By Mike Holland
The World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame is, as the name might portend, an odd and varied enterprise. The world has a chronic tendency to list and rank things, to give order where perhaps it is lacking, and enshrining talent into some form of storied pantheon reminds me of the statues erected of our heroes, both in sports and in life. Interestingly enough, it is in the arena of sports that produces more statues than any other walk of life, be it politics, the arts, etc. Is that a commentary on the regard with which we place our athletic icons, or a statement on the lack of viable alternatives? That, perhaps, is a question for another column.
Endless debates occur about the placement of athletes in their various halls of fame. Major League Baseball is currently dealing with this issue at its forefront, as sportswriters new and old lock horns over the worthiness of men who may or may not have been proven to have used performance enhancing drugs to triumph over their adversaries. Heroes have fallen, perhaps none with more speed and violence than disgraced cycling champion Lance Armstrong, who went from savior to goat over the course of some blood transfusions and an Oprah interview. This is the climate that we live in, for better or for worse.
One can imagine, then, how amazingly strange the concept of a wrestling hall of fame is. In a discipline where the wins and losses are scripted, and one's ability to win is never truly completely up to them, what factors can be used to determine merit for inclusion? The answer, naturally, is nebulous. Titles would certainly lend credence to one's credibility, but when the business is subject to the mercurial whims of millionaires, it's tough to use that as a measuring stick. Due to the WWE's long history of megalomania, anyone has every right to be skeptical as to the motives behind this affair. It's likely at least partly due to that prevailing opinion that the McMahons made the conscious effort to open its fictional doors to the history of the sport, focusing on adding huge names of the past (including some that never wrestled for any McMahon, at least directly).
Pro wrestling deserves to be chronicled and catalogued, just as any lasting media does. This is a society that now has YouTube awards, after all. (Not that I am hating on those; I know a certain Friday Update columnist who relies upon it.) Celebrity lends itself to self-aggrandizement. Both the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame serve testament to the idea that just about anyone who's anyone can make it. Unfortunately, backstage politicking has always been inherently entwined with the backdrop of pro wrestling, and so Macho Man Randy Savage remains on the sidelines while Koko B. Ware and Hacksaw Jim Duggan got their call. Let's not even get started on Drew Carey.
This year has already been notable for the fact that there are three absolute slam dunks going into the HOF. Part of my personal criteria for any nominee is that they found some way to transcend the business itself, regardless of where and when they did it. I've already written at length about The Ultimate Warrior, a man whose out-of-the-ring oddities threatened (and to a large extent succeeded) in swallowing what up what he actually did inside of it. The mystique of that performer cannot be understated, and it would be silly to have any type of celebration of the promotion's history without that captivating chunk of it. Equally obvious is the recent inclusion of Lita, who redefined the perception of the look of women's wrestling and was incredibly popular, almost despite herself. There can be no doubt that physical attributes have always weighed more heavily on that side of the scale, but Lita made history by performing equally well in both arenas. And, perhaps more importantly, she did it differently. To think we'd have a current AJ Lee to appreciate without Lita going before is to thumb your nose at reality.
As for the path of Jake "The Snake" Roberts, his road to the Hall has been far harder, and as he's been the first to admit, it's pretty much all his fault. One of the best talkers and natural heels in wrestling history (so good, in fact, that they had no choice but to attempt a face turn to capitalize on his popularity, only to have it backfire by him not really cottoning to that anyway) went way down the road to ruin in an attempt to deal with the personal demons that he only hinted at on screen. I can remember watching Beyond the Mat for the first time and sitting there in shock at the way Roberts allowed himself to be portrayed. You felt sorry for Mick Foley's family and Terry Funk's humanity, but you just felt sick watching this '80s icon deal with his broken family, his well-publicized drug habit, and his overall depression and resignation. Even when he made his return to the big leagues, such as the beyond memorable creation of Austin 3:16, he was relegated to the status of a former great rendered out-of-shape and irrelevant thanks to the passing of time of memory.
To see the trajectory out of the repetitive downward spiral that Roberts experienced is made all the more powerful by how many posthumous inductions WWE's Hall of Fame has had. Too often our heroes have met their maker before we've even had a chance to properly celebrate what they've done for us. If anyone seemed doomed to fall victim to that curse, Jake seemed a logical choice. His all-too-frequent temporary rest stops on the road to ruin served merely as way stations before he picked up the trail again. It's ironic that Diamond Dallas Page, who achieved much of his success due to both his willingness to play the political game to his advantage and his inherent urge to do whatever he needed to do to make it, made such a large mark on the business without winning a match. In patching up the legacy of Roberts, who would likely find his name called either way, he has also cemented his own.
Much has been made recently of Scott Hall potentially being another name added this year. Like Roberts, Hall has knowingly and willingly engaged in satisfying an appetite for self-abuse that bordered on stupidity. Worse yet, due to the instantaneous nature of this day and age, we didn't need a documentary to witness the results. We could see it for ourselves nightly on social media, watching this former suave and muscled behemoth degenerate from an individual dripping with machismo to a sad-sack, bloated hanger-on desperately trying to recreate his nWo fame in bingo halls around the country. To think that this man's arrival had heralded so much at one time for WCW and to see him now, fully cognizant of his impairment and all to willing to try to show up for work anyway, was to witness both ends of the bell curve of fame, live and in living color.
