Thursday, August 25, 2011

Jabroni Companion #18

We’re going to talk about two more wrestling luminaries this time. Let’s jump in!

XXXV. Jerry Lawler

Briefly discussed last time, wrestling’s most enduring “King” had been a notable presence for decades, whether as a wrestler or ringside commentator. Best known in his home territory in Memphis, TN, Lawler had worked with WWE since 1993, longevity that very few others in the company can match.

I first remember him from an intense rivalry with Bret Hart (probably Hart’s finest overall rivalry from that period), culminating in a Sharpshooter the “Hitman” positively refused to let go, one of the first truly notable wrestling acts of my experience. Lawler quickly retreated behind the mic, where he would frequently and bitterly deny allegations that he was the “Burger King,” but it wasn’t until he was paired with Jim Ross that he really rose to prominence in WWE. His boisterous appreciation of the female form became Lawler’s hallmark (and at least one real relationship he found as hard to hide as his connection to “Grandmaster Sexay,” Brian Christopher, who was after all his son). What’s remarkable is that he actually maintained his double life. In WWE, Lawler would watch the gigantic Mabel in the ring, but in Memphis, Lawler promoted him as a star attraction. He rarely competed for WWE, but maintained an active presence in his own arena. Incredibly, it seemed he would never actually compete at a WrestleMania, until this year’s, during a heated feud with fellow ringside personality and decided non-wrestler Michael Cole.

There were feuds with Doink the Clown (which included perhaps the last time midget wrestlers were properly integrated into WWE, quite memorably, at the 1994 Survivor Series, which you need to see to believe), Andy Kaufman (revisited in the 1999 movie MAN ON THE MOON, for which Lawler agreed to personally recreate the famous Letterman appearance where coffee was generously exchanged), world championships with AWA, the crown, the tights with just the one strap, times when he really did feel like a relic when he made that sporadic wrestling appearance, when he called to drop the boom on, say, Brian Kendrick (who had funny things to say about it afterward), times spent away from WWE employment (never for very long), unquestionably the most regular presence on Raw, both before and after the dawn of the brand era…I can’t pretend to be an authority on Jerry “The King” Lawler, but to be a professed fan, who loves the fact that he’s an accomplished cartoonist on top of everything else!

XXXVI. Bret Hart

If only for that 1993 feud with Jerry Lawler that effectively culminated at Summer Slam (though it was supposed to continue into Survivor Series, until Lawler experienced one of his separations with WWE, and was replaced by Shawn Michaels for a Family Feud match meant to springboard a feud with his brother Owen), Bret Hart remains inextricably linked to Lawler in my estimation of the history of professional wrestling. I know, seems a little silly, but in many ways, the two are more similar than you might at first think. Both are hardcore relics of a bygone era, an earlier time when wrestling was more like Bruno Sammartino remembers it, focused on the art of wrestling itself, and the territorial mentality that no longer exists. Whereas Lawler successfully adapted to the modern age, I’d wager the “Hitman,” in many ways, never did, and it’s all thanks to the same family legacy that helped launch his career in the first place.

The Harts are still beyond a doubt the most famous wrestlers to ever emerge from Canada, the slightly more resilient version of the Von Erich clan that dominated Texas in the 1980s. As you may be aware, the Von Erichs tragically imploded, with one suicide after another. True, on the surface, that’s not what happened to the Harts, but like Jack Kennedy before them, both the Harts and the Von Erichs were dominated by a patriarch bent on achieving greater success through his offspring than he ever achieved (a shame that none of them was aware of the Guerrero clan south of the border, but then, the business still managed to kill Eddie). Bret’s older brothers survived and retired from unremarkable careers, but Stu’s shining pupil was fortunate to emerge during WWE’s formative days, rising to prominence as a member of the Hart Foundation before striking out on his own.

By 1992, steroids finally became a scandal for the company, even though it had blatantly driven the original Hulkamania machine, and Vince McMahan frantically sought a different kind of champion. After a brief transition period with Randy Savage and Ric Flair holding the heavyweight belt, the “Excellence of Execution” was finally, somewhat improbably, given his chance, a sort of latter-day Bob Backland, which was all the more appropriate because in later years Backland would actually return to feud with Hart. After setting off on a furious pace of title defenses against every conceivable challenger (including Shawn Michaels at the 1992 Survivor Series, four years before HBK would finally be given his turn, and five before the far more infamous SS encounter), “Hitman” was felled by Yokozuna, a Samoan monster posing as an unstoppable Japanese machine, and fell well off the championship scene for a year, only to collide with Yokozuna and his presumed successor, Lex Luger, in 1994. By this point, Bret and younger brother Owen had developed an intense chemistry in the ring, and together they put on the most notable championship clash of this particular reign at Summer Slam, before “Diesel” (Kevin Nash) claimed the championship for a year.

