The Ascension: Will They Rise?

9 Jan

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The January 8th, 2014 episode of NXT built on last week’s show, which brought us back to normality after the holidays and a “200th episode special.”

Bayley’s lovable fan-girl underdog gimmick has effectively won over the Full Sail crowd and here, accompanied by Nattie Neidhart, she took on Summer Rae and her “BFF,” Sasha Banks.

What was most notable here is how the talented Summer Rae incorporated elements of her main roster persona as Fandango’s dance partner. The real-life Danielle Moinet is much more than a well-travelled, highly educated former lingerie football athlete; she’s so tuned in to the art of professional wrestling that she not only stays in full character the entire time she’s on-screen, whether it be at ringside, dancing, or in a match. To actually turn ballet-style stretches into holds, and chasse as she clotheslines an opponent, demonstrates a true dedication to her craft.

The opening moments focused on the headband Summer sported atop her golden locks like a tiara to taunt Bayley, who knocked it off her head, then delivered a sunset flip on Summer as she bent over to pick it up. Both women are good wrestlers – Bayley from her independent days as Davina Rose, and Summer from her training in WWE developmental the last two years. This match delivered as a result.

Bayley scored a much-needed pinfall win here, which didn’t hurt Summer at all. Both sold even after the bell, Summer checking her mouth, while Bayley held her arm to her stomach. Why more wrestlers don’t sell like this – whether in victory or defeat – remains a mystery. It adds to the realism after a match where several blows and holds have been executed.

WWE have finally put some heel heat on Aiden English, whose obnoxious “Drama King” character has been such a riot that Full Sail fans haven’t been able to help but cheer him on. The heat has arrived courtesy of Colin Cassady’s crowd-pleasing turn last week, where he unexpectedly and hilariously shocked English by matching him in a singing contest, provoking a beat-down from Aiden.

A side-effect of this is that it’s kept Big Cass over in the absence of Enzo Amore, who is currently sidelined with a broken leg. Nonetheless, here Aiden English gained the pinfall victory after gaining the advantage over Cassady, who still looks quite a bit like Edge, just taller. It would be good to see him dye his hair black, but then he might draw comparisons to Kevin Nash instead.

In a backstage segment, Tyler Breeze phoned Adrian Neville despite being in the same room as him – because, he explained, it gave him the opportunity to look at himself through his phone instead of talking to Neville’s face, which is, he claimed, inferior to his. Adrian is still developing his speaking skills, but for a man of his wrestling talent, this still calls into question why WWE aren’t utilising managers more as mouthpieces. (They did it with Rob Van Dam and Ricardo Rodriguez recently – probably the only way you can actually fail to enhance a star with a manager…trust WWE to miss on a sure-fire hit.)

The Derek Zoolander-like Tyler Breeze meanwhile, much like Aiden English, just invests so much in his character that was already well drafted up by WWE that he can’t help but prompt praise from the audience. WWE officials may be scratching their heads, but this isn’t because the crowd are favouring heels – it’s simply because these personas are so well-defined compared to the bland names that fill most of the roster, that fans find them entertaining and refreshing, so want to shout about it. For example, what is Adrian Neville’s gimmick exactly? “The Man That Gravity Forgot”? So, he’s a high-flier? So what? So was Koko B. Ware, “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka, The Rockers…but all of those wrestlers had characterisations. Adrian Neville is just some British guy who sounds like he should play soccer for Manchester United. It doesn’t make any sense. Acrobatic moves will pop a crowd, naturally, but what happens after that? The weaknesses of his persona become highlighted in a segment like this one, where the Englishman challenged Breeze to a match next week after his meddling in his NXT Title match against Bo Dallas.

The newly corporate Kane filled in for John “Bradshaw” Layfield this week, as the voice of the Corporation – or The Authority, as they’re being called, corny as it is. One fan yelled “You sold out!” but truth be told, Kane’s character became meaningless way back in 1999 when parts of the mask and bodysuit he supposedly wore to cover horrific burns on all but one arm of his person started to be stripped away, piece by piece. As were layers of his character – the conclusion being that, despite other wrestlers even referred to his visible scars backstage, he had just imagined it. That’s right: the WWF jumped the shark. After all, if you want JR Ewing to live on in Dallas after his on-screen demise, you just claim it was all just a dream. Tap those shoes together and repeat after me: “There’s no place like home.”

So here, libertarian politico Glen Jacobs felt so at home in his suit that he got to inform the witty and charismatic Xavier Woods (PhD, no less) that he was going to be punished for supposedly starting a petition to reinstate The Big Show after The Authority had terminated him. The punishment in question? No, not a handicap match, or a contest where he has to fight with one arm tied behind his back. No, it was simply another regular match – against a wrestler who, unlike Woods, hasn’t even made it to the main roster yet.

Xavier’s opponent was Alexander Rusev, who – accompanied by the ever-improving “Ice Queen,” Lana – did indeed claim victory.

Though he undoubtedly possesses incredible potential, the Bulgarian is still as green as grass, so if WWE are putting him on house shows and in dark matches to ready him for an imminent debut on the main roster, they may be jumping the gun. But then, they’re also doing that with Roman (no relation to Luther) Reigns, who is also still way too inexperienced to break off into singles stardom away from The Shield.

