Friday, May 27, 2011

For Fans of the Film Fan...

Part of the Fan Companion cycle (and possibly the most popular to date) was the Fan Companion, which was infamous for covering a large amount of movies with very few words. Anyone interested in reading some further movies thoughts from your Scouring Monk might read reviews for current movies over at Examiner. Apparently the only available slot for Colorado Springs movie examiners was for action movies, so I'm mostly going to be writing about that particular genre. Not that I've had a problem so far...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Jabroni Companion #5

Now that we’ve established my absolute favorite wrestler (Eddie Guerrero, remember?) and thoughts on several historic angles, not to mention touching on WrestleMania, I thought it would be fun to dive into the nitty gritty of a fan’s regular appreciation of wrestling, some more of my favorite superstars. Let’s start with someone who hasn’t always been easy to appreciate. Let’s start with

V. Mr. Anderson

Anderson. (Sorry, had to do that.) Here’s a guy who came to prominence in 2005 (no, really!), and ironically had his first significant match against Eddie (which was, in fact, Eddie’s final televised match). The encounter was plenty indicative of the way WWE chose to push Anderson. He had struggled for years on the independent circuit, but once someone realized that he had the gift of gab (and probably when he started introducing himself, the routine everyone knows), he shot onto the track of superstardom. In fact, when he debuted in WWE, on the seldom-seen B-show Velocity, he really was Mr. Anderson, but by the time he arrived on Smackdown had been rechristened Mr. Kennedy (which you might recall happens to be Vince McMahon’s middle name…another suggestion that a certain angle was supposed to reveal our hero as the boss’s bastard son). At the time Smackdown certainly liked to give humongous pushes to newcomers (think Carlito and MVP), but Kennedy/Anderson was almost a different case entirely. He famously defeated a series of former world champions, which, of course, became regularly referenced by the ringside commentators during his matches. What the company obviously expected was that this guy was going to become an overnight member of the main event scene.

Maybe Vince forgot about a dude named Rocky Maivia. Okay, you don’t exactly forget about The Rock, but what I mean is that maybe Vince forgot that you can’t engineer crowd favorites. It’s something Hollywood does time and time again, find an actor it really likes, and then push that actor in countless projects. It seldom works. Those actors either catch on, or they become the next “where are they now” trivia answers. That’s what happened to Kennedy/Anderson.

You’ll constantly hear the argument that what did him in is his wrestling ability, and that’s partially true. He’s unorthodox in the ring. He’s the rare wrestler who will relish the chance to sell his opponents, not cartoonishly, like a Ric Flair or Shawn Michaels, but enough so that maybe it’s a little too easy to believe that he’s allowed the match to get out of hand. It’s probably a holdover from his former jobber status (and probably what helped him get out of it, too, because anyone who can make beatdowns truly look good can probably do other things, too), and so rare most fans will never even think of a good wrestler competing that way. When it comes to offense, he prefers striking, but also has some striking, as it were, sentons, which is another baffling element of his repertoire, because it’s also not routine for most wrestlers to depend on sentons, whether delivered from a standing position or from the turnbuckle. When you’ve got a distinctive style, it either means that you’re playing directly to the crowd, performing time-tested and anticipated maneuvers, or simply getting it done in the match. Kennedy/Anderson never really draws himself out of matches. His style has drawn comparison to Steve Austin because of that. That and his brash personality.

The other thing you’ll hear about him is that injuries and controversies undid his WWE career. I would argue that WWE screwed him, as it were, by failing to understand that they had a far more literal next Rock on their hands than they ever seemed to realize. They couldn’t push him successfully the way they wanted. He needed feuds with competitors at his experience level, not at the status he deserved. Instead of Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, he should have had more matches with Bobby Lashley, MVP. Hell, imagine if he had ever had a program with Chris Jericho. During their mutual time in the company, Jericho hadn’t definitively established his world champion credentials (other than that run as undisputed champion, which both he and WWE had determined to be something of a failure).

