For the past few weeks I’ve been considering ‘greatness’. The catalyst to these thoughts have been twofold. Firstly, that old double-act of Orton and Cena back on top. Twenty five top title reigns between them and the landscape of 2013 has become very reminiscent of 2009. Then there has been talk of Hulk Hogan returning for WrestleMania XXX and many fans, perhaps myself included, are willing to forget the TNA sojourn if he turns up at the big one. Then, over at Impact we still have Sting going at it, albeit with less manoeuvrability than he used to have, and Kurt Angle producing his weekly wrestling clinic, last week with Austin Aries. On top of that, recent retirements in the past few years include Edge and JBL. Then we have the part-time players in the self-proclaimed ‘great one’ The Rock and Brock Lesnar, Undertaker & Rob Van Dam.
It’s a strange place, the world of professional wrestling, at the moment. So many names thrown around and so little time. Fifty years of WWE to be precise, a company that ate up the territories and took down large-scale companies. In this world, a one we know is scripted, how do we define ‘greatness’. I’m not attacking the scripted side of the business. We know it’s there. We accept it. We simply want the writers to write with intelligence, and this doesn’t always happen. So, in this world, with the boundaries set as they are, how do we define who or what is ‘great’? I suppose there are no definitive answers here and, if anything, I’d like to hear what you have to say on here or on Twitter because, as we head towards the end of the year, and the fifty year anniversary, I think it’s an important one to ask because in ‘greatness’ we, as an audience, can look to those people as the figureheads that keep us watching.
So, in keeping with the idea of ‘definitions’ I took to the Oxford English Dictionary to help me define what is ‘great’ and who might fit into some of those constraints. Again, not an exact science and one you’ll no doubt disagree with but, let’s do it...
1: Great of a size, amount, extent, or intensity considerably above the normal or average; big
Straight away this throws up a lot of ideas (and there’s me thinking the OED would make me be specific). The first thing I look at there are the words ‘size’ and ‘big’. We’re about to enter another age of wrestling, that of the ‘big man’. WWE thinks they have invested too much time in ‘real’ wrestlers like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan and haven’t really had the PPV buys to warrant it. So, Luke Harper, Eric Rowan, etc. this is your time. When looking at the ‘great’ in this though, we can obviously look past The Great Khali and, for now, Mark Henry, and go straight for ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’ Andre the Giant and his spiritual son, The Big Show, ‘the largest athlete in the world’. In a company that prides itself on the size of its big men, these are the biggest and greatest. They achieved so much and, currently, Big Show is still main-eventing. These are the wrestlers that make us, particularly as children, look on open-mouthed. They are monsters and, as heels, scare us.
The third word that jumps out at me is ‘intensity’. Currently, we can look at Randy Orton. Clearly the most intense performer today but, even this word wants me to seek out a definition so – Intense (of a quality etc.) existing in a higher degree; violent; forceful . So, again, many names pop out with this in mind. Rowdy Roddy Piper, on his game, is crazily intense. I never really saw Mae Young go at it but certainly, in old age, she is as crazy and as intense as she probably has ever been. The Iron Sheik still remains someone you wouldn’t really want to cross. Edge brought a very specific intensity to the ring when he worked which I still miss. I also think of Ric Flair. He has lived his whole life like this. About ten levels of intensity up from the rest of us. He was the ‘Nature Boy’. Similar to Piper, he couldn’t dial it down when on the mic or in the ring. It was a thing of beauty to watch but when you burn so bright, eventually, that intense flame burns away and often you’re left with nothing. They are greats though.
2: Great important, pre-eminent; worthy or most worthy of consideration
This is a tricky one and, in many ways, the most ‘important’ way to categorise greatness. Whereas the first definition looked at ‘character’ I think this one examines the figure-heads of the company. Those faces that WWE and TNA and ROH and New Japan, choose as their faces to be the champion, do the media work, grant the wishes. They are the ones at the forefront. There should be no surprise here when I place John Cena into this category. Two weeks ago I wrote about the ‘Age of Cena’ and I argued that he will end up with more championships than any other wrestler simply because he is the ‘face’ in a multimedia, multi-platform age. He can be trusted in the ring, on the mic and granting the wishes. To that extent, good on him. Do I like how he can beat two men ‘one armed’? No. Does he put on several great matches a year? Yes. Do I appreciate what he does for a business I love? Yes. To that extent, using this definition, he has been ‘chosen’ for greatness by his company.
Who else though? Well, you’ve got to look at Hogan too. Not the Hogan of now with a descent into sex tapes, arm-wrestling crack addicts and Oprah interviews, but the Hogan of the eighties. Would pro-wrestling be as it is without him? Maybe. One thing is sure though and that is that he appealed to youngsters (‘take your vitamins’) and adults alike. Yes, his ‘hulking up’ had the intensity mentioned above but he took the company further than it had ever been and was the pre-eminent member of two companies (three, if you include his mucky paw-prints all over TNA).
3: Great grand, imposing
Now, initially, this might look very similar to ‘big’ but imposing is ‘impressive, formidable, esp. In appearance’. Yes, we could look at size again but we could also look beyond that and consider the ‘impressive’ wrestlers. The ones that blow us away with the size, speed and agility (or any combination of those traits). Yes, currently, we have CM Punk and Daniel Bryan. It might be too early for the latter but, in the annals of WWE history, Punk pushed the product in a different direction with the pipe-bomb promo and then had the longest reign in modern wrestling history. That, and the fact that the adult fan-base are firmly behind him as face or heel.
I’d place Brock Lesnar here too. Yes, he’s been and gone but he is as impressive a physical specimen as we’re ever likely to see. That size and that speed is incredible and was backed up in the UFC ring too. I look at someone like Big E and hope he can replicate this template in the future because the key to being an outstanding big man is in-ring psychology and speed and I hope he has them too. Brock, however, has it in spades. He is a beast.
