Wrestling Reflections: The Hand of Time and Its Inherent Effect Upon Perception
Let's be honest here, everyone has a favorite wrestler. The longer you've been a fan, the more likely it is that the favorite no longer actively competes. I don't mean this to be stating the obvious by that. Instead, what I mean is that fans usually flock to the earliest stars they see.
For example, those who began watching in the Attitude Era would generally be inclined to be fans of guys like Steve Austin, The Rock or Mick Foley before John Cena, Randy Orton or C.M. Punk. I personally can tell you, I'm a huge fan of Cena and always have been because he was the reason I started watching wrestling.
As a fan who has only been watching for a decade now, I can tell you that I don't fully understand the impact of guys like Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage. Despite watching countless hours of video from various wrestling eras, I still can't claim to fully understand any era before the year of 2002.
How many fans watching wrestling today once watched Hulkamania run wild? How many even saw the NWO explode onto the scene back in 1996? The percentage of wrestling fans is minuscule at best, and this creates a huge discrepancy in how fans see the WWE's past stars.
This is no more prevalent a fact than today, when more than ever, the stars of the past are being seen in many WWE and TNA guest roles. A few are even working part-time schedules as challengers in WWE, most notably The Rock.
What does all this overexposure to past stars mean to today's fans, who can barely understand what these guys did in the past? Does the exposure now create a false sense of apprehension toward these stars or possibly even cause false appreciation? It is all a bit confusing as to how limited knowledge and experience can affect one's perceptions.
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During Impact Wrestling, I still hear the name Hulk Hogan on a weekly basis. That's the same guy who began wrestling in 1977. Thirty-five years is a long time to know one wrestler.
They say that "absence makes the heart grow fonder," and it's true in the wrestling world.
As much as I am a huge fan of Steve Austin, he had it really easy in that regard. Austin spent his five years at the top of the industry, and his injuries kept him fresh. Even his brief late turn as a heel was just a brief change of pace for him as he went face again and then retired.
Austin was always fresh because he would never be a top star for a sustained time. There were always injuries or scenarios that developed his run at the top. A guy like like Hogan never had that break in action during his run at the top. He was always the sustained man at the top, same as John Cena is today.
Hulk Hogan, at least, still makes for a decent on-screen talent, though, even if he is a bit overused and overhyped ad nauseum.
There is one man who literally has gone so far past his prime that he should never be in front of a camera again. That being Ric Flair.
With 40 years in wrestling, at the age of 63, Flair has gone to the point where I wonder if anyone remembers that Flair was once possibly the greatest wrestler of all time. Watching him today, you'd never believe he used to wrestle hour-long matches and be the best talker in the business.
The problem is that guys like Hogan and Flair will continue to be seen on television joined by other legends over time. The overexposure of these stars will continue to erode the image of who they were by forcing everyone to see who they have become.
The Here and Now
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All of this has a reverse focus as well. How we see stars today is much different from how we see those who have retired or have already created their legacy already.
A 10-year veteran wrestler is much more likely to be criticized than a six-year retired star. It's the way of the world. The past is always the epitome of excellence for most people, while current guys could never match up.
The Attitude Era will always be better than the current era. Bret Hart will always be a better wrestler than anyone on the current roster. The Steve Austin/Vince McMahon feud will always be more exciting and perfect in comparison to any feud we see today.
Now, there is some benefit to being in the present. When something great happens, it will immediately gain exaggerated praise. Over time, it will drift into wrestling history, garnering less praised. At least it will have been one of the greatest ever wrestling moments for the first few months at least.
This balance of exaggeration and nostalgic overhype leads to a very odd view of wrestling where unless things are really bad in the present then basically the present is seen as having unearthed potential while never being good enough to match the great times of the past.
CM Punk has, at times, been considered to be one of the greatest of all time by some already, but over time, he has fallen to the wayside as John Cena did. They still have many who praise them, but they are no Austin or The Rock.
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To be honest, not much of this matters to the wrestling world at large. Legends will still bring larger audiences while current stars will survive any accusations that they are never going to amount to past stars.
What all of this does do, though, is create a lasting legacy over time. Part of being a star in the public eye is making sure that people remember you, but how they remember you can be a huge issue for how a person lives on.
For example, (Warning: a wrestling writer making an NFL reference) I am an avid Green Bay Packers fan, and I have watched the team go through two generations. One was led by Brett Favre, and now, one is led by Aaron Rodgers.
Favre is remembered as one of the greatest to ever play the game, but he also has a huge negative to his name. Favre played an incredible 20 seasons of football, and nearing the end of his run, he angered a lot of people by "retiring" only to come back into the NFL the next year.
His inability to clearly define when his time was up would leave Rodgers, now considered possibly the best QB in the NFL, on the bench uncertain if he would ever get a chance and being teased for one at many points.
While Favre ended up retiring, his final couple years altered his legacy somewhat from the man who just loved playing in the NFL to a guy who was a diva of sorts and couldn't give young talent a fair shot as fair as the perception was or not.
In a similar way, I worry that guys like Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair will retire and be remembered more for the end of their careers than the incredible decades they spent on top of the business. Hogan, especially to this day, is widely scorned by fans who think he was never that great of a wrestler and overrated as they never experienced his time at the top.
For those current stars who eventually retire, this should be a cautionary tale even if it does not end up affecting them as stars in the short term. John Cena, the ultimate work horse, is a guy who will remembered very fondly after he retires, unless he is overused late in his career as is possible.
With CM Punk's insistence that he plans to retire in a few years, expect him to be remembered very fondly by fans for his time at the top. Spending about eight total years in the business and making an impact can leave a stronger lasting impression than being there two decades as people have very short attention spans.
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In the end, how much does a fan's view of a wrestler matter to the wrestler? Probably not a whole lot but the way one lives on through their legacy in the eye's of fan can make for a decided understanding of how they are immortalized.
As a writer with only a decade of wrestling understanding, a lot of how I understand wrestlers comes from those immortalized legacies. What I have been told about them and what I see today are all I can use as a basis.
What The Rock and Brock Lesnar are doing in WWE today could drastically affect how younger fans view those men and remember their legacies. On one hand, they get to experience that which they may never have known otherwise, but they are also not experiencing those stars at their best.
In a business like the WWE that has over 60 years of history and develops around marketing its past and future in a similar fashion, it is essential that people have some real sense of WWE's history and how it relates to today in an unbiased sense which is basically impossible.
So instead, it is our duty as fans individually to recognize how we understand the past and the future of the wrestling business more than anything while the wrestlers need to make sure that they are solidifying their own legacies in the here and now, so that nothing they do drastically alters their own image.
Thank you for reading and I appreciate any and all thoughts below on the article or anything wrestling related.
For those who know me for my past writing here, I have not written here in a while as I have been writing at another site and busy, but I do plan to post here as I can.
If you are looking for more of my content more frequently, check out WrestleEnigma.com. That is also where I posted my previous two articles on my Wrestling Reflections and the original version of this article. If you would like to read any of those, the links are below.