Back in 1983, I was a four year old kid who loved his Saturday morning cartoons, riding his bicycle to the park down the street and wanting to be part of the A-Team. Little did I know that in December of that year, my life would change forever. It was New York City, and the venue was Madison Square Garden. The event was a WWF championship match featuring the champion, Bob Backlund, against a guy named the Iron Sheik, who they said was from Iran. Even as a kid, I always knew Americans didn't like Iran, but I would not know until later why. Sure enough, on this night, I heard everyone cheer Backlund and boo the Sheik. This pretty much was my introduction to pro wrestling.
Of course, we all know the story goes that Backlund lost the match due to his manager, Arnold Skaaland, throwing in the towel and giving the title to the hated Sheik. One month later, a 6'8" 300 pound blond Adonis named Hulk Hogan would beat the Sheik for the title, and a whole new era of wrestling called Hulkamania would be born.
Now, as a 30 year old, I can look back to the good and bad that came from that January night in 1984 to see how wrestling has gone from that stage to where it is today. The owner of the WWF (now WWE) is Vince McMahon. Vince had a vision to bring wrestling to a national audience, in contrast to the promoters of the day that kept everything to regional territories. Vince has been accused of raiding these promotions for talent, but considering his grand vision, there was really no choice. From Hogan to Roddy Piper, Greg Valentine and Randy Savage, McMahon took great talent from the NWA, AWA, UWF and World Class and created an international phenomenon. And it worked. Wrestling got a needed face lift from the "Rock 'n Wrestling" era, and the first big boom occurred.
Now, don't get me wrong. Once I saw wrestling, I didn't only watch WWF. I watched the other organizations also, and in particular the NWA when it was on Saturday nights on TBS. While Vince raided a lot of talent, Jim Crockett, the President of the NWA, held on to his most important assets. The biggest of these was Ric Flair, a brash champion with incredible stamina who drew anywhere he went in the world. He also was easy to hate, and I learned quickly that any good guy needed a really good bad guy to work with to make him that much more heroic. The NWA had their good guy, and that guy was the " American Dream" Dusty Rhodes. The Rhodes-Flair feud was very compelling, if for nothing else because Flair never met Rhodes 1-on-1. Every time, Flair had a group with him called the Four Horsemen, and Rhodes was always a step away from beating Flair and taking his belt. And Flair was so good that he could make a wrestler (Sting, Ron Garvin, Rick Steamboat), then win the belt back to make another star later on.
Now that I have taken you on my history lesson, we move to present day wrestling. I know I am leaving out about 20 more years of history, but the two big leagues of today, WWE and TNA, could learn a lot from the wrestling world of the 1980's. Jake Roberts has been interviewed several times and states that, " Guys don't work holds anymore, and their timing is so off because everything is so choreographed. Guys can't talk anymore either. Promoters rush hands into the ring before they have learned to work." Truer words have never been spoken, and this is one of many lessons needing to be learned from today's top leagues. There are many others.
People on the dirt sheets are very critical of HHH, the current WWE champion, for holding guys down and hogging the top spot. Well, if we look back to 1984, Hulk Hogan won the WWF title, and he proceeded to hold on to the belt until February 5, 1988. That's a little over four years. Did he hog the spotlight? Of course, but that was Vince's vision. WWF, and its predecessor WWWF, always believed in having elongated face (or good guy) champions. Bruno Sammartino was a top draw in the 1960's and early 70's. He won the title in 1963 and would hold it until 1971 (the longest male championship reign in history). After him, Pedro Morales would become champion for three years, and then the aforementioned Bob Backlund would be champion for five years.
So, McMahon loves to have his top guys remain in the top spots for long periods of time. However, let's go back to the Ric Flair discussion. Why is his long time at the top and Hogan's so different? It's due to creating new stars. Flair helped the careers of Magnum TA, Sting, Ricky Steamboat, Ron Garvin and Lex Luger by competing in high profile matches with them and making them look strong. Hulk Hogan was not created to sell other guys. Other guys were put in line to continue to build Hogan. Was this effective? Of course, but it did retard the growth of other superstars. This is why Vince had to go out and get talent like JYD, Valentine, Piper and Savage to come in. He needed ready to go talent molded by other promoters to help elevate his champion. And with the possible exception of Ultimate Warrior, no one can say Hulk Hogan elevated any talent in his WWF tenure. And in WCW, maybe Goldberg, but no one really there either.
Is this wrong? No, but the WWF and NWA had a different way of doing business. In today's world, WWE still is doing business the same way, where HHH, Undertaker, Batista, John Cena, Edge and Randy Orton have all been involved in the WWE/World Title picture in one form or another since 2004. There was a period from April, 2004 to June, 2008 where there was not a championship match where at least one of these performers participated. TNA has dealt with the same issue. Samoa Joe, Sting, Christian Cage, Kurt Angle and Booker T always are involved in the championship picture. TNA seems hesitant to want to elevate their younger talent also.