Kofi Kingston – another main roster star to lose to Alexander Rusev, just last week – was shown giving an “exclusive” interview to wwe.com, where he admitted he underestimated the Bulgarian and had allowed himself to be distracted by Lana at ringside, and called for a rematch. This simple but effective interview demonstrated just how easy it is to lend a little credibility to a rivalry and have the audience invest in it as though it was based on a genuine contest, allowing for suspension of disbelief. It was so pleasing to see, it’s a shame WWE doesn’t do this kind of thing more often.

Baron Corbin was allowed to dominate the first part of his match with Tyson Kidd who, to be fair, needed a win here, and received it. But it’s nice to see Corbin have the chance to exhibit some of his albeit limited arsenal. He has a great look, and some potential. It will be interesting to see how WWE proceed with him from this point forward.

And finally, The Ascension retained the NXT Tag Team Titles by beating Hunico and Camacho in an exciting Tornado match. This one match probably did more for Conor (no relation to Conan) O’Brian and Rick Victor than the last six months. Now known as Konnor and Viktor, just by engaging in a thrilling, fast-paced title defence, they ended the show in victory, and were enhanced massively as a result of coming out of the match on top. It’s a pity the American Wolves – or American Pitbulls, as WWE had renamed them – didn’t have the opportunity to provide the same service to The Ascension. Unfortunately, the two independent stars have not been offered a permanent role in NXT, and thus had no chance to build a name for themselves like the impressive yet greatly inferior Hunico and Camacho have.

The Ascension must feel like 214 is the year to “do or die.” Conor O’Brian has been quagmired in WWE developmental for the best part of nine years, which is astonishing. Granted, he quit once before, in 2007 – when he preferred not to be on the road at all than be placed on a separate main roster “brand” to his partner Krissy Vaine (though other reports suggested they both requested a release due to health problems in both their families). After being re-signed in 2010, Conor looked like he might finally break through to the main roster when he appeared on the third round of NXT, back when it was presented as a pseudo-reality show. Portraying a rat-like character, he went nowhere besides back down to developmental.

Now known as NXT itself, Conor O’Brian today finds himself still in development hell, having been on the verge of breakthrough when his then-partner Kenneth Cameron assaulted a police officer and WWE stepped in to administer their own punishment above and beyond what the courts were to decide, terminating his developmental deal and leaving Conor going solo again.

Now, as simply Konnor, he finds himself as close as he’s ever been to breakthrough success, with partner Viktor in the latest version of The Ascension. An NXT Tag Team Champion at the age of 33, it certainly is now or never for the former Conor O’Brian.

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TNA’s Solutions Are Already There

7 Dec

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It seems that in pro wrestling circles, the most prevalent narrative about Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, whether online or in print, is the debate about its challenge of reaching the next level.

Everyone remotely interested in TNA has their own ideas about this subject – which only goes to show what a gigantic failure the TNA project has been.

There’s little debate about its shortcomings. It’s widely accepted that TNA is floundering and flouting whatever potential it’s ever had. This in itself – much like the glaring failures in WWE’s product that is geared towards corporate shareholders rather than any pro wrestling fan base – is a damning indictment of the power people in pro wrestling today.

WWE’s own soulless environment is a topic to be tackled another time. For TNA, however, it’s clear that what started as a great idea from the Jarretts has been subject to constant mismanagement and bad booking, and proof yet again that in this industry – much like with most issues in the world – you can’t solve a problem by simply throwing money at it.

So firstly, who’s truly to blame for the mess TNA has been seemingly destined to become? Let’s look at the suspects…

