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Wrestling Champions

Recently, on a Jim Cornette podcast, they discussed the best wrestlers over the age of say 50. Jim’s pick for whom he believed was the best ended up being Nick Bockwinkel. After consideration, I thought he was pretty on the mark, which then made me think of this topic as other names and ideas began swirling in my mind. Ultimately, I ended up thinking of the topic of wrestling champions and what makes a good one and how my own views have changed over time.

Starting with Nick Bockwinkel, I definitely agree with Cornette’s assessment of him being one of the best. I recall one of his interviews in talking about the difference between a chokehold and a sleeper was simple yet effective, serving an educational purpose and attempting to reify wrestling as a dangerous sport. That interview and others made me believe how intelligent the man was and that when one looks at someone who exemplified a type of pro-wrestler, Bockwinkel would certainly be up there.

What’s interesting though when you look at history there is how he had a feud with Hulk Hogan over the AWA title, which ultimately caused Hogan to get fed up and leave for the WWF. Obviously, Hogan wasn’t even close to Bockwinkel in overall ability as a pure pro-wrestler, but Hogan had that intangible “it” factor that appealed to fans, something Verne Gagne seemed to fail to grasp quick enough to capitalize on Hogan’s outstanding popularity.

But when I compare Hogan to Bockwinkel, I tend to think of a situation like comparing someone such as Donald Trump vs Obama or even Bernie Sanders. The thing about Bockwinkel is that he was too cerebral for the average fan like an Obama or Sanders to middle America. Compare that to the more primordial Hogan at this peak where he just completed Rocky 3. It was his growing mainstream popularity/recognition along with his freakish size and charisma that got fans rallied behind him, which is no different than Trump’s own mainstream popularity through TV, which is how, I believe, he won the election the first time.

In the end for Hogan, it was a no brainer situation for Vince to quickly build him up and put the title on him. But one of the key factors about Hogan was all the behind-the-scenes aspects that made him an ideal champion for Vince beyond just his mega star qualities. I think in terms of consistency, his connection with young fans and charity work on top of his marketability which made him a top choice for Vince.

Despite criticisms about John Cena, all the talk about him behind-the-scenes seems to point to a similar type of person. Perhaps, his in ring actions aren’t as fancy as AJ Styles for instance, but the other aspects of being able to carry a company on ones shoulders is what made him a great champion for Vince, sharing those qualities that Hogan possessed.

And it’s funny to look at things in retrospect because you can see how history played out in a certain fashion. For instance, Sid Vicious was another person running parallel to Hogan at one point in time. Although he wasn’t well received seemingly behind the scenes by people like the Horsemen, Sid had that freakish look and amazing charisma that made him seem reminiscent of a peak Hogan. More than that he looked athletic and had an updated, brutal move set and seemed in far better shape than Hogan.

Some people I remember (myself included) had pointed out that WCW/NWA made a huge mistake not giving Sid the title roughly in the early 90s (90-91), which seemed like the reason why he would head on north to the WWF. However, it might’ve been an equally grave mistake to have put the title on him due to his inconsistencies and other problems fan could not immediately see. Obviously, the softball affinity played a huge role in denying him more wrestling opportunities. But he also was fairly injury prone (had a couple of major injuries), never had good fundamentals despite having an impressive move set and never seemed to truly care about the business the way the old timers were obsessed with it.

Also, if WCW/NWA had placed the title on him between 90-91, it probably would have been a grave mistake. At that point, he wasn’t mature to the business and probably would have been exposed quickly. That’s probably why they focused more on Sting since Sting was having better matches, had great potential, was kid friendly and seemed consistent (although he did have his share of bad injuries that stymied critical points in his career).

In touching upon the idea of maturity, it’s clear now that Sid wasn’t a great candidate, even though he believed it (and a lot of fans). I think during the ’93 WCW scissors incident with Arn Anderson, the issue there was how Sid (drunk) had easily been prodded into a fight where he felt held down by the old timers like Flair. While there’s probably a degree of truth in that, the reality is that Sid should have handled the situation better (for obvious reasons) as he was the one fired. But that partly goes to show that whether you have the talent, popularity and crowd behind you, you still need other attributes to take you further in that type of business.

Another champion that I can say in retrospect was probably not a great choice at the end of the day was Chris Benoit. As a pure wrestling talent, Chris Benoit was obviously great. No one could ever deny what he could do inside the ring. Everything else was suspect, especially as details arose after Nancy’s death.

While from a workhorse point of view, Chris Benoit had truly earned the right to be a world champion, being a pro-wrestling champion in the biggest wrestling (ahem sports marketing) company on the planet is a completely different beast. While he had the work ethic to handle the punishment of the road, Benoit, I feel, lacked the mental conditioning to really handle what was necessary for being a champion.

