Friday, November 18, 2011

Jabroni Companion #30

Splitting off into the diverse legacy of ECW now…

Subject 58: CM Punk

I suggested months ago that it’d be interesting to see where Punk had gotten to after his summer revival, and now he’s competing at Survivor Series for his latest WWE championship opportunity, having become a fixture of the main event scene.

Punk’s journey began with Ring of Honor, where he was an acknowledged attraction who was probably Samoa Joe’s biggest rival, but that feud didn’t lead directly into his first world title. For whatever reason, Joe dropped the title to Austin Aries, who held it for half a year, and only then did Punk capture the belt, holding it for a couple months during the summer of 2005 (before dropping it to James Gibson, otherwise known as Jamie Noble).

Punk resurfaced for WWE’s ECW in 2006, quickly emerging as a fan favorite for a brand that tried to combine veterans with emerging stars (almost a precursor to NXT in some respects). Many expected that Punk would become champion before long, but Rob Van Dam dropped the ECW title to Big Show, who eventually lost it to Bobby Lashley, and then the intended switch to Chris Benoit was interrupted by tragedy, and at Night of Champions in June of 2007, John Morrison defeated Punk to capture the vacant championship.

Throughout the summer, Punk and Morrison battled over the title. The fans who’d been eager for months to see Punk represent ECW as champion became restless and lost interest, even when Punk finally emerged victorious in September, setting off a long reign that included PPV defenses, including the improbable fan-selected challenger of The Miz at Cyber Sunday (which led to a three-way dance at that year’s Survivor Series along with Morrison, and was probably the reason Miz and Morrison became a tag team). When Chavo Guerrero beat Punk for the title early in 2008, it opened the door for him to win Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 24, switch to Raw, cash in the briefcase against Edge, and capture his first World championship.

Some observers were unhappy that Punk’s method for success was exactly the same as how Edge himself had done it in 2006 (and again in 2007) (though the pattern has since proven that everyone except RVD and likely Daniel Bryan will handle their guaranteed contract in this manner), stealing the victory and title from an incapacitated opponent. PPV title defenses against Batista and JBL followed, before a combination of Randy Orton and Chris Jericho ended the run at Unforgiven.

Punk again won Money in the Bank, at WrestleMania 25 in 2009, which led to PPV battles against Kane and Umaga, and then cashing in against Jeff Hardy (who had just captured the World title) at Extreme Rules following the main event. Their feud continued for months, with Hardy winning the title back at Night of Champions, and then Punk once more reclaiming it in a sensational TLC match to main event Summer Slam.

As champion on Smackdown, Punk didn’t necessarily have a storyline. He defeated Undertaker in worked controversial fashion at Breaking Point, but lost to him (and lost the title) in a Hell in a Cell match in the PPV of the same name. He began forming his Straight Edge Society, building on the cult of personality he’d developed in the feud against Hardy, and this led to a prominent match against Rey Mysterio at WrestleMania 26 in 2010, a protracted feud, and then another war, this time with Big Show, which spanned Summer Slam and Night of Champions.

The SES imploded in time, and Punk, after a successful tenure as color commentator on Raw, assumed leadership of the Nexus from Wade Barrett in the early weeks of 2011, initiating feuds with John Cena and Randy Orton, which led to a match with Orton at WrestleMania XXVII. It wasn’t until his WWE contract was expiring that Punk truly seemed to become inspired, however, bragging that he would defeat Cena at Money in the Bank (now a PPV), capture the WWE title (for the first time) and then gracefully disappear (as champion), angry that the politics of the company had so often kept him down (you could actually argue that throughout his career, whether in ROH, ECW, or WWE, he was never seen by the front desk as someone the fans would rally around).

As you may be aware, Punk did win at Money in the Bank, much to the surprise of WWE, which had counted on an Alberto Del Rio program against Cena in the closing months of the summer, and so all three were folded into a single program, until we’ve reached this point, where Punk and Del Rio will meet for the WWE title at Survivor Series. Win, lose or draw, CM Punk has now solidified himself as one of the top names in the company, and in the wrestling world as a whole, someone even TNA would take seriously (did you know, for instance, that he worked for them in their early days?), and will probably permanently reside in the main event scene.