  • Jeff Jarrett: The man who courageously – or foolishly – essentially held Vince McMahon to ransom by letting his WWF contract expire while still holding the Intercontinental Championship, agreeing to drop the title to Chyna for what’s believed to have been $300,000, had nothing to lose by the time McMahon bought his competition, WCW – where Jeff had ended up. Vince, insecure as ever, vented his spleen on the last-ever episode of Nitro, bitterly reminding Jeff that he would be “gone!” So Jeff eventually regrouped and, after a fishing trip with his father and Bob Ryder, came up with the idea for an organisation that would fill the void in the industry after the WWF had swallowed up its competition, leaving no alternative for the appetite of the fans.
  • Jerry Jarrett: Unlike his son, Jerry’s had a relatively decent relationship with Vince McMahon over the years – wwe.com even showed him unveiling Oleg Prudius (or “Vladimir Kozlov”) to WWE management who were keen to sign the Russian martial artist. Jerry, having booked territories with that other Jerry – Lawler – for years, was able to leverage certain key figures in order to make the TNA dream a reality, with weekly mini-Pay-Per-View shows and the previously under-utilised and credible Ken Shamrock as champion. The venture seemed promising. But one thing it lacked was big bucks, not least since backer HealthSouth had pulled finance while being investigated for accounting irregularities.
  • Dixie Carter: In 2002, Bob Carter’s Panda Energy invested in TNA, while the Jarretts retained a minority of shares and office clout (particularly Jeff). Bob was no doubt persuaded by his wrestling fan daughter Dixie, a business administration graduate who was specialising in sports and entertainment marketing and learned of TNA’s financial challenges while working with them. Dixie’s initial complaint that the market was being monopolised by WWE was also cited as an opportunity for an alternative product building on pre-existing small-time credibility with sports style presentation and a six-sided ring as opposed to the traditional “squared circle.” Alas, the monopoly Dixie cited had so engulfed the entire pro wrestling business that she often failed to see beyond their product; it became a new norm.
  • Vince Russo: Jeff Jarrett’s second WWF run, in the “Attitude” era, enabled him to be taken more seriously, sporting short hair and spouting warnings to never “piss off” the guitar-wielding Nashville native. This was because WWF Magazine editor turned creative team leader Vince Russo was a fan and friend of Jeff’s. Though the likes of Steve Austin would ensure that Jarrett would only ever bang his head on the glass ceiling the Austin 3:16 machine rested upon, this second WWF stint was arguably better; Jarrett somehow seemed to possess more legitimacy, and featured more prominently and consistently on television. This explains why Jarrett brought Russo on board at TNA: like Jeff, Russo was essentially ostracised by the WWF after having also defected to WCW in a manner that angered Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Although Russo’s WCW booking – without McMahon to oversee and edit it – was largely responsible for WCW’s ultimate demise, Jarrett felt some of Russo’s successful concepts (the Austin-McMahon angles, D-Generation X’s antics, the Ministry of Darkness and “Higher Power” story, and the admittedly masterful Survivor Series tournament in 1998) were evidence enough of his creative abilities. Sadly, though, even after he’d supposedly found God, Russo still had the mentality that the ring, be it six-sided or otherwise, was almost a hindrance to writing of a product that has thrived throughout history when based on simple premises.
  • Eric Bischoff: The man who fired both Sean Waltman (“X-Pac”) and Steve Austin by Fed-Ex because Hulk Hogan felt neither could “cut the mustard” was keen to save the WCW he’d steered to success with Ted Turner’s riches and subsequently taken on a humbling downward trend as the unsustainable star-buying system ran its course. Unfortunately, while long-time rival Vince McMahon had stepped in and snatched WCW from the multitude of AOL / Time-Warner suits who came in under Turner’s noses to negotiate the sale, it was Vince Russo who was blamed for accelerating WCW’s journey towards sell-off. Bischoff, then, perhaps resented Russo more than he did McMahon – as evidenced by the fact he went on to swallow his pride and work on-screen for McMahon after the “Monday Night War” was won. Despite what was said publicly, Bischoff being brought in by Carter to work alongside Russo was never going to work. And sure enough, as Jarrett faded into the background, Russo was soon gone.
  • Hulk Hogan: What goes without saying are the contributions of Hulk Hogan to the pro wrestling industry; his charisma, ability to manipulate audiences and use crowd control, and his merchandise stand, television ratings, and box office performance, not to mention his brand’s strength itself. But of course Hogan is also the man who helped sabotage Jesse Ventura’s attempts to organise wrestlers who were – and still are – tied in to contracts that restrict them while being “independent contractors” conveniently (for Vince McMahon) responsible for their own huge health care bills and pension plans. If that’s not evidence enough of Hogan’s historic selfishness, just try and identify a single one of his peers that he’s wholeheartedly and fully put over and elevated above himself, and it’s highly likely you’ll draw a blank every time. This quest of self-preservation is what has always driven Hogan, which of course is fine – so long as you don’t give him influence over your product. Bischoff did this in WCW, giving him “creative control” where he’d literally be the author of his own fate (thus the above-mentioned firings of Sean Waltman and Steve Austin, who was expected to job to the abysmal but Hogan-friendly “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan). With both Bischoff and Hogan in the TNA staffroom and on-screen as well, there was never going to be much opportunity for the elevation of talent. Credit where it’s due: Hogan did seem to put over the likes of Matt Morgan and even Chris Sabin at various levels and stages, though not to the extent that it transformed anyone’s career.

So who’s to blame? Well, as with most things, it’s important to acknowledge context here. In reality, no one can really be blamed for TNA’s troubles – apart from, perhaps, Dixie Carter herself.

You see, Harry Truman once said – of himself as President of the United States – “the buck stops here.” And the same applies to Dixie Carter. Without her father, TNA would likely have met its demise, leaving the Jarretts to other pursuits (even if it’s just fishing with Bob Ryder). But once she became President of TNA  in 2003, she took on not just the rights of power, but also the responsibilities that go with it. As mentioned above, Dixie has rightly expressed a desire for an alternative to WWE’s near-monopoly of the pro wrestling industry, while at the same time being trapped by it: picking up any talent that WWE shedded itself of, be it Kurt Angle, Ken Kennedy/Anderson, The Dudleys, Christian, and perhaps the most insightful signing of them all, Jeff Hardy.

This has only – rightly or wrongly – reinforced the public image of TNA as a place for WWE cast-offs and, thus, a second-rate version of WWE itself. TNA doesn’t need to be compared to WWE, because there should be no comparison. The ludicrous claims of Hogan and Bischoff while heralding another “Monday Night War” as TNA Impact switched to Monday nights to “compete” with Raw (an experiment that was quickly cancelled before it killed off TNA faster than WCW under Vince Russo’s pen) has been typical not only of TNA’s “boy cried wolf” publicity ploys where Hogan, or Bischoff, or Carter herself have promised (yet another) “announcement to change TNA forever” but also of the Nashville syndrome of believing WWE is some target, or yardstick, or goal. It should be none of these things.

