My Childhood Has Risen From the Grave
All of a sudden, it feels like 1998 again. While I’m sure a careful analysis of wrestling’s last true boom period would have 1997 as the peak of the WCW/WWF Monday night war, 1998 was when it was the most alive for me–when Austin vs. McMahon took over the majority of WWF television, when Mick Foley finally became a superstar, and when Chris Jericho turned heel and became something ultimately too good for WCW to handle correctly. Aside from WCW’s neverending list of cock-ups that year–from the abortion of the Sting vs. Hogan feud (which could have been the biggest ever) to the mishandling of the nWo breaking up to the end of Bill Goldberg’s winning streak at the end of the year, few companies have done more in less time to effectively destroy a once-brilliant product–wrestling never felt more alive, more full of possibility. It is therefore understandable that promotions like the WWE keep around guys like Steve Austin for the occasional angle, why they sign guys like The Rock to gigantic money contracts to wrestle a match or two than disappear into the ether, and even that other companies, like TNA, are willing to sign up the talent of that era–your Road Doggs and your Goldusts and, yes, your Mick Foleys–and present them as twisted grotesques of what came before, but this almost singleminded devotion to what was so great about the past has also led to mainstream wrestling being stuck in a creative rut the likes of which would have been unimaginable to me as a kid.
But, like I said, it feels like 1998 again, and that means that wrestling, for the first time since Vince McMahon put WCW out of its misery, once again feels full of possibility. I don’t think this is the first time I’ve said such a thing since I started semi-regularly writing about the TV shows being produced for national television by three (count ‘em: three) wildly different wrestling promotions, but it’s true; even if you don’t like the cut of WWE, TNA, or Ring of Honor’s jib (and there are arguments for not liking all three products, to be sure), the independent scene is producing more good non-McMahon wrestling than at any point since the territorial system, Ring of Honor presents something wholly different from the WWE or TNA’s WWE-lite routine, and TNA finally has a world champion who has never appeared on an episode of Raw or Nitro. Wrestling, by its nature as a live, weekly, and scripted product, is a fairly calamitous business, and my goodwill for it could be out the window this time next week. But I don’t think that’s the case. Like I said, it feels a lot like 1998, and this week, that doesn’t mean I was enlivened by the still-awesome Funkasaurus. Here’s what’s up…
Mick Foley is Mick Foley
When Mick Foley asked to be released from his TNA contract last year, it was clear as day that he was coming home to the loving arms of Vince McMahon and the WWE. Considering he was returning during one of the Rock/Cena feud’s busy periods, it even made sense that he’d rehash the old Rock/Mankind this is your life segments and that, like their predecessors, the one he’d do with John Cena was terrible to the point of being kind of humorous (Cena’s dad would make a fabulous heel manager). I thought that was where Foley’s involvement with the WWE would end–the occasional guest humor spot and an induction into the WWE hall of fame–but then he starts off Monday Night Raw.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but Mick Foley is my all-time favorite wrestler, and was the guy I’d indiscriminately name drop as such whenever asked (now, to be a jerk, I tell them “Sara Del Rey” and grin, smugly). I like his wrestling style, I like his interviews, I like most of the books he’s written, and, for most overweight Attitude era obsessives, he’s something of an avatar, a best case scenario, a feel-good story. Mick Foley, in the very unreal world of professional wrestling, is the most genuine character the medium has ever produced. When he says he’s glad to have gone to Disneyland, he means it. When he mentions that he wants to wrestle because he wants his kids to be able to see him at an age where they’ll remember it, he means it. Yes, he just got done in TNA, where he played a cruelly twisted take on, given his foil, WCW and ECW era Cactus Jacks and late-WWF Muppet Mick Foley, but the paycheck was decent and he wasn’t getting yelled at and he got to work in a theme park and he wasn’t exactly put in a position where he could make somebody a star, so whatever.
This is the WWE, however, and they’ve been mostly wise in how they put forth post-career Mick Foley. Dolph Ziggler’s beef with Mick smacks of Ric Flair’s issues with him from 2006, which resulted in an excellent series of promos with a few disappointing blow-off matches. Mick’s desire to have a moment his kids can be proud of sounds a lot like his motivation for his feud against Edge going into Wrestlemania 22, which was without question Foley’s best WrestleMania match, and one of his better WWE feuds in general.
On an off night, with nothing better to do than play Santa Claus, Mick Foley is one of wrestling’s greatest gifts. On an off night, against a broomstick, Dolph Ziggler is one of the best in the WWE. Given how things are progressing, it doesn’t look like Ziggler has a set WrestleMania opponent, and the WWE usually never does build-up for a nostalgia Royal Rumble entrant. If this leads to a WrestleMania match between the two, and Foley ends up being a serious version of himself, out to prove that he’s not washed up, the next few months will be tremendous, regardless of how often the Rock appears via satellite to pop #boots2asses on Twitter.