I wouldn’t blame Hart for getting a little spun around in this whirlwind, but it never seemed to occur to him that he might take his efforts in the ring a little more seriously. He sincerely enjoyed what he was doing, no matter the opponent. He found chemistry with Hakushi (who lost a great deal in the recent natural disasters that struck Japan) in 1995, but that feud went nowhere very fast. He’d rose to WWE prominence in 1992 by putting on a spectacular match with Davey Boy Smith, the “British Bulldog,” at Summer Slam, but rarely seemed interested in developing a reputation for putting on truly great matches, instead focusing on his technique, a few spotlight matches here and there, a few worthy opponents, but rarely when it really counted. It’s a pattern that would ultimately doom his career. I don’t mean to suggest that Bret Hart is not one of the truly notable wrestlers in the history of the sport, but he spoiled his chance to be one of the greats, or “The best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be,” as he liked to put it, by steadfastly believing in technique alone. No wonder, too, since Stu’s infamous training “dungeon” featured hours meditating on specific holds. I don’t know how a showman like Owen Hart emerged from that kind of environment, and neither did Owen, who will have his own feature later, so I won’t dwell too much on his now.

Suffice it to say, but I would have done Bret’s career differently. I would have allowed Owen to beat him, if only momentarily, for the title in 1994. Even if Owen didn’t take his career seriously, it would have allowed fans to, and would have given Bret a more genial profile. Instead, the 1997 Bret who acted like a spoiled brat well before the Montreal Screwjob, convinced both in character and privately that he was an untouchable Canadian institution, ended up happening. Even the feud he had with Steve Austin in 1996 and 1997 could have been taken more seriously. WWE will have you believe that Austin’s push was delayed because the company mistakenly believed he’d work better as a heel than as a heelish face, but if anyone could have seen past that, it should have been Bret Hart, if he understood wrestling as well as he thought he did. Unless he was always looking after his own interests, as he bitterly claimed was the case with Shawn Michaels.

I really don’t mean to open old wounds, but the fact is, Bret Hart remains a fascinating subject. He knew he would be miserable in WCW, and while I certainly can understand and identify with that kind of clairvoyance, it’s not as if he tried all that hard. There were plenty of opportunities, if only he’d tried a little. The onscreen attitude he’d used in WWE didn’t serve him so well in WCW, but either he never understood that, or was legitimately given a chance for something else (maybe it just seemed too authentic by that point). If Hulk Hogan refused to work with him, he had plenty of other options, Sting and “Diamond” Dallas Page being two he half-heartedly embraced (Ric Flair had been unimpressed in 1992, and probably uninterested in 1998). There was the concussion he received from Goldberg, which he blamed for the end of his career, but then, shouldn’t a veteran like Bret Hart have been prepared to handle someone as apparently unpolished as Goldberg by that point? He’d let his apathy literally endanger not just his career, but his life. He was a world champion a few times, in the end, with WCW, but he admits even now that he simply didn’t care. He had plenty of reasons by that point, but perhaps many of them he’d created for himself. I don’t want to revise history, either, but an Owen Hart who had more support from his own brother might not have been hanging around rafters in 1999. I realize that Bret must have had that exact thought a thousand times in just 1999 alone, but still. It was something he barely considered in 1994, let alone the last months of 1997, when he reluctantly switched allegiances, and left his brother forever behind.

Whereas Jerry Lawler is the story of a wrestler who tackled the winds of change and resiliently bounced back from every challenge, Bret Hart is the story of a career that saw every challenge seemingly as an insurmountable problem. If even one of his turning points had been different, if he’d been ready for that first world title, if he’d handled the feud with Owen differently, if the Montreal Screwjob hadn’t happened, if his brother hadn’t died, if he hadn’t been kicked in the head by Bill Goldberg…Still, a remarkable story unfolded in 2010. The “Hitman” actually returned to WWE. Suddenly, that career fraught with peril became a thing of the past, and a new chapter was opened, a chance to get everything right, and that’s exactly what happened. Whodathunk? One of the most troublesome legacies in wrestling history suddenly has a chance for a full redemption. And perhaps greater things still.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jabroni Companion #17

The next two topics doesn’t concern wrestlers or wrestling itself directly, but they are absolutely integral to the experience as it is known in the 21st Century.

