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.

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