Whether 2013’s news of a shake-up in Panda Energy and, as a result, TNA management means that the company will go on the market, be bought up, or even be faced with threat of closure, the TNA product needs more than just the recent outcomes where Hogan and Bischoff are both seemingly following Russo out the door, while faithful home-grown star AJ Styles renegotiates a contract with Dixie who’s playing the “poor man’s Stephanie” heel authority figure.

What TNA needs is all already available to them.

They have Jeff Hardy, a man who favours the respect, freedom, and schedule he’s afforded in TNA as opposed to the WWE, and who can still deliver excellent in-ring performances juxtaposed nicely alongside TNA’s “own” AJ Styles. Granted, Kurt Angle, not completely unlike Jeff Hardy, perhaps never should have been hired by TNA after even the ruthless Vince McMahon cut him loose to avoid another pro wrestling tragedy as Angle struggled with injuries, pain medication, and other personal demons. However, under the easier environment of TNA and a kinder, gentler boss, Angle still holds the potential to accentuate his plethora of positives and give TNA the “big fight” credibility it needs. Bully Ray – the former Bubba Ray Dudley – has worked hard to reinvent himself as a character with a revitalised off-screen work ethic, and whether this has been to put himself in the shop window for WWE or not, he’s been given a new lease of life in the industry and has an upside to be exploited creatively.

And beyond that, an Austin Aries so hell-bent on proving that WWE missed out on utilising his talent has been an invaluable asset to TNA. Bobby Roode, Christopher Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, Magnus, Gail Kim, Taryn Terrell, all possess the ability to create a foundation that can be built upon.

WWE have already stated they want to control everything; they want a future of cookie-cutter wrestlers who either left some form of athletics or had experience in modelling, and walked through the Performance Center factory before arriving on the main roster. This rejection of old school territory mentality and disdain for the independent circuit is a golden opportunity for TNA to use what is comparable might in the pro wrestling industry – to pluck talents from Ring of Honor, from Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and so on and so forth, and to let them develop their own characters as extensions of themselves and improvise bullet-point promos to convey a credible and believable narrative on-screen.

WWE is becoming increasingly about its shareholders; its television advertising revenue rather than its ability to book long television or build to Pay-Per-Views. As an alternative to this corporate entity, TNA should not only go back to basic booking, storytelling, and championship-chasing pro wrestling presentation, but also present and promote itself as the genuine article, where wrestling is called wrestling, wrestlers are called wrestlers, women are called women, and belts are belts. TNA is at its best when it is proud of what it does well (as with the old “Knockout” videos promising “no ‘divas’ here”) – and it has done many things well (the ratings-grabbing women of the Knockouts division; the X division; the six-sided ring, awkward as it sometimes is for the in-ring performers). All of those things were innovative, rather than a bad copy of a WWE product.

In recent months, TNA has offered some hope for itself. Getting rid of Hogan and Bischoff has been a good start, and the prevalence of AJ Styles is a good sign. But it can’t just be a brief storyline, with Dixie Carter herself “taking one for the team” through on-screen self-deprecation. It has to continue further along that brave path of risk-taking, rejection of corporate WWE norms, embracing everything independent promotions do so well, yet at a slicker, higher standard. The money is there. But it doesn’t cost the earth to use what you already have, and use it well, in order to succeed, generate greater revenue, and expand.

For the sake of a WWE creatively collapsing under its own bloated, phoney, complacent corporate greed, and for the sake of the pro wrestling business we all know and love, TNA has to do this if it wants to survive at all.

Somebody Needs a Hug: Mick Foley’s Tales from Wrestling Past

9 Jun

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On April 29th, I had the opportunity to catch newly-inducted WWE Hall of Famer, Mick Foley, on his Tales from Wrestling Past tour. It was an interesting but disappointing night.

I’ve always been one of Mick Foley’s biggest supporters. You only have to watch his matches with Shawn Michaels or Vader to see that he wasn’t just what Ric Flair referred to as a “stunt-man”; he was a genuine talent who understood the art form, and knew how to adopt different styles while always presenting himself as a brawler and bump-taker, selflessly selling for his opponents and contributing great psychology.

Famous for the insane Hell In A Cell dive from the roof through the commentary table, as well as losing an ear in a match in Germany, Foley is also immensely intelligent. Speaking fluent German, he’s also mastered the English language to the point of writing books that hit the New York Times bestseller lists.

Foley has also been someone with good solid principles. In his beautifully titled book Foley Is Good (And The Real World Is Faker Than Wrestling), he cleverly exposed the Parents Television Council assault on the WWF’s Attitude era as McCarthyist in nature, by tracing the links between the PTC’s leader, Brent Bozell III, and Joseph McCarthy himself. As his friendship with singer Tori Amos developed, also volunteered for RAINN to support victims of sexual violence.

