Friday, September 30, 2011

Jabroni Companion #23

The first of three straight weeks of specialty topics! There are so many topics to cover in professional wrestling, and I’ve only just now hit the midpoint of the Companion…So once again, less chit-chat, more discussing!

LI. Tag Teams

This is a pertinent topic these days in the sense that the particular art of tag team wrestling is probably at its lowest in decades. At the start of the millennium, there were three major promotions, and each of them had active tag team divisions, building off the momentum that still existed from the innovations of the last several decades. Eventually, thanks to the consolidation of both WCW and ECW into what became known as WWE, the wrestling scene shrank, by necessity, and the resulting landscape had less room for tag teams.

Basically, once WWE became the sole source of popular wrestling entertainment, the independent scene had to concentrate more than ever on its individual stars. Guys like Christopher Daniels and AJ Styles, who actually competed in a tag team for a brief moment in WCW, were more valuable for what they could do on their own than what they might represent in some combination. This wasn’t always the case. Families like the Briscoes (I’m talking Gerald and Jack, mind you) and the Funks, among many others, often found great success both as individuals and in combinations. Many stars even today have been known as tag team wrestlers first (and not, in typical WWE fashion these days, because they were eventually placed in that situation after having failed to capture interest on their own) and then as individual stars.

TNA’s emergence, as well as the rise of ROH, helped make it possible to broaden that landscape a little again, but aside from a few core teams putting on their own spectacles, it can’t exactly be said that there were actual tag team divisions being reborn. WWE maintained separate tag team titles for both the Raw and Smackdown brands throughout the early brand era, before realizing that it’d be easier to merge them, and as a result have even fewer active tag teams on either roster.

Like I said, it wasn’t always this way. I’m not a complete wrestling historian (though that would certainly be a fun occupation!), so my knowledge only goes so far. Aside from the outright family units I already mentioned, there were teams like the Blackjacks and the Wild Samoans. The 1980s were a particular boom period, especially as NWA/WCW was concerned. The Midnight Rockers and the Midnight Express were tag teams in the purest sense, consisting of wrestlers who were fully committed to that particular division. There were the Andersons, who became co-opted by Ric Flair’s Four Horsemen. AWA featured the Fabulous Freebirds. And then there were the Road Warriors, basically the tag team equivalent of Hulk Hogan and the Bigger! Better! mentality of Vince McMahon’s WWF. WWF, as it was then known, favored a combination of what everyone else was doing, which meant, if it couldn’t have the Road Warriors, developed Demolition instead. If it couldn’t have the Andersons, it’d have the Hart Foundation instead. If it couldn’t have the Midnight Rockers, it’d have, well, the Rockers instead. There were also the British Bulldogs, the eventual acquisition of the Road Warriors as the Legion of Doom, and any number of other combinations of wrestlers who didn’t have anything else to do at the time (I would start a list of these, but it would be too depressing).

WCW continued developing its tag team division during the 1990s, with Harlem Heat perhaps the most successful alumni of that effort, as business began to change. In ECW, there were the Eliminators (Perry Saturn’s alma mater), Public Enemy, and the whole clan of Dudleys, from whence Bubba Ray and Devon graduated. WWF had teams like the Headshrinkers (a new pair of Wild Samoans that eventually gave us Rikishi), Men on a Mission (which eventually gave us Big Daddy V, or whatever you want to call him these days), the Quebecers, the Smokin’ Gunns (which eventually gave us Billy Gunn), and more, until the Attitude Era really exploded the scene. (Gosh, have I really not mentioned the Bushwhackers yet?) Billy Gunn formed the New Age Outlaws with Jesse James. Bradshaw and Faarooq (I think I finally got his name right!) became the Acolytes for Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness, which later became the APA (short for Acolyte Protection Agency). Edge and Christian went from potential rivals to tag team partners in a heartbeat. Matt and Jeff Hardy emerged, went through growing pains, became Team Extreme with Lita. Remember the Headbangers? There was a time when WWF was swamped with gangs (I don’t really want to get into that, but it’d be fun!!!), and WCW kind of joined in, not even to speak of the Nation of Domination, D-Generation X, the New World Order, those guys, even the new Hart Foundation.

