ultimate Warrior, but he wasn’t Brock.

It’s funny, because WWE actually tried it in 2003, but even John Cena wasn’t close to Brock. The only reason Cena’s career lifted off was because Brock left the company. Again, this isn’t to knock Cena, but to say, there wasn’t really much comparison with Brock Lesnar.

Goldberg, on the other hand, was a beast of an entirely different flavor. He’s said repeatedly that he wasn’t handled correctly by WWE (and I’ll talk about that, too, and the irony of such a statement for a man who was basically put to pasture by WCW not even a year into his greatest success), and in truth, he’s not been entirely inaccurate. In contrast to his WCW days, Goldberg had no place to hide, and the more inevitable his championship matches became, the less he could successfully be, well, Goldberg. It sounds like such a bitter contradiction, but that’s the way it was. Goldberg was best when he operated almost solely on his mystique. Get in, get the job done, get out. It’s fine to put him in competitive matches, but the balance needs to be there. He dominated the second half of the Raw year, as much as he could. But to tie him up with a single opponent, even Triple H, was only setting him up for failure. That’s not the way Goldberg works.

It’s probably time I use past tense with him. He ain’t coming back, and I’m fine with that. It’d be nice if WWE did a compilation set for him. Maybe at some point. There’s a lot to see about that career, not just the obvious points, but the ones most people overlooked. But again, I’ll be talking about him next time, too. Gotta save material!

Kurt Angle had some rough patches in 2003, but luckily had Team Angle, the World’s Greatest Tag Team, to fall back on, to keep his name active, even when he wasn’t. Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin did as much as Angle, Benoit, and Eddie Guerrero to give Smackdown the athletic advantage, something the brand enjoyed for years as a distinctive difference to the more entertainment-oriented Raw. Within a year, Benjamin was given a shot at solo glory, and, well, kept trying for years to make it stick. I was always one of his biggest fans. His only fault was that he was more athlete than entertainer. He might’ve done better to remain on Smackdown. Who knows what that one difference would have made. Another tag team that emerged during 2003 was La Resistance, which should have launched a superstar career for Rene Dupree, but he was never able to outlive the foreign heel persona. Chris Jericho and Christian quietly laid the groundwork for a stellar feud the following year. Teddy Long in a roundabout way got his theme song. Undertaker rounded out his American Badass phase. Kane unmasked. Stephanie McMahon participated in her final on-air moments. One-legged Zach Gowan had his moment in the spotlight. Hulk Hogan had his last regular run as an in-ring competitor. Tajiri, Rey Mysterio, and Jamie Noble kept the cruiserweight division alive. Eddie Guerrero and Bradshaw set the stage for a bigger year in 2004. (If you continue to believe that JBL came out of nowhere, you weren’t paying attention to Smackdown’s efforts to promote Bradshaw throughout 2003.)

Any year can be memorable, and I could have done a complete PPV set for 2004, 2002, what have you, and ended up with a boatload of memorable moments. 2003 was special for Goldberg’s last hurrah, Brock Lesnar’s complete year, and all the other things I’ve mentioned, and more. Maybe I’ve succeeded in expressing how it became special for me, maybe I haven’t. But I’ve got that set, and all the time in the world to revisit it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Jabroni Companion #11

This installment is another multi-topic one, so let’s dive right in…

XVIII. Genesis

The topic for this one isn’t biblical, but the annual TNA PPV, which to my mind has become something of an unintentional cornerstone for the company. Most people will think of Slammiversary or Bound for Glory (though come to think of it, along with Lockdown and Destination X, the company has done remarkably well creating these kinds of annual events).

Anyway, a lot of my firsthand familiarity with TNA has come from DVDs, since I’ve only sporadically been able to watch Impact since it landed the Spike contract, so it was amusing when Genesis ended up providing me with most of my favorite TNA memories. The trend began in 2006. Anyone particularly hep to their TNA lore will tell you that year’s Genesis was significant for being Kurt Angle’s first PPV with the company (his first match, anyway), the so-called “Dream Match of the Decade” against Samoa Joe.