While writing for Slate.com, Foley mentions meeting Amos and asking if he could hug her. I wonder how he’d have felt, had her response had been as frosty as his demeanour on April 29th, in Sheffield’s City Hall…

Firstly, I must say that Foley remains a good guy who tries hard. But there’s a sense from this night’s performance that he gets easily frustrated with himself, and agitated by other things as a result. His performance, though very funny in parts, largely veered away from pure stand-up – which is fine, as it was never presented as just that – but ran in to all sorts of problems by the fact Foley felt the need to both try and keep the content PG, and, moreover, try to explain insider wrestling terms for what seemed to be all of one non-wrestling fan in attendance. So it was a little tiresome, and lost a great deal, in its explanations, in the same way explaining a joke to someone who doesn’t get it straight away kind of kills it. He needs to decide who he expects his target audience to be, and stick to that, delivering on that basis.

Mick also lost his temper when the sound guy cued up the music for his final joke too soon, petulantly abandoning the whole portion of his act to the point where right-hand man Chris Brooker couldn’t even console him. What made this worse was the obvious angst Foley felt the whole time afterwards having lost his cool, repeatedly referring to the incident, and apologising profusely, only to deliver the planned routine in the end anyway having calmed down, yielded, and come back to it. It was all very strange.

Foley also one moment asked people not to take photographs of him, which was odd, and yet again changed his mind by then suddenly offering photo opportunities to fans who had paid around £30 for the show. If this was a joke on the audience, then it was lost on them, and certainly didn’t seem to be a joke as he remained seated for the meet-and-greet, and looked miserable almost the entire time. For this reason – feeling like it was almost too much trouble – I declined the offer to go up and speak with him; no matter what I might have come up with, I felt like Foley would treat me, too, like someone stuck in an elevator with him while he wished he was somewhere else.

In the above-mentioned Slate.com article, Foley referred to his book Countdown to Lockdown, entitled as such because of his run in TNA, the company that host the Lockdown Pay-Per-View show. Yet in the Sheffield show, when someone asked Mick about his TNA World Championship reign, he told him “I don’t count that.” As mischievously funny as that remark was, he certainly did count it all as important when he wrote and titled his book, and, during promotion for the book, courted favour with Linda McMahon as she ran a Republican political campaign in direct contrast to the values Foley had demonstrated before that point.

The show, then, is a little reflective of the tainted Mick Foley career itself, leaving a bit of a bitter taste in your mouth, and wondering if he’s really cut out for this sort of stuff. The travelling and touring and pressure of planning it all and trying to please everybody really doesn’t seem him at all, because he’s destined to fail, and then feel so much worse, and project it all onto the crowd. Chris Brooker was an excellent warm-up act, and Carl Hutchinson was the highlight of the night with his Geordie accent and absolutely hilarious observational wrestling fan anecdotes. But I’m afraid Mick Foley didn’t live up to expectations, or the ticket price.

If you’re a Mick Foley fan, I’d recommend keeping yourself that way by missing one of his live shows. You won’t be left feeling like he did when he hugged Tori Amos.

What? Disrespectful?

25 Apr

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“Stone Cold” Steve Austin was recently interviewed by Power Slam magazine here in Britain. When asked about the “What?” chants as part of his legacy, he expressed no regret in starting them, and suggested wrestlers can avoid them in their promos by the pacing of their remarks.

Pro Wrestling Torch’s Sean Radican is often dead-on in his columns, and his recent entry on the episode of Raw, from London, England, is another quality offering. “(WWE’s) stars and storylines aren’t connecting with live crowds. Some crowds greet the wrestlers and storylines with apathy,” he states. “Last night, WWE brought Raw to London and when the circus comes to town once a year, the crowd is going to be energetic and react to the show unlike other crowds. This time around in London, it was clear what WWE is doing isn’t connecting with the crowd.” But then he added, “However, it was ridiculous to see the treatment the crowd gave to Foley and Undertaker, both of whom deserved better than a crowd trying to go into business for themselves.” He was referring to the “What?” chants during Mick Foley’s promo, as well as the “You’ve still got it” chants in Undertaker’s match.

Now, as we know, wrestling fans pay good money to attend WWE shows, and, as Radican points out, these shows roll around through England only once or twice a year. Naturally, they are going to be full of emotion, and expression. But still, reactions of most entertainment audiences are utilised as a gauge of a successful performance. When pop stars sing badly and are booed for it, it’s largely accepted. When sports crowds are humble when their team gets humiliatingly defeated, it’s understandable. It’s WWE’s job, as Radican again rightly suggests, to construct a performance that creates the correct response from their audiences.

I’m probably one of Mick Foley’s biggest fans. A decent human being, critical thinker, intelligent writer, and revolutionary wrestler in his time, I’ll be seeing him perform stand up here next week. But despite my admiration and respect for Foley, if fans are chanting “What?” during his promo, I ask two things: “Have the writers made a mistake?” and “Is Foley’s delivery weak?” Radican’s right first time: WWE creative are all too often failing to connect the product to audiences; they lose emotional investment, and fans, as Radican puts it, “go into business for themselves.” It isn’t ideal, but it happens. The show goes on, and the audience response has to be taken on board as experience; a note for future promo writing.