Anyway, instead of establishing a list of defeats against former world champions, Kennedy/Anderson might’ve simply ingratiated himself to the fans, what every wrestler is supposed to do. Randy Orton became a “Legend Killer” so that he could better represent his arrogance, not put himself at a specific level (though his was another career that WWE had to constantly play catch-up with, until things finally leveled out, which reminds me, that the Legacy stable was delayed for something like a year because both Orton and Batista kept getting themselves injured during their early runs with the company, something Orton seems plenty eager to ignore when considering Anderson’s prospects).

When he debuted with TNA, a company with a reputation for making all the wrong decisions, a funny thing happened. Mr. Anderson was finally handled correctly. Sure, the highlight of his first year was a feud with Kurt Angle, but at that point, and because it was both prominent and calculated, and treated Anderson nearly as an equal instead of an arrogant pretender, that one worked. Instead of constantly working pseudo main events, Anderson was allowed to be himself, develop himself. He had worked sporadic programs with Jeff Hardy in WWE, but TNA took that to another level, which is something perhaps many fans still don’t realize, how important that particular relationship has been. Never mind that Hardy had been battling personal demons, as it were, recently. In a single year, TNA did everything right with Anderson, and successfully crowned him a first-time world champion, a status he has maintained since, and a title he will reclaim, though there’s no big rush this time, either. Now everyone knows that he can make it work, and that he’s only just began to tap into his potential…

VI. John Morrison

Other than The Miz, Morrison is the most famous and accomplished veteran of the Tough Enough system WWE ever discovered. Unlike Miz, however, Morrison has had to scratch and claw his way toward recognition every step of the way. It’s somewhat ironic that Miz succeeded where Anderson failed, in almost single-handedly rising to main event and world champion status based on personality alone (but don’t worry, I’ll return to Miz directly later on in the Jabroni Companion, so if you’re not down with that description, you’ve got a few more words coming). Morrison, on the other hand, is still working on it.

And not for lack of trying. He rose to prominence within the company as Eric Bischoff’s lackey, Johnny Nitro, establishing a pattern of looking cool, before forming M-N-M with Joey Mercury and Melina (another Tough Enough alum) on Smackdown, where he had a chance to develop and present a distinctly athletic style, using the ropes for propulsion as few other wrestlers tend to, and then returning to Raw as a singles star, feuding with Jeff Hardy (there’s that name again) over the Intercontinental championship (presenting himself as proficient in ladder matches for the first time).

He caught his big break, however, when he was picked to replace Chris Benoit in 2007 as the new face of ECW, a brand WWE could never find respect for (both when it championed the company itself and when it tried to revive said company under its own auspices; this is one relationship that was never quite what fans tended to believe, but I’ll get back to that, too). I say “big break,” but Morrison (as he was soon rechristened during this period) might have just as easily considered it a curse. This was a period when fans were finally allowed to fully embrace CM Punk, which they had been clamoring to for months, but they inexplicably chose not to. Morrison and Punk engaged in a lengthy feud, which is standard procedure in wrestling (the legendary Flair-Steamboat rivalry grew throughout an entire decade; imagine if the fans who booed the ECW headliners in 2007 had been watching those guys!). The ECW brand itself was supposed to be a place to groom new talent, which it routinely did, but fans (who can’t even seem to realize what the point of a show like Superstars is, because most of them can’t seem to appreciate actual wrestling; no, I absolutely cannot explain it) only liked to comment on how little they respected WWE’s version of ECW. Might anyone point out that Paul Heyman routinely employed wrestlers no one else was able to showcase properly, that he built a cult following based on unique talent, many of whom became far bigger stars (Steve Austin, Eddie Guerrero, the Dudley Boyz; the list goes on and on; suffice to say, is not actually limited just to the hardcore wrestlers who nonetheless became synonymous with the company) for having the exposure he was able to craft.

