Tag Archives: WWE

Survival of the Fittest: Ultimate Warrior and Hate Speech

12 Apr

Heath-Ledger-001

“Leather Hedger had sleeping troubles and anxiety and dealt with terrible mood swings…By today’s standard, though, I do have to agree that he was a great father. Perhaps even greater then the father of the year, Hulk Hogan. After all, Leather Hedger did what it took to kill himself. His kid is without a father, yes, but the negative influence is now removed and his own child has the chance for a full recovery.”

– Ultimate Warrior on Heath Ledger, after the actor’s death

Jim Hellwig, later known as the Ultimate Warrior, was just one week ago enjoying induction into WWE’s Hall of Fame, an appearance at WrestleMania XXX, and a nostalgia promo on Monday Night Raw. He’s now dead. Beyond the wave of tributes for a legendary pro wrestling character, what about the person himself? What about his life’s mission, his beliefs, his passions and his principles?

wrestlamania6

The above quote about Heath Ledger, who had starred in a film Warrior considered gay propaganda, Brokeback Mountain, is relatively mild in comparison to Warrior’s infamous homophobic tirades, having spent a substantial proportion of his post-WWF career touring the United States to promote his principle of “survival of the fittest” while engaging in public speaking events where he could be afforded a platform for hate speech – attacking not just homosexuals but also ethnic minorities, women, and even the poor. Sadly, he became more of a figure of ridicule the more he tried to present himself as a serious political commentator of any credibility.

But one week ago, Warrior had ensured himself some forgiveness after burying the hatchet with several pro wrestlers. In perhaps his finest hour – years after his in-ring days had ended – he had every opportunity to follow up such an olive branch by publicly reversing his views on gay people, ethnic minorities, women, and those less wealthy than himself. He chose not to. And the WWE – even under the mask of their anti-bullying PR strategy – failed to have him do so. The mainstream media, meanwhile, remained silent.

Warrior desperately wanted to be perceived as intelligent, even attacking this writer on a forum many years ago using multisyllabic rhetoric, only to fall silent when I pointed out his long words lacked any real meaning; they just demonstrated that he knew such words, and – sometimes – how to use them. He showed his complete ignorance of the term Social Darwinism (animal kingdom principles of “survival of the fittest,” applied on to society) by suggesting it shouldn’t be used simply because, in society, people aren’t dying (unless you consider what he’d no doubt have claimed was the mere coincidence of poor people being more susceptible to low life expectancy). Yet all along, as I do here now, I afforded Warrior the respect of being a human being with a strong set of views that we shouldn’t ignore.

Beyond the Social Darwinist statement above, Warrior maintained an entire website filled with pages of hateful homophobia and bigotry until the day he died. (At the time of writing, much of it remains in the public domain, so you can see for yourself even beyond his death.)

Even as WWE suits from Paul “Triple H” Levesque to Stephanie and Vince McMahon praised pro wrestler Darren Young for being one of their first openly gay stars, their former CEO and Republican politician Linda McMahon inducted Warrior into WWE’s Hall of Fame and exploited the mainstream media’s ignorance towards their industry by getting away with endorsing him when they suddenly saw an opportunity to make money off a man even they had publicly buried.

While even staid international outlets like British newspaper The Independent covered the news of Warrior’s demise, the global mainstream media instead is, of course, armed with few facts about professional wrestling, and reduces itself to ill-informed presentations like those of Nancy Grace, who clumsily gave the impression that steroids killed all those wrestlers who died too young – including Owen Hart, who actually fell to his death when a stunt went awry.

Screenshot from 2014-04-12 21:47:05

So long as the media remain ignorant, and open themselves up to criticism and campaigns like #CancelNancy, the pro wrestling industry can conveniently remain relatively free from credible scrutiny, so as to continue making the same mistakes without being held to account, exploiting “independent contractors” with legally questionable binding contracts, no off-season, and no pension or health care coverage. This ignorance set the stage for the rise of the Ultimate Warrior himself, who looked out for himself, cared little for other wrestlers, and then found himself chewed up and spat out, spitting venom upon this outcome, railing against Vince McMahon.

Warrior often spoke of himself in superior tones and even in the third person, capitalised as He or Him or His, and rarely ever admitted flaws, vulnerabilities, or mistakes – his return, as evidenced by his Hall of Fame speech, was only ever about defeating Vince McMahon in his own mind.

Hate kept his blood pumping, and it is perhaps fitting that as soon as he felt redeemed, his heart stopped, following perhaps the greatest amount of steroid abuse known to the pro wrestling industry, an incredible achievement in itself. Yet despite this drug use and abuse, he always felt comfortable mocking the drug addiction of other wrestlers such as Jake “The Snake” Roberts or the drug-induced deaths of high-profile names like Heath Ledger for being “weak” in accordance with his own Social Darwinist outlook. We can only hope that Warrior – after years of ‘roid ravage – receives more respect than he afforded others. So how do we show him respect now?

v3-jake

One thing Warrior – as with any man who fought for his principles – would surely shudder at the thought of, is fans whitewashing his beliefs mere days after his death, and he’d scoff at the fawning from his peers who just years ago were lining up to attack him in any way they could because few of them saw him as a true peer. One former long-time WWE photographer this week painted the picture of the Warrior as a hateful, selfish man.

