|Our 3rd Anniversary||
MY THIRD ANNIVERSARY COLUMN
Welcome to the third annual Slashwrestling anniversary party!
I hope that no one minds if I hog the mike for a second, as I have a few toasts to make.
First, I would like to toast DrOp, the Rob Schneider to my Adam Sandler.
Second, a tip of the elbow to Shocker, and he will know why, "BAAA..."
Third, a pop of the cork to Shaddax, the man who led me from the EZ Board to the guest column.
Fourth, I would like to raise the wrist to the gold standard for wrestling recapping, CRZ.
I would not recap at all, were it not for his example. If any recapper, anywhere, seems to see farther, it is only because they are a pygmy standing on the shoulder of the one true giant of the wrestling internet. I, very carefully, pick shows to recap that CRZ will, NEVER, EVER see on his own, because competing with CRZ in recapping would be like taking batting practice with the late, great Ted Williams, educational, but humiliating.
Finally, I would like to tilt my glass to the host of the oldest established permanent floating wrestling board on the Internet. I can think of no greater compliment than to say that CRZ is the consummate host. Like any great host, he takes care that his guests are entertained and entertaining, but he also takes care that his guests are not so entertaining that they ruin the party. Oh, sure, your friends think that it is hilarious when you throw a Pikachu lamp shade on your head, and dance on the table, but it is slightly disconcerting for the other guests, especially the one who got the punch bowl kicked into his lap. I'm sure that the stains will come out, by the way, pieman. To his credit, even when forced to SHOUT, CRZ always maintains a steady grip on his sense of humour, although, really, he wouldn't have to yell at me so LOUD or so often if these lamp shades were a little less thick, just look at this thing, why I can't even punch through the side... Oops! Don't know my own strength, I guess. Moving on, Lady, Lady, Lady, Lady, Lady, and Gentlemen, and the rest of you, I give you our host: CRZ!
And as long, as I have the mike, there is this column that I have been threatening to write for a long time now. A column that, to a certain extent, is the column that I have meaning to write even before my very first guest column. A column about Kurt Angle. From the very moment that I started posting on the ez board, I have been bothered by the fact that Kurt Angle is a heel. Here we have a legitimate Olympic Gold medalist, a national hero, an all around nice guy, the best natural ol' skool baby face since Rocky Maivia, and, arguably, a man on his way to becoming the best damn wrestler on the planet, oh it's true, it's damn true, and you people freaking boo him! You would rather cheer for a drunken sot like Stone Cold, or an arrogant prick like RVD, or a bad-ass fother-mucker like The Game, than cheer for a real hero!
Now, the facile, knee-jerk reaction would be to bemoan the decay of our
And I freely admit that it was my initial reaction, but I have come to believe that there is a deeper phenomenon at work here, and that the explanation, as to why wrestling fans would rather boo Kurt Angle than cheer for him, has its roots in the history of the WWWF.
So join me, Llakor, your Guardian of Useless Knowledge, won't you, as I use the time travel ability of this very board, to go back one, two, three, nine years into the past, and beyond, to return to a time when Kurt Angle was a baby(face), a time when the letter getting the 'F' out was the 'W', a time when Shocker was only 50% Guapo, a time, in short, When We Were Marks.
WHEN WE WERE MARKS
The Sheep Look Up
It may seem less than relevant now, but when Kurt Angle turned back heel last fall and joined the Alliance, there was considerable fear in the internet wrestling community as to whether Kurt would be able to give a convincing reason for the switch, in what was declared "his most important promo EVER!!" The internet wrestling community tends to panic when Kurt is handed the mike, as though the thought of Kurt being good at the mike, as well as good on the mat, might be too much to hope for. It could be argued, in any case, that since Kurt joined the Alliance as a double agent, that his promo explaining the defection did not have to be convincing since he was lying about joining the Alliance.
For my part, I thought that it was a shame that Kurt Angle couldn't simply tell the truth, and announce that he was turning heel because the fans were cheering harder for RVD. The crux of the question though is this: WHY were the fans cheering for RVD more?
After all, with September 11th still fresh in people's minds, was this not the perfect time to cheer for a patriotic hero, a wrestler who had always draped himself in the American flag? Not to mention an Olympic gold medal winner, a Euro-Continental champion, King of the Ring winner, a two-time World Wrestling Heavyweight Champion, and the best damn wrestler in the whole wide world? Compare this to RVD, a dope smoking, arrogant heel member of the hated Alliance, who not incidentally STILL punches like a girl. The question should rightly be, not only why was the crowd cheering for RVD more than Angle, but why wasn't the crowd lifting Angle onto their collective shoulders after each and every show?