Back in 2006, Angle was something of an odd commodity. He’d spent many of the preceding years taking significant amounts of time off from WWE competition to deal with his recurring neck problems, and many were speculating that he was necessarily at the tail-end of his active wrestling career. He’d just had a successful run as Smackdown world champion, wrestled a classic with the Undertaker, and been chosen to be a cornerstone of the new ECW brand, when he unexpectedly chose to bail. For someone who fully understood the increasing limits of his own physical endurance but still burned with energy and drive, the prospect of a lighter schedule with TNA was too good for Angle to ignore. (Of course, he would be a bigger, more important, integral fish in the smaller pond, which must also have been attractive.)

So in November, at Genesis, a renewed Kurt Angle made his most recent comeback in TNA. He didn’t look his strongest, let’s be honest. That’s the thing that shocked me the most when I finally had a chance to see the match. It was almost alarming. Maybe he pushed himself a little harder for the occasion. (I have yet to see the other clashes Angle and Joe had in subsequent months.) I do know that he’s looked hail and hardy since, and has been with TNA for five years now. He shows no particular signs of significantly slowing down. This Genesis was a milestone both for him and TNA, and me, too.

Skip a few years, and in 2009, I found another Genesis of some appeal. As you might know from my list of favorite matches, the highlight of this card was the clash of Alex Shelley and Chris Sabin, which to my mind opened the eyes of TNA management that these two had an appeal that transcended the X-division. What we’re seeing with their Motorcity Machine Guns tag team is that acknowledgement, but I believe we still seeing only the beginning of their legacy. I can’t overstate the importance of this match. For some of the more old school fans, maybe think of the 1992 Summer Slam match between the British Bulldog and Bret Hart. It’s exactly like that.

The 2010 Genesis is perhaps a tad infamous at this point, given the continuing discomfort with the “Hogan Era,” which officially kicked off on this card, complete with a return to the four- rather than six-sided ring. For me, there was Mr. Anderson’s debut with the company, plus another classic clash between Kurt Angle and AJ Styles. I’d also like to give a shout-out to Brian Kendrick, who gets far too little support, even though he’s managed to stick around the national scene in some capacity for much of the past decade, through several incarnations in WWE and an ever-evolving and unique role in TNA, where he’s one of the few cruiserweights (in so many words) to come with an actual personality.

The 2011 Genesis was Mr. Anderson’s christening as a world champion, which to my mind came a good five years later than it really needed to, given WWE’s skittishness long before the injury bug hit him, but probably at exactly the right moment in his TNA tenure. The exact way the company chose to put the belt on Anderson will hopefully garner more respect in the future, given the overall context. For the preceding year TNA had only had three champions (Styles, Rob Van Dam, and Jeff Hardy), while the title of #1 contender had been something of a project for most of that time, with a variety of tournaments that rarely had a satisfactory payoff. This PPV was only supposed to feature the culmination of another of those tournaments, but instead also featured Anderson in a surprise championship match, which played very well with Jeff Hardy’s character at the time (a storyline that was followed, ultimately, too closely). Anderson and Hardy had been building chemistry together since their WWE days, but had also developed a complex relationship in TNA. There was also the best encounter between the Motorcity Machine Guns and Beer Money, also represented on my favorite matches list. A lot of people don’t seem to appreciate how TNA builds momentum, but this particular Genesis benefited greatly from it.

XIX. Ring of Honor

To my mind, ROH is exactly the company every wrestling fan in the 1990s was praying for, everyone who grew up on Ric Flair and who relished the WCW cruiserweight scene, who cherished the Shawn Michaels-Bret Hart clash at WrestleMania XII, who would one day get to see Eddie Guerrero and the late Chris Benoit as world champions in WWE. It’s the wrestling purist’s dream.

Lord knows that there aren’t as many wrestling purists as some fans will sometimes lead you to believe. Many who think they are do like wrestling well enough, but probably don’t appreciate the science of it as much as they think they do. As fans we’re constantly encouraged to embrace it as more of an entertainment, a battle between face and heel competitors, good guys and bad guys, people either to cheer or boo. In Japan, you watch for a whole evening and probably not hear a single peep from the audience. These are fans who respect the art of it.