But aside from ECW, this period developed Morrison as a personality. He adopted such nicknames as the Guru of Greatness, the Shaman of Sexy. He took residence at the Palace of Wisdom. Despite all these awesome phrases, fans didn’t really glom onto him. He developed Starship Pain in ECW, but quickly realized what maybe AJ Styles did over at TNA. Unless Morrison became a typical wrestler, instead of merely an outstanding one, it would be very hard to gain the level of respect he truly deserved. Although he now had the look, the entrance, the moves, even notoriety along with The Miz, Morrison still needed one thing: the respect of the fans.

He found himself on Smackdown, and in matches against the likes of Chris Jericho, CM Punk, and Jeff Hardy, Morrison put on some of the best TV matches anyone was likely to see, all with the express purpose of putting him over. It never worked. Because he couldn’t or didn’t conform to the demands of a typical main event personality, who regularly bark into the mic rather than simply exude natural charisma (someone tell Gorgeous George that he couldn’t have begun the modern era in the actual modern era!), Morrison developed the reputation of failed potential.

And now, of course, he’s on the injured list. He’s got all the talent required, more than anyone else could possibly handle (the only comparable performer, AJ Styles, long ago stopped wrestling this way). The fans demand a concrete reason to cheer and admire talent like this. What Morrison needs to do is put his cocky confidence to a whole different level. He needs to be like Russell Crowe in GLADIATOR. He needs to demand, “Are you not entertained?” Because he can do anything. His style could easily be presented as impossibly dominant, in an entirely unique way. If WWE, and its fans, could grow comfortable with this, John Morrison could become a legend.

VII. Shawn Michaels

The wrestler most people compare Morrison to is Shawn Michaels, the only other performer who has been able to so completely perfect his craft that he has literally been able to do anything he wanted in the ring. It’s how he became known as Mr. WrestleMania. He could make anything look like he was the innovator. Even though he popularized the ladder match against an opponent, Scott Hall, who had a completely different style, it was HBK who came to dominate the legacy of that original encounter, because where Hall kept wrestling much the way a good and competent wrestler does (and I’ll get back to Hall, too), Shawn just kept pushing his game to whatever level was necessary, in whatever situation he found himself.

That’s how he became an icon. He was in the wrestling business, and WWE, for years before this talent was appreciated. That ladder match at WrestleMania X came about because Vince McMahon was finally forced to recognize that Shawn could no longer be denied. 1993 had been something of a hassle for all parties, and if things had continued the way they were then, the entire sport of professional wrestling would be different today. It was a transition year, when Yokozuna was pushed as champion simply because he was naturally what the company could no longer do artificially, which was be larger than life. While WWE tried to push Bret Hart and Lex Luger as the new faces of the company, Shawn Michaels was finally putting his Rockers tag team past completely behind himself. He was not supposed to steal the show at 1994’s WrestleMania, but steal the show he did.

He brought in Kevin Nash during this period, and Nash, thanks to Shawn’s prescience, was quickly recognized as a considerable talent, and became a featured performer on the main event and world title scene. 1995 belonged to “Big Daddy Cool,” but that year’s WrestleMania was also the first time Shawn was allowed to legitimately compete for the world title. Everyone finally seemed to realize that he belonged at that level, but on his own terms, and so he was put into a program with a competitor who might truly be able to keep up with him, and with that, Bret Hart finally met his match, and WrestleMania XII happened.

The only problem was, 1996 eventually went in the direction Shawn himself had realized a few years earlier, when he singled out Kevin Nash. The return of the era that had held wrestlers like HBK back couldn’t have come at a worse time. Shawn seemed to return to the mentality that had almost undone him in 1993, and things kind of got out of control for a while, and then he took all that energy and put it in a more useful direction, and made the momentum swing in his favor. He truly blossomed, finally, as figurehead of DX, just as his career seemed to be winding down. 1998 eventually became 2002, though, (yes, I’m horribly compressing), and Shawn found himself to be a WWE elder statesman (years before Undertaker would truly embrace a similar role).

Long story short, Shawn Michaels became the most improbable beloved figure in sports entertainment. Plenty has been said about his career, so I won’t spend a lot of time talking about this one.