I think part of what it means to be a champion goes beyond ones ability in the ring. For the WWE at least, being a champion is being the paragon of excellence, the person who can handle the strenuous activities of a road life, be the person that the fans can look up to and be more than anything else reliable for the company in these aspects.

On the surface, Chris Benoit may appear to have satisfied those requirements but I think internally he was combusting. Obviously, Eddie Guerrero’s death had a major impact on his mental health that he probably never recovered from. However, I think he was split emotionally by his duty to his family and his love for the business. Perhaps, he loved the business too much and failed to understand how to handle life without wrestling as he knew it.

And from Nancy’s sister’s interviews, it sounded as though when Benoit became champion he really changed. The paranoia ramped up with him feeling as though there were stalkers every where. Probably, a good portion of his issues was the pressure of maintaining his status as the champion. He was very self-critical so that would have added more pressure. I wouldn’t doubt that his title loss was partly to get a break from that pressure.

But knowing how to handle pressure is part of being mature as a person. One of the biggest things I believe is that after Eddie Guerrero’s death, Benoit should have sought psychiatric help and took significant time off to heal. His son, during one of the interviews from the Dark Side of Wrestling, had mentioned that he wished that Benoit had retired at Wrestlemania when he won the championship with Eddie Guerrero. In many ways, I agree. More than likely, he would have been still alive.

Part of the reason I wrote this blog up was in thinking about a discussion I had with another person I would trade wrestling tapes with ages ago. I remember having a debate where I had attended an Arsion show, their biggest at the time, and seeing Ayako Hamada/Akino vs Mima/Mita in 1999. I believe Ayako/Akino won and I took exception to this. The other person mentioned it was the right decision, but I still think it might not have been the best in retrospect.

Part of the issue I had (outside of being fans of LCO at the time) was that I heard of Hamada having attitude problems. Behind the scenes, she had a big ego even before her first match, knowing that her family was known in the wrestling world. After a point, I heard she wasn’t attending the dojo to train and that people would wonder about her whereabouts. I can’t remember exactly if it was this match where after winning she had disappeared. It might’ve been later when she beat Aja Kong for the championship. But it was a strange story nonetheless.

Now, when she entered TNA, she had a lot of positive hype coming in. A lot of fans were happy to see her, giving her heaps of praise because of her being a “legend.” I kept thinking about her problems back in Arsion and when she left TNA, I kept thinking it was a rather spurious decision.

Later, I found out she had been arrested on drug charges, imprisoned and announcing her own retirement. I don’t know if she ever matured but part of me wonders if that night she disappeared that she went “partying” given the drug charges she had.

The point here is that all that hype and pushing her seemed pointless in some way. The idea of having a key win translating into someone becoming an instant star to me is like giving a director title promotion¬† to a developer that’s been working for only a year because that person made a single feature that got buzz in the office. So given the circumstances, I still stand by my view that they should have lost that night and that the promotion shouldn’t have been so desperate to build “new” stars but groom them slowly.

Again, this is why fans being too big of a judge in helping to decide which person should be champion is a problem in wrestling. Obviously, it’s necessary to listen to the fans in selecting certain choices of people who begin to stand out. But ensuring that a person can be consistent in handling the stress of that position is equally critical, probably more so than randomly pushing someone just because they’re getting more cheers.

And it’s funny when you hear how people are already groaning about Charlotte Flair most likely going over Asuka in the upcoming Wrestlemania match. The thing about Flair is that she’s consistent and hits all the marks for what the WWE looks for in a champion. That’s why she does well in it. Asuka might be the better worker in the ring and she does have a lot of charisma, but the sad reality is that her English is problematic for the WWE platform. It’s a reality but that’s why Becky was great for them while she was active.

Asuka might be like Benoit (except in a better mental state) in that her best purpose within the WWE might be not as champion but a transitional top star like a Jake the Snake Roberts, Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff or a Barry Windham who can help the next generation of people to get over. It’s not actually as bad of a place to be given that Asuka has that ability.

But as a champion, as I mentioned before, you have to hit all marks pretty consistently. Especially as a WWE champion. In Asuka’s case, while she is very likeable and that I personally enjoy her YouTube channel, I cannot see her as a super star objectively. She is the girl next door, the person you can see at the market, etc. which her videos make her out to be.

Compare that to say Andre the Giant in his prime or The Rock. Those type of people are intangible. They have that truly larger-than-life feel where you are separated by the wall of celebrity that make them stand out no matter where they go.

But that goes back to Nick Bockwinkel and Hulk Hogan at the start of this blog. It’s very obvious in retrospect why things ended up as they are. As good as Bockwinkel was, he just never was a real super star. He was a great pro-wrestler and fit the mold perfectly. But Hulk Hogan was on another dimension that few could touch at his peak.

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