For Warrior to truly hurt WWE though, and challenge McMahon’s huge corporation, he would have had to admit weakness by accepting the reality that all wrestlers – not just him – have been at risk of exploitation by a largely unregulated industry. He couldn’t bring himself to do that though, because he firmly believed in the Social Darwinist doctrine of “survival of the fittest,” and thus all of his complaints dissipated as soon as Vince shook his hand, booked him a Hall of Fame spot, and inked a lucrative deal that would never be lived out.

No, Warrior saw himself as special; unique – and when you take that to its logical conclusion, you can claim that the exploitation, too, was merely exclusive to you, rather than a symptom of an entire industry. Warrior, then, got to make the Hall of Fame and for him, all was suddenly well with the world.

And yet, when pro wrestling news sites such as the Pro Wrestling Torch take an honest look at Warrior’s life – his actions and words – they are faced with criticism themselves. Suddenly, traces of Warrior’s true endeavours are being removed from the internet; his character is taking over the human being, so that integrity, or intensity, are now entirely attributed to the man born Jim Hellwig. And yet what made the man intense was that integrity to stand by his beliefs even in the face of social decency.

But just as the man sometimes had trouble separating the two, the character has begun to blur with the person, and it’s threatening to consume it if we don’t afford him the respect of honest tributes that absolutely must endure, and survive. If not, are we truly fit to call ourselves commentators of any kind? There have been some websites that have covered Warrior’s life in honest ways; one overtly political site, I provided the source material for just this week. But it’s sad when little more than a blogger has to prompt successful websites to present true retrospectives.

ultimatewarrior

Former “Million Dollar Man” turned Christian, Ted DiBiase, who has been a leading critic but received a friendly acknowledgement by Warrior at the Hall of Fame, will be expected to reverse his views now, too. Because regardless of the intense and dedicated performances of the limited, reckless, green yet muscular poster boy for McMahon’s steroid-infested 1980’s, Warrior remained a hateful, ultra-right-wing bigot, but this now must not be addressed at all costs.

Indeed, in this wave of apologism for homophobia which just years from now will have stopped being acceptable and be damned to the annals of history alongside slavery, any true statements about Warrior are attacked. Whereas to call Heath Ledger or Philip Seymour Hoffman drug addicts who ran themselves into early graves is, in conservative American society, perfectly acceptable and even commendable, the sad fact remains that it is not yet ready to hear criticisms of dead celebrities if these criticisms don’t suit the cause.

“To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” – Voltaire

Advertisements

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

9 Jun

Mick Foley Main

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

BD9LeL1CQAAOxec.jpg:large

“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

7dd0f74f76e6fbc80e105f60d21e9580

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.

The CM Punk Fan Incident: Punk’s Not Entirely to Blame

16 Oct

It was apparent on last night’s Monday Night Raw that WWE are hoping that the incident where CM Punk assaulted a fan in the crowd the previous week will be quickly forgotten. The fan in question has since been the subject of various contradictory reports on whether or not he will be taking legal action. WWE acknowledged the incident dismissively on their own website, then moved on, with no news of Punk facing action from the company – unsurprisingly, since he is the premier active star on the roster at this time and holds WWE’s top title.

Pro Wrestling Torch editor Wade Keller wrote a response to the incident this past week and, as we have come to expect from Keller, it was intelligent, progressive, and well argued. However, on this occasion, I have to disagree with him to an extent.

Keller’s points about security and how the incident could have been much worse than it was due to Punk’s flailing fists are, of course, valid. However, “Punk put himself in that position,” Keller claimed, adding “he should have removed himself from that situation.” And it is here that I find fault.

Punk was clearly booked to flee from Vince McMahon into the crowd. Granted, Punk has some influence, but not complete creative control – and if the booking called for him to enter the crowd, naturally, he did so, and he remained there; not to draw out an unspoken response or to increase suspense, but to sell for an ongoing promo from McMahon himself. How could he have easily removed himself from that situation? And how did he entirely put himself in it? “He couldn’t,” and “he didn’t,” are, of course, the answers.

Keller, in his piece, cites the AWA St Paul’s Civic Center shows he attended as a youngster, when Stan Hansen swung a cowbell, and how this remained in a designated area. Jim Cornette, in a recent interview with Fin Martin for Power Slam magazine, also recollects memories from the old days – when he and the Midnight Express would have to literally run for their lives due to their heel heat, going so far as to carry a gun in case they faced a life-or-death situation.

Few heels have faced such dangers for several years, particularly since the fade of kayfabe. Wrestling Scribe poster boy Brian Pillman used to frequently goad fans and dare them to strike him, yet he infamously returned to attack then-WWF rival Stone Cold Steve Austin by running through the crowd and hopping the guard rail. One might argue that his heel character had not been solidly defined at that time, but that claim would be weakened by the fact the late Pillman raised the ire of TV executives and audiences for pulling a handgun on Austin himself months previous. Others might suggest Pillman ran through the crowd, rather than stood amongst fans. And this is a more valid suggestion. And brings us back to Punk.