Subject 59: Christian.

Emerging onto the world scene as Edge’s tag team partner in 1998, Christian was a key component of WWE programming through 2005, when he grew dissatisfied with his lack of career progress, and decided to make the jump to TNA, where he was almost immediately crowned a world champion, which led to his crowning and extended run as ECW champion upon his WWE return in 2009, and finally string of World title victories in 2011.

Edge had been primed to compete as WWE’s newest sensation upon his debut, but he almost immediately paired with Canadian friend Christian, who was booked as his brother, and together the two became one of the most prominent aspects of the company’s tag team boom in the Attitude Era, even though much of their early work was as members of Gangrel’s Brood or Undertaker’s Ministry of Darkness. It wasn’t until the Hardy Boys emerged in the fall of 1999 that Edge & Christian truly broke out, especially after the acquisition of the Dudley Boys in early 2000, which led to all three teams making history at WrestleMania 2000, and then over and over again as they established the TLC (tables, ladders and chairs) style that punctuated the new millennium.

By 2001, Edge once more transitioned into a solo career, which might have been a bad thing for Christian (traditionally, only one member of a successful tag team goes on to enjoy singles success), but he capitalized on these expectations by becoming a petulant heel, competing against Edge during the Alliance angle over the Intercontinental championship, and against “Diamond” Dallas Page for the European championship at WrestleMania X8 in 2002.

While his prominence as a competitor struggled to form, Christian began working on his persona, which was given a big push when Steve Austin began referring to him as a “creepy little bastard,” or CLB. He started referring to his fans as “Peeps,” and formed a working relationship with Chris Jericho. He was a key player in the revival of the Intercontinental championship in 2003, but his greatest moment came at WrestleMania XX, when his secret alliance with Trish Stratus at the end of an epic match against Jericho, which led to a feud that stretched throughout 2004, in which he gained a key ally in Travis Tomko.

Still, like Jericho WWE seemed to lose interest in Christian by 2005. Where Jericho chose to take a sabbatical, Christian made the jump to TNA, debuting at Genesis on 11/13/05, the same day fans learned of the death of Eddie Guerrero. Christian marked the occasion with an emphatic in-ring promo. He became a world champion for the first time at Against All Odds in 2006, defeating Jeff Jarrett, holding the title for four months before dropping it back to Jarrett at Slammiversary. He recaptured the title at Final Resolution in 2007, after the much-touted acquisition of Kurt Angle, and defeated his fellow WWE alum at Against All Odds. Tomko resurfaced as one of Christian’s allies during this time, though it wasn’t quite enough; Angle finally beat Christian in a five-man “King of the Mountain” match at that year’s Slammiversary, snapping a near-six-month reign. He remained a featured member of the TNA roster, until he made his WWE return in 2009.

Many fans expected Christian to be revealed as Jeff Hardy’s mysterious assailant (actually revealed to be Jeff’s brother, Matt), but he instead debuted as part of ECW’s roster. He competed in Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 25, and then defeated Jack Swagger to become ECW champion at Backlash. After a program that saw Tommy Dreamer finally hold the title for more than a few minutes, Christian regained the ECW belt at Night of Champions, and holding it until ECW folded in 2010, dropping it on the brand’s final show to Ezekiel Jackson.

In the closing months of 2010, Christian became one of Alberto Del Rio’s first WWE rivals, a position that led to a lucrative opportunity in 2011, after Del Rio had feuded with Edge, whose retirement left a power vacuum on Smackdown. Christian quickly took advantage, defeating Del Rio for the World title and entering into a feud with Randy Orton that continued for much of the year. Clearly, success in TNA was something Christian relished, but prominence in WWE was probably all the more sweet for “Captain Charisma.”

