Welcome, welcome, wrestling fans, to another sizzling edition of The Four Corners, where we gather four stories from around the wrestling world and bring them together with the usual fanfare and expertise that you've come to expect from TJR. In between the sonic enjoyment of Ray LaMontagne's back catalog and the utter enjoyment of watching John Malkovich in Crossbones, the excitement from these summer months has been in watching the latest developments from the wrestling universe at large. Let's get to the stories!
The Red, White & Boo
July 4th always makes me think of the usual things: backyard barbecues, illegal lawn darts, and more margaritas than you can shake an inebriated stick at. But one of the biggest reminders of Independence Day is recalling some of the truly awful patriotic gimmicks that professional wrestling has been saddled with over the decades. Don't get me wrong, I'm for a dose of healthy nationalism and bravura as much as the next guy or gal, but with wrestling becoming more and more international as the years roll on, it's truly alarming how the creative teams of the largest promotions in existence keep heading to the wall to drag out another flag-waving gimmick. There certainly have been times when it's worked (and worked well), but when it's been bad, it's been deadly bad. To wit:
Mr. America: Fans the world over associate Hulk Hogan with the red, white and blue. When you come down to the ring to the strands of "Real American," that's an obvious assessment. Less obvious (and far more confusing) was the brief blip in the Hulkster's career circa 2003. Following WrestleMania XIX, wherein Hogan rid himself of all nWo vestiges and defeated Vince McMahon in a match "20 Years in the Making" and twenty minutes too long, McMahon carried out a storyline where he was so fed up with his former meal ticket that he did the unthinkable and forced Hogan to take his check and sit out the rest of his contract. (I know, I know, it sounds like a WCW idea, except they did it for real.) This caused Hogan to reappear as the mysterious Mr. America, who was scooped up by Smackdown's general manager Stephanie McMahon and introduced in several vignettes.
Mr. America, naturally, arrived to the ring accompanied by the same music as Hulk, did all of the same poses and ministrations in the ring, and even referred to his antagonists as "brother." He also looked like your Captain America Halloween costume, assuming you used whatever you had around the garage and stitched it together in the dark. Vince was vexed and attempted to out Mr. America as his nemesis Hogan; Mr. America denied all accusations and even successfully passed a lie detector test to prove the elder McMahon was mistaken. Never immune to questionable self-booking, Hogan reportedly noticed the success of his "new" gimmick reflected in his checks and after unmasking to the fans following a loss, was "fired" by Vince after already quitting the company. When you can take one of the most recognizable patriotic gimmicks ever and turn it into crud, you've truly achieved.
Lex Express: Poor Lex Luger. With the physique of an Adonis (not Adrian, natch) and the look of your All-American prototype, there could be little doubt he would eventually become an incredibly popular WWE champion. Unfortunately for Lex, by the time Vinnie Mac and company warmed to the idea that Luger could play patriot after the departure of Hulk Hogan for greener pastures, he had already suffered through the embarrassment of the WBF, a serious motorcycle accident, and the Narcissist gimmick. The bloom was off this rose before it had even had a chance to grow. Doubling down on his sizable investment, Vince and the brass rebranded Luger as an All-American hero, slapping some Old Glory trunks on him and shuttling him down to the USS Intrepid to bodyslam the indomitable World champion Yokozuna.
The slam itself, though more obviously staged than usual, was actually fairly well done. It's where the angle went from there that things really got mystifying. Lex toured the country on a bus called, naturally, the "Lex Express," meeting fans and attempting to get the obvious shot at Yoko's gold. All the glad-handing paid off, as Luger took on the massive Yokozuna at SummerSlam with the stipulation being he would never get another chance at the belt. Naturally, using the strategy and smarts he's known for, Luger used his "illegal" forearm plate to slay the beast and win the match...by countout. It should not be surprising that matches against the likes of Ludvig Borga and Tatanka would not be far behind.
The Patriot: Del Wilkes had been The Patriot for years before appearing in the WWE, winning titles in the GWF, All Japan, and WCW. By the time he surfaced in the World Wrestling Federation, it was 1997 and Bret Hart had just created his acclaimed Anti-American Foundation. Wilkes was brought in to stand up for Old Glory, and he racked up some impressive wins in a short time span, most notably over Hart himself in late July (with help from Bret's age-old nemesis Shawn Michaels). Patriot came up short in his bid to unseat Hart as WWF Champion at Ground Zero, and his hulking physique and questionable charisma failed to capture the hearts of the fans. By the time he suffered a triceps injury heading into a big match at Survivor Series, the decision had likely already been made to move on. Being replaced by Steve "Lethal Weapon" Blackman? Priceless.
It wasn't all bad news for Wilkes, as his entrance music was handed off to Kurt Angle, who successfully managed to work both the face and heel facets of his nationalistic character. Wilkes, to his credit, has been upfront about his addictions and steroid use since retiring from the business. Unfortunately for him, his current feud with fellow WWE castoff Salvatore Sincere over whether or not The Patriot gimmick was sold has proven far more interesting than anything he did in his World Wrestling Federation tenure.
So make sure you take a moment or two to remember those questionable gimmicks of the past, and count down the minutes until you see the next one on your television set. This is one category that will surely have some additions before too long.
