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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Big Boom Theory

Weeks ago, I was perusing the internet for wrestling news, much as I would on any other day. This has become a part of my routine, not necessarily because I want it to be, but because the current landscape of professional wrestling demands it.

There was a time when rifling off the complete title histories of all the major WWE belts was impressive. There was a time when knowing that Goldust was Dustin Rhodes and Kama was Papa Shango without ever reading it on a dirt sheet made you impressed. However, since about 1996, you couldn't begin to consider yourself a real wrestling fan unless you could keep up with the ever-growing population of smart marks.

To be honest, there are times when I would prefer it the old way. When someone jumped to a new promotion, just the shock and surprise would be enough to make that a moment.

Not to say that Chris Jericho's debut on "Raw" wasn't one of the greatest "Raw" moments ever. I just think I would have appreciated it more if I hadn't known it was coming for months in advance. I digress.

When I was looking through the dirt sheets, I came across a statement, either by Vince or Linda McMahon stating that pro wrestling was about to reach another boom period. It almost pains me that the owners of the only real major wrestling company in the United States are so accepting of the business' cyclical nature, but what can you do?

In the 80's, Vince stood atop the world with the greatest superstars from every territory and built an unstoppable national brand. When Ted Turner bought that talent away from him, Vince created new superstars with a more edgy up-to-date attitude, and took his audience back. These are the periods that fans of today really look back on with a great deal of sentiment. Whether it's Hogan slamming Andre or Austin throwing the Rock's belt off a bridge, these are the moments you always remember and these are the superstars you will never forget.

If the Attitude Era were a large plentiful orange in 1997, WWE was squeezing the hell out of it still in 2006 in order to quench the fans' thirst. For the first time, however, they now seem like they are ready to move on. The most telling example? In my opinion: the recent release of "SmackDown!" superstar, Scotty 2 Hotty. Nothing screamed hanging on to 1997 like this guy doing the Too Cool shtick ten years later.

Since the name change (from Federation to Entertainment), WWE has put a great deal of time and money into a number of guys who wouldn't pan out. WWE's NWO was a short-lived storyline due to injuries to Kevin Nash and the conduct of Scott Hall. Hulk Hogan has been in and out enough to defeat some of the more consistent WWE superstars, but at what benefit to the company when he disappears again?

For a full year, Goldberg and Brock Lesnar were at the top of there respective brands until they both decided to leave at the same time. The Rock, the brightest star from the Attitude Era who could still compete, retired to pursue his movie career. WWE chose to let go of the Dudley Boyz, who admittedly had a tired routine, but were the only real established tag team left in the company. Chris Jericho and Christian were in the title picture at SummerSlam and then were gone before Royal Rumble.

WWE put a lot of time into establishing Muhammed Hassan, but Hassan quit after his controversial storyline on network TV called for his removal from TV. Kurt Angle, one of WWE's top guys took his release and ran to Orlando. Then WWE lost its three most established divas: Stacy Keibler, Trish Stratus and Lita. The last really big name to quit is The Big Show. Any of these releases alone, not a big deal. All of them together? Pretty significant. And no wrestling fan can fail to figure in the deaths of Owen Hart and Eddie Guerrero as well.

Looking at the names listed above and the efforts WWE has put into many of those guys over the past seven years, it's amazing they are doing as well as they are right now. Almost every single person listed was a poor investment by the company.

However WWE brushed that dirt off their shoulder, and looked to Triple H, Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker to be the workhorses while developing guys like John Cena, Batista, Randy Orton and most recently Bobby Lashley and Ken Kennedy.

However, right when Vince and company are ready for "the new boom period" in professional wrestling with this new crop of talent, the three aforementioned workhorses all go down to injury. Along with them are Rey Mysterio, King Booker, Ken Kennedy and Gregory Helms. All of this taking place while Rob Van Dam is heavily rumored to be on his way out the door.

