EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.
Friday, January 25, 2002
'So long' but not 'goodbye'
When I came aboard SLAM! about three and a half years ago, I was a relative newcomer to the world of wrestling. I had just started to learn about everything that happens backstage. Prior to 1998, I didn't even know that information was available. I remember in November of 1997, the events surrounding Bret Hart's departure from the WWF struck me as so odd that I had to research the issue. I was surprised to find the depth in which the story was covered. The "screw-job", the fight afterward, and more than anything the fact that something that happened inside a wrestling ring may have been partly real.
Wrestling had gotten my attention that night at Survivor Series. I had always followed it, always shown up when the WWF came to town, but I had never been enthralled. Perhaps brilliantly, Vince McMahon took advantage of the situation and cast himself as the villain, eventually using his heel heat to feud with the incredibly over Stone Cold Steve Austin once Austin was done dismantling Degeneration-X. At that point, I had found all of the big, high profile gossip websites. I even penned articles for a few. But it wasn't until about May that I stumbled upon SLAM!. John Powell and Greg Oliver, the editors at the time, were doing such a good job balancing that backstage information with real journalistic integrity, I knew I wanted to be a part of that. I didn't have much to bring to the table, given my lack of any kind of studies or background in writing or journalism. Still, they gave me a shot at replacing the departing Donnie Abreu, and the readers didn't boo me off the site, so I stayed awhile. During that time, wrestling has navigated a strange and winding road.
Just as Steve Austin was making some headway in bringing the WWF back to the forefront of the wrestling industry, everything seemed to be going wrong in WCW. Hollywood Hoganis should-have-been-epic match with Sting at Starrcade in 1997 failed to live up to expectations, perhaps because of the quick count and the awkward presence of Hart. WCW's big angle went downhill from there and as soon as that started to happen, the politicking began. WCW main eventers competed and backstabbed behind the scenes to earn a bigger chunk of a shrinking pie. Few people seemed to be doing what was good for business and good for everything instead of good for themselves. Eventually, everybody lost.
The only shining star during WCW's spiraled descent into bankruptcy was perhaps Goldberg. But even his two hundred or so straight wins provided for few better-than-decent wrestling matches, and certainly they aren't any better now on tape than they were then. Plus, Goldberg's overzealous punching and kicking earned him and others serious injuries. A stray kick ended Bret Hart's career. Maybe he wasn't such a shining star, after all.
Eventually, WCW became all about the reset button. They kept starting from scratch, and the fans couldn't keep up. The nWo was reformed and broken up again and again. Title reigns were reserved for the same people. It was big news when Vince Russo arrived shook things up, but not only was it too late in terms of locker room attitude and company structure, but Russo himself proved to fall flat in several ways. Watching WCW spiral out of control just before it went defunct, we got to see Ric Flair embarrassed. We got to see Jeff Jarrett, Booker T, and Scott Steiner made into champions, albeit champions who still have yet to really draw. We got to see a bunch of green wrestlers get more television time than was good for them in the New Blood Thrillers. We got to see Vince Russo and David Arquette win the WCW title, and Vince Russo survive Ric Flair's Figure Four hold for longer than anyone in recent memory. I vaguely recall pudding matches. One bright element was the push for Lance Storm, but before that had a chance to develop into anything substantial, the company went under.
Meanwhile, the WWF was making and breaking its own stars. Undertaker made Mick Foley famous once and for all by throwing him off the top of the cage in Hell in the Cell II. Foley would go on to have a fantastic run before his retirement. Undertaker himself has evolved before our eyes, first with the really hokey Lord of Darkness bit, then the shedding of the Undertaker image in favour of something more Mark Calloway, and finally with his haircut. The past few years have seen stars made out of the once-mocked Triple H and The Rock. Top WWF stars transcended the wrestling business as Steve Austin filmed several successful episodes of Nash Bridges while The Rock will be starring in his own movie, The Scorpion King, shortly. The WWF created its own huge star in Kurt Angle.