As The Shield Turns
Reports have already begun surfacing that the WWE will be reuniting The Shield, potentially in late 2015 or early 2016. As hilarious as it is to think that the creative team is that far ahead of themselves when they are scrapping entire Raw shows moments before on-air time, this news is not very surprising at all. The Shield were perfect current day antiheroes, as they gained fan support even while decimating popular wrestlers and eventually leveled off into an anarchist type grouping who chose to defy authority and march to the beat of their own drummer. They looked cool, dressed like extras from Mission: Impossible, and came through the crowd to the ring. Everything changes in wrestling, however, and eventually Triple H struck while the iron was red hot and had Seth Rollins memorably turn on his two partners, Dean Ambrose and Roman Reigns.
The future looks rosy for all three men right now, despite my personal misgivings about the timing of the turn. Rollins has a contract for a World Title shot, which is a delicious and appropriate twist on the angle, and has major heat with Ambrose, who is incredibly over with the bulk of the fanbase. Due to both men's excellent ring work, that will be a feud that could last months without getting stale if booked properly. By the time it's over, both men will truly be stars. As for Reigns, in addition to being placed in high-profile matches even before the break, it's rumored that the company's grand plans may be for him to supplant Daniel Bryan as the next big deal in the WWE Universe and defeat Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 31.
That may seem to be a bit too much gazing in the crystal ball for this moment, but there can be no doubt that Roman has impressed the brass with his look and his work and he will be getting every opportunity to carry the ball in a major way for the company over the coming years. And therein lies the difficulty in even discussing the group reuniting: all three men have bona fide opportunities for major singles success, and the establishment of each as their own unique character after the groupthink, all-for-one and one-for-all bravura that marked their Shield days. Naturally, people look forward to popular groups such as DX realigning, but much of that coterie is inactive and it's a one-night type deal. It's certainly not to imply that the single players can't do anything together in the distant future, but the decision was made to break it and they should stick with it for better or worse. If these three gentlemen aren't at the top of the card by next year's WrestleMania, WWE is doing it wrong.
One of the more bizarre incidents in recent memory came to the fore this week in the WWE (and that's saying something), as WWE Diva Emma was temporarily released by the promotion after a shoplifting incident in Hartford, Connecticut. Emma reportedly took an iPad case from the store, while her lawyer described the unfortunate situation as an accident this past Tuesday in court. Details in this type of situation are always sketchy, but the WWE wasted little time firing off a digital statement in which they stated that Emma was ultimately responsible for her own actions. The next day, she was reading the infamous "future endeavors" headline we've all come to know and love on wwe.com.
It was only a matter of hours later that the WWE reversed their own website posting, revealing that punitive action for her violation of the"upon further evaluation, WWE has reinstated Emma but will take appropriate punitive action for her violation of the law." One can assume that that punitive action will include the community service she was sentenced to perform on the sixth-degree larceny charge. The incident itself is embarrassing for all involved but not that big of a deal at the end of the day, particularly in an athletic arena where bad behavior is all too frequent. I have no knowledge of Emma personally, but appreciate her attempt to make her character stand out and be different, even if those attempts have not to date been particularly successful on the big stage.
What's more interesting here is the about-face of the WWE concerning the situation, and the speculation that it's due to the company not wanting to set a precedent about the result of such an activity. That would be wise for Titan Tower, as they have had numerous contracted talents do far worse than possible shoplifting and keep their jobs. While it's clearly important for a sport aimed and marketed to kids to have solid citizens as role models to look up to, mistakes are part of life and should be treated on a case by case basis. Crimes like drug dealing and driving under the influence can and do have far more catastrophic effects. Wrestling has always been tainted by the whiff of nepotism, branching back to the territorial days, and one doesn't need to look too far past one's nose to believe that hype. It wasn't too long ago that fellow WWE Diva Cameron was arrested for DUI and reportedly tried bribing the arresting officer on top of it. Her punishment? Still waiting. Consistency is important for any organization, and talent must be mindful of their responsibility to straighten up and fly right, but context is a valuable teacher.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Out
Meanwhile, over at TNA, changes are a-brewin'. As reported some short weeks ago in this space, the 6-sided ring has made its much-ballyhooed return to the promotion. While I remain skeptical on that decision, I admit full delight in the latest development, that being the removal of the Dixie Carter character from TNA storylines and television. Reports have surfaced from Impact tapings already in the can that Dixie was powerbombed through a table by Bully Ray, thus ending her run as an everyday on-air character for TNA. Carter has been much maligned for her decision to firmly insert herself with both feet into most major TNA plots over the last several years, and has unquestionably presided over some of the stranger decisions to plague the promotion, resulting in a diminishing of talented personnel and serious concerns about the company's future.
Looking over the work of Carter would require a column all its own, but was at its creative acme when she did battle with Eric Bischoff and Hulk Hogan over the reigns of TNA. While not groundbreaking, it was an effective use of known quantities. Things started to unravel with the Dixie/AJ Styles/Claire Lynch melodrama, but really spun out of control when Carter attempted to reinvent her on-air persona as a villainous heel. This was the beginning of a Pandora's box of sludge that included her back-and-forth ultimatums with Hulk Hogan during his eventual jump to the competition, the yawning maw of a mess that was her feud with AJ Styles before his eventual departure, and her raiding of the McMahon Family Playbook, featuring everything from cutting off the microphones and cameras to forcing Earl Hebner to follow her instructions.
Not everything TNA has done lately has been a failure, but their insistence to continue to rely on yesterday's news and to place questionable folks in top-level positions (no offense, Ms. Hemme) has done them no favors. Dixie stands to face stiffer competition from ROH and former partner Jeff Jarrett's new promotion and simply cannot afford to lose further focus. For one night, anyway, she made the right decision.