XXXIII. Ringside Commentators

Maybe you don’t always appreciate it, but half the experience of the match isn’t the action in the ring itself, but what you listen to while it’s going on. Naturally, I’m not talking live events here, but what you experience on TV or PPV. Every generation of fans has signature commentators. Gordon Solie was recently enshrined in WWE’s Hall of Fame, despite the fact that very few current fans will have any kind of real experience with him, even though devoted, long-time, or even just plain students of the game will easily appreciate his contributions to professional wrestling. The same goes for Gorilla Monsoon, or even Jesse Ventura, both of whom went through many different incarnations throughout their careers. They’re a part of history now (even Ventura’s political career), but you can’t watch an early WrestleMania without hearing their voices.

During the Attitude Era, WWE fans made the same acquaintance with Jerry Lawler and Jim Ross, both of whom already had long and storied careers well before then, but came to embody so much of that era, it’s difficult to associate them with anything else (besides Lawler with “puppies” and JR with “Stone Cold! Stone Cold!”). Believe it or not, but even Michael Cole will come to be looked on fondly.

I tend to enjoy commentators more often than not (though Mark Maddon and the specific combination of Mike Tenay and Don West did their fair share of irritation), even when they don’t get a lot of respect. I think WCW’s greatest gift to wrestling was perhaps the finest ever lineup of commentators (it’s easily the best perk of WWE’s regular DVD compilations to revisit them), but I’m not sure how widely this opinion is shared. The biggest gamble of WWE’s brand era was the theory that the company could come up with another team that could rival Lawler and JR, but I think Cole and Tazz more than rose to the challenge, establishing a completely different relationship and perspective that both respected the veterans (as Cole is continuously mocked over, concerning The Undertaker) and hyped the fresh talent (Tazz repeatedly shouted “Here comes the pain!” every time Brock Lesnar showed up for a match) for a roster that more often than not needed the attention focused squarely on the talent. Even JBL, when he temporarily joined the ringside team, was a consummate hype man, not so much for the storylines, but to make a big deal about the spectacle (whereas Tenay and West tried too hard to promote TNA itself).

I wish I could spend a lot of time talking about all my fond memories of ringside commentators, but the best way to experience these guys is to actually hear them, so I guess what I’m really trying to say here is sometimes, just sit back and enjoy that chatter. It’s not just tradition, it’s integral to the experience, and more often than not, it’s completely worth it.

XXXIV. Theme Music

More than commentators, one of the signature elements of the modern era is a wrestler’s theme music, something that wasn’t totally common until the 1990s, and not really perfected until the end of that decade. With all apologies to the efforts of WCW, ECW, and TNA, WWE has been the undisputed champion. Some precedents did allow us to enjoy, say, “Pomp and Circumstance” for Randy Savage, and Ric Flair’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (more commonly known as the theme from Stanly Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) continued along that trend (which eventually also gave us “Ride of the Valkries” with Daniel Bryan), but “Real American” and Hulk Hogan set the bar, taught everyone how the entrance music can rouse a crowd as much as the actual wrestler, set the tone.

I would actually argue that sometimes, the music can be too perfect, almost overwhelm the star. Ironically, John Morrison has probably been a victim twice in his career, both during his M-N-M days, and when he consciously evoked the legendary lead singer of the Doors. His music is always awesome, his entrance always bombastic, not because of some traditional pyro pop, but because he immediately stands out. I would argue if the company really wants to put him to the next level, they need to come up with another awesome theme. WWE has done several memorable themes for individual stars. That’s the way it works. (On the flipside, it almost never works when they try to tweak a perfected theme, rather than outright change it. The Rock and Steve Austin were victims of this. Rob Van Dam’s actually got better over the years. Edge, meanwhile, kept the same basic intro, but had his theme improved, too, when his character got stronger, with an outright change. WWE’s version of the Goldberg theme, however, was another miscalculation.)

Maybe this is another thing you need to experience to really appreciate, maybe just pay attention a little more, rather than gloss over a familiar element. TNA has been improving its set in recent years, after many generic and abysmal efforts. I’m glad that Mr. Anderson seems to have the best of that lot. Remember that Raw a couple of weeks ago, when CM Punk and John Cena dueled at the end of the show, hoisting their titles to get their particular themes played? Yeah, it might have seemed a little ridiculous, but it was also pretty awesome. That’s how important theme music can be.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jabroni Companion Special - The PWI 500 2011 Edition

Wow, so by now, everyone who cares ought to know that The Miz took the top spot in this year's PWI 500. It's a fairly reasonable selection, certainly better than dean Malenko (1997) and Rob Van Dam (2002), though it doesn't say a whole lot of the general quality of professional wrestling during this particular grading period. The Miz put on some innovative championship defenses, even if he's not nearly the quality competitor the ideal PWI 500 headliner should be. (In that respect, Malenko and RVD are certainly superior.) He's more than pulled his weight as an ambassador, though, more than anyone not named The Rock.