But where I really take exception to Radican’s article is when he suggests fans chanting “You’ve still got it” is disrespectful. That’s right, you read that correctly: disrespectful – for telling a 48 year-old wrestler who had performed only once the year previously that he hasn’t lost a step. Before I go on, I’ll be fair to Radican here and offer context. He says, “Undertaker is someone that hasn’t had a regression in his in-ring performance and if anything, he has gotten better with time since his WrestleMania winning streak went from being a statistic to being one of the biggest staples of WrestleMania each year.”

Okay, fair points. But if a 48 year-old wrestles WrestleMania XXVII, is carried away on a stretcher, returns for WrestleMania XXVIII, then, not counting a cameo at Raw 1000, goes away for a year before reappearing for a global audience at WrestleMania XXIX…it is absolutely acceptable, even respectable (and respectful) for an audience to tell him “You’ve still got it” in unison. When Undertaker went away for a mere eight months in 2000-2001, he referred to his trademark arm-twist rope-walk chop as going “old school” – and nobody questioned that. There was, in fact, nothing “old school” about it at all; he was using it in 2000, returned, and picked up where he left off, using it again, just as a Hell’s Angels-type biker instead of a Satanic leader of the Ministry of Darkness. Today, Undertaker wrestles one high profile match a year, and much more has changed, far more than the referencing of one single move in his arsenal: he’s at an age where each year makes all the difference – just ask Hulk Hogan, or ask Ric Flair…the matches get harder; the wrinkles get deeper.

The idea that Undertaker, at 48, is beyond scrutiny; that he is unquestionably excellent whenever he appears, is absurd. His last WrestleMania match with CM Punk was fantastic, yes, though this may have had a great deal to do with Punk’s involvement; his two previous WrestleMania bouts with Triple H were both a series of spot-fests dependent on weak storyline-driven psychology hindered by the foregone conclusion of an untouchable Streak.

The Streak is the only thing about the Undertaker that should ever be untouchable. At 48, the “Dead Man” is still pushing his luck – and his body to its limits, largely for the traditional annual appearance and big WrestleMania pay-day. But for a man who’s had numerous surgeries and is easily at the standard age of retirement for wrestlers who take pride in their work, telling him “You’ve still got it” is not only fair, it’s deeply respectful. To suggest that – and a “What?” chant during a Mick Foley promo – is disrespectful to legends in London, is simply disrespecting the fans in London.

Did Bruno Sammartino Sell His Soul?

30 Mar

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So Bruno Sammartino is headed into the Hall of Fame. Yet the cows haven’t come home. The sun hasn’t gone supernova. The world is much the same. So what miracle occurred for the Living Legend to finally come to terms with WWE?

Before we begin, let’s first acknowledge that there is no doubt that WWE’s version of a pro wrestling Hall of Fame has always lacked credibility until recently. Not just because of the inclusion of the McMahon limousine driver and jobber to the stars, James Dudley (not to be confused with Big Daddy Dudley). And not just because it was inevitably WWWF/WWF/WWE focused (even Abdullah the Butcher, who never had a run with the McMahons, has been inducted). The real reason is a legitimate one: Bruno Sammartino is one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time, one who heavily contributed to the building of the McMahon empire. Without his inclusion – in the initial class of 1993 on the 30th anniversary of the WWWF, which featured Andre the Giant, and especially in the 1994 class that included Bobo Brazil, Gorilla Monsoon, and, shockingly, the aforementioned jobber James Dudley – the Hall of Fame was always going to lack legitimacy.

It was, of course, these years that saw Vince McMahon battling the federal government over accusations of conspiracy to distribute steroids amongst his wrestlers via Dr George Zahorian – and Bruno Sammartino, who had long since soured on McMahon following his post-wrestling run as WWF commentator and mentor to his son David Sammartino, was more than willing to make media appearances to contribute to the avalanche of bad publicity.

In the years following, of course, Bruno continued to criticise the WWF/WWE – for artificial physiques, sexual themes, excessive violence, you name it. In recent years, it’s also become increasingly apparent that Sammartino felt short-changed by Vince McMahon Jr, the man who also caused so much upheaval in the American wrestling world and revolutionised the industry, raising the ire of traditional promoters and commentators in the process.

So what’s changed?

It’s no secret that the influence of Paul “Triple H” Levesque on WWE has grown in the last couple of years. With Shane McMahon cashing in his WWE stock and pursuing sports-centered business opportunities in Asia, and Stephanie McMahon Levesque seemingly content to take a step back from the WWE product, it has become more obvious than ever that the true heir to the Vince McMahon throne is the self-proclaimed “King of Kings” himself, Triple H.

Now, there are many areas where WWE has improved under the increasing influence of Paul Levesque: the excellent expansion and direction of developmental division NXT; the push for a resurgence of tag team wrestling; the level-headed creative input on the gorilla position headset as “one of the boys”; even the rumours of his comfort with terms like “wrestling” and “belts.” And yes, it has been Levesque who has engaged in diplomatic dialogue with Sammartino to help broker this deal to have him in WWE’s Hall of Fame. Indeed, Levesque’s been a positive influence in many aspects. Whereas ten years ago, pundits expressed concern over the post-Vince era with Stephanie’s idiosyncrasies and Shane’s lack of power, now the future looks just fine with the Triple H era.