Part of how you could tell that the wrestling boom was coming to an end with the turn of the millennium was that it became harder and harder to find new tag teams. The division began to solidify around certain teams, especially in WWF. It became difficult to care about what WCW and ECW were doing. The more the system fed directly into any of the three organizations dominating the scene, the harder it was to find teams who had already formed not only strong alliances, but presence in the ring together.

So the WWE brand era produced pretty much M-N-M (Joey Mercury, Johnny Nitro, and Melina), and then it all went downhill from there. Paul London and Brian Kendrick were probably the last time anyone seriously tried to have a dynamic, thrilling tag team in WWE, and the fans crapped all over them. Lance Cade and Trevor Murdock were probably the last time WWE tried to be traditional. Once the brand titles were merged, WWE tended more toward super groups rather than true tag teams. And then you end up with random people thrown together just to have tag teams and tag team champions.

This is not to say that I believe the state of tag team wrestling is really all that different than it ever was. You still have, basically, two teams of two wrestlers competing against each other, sometimes with a title at stake. Some people have opinions about the quality of those teams, and the matches that result, but at the end of the day, how different are these matches likely to be? There is a pattern to most tag team matches, in which the team that’s supposed to win has one member that suffers throughout the match, and the other member who helps win that match. The team that’s supposed to lose basically gets to dominate however they like, whether by just tagging in and out at their convenience, or with moves that require both partners to pull off. Even with given tag teams, most wrestling promotions will have the main events of their TV programs, on a regular basis, feature tag team contests with combinations of whatever hot programs they have going on. Sometimes this will even be the main event of a PPV.

There’s a certain nostalgia for the times when wrestlers dedicated to tag teams can sell that tag team, and the whole division, as its own attraction, but no company in wrestling history has ever attempted to build itself around the tag team scene as a whole. That to me is certainly telling. It would certainly be interesting if someone tried (Mexican wrestling actually tends to do this sort of thing, but Mexican wrestling has very poor publicity as a whole), and I would be among the first to take an active interest in that company, but the fact as it remains to be revealed to most people who complain about the state of tag team wrestling is, most people don’t really care enough about, understand, appreciate, pay attention to the art of tag team wrestling, no matter what they tell you. I would even argue that wrestlers themselves these days don’t seem overly concerned about this apparent trend. Wrestling is mostly about individual spotlights.

But darned if I wouldn’t like a greater spotlight on tag teams, no matter how, or where, it’s accomplished.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Jabroni Companion #22

This one will be a peculiar mix of talent, I’m sure, so let’s just dig right in:

XLV. AJ Styles

This guy should be a living legend. Everyone from Michelle McCool to John Morrison has been accused of ripping him off; to have established a style and move-set that is that recognizable would be remarkable in any era, but certainly the modern one. Styles is at the very least the heir of Shawn Michaels, a superstar who has completely obliterated the line between light and heavyweight competitor. He just happens to be the most consistent and recognizable and acceptable face of TNA.

“Consistent” may not be a word you hear associated with Styles too often. He’s one of those wrestlers Pro Wrestling Illustrated constantly complains about, even after putting him atop the 2010 PWI 500, the first TNA star to accomplish that honor. But the truth is, AJ Styles has been consistent since at least 2002, when he first came to national prominence as one of the first pillars of TNA, having established undeniable indy credentials the likes of which friend and rival Christopher Daniels can still only dream about. Styles has had multiple runs as TNA champion, including an epic reign that spanned half a year between 2009 and 2010 that saw him perform just about every conceivable role for a company standard-bearer, which was all the more remarkable in that halfway through, he was expected to continue that reign during the dawn of the Hogan/Bischoff era. He’s the only wrestler on any talent roster who can be instantly plugged into any program and being taken seriously (except by stingy critics).

He’s everything Shawn Michaels was never able to become, actually. HBK achieved his dream, and then descended into a nightmare that eventually robbed years off his career, only to make a comeback that basically placed him in the “purgatory” Styles has enjoyed, while still amassing championships, no less. When all is said and done, AJ Styles will be known as one of the most significant superstars in the history of professional wrestling. He’s done more than Ric Flair and Sting, even, despite the lack of similar recognition and sustained acclaim. If TNA fans treat him like this, it’s no wonder no one expects he’d get any respect from WWE, because it’s everything he can do to defy his hometown critics! And to think he was going to retire in 2009. His best years are still ahead.