Whether Hall makes the cut or not this year, and he certainly should (that moment alone, coupled with his ladder match with buddy Shawn Michaels, stand as two seminal moments in history), his inclusion would bear witness to a celebration of life in a business too frequently marred by death. The WWE has very admirably attempted to deal with some of the sins of the past, and other sports leagues have actually taken some pages out of their book. That's beyond shocking when you consider how very little removed we are from the era of steroid abuse and Vince on trial. It's rare when you can take real life lessons out of a fictional hall built on the faux brick and mortar of a business populated by misdirection; even rarer still when you can get two examples of it in the same class. For all the hokey-ness and illogicality of what it is, this would be an important and directed stab at the heart of all the bad things this business has been about. It's for that reason that all of us as wrestling fans should celebrate this opportunity. Not just for the chance to glorify some gents who likely did some very bad things while they were in their moment of glory, but for the even rarer opportunity to appreciate them letting us in in such a personal way during the aftershocks.
For most walks in life, the actual Hall of Fame is just an opportunity to further heated debate. Statistics will bear out what you wish them to when viewed a certain way, but some men and women stand head and shoulders over their competition and rightly deserve to be recognized. In wrestling, though, where wins and losses are written on paper and your career is as much in the hands of the promoters as the fans, the Hall can serve as a symbol of the stark and often tragic reality of the business we love and the sheer exhilaration of fate being thwarted. The motives may be questionable and the logic puzzling, but this moment in time has a chance to mean something far more than a celebration ceremony or a glory soak. This Hall can be about overcoming obstacles, evident and incomprehensible. We can all learn from that.
*I have to confess I am thrilled about the push of Cesaro on WWE programming of late, even with his loss to poster boy John Cena on Raw last night. Considering how rarely Cena loses, I found his match with Cesaro to be far more of what I would have hoped for when he met Mr. Money In The Bank Damien Sandow those many moons ago. Regardless of the kerfuffle over his name change (let alone the rationale behind it), this guy has been good for a long, long time before showing up on WWE television and is finally getting some of the credit due him for that. While I'm not foolhardy enough to believe that this will culminate in an Elimination Chamber win, I appreciate Cesaro being presented as a viable candidate (finally!) and am enjoying the seeds being planted in the inevitable dissolution of the Real Americans. While partner Jack Swagger gets repackaged seemingly twice every year, and is therefore likely not going anywhere fast, Cesaro has a real opportunity with his high-impact repertoire and lengthy ring experience. Here's hoping WWE keeps this going long term, as this guy can have a great match with anyone on the roster.
*Part of my personal frustration with the booking of Randy Orton as "unified" champion (still carrying both belts around, natch) is that it appears that the WWE themselves don't really know what they want our perception of him to be. It's more than understandable to have a heel with a lengthy championship run, but Orton's reign has been marred with so many screwjobs and non-title losses it's starting to resemble a Vince Russo show. The tenseness of the environment between Orton and the Authority has been teased for months now, but to what end? He's still the champion, HHH is still pushing buddies both heel and face, and we've got far more questions than answers. I will absolutely admit that Orton's in-ring work has been largely good during this run. I enjoyed last week's match with Cena far more than I should have, given how many times I've seen it now, and this week's tilt with Sheamus was above average also. It just doesn't mesh with the underdog idea of overcoming all adversity to win the gold that so many of us expect as an eventual payoff to the Daniel Bryan saga. Schizophrenic storylines do not make for great TV, in my view.
*Much has been made about the WWE's decision to go with their setup for the Network, and certainly cable providers everywhere are less than thrilled. While I have questions about the idea, I'm bullish on the concept and give WWE major credit for going with something out of the box that screams value for their fans. One added bonus (at least in theory) will be the WWE's ability to market themselves outside of the mainstream to a major audience. One particular area of excitement as it relates to that would be the NXT developmental system, which is already in line to have its first "official" pay-per-view. While NXT has already been available to interested viewers, this platform opens up plenty of exciting cross-promotional opportunities that the WWE should look to take advantage of. A major part of the current malaise has been the WWE's inability to juggle their established stars with the faces of tomorrow in any meaningful way. Mere presence on the Network will not accomplish this, of course, but WWE's commitment and handling of this could spell significant changes in the way we watch wrestlers develop. Remember how well Paul Heyman booked ECW as the anti-WWE, while exploiting names they had made famous? The playbook is right there, ready to be used.
*WWE has found itself a winner in the burgeoning feud between The Wyatt Family and The Shield. In addition to featuring some of the best young stars on the entire roster, these two groups have captured the imagination of the crowd and it showed in their reactions on Monday night. Folks are literally frothing at the mouth for these two stables to throw down for supremacy. It's the right timing for both, as Bray Wyatt is poised to reach the next level as an "alpha" heel, while The Shield continue their deterioration into Roman Reigns's (likely face) push and singles glory. This situation should be a touchstone to the writing team as the payoff for characters that brought a unique look to the party and benefited from the proper presentation. Both ran roughshod over the roster to serve notice to the fans of their dominance, and both are now placed in the excellent position of must-watch television. I'm not sure that's enough to get your average fan to pay full price for the Elimination Chamber PPV, but I'm quite sure I'd like to see more of that type of determined character building.