Tag Archives: WWF

Survival of the Fittest: Ultimate Warrior and Hate Speech

12 Apr

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“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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Was Raw 1000 WWE’s Death Knell?

26 Jul

When offering any criticism, it’s always important to try to remain constructive. And naturally, it has to be tempered with positivity. But after the much-hyped 1000th episode of Raw this past Monday, that’s very difficult.

Nonetheless, let me deal with the inarguable positive aspects first: this episode was promoted with great momentum, it garnered around a 4.0 rating on the USA Network, and it involved many legends including D-Generation X, The Rock, The Undertaker, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Mick Foley, Lita, Bret Hart, and of course the McMahons themselves. AJ Lee even became “General Manager” of Raw. Those are all positives.

The fact is, like a big box office blockbuster movie whose trailers were fantastic and mobilised millions of viewers who were, in fact, disappointed, Raw was all about the hype; Vince McMahon’s attempt to blow his wad in one night. Ratings of 4.0 are great, if they’re frequent, as they were in the “Attitude” era. How did McMahon use the star power on this historic and crucial night to capture that audience long-term?

After Vince rightly opened the show himself, before introducing D-Generation X (both version two, and version one minus Chyna, for obvious reasons), DX delivered a series of “jokes” that were reminiscent of the embarrassing Hollywood Hogan attempts to seem young and hip while leading the New World Order with the other ex-WWF stars who were past their prime. Thankfully, they were interrupted by Damien Sandow, but as soon as he emerged, it’s a sad fact that my instinct was to sigh at the impending and inevitable burial of an up-and-coming talent. I wasn’t surprised, or given the infamous Vince swerve this time, when it was most needed: DX got together and beat him up. Now, some call that the “rub,” but without a performer being presented as competitive, he’s only remembered for being the wrestler who got owned by predominantly retired DX members. Is that so great?

The Rock branded Daniel Bryan – better than Rocky ever was, even at the height of his career – an “oompa-loompa” because Rock happened to tower over him in ways WWE Champion CM Punk hasn’t, solidifying Bryan’s position as a source of humour and steering his character in that direction of ridicule, rather than a serious course. Rock then unilaterally announced that he gets a WWE Championship shot in the New Year, at the Royal Rumble, after competing in and winning just one single match in 2012. This reinforces the public image of Rock being head and shoulders above any other major star or contender in the company, regardless of how many matches they win. He gets the shot, no matter what. As Rock himself might say, “it doesn’t matter” if other wrestlers win a plethora of matches between now and the Royal Rumble; he leapfrogs them just by virtue of being The Great One.

Recovering from his DX-related comedy of errors, Triple H demanded a response from Brock Lesnar via Paul Heyman, who barely mentioned Triple H’s family at all when Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley Levesque came storming to the ring to show off her streamlined figure and add to her desired humiliation of Heyman, after his fallout with her and the company in 2006 that led to him being fired and blamed for WWE’s failed December to Dismember Pay-Per-View show – where both Paul Heyman and Paul “Big Show” Wight suggested Show put over rising star CM Punk, an idea which the McMahons at that time nixed.

Calling him a failure, Steph got to offer us yet another attempt at catharses for the infamous McMahon insecurity by trying to bury a former rival promoter. Heyman even rejected Triple H’s request of a SummerSlam match with Brock Lesnar, despite the fact we all knew it was inevitable and simply drawn out to limit the use of Lesnar’s valuable agreed dates in his lucrative WWE contract.

Instead of Brock emerging from the crowd to reveal a set-up and attacking Triple H, he only ran out when Heyman was forced to sell anger at Steph and Hunter – for merely adding to their long list of attempted burials of Heyman and his Attitude-inspiring ECW legacy, to an extent where we were expected to be led to believe that Heyman would reverse Brock’s decision and agree to the match.

It was all very messy, a real stretch, and in addition to Steph verbally and even physically assaulting Heyman, Triple H sent Lesnar from the ring and retreating up the aisle. This was all about the corporate couple; Heyman and Lesnar were humiliated, and now Brock absolutely must win his SummerSlam match to recover from this on top of his loss to John Cena in April at the Extreme Rules Pay-Per-View (the title of which of course wasn’t anything to do with Heyman’s impact on the business, either).