In the aftermath, we are essentially seeing the dissolution of the brand extension, with superstars frequently crossing TV show borders. The shake up to the "Raw" brand has been astronomical, as the main storylines from the past year include DX VS. The Big Show or Rated RKO, and now none of those guys are active. John Cena has carried the weight as champion, but his number one antagonist, Edge has left to go to "SmackDown!" and carry the ball. What do wrestling fans get out of that? This past Monday's "Raw".

It's hard to be tough on WWE considering all the circumstances they are dealing with currently. Reading that the difference between a fan of wrestling and a mark is that a mark never asks questions might be a fairly accurate statement, but a fan of wrestling should also take into consideration what exactly has lead to the current product they are being fed.

So wrestling fans are forced to look at the evolution of Bobby Lashley. As Lashley prepares for his ECW World Title street fight with Mr. McMahon at One Night Stand, it's hard to forget that Lashley wasn't even originally intended for the hair VS. hair Battle of the Billionaires at WrestleMania 23. The WWE brass wanted Hogan VS. The Big Show in a recreation of Hogan's triumphant victory over Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III.

With major superstars dropping like flies around him, you would think that WWE would be nervous about putting Lashley in the ring four times in one night. What happens if Lashley suffers a similar fate? Under the circumstances, what can WWE really do?

Call me a mark, but I have to admit, I wasn't really turned off by Lashley on "Raw" this past week. His match against Chris Masters told a great story. Masters was looking for revenge because of Lashley breaking his Masterlock. I really appreciated that when Masters hooked the move, Lashley's only escape was the ropes. This was in the first match of the gauntlet, so being fatigued wasn't an excuse. It would have been okay to have Lashley, the one guy that broke the move before, break it again, but they went a different route, and Masters looked good in the match. Even in a loss, he was reestablished a bit.

Viscera is another who looked good in his match. Obviously he wasn't going to win, but he took Lashley to his limit. It was all reminiscent of Randy Savage going through the World Title tournament at WrestleMania IV. Lashley's match with Shane was great too. Shane always shows that he has the goods in the ring. So much so that I could deal if HE were the ECW champ and not his dad. The Hurricane DDT and the constant working of the back that made Lashley's powerslam ineffective were both highlights.

It almost seems that Vince has a vendetta against Brock Lesnar for leaving. It seems as though he is trying to send a message week in, week out that he could have done what he did with Brock with any man. You know Bobby Lashley is making a lot of money, and I have to think that even though Brock wasn't big on the schedule, that he second guesses himself while he's getting potato'ed in the mush by his sparring partners.

Still, while every Lashley match was decent on "Raw" this week, he is not the type of draw that makes that work. It is not the same as Triple H running the gauntlet on "SmackDown!" years ago. How do I know? Because TBS was showing "Family Guy" reruns and ION was showing "The Wonder Years", and I spent more time flipping back and forth between those shows than I did actively watching "Raw". HBK and Edge were two of the best reasons to watch the show, and with both gone, WWE needs to find a better filler than "The Bobby Lashley Variety Hour".

What was meant to be a "boom" has turned into a period where it's not so great to be a wrestling fan. It's a time where dirt sheet reports are full of injuries, surgeries and releases. It's a period where guys with poor conduct like Randy Orton, or poor workrate like Mark Henry and The Great Khali, are being rewarded by circumstance. Vince McMahon has held dynamite in his hands. Instead of the fireworks he expected, it exploded in his face. A lot of his top guys at the moment aren't getting any younger, and the ones that are still young have not had enough time to develop in the ring or maturity-wise.

Every move that WWE makes right now is critical. Every signing, every release and every push is essential to sustaining the momentum the company had been building over the past year. Every booking, every storyline and every angle needs to be carefully constructed to maintain the relationships with fans who have tuned in over the past seven years to see people who will likely not be on their televisions this summer.

What is WWE's best option? In my opinion, it is the elevation of Chris Benoit back to main event status and a lengthy, very personal feud with Edge over the World Heavyweight title. Then possibly when Triple H, The Undertaker, HBK, Ken Kennedy, Rey Mysterio and King Booker all return, we can rig the explosives right this time and kick off the next real boom period in professional wrestling.

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