Regrettably, if I were to forget everything else, all but one event from the past five years of wrestling, that one event would be the tragic death of Owen Hart. He is still missed. His passing cast a shadow on the wrestling business that I think we still haven't come out from and maybe never will. Meanwhile, the remainder of the Hart family is splintered.
I also remember the WWF's huge initial public stock offering, which made a billionaire out of Vince McMahon and stock experts out of just about every wrestling writer out there. I remember the strange twist of fate that was the XFL, first seemingly poised for success but turning out to be the worst possible failure.
Finally, we were all there when ECW and then WCW passed away, their dead carcasses ransacked by the WWF but never really put to good use. Then there was the Alliance and the presence of so many out-of-place wrestlers and personalities in the WWF. Now business is worse than it's been in many years, and the WWF is splitting itself up into two promotions 'any day now'.
So many injuries, drug rehabs, firings, hirings, pushes, glass ceilings, new finishing holds, new personas, new gimmicks, new angles, match finishes, screw-jobs, backstage feuds, in-ring feuds, skirmishes with the media, and failed ventures. So many rest holds, indy wrestlers who never made it, new indy federations, contract disputes, arrests, and arrest rumours.
Everything appears to be coming full circle. The new World order may be setting up shop in the WWF, where the more interesting feud might be their behind-the-scenes issues with the WWF's current main eventers. Unfortunately, Bret Hart is out of the picture for several reasons, while Goldberg has no desire to return. Shawn Michaels is still a question mark. So many of wrestling's prodigal sons are gone.
It's strange to think of how much goes on in wrestling, a business perceived by the outside world to be one-dimensional and 'fake' above all else. All things considered, for people who study it in this much depth, wrestling is probably more real than anything else. We hear all the stories, we see what goes on with the real people behind the scenes, real people with real problems.
I recently heard a speaker talking about his experiences in the business world, and he described business people as being 'just like other people'. According to the speaker, if it's reasonable to assume that one out of every ten people at any given time have some kind of personal problem to deal with, be it gambling, drinking, or a divorce, then it's also reasonable to assume that this goes on with North America's business leaders too. The lesson here can be applied to wrestling. Wrestlers are real people, and I think more than anything else, thatis what Iive learned over my time here at SLAM!. As a child, wrestlers seemed larger than life, and I guess if you never look behind that curtain that leads backstage, you could maintain that illusion indefinitely. Thanks to the dirt sheets started by the likes of Dave Meltzer and Wade Keller, and thanks to the Internet Revolution, that curtain was blown right off, and we got to see so many of the nitty gritty details.
I don't envy the life of a wrestler. They can make great money if they reach the top, and good money if they reach a level of stability in the midcard, but they work hard for it. Not only are they on the road for so many days a year, but their lives become windows for the rest of us to see into. They lose a lot of their privacy. I guess that's the price for fame and fortune in the squared circle.
No matter which way you look at it, wrestling is a pretty crazy microcosm of a world. It's like a business industry on fast-forward, but with real people participating, people who have all the privacy of the folks on Survivor.
Wrestling is a mighty strange hybrid of competitive sport and theatre-esque drama. It's almost a contradiction. The wrestlers really do compete, both by conditioning and practicing as well as to a degree by politicking and feuding. Yet they do this so that they can go out to the ring and put on longer matches later at night, essentially.
We're all used to the idiosyncrasies of professional wrestling, but they're not as straightforward as you might think. I sat down with a friend just this week and tried to explain things to him, but he just didn't get it. He couldn't grasp that what we see on television is the result of real people interacting backstage. Wrestling is so slick today that he can only see it as the result of 'nameless, faceless' booking, writing, and promotion. He doesn't understand that even though Triple H and Stephanie McMahon are married only within storylines, they still have some kind of relationship that may or may not affect Triple His booking, since Stephanie is the head writer. Think about it and that sounds fake, like a soap opera, or like wrestling.
Maybe somebody should write a book about it.