If I've got problems, it's elsewhere on the list. At #5, Japanese star Takashi Sigiura sounds like a far more interesting wrestler than his general lack of US exposure would indicate. That's part of my problem with PWI. On the one hand, it certainly makes good business sense to concentrate on the market your audience with most be familiar with, but on the other, you have an incredible platform, and media like YouTube, that could finally explode the full scope of wrestling to its widest potential. There's no reason why I should have been surprised by Sigiura's listing, other than my lack of interest in reading about him elsewhere in international roundups that've consistently made stars like Hiroshi Tanahashi and Satoshi Kojima sound more compelling. I get that the Japanese audience probably is more complicated than I can appreciate, but when you describe Takashi as arguably the best wrestler in the world, your case falls apart when he ranks below someone like Randy Orton, who despite serving a couple terms as world champion during the grading period, sleepwalked throughout all of it, and only recently came alive again thanks to the efforts of a hungry rival like Christian.

To make matters worse, PWI also makes Daniel Bryan's year sound like a failure, even while it spends a lot of time apologizing for the fact that lately, The Miz has looked anything like someone to get behind. Bryan had a remarkable fall, and even found himself slated for a championship match at WrestleMania against a former world champion. Just because that match was pulled for time (with very little build-up, this match would have come off as filler if it'd been short, no matter how much people genuinely like the guy), doesn't mean he's completely lost the momentum that made Bryan one of the biggest stories of 2010. Just ask Shingo (#86) what a short memory can get you. A year ago, he and Bryan put on a match of the year candidate before a very small audience, and PWI gobbled it up. A year later, that match isn't even mentioned in either write-up. What gives?

Every year, PWI finds some excuse to say TNA underachieves, even last year, when AJ Styles became its first star to capture the top spot in the PWI 500. Time to find a new tune, PWI? I'd think so, anyway. Instead of catering to lack of general appreciate, why don't you recognize how incredibly versatile, say, Styles was over the past twelve months? He didn't have world title gold, but he was undoubtedly one of the company's most important wrestlers, as he's been since the start. He's only gotten moreso. There's a reason why he was the signature "name" at Destination X.

I don't want to dig around too much, but that's the general idea. When ROH can get a spot in the top ten during an incredibly lean period (do you honestly expect Eddie Edwards, ultimately, to compare to CM Punk, Samoe Joe, or Desmond Wolfe, who was sadly listed as inactive?), you know there's some fishy reasoning in the editorial pool. It's normal. Nothing's perfect, not even the son of Mr. Perfect. But shoot for something greater.

Jabroni Companion #16

Wrestling is a strange, strange business. No, just take my next topic for example:

XXXII. Steve Austin

It may be hard for the current generation to fully appreciate, because even I only have about half his career that I was fully able to appreciate, but here’s a guy who literally broke all the rules, rising from a greatly-respected wrestler to full-blown superstar. That sort of thing simply doesn’t happen, either historically or in the present. Unless of course you count CM Punk. I have a feeling that when I get around to talking about Punk directly in a couple months, he’s going to be even bigger than he is now, but let’s get started with his unprecedented precedent.

Austin was indeed an admired, underappreciated competitor in WCW for about half of the 1990s, spending time as a tag team wrestler and mid-card title holder (a model for many other wrestlers I can think of, come to think of it). He didn’t have “it,” so the brass had concluded, and so he was going nowhere fast. Transition to ECW for a few months, and he mostly spent his time venting on the mic. Even when he was signed by WWE in 1995, most observers hardly took notice. Austin became known as the “Ringmaster,” and served as Ted DiBiase’s protégé, even got to be the second officially recognized Million Dollar Champion. He still had hair during this period, I might add.

A feud with Savio Vega followed (if I were Vega, I’d still be peeved that Austin’s most notable angle prior to explosion was never revisited), “Stone Cold” was adopted as a nickname, and the 1996 King of the Ring went down in the history books with the phrase “Austin 3:16.” Should I note here that the “Texas Rattlesnake” won the tournament by defeating Jake Roberts? Can you even fathom how Steve still basically had to wait two years for the company to rebuild itself around him?

