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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