VIII. Triple H

Someone who has struggled to win the respect of the fans throughout his career not named Ken Anderson would be Paul Levesque, better known as Hunter Hurst-Helmsley, better known as Triple H. Few wrestlers have as dramatically altered their original images as this man, who went from the “Blue Blood” to “The Game” during an arduous transformation process. Unlike Shawn Michaels, his career didn’t really benefit from DX shenanigans. He didn’t become a world champion until several angles after his original DX run. It was the infamous McMahon-Helmsley era that truly put him on the map, that came to define his career, as someone who got ahead by literally sleeping with the boss’s daughter. If he hadn’t made that late 1999, early 2000 run so entertaining, maybe I’d agree that it was an unholy alliance that made his career. Never even mind that his development was delayed for years after Hunter pissed off Vince McMahon back in 1996 by breaking character. Apparently something like that is easy to overlook when you really want to hate someone.

What Triple H did better than anyone else was embody the potential of the heel. He did it so well he actually did it too well. Unlike his mentor Ric Flair, Hunter was a braggart in a coward’s body. He didn’t win by accident or cheating, but by any means necessary. That’s what the program with Mick Foley was meant to convey. That’s why he adopted the trusty sledgehammer. All due respect to The Miz, but Triple H was no fluke champion. He wore the title because he’d truly earned it, and had waited long enough. Only Triple H could prevent The Rock, during The Rock’s most popular period, from being world champion.

Years ago, the story would have been different. Roddy Piper, by this reasoning, would have been world champion at WrestleMania I. What Hunter’s original reigns as champion represented was Vince McMahon’s evolving appreciation of the art of professional wrestling, things he might have learned from Ric Flair, you might say, or even Steve Austin. You put the title on the wrestler with the most heat, and you’re guaranteed hot programs. It’s another overlooked aspect of Hunter’s career that his original reign as champion ended somewhat abruptly, extended though it was. By the summer of 2000, The Rock was champion, and then Kurt Angle was champion, and Hunter never even sniffed the title again. He became embroiled in other feuds. Maybe that card with Austin should have been saved for 2001’s WrestleMania, not 2000’s Survivor Series. It didn’t matter, maybe, because Hunter went out with an injury, and missed a whole year, missed the whole Invasion, missed WCW, ECW, and the crowning of the first-ever undisputed champion.

Of course, that meant that when he did return, he would be given what most wrestlers only dream of, and that’s the spot at WrestleMania, the featured spot, not one that steals the show, but the one that marks a significant moment in a wrestler’s career. Several years after attaining world champion status, Hunter was given that spot. His detractors might note that even this did not immediately return Triple H to dominance.

Brock Lesnar became pushed as the “Next Big Thing,” and suddenly Hunter was tapped as the face of continuity within WWE. In the summer of 2002, Triple H was awarded the world title, and was almost immediately placed in a hot program with the returning Shawn Michaels. When Lesnar’s push cooled , Hunter found himself in the position to try and reclaim the kind of role he’d had in the McMahon-Helmsley era, and responded by forming Evolution. The development of this stable was delayed by so many injuries between Randy Orton and Batista that fans thought they could be forgiven for confusing it with keeping Triple H champion for the sake of Triple H being champion. In fact, by 2004, Orton was finally coming into his own, and by 2005, Batista was putting his potential into the stratosphere.

With the departures of major stars like Austin and The Rock, Hunter had become an undisputed cornerstone of the company, and at the dawn of the brand era, asked to carry one of two promotions within WWE, competing against what was hoped to be the new Hulk Hogan. Triple H didn’t sweat it. By this time he knew what to do. It was the fans who were confused. They would probably have been more confused if they’d looked at an NWA or WCW scorecard, and tried explaining why Ric Flair amassed all those championship reigns, and why guys like Sting and Vader entered the main event scene without ever replacing him. His own company grew tired of relying on the “Nature Boy.” Hunter, like I said, made it look easy. He did what he had to, and for fewer years than “Naitch.”

