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.
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.
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.