It’s true! To be fair, CM Punk has benefited a lot from WWE actually allowing him to get away with previously taboo things completely on purpose. “Austin 3:16” came about as perhaps one of the last great unscripted adlibs in wrestling history (not that I know the history of unscripted adlibs; it may well be the greatest, and probably is). It took time to figure out how to present this new character in its entirety, and the masterstroke of giving this heelish face a corporate boss to play against was simply unheard-of in 1996 (in contrast, Eric Bischoff joined the New World Order with very little fanfare, and was promptly swallowed whole; imagine how things would have been different if that one’d played out differently). Bret Hart did a lot of things, both intentionally and otherwise, to help the Steve Austin era to begin. First, there was perhaps his greatest match ever, at WrestleMania 13, and later on in 1997, the infamous Montreal Screwjob, which very publically exposed Vince McMahon as more than just a color commentator prone to describing every single piece of action as a “maneuver.”

Actually, when you really think about it, you do kind of scratch your head at just how convoluted a lot of the things that came to define the rise of “Stone Cold” really were. Almost every single relevant development in his first year as champion came from his rivalry with McMahon. His notable opponents in the ring included “Dude Love,” the most ill-conceived identity Mick Foley adopted during his career, Kane, and Undertaker, who kept battling him and failing to make any kind of reasonable impact as rivals. Everyone wanted to see Steve Austin, and then an embarrassed Vince McMahon. Ironically, the very wrestling skills that had once gotten Austin noticed were reduced to one of the most limited repertoires since Hulk Hogan. Plenty of that had to do with increasingly limited mobility, thanks to a neck injury we won’t get into here, plus bad knees that only got worse. As a result, the concept of the brawl became so exaggerated it almost made more sense to keep the action anywhere but in the ring. No, Steve had very few worthy opponents in those days.

It got so bad that The Rock was elevated to the world title scene, during Austin’s hottest year, 1998, which set the stage for a record three WrestleMania matches, the only time WWE has counted on the same pair of wrestlers on its biggest card so many times (only Kane and Undertaker have a chance of meeting that total). The Rock was such a perfect foil that even when Austin wasn’t around, a completely different star (Triple H) had to be concocted to keep the ball going. In the fall of 1999, Steve finally had surgery on his neck, which put him out of action for a year, and by the time he returned, all his momentum had effectively dissipated. As I’ve tried to suggest, it was the Invasion angle that brought Steve Austin back to relevance, even if no one seemed to appreciate it at the time. Soon after, probably because of that very fact, he saw his opportunities dry up, and decided to bring his active career to an end, more suddenly than anyone had been expecting, in early 2002.

Another fact that many fans don’t seem to appreciate about Austin is that he had become such an iconic personality, that he could literally keep his character going and stay mostly retired (with a last official match occurring at WrestleMania XIX; as if you have to ask who his opponent was), and he did just that during 2003, and on a much more sporadic basis afterward, realizing perhaps too late that he could transition into movies (which is not to belittle his current career so much as suggest he could have been more successful if he’d started earlier).

Anyway, my point may have gotten away from me. Suffice it to say, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is a formula that probably no one else could have figured out, except Austin and Vince McMahon. CM Punk is indeed very similar, but the remarkable thing about this particular career revision is that Punk is at a point where he can literally still dazzle in the ring both on the mic and in action. Austin’s revelation came too late, and caught the company completely off-guard. Shawn Michaels was supposed to be the breakthrough champion of 1996, and as it turned out, that was basically the only time he would ever have to shine in that capacity. Bret Hart stole 1997, with only a little rub given to Austin in the process, which he himself never seemed to appreciate (imagine how things could have played out differently for everyone if he’d played his little hissy-fit against a rebellious, don’t-care-about-anyone-else’s-opinions “Rattlesnake,” and not against, say, The Patriot; maybe he’d’ve stayed in WWE, and the other Hart I’m not mentioning by name could possibly have had a different fate, too…).

Austin didn’t have a chance to develop the kind of presence in either WWE or wrestling in general that, to a certain extent, Hulk Hogan still enjoys. Wear-and-tear shortened his career considerably; while it could be said that he burned faster and brighter than anyone else for a couple of years, it’s difficult to imagine that a guy who appeared as a minor figure in “The Expendables” amidst a gaggle of way-past-their-prime action stars can truly be absolutely pleased with his legacy. Then again, for a brief period, he was literally a legend in his own time. Wrestling attained mainstream success during that era, a credibility it hadn’t known for decades, and quickly lost the moment he vanished for that neck surgery. A wrestler who waited almost his whole career for vindication, who won it just at the moment where he was barely able to continue wrestling, well, it could certainly have been worse.