Triple H became a more conventional company player after this, and managed a dominant as well as quiet period as world champion on Smackdown. I don’t know. Maybe it’s not so easy to explain, but “The Game” was a favorite from the start, and his many, ah, evolutions just made it all the easier to enjoy following his career.

IX. The Rock

In contrast, even WWE didn’t see The Rock coming, when it tried to make an instant sensation of Rocky Maivia in 1996. The fans famously sparked a backlash against this initial push, which forced The Rock to transform from a babyface to a heel, begin to talk in the third person, and start laying the smackdown as a member of the Nation of Domination, the only time he would ever be seen as a performer by the color of his skin (aside from Owen Hart, the Nation was more or less a gang of black wrestlers). How exactly he attained world champion status was less a matter of the fans demanding it and more Vince McMahon attempting his old tactics (the 1998 Survivor Series was the first chance Vince had to offer a true alternative to the wildly popular “Stone Cold” phenomenon, and, truth be told, The Rock was not actually there yet, and so that’s why the epic rivalry and/or relationship with Mick Foley happened).

But The Rock became a huge fan favorite all the same, and his charisma was noticed beyond wrestling thanks to a 2000 appearance hosting Saturday Night Live, and Dwayne Johnson emerged as a legitimate Hollywood star. I could go into all the performances I like best (THE RUNDOWN, BE COOL, SOUTHLAND TALES, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, FAST FIVE), but this isn’t the Film Fan, this is the Jabroni Companion. Know your role and shut your damn mouth.

The Rock made an improbable WWE comeback in 2011, and so there’s more yet of his wrestling career to speak of, which is exactly what sports entertainment needs right now. For a man who last wrestled in 2004, and even that was an exception, it speaks to how unique a personality he has become, how big a phenomenon he really is, that he doesn’t look out of place in this context, and that he can still manage two separate careers. Much can be said about how that transition was originally made, but for now, let’s just revel in the millions…and millions of the Rock’s fans. Because they’re still here.

If any one personality can truly encompass the complicated relationship between professional wrestling and the rest of the world, that would be The Rock.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jabroni Companion: WrestleMania XXVII

Having finally had a chance to check out this year's WrestleMania for myself, I've got a few thoughts:

The "Snookie match" was probably intended more as Michelle McCool's dream match, against Trish Stratus. You can kinda tell because, well, she retired soon after and most of the match take place between them. Also, to say all John Morrison did was perform Starship Pain is kinda like saying all Tazz did was suplex. He performed Starship Pain off the frickin' top turnbuckle. Onto the floor. I don't know if the commentators I read are aware of this, but that's not the way he usually does it. For the record. I'll have more Morrison on Thursday.

As a whole, the card felt like a huge throwback to how WrestleMania was in the beginning, with a huge emphasis on celebrity (which happened to come from WWE's own, for the most part, in the form of Dwayne Johnson), and not a lot of concern for important matches. Don't get me wrong, because for most of the wrestlers on the card, they were actually involved in personally significant matches, but I'm not sure the company was looking for any technically excellent exhibitions. They ahd Undertaker in yet another climactic encounter, and as long as they've got that, I think they'll allow the rest of the card to rest a little easy, which is pretty interesting.

I'll watch it again at some point, but on the whole, apart from the vastly different tone, I would not call it a failure, as most others seem to be saying. There were so many emotionally charged moments in previous months, because of the whole Nexus angle, that they had to go in a different direction, and Cena-Rock had appropriately already been announced for next year.

To steal a line from The Miz, that one will be awesome.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Jabroni Companion #3

Okay, so now that we’ve looked at my favorite wrestler and the most famous card in professional wrestling, how about one of the most hotly disputed angles to ever develop? I’m talking

III. The Invasion

Incredibly, 2011 marks the ten-year anniversary of Vince McMahon buying WCW, thereby effectively ending one of the greatest rivalries wrestling has ever seen, WWE vs. WCW, headlined by the Monday Night War that gave us the nWo, the Attitude Era, and an endless series of wildly inappropriate Mae Young appearances.

