Saturday, March 24, 2007

Examining McMahon's Megastar Mentality

In a similar vein to anyone who is a fan of professional wrestling, Vince McMahon views his product and finds certain individuals, which he marks for.

In the almost 25 years that McMahon has been in charge of WWE, he seems to have come to a conclusion that the in-ring product itself is not the determining factor in what makes a superstar.

The main point for arguing his case would be the 1980's where Hulk Hogan, production values, and merchandising sent the World Wrestling Federation on a meteoric rise, integrating sports entertainment with pop-culture and the mainstream, while the NWA, their top competitor, always took a back seat despite having Ric Flair and a superior in-ring product.

Regardless of what method greater pads promoter's pocketbooks, wrestling fans today expect a mixture of both the glitz and glamour of sports entertainment and the art of professional wrestling. For the most part these two vastly different concepts exist in harmony in the unbelievable world of professional wrestling. However, it is inevitable that on occasion the two collide, and when they do, it's an all-out war.

Many fans cringed when Hulk Hogan made his way into the tradition-rich WCW and defeated Ric Flair in his first match. They can't argue however that Hogan's presence helped spawn the organization's most successful business period. That match occurred thirteen years ago, and today's fans have chosen new generals. For the sports entertainment faithful, that man is John Cena. For the fans of great wrestling, it has been Chris Benoit.

When the WWE made a decision to have “SmackDown!”'s United States Champion rendezvous on “Raw” for a night, they likely did not understand the implications of this match to fans. In Vince McMahon's eyes, John Cena is the megastar of the future. Benoit on the otherhand is an expendable superstar whose day in the sun was not as lucrative as McMahon would have liked.

In the creation and sustentation of a WWE "Megastar," there is no sacrifice too great.

Perhaps in one moment, "The Masterpeice" Chris Masters was thought of as a potential megastar based on his tremendous size and serviceable charisma. No matter to the fact that he was dangerous in the ring, breaking the nose of a great worker like Steven Richards with a double-axehandle blow. Masters may indeed have been the future of the business.

That is until the WWE exercised a new Wellness Policy, and Master's push vanished along with his muscles. Master's career has been ill fated ever since, as mere technicalities with Ron Simmons and a soldier in Iraq are all that have kept any legitimacy to his "Masterlock Challenge."

In recent weeks it seems that the WWE has had a change of opinion. Masters has rebuilt himself into the muscular juggernaut Vince adored in the first place. Suddenly, he is receiving plenty of TV time on the road to WrestleMania to reestablish the Masterlock. In past years men in the same position have gotten convincing wins at Mania and found themselves in main event title feuds by SummerSlam.

This was not to be for Masters however, as Masters himself was just a tool in the building of the man Vince truly views as the next WWE Megastar, Bobby Lashley. Despite being referred to as "my man" and "Lindsay", Lashley has certainly received a tremendous rub from his position in the McMahon/Trump feud. While his title and brand have been devalued, Lashley, himself, has not.

It just goes to show that the WWE has no problem in breaking continuity, giving weak payoffs to long-running storylines, or cutting the legs out from under a favorite (office or fan favorite) in order to establish the guy that they see dollar signs on.

In reference to the breaking of the Masterlock this past Monday Night on “Raw”, Why do you put anything over for two years to simply toss it aside with no feud, no payoff, nothing. Chris Masters' identity was lost as an accessory of a storyline he is not even involved in. Some view his loss as a positive new beginning and a chance to move on. Regardless of the popularity of the Masterlock Challenge, after being fed 5-10 minute segments weekly for two years, Masters and the WWE fans deserved more from it's inevitable "breaking".

Masters was not the only casuality left on the road to WrestleMania. The same night, WWE promoted a "Reversal of Fortunes" set of matches. When it was announced that John Cena would face one of Shawn Michaels former WrestleMania opponents, fans popped for the idea of Akeem, Pat Tanaka, The Barbarian, Haku, Tito Santana, or Tatanka returning to face the "Dr. of Thuganomics." Ok, maybe they didn't. In reality, the only legitimate option was Benoit.

Earlier in the night, Shawn Michaels had a verbal showdown with former Cena opponent, John "Justin Hawk Blackjack Bradshaw" Leyfield, or JJHBBL for short. JBL is an interesting superstar, as after years of languishing in the midcard, Leyfield was repackaged due to his vast knowledge of investments.

He committed some fantastic "smark sins" along the way to the WWE championship which include being pushed way too fast and taking the world title off of long time smark favorite Eddie Guerrero. A DVD release of the longest WWE title reign in ten years would not exactly be filled with a list of classic matches, either. Still, his ability to establish himself as an incredibly believable heel, despite his large stature, and his fantastic mic skills were enough to win many fans over to the side of JBL.

Some were disappointed when constant backpain and a lack of bladder control prevented JBL's return, despite the fact that he too would have only been an accessory of a bland Shawn Michaels/John Cena storyline.

