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Phil Jenkins




Making stars in the Wrestling world is a difficult gift to master. It's one that takes time, creativity, knowledge, and luck. Some wrestlers are born to be stars. They have the look, the size, the obvious marketability. These are the Hogans, the Andre the Giants, the Undertakers. Guys who like phenoms - freaks of nature. Guys who were distinguished by their unique physical appearance, furthering that advantage with an untangible charisma.

Vince Mc Mahon, a man with a noted gift for turning the sands of potential into the gold of glory, took the potential of Hulk Hogan, marketed a superstar, and helped spearhead the first WWF boom of the eighties. It's a boom that didn't lose momentum until outside forces interfered. The fairy-tale of Hulkamania was built upon a mountain of lies, drugs, and sleaze. The ugliness lay under the exterior, far removed from the innocent eyes of the cheering Hulkamaniacs. When the damage had been done, when the rats had ratted, Hulk Hogan and Vince Mc Mahon parted ways. The dream was over. In the WWF, at least, Hulkamania was dead.

From the ashes of a crippling steroid trial, Mc Mahon needed a new captain to steer the sinking ship. PPV buyrates were plummeting, house show attendance was down, morale languished at an all-time low. Hulk Hogan Mark II was needed, and Mc Mahon was failing in his quest. He put his faith in Lex Luger, repackaged as the new American hero. The angle fizzled. Ahmed Johnson was given a push into the big-time. The bold idea didn't pay off. Charisma-aside, the wrestlers couldn't scale the lofty heights of expectation , and fans just didn't accept the new hand-made megastars.

Under the nose of Vince Mc Mahon rested two of the most gifted superstars in the history of the sport - Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels. Both rose to prominence in the unconventional way. The cream rose to the top, but it was Mc Mahon who had to accept this, not create it. These were self-made superstars, guys who won acclaim with great athletic gifts, and unmatched charisma. Mc Mahon, under pressure and running short on options, allowed Hart to capture the World title in 1992. It was supposed to be experimental, transitory, a move to tide things over. But, in Bret Hart, the WWF got what they never imagined : a bona-fide superstar. The fans took to " The Hitman " like a duck to water. Here was a new breed of hero. Not an American hero, not exceptionally tall, nor particularly buff, and lacking the appearance of a Greek god. Here was a regular-looking guy, who worked hard, give the fans their money's worth, and showed integrity.

In the eighties, to get a push, you had to look menacing. You had to be tall, or buffed. You had to look like a gladiator. Ability was a plus, but not a pre-requisite, mic skills could be bare-boned . If you weren't pre-conditioned physically, your chances of long-term success were minimal. Ric Flair broke that tradition in the smaller territories, but Vince Mc Mahon was slow to catch on. For fans, size really didn't matter. Past the imposing girth, fans could see the charade, and Vince hadn't realized that Hogan's size wasn't a reason for his success. Unmatched charisma was.

Hart broke out. It wasn't supposed to happen. Guys like Luger were supposed to steal the limelight. But, when the lights went out on their chances of superstardom, fans cared about one man - Bret Hart. Baffling to Vince, the top spot stayed with Bret. The fans demanded it. He had proven himself, he had ability. He could deliver. So, when Vince experimented comparable face reaction for Bret and Lex, one man was the overwhelming victor - Bret. And, with that, the WWF changed focus completely. Size was no longer a pre-requisite. Ability, charisma, mic skills ( things we demand now ) were. Mammoths like Giant Gonzales were booed out of the promotion, while new superstars like Shawn Michaels shone.

Through all the WWF's dark days, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels were the consistent bastions of light. They were the constant shafts of light at the end of the WWF's gloomy tunnel. When the WWF was in shambles, when pathetic gimmicks like Duke Droese, Henry Godwinn and The Bushwhackers were being inflicted on the fans, Bret and Shawn stood tall. When WWF PPVs bombed, it was Bret and Shawn's matches that remained the classics, and often, the only redeeming notes in an otherwise lackluster score.

Like Bret, Shawn rose to the top. Determination, charisma and tremendous in-ring ability helped him scale the heights of success. He won fans, and he possessed that special something, but it was only after dethroning Bret of his cherished gold that Shawn was given the prestigious WWF ball. He ran with it, he impressed, and he, like Bret, cemented himself as a legend. But, these are two accidental heroes, two men that would never have been given the world title 15 years ago. Their contributions to the art, their unhearlded talents, and unique approach to the sport paved the way for a new culture of wrestling superstar - one less imposing, but gifted with ability, and ring presence. Wrestlers like Chris Benoit, Jericho, Angle , Malenko. These guys have all held WWF gold, all being given a chance to shine.