Chris Jericho is Chris Jericho
And right now, he’s the overblown, cartoonish Chris Jericho who grew up to be too big for WCW. Well, not cartoonish in quite the same way he was back in 1998, but he mugs like that Jericho, gets the crowd hyped up like that Jericho, and stabs them in the back like that Jericho. As evidenced by every post on this blog, I’m an absolutely huge nerd with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the wrestling I grew up watching, and seeing Chris Jericho, in 2012, do the things he did then to the current WWE crowd, and to watch it actually work, is awesome. More awesome: The fact that he’s successfully trolled three live audiences without saying a single word.
His entrance this past Monday was great, too: one so long that the other four men who were involved managed to come out before Jericho made it to the ring. His silent return three weeks ago was one of the best swerves in wrestling history (not hard, since most swerves are horrible): There wasn’t a person watching that night who didn’t believe Jericho was coming out, and most of us expected another take on his 1999 WWF debut, which is what we got when he made his first comeback in 2007. He’s got the flamboyant jacket, the “C’MON, BABY,” and the crowd chanting “Y2J” like the masterful heel run that saw him exit the WWE never happened, and he’s managed to be a highlight of the show every week. Does he do the silent entry/exit at the Royal Rumble? Does he make his intentions known soon? Is he shooting straight for CM Punk at WrestleMania? It doesn’t matter. Jericho appears to have lost nothing while away from the WWE, and during his last run, he finally made good on the promise he had way back in WCW–he wasn’t just flash, he wasn’t just gimmick, but he was one of the smartest, most entertaining wrestlers in the world. If he is on a pay per view, I am buying it.
CM Punk and Johnny Ace are Steve Austin and Vince McMahon, Kinda
Because calling CM Punk Steve Austin is unfair to what the two of them represented to their time and their fanbase, and because Johnny Ace, swarthy, evil GM that he is, is an entirely different evil from Vince McMahon. See, Vince McMahon is the kind of dude who’d walk up to Hulk Hogan and spit in his eye. The sort of dude who challenges God to a wrestling match on pay per view and books himself to win. The sort of dude who’ll write you out of history in 1994 and write your obituary in Time Magazine in 2011. Vince McMahon is evil incarnate, man. He’d call his daughter a whore on live TV if he thought it’d sell tickets, and, hey, he did just that on more than one occasion. People put Austin vs. McMahon over as the working man against the evil boss, but really, it was the working man vs. the Devil, and people’ll buy tickets to see a representation of themselves fight evil of that magnitude.
Johnny Ace, on the other-hand, is a more subtle kind of evil. He’s the terrible boss, the underling who looks at a guy like Vince McMahon and says “Sure boss, you vs. God ought to be great.” When CM Punk ousted Vince McMahon from WWE storylines last year, it was because he didn’t care what the Devil could do to him–he was above temptation, he was better than anything McMahon could level. He demanded the private bus, the souvenir cups, the WWE Ice Cream Bars, was promised them, then pledged to leave McMahon without a championship anyway. Ace is the kind of guy Punk can’t get rid of though, because Big Johnny isn’t looking to Punk as his reason for being–he’s looking for the approval of the boss.
Now you have the worker vs. boss plotline at its most basic. Johnny Ace wants Punk gone because Punk doesn’t respect him, but he can’t fire him because Punk makes the company a lot of money and because his boss was relieved of his duties for trying to pull the exact same stunt. Punk, by the same token, wants Ace out, but since Ace has been walked all over for practically his entire American career, he’s not going anywhere. The only thing to do, then, is for the two to constantly antagonize each other. Punk does this:
And Ace, angry and with cause, declares himself the special guest referee for Punk’s match at the Royal Rumble and does this:
Both men have a legitimate reason to be upset with each other, and it’s done a few things that, months ago, I wouldn’t have assumed possible. First, it led CM Punk out of his post-Money in the Bank rut, where he was stuck going nowhere against Triple H, Kevin Nash, Alberto Del Rio, The Miz, and John Cena. No matter how good Punk’s matches were (and they were good), they were always going to be shadowed by the sense that his breakthrough summer was being wasted. Second, it’s made David Otunga, who I thought would be fired by now, an effective shitheel. Third, it’s given Johnny Ace, a successful wrestler in Japan and the inventor of the Diamond Cutter/RKO, an American career worth writing home about.
Ace’s career in America didn’t flounder because he lacked talent (he wasn’t great, and he wasn’t his brother, but he wasn’t horrible). The guy was given limited roles (the flag carrier for the Bushwhackers!) and lame gimmicks (a surfer!) and he did the best he could with them (he learned to skateboard for his role as one half of the Dynamic Dudes, which is more than what most people in lame job gimmicks do for their craft). Now, in 2012, he is the most over heel in wrestling. He declares his name and the crowd goes apoplectic. He demands a separate camera to wish John Morrison the best in his future endeavors. He “forgets” to check the envelope that says Zack Ryder isn’t medically cleared to compete. Worst of all for the fans, aside from a few flubs, he seems like a competent man for the job of running Raw, which is more than Triple H, Vince McMahon, and the Muppets can say. He knows his limitations, he knows what hardcore fans think of him, and he has turned it into an absolutely fascinating study in jealousy, fear, and ego. I’ve said it before, and every week he makes me believe it: Johnny Ace is entering McMahon/Eric Bischoff/Paul Heyman territory as a dickish authority figure, and that, right there, is rarefied air.
Mr. Exciting, indeed.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.