FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME
Howard, the strangest things
have happened lately when I
take a good swing at all...
My dreams, they pivot and spin.
I drop my fists and their back laughing,
My intentions become not to lose what I've won.
Ambition has given way to desperation and I've
lost the fight from my eyes.
- Ben Folds Five, Boxing
Those who have been both regulars at the Wienerville message boards and particularly diligent of keeping track of who posts what may recognize me as a rather sporadic poster on said message boards. You may also recognize me as a guy who posted something (which I haven't the heart to reread) a couple weeks back while really (REALLY) drunk, thereby making a total ass of himself. Finally, you may recognize me as someone who has traditionally stood up for HHH. Even if you have no idea who I am, you'll probably recognize the arguments, as others have made similar ones:
"We don't know the truth about backstage politics."
"He's much better as a heel."
"It's not his fault the booking's been lousy."
"He was really good in 2000!"
Etcetera. After the rather dismal ending to RAW on Monday I pretty much decided to stay the hell away from the internet scene for a couple days so as to avoid working myself into another frenzy defending the man from the verbal blows his performance had opened itself up to. But mostly I was simply annoyed. Here he was, my Personal Wrestling Hero, back as a heel, back as he should be, working with his best friend and one of the all time greats and THIS is the performance he gives? Ugh. But the clincher came on Smackdown!.
Hulk Hogan. Flubbing (slightly) a line while self-deferentially mocking his own age. And obviously having a blast. Hulk Hogan. Squaring off against Brock Lesnar (another man I've long considered unjustly put down by the scene). Moving like the senior citizen he is, throwing awkward fakey punches while the crowd cheers and the mighty Lesnar staggers like he had just been shot. Hulk Hogan. A man who, even in his prime, I was never that huge a fan of (I was a die-hard Warrior mark as a kid) actually entertaining me. Hollywood Hulk Hogan, deserved net pariah, reminding me of another net pariah who, once upon a time, transformed me from "casual fan who flips between RAW and Nitro when he has little better to do on a Monday night" to "obsessive WWF junkie who never misses a show". Coincidentally, these two men share the same initials. And they have shared yet another quality, one that was ultimately responsible for where they are today:
It's all you need. Screw booking. Screw pushes and workrate and charisma and politics. That one guy in that really famous band who had that song everyone quotes when talking about love was right all along. What was that song? "Love is All That is Really Necessary", or something like that.
Some folks call him the Canadian Crippler. Some the Rabid Wolverine. Some particularly diehard smarks refer to him simply as God. Chris Benoit. Why is he so good?
"Well, I mean damn did you see his tiger suplex? The man was trained in the Hart Dungeon and is simply the crispest worker in the..."
Chris Benoit is so good because, more than perhaps anyone in the WWE, he loves the actual act of wrestling in a match. Even if he is playing a heel, you can sense the sheer joy he gets out of performing by the energy he puts into his performance. Watching Benoit in the ring is watching a man do what he firmly feels God or Fate or Deterministic Causality put him on Earth to do. Why is Chris Benoit so good?
Steve Austin. These days perhaps the most controversial name in wrestling. In fact he's rather been a point of division for as long as I've been online to read about the divisiveness. To some he's the best (or one of the best) ever. He can brawl or mat wrestle with equal talent. He's a master on the mic and crafted the most distincitve and lasting character of his era, if not of all time. To others he's a washed up has been who was good before the spinal injury but has, moments of occasional brilliance aside, been a worthless catchphrase spewing garbage wrestler on top only because of his hip antihero attitude and Vince Russo's shock booking. To me he's the guy who ultimately decided he'd rather not work than work under conditions he didn't like.
Now don't get me wrong: It is not my intention in this column to analyze the morality of his actions. But if you were doing what you truly loved to do wouldn't you continue to do it, even if you were no longer the number one man in your field? Even if the field itself wasn't perhaps quite what it used to be? Watching Austin, even before his last crisis was like watching a Greek Tragedy unfold on stage. You could sense it, just under the surface, bubbling forth in wonderful expression in an interview, in a match, in a performance. You could palapbly feel it the first time he faced Benoit on RAW. He simply exuded it during most of his last run as a heel.
But for Austin, it was ultimately a fleeting thing. Perhaps the pain of his injuries was too great. Perhaps the marketing and the bullshit and the politics required to remain on top got him down. Perhaps he was simply moody by nature. But whatever the case, the love wasn't constant, the way it was for Benoit or Flair. It was conditional. And when it wasn't there, you could feel that, too. The pointless brawls where he stunnered everyone in the ring for lack of anything better to do. The repetetive "What?" laced interviews that drove everyone but the live crowd to rampant annoyance. There were times when the man, talented as he was, was blatantly going through the motions. It wasn't the injuries or old age, it was simply a lack of.... you guessed it:
The immortal. The icon. The orange goblin. Hollywood Hulk Hogan. If you didn't love him as a kid, you at least liked him as a kid (or else you weren't a kid in the 1980s). For a time he was on top of the world, selling out arenas, and generally having the time of his life. Fans latched onto him in a way they hadn't done to anyone before (and possibly haven't since). If my father and his friends were any indication, even older fans took to him, even if they acknowledged after the show was over that the whole thing was "goofy" and "fake". Some people insist that any large, blond, reasonably charismatic male could have filled Hogan's shoes and gotten the same reaction; that his success was due entirely to luck, timing, and VKM's clever marketing. But, if that was the case, what explains his roaring success in the AWA?