XLVI. Scott Steiner

No superstar ever suffered more from success than Scott Steiner. He finally reached the pinnacle of singles success in WCW, only for the company to implode around him. Probably the best-developed heel of that time, he was to become one of WWE’s prized acquisitions in the fall of 2002, but showed up on Raw in 2003 and suffered the backlash of the Triple H backlash (a true wrestling paradox!) instead. He spent the rest of that year in a program with Andrew “Test” Martin, another wrestler whose unfortunate brushings with fate forever mired his career, and then showed up again in TNA in a successful supporting role no one respected…

Yeah, so the one-time tag team partner of Rick Steiner (his actual brother!) was always known as a muscle-based wrestler, but used to be more fluid and agile before seriously pumping up (not to be morbid, but he’s also still alive!) and losing the respect of the fans. But this dude seriously had game! (No pun intended!)

All of which is to say that like AJ Styles, Scott Steiner’s legacy should hopefully age more gracefully than his career.

XLVII. Too Cool

“Grandmaster Sexay,” Brian Christopher Lawler! “Scotty 2 Hotty,” Scott Taylor! Together, they were among the most unlikely and unintended superstars in the history of the WWE! Granted, adding the still more unlikely dance sensation Rikishi to the mix probably helped a great deal, but Too Cool was itself one of the great tag teams of the last great tag team era.

Lawler probably ruined his career in the aftermath of the Benoit murder-suicide, becoming one of the worst emissaries of professional wrestling, but the Hip Hop Drop will still be legendary decades from now, surpassed in brilliance only by The Worm, a move that made Scotty 2 Hotty an icon well beyond the point where WWE seriously expected to see him on the payroll (scored him two WrestleMania appearances!). That’s all I’ve really got to say about Too Cool, that they’re infinitely worth remembering, even if in the grand scheme they didn’t pass the test of time as regular members of the wrestling community quite like the Hardys, Edge, and Christian (let alone JBL!). But who would deny them, if the circumstances presented themselves, a reunion tour?

XLVIII. Lex Luger

The juggernaut with the worst timing in wrestling, Lex Luger was supposed to be the Next Big Thing a couple of times, both in WCW and WWE, and maybe even in TNA, if things had turned out differently several times.

In WCW, he had to contend with Ric Flair and his own buddy, Sting, who probably replaced him as the new franchise player. In WWE, so the story goes, he leaked the results of WrestleMania 10, and lost his shot at the WWE title. Back in WCW, Sting once again overshadowed him as the New World Order’s greatest threat. And in the early days of TNA, he became embroiled in controversy with the death of Miss Elizabeth. The dude just could not catch a legitimate break.

So I’ll always cherish things like Summer Slam and Survivor Series 1993, when he really did seem like he was going to go all the way, or the fact that he was Nitro’s first big splash, or that he was the “Total Package” long before people refused to accept Chris Masters in a similar capacity. Maybe if WWE ended up putting together a DVD set of Luger’s greatest moments, history might better remember that he really did make an indelible contribution to professional wrestling.

XLIX. Brock Lesnar

Even before he jumped the WWE ship in 2004, the buzz had worn off of Brock Lesnar. He possessed all the talent to be a bigger star than anyone else in the history of wrestling, but you’d hardly know it. Within a few months of his departure, people were already quick to call his old stomping grounds, Smackdown, the unacknowledged red-headed stepdaughter of the WWE. If the company’s biggest star had just been competing exclusively for that brand, what was that supposed to mean, then?

Lesnar made the leap in 2002, and worked his way up the roster in rapid succession, winning the King of the Ring, and then stealing Summer Slam from Shawn Michaels’ comeback. Lesnar himself found the pattern that then emerged a little uncomfortable: repeated matches with the Big Show and Undertaker, plus the much-heralded contests with Kurt Angle, including the infamous WrestleMania XIX encounter with the botched shooting star press. Suffice to say, Brock Lesnar is the star who lost the most from the brand split. Matches against opponents like John Cena and Paul London (it really happened!) were extremely atypical. Brock himself could sometimes be difficult on that front. But the fact remains, there was never and has been since anyone quite like Brock Lesnar.