Subject 60: RVD

Rob Van Dam was the AJ Styles of the original ECW, but only ever achieved championship success with the TV title. He was the biggest winner in the 2001 Invasion angle in WWE, capturing an incredibly high profile as a member of the Alliance, where he became a rival to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, encouraging fans to believe that he would become a regular member of the main event scene, something he flirted with for the next two years before settling into a more utilitarian role. Pro Wrestling Illustrated was so energized that the magazine made him their top star in the 2002 PWI 500 despite having failed to capture a world title, not just during their grading period, but in his professional career at any time to that point.

RVD won Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 22 in 2006, and famously called his shot for ECW One Night Stand three months later, in front of a hometown crowd, who heavily favored him over John Cena. He was considered both WWE and ECW champion at that point, since WWE had just decided to launch a full-time ECW brand. RVD lent instant credibility to the experiment. Unfortunately, this particular phase of the experiment ended fairly quickly, with Edge defeating RVD for the WWE title and Big Show capturing the ECW soon after RVW was caught driving under the influence.

Incredibly, he stuck around WWE for about another year, long enough to help represent the ECW Originals at WrestleMania 23 in 2007 and defeating Randy Orton at One Night Stand, and then going on an extended sabbatical.

He was one of several stars to show up for the dawn of the Hulk Hogan era in TNA at the start of 2010, and ended AJ Styles’ lengthy run as world champion at Sacrifice, holding onto the title through the Hardcore Justice PPV that saw another ECW revival, then being forced to relinquish it in October. It was a return that seemed out of nowhere, but fans were happy to discover that he’d hardly missed a beat. Though he seemed to have finally achieved all his goals in WWE and then just as quickly burn away his prospects, RVD came back as a fan favorite in TNA and a world champion, finally fulfilling his potential.

Subject 61: Team 3D.

One of the most prominent, if not the most dominant, tag teams of the modern era, Bubba Ray and Devon Dudley debuted as just another couple of members in the eccentric Dudley family in ECW. It wasn’t until they debuted in WWE and started putting everyone through tables that they put the whole world on notice.

Without the perfect rivals in Edge & Christian and the Hardy Boys, it’s still doubtful that the Dudleys would have gained that reputation. In matches that went well beyond expectations, they were able to showcase their unique style, one that transcended their ECW origins, where the hardcore style was commonplace, demonstrating their ability to work against diverse opponents. The 2002 brand extension split them apart for the first time, but by 2004 they were reunited and served as one of Eddie Guerrero’s toughest challenges as WWE champion, and even proving difficult for Undertaker to handle.

All that would have been well and good, but the Dudleys made the jump to TNA in 2005, competing at the same Genesis PPV where Christian announced his arrival, renaming themselves Team 3D and further adding to their impressive tag team championship tally. In 2010 their ride came to an end at Turning Point when they failed to defeat the Motor City Machine Guns, and Bubba transformed himself into Bully Ray, rejecting Devon and ultimately becoming a key member of the Immortal stable.

In an era where even prominent and highly successful tag team combinations are temporary and last only a few years at most, Team 3D was not only the exception, but a cornerstone of the division in three different promotions. It’s unlikely their likes will be seen again anytime soon.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jabroni Companion #29

The wrestler many consider the best of all-time doesn’t need much of an introduction except to say: Woooo!

LVII. Ric Flair

The “Nature Boy” has been a wrestling institution since the 1970s. He won his first world heavyweight title in 1981 with the NWA, and famously (pretty much) retired at WrestleMania 24 in 2008. He wasn’t the first “Nature Boy” (that would be Buddy Rogers, who was also the first WWE champion), but Ric Flair became known as the standard of excellence in the ring, and also for “stylin’ and profilin’,” on his own and with the Four Horsemen and Evolution, contemporaries and successors.

He happened to break his back early in his career, too, but that didn’t stop him.