I don’t know. Steve Austin is another topic that absolutely will continue to fascinate me. That’s not such a bad fate.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Jabroni Companion #15

I’ve already talked about this next topic, but there’s so much that fascinates me about it that I really can’t help returning to it. Without further adieu:

XXXI. WCW Purchase Fallout

This is beyond the scope of the Invasion angle; to be a little more precise, I’m now going to discuss who most benefited from WWE’s purchase of WCW. To me, it seems kind of obvious, but it it’s also fascinating discussion material. I’ve come up with six wrestlers whose careers were best affected by the resulting fallout. Let’s just jump into those, too.

Booker T springs to mind among these luminaries, even though, just based on how big of a star he actually became in WWE is still a matter of debate. It’s probably not too difficult, on the one hand, to say that he never attained the success of Chris Jericho, but on the other, he might have been more consistently relevant than, say, Kane. Jericho took years to solidify his place in the main event scene, to be seen as a worthy champion. Booker had similar difficulties, despite or perhaps because of his established WCW pedigree. While Kane could frequently be inserted into the main event scene, he more often sank well below it, while Booker always found some way to stay relevant, without significant gimmick changes required to keep him fresh (we’ll discuss the “King Booker” phase, don’t worry).

Anyway, aside from comparisons, Booker’s career even before WWE, obviously, was quite interesting. He’s the rare tag team star to transition into a solo superstar. He accomplished that, in part, by proving himself in a series of matches with the late Chris Benoit. As time went on, WCW felt comfortable enough to insert him into its main event scene, which he shared with the likes of Jeff Jarrett and Scott Steiner. This was achieved in the company’s final days, a fact that hurt each of them, but perhaps none more so than Booker T, who could easily have developed into one of the sports’ most popular stars, especially if a budding rivalry with Steiner, who was becoming one of wrestling’s most hated heels, had been given the chance to fully develop. It was on the final-ever Nitro that Booker T captured his last official WCW world title, from Steiner.

He was a key member of the WCW/ECW Alliance from the start, and his battles with The Rock, whom he’d patterned many of his moves on, helped make Booker a WWE star. He was easily the most prominent, successful member besides that, rivaled only by Rob Van Dam, whom more fans were only just getting to know, and therefore was more of a novelty (though few fans will admit to this). Booker quickly engaged Steve Austin in a feud, which was a surefire signal that he’d been admitted into the family. By 2003, he was battling Triple H at WrestleMania, and it was a curious selection indeed. Hunter fought other WCW alumni throughout that year, including Steiner, Kevin Nash, and Goldberg, but it was Booker who got to enjoy the honor on the grandest stage of the company. He alone, perhaps, was perceived to be a long-term player. In 2004, he was the cornerstone of Smackdown’s acquisitions from only the second official draft of the brand era, and became engaged in a feud with the Undertaker. It wasn’t until 2006, when he entered into a feud with the emerging Bobby Lashley, whom the company hoped to be the next Brock Lesnar, defeating him to become King of the Ring (and therefore, “King Booker” for the remainder of that stay with WWE), that he was finally accepted back into the main event scene, becoming world champion again and carrying the brand through a feud with the returning Batista.

Maybe it doesn’t seem quite that impressive. He had a run with TNA for a couple of years, mostly punctuated by membership in the Main Event Mafia, but if you were willing to give that group the benefit of the doubt (which most observers weren’t), you might observe that it was quite a notable group indeed. Dismiss as a knockoff of the New World Order, the MEM was actually quite a bit more successful, not to mention coherent. Whereas the nWo diluted itself over time, from the peak of the original three members (reprised years later in WWE), seemingly forgetting why it was supposed to exist and instead becoming a generic gang of bullies, the MEM knew exactly what it wanted to be from the start, and remained exactly that until storylines brought it to a natural end. Booker joined the likes of Steiner, Nash, and Kurt Angle, all notable world champions at some point, probably more on the strength of his WWE work than his time in WCW. None of them were interested in burying TNA talent, or making them look weak in comparison, but actually sought to build the existing talent pool, to elevate it as much as they could.

At any rate, Booker ended up returning, as you know, to WWE, at the 2011 Royal Rumble, to cheers that equaled that of Kevin Nash’s, who resumed the gimmick of Diesel, a persona he hadn’t taken in more than a decade, whereas Booker was cheered just for being himself. Ask yourself if Jeff Jarrett would have gotten that reception, or Steiner.