But whether he likes it or not, many people will always feel like Triple H played politics to get to where he is: his time carrying bags for the Kliq of Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Sean Waltman; his positioning in D-Generation X after the fallout from the Curtain Call incident died down; his affair with Stephanie behind the broad back of Joanie “Chyna” Laurer; and his role in the Montreal Screwjob:

Backstage After Montreal Screwjob by Lollottaja

Yes, that’s Paul “Hunter Hearst Helmsley” Levesque telling Bret Hart’s then-wife Julie, “I swear to God I knew nothing about it…I swear to God.” She wasn’t buying it, suggesting God would strike him down. She was wise to his true character and the part he played in the Kliq/McMahon conspiracy, but was wrong about the involvement of God: despite Shawn Michaels’s conversion to Christianity, given the success of Triple H ever since we can assume the Devil takes care of his own. These were not good people. “I swear to God,” said Triple H, “I knew nothing about it.” But, of course, he did.

“Triple H was a very sincere guy,” says Bruno Sammartino.

And this, according to the Living Legend himself, is what convinced him to allow WWE to induct him into their Hall of Fame.

Now, people do change. Though Triple H was clearly the opposite of a “very sincere guy” in 1997, fifteen years later could have changed him immensely (despite the credible, negative reports from the likes of Matthew Randazzo V, published in Power Slam magazine, in that time). Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he could have become a “very sincere guy.” But given Bruno’s benefit of the doubt, with that in mind, could he not have thought the same of Vince McMahon Jr? Here was a man who reportedly disrespected Bruno and his son David, allegedly flooded the industry with steroids, flaunted his affairs in Playboy magazine, and had men kiss his ass and women crawl across the ring barking like dogs while wearing lingerie. And yet today, from all accounts, Vince introduced a stringent drug-testing policy, made the product PG, and stood by his wife when she ran for Senate. Why would Triple H be a reformed character and Vince McMahon not?

No, the real reasoning behind Bruno Sammartino’s reconciliation with WWE and imminent induction to the Hall of Fame is not about the transformation of a corporation that had already (unlike other promotions) introduced resource-draining drug testing in the mid-1990’s. It’s not about a PG product that features the muscle-bound John Cena and Ryback and the tables, ladders, and chairs using Shield, as well as the foul-mouthed CM Punk and Rock (despite Bruno’s claim that “there is no more vulgarity.”) And it’s clearly got nothing to do with certain key characters being reformed; yes, Triple H was the WWE representative that Bruno Sammartino could stomach speaking to without having to engage with Vince McMahon, thus saving face in the process.

It’s about money, straight and simple.

It’s no secret the Living Legend felt WWE owed him money, and he wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Vince McMahon about it. But if someone – anyone, no matter how unscrupulous otherwise – could do the negotiating and talk numbers, then it became apparent that suddenly Bruno Sammartino could accept a role in a Hall of Fame shared with not just James Dudley, but also Pete Rose, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Bob Uecker, Drew Carey, Mike Tyson and – on the same day – the odious Donald Trump who supports the McMahons so that they can fight regulations, workers’ rights, and perpetuate the exploitation of professional wrestlers Sammartino supposedly hated so much that he stood his ground.

No, money talks. And Triple H was the one who knew how to put it into words. We may never know the exact figures of the financial rewards reaped by the Sammartino family for this deal. But we can only hope it was worth it. If the Devil takes care of his own, the Sammartinos should be just fine for years to come.

Swagger and the WWE Wellness Problem

28 Feb

jack-swagger-mugshot

In recent months, WWE have been on a streak so impressive it threatens to eclipse that of The Undertaker’s at WrestleMania.

The debuts of Dean Ambrose (Jon Moxley), Seth Rollins (Tyler Black), and Roman Reigns (no relation to Luther) as The Shield, along with the subsequent storyline development, has been excellent. Coincidentally, Shield-focused shows TLC and Elimination Chamber were also two of the greatest Pay-Per-View offerings in years – in booking, if not in-ring action. Dolph Ziggler went over John Cena and aligned himself with AJ Lee instead of Vickie Guerrero, and freshened up his act further with the addition of “Big” E. Langston. Antonio Cesaro has been pushed despite dropping Aksana. Much-needed babyface turns to Alberto Del Rio and The Miz have been effective. Even Big Show and Sheamus have been putting on great matches. This is a WWE product that seems to be recovering from last year’s dark day of the 1,000th episode of Monday Night Raw, which was a disaster.

But the re-introduction of Jack Swagger has been gold.

Regular readers will know how often I’ve called for WWE to put its finger on the pulse of popular culture and current affairs and tap into modern events, longing for a return to the approach of the Attitude era where McCarthyist Brent Bozell III and his odious Parents Television Council (or PTC) were simply mocked by the creation of heel characters The Right to Censor (or RTC). I’ve also argued for the return of valets and managers to accentuate wrestlers’ positives, while hiding their weaknesses.

Jack Swagger, the “All-American” American, never too confident on the mic – not least with his slight speech impediment – has been given Uncle Zebekiah Blu, formerlt Dutch Mantell, now simply Zeb Colter, as a mouthpiece and manager who has, in turn, turned Swagger into the “Real American” (sorry, Hogan) – a xenophobic, right-wing zealot in opposition to Mexican-American Alberto Del Rio (thus reinforcing their respective face/heel roles).