The usual consensus seems to be that Angle's face run failed because he was too much of a geek. But are we not living in the age of the geek? Aren't the schoolyards of North America filled with clones of Bill Gates and Harry Potter? And instead of being pounded into mush, as they were back in the day, are not these miniature geeks lauded and praised to the heavens? Don't women throw themselves into a frenzy for one touch of these nerd's pocket protectors? Don't bullies, thugs and Neanderthals flock to do their bidding rather than stomp them into grape jelly? In this brave new world shouldn't a geek like Kurt Angle be our leader, our champion, our role model? Well, of course he should, but why wasn't he?
I believe that the Kurt Angle face run failed precisely because of September 11th. I believe that the trauma of that event left people looking for the familiar, clinging to things from the past that brought them comfort. The fans of the WWF longed for Stone Cold Steve Austin, but he was evil; they craved Shawn Michaels, but he was broken; they dreamed of Hulk Hogan, but he was lost to them. Looking for an acceptable substitute, they looked at Kurt Angle and they did not see Austin, Michaels, Hogan, instead they saw Bret Hart, Bob Backlund, Lou Thesz. But Hart, Backlund and Thesz was not what they craved. The man who reminded them of Austin, who jogged their memory of Michaels, who inspired them to remember Hogan, was... RVD.
But how did RVD remind the fans of Austin, Michaels, Hogan? Why did Angle remind the fans of Hart, Backlund, Thesz? And, most importantly, why would the fans choose the legacy of Stone Cold, HBK, and the red and yellow, over the tradition of the Hitman, the Archimedes of Wresting, and the Hooker? To answer that question, I will have to explain a little something about the foundation of the (W)WWF and its' original sin.
The origins of the (W)WWF are shrouded in lies and myths, but one version of the story runs something like this: In late 1962, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers was the NWA champion, and very much a champion on the run. Challenger after challenger were taking Rogers to the limit, and he was holding on to his belt only through the grace of God, the benefits of a time-limit draw, and a lot of cheating. The most dangerous of his challengers seemed to be Bruno Sammartino, who was chasing Rogers all over the North East. Bruno wrestled mainly out of Toronto, but he was being groomed for Madison Square Gardens and the New York Territory. Then, out of nowhere, on January 24th, 1963, in Toronto, Lou Thesz beat Rogers, and the New York territory threw a hissy fit. First, they charged that the belt should not change hands because Thesz had won in only one fall. Thesz promptly beat Rogers in a two out of three falls match, in Montreal. The New York territory then charged that Thesz, a five-time world champion, didn't deserve a title shot, in part because he had just recently lost a non-title match to Dory Funk Sr. in Texas. (As if anyone could beat a Funk in Texas in a non-title bout.) Eventually, the New York territory pulled out of the NWA and called itself the World Wide Wrestling Federation, recognizing Nature Boy Buddy Rogers as its first champion, claiming that Rogers had won a tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil beating Antonino Rocca in the final. Leaving aside the ridiculous notions that a New York promotion would go to South America to crown a new champion, or that the Argentinean Antonino Rocca could lose a match anywhere in South America, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers was the champion. He was readying himself for a match against Bruno Sammartino, in Toronto, when he suffered a mild heart attack. Sammartino beat him in under a minute and the Toronto crowd went nuts, but Bruno declined the belt, declaring that he didn't want to win the belt that way. A few weeks later, May 17th, 1963, to be exact, with Rogers recovered, they faced off again at Madison Square Gardens, and Sammartino squashed Rogers, again, in less than a minute. The (W)WWF had its standard-bearer, a man who would proudly wear the title belt for an astonishing eleven out of the next fifteen years. But the (W)WWF also had a problem...
By leaving the NWA, the (W)WWF had cut itself off from the greatest pool of skilled wrestlers in the world, a supply already diminished by the competition of Verne Gagne's AWA. It did not help that in the process of the break, Lou Thesz had been referred to as "not good enough for the Garden", which was not only a lie, but a profound professional insult to Thesz and any of his fellow mat technicians. More importantly, by declaring that Lou Thesz was not good enough for the Garden, the (W)WWF was implicitly stating that no technical wrestler was good enough for the Garden. In the process, the (W)WWF turned its back on wrestling's oldest and most venerable archetype: the shooter, the hooker, the technician, the professional, the iceman, the man of a thousand holds, the Man of Skill.