After quitting the ring for the gridiron (a bid that nearly succeeded), he took a few more matches, by necessity in Japan, at least one a return engagement with Angle, and then…MMA. I’d say that a masterpiece film like WARRIOR would never have been possible without Brock Lesnar, surely the most charismatic MMA fighter to emerge from UFC and its rivals. Should Brock ever compete in the squared circle, rather than the octagon, again, it’d be in an instant the biggest wrestling news in years. He’s still got time to make that kind of decision, too! Do his few years in WWE already constitute a lasting legacy? You bet.

L. Booker T

Almost the reverse Scott Steiner, Booker T is the tag team star who emerged as a frontliner in WCW’s final days, and just about managed to continue his momentum into WWE. With his brother Stevie Ray (who was actually the first of them to tease a ringside career) in Harlem Heat, Booker was a standout in WCW long before he worked his way through the singles ranks. As he himself reminded the fans, he started amassing a considerable amount of world championships, and headlined the Alliance once the Invasion took place in WWE. He sat on the backburner for years, and then gracefully seized the first available opportunity to reclaim his thrown (I mean, as a world champion).

Then he made the switch to TNA, and had some success there, and then came back to WWE, where he has since the start of 2011 been sitting ringside for Smackdown. Not too bad for someone who used to be accused (rightly) and using thinly-veiled versions of The Rock’s patented moves. But only Booker can pull off the Spinaroonie! He’s another star who would absolutely benefit from a DVD package, and he’s as likely as anyone to eventually get that honor from WWE. And then, Booker T would be on his way to immortality!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jabroni Companion #21

I’ve talked about WWE, WCW, TNA, even ROH, but I haven’t yet talked about…


ECW, like WCW and TNA, began as an offshoot of the National Wrestling Alliance, and originally stood for Eastern Championship Wrestling. Some of its original stars were castoff superstars like Jimmy Snuka, Don Muraco, and Tito Santana, each of whom had at least one reign as heavyweight championship between 1992 and 1993, notably well beyond the primes of their careers. The Sandman straddled this period, too, but perhaps more notable was Shane Douglas capturing the title for the first time, which led to Sabu, which led to Terry Funk, which led back to Douglas, which led, officially, to Extreme Championship Wrestling in 1994.

ECW was the baby of Paul Heyman, who crafted his dream out of a bingo hall in Philadelphia, with a bunch of spare-parts wrestlers he managed to acquire over the years. To hear him explain it, he attained success the Moneyball way, by finding a way to utilizing wrestlers other organizations were underappreciating, mostly by carefully crafting matches to their strengths. Eventually, ECW became known, point-of-fact, as a hardcore haven a style that had developed organically, but was so unique, that alone helped capture the national spotlight.

Still, while all that hardcore mayhem was going on, Heyman really was sticking to his dream, and along the way helped pave the way for a more international style of wrestling to emerge, directly inspiring WCW’s cruiserweight division by bringing in stars like Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio, and Chris Jericho. He salvaged the careers of Steve Austin and Mick Foley and helped transition them to WWE immortality. Hell, he even gave us the Dudley Boys (originally a whole Dudley dynasty!).

Still, for some reason, ECW became known for the chants of, well, “ECW! ECW!,” and stars like Sandman, Sabu, and Tommy Dreamer, so-called innovators of violence who bucked the standards of the mainstream, regularly giving Joey Styles the license to craft the catchphrase “Oh my god!” while performing the most insane moves imaginable, all the while shedding buckets of blood. This is what the legacy of the company became.

Early on, though, Heyman realized he needed help to keep his flimsy business model afloat, and turned to an unlikely partnership with WWE for a little added exposure. The original ECW invasion was last millennium, folks. The company did eventually get a national cable TV deal, but it was well beyond ECW’s peak. Eventually, Heyman realized you need real money in order to pay the talent, and by some coincidence, folded his little enterprise at around the same time WWE bought WCW in 2001. Then, of course, the Invasion happened, and not only did WCW wrestlers participate, but ECW competitors as well. It might be argued that Rob Van Dam’s popular career began that year (it perhaps cannot be stressed enough that in the original ECW, he was never a heavyweight champion).