As the legend goes, Flair was all set to assume a completely different legacy when he was encouraged to adopt his own, and by claiming the tag “Nature Boy,” his natural wrestling ability and personal outspoken charisma quickly shot him to the top, first in NWA and then in WCW, helping mark the transition for one of the sports’ most cherished traditions into one of the modern era’s defining promotions. During the 1980s, with the help of Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, Sting, and others, he provided the counterargument to Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan’s WWE, the idea of supersized bodies representing the popular idea of wrestling. He’s the only wrestler WWE ever brought in from a competitor and allowed them to keep their reputation and momentum, in the glorious period between 1991 and 1992. He returned in triumph to WCW and continued his championship dominance. In 1996, he took a backseat to the New World Order, perhaps the successor to the Four Horsemen, but persevered despite great internal opposition, returned to the spotlight, ate another helping of humble pie, watched the death of WCW unfold, and then be welcomed into the WWE fold on his own terms, even if he didn’t understand them at the time.

Ric Flair became a legend very quickly, not just another dependable star that would become the face of a promotion and lay claim to the main event scene, but someone who constantly worked with every emerging face, the wrestler who could always be turned to and be capable of providing compelling action. He amassed a record number of world championships and survived upheavals and changing demographics. He lived the good life (and continues to pay for it) and constantly struggled with an ego that would have been buried if it had come from any other time and from any other man. He is the pattern for the modern champion. Anyone who holds a title for longer than a few months at a time isn’t considered respectable. They’re considered phony, manufactured. It’s enough to be considered competitive, crafty, noteworthy, the three tenets of Ric Flair’s career, the signs that you’re willing to spread the wealth around.

Competitive is what Flair was all about. He knew the business of wrestling inside and out, knew how to manage himself in the ring, against the opponent, off the reaction of the crowd, and had developed predictable but spontaneous moments in every match. If he couldn’t win by superiority, he won by sheer force of will, or by cheating (the “dirtiest player in the game”). Most times by cheating, which is strange, because he made his name by being the most respected wrestler of his generation (a conundrum only Eddie Guerrero was able to duplicate).

Crafty, yes, because he wasn’t just competitive, he knew every way out, not just the cheap way, but the true heel’s craft. He could wrestle hour-long matches, sure, probably better than anyone, probably the last guy to make his reputation that way, outside of the PPV spotlight, but the art of wrestling isn’t just about holds, about maneuvers, but all the things in-between, and every way to influence the outcome of a match that doesn’t strictly involve the rulebook.

Noteworthy because he knew that promoters love the guys who can put themselves over; Ric Flair was among the great stick men. It’s not even that the fans necessarily care that much, if they really think about it, whether or not a guy can talk. Superstar Billy Graham and Dusty Rhodes had exactly the same abilities in that regard, but the “American Dream” built a career out of his gift of gab, while Graham was always dismissed as a muscle guy (as he has sometimes been considered recently, years ahead of his time). Graham was a lot more old-fashioned as a wrestler, though, while Rhodes had figured out the formula the 1970s were popularizing, the one Ric Flair mastered. By the 1980s, everyone had to talk in order to make an impact on nationwide TV; what we consider to be of vital importance today is actually less important, more of a necessity than anything, had already been played out by the end of the 1990s and the Attitude Era, when The Rock and Steve Austin took it to unapproachable heights. Where Vince McMahon now prefers realism, to compete with no-nonsense MMA, someone like Ric Flair would now seem like an anachronism. But at the times, Flair was the best in the business, having studied his predecessors, not just Buddy Rogers but the flamboyant Gorgeous George, and he knew it. “Woooo!” was just the icing on the cake.

“To be the man, you have to beat the man.” Flair might have seen the writing on the wall when he made his first trip to WWE. WWE itself knew how to handle him, but its biggest star, Hulk Hogan, didn’t. It was believed that the two biggest stars of the 1980s couldn’t provide the blockbuster feud of the 1990s, and so Flair spent most of his time in cards with Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, and Bret Hart, which probably worked extremely well for all involved, but still suggested that Flair was not considered to be at the same level of Hogan, when it came down to it. They would engage in a protracted rivalry in WCW, but when it really counted, when everyone had been expecting it, it never happened. Flair’s mastery of professional wrestling, in the end, only went so far. It wasn’t just that the years were starting to pile up, but from that moment onward, Ric Flair was no longer considered the unchallenged rightful heir to the main event.