From Booker we move onto Ric Flair, who was a legend many times over when he appeared back with WWE at the end of 2001. Like Booker, he had competed on the final Nitro in a featured match (against familiar rival Sting, the only time, technically speaking, Steve Borden would clock in on WWE time), but as anyone who’s read Flair’s memoir knows, he hardly celebrated the occasion. He felt ashamed and humiliated, was more like it, wearing a t-shirt, even, to hide the fact that he wasn’t exactly in ring shape at the time. He had lost his self esteem after years of WCW playing mind games with him. He no longer felt worthy to step inside a ring. This was the “Nature Boy”!

WWE brought him back in a speaking capacity, a rival for Vince McMahon, and the culmination of that was the New World Order’s return in 2002. McMahon convinced Flair to compete in a match against him at that year’s Royal Rumble, and he was Undertaker’s opponent at that year’s WrestleMania. But he still didn’t feel like he really belonged anymore. It probably wasn’t until the Evolution group was formed, with Triple H, Randy Orton, and Batista, that Flair felt he had a purpose again. The more he kept at it, the more relevant he became again, both as a personality and performer. It got to the point where, as the group began going its separate ways, he got to fire himself up again, the way he used to every night as champion. The more heated his rivalry with Triple H became, in fact, the more he transformed back into “The Man” (as in “To beat the Man…”).

Eventually, of course, there was the retirement match against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania. And then, the comeback in TNA, which some said cheapened that retirement. Not to me. If it’d been done in WWE, maybe. But in TNA, he was able to come full circle. He formed Fortune, in which he was not an active member, which was basically his way of reforming the Four Horsemen, one of the proudest aspects of Flair’s legacy. That group is still active, by the way, long after the controversial attempts to mold A.J. Styles in Flair’s image.

Can you imagine Ric Flair’s career without any of that, if the last time you saw him, he was being humiliated by Eric Bischoff once again?

Then there’s Rey Mysterio. Simply put, his entrance into WWE saved his career. He’d lost his mask, wrestled for a year with horns on his head. I might have enjoyed this phase of his career, but it did nothing to ensure his legacy. He was simply one of the recognizable names WCW had left, who hadn’t been bought out by WWE. He was bound to stick around, but his career was never going to advance much further, not in that context. This is not to make judgments about WCW, as so many people have found so easy to do over the years, but to say that for Rey Mysterio, he had gotten as far as he could, and there simply wasn’t enough energy left to propel him further, not there, not by a long shot.

WWE busy WCW, the Invasion happens, and Mysterio is nowhere to be seen. 2002 rolls around and still no Mysterio. Suddenly, on Smackdown, against Kurt Angle of all opponents, he pops up again! He’s got the mask! And wouldn’t you know it, this time he explodes in popularity. The difference this time is that he’s the lone mask in the landscape. The more luchadores WCW imported, the more the company diluted the phenomenon. You ended up with wrestlers like Blitzkrieg, or even “Jamie-san” (Jamie Noble as one of the Jung Dragons). Juventud Guerrera lost his mask first, and everyone giggled. To his credit, Rey was still taken seriously, was still important, but he was no longer close to iconic.

With his mask back on, Rey became iconic in WWE, beloved by all the young fans who identified with his small stature, and were just as wowed by his moves in the ring as everyone else. He became a world champion in 2006, and there are plenty of things to say about why, but he recaptured the world title in 2010, and again in 2011, the last time after Sin Cara had apparently emerged to replace him.

There’s no replacing or substituting for Rey Mysterio, and to its everlasting credit, WWE knew just how to use him, and even that holding him back was the smart move. Yes, Rey would have added a spark to the Alliance, and even if he’d gotten his mask back then, there’s a chance that things would have still worked out the way they did. Then again, more than likely not. Sometimes it’s okay to be happy with the way things actually turned out.

Steve Austin, believe it or not, deserves to be in this bunch. His boss didn’t change, it’s true, when WCW became the property of WWE, but his career received much-needed rejuvenation. He’d undergone career-threatening surgery in the fall of 1999, and completed his comeback a year later. By 2001’s WrestleMania, he was champion for the first time in two years. The company thought it could make him fresh again by actually forging an alliance between “Stone Cold” and his mortal enemy, Vince McMahon. When that wasn’t enough, he joined up with Triple H. When Hunter himself went out with injury, Austin stumbled forward on his own. Then the Invasion happened. Everyone wondered how he would react, what he’d do.

