EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.
Friday, May 4, 2001
Lighting new fires, keeping old ones going
Take, for example, Goldberg and his incredible run of almost two hundred victories. I don't think you could argue that the winning streak as a technique, strictly as far as Goldberg is concerned, was successful. Still, there are many who argue that it was a terrible decision, that it basically screwed up continuity for everybody else. So many had to be sacrificed to The Great Goldberg, that maybe more heat was actually lost than gained if you add it all up. Either way, Goldberg proved to be less than stellar as a long term asset and investment, so even in this seemingly clear-cut case of a strong push that drew money, there is argument to be had.
Given this, I can see why people argue so much about the more ambiguous pushes.
Though certainly on all accounts Backlash was a step down from Wrestlemania, this is perhaps to be expected. Still, there was one particular aspect about the most recent WWF pay-per-view which had many fans -- Internet fans especially -- up in arms, that being the makeup of the main event. People generally foresaw Undertaker and Kane vs. Triple H and Steve Austin from a mile away. Normally, that's not necessarily bad, as many well-thought out, well-developed feuds have certainly been visible from around the corner. This feud, though, was so obvious not because the foundations for it had been well laid out over a long period of time, but more because it was the predictable next step for the WWF, having reunited Steve Austin and Triple H and needing something of a "cop out" main event for Backlash. That's no more an insult to the WWF than to say that they tend to put a "buffer" match between TLC- or Hell in the Cell-type matches and the rest of the uppercard.
Back to my point, I don't think fans were much enthused about the prospect of Austin and Helmsley against Undertaker and Kane. Something about that combination screams brawl, screams dirty pin, screams screw job, screams no job. People also accurately predicted that Undertaker would then pair off to take on Austin in what is not exactly a fresh feud, double turn having been executed or not.
I continuously refer to "people" because I was for the most part waiting patiently for this feud, hoping Kane would be developed and maybe I'd start to dig Austin as a heel. I have to admit, I was wrong and that hasn't really happened. Kane has been beat around like a puppet, and if I thought he was going to bounce back and capture the heavyweight title I might not be so dismayed. Triple H and Austin, heelish as they are, aren't nearly as fun to watch together as say, Arn Anderson and Ric Flair were. Meanwhile, as much as Undertaker may be one of my favourite wrestlers ever, I'm not confident in his ability to produce a WWF-quality main event against Steve Austin.
Still, despite every thing I've just said, I don't usually think much of armchair booking. I think it's hard to predict who the fans will follow or hate, how much, and what kind of chemistry various performers would have against each other. Given the success of Kurt Angle and many others in the WWF over the past year, I'm not entirely sure I buy the glass ceiling argument right now. Steve Austin and Undertaker are highly paid performers and main attractions, it sort of makes sense for them to be main eventing. To push other wrestlers to the main event while they still have star power to sell would be cannibalism -- they might sell a few more tickets if Chris Jericho or Chris Benoit were defending his WWF heavyweight title, but they'd probably also lose dollars because neither Undertaker nor Austin are doing the same.
It is only with this in mind as a backdrop that I suggest that maybe the WWF has dropped the ball lately. I mentioned Goldberg's case, above. That was an example of WCW striking while the iron was hot, actually taking advantage of a situation presented to them and making a star. The WWF did the exact same thing, I think, with both Steve Austin and Rock. When it the fed learned that fans loved and hated (or had the capacity to love and hate) those two performers, respectively, they did the right thing and turned them quickly. I remember, at the time, thinking that Austin's push was especially quick and that he would need more time to earn a spot alongside Bret Hart, Undertaker, and Shawn Michaels. I thought the same thing about The Rock, too.
Funny, I haven't been thinking the same thing about anyone lately. Perhaps that's because pushes have been slow and gradual in 2000 and 2001. With so many big stars on top, the WWF doesn't have to push new guys, at least not to the moon.
Well, maybe they should start thinking about it. Imagine what might have happened at Survivor Series 1998 had The Rock not won the title, had it instead continued to switch between the hands used to holding it. Imagine if Steve Austin hadn't been pushed into an accelerated feud with Shawn Michaels, Michaels' last big WWF feud, and been given the title only a short time after his current persona had caught on.
Sure, these examples were brought on by necessity, and sure, there were fewer alternatives at the time. Perhaps, though, that's how stars are made. Maybe you've got to find the right guy and push him hard and fast. Maybe you've got to get him to the main event, establish him, give him decisive victories, and even give him the title -- all within a reasonably short period of time. Perhaps if you don't, if you wait too long, fans will adjust to the idea of that wrestler as a midcarder, and then perhaps it will be that much harder to push them later.
It's sort of like lighting a fire. There are several stages involved in this task, I know, especially if you're making due with limited supplies. Once you see smoke, you can't wait too long before developing it into visible twig or brush fire, or the smoke will vanish. Once the twig is lit, you can't wait too long before spreading the fire and lighting some real wood. Any hesitation, any delay will leave you fireless.