The (W)WWF instead put its faith in two other archetypes, represented on one hand by Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, and on the other by Bruno Sammartino. Rogers was the showboat, the narcissist, the performer, the Man of Ego. Sammartino was the champion, the biggest fight in the dog, the man with more guts than brains, the Man of Heart.
And Sammartino became the (W)WWF Champion during what seemed like a golden age for champions, for Men of Heart: Pedro Morales, Ivan Koloff, Stan Stasiak, Antonino Rocca, the Flying Kangaroos, Killer Kowalski, the list goes on and on. Not all of these men fought on the side of good, or at least what the fans of the (W)WWF considered good, but all of them believed in their own cause.
I am not suggesting that Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales were the same wrestler or the same man by saying that they were both Men of Heart, merely that both were platonic reflections of the idealized wrestler, the perfect champion, and that they were both proud inheritors of a wrestling tradition dating back to the Russian Lion, George Hackenschmidt, and back further to the original Olympics, and even further back to the wrestling King of Sumeria, Gilgamesh. Just as Rogers follows in the tradition of the original Man of Ego, Gorgeous George, and Thesz followed in the tradition of the great Men of Skill like Strangler Lewis and Frank Gotch.
Now the dilemma with Men of Heart is that you have to keep finding mountains for them to climb, obstacles for them to overcome. That, and turning them heel is extraordinarily difficult, because you have to have a very good reason for them to turn for the audience and the wrestler to buy it. Only a Man of Heart would worry about his fans' reaction to him turning heel. So, it was an astonishing accomplishment on every level for Bruno Sammartino to hold the (W)WWF championship for eleven out of fifteen years before dropping it to Superstar Billy Graham.
Superstar Billy Graham was a Man of Ego, but one of a different kind. Graham was an egotist, but he looked like a champion. Both Graham and his spiritual brother, Jesse the Body Ventura could beat you with their strength or their skill, but both chose not to, or as Jesse put it, "Win if you can, Lose if you must, But ALWAYS cheat!" Both men paved the way for another man who would look like a champion, but would be the consummate man of ego.
The man who beat Graham, and, except for a brief swap with Antonio Inoki, held the title for nearly six years, was the last man that anyone would have expected to succeed in the (W)WWF, former NCAA wrestler, Bob Backlund. In the same way that Graham was a Man of Ego who looked like a champion, Backlund was a Man of Skill who looked like something completely different. Bob Backlund didn't even look like a wrestler, he looked like your shop teacher from school, or Opie Cunningham grown up. Backlund's motto was that "any move can be countered, any hold can be broken." Like Archimedes, Backlund declared, "Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth," making of his own body, his lever, and of the wrestling ring, his fulcrum. But then, on December 26th, 1983, in Madison Square Gardens, the unthinkable happened as the Iron Sheik clapped on the camel clutch, and Backlund did not break free of the hold. To be fair, Backlund's manager, Arnold Skaaland, threw in the towel, so we will never really know if Backlund could have broken the hold or not.
Worse than not breaking the hold, and losing the title, was whom Bob Backlund lost the title to: the Iron Sheik, who immediately announced that he was going to return to his home in Iran taking the title with him. In other words, the Iron Sheik was proposing to hold hostage the title. Like Jimmy Carter before him, Bob Backlund had let down his country, and allowed an Iranian to hold the country hostage. Bob Backlund dropped out of sight soon after that, staying only long enough to watch his tag-team partner win back the title.
When Backlund reemerged nearly ten years later, he was a changed and embittered man. He campaigned for his version of traditional values leading some to question his sanity. "You must have studied," says Vizzini in The Princess Bride, "and in studying, you must have learned that man is mortal." Herein, lies the traditional Yankee suspicion of the man of learning. Men of Skill learn strange things, and in so doing they become strange. All that reading can't be good for you. Instead of a man who has tasted of failure, give us as a champion, a man, who can't even spell failure. Instead of a man who can admit to lusting after other women, give us a man who can say with a straight face that he has never strayed from his wife, even if she is his second wife. Instead of a man who knows the road is difficult and treacherous, give us a man who can reassure us that everything is going to be all right if we keep on trucking. Instead of a man who knows what he is doing, give us a man who is good at pretending that he knows what he is doing. Or as Christopher Buckley put it, "His predecessor... would have happily stayed up for an all-night bull session debating the nature of evil, quoting Shopenhauer and Niebuhr until the birds started chirping. Is such complexity of mind an asset or a liability?"