In 2005, Vince McMahon held the ECW One Night Stand PPV, reuniting many of the company’s top stars, in what most people expected to be a one-off event. Little did most people realize that TNA had actually attempted much the same thing, not so long after the Invasion of WWE officially concluded, led by the indomitable and enigmatic Raven, who went on to become, as he had been in ECW, one of its early stars. In 2006, WWE tried it again, but this time had something a little bit more radical in mind. Just as WWE itself was now two brands, Raw and Smackdown, ECW was about to be resurrected as an additional internal promotion, led by RVD, other familiar stars, and a smattering of new faces meant to represent the next generation. The only one of those who stuck it out with WWE was CM Punk, an electric competitor who originally made a name for himself in ROH, where he had a hard time sharing the spotlight with Samoa Joe (hell, even Bryan Danielson couldn’t really do that).

From the beginning, this new ECW was derided as McMahon’s last chance to completely bury Heyman’s dream by subverting the “original hardcore intentions” and watering it down to a third-tier spotlight for aging veterans and newcomers no one cared about. It probably didn’t help that RVD quickly lost both the ECW and WWE heavyweight titles thanks to an incident with the law, and was replaced as the figurehead of the new ECW by WWE stalwart the Big Show. Kurt Angle had been intended to be a star of the brand, but had opted for retirement from the rigors of WWE travel for the light schedule of TNA, which his battered body could better handle. Chris Benoit, a year later, continued that unfortunate trend of truly respected wrestlers being unable to fulfill the ECW commitment a bit more spectacularly, and by that, I mean that he made news in all the wrong ways, nearly sinking the entire sport in the process. Of course, he was dead; what did he care?

Punk graduated to the front of the class, now that all the distractions were gone, but ended up sharing it with the emerging John Morrison, who had at that time been establishing his singles credentials with Jeff Hardy on Raw (it still boggles me that fans were so lukewarm about the Punk-Morrison feud, and that all three had a quasi-reunion on Smackdown a few years later, and still no one cared). The ECW detractors soon enough got what they thought they wanted, when Chavo Guerrero became champion, then Kane, then Matt Hardy, then Mark Henry, each symbols of WWE futility in their own way…Bobby Lashley had been champion in 2007, the “Real Deal” who was supposed to be WWE’s next big thing (if you’ll pardon the expression). People hated him as ECW champion, saw him as a distraction. The next emerging star to hold the intended honor was Jack Swagger in 2009. This was about the time when WWE really started to use ECW as a platform for new stars, including Kofi Kingston. Swagger had been something of an indy sensation, and his elevation into a champion was completely unexpected, but he soon earned the respect of those still paying attention.

When his term ended, ECW gave the wrestling world its final gift. Christian had been a mainstay within WWE until his defection to TNA in TNA, where he believed, rightly so as it turned out, that his talents would find greater respect. Before Kurt Angle went there, he was the first star to truly steal the spotlight from company founder Jeff Jarrett. Yet the siren call of WWE reached Christian’s ears again, and he found himself the newest member of the ECW roster, and soon enough its champion. In fact, aside from Tommy Dreamer having his last moment of ECW glory and Ezekiel Jackson, Christian might go down as this version of ECW’s last and greatest champion.

Anyway, the brand folded in early 2010, replaced by NXT and the returning Tough Enough reality competition, thanks to persistent fan apathy. TNA held another ECW invasion later that fall, which gave birth to EV2.0…by which point even ECW’s biggest fans decided enough was enough. A bald Sabu just isn’t the same Sabu.

ECW’s ultimate legacy? Controversy, innovative wrestling, some of the sport’s biggest stars…All in all, a pretty consistent message, from 1992 to 2010. Not too bad…

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Jabroni Companion #20

Now let’s talk about three relatively major wrestlers!

XLI. Chris Jericho

I’ve been a fan of Jericho since 1996, so it’s a little weird for me to list him among “relatively major wrestlers,” too. The thing is, I’m not sure he ever really reached his potential.

As we all know, he received his big break in WCW, where he was initially a part of the cruiserweight scene. The cruiserweight scene was a double-edged sword WWE eventually figured out, a division that both gave smaller competitors a guaranteed spotlight, both also locked them into fighting only certain wrestlers, a glass-ceiling situation that eventually greatly frustrated just about every wrestler who ever competed in it, especially in WCW. In WWE, even at that time (1996), Shawn Michaels, who would have been a cruiserweight competitor, was heavyweight champion. (Granted, Vince McMahon is widely known for favoring when he can, larger athletes.)