There’s been plenty said about how WCW sabotaged itself during its last year of existence, from increasingly erratic booking to the dwindling impact of a formula that had, since its hottest days in 1996, lost the interest of the fans. The company attempted a number of ways to repackage existing stars, reposition them, and keep business going more or less as usual, but WWE, behind the cultural phenomenon of Steve Austin, had finally managed to completely eclipse its competition, and there was just no way WCW could maintain, much less regain, the kind of momentum it had enjoyed previously. For financial reasons, the prospect of new ownership made everything that much more unstable, and that allowed Vince to slip his way in, and bring WCW to a close, and in dramatic fashion, with a simulcast announcement occurring between Raw and the final edition of Nitro. The new boss couldn’t wait to rebrand his acquisition, quickly establishing the seeds to a whole new era, and the beginnings of the Invasion angle, by representing his son Shane as a usurper of this historic moment.

It was a slow build from there, and part of the reason was that WWE had an opportunity to rebuild itself around Austin, who had recently returned from career-threatening surgery, and that year’s WrestleMania kicked off a different angle entirely, the unexpected alliance between the “Texas Rattlesnake” and his former archrival, Vince McMahon. The story only became more complicated when Triple H, who only months earlier had been confirmed to be the culprit of the storyline that had explained Austin’s absence, and therefore the recipient of a violent blood feud with him upon his return, joined up, and together, this “Two-Man Power Trip” ran roughshod over the company. The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), meanwhile, was just getting started in his movie career, and so the biggest competition for this duo was the late Chris Jericho and the late Chris Benoit. Things hit a patch when “The Game” himself went out to injury.

And things only became further complicated from there. WCW stars, and then ECW stars, began the invasion in earnest. It probably bears noting how complicated the wrestling scene had been for the preceding year. ECW, a cult promotion known for its devoted fans (strong enough for WWE to later revive the idea for an entire brand, and then TNA to bring back its most visible stars once again), began suffering a major setback (as Ring of Honor in recent years can probably relate) when WWE and WCW raided its best talent to stock up their own rosters. WWE had names like the Dudley Boys and Tazz under contract by 2000, while WCW literally stole Mike Awesome during his ECW heavyweight championship run. About the only name that remained loyal was Rob Van Dam, but he had never been a world champion with the promotion, and the momentum ECW constantly strove to build never really came. The company was out of business by the time WCW was bought out.

By 2001, then, it wasn’t uncommon to find wrestlers who had been known as ECW competitors to be featured regularly on a WWE card, and that included Rhyno, who had become something of the ECW equivalent of WCW’s Goldberg, a monster of a wrestler who mauled opponents with the Gore, a version of the tackle that Goldberg and WWE’s Edge had made one of the modern era’s most feared maneuvers.

By the time of the invasion, fans were salivating at the prospects. WWE had the ECW and WCW rosters to pick from, which promised a war of epic proportions, a clash between all the biggest stars of the days, now free to mingle in the same ring. What seemed like a perfect dream, however, was apparently not what Vince McMahon himself had in mind. These are names that never factored into the invasion: Scott Steiner, Tommy Dreamer, the Sandman, Sting, Ric Flair, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Hulk Hogan, Sabu, Rey Mysterio, Goldberg, Jeff Jarrett. It’s not as if none of these men would ever be seen in a wrestling ring again. Many of them are still, in some way, ten years later, still very relevant to wrestling fans. Yet none of them graced a WWE ring in 2001, ever appeared with the WCW/ECW Alliance, even though they were and are undisputedly the biggest names from either promotion.

Fans who caught on to that fact were a little put off, to say the least. WWE used all the least relevant stars, in some ways. Sure, you had Booker T and RVD, both of whom became far bigger stars than they had been before as a result. But what was the point of this angle if Austin didn’t finally have that match with Goldberg, for instance, or any number of other blockbuster combinations?

Almost exactly from the start, WWE was using its existing stars to augment the ranks of the Alliance, those who had famously competed in those organizations, and even some surprises, such as Steve Austin’s turn at the Invasion PPV itself, when he turned his back on WWE. It was almost business as usual in some respects. What was the point?

