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.