Jericho began breaking out of the pack by contradicting the stereotype and developing an outsized personality, which might actually have retarded his development as a wrestler. It might be argued that it was more the personality than the wrestler that WWE came to covet, and while it was often said that Jericho was like the second coming of HBK, he soon enough became known as the first coming of Y2J, and that was a harder thing to figure out than anyone first realized. He was a fantastic wrestler, sure, but one who very often relied on the same sequence of moves (think a weird mix of Bret Hart and John Morrison), who could string a good match along with anyone, but who often seemed to be going through the motions. In addition, his outsized personality naturally lent itself to a heel personality, even though his charisma was on par with The Rock’s (so think a petulant John Cena). All of this combined for an oddly unwieldy superstar, who took far longer to become a world champion than anyone expected (there was actually a tease in 2000, but it didn’t really happen until 2001, even though he’d joined WWE to tremendous fanfare and hype in 1999).

It might actually be said that Jericho was more interesting when he was frustrated than otherwise. In 2004, he engaged in one of his most interesting feuds well outside of world title contention when he, long-time ally Christian, and Trish Stratus ended up in one of the most heated love triangles in wrestling history, an angle that lasted for almost a whole year. In 2005, he helped develop the idea for the Money in the Bank ladder match, and helped launch the world championship career of John Cena, before taking the first of his long breaks from the business, to pursue his rock band Fozzy and other entertainment ambitions. Surprisingly, he decided to come back two years later thanks to a match between Cena and Shawn Michaels. Soon, he developed a persona that more closely matched his best possible style, a cocky heel who thought he was better than everyone. Not surprisingly, he became much more successful in this phase, not only engaging in a much more successful feud with Michaels, but capturing several world championships without anyone wondering what he was doing with them. I would actually argue that this two-year period probably helped salvage his career

Like the next man in this block, Chris Jericho has also begun making his name as a memoirist, having now released two books chronicling his wrestling career from a refreshingly candid perspective.

XLII. Mick Foley

Who else could I be talking about? Mrs. Foley’s baby boy has now written four memoirs, plus an assortment of other literary endeavors (including two novels!), an ambition that helped push wrestling into some of its most mainstream popularity at the start of the millennium. The actual wrestling he has participated in has been likened to Jim Ross’s famous phrase, “bowling shoe ugly,” or in other words generally lacking in finesse. One of the original hardcore icons, and at one time described as a “glorified stuntman” by Ric Flair, Mick Foley is also among the most versatile personalities (Cactus Jack, Mankind, Dude Love) to ever grace a wrestling ring, someone who can connect with the fans by squealing like a pig or going for cheap pop (right here, in Colorado Springs!). It might be argued that without him, The Rock would never have become the superstar he is today, both in wrestling and Hollywood.

The irony that some of his signature actions in (or more accurately around) the ring became less important than his increasingly beloved status must not be lost on Mick Foley. The man who was willing to do whatever bump necessary, who’s missing teeth as well as parts of ears because of it, and lives in untold amounts of pain, might never be completely respected as a wrestler (as TNA has discovered, having tried to push him almost exclusively in that regard, and coming up with failure), probably has a surefire legacy all the same.

I remember seeing Cactus Jack on WCW programming, but it was the entrance of Mankind into WWE where my memories truly begin. Mankind was, to put it bluntly, a freak, someone who pulled out his own hair, who was among the first opponents who gave the Undertaker a legitimate challenge (setting him up for Kane, and finally breaking completely free of the supernatural gimmick, even when he finally came back to it). He was such a unique presence, WWE managed to make a star of him, which had proven difficult elsewhere. In time, “Mankind” blended with “Mick Foley,” and we got the Rock ‘n’ Sock Connection (remember that Mr. Socko was originally an extension of Mankind’s Mandible Claw choking maneuver), and eventually just Mick Foley. There was also Dude Love, of course, which was actually Foley’s original idea for a wrestling gimmick, but who really wants to remember that?


Glen Jacobs also portrayed evil dentist Isaac Yankem and the New Diesel, which covers WWE’s original, miscalculated attempts to employ him, but it wasn’t until he became Undertaker’s half-brother (via Paul Bearer!) that he was finally able, under completely ridiculous circumstances, to just be a monster, which was all he ever needed.