Austin joined the Alliance and became its face, which admittedly was an odd turn for someone whose career had basically been rebuffed in WCW. With The Rock too good a WrestleMania opponent to waste any other time of the year and Hunter on the shelf, Austin’s best days really did seem far behind him. Then something wonderful happened. Someone realized he had chemistry with Kurt Angle. Hell, it might be argued that he and Angle were the most perfectly matched wrestlers of their generation. The comedy was good, but in the ring, they pushed each other in ways no other wrestlers had before. It wasn’t something they had to force or exaggerate, but something that worked so perfectly, it was almost easy to take for granted. They probably saved the company after 9/11. They didn’t have to change anything, even remotely touch what Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter had done a decade earlier. People wanted to see them fight.

It was probably Austin’s best feud, and it would never have happened, strangely enough, if WWE hadn’t bought WCW. It strange to say that, because both Austin and Angle were WWE wrestlers already, and yet somehow, they were in the right place at the right time to overrun a completely different angle. It made Kurt’s career, and it revived Austin’s, just long enough so he could retire on his own terms.

That basically covers Kurt Angle, by the way, too, since he was up next. 2000 was a good year for him, in which Angle made the transition from rookie to world champion in the kind of time only Goldberg had previously approached, and Kurt Angle was almost the polar opposite of “Da Man.” Few fans found it easy to take him seriously, in fact. At that point, he was treated pretty much as The Miz has been since attaining world championship status (scary to think isn’t it?). It wasn’t until he feuded with Steve Austin that Kurt could truly be taken seriously, and like I said, it was certainly curious timing, and pretty much the reason I never had a problem with the way the Invasion ended up turning out. Two brilliant careers would have considerably less shine on them if it’d developed any different. Two, many more. That’s what this topic’s all about, after all.

I realized after my original formulation of this list that I’d left an important one off it. That’s Jeff Jarrett, the only one to make it bigger without the benefit of WWE. With the help of his father and Dixie Carter, Jarrett built his own damn company, TNA. He doesn’t get nearly enough respect for that. Plenty of other stars have tried it. Hell, Hulk Hogan has tried, and failed, miserably. The difference is, Jeff seems to have realized the formula needed to make it with a major new company in the post-WCW era, probably because he himself embodies all the attributes necessary to pull it off.

Well before “Double J” showed up in WWE, Jarrett was already a veteran in professional wrestling. Strapping on that mind-boggling strip-shirt (however you want to describe it) and smashing guitars over opponent’s heads put him in a different league. He made one trip to WCW before the one he’s famous for, and didn’t make an impact. He cut his hair, returned to WWE, hardened his persona, and became the man we know today. The man has always been a consummate competitor, a fact that has frequently been obscured by the fact that he’s never had the traditional look of a superstar, nor the outsized personality of a Flair or Shawn Michaels. He’s the slimmed-down version of Dusty Rhodes, the wrestler who can bridge the divide between fan and superstar. His ego is the thing that makes it work.

He’s the only one who could have made nWo 2000 work, the version that lacked just about any of the attributes that made the original version work. It’s his own personal D-X, the gig that made him a world champion. No one ever thought Triple H could wear the big belt before he hooked up with HBK, and even then, it took more than a year on his own to convince anyone, and a still more radical attitude adjustment. Jarrett managed it with far less convincing credentials, and yes, he did it in the final days of WCW, and wasn’t champion for more than a couple weeks at a time, but that was hardly his fault.

In TNA, he wasn’t even the second world champion. The reputation he eventually got for hogging the spotlight of his own promotion, was a responsibility he assumed for the same reasons JBL was champion of Smackdown for a year, or Triple H on Raw, or Yokozuna ten years earlier, to build momentum. It built A.J. Styles’ career. Once Christian and Kurt Angle came onboard, Jarrett knew he was no longer quite as necessary. When people get around to re-evaluating Jeff Jarrett, they see him as one of the greatest wrestlers of his generation, easily, and to have become one while having some of the lowest levels of support any such wrestler ever knew, it’ll be very hard to explain.

Could you even imagine if Jarrett ever tried to show his head in WWE again? It’s a little of the reason why Sting will never sign that contract. Only Ric Flair was big enough a star to pull it off with such an established reputation, and keep it, and the first time, even he couldn’t keep it up for much more than a year. WCW was a different kind of company than WWE, no matter what was going on, just as TNA is different from WWE, and yes, even WCW. If WWE were to buy TNA today, the result would be a better WWE, and probably ROH. There’d be less floundering, less rebuilding time necessary. Hardly anyone ever truly seemed to understand what WCW had, let alone WCW itself, and even well after the fact, it’s still hard to analyze objectively even what WWE did with the same stars, whether immediately or a little at a time, later on.

I’m just trying to get the debate going.
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