On March 26th, 2001, the WWE bought out its competition. They didn’t have a complete monopoly on professional wrestling, but they had a ninety-nine percent share of the market. WCW was theirs, ripe for the picking. While fans were mourning the loss of viable competition, they also concocted all sorts of fan theories about what could happen. Hulk Hogan could return to fight Steve Austin, years after Hogan cruelly abandoned the company that made him popular. Ric Flair, even in old age, could show up with a fire behind his eyes, knowing that his home turf was no more. Goldberg would keep spearing dudes, except this time WWF-branded dudes. A million wonderful things could have come from a year-long WWF vs. WCW feud. It would be difficult to not stumble across them. But what happened? Instead of waiting for contract negotiations with WCW’s top stars to work out, the WWE went ahead and rushed the minor players to television. Booker T was a newcomer in the main event WCW scene, but few pegged him as the leader of the resistance. Lance Storm had his capabilities but didn’t meet fans’ lofty expectations. The rest of the roster was full of duds: Billy Kidman, Shane Helms, Kanyon, a neutered Diamond Dallas Page. Buff Bagwell was in the main event of the first WCW title match on an episode of Raw. That’s like promoting Star Wars characters finally appearing on Star Trek, and the only crossover being appearances by Tarrful and Figrin D’an. Soon, the recently-purchased ECW stars would join WCW’s fight in a need for more star power. After that barely did anything, Steve Austin and Kurt Angle, two men with WWF blood, joined the WCW Alliance. Why, when there was so much money to be made with them as the rivals? Because. Then, with a feud could last a year if done properly, it all died in four months. And the whole time, WCW was beaten into the ground again and again and again. This is important context because it exhibits one of the first times viewers witnessed the senility in WWE chairman Vince McMahon. He opted to let pride get in the way of things like: interesting stories; or fan appreciation; or (his professed favorite) making millions upon millions of dollars.
One of the toughest memories of my wrestling interest was watching Triple H hit his finishing move on Paul London and Brian Kendrick. A common literary technique in pro wrestling is to have young, upcoming talents latch on to a veteran wrestler in order to get these new faces popular with the crowd. It’s been done a million times. Triple H, the man in the video, in earlier years would help with guys like Randy Orton and Batista. London and Kendrick, however, were from another place. They came from the post-WCW world. In the years after 2001’s WCW buyout, other promotions propped up, hoping to carve a niche in this mostly-dominated genre. London was ROH’s first made man. Kendrick spent time in the Japanese promotion Zero1. They were brought over for their talents, and they were punished for their talents. There was absolutely no reason to tease the crowd that these two young men just might be big names moving forward, only to Pedigree them into the mat and laugh at their attempts. That corporate attitude reeks of narcissism. The same YAY WWF BOO WCW mentality that lasted during the “Invasion” of 2001 has proven successful even to this day. It’s why the crowd cheers when Triple H, a guy who should help the company out as he advances in age, completely destroys the careers of two great wrestlers. They never got a match. It never developed into a feud. They just waited on the sidelines till they were quietly fired. People cheered for Triple H doing that, then, for the same reason they cheer for The Rock being openly homophobic on television today. “The past is better.” “Things are fine the way they are.” “I don’t want to grow up. I’m gonna stay eighteen forever.”
Let’s look at the post-WCW names that were made in WWE: John Cena. Randy Orton. Batista.
Brock Lesnar. (Whoops, Brock Lesnar left after two years despite being heavily billed as The Next Big Thing.) And here are some names of the post-WCW acclaimed talents that were fired despite the WWE lack of or very marginal use: Paul London. Brian Kendrick. Shelton Benjamin. Colt Cabana. Luke Gallows. Chris Masters. Kenny Omega. Brent Albright. Gavin Spears. Montel Vontavious Porter. Paul Burchill. Elijah Burke. Domino. Kizarny. Frankie Kazarian. Trevor Murdoch. Kaval. David Hart Smith.
See, I’m not guaranteeing that they’d all be amazing. But they’re men who had recognizable talents, most of which went entirely untapped. Instead of using them and potentially failing, the WWE packed its bags and went with the same old, same old. Now, that same old same old is on its last legs. Its retiring. Triple H and The Undertaker’s match at this year’s WrestleMania was billed as “The End of an Era”, and I hope it is. Where 2001 and its subsequent year could have introduced entire boatloads of new stars to watch grow, we had to watch what we were always watching, but slower and with the fear of broken hips. In the mid-2000s, the hottest wrestling wasn’t in WWE because it was the biggest, but in dingy ballrooms that ROH ran, because they were the best. Where the WWE was trotting out the same old men yet again, CM Punk and Bryan Danielson fought tooth and nail for a crowd of two hundred.