Both Lita and the Undertaker (in conjunction with Kane) were brought in to decimate and humiliate jobbers, cementing these unfortunates’ second-rate status for weeks and months to come. In the case of Heath Slater, the argument will be that the exposure is good for his career, the same argument voiced about Nattie Neidhart’s flatulence gimmick – and we know how high-profile she is these days as a result of that; one of the best women’s wrestlers in the world is barely on television. Mick Foley, meanwhile, under the watch of Triple H, didn’t appear as Cactus Jack, or even Mankind, but instead Dude Love – dancing with the former Snoop Dogg bodyguard, beyond-a-joke Brodus Clay – which probably did more harm to Foley’s career than it helped Clay’s.

The CM Punk heel turn was fine if not a summer shocker of the impact we’d expected, but the fresh Rock’s selling of Punk’s single flying clothesline as though he had been attacked by riot police and zapped with a tazer gun was more detrimental to our suspension of disbelief than helpful in putting Punk over. It was one of the most absurd examples of oversell I’d ever seen, even from Rocky, whose notorious comedy selling of the Stone Cold Stunner was legendary.

But again, we have to try and find positives. Try as we might, there are few to be found here.

What talent was elevated as a result of all this? Of course this was a nostalgia show; a retrospective look at the legacy of Monday Night Raw from its inception in 1993. That’s great; that’s fine. But when the one-off appearances by old part-timers portrays them as overwhelmingly superior to the regulars, what will viewers think when they tune in again, for three hours of those full-time stars who were humiliated on this show? All this does is encourages audiences to believe that the only things worth tuning in for are the stars of yesteryear, as though the current crop is inferior talent by miles.

It didn’t have to be that way. WWE could have carefully and cleverly utilised the legends to elevate some stars literally overnight. Imagine a partnership or even a competitive back-and-forth – physically or verbally – between the likes of Trish Stratus and Beth Phoenix, Rocky and Bryan, Undertaker and Ziggler, Lita and AJ, Foley and Ryder, New Age Outlaws and Prime Time Players, Piper and McGillicutty, X-Pac and Sandow? Nobody would have been hurt by any of this, even if the established untouchable legends came off worse. Seeing the hungry lions again next week for three hours, viewers would be more inclined to accept them as superior, credible superstars worthy of investing with emotion, time and money.

Speaking of money, the whole commercial dominance of WWE over the once-diverse industry has not only made McMahon complacent and less inclined to take the gambles he took on Rock, Steve Austin and others, and the product itself, fifteen years ago: It has reduced the brand to a pseudo-PG programme that serves as merely an advertisement for their products that range from Wrestling Brawling Buddies, to the latest “cool” social media venture, to even John Cena’s kiddie merchandise that serves as his only purpose and perpetual push.

Seeing Michael Cole – whose weaknesses are only exploited more when he has to follow Jim Ross on commentary – actually playing with the Brawling Buddies dolls alongside Jerry “The King” Lawler, was so cringe-inducing that Gorilla Monsoon ands Bobby “The Brain” Heenan debating on Prime Time Wrestling surrounded by WWF action figures seems perfectly tasteful in retrospect. But this is what pro wrestling’s giant has become.

From Triple H and Stephanie’s dominance, to the fawning worship of Hollywood’s Rock, to product placement, “Raw 1000” exemplified everything that is wrong with today’s WWE: the McMahons, more complacent than ever in the absence of any competition, find themselves floating their corporate empire on the stock exchange, re-writing the history books, running for Senate seats to gain tax breaks and boost profits for shareholders, and donating thousands to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign while Republicans everywhere blame WWE for the moral decay of modern America. It’s a company that is quagmired, utterly stuck in its ways, refusing to change, and content with its corporate profit.

This is McMahon’s world now: money-hungry, conservative, and safe. We may dream of the passing of the torch and a legitimate boom to give Attitude a run for its money, we may hope for cutting-edge counterculture, we may long for CM Punk and Daniel Bryan to be revered, and joined by Richie Steamboat, Seth Rollins, Bray Wyatt, and the inevitable future of the industry, Dean Ambrose. But all the McMahons care about is assuaging their collective insecurities, keeping the shareholders happy, and wooing Hollywood at the same time as paradoxically pursuing GOP success in order to bend the laws to benefit their aims of “independent contractor” exploitation and pension plan, health care, and tax avoidance. They won it all, but the McMahon psyche still believes the world owes them something. That’s a lot of insecurity that you or I could never comprehend.

What WWE needs is a kick in the ass. But Ted Turner’s long gone from the picture, and TNA have already been lapped in the race. It’s doubtful Triple H will stray from the path at this point, and he couldn’t anyway while Linda McMahon remains in the public eye. One day, though, he may have to. WWE can only live off its own scratch logo value for so much longer. They may have got the F out, but they have yet to wake the F up.