The fans play a big part in who becomes a superstar. While Vince Mc Mahon has a great eye for spotting talent, and utilizing it effectively, his efforts are futile if the fans don't like what they're being served. They didn't like the gimmick-fuelled direction of the early nineties, and they certainly didn't like the talentless titans ( see Giant Gonzales ). When Vince left his pre-conceived notions at the booking door, and brought the fans' desires to the booking table, success followed. Right now, the fans are clamouring for Angle, Jericho and The Rock. However, The Rock's first foray in the WWF flopped miserably. Vince tried to package Rocky as the new Hulk Hogan. Fans, tired of this overdone feed, couldn't swallow it. Rocky nearly got spit out of the WWF. Some more time in the idea tray give life to a new superstar - The Rock. Not a traditional superstar by any stretch, The Rock was brash and cocky. The fans cared. His face persona elicited pops louder than Hogan's in his heyday. Vince had hit the bullseye.

It's so hard to get it right. Catering for the fans is like betting at Vegas. You're taking a big gamble. Sometimes, you win, but often you lose. Vince has lost on some big-money names. Sure-things like Vader didn't reap the big rewards, while supposed would-never-bes like Austin attained a status never thought possible. All just by changing the flavor.

If you had said one year ago that Triple H would be the number one heel in the business, you would have been considered slighty nutty. A push for HHH was promised, but up until that point, fans were greeted to a jokey face, who relied on repetitive catchphrases to evoke crowd response. No-one could have predicted that not only did Triple H change his " game ", he changed the way we look at heels. Here was a heel without a cartoon gimmick who was neither cowardly nor monosyllabic. Intensity on the mic was only bettered by intensity in the ring. One year after his heel turn Triple H stood proudly as a three-time champion.

Character tweaks can be enough to alter the course of a wrestler's career, turning potential into glory. Sometimes, characters hit a raw nerve, hit their groove with fans. Often, the wrestler is buried, later consigned to the scrapheap of wrestling infamy. Four years ago, Fatu was " making a difference " as a street-wise babface. The character made no difference to the fans' perceptions of the one time Headshrinker. A new costume, more weight, new moves ( including dancing ), a new breed of fan have seen the repackaged Rikishi Phatu receive babyface popularity to rival The Rock's. All this with minimal mic time.

In the eighties, Kurt Angle, a fine Olympic wrestler, would have been a babyface. He plays the part of an American hero. No more brash than Hogan's old characterisation, Angle finds himself an entertaining heel in the nineties. Despite his lack of heel actions, Angle is not the apple of fans' eyes. New fans demand a new type pf babyface - one that doesn't play to the rules. Jericho, Austin and The Rock are babyfaces. The fans have dictated that, but crossing from heel to face territory, hasn't subdued the heel characteristics. For Angle, a big future awaits. For Jericho, it's tangible.

Val Venis is one wrestler getting lost in the shuffle. Talented, but burdened with a now passe gimmick, Venis has lost his heat. The porn star wrestler was once controversial, once a novelty. Now, the novelty has worn off. The character lacks depth. Today's fans demand depth, and Venis is nothing more than an innuendo-spouting gimmick. He's a caricature, and caricatures never have longevity. Not today, at least. Venis has the size, the talent, and the ring skills to be a major star. If Vince doesn't bestow his lauded creativity on this Canadian, we could see another Vader. Venis is in dire need of a tweak.

WCW have worked wonders with Three Count, a talented group of young wrestlers, teamed together in a boyband gimmick. The fans like it, the purists like it, and if WCW were willing to give them more of a showcase, the viewers would be willing to show just how much they like it. The WWF took a chance on the similarly themed Too Cool team. It paid off, and they shone. It took time, but the fans warmed to it more as the weeks progressed. That translated to popularity. WCW need to take that chance on Three Count, to turn this potential into gold - ratings gold.

Ignore the detractors. Right now, WCW have a great potential to turn things around. Anyone saying differently is being overly pessimistic. With guidance and a steadying hand of creativity, WCW could revert their fortunes. The talent is on the roster. Booker T has the necessary ingredients to become a major-league superstar, Kidman has the ability, Jeff Jarrett is proving his worth. WCW just need the structure of a WWF. They need to become a smooth ship, to devise a long-term plan. If the WWF can turn Rikishi Phatu into a major star, then WCW, under the leadership of Russo and Bischoff, can turn latent potential into major success. Most fans would agree that the time has come.

Wrestling is moving ahead, the fans are demanding more for their money, and the boom looks to have life left in it yet. There is still a place in the wrestling world for the Hogans, the Flairs, the Lugers and the Stings. They've played a role, and they should continue to play a role. The Mc Mahons and the Bischoff of this world just need to find a way to make everything mesh, to service old stars and traditionalist fans, and satisify the new generation. Thus far, only Mc Mahon has delivered, but there's life in the WCW dog yet. Fans have had a taste of WCW's ability, now they want the whole meal.

Phil Jenkins

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