This leads us to where we stand today: two leagues stuck in stagnation. TNA is starting to get it, as it is trying to promote a battle between their new, younger stars and the stars of the past from WCW/WWE who have come in to boost TNA's ratings and give the league credibility. WWE attempted to do this in June, when CM Punk, Kofi Kingston, Ted Dibiase Jr. and Cody Rhodes were all given titles on Raw. This seemed a great idea, as it was important for the older veterans to help mold the new guys for the spots they will need to carry in the future. However, the Kingston IC reign was cut short at SummerSlam in a terribly booked match with the Women's Title also being on line. Then, the angle with CM Punk losing his title at Night of Champions was silly, as he did not even wrestle in the match. So, WWE abandoned the youth movement before it even had time to gain momentum.
To gain credibility, I believe these steps must be taken to start boosting buyrates and gaining wrestling some needed credibility again. First, like Flair, WWE and TNA need their top stars to have high profile matches against the next generation of stars. Sting vs. Samoa Joe is a nice step for TNA, as Sting could put over Joe as a power house with a clean win in this match, or if Sting wins, using the bat to cheat Joe out of his belt. HHH needs to lose clean to Jeff Hardy. I am not a Jeff Hardy fan (love Matt though), but as he is a marketable star to the fans, a WWE title run would help to create something new and fresh. Undertaker should lose finally at a WrestleMania, but not to a Shawn Michaels or HHH. Undertaker has had opportunities to put over Batista, Randy Orton and Edge at Mania only to let ego get in the way and his precious record be saved. Batista and Orton were able to recover from that, but I believe Edge's momentum as a bad ass heel went away, which eventually led to the hideous Edge/Vickie Guerrero angle.
WWE has plenty of young talent to push. In addition to the men listed above, guys like Mr. Kennedy, MVP, Vladimir Kozlov, R-Truth, the Brian Kendrick, Shelton Benjamin and Evan Bourne all have marketable skills. Some are great talkers, others great aerial wrestlers and others great technical wrestlers. HHH could have matches with some of these guys, and he doesn't have to lose to them, but just make them look good in defeat, or in other words, make it look like you might lose. This is what used to work, and it still can today.
Another aspect of wrestling that is missing is feeling for characters. It is a new world today, and not everything is black and white. However, when Hogan faced the Iron Sheik, it was clear that the fans were to hate the Sheik and cheer Hogan. Now, let's look at Sting and Samoa Joe. No one knows who to love or hate. I assume Sting is supposed to be the bad guy, but I'm not 100% sure, as some of his points about respect in his promos make sense. WWE, to their credit, have clearly created a heel superstar for Raw in Chris Jericho (who is in the strongest run of his career). However, with Randy Orton being on Raw, they have him going after heels and faces. Which side is he actually on? I think this ambiguous way of selling the wrestlers makes it so fans don't know how to feel. Clearly define your wrestlers. Fans can make up their minds if they want to cheer the bad guy or not, but clearly make a face a face and a heel a heel.
This leads me to the next point: heels being stronger than faces. This is HHH's biggest fault in his long run atop WWE. When you are a heel wrestler, at least for most of my fandom, you are supposed to look inferior to your face challenger. You will try to pull out every dirty trick to win, or you will get yourself DQ'd or counted out to save your title. Beating a guy in the middle of the ring with your finisher not only makes the face look inept and weak, but it kills off what the main point of the heel is. If you are a heel and are kicking out of the face's finishing move, then the face appears to be weak and incapable of beating the top stars. This MUST change, as it does not hurt a heel to look weak. To fans, it makes the heel easier to hate, as you know they are inferior to the opponents you love, and thus makes it more possible to believe your heroes will finally win over the hated heel.
Finally, and this is the biggest one of all. wrestlers need to get back to working wrestling matches. What I mean is that the idea of calling matches in the ring and not having high spots scripted out in the back. Bret Hart was a master of this, as he would be able to read crowd emotion and change his style based on the fan reaction. Again, like Jake Roberts has hounded on, " You can get the same reaction from an elbow drop as you can a moonsault if it is sold properly." If we as fans are to believe what we see, we cannot wait through the boring match just to get to the high spot of Jeff Hardy hitting a swanton bomb or a whisper in the wind. The match has to be about more than that.
When Vince McMahon purchased WCW in 2001, I thought this would be a great thing, as he would have a whole new crop of guys with which to blend in with his stars already in WWE. Vince has failed to do this, and now, wrestling has suffered. TNA and WWE must learn from the NWA's example and build from within, and let new talent be able to work and look good with the old guard. If they are able to do this, wrestling can get back to 1990's form, or better yet 1980's form. Right Ric?