Finally, when you look at the definition as a whole, for me, there’s only one man who ticks all those boxes. He is impressive in the ring, increasingly so with age, formidable to the point where he s undefeated at WrestleMania and his appearance and entrances are incredible. Obviously, The Undertaker is the be all and end all for me in this definition of great. Whereas the Cena’s and the Hogan’s (and others yet to be mentioned) were at the forefront of the industry, Taker was, basically, the one who scared the crap out of little kids and, quite often, grown adults alike. What is great about him though, is that his work in the ring, for those one or two matches a year, is so beyond many of his younger contemporaries to actually be embarrassing. He can tell a story better than any other and, when paired with a similarly attuned opponent, greatness can happen in the ring too.
4: Great distinguished, prominent
This is actually quite a fun one and as we can look at those wrestlers who constantly tell us ‘they are better than you’. At the moment we have Alberto del Rio taking that mantle but it’s too soon and one may carry greatness on one’s shoulders but, it’s when greatness carries you that matters and Alberto is still dragging it around. We do have his white-collar brother though in JBL. His entire persona was built around this idea. The stock-broker millionaire with the limo and the Cabinet. It was a great time, perhaps the last, on Smackdown when he rode roughshod over the roster. To this end, the era of King Booker could be placed there because the character, King of the Ring winner, was all about majesty and the aura of being ‘distinguished’. Finally, Ted di Biase, the ‘million dollar man’ could buy anyone off because he was more handsome, had more money and more clout than the rest of us put together. Distinguished? Maybe not. But better than us? Definitely.
On the flipside, not many wrestlers can claim to have been intrinsically ‘good’ for their whole time with the company but Ricky ‘the Dragon’ Steamboat entered the company as a distinguished individual and left it as one. He put on great matches, held himself brilliantly and even had a final WrestleMania moment against Jericho.
5: Great (of a person) remarkable in ability, character, achievement
As we move on, it’s clear to see that some wrestlers can find themselves under a multitude of these sub-definitions and, maybe, that’s the key to deciding if they are ‘great’ or not. Again, we could place Cena, Hogan, Flair, Taker, etc. all here as well. I’m going to look at each word individually though.
‘In ability’. Wow. There are so many that could, and will go here. Just off the top of my head you’d have Randy Savage, Kurt Angle, Trish Stratus and Lita during their storied feud. All there. I’d also go for Shawn Michaels and Eddie Guerrero as well. These two are the ones that got me hooked. Their ability in the ring and, sorry to use the phrase again, to tell a story was incredible. You can almost pick any match from any era and chances are it would be three-stars or higher. For me? It’s hard to look past the last two Taker matches but Michaels versus Angle was one for the vault and Eddie against Brock for the sheer emotional joy.
‘Character’. Again, how does one define it? Well, character for me is what you see walking to the ring, on the microphone, in the ring. Mick Foley had three ‘faces’ and used each one brilliantly. Along with Big Show, he’s portably the best ‘actor’ wrestling has had (with the exception of Terry Funk in ‘Over the Top’). He inhabited each character brilliantly because, well, they were him. Also, Chris Jericho, particularly in his ‘evil suited menace’ period. That was when we all knew he was a great. The specific work was incredible to see and his constant vocal berating of the ref (‘Ask him!’) was simply the next level up.
In ‘Achievement’, again, do we go with Flair? Do we look at the younger guys again (Cena and Orton) or do we go with a bloke that exudes class? Well, Bruno Sammartino, the more I find out about him, the more I like him. Longest running champion? Check. Longest running reign? Check. Class in a glass? Check.
6: Great competent, skilled, well-informed
Although we’re looking at wrestlers, it’s hard to look beyond the McMahons here. They know the business inside and out. The local territories? Bought. Ted Turner fancies a go? Bring it on. Taking the business into the multimedia era? Don’t know. Check the app. Whether we like some of those decisions or not, they don’t stand still. They always move forward and, when a threat emerges, they take it down or buy it up. I know I should talk more about other companies in my columns but, like the rest of you, there are only so many hours in the day and Vince just knows how to drag me in every week. To this end, the ‘doofus son-in-law’ goes here because, well, I’m not insinuating anything, but he clearly has known what he’s being doing for a very long time now and it’s finally turning a profit.
7: Great Fully deserving the name of; doing a thing habitually or extensively
There are many that call themselves the best. There are many that don’t say it, they just do it. For a period of time we had both concurrent. The Rock and Stone Cold defined an era and re-defined the business. The Rock just knew he was great. The way he held himself. The way he controlled and audience. The way he eye-balled his opponent. Stone Cold almost didn’t have to do any of that. He just did it. He got on with the business in hand whether that was taking down McMahon or handing out stunners to Goldberg and Lesnar for being deserters. You never got the feeling that Stone Cold knew he was great because, he was essentially us. Working hard and fighting against ‘the Man’. The Rock was almost the corporate sell-out but still, by selling out, this made him great.
So, there we are. Is this all definitive? No. Will you agree? Hopefully not because that’s the great thing about ‘greatness’, it’s how you define it. It’s how you look at the majesty of Taker catching Michaels from the top rope and tomb-stoning him. Of Trish and Lita taking that Raw main event by the scruff of the neck and proving to everyone that they were greats. It’s also a man who can be booed out of every building in the world but will still give 100% for us. Yes, it’s how you define it but sometimes, sometimes, it’s about how you are as a person that defines greatness. How you hold yourself. How you treat others. How you define yourself.
Please follow me on twitter @HughFirth or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org All constructive criticism is appreciated.
Ta ta for now and hopefully see you next week.