Punk was, again, booked to flee into the Raw crowd, and remain there to sell Vince’s promo, with no visible security there to protect him. He was a sitting duck. This is by no means an excuse for Punk’s behaviour: lashing out at fans – particularly when he struck an innocent bystander – is terrible. But the situation needs context to understand how powerless Punk was, and no doubt felt, as fans hit him in the back and threatened to push him down the concrete steps. Would that have been okay – being assaulted and sent reeling along the steps?

Keller, like many others, have been wrong to place so much blame on Punk for the situation itself. While he shouldn’t have hit an innocent fan, he understandably felt trapped and in danger, thanks to WWE – not Phil Brooks himself – booking Punk to run into, and remain in, the crowd.

A classy step would be for Punk to publicly and personally apologise to the one fan he struck and who clearly did not pose any threat to him. The behaviour of the rest should be a lesson to WWE to reflect on angles in the stands in future, and reconsider their current crowd security strategy.

Jerry Lawler’s Heart Attack Sadly Exploits More WWE Failures

11 Sep

As most of you will know, last night on Monday Night Raw, Jerry “The King” Lawler suffered a heart attack right at the commentary table at ringside. He was rushed away by crew members to the backstage area and, later, taken to a nearby Montreal hospital where he began recovery, albeit after what one wrestler claimed was twenty minutes of being “clinically dead.”

It’s a frightening occurrence at any time, but for a ringside commentator to keel over at the desk while Raw is live on air is terrible. I’m not a fan of Michael Cole, as regular readers will know, but credit is due for his professionalism continuing to commentate on the rest of the show after his colleague was taken away from ringside and he received updates through his headset in the minutes following the incident.

Obviously, Jerry Lawler is a legend. Of all the Hall of Fame inductees, he’s one of the few WWE choices that can’t be questioned: the career of this other king from Memphis, Tennessee, has been one of credibility, from his beginnings, to the King of Memphis wrestling, to his infamous worked-shoot feud with Andy Kaufman, to his heated rivalry with Eddie Gilbert that I watched as a youngster, to, finally, his part-time heel routine with the WWF against Bret Hart and Jake Roberts, and his near-twenty year colour commentary on WWF/E broadcasts and iconic partnership with Jim Ross that was even given the nod in their roles in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon starring Jim Carrey…despite scandals plaguing his personal life, he has been held dear by those around the pro wrestling business.

Lawler’s on-air heart attack shocked and surprised many. His business partner Randy Hales said that Jerry – who doesn’t smoke or drink – has been in good health, supposedly kept young by his choice of sexual partners. Given that, as JR speculated, this scare was caused by clogged arteries, further speculation can lead one to assume his diet was poor, with perhaps his food choices being the types to be accompanied by some of JR’s own famous barbecue sauce.

But regardless, while the WWE Wellness programme can discover in MVP the presence of Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (an abnormal accessory pathway in his heart), it failed Jerry Lawler, as good as it is. Or does the Wellness programme not subject part-timers such as “The King” or The Rock to its procedures, as has been constantly claimed (thus explaining Rock’s pumped physique on his occasional returns from Hollywood)? And this brings us to the point that Jerry Lawler wrestled in a tag team match on-air about half an hour before returning to his headset at ringside, after which he suffered the heart attack.

The inability to elevate and create stars has hindered WWE in recent years, the product stifled by this failure to evolve. What’s worse, in spots where we could be watching proven professional wrestling talents like Dean Ambrose or Seth Rollins, we see them forcibly subjected to WWE insecurity-driven rituals such as “learning the WWE style” or, more ridiculous, “paying their dues,” and instead have Jerry Lawler wrestling on the company’s flagship show at the age of 62.

What are WWE afraid of? Their humbling of young talent such as those mentioned above is notorious, yes, but some slip through the system – look at CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. Is it more a panic over what happens to older stars when they can’t be justifiably used in the ring any more? Perhaps, instead of contractually owning wrestlers (and their day-to-day lives) while still claiming they’re “independent contractors,” they could implement exit strategies, pension plans, and comprehensive health care coverage. Maybe then, the McMahons wouldn’t suffer such criticism, and they wouldn’t have to hold on to aging wrestlers who otherwise might end up like Randy “The Ram” Robinson in the movie The Wrestler.

Let’s hope Jerry Lawler makes a full recovery, but that he also refrains from stepping into the ring. He may even be past his prime on commentary; if WWE can’t find an ambassador role for him, they are going to have to think long and hard and seriously about how they take care of their loyal troops after they’ve moved on. As they preach on their programming as part of their armed forces rhetoric, it’s important not to forget veterans, and this should apply to wrestlers too – it needs to be more than just a salute and some lip service, but in socially and economically taking care of them for their services.

Ironically, it was also Jerry Lawler who sat by and watched as Vince McMahon mocked JR’s Bell’s Palsy on-air, and also made light of the heart attack of TNA’s Bruce Prichard. Perhaps after his recuperation that we hope is successful, he will take WWE’s anti-bullying campaign more seriously, while encouraging his bosses to, as well.