So perhaps this is the case in wrestling. Austin, Rock, Goldberg, Diesel, and others are all examples of this principle. I am not suggesting that it would then become impossible to light a fire with the same kindling, but to do so would involve, as it sounds, re-lighting a fire. As in, lighting a second fire. So if a wrestler gets hot, and the WWF doesn't take advantage of it, he may simply cool down. Once he's pushed to that upper echelon, though, they can relax more because a log fire will certainly have a lot more staying power than a little twig fire.
Obvously, some of these guys -- Jericho, Benoit, Angle, Hardy -- will become permanent fixtures in the main event some day. Still, many opportunities are wasted playing it safe and continuing the big fires burning instead of lighting new ones. Jericho could almost be said to have started out at his peak, declining ever since with only a few regular sparks. Chris Benoit had two false title wins, but they were months ago, almost a year ago. Since then, little has really been done to elevate him. Kurt Angle is a former WWF champion, but I'm not sure you'd know it watching Raw last week. Jeff Hardy had his moment in the sun, but isn't much better off today.
Take even Edge or Christian. That team was riding high, but their shtick is in some ways becoming repetitive now, and they have gained so little in the way of measurable momentum. They are not far higher on the card than they used to be, and they continue to be slapped around by the big boys. Maybe the time to push them to the moon is already over, and they will need total character makeovers or a break-up or something to get back to their former level of brilliance.
Well, that's five references to the same metaphor, so maybe it's time to wrap up. Deciding who should main event a wrestling federation is not as cut and dry as some might think it is, but at the same time, I think there might be some guiding principles that the WWF has made money following in the past -- principles that they do not seem to be following today. Maybe it would be better if, like Shawn Michaels or Bret Hart, all of their main eventers left the federation after a few years at the top, if for no other reason than to force the WWF to build more fires. Okay that's it, this column is over.
Here's the mailbag.
Scott Francis, from Franman2001@aol.com, writes:
"In regards to your recent concerns about Edge and Christian being unfairly squashed by the Undertaker and Kane, I think you're missing what the WWF could potentially do with this. Although it may seem unfair, there is a huge upside to the title swap waiting to happen.
By the time anyone reads this, I could be proven horribly wrong, but I'm going to predict that Austin and HHH win the tag titles from the Undertaker and Kane this Sunday at Backlash. It's no secret that the WWF is planning to build up Austin/HHH as being unstoppable, and have them run roughshod until The Rock comes back in the summer. Having them hold the WWF, IC, and tag titles would accomplish this nicely.
However, it's likely they won't hang on to the tag belts for long. Perhaps only for a few weeks, after which one of the younger teams could strip them of the gold. My best guess would be the Hardy Boyz. After getting beaten up for weeks on Raw/Smackdown! a semi-clean win over the two top heels in the company would but the Hardys over big time. I mean, how many times can we watch the titles flip-flop back and forth from E&C and the Hardys? This way shakes things up a bit and allows the Hardys to mingle with the uppercard. So in the end, this beefs up the Backlash main event, establishes Austin and HHH as being unstoppable, puts over the Hardys, and brings their feud with Austin/HHH full circle.
Like I said, by the time Backlash rolls around I could be proven completely wrong, and this could all be wishful thinking. In that case, we can all look forward to Austin vs Undertaker Part XXXIV."
Well, you were right about Austin and Triple H at Backlash. So at this point, what exactly is the upside of Triple H and Austin holding the tag team titles? Austin is busy defending his other, slightly more important title, so forget about those titles for a little while. And when Austin and Helmsley do finally put them up to lose them, you can bet it will be during a break-up or a squabble or one of them being distracted with their respective singles title, and that any permanent tag team that beats them for the titles will gain little in the way of rub.
Mike Medeiros, from firstname.lastname@example.org, writes:
"I can't believe you wrote an article on submission moves without mentioning the Figure Four Leg Lock and Ric Flair. True that the Figure 4 hasn't been used as a finisher, and seems much easier to get out of than when Flair used to lock it in, but that move does really hurt (if pressure is applied). You mentioned Bret Hart's Sharpshooter lending some credibility, but Flair's Figure Four had people screaming for their lives way before the Sharpshooter. Hart and Flair are my all time favorites, but if you are going to write an article about submission moves, you got to include the Figure Four!"
Mike, I thought about including the Figure Four, but decided against it for two reasons. One, I never really watched Flair before the Hogan days of WCW, and other than the tapes I've seen, I can't really comment much about what it "looked like" back then. Two, I personally don't think the Figure Four looks like it hurts at all.
Now, before I am misunderstood, let me clarify: I don't think Ric Flair's finisher looks like it hurts. Maybe it does, I have no idea -- you clearly think so -- but I'm judging these holds by their appearance on television. Hey, maybe the Steiner Recliner is the worst kind of torture. I know I wouldn't want Scott Steiner holding in at all. Still, it doesn't look like a huge threat on television. Neither, to me does the Figure 4. That's just my opinion.
And that's the end of my column. Thanks for writing in, have a great week!
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