By the end of WCW, he was probably only about sixty percent of what he had once been. His importance to wrestling, despite how he’d been treated in recent years, warranted a bigger percentage, but his confidence was shot. By the time he came back in 2001 as a thorn in the side of Vince McMahon, he needed every boost of confidence possible to believe that he could still perform where it really counted, in the ring. It wasn’t until Triple H formed Evolution that the old “Nature Boy” truly returned. He was a supporting player throughout the existence of the united stable, but by the end, he was seen as someone who could battle Triple H himself and appear competitive, even though he was now well past his prime. By the time he fought Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 24, everyone knew the end had finally been reached. As he had depended on since the 1980s, Flair relied on the support of fans who had witnessed a remarkable legacy for decades to put on one last great match.

That’s the real story of Ric Flair, getting the fans behind you, despite every obstacle, despite your best and worst impulses, and keeping them there, not just for months or years but decades, so that they cheer for you in a match like that. Bruno Sammartino had a brilliant decade, and probably could have had another one, but he fell out of love with wrestling, gave up when things changed. Lou Thesz had six NWA world title runs between 1937 and 1966. Thesz is someone whose influence long outlasted him. Sammartino is on the verge of being forgotten. Ric Flair’s accomplishments will probably last as long as professional wrestling exists.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Jabroni Companion #28

One of those truly nasty and subjective concepts for a wrestling fan would definitely be:

LVI. Wrestlers with potential

Everyone has an opinion, and every wrestler has potential, so I’ll need to illustrate this one very carefully, with a selection of eight candidates.

D’Angelo Dinero begins this group. Currently a member of the TNA roster who had a significantly more important 2010 than 2011, he’s a poster child for potential. Originally competing under the name Elijah Burke, he rose to prominence in WWE under its ECW brand, though his first appearances were on Smackdown as an associate of Sylvester Terkay. Terkay was supposed to be the hot prospect, but he disappeared quickly, and Burke’s own journey got underway. He was more than competent in the ring, but what got him noticed was his showmanship. For whatever reason, WWE chose not to retain him, and he resurfaced in TNA as the “Pope” and was quickly identified as a rising star, frequently competing in tournaments to determine the top contender for the world title. His big chance came at Lockdown in April of 2010, in which he failed to defeat AJ Styles. For many fans, it’s the ability to be dynamic and creative as a personality that sets a wrestler apart, and Dinero quickly proved he was able to do that. Ironically, if anything it was his wrestling style that got in his way in TNA, whereas as a complete package he would probably now have succeeded better in WWE. If anyone is able to figure out how to use him, Dinero has the potential to be one of the top stars in professional wrestling. I had a chance to see him live in 2008 at a taping for Smackdown and ECW, and he was easily the most impressive performer that night. At least for me, that’s all I need to know about his potential.

Jack Swagger is a former world champion in WWE, but that seems like a lifetime ago at this point, and so he falls into the category of potential. Swagger was a hot commodity before WWE acquired him for its ECW brand in 2008, and quickly became champion there, a move that took many by surprise, but clearly potential is exactly what the company saw. He was still a surprise winner of Money in the Bank at WrestleMania 26, and his defeat of Chris Jericho a few weeks later to capture the world heavyweight champion introduced an entirely new face to the main event. Many observers like to comment on his lisp, but Swagger immediately proved that if given the chance he could present a notable presence as champion. His opponents during this time were all existing main event figures, including Randy Orton and Rey Mysterio, who eventually beat him for the title. While he could make a credible champion, Swagger wasn’t given an opportunity to present a particular presence as one. On losing the title he slipped below the status he’d had before the run, and didn’t resurface until Michael Cole needed someone to support his wrestling delusions prior to this year’s WrestleMania. Suddenly Swagger meant something again, a little more generic a heel than before, while he worked to improve his performance in the ring. Some claim he’s become a rip-off of Kurt Angle, but that’s like saying Chris Benoit was exactly like the Dynamite Kid. Given a chance to truly flourish, Swagger could fulfill the potential WWE saw in him, and the promise that his first world title suggested.