Chris Jericho, in his recent book Undisputed offers one possible explanation, when he talks about his own rough transition from the style he had become used to wrestling to what Vince expected from him in WWE, and this is just one exceptionally gifted star. Imagine what kind of nightmare it would have been to try and develop two whole additional rosters of stars, when WWE itself already had a roster of talented individuals who shouldn’t be expected to give up their spots to relatively unproven talent. This I’m saying purely in the sense that there were now dozens of wrestlers WWE fans and the WWE system itself would now have to incorporate into a cohesive vision. When most fans think about wrestling, it’s easy in theory to juggle different promotions, and that was a lot of what sustained the Monday Night War, and what allowed ECW to stand out, with a style that stood out in stark contrast, until it was adopted and adapted to suit both WCW and WWE.

But that was when fans could pick and choose, when there were options, when there were different channels, and the ability to clearly delineate support between promotions. Vince quickly determined that he would have to very carefully calculate and modulate the conflicting affections his fans would now have to juggle all at once, and that it would best serve him, his stars, and yes, the fans, if he did so in a very deliberate manner. He put his own company first, and it was a damn smart move. I will actually be writing another column about who benefited the most from this decision, so I may seem to be skipping over some rather significant developments in this one, but suffice it to say, I intend to finally dispel the myth that the Invasion angle was a missed opportunity.

The Invasion, which quickly segued into the Alliance, was an angle that officially lasted from the Invasion PPV in July of 2001 until that November’s Survivor Series. As we all know, another huge story occurred at roughly the midpoint of all this, 9/11, one that was far bigger than any wrestling event, and something that is rarely referenced when fans talk about the failure of the angle, because it ended up being far shorter than most people seemed to hope.

That’s being all the more na├»ve, though, especially when you consider how many things happened after Survivor Series, when the Alliance appeared to have been completely neutralized. Ric Flair made his return to WWE soon after, and initiated an epic feud with Vince, and that in itself led to the comeback of the New World Order, with its original members Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Hulk Hogan, which itself led to perhaps the biggest match in WrestleMania history, Hogan vs. The Rock. This was quickly followed by the beginning of the brand era, when WWE split into Raw and Smackdown as separate promotions, thanks to the increased roster that was the direct result of the acquisition of WCW and ECW. Word had it that originally Vince hoped to split WCW off into its own brand within WWE (but then, WCW had the same hopes with the nWo), and while that very dream would one day be realized with ECW, this was a different era. Vince McMahon had won the professional wrestling war. He had no reason to immediately capitulate and grant his vanquished foes their own platform in his own company. His sole job was the satisfactory welfare of WWE, and the stars he himself had nurtured. I would venture to say that doing anything at all with a flood of WCW and ECW talent was more generous than anything. He gave the lesser-known talent an unbelievable opportunity (which fans might better appreciate today in the post-Nexus era), and then moved on to bigger and better things.

As I said, Booker T was a huge beneficiary of the Alliance angle. He had been WCW champion several times in its final year, but was one of the stars that failed to properly motivate fans to truly care (Jeff Jarrett and Scott Steiner were the others), and was even positioned as the final champion on the last Nitro, and so became the face of the promotion at the onset of the Invasion. Since he had developed several moves that resembled ones The Rock had made famous, it was only natural that he and The Rock would enter a program at some point, and that alone elevated Booker’s profile. That this feud helped Chris Jericho become a world champion for the first time is another huge development that the Invasion helped make possible. When the Alliance was defeated at Survivor Series, Booker was one of many stars who were supposed to disappear, but he never did, and in fact became a WWE staple, and by 2003, a scant year later, was competing in a WrestleMania main event.

RVD, meanwhile, became such a fan favorite that it became difficult to understand how he himself wasn’t immediately pushed into world champion status, even though his own ECW promotion had never done so. He was the true breakout star of the Invasion, and this would never have bee possible if all those other big names had been around. He would have been an afterthought. Instead, he eventually became the cornerstone, and champion of, the ECW revival in 2006, which in turn would give him the legitimacy to headline TNA years later.