This has been priceless. It has tapped into an undercurrent through America, and in the process hit a nerve – raising the ire of no less than Glenn Beck himself, the High Priest of the Right-Wing and Tea Party poster boy, that anti-women gun nut who calls progressivism a “disease” – you know, the same progressivism that historically gave the country free schools, libraries, as well as weekends, and got women the right to vote, abolished slavery, and improved civil rights. That disease of progress.

Now, they say you can gauge your value by the enemies you make, so if WWE are provoking Glenn Beck, they’re definitely doing something right. Zeb Coulter Colter’s diatribes on immigration and American “values” are priceless – even with Jack Swagger mouthing Zeb’s words on the autocue as he stands there awaiting his “we the people” finale.

Swagger’s finally had his biggest break since winning the World Championship from Chris Jericho in March of 2010, the beginning of an ill-fated title run and his fall from favour with WWE’s most influential officials. He’s been given another shot. And then he was arrested for speeding, possession of marijuana, and driving under the influence (of marijuana – which leads one to wonder how he managed to start speeding, considering most potheads can usually only drive about 10mph while stoned).

This, of course, did not bode well.

With mainstream media attention all over WWE for their topical and – by their standards – sophisticated storyline, Swagger’s indiscretion couldn’t have come at the worst time. Whether the sudden thrust into the spotlight was too much pressure for Swagger, or whether it was just simple stupidity, the fact remained that Swagger’s arrest was hitting headlines beyond just the TMZ muckrakers.

Now, the arguments on the dirt sheets have largely been focused on what needed to be WWE’s next course of action: fire him at risk of a high profile switch to TNA for a wrestler who just months ago was reportedly requesting his release; suspend him, and jeopardise the pre-WrestleMania creative plans; suspend him later, or even do nothing – the debate went back and forth. And certainly, it was a creative quandary for Vince McMahon, Triple H, and the gang.

On one hand, Swagger had insulted management by throwing their push back in their faces with such recklessness; on the other hand, he’d been caught smoking pot, something that’s been legalised in several states in the U.S. – albeit driving under the influence was not permitted (nor was speeding, an act which actually caused the death of Zeb’s own daughter in real life last summer.)

And this is where it really opens a can of worms.

Irvin Muchnick, a writer who specialises in the sports concussion crisis and covered the Chris Benoit tragedy with rare rationality, reason, and facts as opposed to the then-prevalent mainstream media hysteria over steroids, has not been popular with WWE. The reason? He scrutinises them and their Wellness programme and policies in ways rarely afforded to the sports-entertainment business (as I reiterate constantly, the industry’s lack of categorisation as either sports or performance makes it harder to regulate in the same way athletes and actors enjoy).

We’ve seen R-Truth’s Wellness suspension kick in conveniently after his Survivor Series involvement with headliner The Rock in 2011. Now Swagger’s been arrested for using a drug that WWE’s policy prohibits (albeit admittedly harshly when comparing it to alcohol). So what now? Does the Wellness department still wait for their next random test on Swagger, allowing him to literally piss the pot away? Or do they take the arrest and charges seriously, bring him in for an immediate screening, and suspend him upon finding marijuana in his system? The latter hasn’t happened, so we must assume the former is the case.

I’m not an advocate of Wellness treating marijuana, state to state, as more of a wrongdoing than alcohol. But I do think this gives Muchnick more ammunition to scrutinise the Wellness programme WWE has in place. WWE has to, in this writer’s opinion, revert it back to excluding marijuana – or face an avalanche of further accusations of manipulating the programme to suit their convenience.

What Women’s Wrestling Should Be

3 Jan

When you think of great women’s wrestling, you will be forgiven for not immediately considering the late 1980’s, a time when even the WWF Women’s Championship faded away.

As part of my research for some of the fantasy wrestling here on the site, I reviewed the five-on-five tag team elimination match from the inaugural Survivor Series in 1987. Aside from the Flock of Seagulls type hairstyles, the bout came across as very modern.

Now, if you especially focus on the Irish-Canadian Velvet McIntyre, who was not only wrestling barefoot but throwing huracanranas before Lita had even left middle school, and the Jumping Bomb Angels, who defied wrestling stereotypes by courting favour with fans despite their Japanese origins at the height of economic rivalry with the States, you will see some extremely skilled, fast-paced, big-bumping wrestling action. The Angels were astonishing to watch; way ahead of their time. And commentators then didn’t even know what to call McIntyre’s huracanrana.

Beyond that, though, the women are presented as authentic, credible competitors. For their match, they’re allocated over twenty minutes of Pay-Per-View airtime. In addition, the referees, ring announcer and commentators all take them seriously: Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura claim “they hit just as hard as the men” and refer to them as liberated women. They’re not patronised, sexualised, or laughed at; there’s little talk of other WWF storylines aside from a brief mention of the stable of Jimmy Hart (who managed the Glamour Girls). As a result, audience responses were reflected by the live crowd who, though relatively calm throughout most of the match, stay in their seats, save the concession stands for the interval, and pop in all the right places.

If only modern pro wrestling presented women as well as the WWF did in 1987.