Simple. Hogan loved the crowd. He loved the cheers. He loved the posing and the ear cups and the hulk ups and, for a time, he put his heart into his (admittedly one-note) performance, and the audience responded in return put their hearts into him. But then the fans grew restless and Hogan made a big mistake. He assumed that what he loved was the fame or the money or simply being on top. He assumed he loved being a big shot. He assumed he loved his spot.
And so came the pointless half-assed repetition of what came before. And so came the awful movies, worse TV shows, and the outrageous contract demands. And so came the heel turn and so came the lame attempts to hip up his act. And so came Orange Goblin. Watching Hogan in the WCW (which I admittedly didn't do very much) was awful. In addition to his physical deterioration there was a palpable sense of "whatver" to his performances. The top spot was his by right of name and he felt little need or desire to justify his position there. If he even bothered to wrestle on any given night, it was an irksome gesture granted to the people who still popped a meagre-enough rating to convince Bischoff he was worth the money. And so came Vince Russo and you know the rest.
And so, miraculously, came Vince Mcmahon. From that first interview with the Rock hyping their Wrestlemania match (before the embarassing "semi incident), there was something different about our friend Hogan. He hadn't visibly altered or advanced his character. He didn't say or do anything he hadn't done before. But there was an energy that had been missing in the WCW. The crowd was partly to blame for that but, I still rather vividly remember the moment Hogan tore off his NWO shirt (revealing his hideous old-man physique) and uttered his "watcha gonna do" line. Despite the sheer ludicrousness of the situation and what followed I had, for a moment at least, bought in.
I attributed it, at the time, to the novelty of the matchup. As Hogan grew turned face and blew the roof off of arena after arena with his cheesy act, I attributed to stupid nostalgic marks. But watching Smackdown I finally noticed what was so different between this Hogan and the one we knew and... well, knew, from the old WCW days. He was having fun. He had, if you'll pardon the cliche, fallen in love all over again.
Hunter Hearst Helmsely. I, along with 99% of wrestling fandom mark and smark alike, watched with a combination of awe and disbelief as a mediocre worker who could only draw heat through androgynous valets and dick jokes suddenly came into his own as the most complete performer on the active roster. As if by magic, he managed to mix his old "degenerate rebel" face character with his new "angry guy with a sledgehammer" heel character into a complete package who the fans at once despised for his attitude and admired for his success. Not only did he have great matches with great performers, he had great matches with good performers and good matches with mediocre performers and somehow managed to be at once dominant and vulnerable. It made absolutely no sense to anyone.
Except me. I remember watching HHH in those days and the thing that always stuck in my mind was how much fun he seemed to be having. Playing an unmitigated bastard in and out of the ring, bantering with the Rock, giving intense if longish speeches about his limitless in ring skill, playing off the McMahon family like he had been raised amongst them. I remember figuring I could be half as happy as HHH (both character and performer) seemed in those days, I'd be thoroughly satisfied with my lot in life. The character HHH loved power and success, and had as much as he could ever desire. The man HHH loved the character, and played him perfectly..
It's hard to mark the exact point when things changed, in part because I simply refused to acknowledge that change. When he re-turned heel during the "Who ran over Austin?" angle, things had definitely changed. Gone was the "dickish second best who tenuously held the title thanks to his connections and manipulation while lording it over everyone" in his place was a "supervillain with muscles" type character. Sort of a Lex Luthor meets Lex Lugor. He was still good. He still had intense matches and he still gave powerful (if longish) interviews, but he didn't seem to be having as much fun as he did once upon a time. By the time the Austin feud ended and the Two Man Power Trip began, the character had been crushed by its own self-importance. HHH thinks he loves being the best, thinks he loves the fame, or calling himself a "superstar". But he's wrong.
RAW was the clincher. The early 2000 HHH would have found some way to make that interview entertaining. He would have mocked Shawn for trusting him or for never quite achieving HHH's current success. The late 2000 HHH would have infused his speech with enough energy and intensity to make you forget about its cheese value. The 2002 HHH just goes through the motions, delivering the same rote speech he mastered during his glory days without any real conviction. He's not into his performance, he doesn't love it, he simply (and shortsightedly) sees a feud with Shawn Micheals as an easy way to flag the waning interest in his character.
So is that it? Is one great year all he had for us? Perhaps. Or perhaps, like Hogan, he'll realize what it is that drew him to the ring in the first place. What it was that transformed a marginally talented performer into the best in the business.
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