Go figure! But he was accepted as a member of the icon scene almost immediately, and rather than being inextricably tied to his “brother,” Kane blended into the rest of the roster pretty nicely, someone who could form a tag team seemingly with anyone (X-Pac, Rob Van Dam, Big Show), offer a challenge to any champion, and who didn’t need to have championship runs more than once almost every decade (a day in 1998, then nearly half a year in 2010, plus an ECW title run). It all sounds so loony, but it really works. Competing under a mask (to hide extensive “fire damage”) in his early years, Kane exposed his face in 2004, and eventually (other than a shaved head and contacts) looked exactly like Glen Jacobs (or Isaac Yankem!), and still easily maintained his monster status. Remember that he was originally mute? Try telling that to fans who marveled at his creepy tirades last year, when he was ranting about the mystery man who attacked his brother, “putting him in a vegetative state,” and then gleefully taking the credit for it, with that cool red lighting.

Still, the knock on Kane is that he hasn’t really evolved his wrestling style, while Undertaker’s been doing that for a decade. But you can’t argue with dependability and success, either. How will posterity remember him? It’ll be interesting when he finally gets to talk about his full career, if he ever breaks the fourth wall while he’s in the ring, or if he waits until the induction ceremony at the WWE Hall of Fame…

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Jabroni Companion #19

Gonna be running through four wrestlers this time around, so once again we’re just going to jump in. For the most part, these are all wrestlers who’ve earned a greater legacy than their actual legacy seems to indicate, in case you’re looking for a theme…

XXXVII. Ken Shamrock

Once known as the “World’s Most Dangerous Man,” it might actually be forgotten today that Ken Shamrock was the original MMA superstar and only successful transplant to the world of professional wrestling. In a lot of ways, he was very much the original Kurt Angle, too, even though he never did reach quite that far in the ring. I’ve been a champion of this guy since his WWE debut, was still hoping for one last great comeback (as a wrestler, since we all know by now that he can no longer compete at the elite level in the octagon).

That WWE debut was actually during the WrestleMania 13 Bret Hart-Steve Austin match, as a special guest referee, just one of many elements that helped make that one the unofficial main event, or at the very least showstopper (it’s ironic that “Hitman” achieved that distinction on the card Shawn Michaels famously vacated “because he lost his smile”) that evening. Soon after, Shamrock became a full-time competitor, and became known as a submission specialist, not in the sharpshooter or figure-four leg-lock way that wrestling had typically known to that point, but introducing the ankle lock into the popular repertoire (which also makes it ironic that Angle would try and take issue with Jack Swagger over using it, when he took it from Shamrock). He established a gritty style that was perfect for the budding Attitude Era, and a general ring presence that, well, helped make his name as the “World’s Most Dangerous Man”

At WrestleMania XIV, he battled The Rock for the Intercontinental championship, and would have won it if he’d released the ankle lock, and thus was established the reason he’d never go any further with WWE. He was not a vocal figure, but a very good competitor, who could be counted on to be colorful (take notes, Kofi Kingston), help the evening be interesting, do what needed to be done. All this, again, all the more remarkable, because he was basically the face of the early UFC era, the man who could legitimately fight and beat anyone. If this had been only a few years later, if Ken Shamrock had stepped into the ring with Angle or Chris Benoit, he would have been a WWE world champion, beyond a doubt. He would have regularly sat atop the card. Instead, he fought Steve Blackman (another unfortunate underachiever who could’ve done more only a few years later, but was instead relegated to the hardcore division), and ran a brief feud with Chris Jericho, and then vanished.

In 2002, he was the first TNA champion, for a brief period (do you remember that R-Truth held the title a few times, too?). He attempted an MMA comeback (hey, so remember Dan Severn? Tank Abbott?), and got embarrassed. I honestly don’t know why he never attempted a proper wrestling comeback, maybe he just wasn’t interested, or maybe wrestling itself, foolishly, wasn’t. But Ken Shamrock will remain one of my most notable wrestling figures.

XXXVIII. Jeff Jarrett

Maybe Jarrett doesn’t deserve to be lumped into the middle of a pack like this, but there’s little doubt that he never did break through the glass ceiling of fan appreciation, even after successfully helping to launch his own wrestling promotion, TNA. It’s true, he spent a couple of years trying to carry the company’s main event on his shoulders, with about as much luck as he’d had in WCW’s final days (remember NWO 2000?). In the end, the erstwhile “Double-J” might be considered the most successful Southern superstar of the modern era. I mean in the sense that he carried the most traditional aspects of “rasslin” into the 21st century.

No matter your first exposure to Jeff Jarrett, chances he’d already had a ton of experience before it. By his WWE debut in 1994, he was already a seasoned pro. He was a terrific stick man and a technical genius, who lacked the pizzazz of Ric Flair but none of his abilities; in fact, it might be argued that Jarrett did everything he could to be the next “Nature Boy,” without anyone ever mentioning it. His TNA title reigns are a lot more like Flair’s NWA days than Triple H’s were on Raw during the same period, but of course, the fans only saw a couple of heels keeping their respective world titles, and hated them for it, just as they would with JBL, seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that any act that draws emotion out of them is a success no matter what they think. That’s the name of the game. Jeff Jarrett was constantly accomplishing that, even if he had to help Chyna get an in-ring career to do it. The ribbon shirt was stupid, let’s face it, and he probably should never have sported long hair (why did no one ever tell Greg Valentine that?), but Jeff Jarrett was a legend before he’d technically done anything to earn the distinction. He made guitars a more acceptable element of matches than sledgehammers, even though neither one has anything to do with any conceivable aspect of wrestling competition.

Jarrett has gone through a lot in recent years, the proverbial rollercoaster, the least of which is earning the respect of Kurt Angle, and has ceded the TNA championship scene to others, all real power within the company, and is still going. Here’re the props you’ve earned, Jeff.

XL. Ahmed Johnson

This one went by a lot of names, but made his WWE mark as Johnson, the first African American to capture a singles championship, after a much-hyped debut matched in hyperbole and flameout only by Bobby Lashley a decade later. I’d like to go on record and state that I wish things had turned out a little better for this one. It’d probable that his body simply wasn’t prepared to handle the rigors of the ring for a sustained period, and that what happened was always bound to happen, but it might’ve be nice if he’d gotten a little farther a little sooner. Maybe it’s just been a long time since I’ve seen an Ahmed Johnson match.

Still. Maybe he was just the new Junkyard Dog, the guy who seemed like he could go anywhere, but ultimately couldn’t. Eventually he helped give Ron Simmons a WWE career, which in itself is a pretty okay legacy (if not that awful “gladiator helmet” Farooq first sported), helping spark the Nation of Domination (and thus the popular career of The Rock), working with the Legion of Doom. He briefly resurfaced in WCW as “Big T,” a replacement in Harlem Heat, with a ton of added weight, was gone as quickly as he’d appeared.

I wonder if Johnson won’t still end up in the WWE Hall of Fame, though, some day, if the company feels like it, if he might still care enough, if that won’t shed some light about his legacy, remind everyone of what might have been, what could have been, what he actually accomplished, in the end.

XLI. Sean Waltman

There was actually a time when it seemed Waltman was going to be a franchise player for WWE, back when he was an improbable sensation (remember his feud with Razor Ramon?), the beanstalk martial artist known as the 1-2-3 Kid (who nonetheless didn’t compete at a WrestleMania until he was known as X-Pac), the babiest of the babyfaces. Probably when Shawn Michaels realized a certain sense of maturity, someone realized they didn’t need Sean anymore. He jumped to WCW and became Syxx, one of the original additions to the New World Order, and began maturing, and then jumped just as abruptly back to WWE and joined D-X as X-Pac, who along with the New Age Outlaws actually made it okay to forget that HBK was ever a member (seriously!). Okay, so his main rivalry was with Shane McMahon, but Shane’s the only McMahon who ever belonged in the ring.

Then, of course, Sean’s career and life completely imploded. I guess he realized he had his own career, that absolutely none of it had made any sense. The truly sad part is that he never really recovered. Oh, he’s back with WWE in a backstage capacity, but Sean shouldn’t be a backstage talent. That’s clearly not what he was born for. Maybe he has an epic comeback in him, maybe he doesn’t. He’s another star due for a reappraisal, though, a little more respect.
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