Perhaps the reason I feel so introspective today is that this will be my last regular, weekly column at SLAM! Wrestling. I'd like to thank Greg Oliver for taking me on board here, and Greg and John Powell and John Molinaro for maintaining such a great site. It's been a pleasure writing here and Iive always taken great pride in doing so. Equally, thanks to everyone who opted to read me from week to week, especially those who would chime in from time to time with their thoughts on all matters pro wrestling. It's been great.
Here's the mailbag:
Rich Fernandez, from email@example.com, writes:
I have a couple of questions for you: 1. Why does www.kevinnash.com lead to the WWF home page?
2. Why the Undertaker not referred to as the Hardcore Champion during is ring introductions?
To answer your first question, I think it makes logical sense for the www.kevinnash.com web page to lead to the WWFís. First of all, many people believe that he has actually already signed with the WWF. Second, even if he hasnít, he may wish to, in which case this may be a way for him to score points with WWF management. Finally, Nash likes to stir up rumours and controversy among fans. As you proved, this is a good way to do it.
To answer your second question, if you were a five-time WWF heavyweight champion, one of its most consistent competitors ever, how excited would you be to be announced as the hardcore champion? For Undertaker, itís almost an insult. At least, thatís my approach. The WWF may simply have forgotten.
Ivan Cernigoy, from firstname.lastname@example.org, writes:
Please tell me Hogan isn't returning to the WWF. I had hoped and prayed for 15 years or so that I would never have to see or hear that no talent wind bag again. The WWF already has plenty of talent to go around. Why in the world would they want to bring in a loud-mouthed egomaniac like Hogan for a second kick at the can? Hopefully Hogan's mouth and ego get the best of him and we never have to see him on camera again. By the way it was great seeing Perfect back. He's one of my all time favorites. Loved him with Ric Flair. They are both a couple of classy talented guys.
If youíve been hoping and praying for fifteen years not to see Hogan again, those first couple while he was main eventing in the WWF must have been rough. And heís certainly been around in WCW. I have no love lost for Hulk or Hollywood Hoganís matches, but heís still a draw. I donít mean that heís a tangible, verifiable ratings or buyrate generator, but his return would get people talking. If the WWF brings him back briefly, I would probably even enjoy it. If they even hint that heís around for the long haul, then youíll be able to discernibly hear my groan all the way from Montreal.
Kelly Vaters, from email@example.com, writes::
A good analysis of the value in bringing back Hogan, Hall and Nash, with one notable exception. Many observers are grossly overestimating the amount of money Vince is now willing to pay to have these three back on board. Don't forget that the WWF is now the only international game in town, and history tends to linger in the locker room, if not in the stands. If Vince is willing _at all_ to take them on, it's because he's calling the shots in the negotiations; Hogan, Hall and Nash know it; and they're willing to accept anything that Vince will offer them. I honestly believe that Vince would cut off all negotiations and offer that money to Bret Hart to come back, concussion or no, if Vince thought that he had a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding. Five years is an awfully long time to hold a grudge, and a decent writer could pull off such a return that neither Hart nor McMahon would look the worse for the decision to reconcile professionally.
From what Iíve heard, which admittedly may be far from the truth, the WWF is offering a fair amount of money as a downside guarantee (more than any of their wrestlers save the main eventers). Even if theyíre the only game in town, I donít think Nash or Hall would want to devalue themselves so much as to sign for a really lowball offer. Theyíd accept less than they were guaranteed in WCW, but not pennies on the dollar. McMahon has lots of leverage here, but I think that if he tried to push the Outsiders, it would be more likely that there would be no deal than that Nash and Hall signed for a fraction of their perceived value. Hogan is probably even worse in that regard, especially since heís so financially well off, from what I understand.
Thatís all for this week. Actually, thatís all. Youíll probably hear from me from time to time, if all goes well, but in the meantime itís adios. Iíve written all kinds of columns at all kinds of websites, but it has been a real pleasure to write for such a thoughtful, international wrestling fan base right here at SLAM!. I hope the site continues to prosper and I hope to continue to hear from its readers. Ciao!
Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.