Now, I don’t mean to create another “negative” article. Despite all my misgivings of the past ten years, there’s been some great wrestling. There always is. The assumption that “It all sucks now!” is simply the cry of someone who either hasn’t developed a taste of their own or hasn’t searched far enough. When the WWE had Punjabi Prison matches, ROH brought international talent to American audiences. When the WWE finally brought in the WCW stars fans were initially clamming for (now cooled and useless to a tired audience), Pro Wrestling NOAH was killing it. Hell, just four months ago Triple H won a Ladder match by pinning Kevin Nash, and yet Eddie Kingston had just beaten Mike Quackenbush for the Chikara Grand Championship. These legs are getting tired. In the spring of 2011, The Rock returned to the WWE. Whatever you feel about his contributions, his return is recognized as a last-ditch effort from WWE to get people to care. Their constant use of old names, the ones of the late 90s, has lost much of its drawing power. The well has to go deeper. Brock Lesnar is offered millions of dollars to return for only one year. I used to be upset about this idea, of these big, old names coming in when newer guys should be promoted.
That’s Bryan Danielson, the ROH champion, the guy fans knew was too “pure” to ever be given a shot in the WWE. He’s too small, too pale, too friendly, too good. Still, he won the WWE’s World Heavyweight Championship. He lost it at WrestleMania in eighteen seconds. The WWE has a push-and-pull with some of these guys. Perhaps they know how good they are and are too afraid to admit it. Common logic dictates that because he lost the biggest match of his life in eighteen seconds, he’s a worthless loser. In a way, though, the fans were the ones to break the fourth wall. Their reaction wasn’t cooperation, but was sheer rebellion. Rebellion because they knew, I knew, that Bryan is among the best in the world and that the eighteen seconds were a blight on him. On us. On those dorky fake fights we put so much time and effort in. A performance by Flo Rida got fifty times the amount on the same show, and fans weren’t going to let that slide. On the same show with The Rock and Brock Lesnar, Daniel Bryan’s cheers eclipsed both of theirs.
That change that has been so demanded for so long is finally felt, right in the bones. All of a sudden, you don’t know what happened but two Ring of Honor cats are the two champions on the world’s biggest wrestling program. All of a sudden, fabulous independent wrestler is getting signed by the promotion, one after another. All of a sudden, the fans go crazy for your guy, not because of something he did on the WWE show, but for something he did years ago. Those fans weren’t going nuts for Bryan because he lost in eighteen seconds. They were going crazy for him because they know he can do better, and they know it from watching him wrestle KENTA multiple times. They’re me, multiplied and broadcast on national television, and that harmony is astounding. All of a sudden, The Great Muta is trending on Twitter.
Perhaps the feeling started with the sermon on the mount. It carries over into Colt Cabana being mentioned multiple times on television. Then the Kings of Wrestling are getting into Iron Man title matches on the developmental program. Then a hardcore CZW guy whispers into Mick Foley’s ear all the things that have been tearing the community up in the past ten years. We broke the fourth wall. We saw the problems of the current product, the very real and pressing problems, and were able to transform them, shape them, into fictional depth. This prose is just rambling about reality. Bryan Danielson lost in eighteen seconds. No one saw him “losing”, they saw him being held down. We can acknowledge the inherent fakeness of pro wrestling while still being invested in it, loving it to little pieces. Staying up late thinking about it.
I can’t definitively say that things are going to improve in all the precise, nerd-specific ways. There may still be twists and turns in this road, but the good part is that you can see it narrowing. No one is too short anymore, or too pale. The path narrows and no fantastic 5’8″ wrestler feels the compulsive need to eat as many steroids as can possibly fit in him. These years, these years of focusing on the 90s, the past, the “it was better before”s, is coming to an end. Be it through retirement or boredom or death, it’s going away whether they like it or not. And you know who’s taking their place? Those boys who worked in hotel conference rooms. The men I saw in hotel conference rooms and fake-YMCAs. They work best without flashing lights and pyrotechnics. They’re all you have left, now. But they should have been here in 2002. We should have watched them grow, then. Instead they were relegated to musty barns and dirty mats. You’re dying, though, and they’re here now. That is the inevitability of life.
Maybe someday El Generico will brainbuster John Cena on the turnbuckle and pin him to win the WWE Heavyweight Championship. Okay, don’t put money on that one.
Yes! Yes! Yes!