That’s not the way it is in American wrestling, obviously, and not even the way it is in ROH, whose fans graduated from the ECW school, or as it sometimes seems, from soccer games. They like to chant, “This is awesome!” (That’s where WWE fans got it from.) Without ROH, it’s doubtful we would have ever seen Daniel Bryan (Brian Danielson) or Desmond Wolfe (Nigel McGuinness) in WWE or TNA. We wouldn’t have gotten CM Punk. These are wrestlers more akin to Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat than John Cena or Randy Orton.

If TNA struggles to become a recognized competitor with WWE, then ROH is the next step down, and that’s quite remarkable. Where ECW was causing a revolution in the 1990s, forcing WCW and WWE to adapt and adopt violence and cruiserweights, ROH doesn’t try and pretend it’s anything like its contemporaries. Like the territory era, it only exports future stars, and lets their new companies try and handle them (I’m still disappointed that TNA ultimately it wasn’t “hungry like the Wolfe”). So far the only ROH star to pull a Savage and retain his exact personality and momentum has been Samoa Joe in TNA. WWE has used the company as something of a farm league in the past, learning, for example, that Jamie Noble really was a phenomenal wrestler (not that he still got much of a chance to prove it when he went back to his old stomping grounds, possibly because trailer park trash needs to drink beer to get over) after he spent time in ROH as James Gibson.

It’s worth noting, too, that Bruno Sammartino took a timeout from his wrestling boycott to visit ROH.

I’m always on the lookout for ROH DVDs.

XX. Pro Wrestling Illustrated

PWI is perhaps notorious for its kayfabe approach, a magazine filled with stories that take wrestling at face value, which is a little odd for an era where fans have long become familiar with the man behind the curtain (I gotta say it, even though he’s been dead for years now: Gorilla Monsoon).

So yes, PWI is on one hand pretty quaint, but on the other, it’s a pretty unique phenomenon, too, a continuously published, mainstream wrestling publication. Sure, the Internet is swarming with websites that carry results, interviews, spoilers, and commentaries, but there’s a hard case to be made for a single authority, and that’s a nice thing to have for any fan. PWI fills that role for wrestling fans, for better or worse.

The cornerstone of the magazine is the annual PWI 500, a ranking of wrestlers from throughout the world. Sure, a WWE star invariably (only Sting, AJ Styles, and Dean Malenko had achieved it for other companies) takes the top spot, mostly because of overall awareness, but it’s an invaluable source for fans to catch up with wrestlers who might otherwise slip their attention, whether they represent the US, Mexico, or Japan. There’s always an argument to made for your WWE or TNA favorites, to either rank higher or lower, but half the fun is the comprehensive coverage of the whole scene.

Last year I purchased a subscription for the first time, and found myself pleasantly surprised to find a lot more analysis on a consistence basis than I’d previously suspected from the magazine (but then again, maybe PWI merely increased the amount of it). I’d always believed that for the most part, PWI lived and breathed for breathless stories detailing the amazing developments and personalities among the biggest stars, that most of the magazine was geared toward fluff pieces. Many of the columnists who supplement these features actually do break kayfabe, but few of them seem interested in serious discussions, only firmly held opinions whose surfaces are rarely scratched. It’s just assumed most fans will have the same ideas. Wrestling is about conformity, after all, isn’t it?

I do wish that PWI would break kayfabe entirely (WWE does have its own magazines, after all, and website recaps of its programming), that it would embrace its responsibilities, as represented by the PWI 500, perhaps demonstrate for a mainstream audience that wrestling really can be taken seriously and as entertainment at the same time. Yes, wrestlers are used for specific purposes by their companies, but the manner in which they succeed as athletes or as personalities can be debated more thoroughly than by how many people choose to cheer or boo them in the arena. As an independent voice of established authority, PWI could actually influence the popularity of a star, by making it plain why they deserve more attention than they currently enjoy. Putting RVD at the top of the PWI 500 doesn’t have as much weight as explaining why he deserves it. You can’t just be a fan in a position like that. If you can describe his assets as more than vocal supporters and a particularly athletic and established in-ring routine, then by all means, do so!

I’m not criticizing as a detractor, but as a supporter. I’d like PWI to reach the next level. Any success a magazine achieves is a win for wrestling in general.
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