This is to say nothing of how Steve Austin and Kurt Angle, for example, benefited, and that’s another hugely overlooked development of the Alliance angle, and one that will figure prominently in the follow-up column, to be sure.

The Invasion and the Alliance, however, were only one small element of Vince’s strategy. Where others sawed only a series of missed opportunities, he envisioned a series of prospects that only increased in time. He had two world champions during the whole angle, and these titles were routinely defended, separately. That opened the door to the unprecedented unification tournament at that December’s Vengeance, when the first-ever undisputed heavyweight champion would be crowned. Since Steve Austin and The Rock were both involved, it seemed natural that one of them would claim the honor, but Vince gave fans another huge swerve when he tapped Jericho instead, thereby paving the way for the return of Triple H in time for the 2002 WrestleMania.

He had the chance to launch the WWE careers of many famous WCW stars at his leisure as well. Rey Mysterio didn’t debut until the summer of 2002, a good year after the initial invasion. Imagine if Rey had been just another WCW star trying to make his mark. Vince instead had the vision to make him something special from the start, and reaped the benefits for years, finding an unlikely (WCW itself had never been able to make Mysterio quite so popular) fan favorite, and an even more unlikely world champion. Scott Steiner, who had closed his WCW career as a heel with one of the most hotly greeted fan reactions of the modern era, made his WWE return in the fall as a free agent greatly desired by both brands (and therefore accentuating not only his own presence by the still-novel concept of rival brands within WWE). No matter the controversies that would surround his matches with Triple H, or his increasingly undistinguished year back. “Big Poppa Pump” had already proven Vince’s point.

WWE gained new developmental talent, too, wrestlers WCW had been working on, such as Jimmy Yang, Nathan Jones, Oleg Prudius, which it was free to nurture at a different pace. Yang went through several incarnations before becoming something of an attraction as an unlikely redneck. Jones, who has since become a Hollywood favorite, but was first discovered by WCW, had a few opportunities to prove himself inside of a WWE ring, even at one point being slated to compete as the Undertaker’s partner at WrestleMania, which is far more than he ever got with the organization that found him. Prudius, meanwhile, was a Russian sensation whose general ungainliness for mass conception eventually gave WWE and Santino Marella the easy-going Vladimir Koslov.

Through all of this, WWE kept the spotlight on its own stars, and 2001 served as a significant transition year for not only Austin, Angle, Jericho, but also for Edge, Jeff Hardy, and William Regal, who finally found the perfect WWE role for himself, a persnickety authority figure whose personality fans could really get behind. 2002 was a significant year for developing new stars as well, from John Cena and Randy Orton to Brock Lesnar, who came about at a time when the company could use a fresh new face to dominate the main event scene, something fans hadn’t even thought about a year earlier. And after the return of Triple H, the comeback of Eddie Guerrero was probably the best feel-good development of the year, at least in terms of WWE stars. Did I mention that Hulk Hogan, after several years of lukewarm WCW reception, energized arenas for the first time since turning heel, by becoming a bona fide fan favorite again? It would never have been possible if he had simply been brought back as part of the invasion angle.

Looking back, Vince McMahon undertook perhaps his second greatest accomplishment, after the birth of WrestleMania, when he bought WCW, and executed the results the way he did. I’m not here to argue that everything went off without a hitch. Nothing is perfect, but the Invasion/Alliance angle was as near perfection as you can get in professional wrestling, satisfying every long-term goal Vince might have envisioned. The four months the Alliance actually existed did a lot more than fans realized or appreciated at the time, and during a difficult period of world history. I guess what I’m trying to say is, revisit this particular era for yourself. Surprise yourself. Try to remember what it was like, rather than what you might have been feeling. If you’re new to wrestling, 2001 is the year you have to thank for everything you enjoy today, so reward yourself with a look at what things were actually like ten years ago. Things were very different. But then, maybe they really weren’t.
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