Unfortunately for Benoit, there was nothing that would be able to save him from the same fate that the Tag Team titles have currently in the WWE title feud. Benoit, a former World Heavyweight Champion, current U.S. Champion, and darling to anyone that appreciates workrate and wrestling ability was about to become an accessory to the John Cena/Shawn Michaels storyline.

In the aftermath, smart fans are outraged. How did the man who represents everything they stand in opposition of defeat their hero with a submission move? Those with short memory spans may forget another essential battle in the war between sports entertainment vs. professional wrestling.

By the time Chris Benoit made his way to the WWE along with the Radicalz in 2000, he was a former WCW World Heavyweight Champion and a legit superstar. Benoit's rise was a bit surprising, as he is easily as vanilla a character as Lashley is currently. The fact that he was over is a testament not only to his wrestling ability, but the fans passion to watch great wrestling as well. Upon his arrival, the WWE already had two legitimate megastars, with others in the making.

The WWE is on one of it's hottest streaks at this time, and established tag teams are being jobbed out to Megastars in handicapped matches, the glass ceiling that men like Benoit, Jericho, and Guerrero left WCW over still seems to exist in the WWE, and often as the best workers in the company, they make the perfect accessories in storylines involving megastars.

One of these megastars was "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Austin's place in the war of sports entertainment VS. professional wrestling is significant, as Austin's battles were internal. As "Stunning" Steve, Austin showed all the promise of the next hot commodity in the early 90's world of WCW.

With his long flowing locks, Austin's workrate was tremendous and he was consistently having fantastic matches. When Eric Bischoff felt he couldn't market a great wrestler in black tights and black boots, he famously fired an injured Austin via FedEx.

Upon his entrance into the WWE, Austin was named "The Ringmaster," an obvious allusion to his ability in the ring. However, as Austin's popularity soared, his in-ring offering decreased. This is not to say that he wasn't having great, classic matches. However, when Austin and McMahon noticed how a punch, kick, and stomp was receiving a greater reaction than a majority of moves in Austin's extensive arsenal, he began to use fewer and fewer of them. Eventually Austin's reputation as a brawler overtook his reputation as a fantastic wrestler.

Chris Benoit made his way through the ranks of the WWE, and an epic clash with Austin was inevitable. "The Rabid Wolverine" was riding the gimmick that he was the best wrestler in the world, and who could argue? During a confrontation, Benoit scoffed at Austin's reputation as a brawler, and the two were scheduled in a pure-wrestling match the next week on Monday Night “Raw”.

In events that unfolded similarly to this past Monday's match with John Cena, Benoit entered the ring with only a short amount of time left until “Raw” was off the air for the night. After a few short minutes, Austin booted Benoit square in the gut and dropped him with the Stone Cold Stunner for the three count. A bloated Jim Ross got up out of his chair and proclaimed that Austin had beaten Benoit with the Stone Cold Stunner, a wrestling move!

To a pure wrestling fan, the mere notion was a travesty. Austin had long forsaken wrestling in that regard. In a match that was gimmicked to give Benoit the advantage and could have positioned him as a serious main event heel, the WWE instead decided to bury both Benoit and the idea of "wrestling" in around five minutes.

Still, there is something special about Chris Benoit. Something that carried him through that defeat and will carry him through the one he suffered to John Cena. For whatever reason, no matter what the WWE does, they can't put Benoit under.

With rumors floating inconsistently that Benoit will not be resigning with the WWE and may either retire or take a final tour of duty in Orlando, the WWE has attempted to get as much out of him, while downplaying to fans the fact that he is truly a big time superstar. Whether because of age, size, charisma, or any other factor, it is apparent that the WWE does not view Chris Benoit in the same light as they view current WWE champion John Cena.

Now, with Benoit's submission loss to John Cena, the fastest growing professional wrestling site is abuzz with the concept that certain people should not tap out. Names mentioned include Benoit and Bret "Hitman" Hart. While both of these men are submission specialists, I would disagree with the latter, as Bret Hart's reputation is certainly not that of a tough guy. Just because he perfects his own submission moves is no relation to his resistance of them. Some complain that he tapped to a guy like Lex Luger. Regardless of his workrate, Lex Luger's torture rack would have been an established submission hold for at least 10 years by that point.

Benoit is a better fit for the persona of a guy who would never tap, but I disagree that any wrestler who's gimmick isn't that of a no-selling monster should be immune from a submission loss, no matter how good they are at applying submission moves themselves. WWE fans are willing to have a sense of disbelief more often than not.

However, if you ever wrestle around with your buddies and neither guy wants to lose, it's relatively impossible to hold their shoulders down for three seconds. Making them quit to a painful submission move is a far more realistic finish, as either they are protecting themselves to fight another day, or the pain is just too excruciating and there is truly no way out of the hold.

