Nostalgia is a great and terrible thing in professional wrestling. To call it a necessary evil would be unfair; there is too much genuine joy to be found in revisiting the history of the art for it to be entirely negative. Used rightly, nostalgia plays into the progressing, epic tale that is pro wrestling. It reminds us what we loved about the past while pointing us toward the future, a guide to what we're seeing based on what we've seen. That said, one of the problems of nostalgia is that it tends to be a lens through which things appear more one dimensional than they really were. I fear this has happened to Eddie Guerrero.
Every retrospective focuses on the "I lie, I cheat, I steal" grinning Guerrero, because in the end that's the most pleasant iteration of Eddie Guerrero for us to remember, the one that goes into soft focus most easily. To be sure, this might be the best character Guerrero crafted; hell, who DOESN'T smile when they think of Eddie tossing a chair to his opponent behind a referee's back and falling to the mat in fake agony for the ref to see?
The nostalgia can, in doses, be great; the problem comes when it flattens out the talent of a performer who could do so many different emotional angles, when the nostalgia over the past of a great talent diminishes the actual legacy of that talent. Because as great as Eddie was when he wanted to be palatable, he was just as great when it came to tapping into the kind of bitterness that could turn an arena full of fans against him. Cheeky, smiling heel Eddie was the most entertaining work of a master; the Eddie that feuded with Rey Mysterio, Jr. for one amazing summer, was a dark, abrasive masterpiece.
The term "Telenovela" carries unfortunate connotations, but it certainly fits when looking at this feud on paper. Eddie Guerrero turns on his partner, Rey Mysterio, Jr., then savagely beat him shortly thereafter. What followed was a couple of months worth of remarkably promo work that threw aside Eddie's lighthearted, child-like mischief and replaced it with genuine bitterness and malice, all for some unknown reason that was never revealed to us until the last moment, when it turned out that, through a very convoluted set of circumstances (hence the "Telenovela" aspect), the boy that Rey had raised as his own was actually Eddie's biological son. Typing that out sounds at least as silly as it must look when read, but anyone who watched the whole thing play out on television will swear that it worked, and the credit for that must go to Eddie Guerrero.
We've talked before about ridiculous gimmicks, and how they live or die by commitment. Sometimes, that commitment involves taking the ridiculousness up to the next level, letting giddy delight suspend disbelief, but there are also times when the ridiculousness needs to be grounded by characters who refuse to act as if anything is silly about what is happening, making what you think is silly into a matter of deadly seriousness.
Eddie Guerrero was dead serious about his hatred for Rey. Before the big reveal regarding Dominick, Eddie still conveyed intense bitterness toward Rey. The beating to start the feud was merciless, including a brainbuster over steel steps that would certainly result in fines in the PG Era. The following week, Eddie took to the center of the ring, sat down, and started to pour out the ugliness inside that he felt toward Rey, first clinically, then exploding in rage at Rey's tattered mask (one of the few wrestling props that has never lost its significance as a symbol).
Jealousy and fury such as this can only exist between the closest of compatriots spilled out of Eddie, who revealed unbelievable bitterness over Rey "stealing" the fruits of his passion, his "Latino Heat" (a phrase that, in lesser hands, would be a stupid racial stereotype, but which Eddie made into an essence that stood for whatever he wanted). Watch Eddie's face as he simmers in the ring, and you see a performer who might never be matched again in terms of his command of stage emotion, conveying exactly what he wants to convey at the moment he wants to convey it, shifting between rage, regret, and sick pleasure with complete ease, turning his usually playful eyes into the dead black pools of a shark. Paired with what we had seen him do to Rey just one week earlier, we were forced to wonder if maybe we hadn't been watching a sociopath all along.
The picture became clearer in the coming months, first with the acknowledgement of a deep, dark secret that Rey did not want revealed, which led to a month of Rey being forced to act as Eddie's de facto slave, much to the delight of the man who so resented Rey's rise to prominence ahead of him as the WWE's Latino celebrity. Then, after his second loss to Rey at the Great American Bash, Eddie revealed the secret of Dominick's birth, and we all waited for the proceedings to jump the shark. Except that never happened. Eddie never lost the intense gravity of the situation, and the angle succeeded on his shoulders.
(A note on Rey Mysterio, Jr.: If it seems like I'm neglecting his role in all of this: If we were doing "Face Honor Roll", Rey would set the bar for charisma and storytelling inside a ring, where faces have the most work to do. His work there gave Eddie's menace bloody, practical reality as much as Eddie's work on the mic raised the stakes of the story.)
Eddie's promo climbing up a ladder, describing how he would take back his biological child from the only father that child had ever known, is one of the signature promos of Eddie's career, meaning that this feud, one that is rarely discussed, has at least two of the best promos of Eddie Guerrero's career. It's hard not to blame the effect of nostalgia. As much as it has rightfully lionized Eddie Guerrero's career, nostalgia has flattened one of the business's most dynamic performers into an (admittedly enjoyable) caricature. In the flattening, a storyline like the one between Rey and Eddie fighting over the child they each consider to be their son becomes less plausible, less palatable, as though it were uncomfortably silly, and Eddie's darker side gets thrown out as an anomaly instead of an integral part of who he was as a performer. Played out in full, however, Eddie made the whole story work. Watching him take each step, snarling his family ancestry, giving dark power to the Guerrero legacy, none of it seemed false. It was real, filled with the bitterness of a man who was tired of being considered the comic relief to Rey's hero, weighed down with the regret of a man trying, by any heinous means necessary, to correct his betrayal of the family legacy that meant more than anything, even his loyalty to his friends.
Viewed in its full context, the angle shows the stark contrast between nostalgia and legacy. Nostalgia is light, meant to be a pleasant, palatable, breezy reminder of the image a person left on their craft. It asks nothing of either performer or audience; because it is entirely malleable to the most comfortable desires of both.
Legacy is something different, weightier, built over years and struggle that make it impossible to be entirely pleasant or silly; Legacy demands that its bearer carry it even when it weighs them down, when it changes who they are at the core.
I'm grateful to Eddie for the nostalgia, but I'm in awe of the way in which Eddie could show both sides of a legacy that came through as effectively as a villain as it ever did as a hero.