Passing the Torch

9 May

How things change in 25 years.

In 1987, with kayfabe still going strong, the WWF’s on-screen enemies Hacksaw Jim Duggan, an American working class hero, and the Iron Sheik, an Iranian, were traveling together by car when they were stopped by a police officer who found that they were in possession of marijuana and cocaine. They were promptly fired by an unamused Vince McMahon – in an era of rampant drug abuse, his decision had less to do with the arrest and more to do with the publicity around it, proving that the two were, in fact, friends.

A couple of years later, McMahon changed his approach completely, to the point of making the legal declaration that his product was scripted and matches were predetermined – all in an effort to avoid sports regulations. He then brought back Hacksaw Jim Duggan (and, later, the Sheik – as “Iraqi” Colonel Mustafa), after the Glens Falls native had been told to lie low and wait instead of defecting to WCW – just as Daniel Bryan was told in 2010 to wait it out until his Nexus “tie choke” controversy blew over.

But in a recent interview with Wade Keller of the Pro Wrestling Torch, “Hacksaw” claimed the incident stained his career, and as a result he wasn’t given a title run with the Intercontinental, Tag Team, or World championships, he suggests.

Now, even in his 1980s prime, Jim Duggan was a loveable but mediocre brawler famous for his three-point stance charge, “USA!” chants, and cheap pops by carrying “Old Glory” to the ring. The notion that he would have been given a World title run is absurd, even at a time when Vince (understandably) slapped his top belt on a the super-over muscle-bound meat-head, the Ultimate Warrior. The Intercontinental belt seems almost as far-fetched for “Hacksaw,” considering that although, again, the Ultimate Warrior was awarded the strap as prop to keep him over with the fans, that title was normally reserved for technically sound athletes like Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Ravishing Rick Rude, Mr Perfect, Kerry Von Erich, Bret “Hit Man” Hart, and Shawn Michaels.

But that’s not the most important part of the story – just a mere indication of how the otherwise eternally likeable “Hacksaw” has adopted a loose grip on pro wrestling reality.

His eventual switch to WCW coincided with the expiry of his WWF stock after 1993, when Hulk Hogan arrived in Atlanta as WCW’s supposed saviour. Hogan’s penchant for getting all his friends hired – whether best for business or not – was never so evident as in his WCW run, with incoming washed-up WWF rejects such as the Nasty Boys, Honky Tonk Man, Brutus Beefcake, and even Hollywood’s Tom “Tiny” Lister, who co-starred with the Hulkster in the highly suspect big screen project No Holds Barred, which actually seems passable when compared to the motion picture stinkbombs McMahon finances today. Sure enough, Hogan’s flag-waving buddy Jim Duggan joined the ranks as well.

By now in his forties, “Hacksaw” was booked to defeat an immensely talented up-and-coming star by the name of “Stunning” Steve Austin, who exuded charisma, technical wrestling ability, and a “Stun Gun” finishing move on top of an incredible repertoire. He was also ten years Duggan’s junior – approaching the peak of his career.

In a company as corrupt as WCW, which – much like today’s TNA – served only to protect Hulk Hogan’s value and justify his extortionate price tag while employing his sub-par allies , Austin can perhaps be forgiven for rebelling against the system of Eric Bischoff, who’s suffered nothing but failure in almost all of his projects since the demise of the Turner-bankrolled WCW that he structured to revolve around Hogan’s overloaded, overpriced and unsustainable nWo faction.

A disgruntled Austin was fired after a questionable knee injury, and Duggan told PWTorch:

“There was a change in wrestlers’ attitudes then…it wasn’t about passing the torch and what can you do for the company; it was more of a ‘me’ type of time.”

Passing the torch? That’s a laughable statement, not least since time has told and history has judged just how badly Austin was being held back in WCW, whether Bischoff lacked foresight or not – having only ever created one genuine star in Goldberg (arguably a character itself inspired by Austin).

Duggan’s right about one thing, though: it was all about “me, me, me” in WCW in 1994 – which is exactly why, as Hogan’s friend, he was even employed by the company at all. Passing the torch, however, is exactly what should have been done – by him. The suggestion that a young, hungry, gifted wrestler like Austin should have put over a washed-up has-been like Duggan is even more offensive than his kayfabe-busting arrest for drug possession – and was potentially even worse for the industry long-term.

Unfortunately, today’s TNA – and, to a lesser extent, WWE – have not learned from this. Perhaps those in their corridors of power actually nod their heads in understanding of the words of good ol’ “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan.