Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Jabroni Companion #27

I hate to break it to The Miz and R-Truth, but they have a pretty recent example to prove that their latest bid for relevance may be more short-lived than they currently imagine. They may think “making a statement” by beating up other wrestlers will help their careers, but my next subject would probably beg to differ:

LV. The Nexus

Now, hopefully, I shouldn’t have to explain what exactly the Nexus was, but just in case, it was a direct product of the first season of WWE’s NXT program, which aims to short-cut introductions to developmental talent (sometimes the inclusion of someone like Daniel Bryan will leave fans scratching their heads).

Let me just make a digression about the NXT strategy. I think it’s a little bit of backwards thinking. NXT is basically exactly the opposite of what WWE typically does, and demands of its talent. It’s a program that provides potential new talent for the regular rosters of the Raw and Smackdown brands a chance to expose themselves to fans in a soft setting, not demanding too much of them except to simply showcase their current capabilities. In essence, it’s a professional version of Tough Enough (which only complicated things when Tough Enough itself returned). Maybe NXT was a result of WWE having a hard time introducing new stars the old way, but I’m not sure it’s been entirely successful, even with the Nexus angle that followed its inception (to its credit, WWE may have finally realized that).

Typically, you’ll see a new star in what’s supposed to be a finished or near-finished form, a wrestler who’s already supposed to know how to handle themselves on the grand stage, or will be able to quickly refine themselves (or gradually see their exposure and prospects diminished). What NXT did was expose wrestlers in their basic ingredients, in their developmental phases, whether they were really at that point or otherwise (Daniel Bryan). It is and was a curious experiment.

Anyway, from that first season of NXT came the angry band of the Nexus, which quickly focused on the central figure of Wade Barrett, winner of the first season and most capable of expressing himself in a WWE-caliber capacity. That was all well and good. The Nexus made a bold impact and spent months emphasizing their unique position as rookies who immediately wanted their piece of the pie, and chose John Cena as their biggest target. This was both a good and a bad thing, because they would either get what they wanted or be vanquished and consigned back to relative obscurity. Barrett had feuds with Cena and then-WWE champion Randy Orton, and it was interesting to watch because he came from a position of strength defined almost exclusively by the numbers game. On his own he might have excelled just as far, but he constantly had the Nexus around him to explain how and why he was in that spot. In fact, without the others, none of the Nexus really meant anything.

It was a unique way to introduce new stars, but it also stunted their growth considerably, and the longer it went on, the more it fed itself at the expense of itself. When Cena finally got the big win over Barrett, the question became, What comes next? Faced with failure, change was inevitable. Barrett departed with a small faction to Smackdown and transformed into the Corre. CM Punk laid claim to the remnants and basically repeated his strategy from the Straight Edge Society. As a movement in WWE, the Nexus came to a head at the 2011 Royal Rumble, in which both factions dominated for much of the 40-man elimination match. Once dispatched, however, that was the end of the group’s effectiveness, in any form.

Faced without individual identities, the members of the Nexus soon found that they were no longer stars, even Wade Barrett, who had been such a visible presence for months, challenging the top names on Raw and WWE in general. Now they would have to sink or swim on their own. Original members were released or forgotten, stuck in tag team wrestling, or asked to develop other potential stars. The Nexus, once it had been defeated, dissipated and lost all its power. Subsequent NXT graduates more often than not opted not to participate.

Barrett remains a viable presence, though he has to fight for himself much more often now, and finds it difficult to distinguish himself, now that he lacks a de facto position of influence. Maybe that’s exactly the way most stars end up once they join the WWE roster; they’re given a chance to shine, and either make it work in the first attempt, or are given others down the road, which they must fight all the harder to maintain.

The Nexus, then, would be an outsized version of the journey every superstar faces. Maybe that example is something other graduates of NXT are meant to exceed, to build on, to learn from. Maybe the best is yet to come.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jabroni Companion #26

I’m going to enjoy this next one, because he’s not a wrestler who’s gotten a ton of respect from the fans, not the ones who should have known better, not from fans in general, but he was definitely good at provoking a reaction. I’m talking about:

LIV. John Bradshaw Layfield

Colloquially (never thought you’d see that word in conjunction with professional wrestling, did you?) known as JBL, at least starting in 2004 (and better known previously simply as Bradshaw), the self-proclaimed “Wrestling God” first came to prominence (or tried to) as the psychotic cowboy Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, transitioned into the New Blackjacks (rocking a mustache), and was absorbed into the Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness with Ron Simmons as the Acolytes, which soon enough became known as the Acolytes Protection Agency (the APA), better known for holding down a poker table with cigars and beer than their ring work (though his “Clothesline from Hell” was quickly established as midcard legendary).

Anyway, John was a minor attraction (if that) for years, a WWE mainstay who started breaking out of the pack (tentatively) in 2003 as part of the Smackdown brand. When Brock Lesnar unexpectedly quit the company early in 2004, it opened up a crucial spot in the brand. Ron Simmons went quietly into retirement, Bradshaw started becoming a braggart, starting referring to himself as JBL, picked on champion Eddie Guerrero, and actually defeated him for the title two months later.

No one really took it seriously. Some people were amused by the fresh face in the main event, many were baffled, and it was assumed that the JBL experiment would end quickly. John himself would have been the first to admit that he wasn’t necessarily at the peak of his in-ring prowess, but as a talker, he was virtually untouchable (that’s no doubt what really won him the spot). I was in awe from the moment the transition was made. I was a big Guerrero fan (still am, obviously), would have loved to see him remain champion at least as long as the late Chris Benoit at the time, but JBL was gold.

It didn’t hurt that Eddie had a fallback feud with Kurt Angle that kept getting interwoven with the JBL era in its early months. Angle was resting up at the time, spending his on-air role as Smackdown’s general manager, and proudly supporting John as a “Great American.” John Cena was supposed to be the next big Smackdown star, and I was a big fan of his, too, but he seemed to do just fine with the United States championship, biding his time until the next WrestleMania (the first of the many times Cena left fans unimpressed, unjustifiably).

Anyway, JBL kept the title. Undertaker was returning to the “Deadman” gimmick, and was his next big opponent. Undertaker was no longer as comfortable, at least at that time, in that particular role, and so it was quite easy for me to continue to root for JBL. JBL kept winning, all throughout 2004. He kept winning in 2005, too, at least until the big WrestleMania match with John Cena. After one more match, he basically disappeared.

His in-ring career resurfaced in 2006 when he picked on Rey Mysterio. He served as a perfectly awesome color commentator (“when the lights are on bright”) for Smackdown. He spent some time away, resurfaced at the end of 2007, coinciding with the return of Chris Jericho, and began an improbable comeback. It didn’t last too long, really. But he was still a “Wrestling God.”

Honestly, the man who is also a financial analyst is probably the best thing to happen to wrestling in the past ten years, and hardly anyone will ever admit it. A lot of people dismissed the JBL character as a “Million Dollar Man” knockoff, but he was more politician (with many promos making that blatantly obvious, as well as the eventual addition of his Cabinet with “Chief of Staff” Orlando Jordan and “Co-Secretaries of Defense” the Basham Brothers), a prescient image in an era somewhat besotted with the image of the politician (admittedly somewhat dubious these days).

But really, his stick skills were beyond awesome. Lots of people can play cocky, but few can pull it off quite like John Bradshaw Layfield. He looks pretty much as clumsy as an ox in the ring (but can still pull off a mean power presence), but life without JBL is always a little more dull than it should be, especially when everyone knows JBL is still around, is still capable of being a blowhard. It’s a shame fans aren’t begging him to come back and be just that. He could teach plenty of students in that blessed art. Who wouldn’t want to see Layfield’s Disciples yapping away in the ring?

This message has been approved by JBL.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Jabroni Companion #25

Our trio of themed pieces concludes with:

LIII. Specialty Matches

Wrestling fans of the modern era might be scratching their heads, because “specialty matches” has almost been replaced by “specialty PPVs,” in that both TNA and WWE have taken to crafting entire PPV events around certain types of specialty matches.

But for the record, “specialty matches” refers to cage matches, ladder matches, Texas bullrope matches, Hell in the Cell, Elimination Chamber, elimination matches, no disqualification matches, time-limit matches, ambulance matches, on and on, otherwise known as gimmick matches, any time a match is conducted under anything but ordinary rules, where pinfalls and submissions are not the only things to keep in mind.

In previous eras, these matches would be the big blow off for a hot feud, the way to say, “This is the only way these two wrestlers are going to stop trying to beat each other up.” As with everything else, over time that just wasn’t good enough. To retain the attention of a wide audience these matches became more and more common. ECW built its reputation over allowing an overall hardcore style to become the norm, which in turn led to hardcore divisions in both WCW and WWE. It might even be argued that the cruiserweight division, by any other name, is basically a gimmick division, in that competitors routinely wrestle a unique, freewheeling style, not just because they’re smaller and more agile, but because they’re capable of sustaining that style over many minutes, matches, and entire careers. You’d never ask Abyss to permanently compete in TNA’s X division, but to make a point, you can feature him in a program against wrestlers who regularly do.

Anyway, gimmick matches also serve to prove how tough a wrestler is, not just in death matches, which are clearly insane, but in general. Triple H had proven himself many times over by the start of 2000, but he gained a new legitimacy by going toe-to-toe with Mick Foley in a street fight and epic Hell in a Cell encounter in the first few months of the year. Without them, it’s doubtful “The Game” would be recognizable today. Foley himself earned immortality by taking a legendary bump a few years earlier.

It doesn’t always have to be something that involves some kind of foreign object or environment, either. Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart brought the idea of an hour-long match into modern times at WrestleMania XII, when previously it had been something guys like Ric Flair did at house shows on a nightly basis, just flat-out exhibiting the best of their technical abilities for a special occasion. Long matches are one thing, but this is something else entirely, especially when you’re given an opportunity to record multiple pinfalls or submissions (something that particularly set Michaels-Hart apart, since neither recorded one until overtime). Wrestlers like Triple H, The Rock, Kurt Angle, and Brock Lesnar later demonstrated that fans liked this specialty plenty much.

WWE developed the idea of TLC (tables, ladders, and chairs) thanks to the emerging popularity of tables in the early months of the new millennium, courtesy of the Dudley Boys, whose feud with Edge & Christian and Matt & Jeff Hardy culminated, or so everyone thought, at WrestleMania 2000, which was technically a ladder match. The three teams had such great chemistry, that they reprised that match, added more elements (officially), and TLC came about, and eventually reprised at WrestleMania X-7 the next year. WWE would bring back the TLC concept several times, before making it a PPV, with various elements from that configuration either used separately or all together. Ladder matches, popularized by Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon (Scott Hall) at WrestleMania X, also gave birth to Money in the Bank and TNA’s King of the Mountain and Feast or Fired matches. Each threw several competitors into the mix for the chances of winning coveted contracts or even championships themselves. Money in the Bank, too, eventually became its own PPV.

Why bother with these matches at all? Cage matches in themselves became so routine in WWE that they rarely in themselves made it on to PPVs after a while, instead becoming almost a fixture on TV. Fans can become jaded of even the most extreme specialties (as the hardcore phenomenon proved), so it’s always a balance of providing the best and most interesting wrestling possible. A lot of fans can’t seem to be interested in even the most basic wrestling, it can sometimes seem, so there’s always some new specialty being hatched, some new gimmick, or even the tried-and-true being utilized in new and innovative ways, or used as they’ve always been. It’s part and parcel of the wrestling experience.

And here you thought wrestling was just about basic wrestling.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Jabroni Companion #24

Continuing our series of targeted topics, we now reach one every wrestler dreams of, and every fan secretly frets about:

LII. Championships

In sports entertainment, the concept of a champion is an incredibly tricky affair. Once everyone figured out that wrestling was scripted, the idea of a champion became pretty complicated. The NWA seemed incredibly eager to announce that its champions were chosen by a committee representing each of its major territories. Vince McMahon seems perfectly happy for everyone to believe his are champions of convenience, either designed to showcase the top stars, or calculated to move along a given storyline.

World champions, which can sometimes be considered heavyweight champions (but perhaps less so in the modern era) have been a staple of wrestling for more than a century, from George Hackenschmidt in 1904 to John Bradshaw Layfield in 2004. Owing to the fact that it’s very hard to appease everyone all the time, it’s always been a little difficult to determine a single, undisputed champion, not just on the world championship level, but from across the thousands of competitors at any given time, divided as they are in style, gender, weight and height, countries and languages, even permutations (it’s not all the time a tag team champion is also world champion).

Not every company competes on a global scale, naturally, so not every company can even rightly declare a world champion. So many championships have developed over the years, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of just how and why one of them should really carry any significance. The rule of thumb, as Vince McMahon will tell you, is that a championship should be given to someone who will be able to do something with it. Sometimes that means that the championship will forge a champion, and then sometimes that the champion will help define that championship. At no time is it guaranteed that either one is actually the best in that particular field, only that at that particular moment, it makes sense for the two to come together.

One of the things that really makes championships special is that they will make the wrestlers who hold them immediately involved in important matches, provided that the title is indeed on the line (this is not always the case), though any win against a champion, or a good match against them, is seen as a positive indicator. Sometimes fans will cheerfully ignore this distinction, but that’s just what fans like to do.

How many championships are too many for one company to promote? It’s too many when there’s a champion who doesn’t somehow feel special for being a champion, even in the slightest of ways. It’s too many when one of them feels redundant, when there truly seems nothing to prove or gain from its existence. No matter what that championship’s actually called (because world champions in wrestling compete just as internationally as world champions in baseball), if the idea behind it can’t properly be represented, it’s either time for reinvention, or recycling. Sometimes a good championship comes back, but it has to lay dormant for a while.

Good championships mean almost as much to a company as the wrestlers who capture them. They come to symbolize those wrestlers, the enduring legacy feeding itself, as long as that legacy is maintained, nurtured, and remembered. A championship title alone will not make or break a company’s fortunes, but if used properly it will help legitimize that company.

Fans will agonize over championships, over who has them, who’s had them many times, who may have had them too many times, those who never had them, and those who didn’t have enough time with them. Fans care more about them than they realize, and for that reason, championships are an integral part of wrestling. For all the talk that some championships have been spoiled by misuse over the years, that’s just another way of saying, the fans are obsessed with this stuff.
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