The one thing that you could not accuse Bob Backlundıs tag team partner, Hulk Hogan of, was complexity of mind. What he was, was the consummate performer playing the part of a lifetime, that of the great champion. He was the Man of Ego disguised as the Man of Heart. But the hints were there, if you knew where to look. Bruno Sammartino was the People's Champion, he belonged to us, but we were Hogan's Hulkamaniacs, we belonged to him. And never was being the fan of a wrestler so much like hard work. To beat the camel clutch of the Iron Sheik, we had to shout to give Hogan his power; to stand off Rowdy Roddy Power, we had to scream for Hogan to hulk up; to body slam Andre the Giant, we had to roar to give Hogan the strength. Being a Hulkamaniac was exhausting.
Being a Hulkamaniac was especially exhausting, because Hogan tended to face only one kind of opponent, the last of wrestling four great archetypes: the Man of Unusual Size, the Giant, the Goliath, the Monster, the Beast, the Man of Strength. Time and time again, monsters came to the WWF to lay waste to the jobbers, until they were built up enough as a threat to face Hogan. The problem with Men of Strength is that there are really only three kinds of story that you can tell with them: Bambi vs. Godzilla, David vs. Goliath, and Godzilla vs. Mothra. In other words, the monster can run roughshod over a smaller wrestler, the smaller wrestler can triumph over the monster, or two monsters can duke it out to see who is bigger and badder. This helps explain why putting the belt on Kevin Nash is always such a miserable failure. When the Man of Strength wins, it seems too easy, well of course he won, he's seven feet tall for freak's sake. Only so many people can pose a serious challenge for a Man of Strength, but these challenges tend to be one-off affairs. We are interested in Godzilla vs. Mothra exactly once, to determine which is better. Once Godzilla disposes of Mothra, our interest in a rematch evaporates. And even then, we are interested mainly for novelty reasons. When we were denied Vader vs. Vicious, we were disappointed, but not so much so that we clamored for the match-up loudly enough for it to actually happen. So, Men of Strength make good obstacles, but lousy champions. The other problem with Goliaths is that when they are laying waste to pretend-Davids, at some point as an audience, we insist that they face the genuine article, a real hero, a true David to vanquish the Goliath. But once the Goliath has been vanquished, he is never quite as scary ever again. Which is why King Kong Bundy went from main-eventing against Hulk Hogan, to wrestling midgets within a year.
When I say that Hogan was playing the part of the great champion, it should be said that he fooled almost all around him. During his heyday in the WWF, many talked about killing Hulkamania, but only one man ever had the guts to declare that Hulkamania was a fraud. Only one man recognized Hulk Hogan for what he was: a fraud, a charlatan, an ego-maniac. Of course, he recognized Hogan as a Man of Ego, because he too was a Man of Ego. When he looked at Hogan, he saw himself, only admired instead of mocked, loved instead of loathed, respected instead of reviled. Perhaps the best part of the Bash at the Beach, where Hogan finally turned heel, was the sound of triumph in the voice of Bobby the Brain Heenan, as he was finally vindicated.
The genius of Eric Bischoff's WCW, and its greatest weakness, was that they delivered the WWF storylines that we always wanted to see, but never did; they gave us a better WWF. The problem with that, is that by promising us a better WWF, they had to deliver, just as AVIS discovered to its horror, that after promising, "We try harder," their customers actually expected them to fulfill their promise, and really try harder. In business, you can either deliver a different product or a better product. Once WCW tossed away their uniqueness to deliver a better WWF than the WWF, they were committed to maintaining that excellence to maintain their supremacy. When the WWF got better, and the WCW got worse, WCW no longer had its uniqueness to fall back on and maintain their audience. Their bankruptcy was the inevitable consequence of that failing.
The first hint that the WWF might be turning itself around, and finally find a true replacement for Hogan came at WrestleMania X-3, during the Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin submission match. Bret Hart, of course, was one of the three main replacements for Hulk Hogan that Vince McMahon tried. The other two being Kevin Nash, and Shawn Michaels, the Heartbreak Kid. Shawn Michaels, the Man of Ego disguised as a male stripper, was actually a worthy replacement for Hogan, who had the misfortune of seeing his title reign fall smack in the middle of Hogan turning heel, a WWF storyline that fans had waited years to see. Bret Hart, on the other hand, was another Man of Skill, perhaps the greatest ever to ply his trade in the WWF, but he always seemed to get the title less because he had the confidence of the owner, and more because the owner had no choice. His first title reign was motivated by Ric Flair's departure from the WWF and return to WCW, his second title reign was brought about because Bret got bigger pops than Lex Luger, his third title reign brought the disastrous Kevin Nash experiment to an end, and his final WWF title reign was the result of Sean Michaels losing his smile.