Ever since Steve Austin passed out in the Sharpshooter at WrestleMania 13 there has always been a stigma to tapping out. Triple H waited what seemed like an eternity before finally tapping out at WrestleMania XX to Benoit. Kanyon questioned whether or not he took any heat for it, and he most certainly did by receiving "you tapped out" chants in the aftermath, but as Kanyon presumed, those chants were short lived.

Since that time, it appears that the WWE has tried to again legitimize the use of submission moves through guys like Benoit and Kurt Angle, because of the popularity of mixed martial arts.

An aside on Kanyon being the innovator of tapping, while I will not dispute that he was the first wrestler to lose a decision because of tapping out, I will say that that finish had to have been very confusing to wrestling fans at the time. With MMA fighting still largely flying under the mainstream radar, professional wrestlers had been tapping out for years. They weren't using it as an indication of submission, but rather a vehicle to sell how painful the moves were.

Pop in a DVD and you will see many superstars tapping out to Bret Hart, Ric Flair, Sting, Rick Martel, and any other star of that era who had a submission finisher in which their opponent laid on the mat. This could be very confusing to a newer fan watching classic wrestling matches. I think I actually witnessed that Kanyon match and had no idea what the hell was going on based on my wrestling fan conditioning at the time.

I am not sure that Benoit tapping to a main-event-level star is necessarily worth a great storyline and a pay per view match, although it undoubtedly couldn't hurt. The reason I say this is that Benoit tapping is not something that has been protected for the duration of his WWE run.

I believe The Rock, Brock Lesnar, and Kurt Angle have made Benoit tap. One or two might have even made him tap to the crossface. Still, Benoit tapping is at least deserving of a great lengthy match, as Benoit's gritty persona screams that he would never give up until he is either exhausted or finds no other alternative.

One booking suggestion was involving MVP in the decision, as he is Benoit's U.S. title opponent at WrestleMania 23. Of course, this brings us back to the Megastar VS. Superstar concept, as this match was not ever supposed to be about Benoit or the US title in the eyes of WWE.

It was to be used as a vehicle for further legitimizing John Cena, in the same vein as the other major stars who have made Benoit tap in the past. However, here is an alternate booking idea. With the drama on commentary not being centered around the match at all, and rather being centered around when Michaels is going to deliver "Sweet Chin Music" to Cena, why not incorporate Michaels into the match rather than waiting until the match is over for his involvement.

Michaels levels Benoit and we are left to wonder who the kick was intended for in the first place. This seems to me a much better way to save face for Benoit and advance the storyline.

The main thing wrong with the way it played out is that it does nothing for either story. He also brings up a valid point about the STFU.

The STF is nothing to mess with, and is a reputable hold that has brought Masahiro Chono many victories, and Erik Watts significantly less victories. Cena's quick execution of the hold provides a great pop from the crowd, but the crossface he applies is pathetic, and it's amazing to me that the WWE agents would let any major star tap out to it, until they make Cena look more convincing while applying it.

Vince McMahon and the WWE don't take any consideration for these things, because the only things that Vince cares about is the preservation of sports entertainment, the downplaying of wrestling in his product, and the creation of money-making megastars.

As someone who often comes to the defense of John Cena in the face of constant bashing online, I must admit that even I cringed when the decision of the Cena/Benoit match was a submission victory. It's easy to understand the intent of the WWE, wanting to add dimension to their current "golden boy."

No doubt, having a superstar like Benoit tap out would legitimize the STFU, however, in this case the backlash is greater than the result. That is because the WWE didn't give Cena and Benoit enough time to build a match in which that scenario was believable.

This is all just another win for the WWE and sports entertainment in their campaign to bury traditional professional wrestling. In addition, it is a evidence of the company's indifference to the undercard. Fans like us have been complaining about this ever since Al Gore invented the internet. The WWE has the ability to do whatever they want at their leisure, until fans show them their decisions are incorrect by tuning out. All of us who disagreed with last Monday's finish, regardless of the reason, are in Vince McMahon's back pocket.

We are the one's blogging, buying DVDs, and we will be watching “Raw” this Monday and purchasing Wrestlemania regardless. Vince is trying to appeal to the ones he hasn't already hooked, and he knows that first and foremost. How he accomplishes that by putting Lance Storm in the ring week after week and having Steve Austin come out and tell the fans it's boring, I'll never understand.

A testament however to the legacy of the business and guys like Chris Benoit is, even new fans being assimilated by the current anti-wrestling, pro-sports entertainment product tend to form a respect and appreciation of great wrestling matches. That fact will always protect a hard worker who gives 100% and lays everything out on the line every single night, regardless of how crappy the booking is.

No matter what Vince McMahon does, no matter what he thinks, no matter who he pushes, and no matter what he books, there are some megastars he has had no say in the creation of, and some guys he can never bury.


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