Dolph Ziggler began his career in WWE as a member of the Spirit Squad, and that’s probably why he had to be so obnoxious about his new Ziggler persona when he came back repackaged. When I first saw him in action, I thought he had immediate star power, the ability to present himself in the ring with exceptional flare. So far, WWE has been extremely cautious about how far it can push him; since his skills on a microphone have not always been obvious, he’s spent a great deal of time with Vickie Guerrero as his manager and voice, but recently has displayed the ability to represent himself with the same kind of confidence his wrestling suggests. It’s not hard to see that WWE has always seen a great deal of potential in him, and that it has slowly but steadily been grooming him for greater things. That pace may work in his favor, but it might also hinder his progress, as fans become comfortable with him in a supporting rather than main event role. Time will tell.

Alberto Del Rio is someone WWE obviously saw a huge amount of potential in, straight from his days in the Mexican scene, and pushed him accordingly, right from the start. He’s a WWE champion several times over, so it seems a little strange to still be talking about him in terms of potential, but what I mean to say is that his potential hasn’t been tapped. In the short-term, he has proved to be what WWE hoped he’d be, someone they could plug almost immediately into the main event scene. It’s the fans who will ultimately determine whether or not he’ll stay there. What I mean to say, then, is that I believe Del Rio really does have what it takes to win over the fans, that he will be able to stay in the main event scene for a long time to come.

Sheamus is another former heavyweight champion, and so again it seems a little strange to see him with the label of “potential.” His surprise win over John Cena for the WWE title at TLC in 2009 thrust him into the main event scene, and for the most part he’s been able to remain in it, even having return engagements with the title, but it’s hard to say that he has truly been welcomed onto the top of the card. He’s someone who to this point has made a credible insertion in a main event, but not a superstar WWE has felt comfortable working a real angle around, and that is how I’d define true success, the real fulfillment of potential. He’s probably closer than anyone else I’ve talked about so far, however.

Cody Rhodes has made a great deal of progress in 2011 establishing himself as a second-generation star in WWE, with the plastic mask seemingly transforming him from a generic heel to a psychotic and unpredictable fiend, the likes of which his one-time mentor Randy Orton needed a lot more gimmicks to attain in a relatively shorter period of time. For someone who had a lot of encouragement from WWE bookers for an extended period of time, whether on his own, as part of Legacy, or even directly afterward, Rhodes seemed to be going nowhere fast. He might have gone down as the slimmest Rhodes, but the one who completely spoiled any concept of potential. Well, now he’s making up for lost time.

Daniel Bryan is a true underdog. The “American Dragon” made his name in Ring of Honor under his given name, Bryan Danielson, and established himself as one of the best pure wrestlers in the world, but even then, rarely received the respect he was due, spending more than a year as ROH heavyweight champion but receiving far less hype than Samoa Joe in the process. As the most famous member of the original NXT line-up, he was paired with Chris Jericho and once again everyone expected the world from him, and even though he was constantly featured as the most accomplished competitor, when he didn’t win, fans once again felt ready to abandon him. Then the Nexus angle began, he was actually released after a questionable decision in the ring, and once again became a minor indy darling. Then he made his big WWE return at Summer Slam, and got a monster push for the next several months, but again, fans were still not pleased. Daniel Bryan is someone who has time and again overcome the concept of “potential,” and he’s proven it to both ROH and WWE, but the fans seem almost dead-set against him actually receiving it. Winner of Smackdown’s 2011 Money in the Bank contract , he may be approaching his definitive moment of truth, and the fans will finally have to decide if they decide to support him as wrestling’s next big technical superstar.

Whether you know him as ROH’s Nigel McGuinness or TNA’s Desmond Wolfe, the eighth member of my posse of potential is probably the biggest underdog. He’s another ROH champion who held the title for more than a year, while in TNA and after a huge 2009 debut where he took Kurt Angle to the limit, he quickly slipped back below the surface of the average fan’s notice, and is only now working on a comeback (where he could conceivably push ROH forward in the new Sinclair era). He’s got confidence on the microphone and tremendous ability in the ring, he just needs other to believe in his potential. That’s what it’s all about.
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