At this point, some of you are no doubt rushing to your keyboards to protest that Bret Hart did too have an ego. Well, of course he did, no one is a perfect Platonic reflection of the ideal. But Bret's defining characteristic was his skill. Consider the difference between a Man of Skill with Ego like Bret Hart, and a Man of Ego with Skill like Mr. Perfect. What is an asset for one is a weakness for the other. In other words, you could beat Mr. Perfect's skill, but no one could surpass his ego. By contrast, if you engaged Bret's skill you were bound to lose, but if you could make the match a contest of egos, you could beat him.
Nowhere is that more perfectly demonstrated than in the Hart vs. Austin submission match at WrestleMania X-3, a match with two winners. Bret Hart's skill surpassed that of Stone Cold Steve Austin, but when Austin passed out rather than submitting, Austin proved that his will surpassed that of Bret Hart. This is what the crowd responded to, as they recognized a man with an ego big enough to properly replace Hulk Hogan. It seemed like Bret never really understood why the crowd turned on him that night. With no proper Man of Ego available, the WWF fans were perfectly content to cheer for a Man of Skill. But when given an alternative, the fickle fans jumped to cheer for Austin. After all, Skill can be defeated, circumvented, avoided, but Ego, Ego is eternal.
The great irony of Bret Hart's departure from the WWF is that after Vince McMahon drove away the man who was simultaneously the greatest WWF loyalist, and the greatest NWA wrestler of his era, Bret arrived in the WCW, only to find that they were no longer the NWA, and they could no longer find their way back to being the NWA. When the ultimate NWA wrestler arrived in the company built on the bones of the NWA, the WCW no longer knew what to do with an NWA wrestler.
The Man of Skill that Bret left behind in the WWF is the one who demonstrates the dangers of being an Ice Man. One of the characteristics of the Man of Skill is the tight control of their emotions. The benefit of this is turning your matches into scientific exercises where the proper use of force, torque and leverage guarantees you the win. The problem with it is when you hold your emotions down so tightly, that they bubble up and explode like a volcano. Like Spock under the thrall of Pon Farr, a Man of Skill like Ken Shamrock losing control of his emotions is a scary thing.
The other great problem with Men of Skill is their attitude towards women. Men of Skill tend to believe that women have no place in wrestling, especially if their only talent is to distract people. The two great exceptions to this are Chris Benoit and Woman, and Dean Malenko and Lita. But these are classic exceptions that prove the rule. Most wrestlers make their wives into valets to get them on TV, Chris Benoit married his valet to get her off TV. As for Dean Malenko, when he engaged Lita's skill, he always beat her, but when he treated her like a sexual object, she always beat him. In other words, when a Man of Skill controls his emotions, he can not help but win, but when he loses control of them, he can but lose.
These are dark days for the believers in the Men of Skill. Dean Malenko is retired, Bret Hart is recovering from a stroke, Lou Thesz is dead. We find ourselves in the age of Attitude, the age of Ego, and Kurt Angle, the Man of Skill, finds himself compared to the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the Rock, Triple H, RVD, and found wanting. It should not be surprising that the WWF fans responded to RVDıs male stripper looks, like Shawn Michaels, his cocky arrogance, like Stone Cold Steve Austin, and his total inability to be fazed by any threat large or small, like Hulk Hogan. I would like to say that I do not blame the WWF fans for failing to recognize the greatness of Kurt Angle. But I do blame them, I blame them deeply, and with malice aforethought.
I know that, to a certain extent, I am preaching to the choir here, but please, when THEY tell you that Lou Thesz was not good enough for the Garden; when THEY write that Bob Backlund let America down when he could not break the Iron Sheik's Camel Clutch; when THEY whisper that all that learning turned Backlund and Hart bitter and strange; when THEY say that Shamrock and Benoit are wound too tight; when THEY broadcast that Bret turned against his fans; when THEY proclaim that Bret screwed Bret; when THEY chant that Angle sucks; when THEY mutter that Angle can't be trusted, I beg you, I implore you... CONSIDER THE SOURCE!
As for me, my heroes have always been Scientific, AND In Angle I Trust.
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
Happy Third Anniversary Everybody!
Llakor, that Lousy Canuck