The Mean 8.9.01: Tazz

Yes at long last I have returned from the wilderness of East Brookfield, MA and Camp Frank A. Day. I had a wonderful summer, but now am ready to return to sleeping beyond 8 AM, internet access, heartfelt IM chats with Widro, and of course my lovely girlfriend Libby. But I doubt many of you came here to read about my personal life (and if you did that’s really creepy, yet strangely intriguing), so let’s see if I still remember how to do this hey?

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that everything in life could be broken down into two extremes: excess and deficiency. He believed that if a person could find the medium or mean between the two extremes in all that they did in life, they would travel down the path to happiness and virtue. With pro wrestling fans, the two extremes are clear: the deficient “mark” enjoys watching wrestling more than anybody but has very little knowledge of anything not on TV, while the excessive “smart” knows every backstage dealing, but as a result can become highly bitter and cynical, losing their ability to enjoy the show. These two extremes view each wrestler differently, often disagreeing with each other. Each week I look at both perspectives and then attempt to find “The Mean” between the two. This week, let’s take a look at Tazz

A few weeks back at Invasion, I believe JR referred to Tazz as a “walking contradiction;” truer words have never been spoken. As the Bret Harts of the world, the guys who worked their entire lives to become wrestlers, retire, and the Rocks of the world, the guys who made it big on look and charisma, dominate, true “wrestlers” are becoming a dying breed. Check out one of Tazz’s ECW promos from the mid to late 90s and you will probably not find a guy who seemed to represent the wrestler’s wrestler more (for me, a promo from 1998 when Tazz, against a black background wearing a ripped up towel over his head, chastised Bam Bam Bigelow for playing golf while he was “in the gym at 4 AM busting his ass” remains one of the most memorable I’ve ever watched). Watch “Tough Enough” every week and you see a man who fought and clawed his way to the top of an industry that seemed determined to reject him and who will not stand by and watch anybody take what he and others had to go through for granted. Why then about a year ago did Tazz hang up his wrestling trunks for a warmup suit and become practically a fulltime announcer. Why did he abandon the bad ass persona he spent years building to become the joke man of the WWF? Why did he abandon the thing he worked his entire life for and did he even have a choice. Tazz is a complex individual to say the very least; an examination of his career may only scratch the surface of the questions I’ve posed

To see a picture of Pete Senercia, the man who would become Taz and later Tazz, as he began his professional career, is to see a very different competitor. Originally christened Kid Krush, Senercia spent the early 90s working the Northeast and Northwest independent scene in a persona very different than the one he would later familiarize the world with. Kid Krush wore bright neon tights, sported a spiked haircut and had brightly colored “K”s adorning his pate in facepaint. Perhaps the thing that most distinguished Kid Krush from Tazz was the other thing he wore upon his face: a huge smile. Happy and go lucky, Kid Krush was a very green fan favorite who failed to impress the crowd much with his basic wrestling moves despite an extensive amateur wrestling background as well as experience in various martial arts.

As it was becoming that the bland Kid Krush was going nowhere, Senercia developed a new character: the Tasmaniac. Senercia grew his hair out in dreadlocks and wore a singlet with one strap missing; the idea was that Tasmaniac was a wildman out of the jungles of Tazmania come to wreak havoc in the U.S. The character itself got over only slightly more than Kid Krush, but it was Senercia’s evolving ring style that was grabbing the attention of fans and promoters alike. The biggest knock Senercia has had on him from day one in the pro wrestling business is size: he is one of the shortest men in wrestling, going slightly under six feet. Senercia has always tried to make up for his diminutive stature by building up both his legs and upper body giving him an extremely unique physical appearance. Short but stocky beyond belief, Senercia is the dynamo of the wrestling business.

In addition to developing his musculature, Senercia worked harder than just about anybody in the business to refine his wrestling technique to something that nobody had ever seen before. Utilizing backgrounds in both amateur wrestling and judo augmented by tremendous leg strength, Senercia as the Tasmaniac took every variation of the suplex, wrestling’s most basic move, to the next level. Senercia refined his repetoire of suplexes to the point where he could execute them on a foe of any size with an unparalleled crispness. Tasmaniac used variations of the suplex never before seen outside of Japan including the T-Bone suplex, the Dragon suplex, the head & arm suplex, and many more.

Senercia was quickly developing a reputation as one of the hardest working competitors on the independent circuit, working hard both in the ring and devoting almost every minute of his free time to working in the gym (unlike many of the wrestlers of his generation, Senercia clearly used no muscle enhancers and was one hundred percent training), and it was a reputation that was attracting attention. In late 1993, Paul Heyman, owner of the then fledgling ECW contacted Tasmaniac to come to the company to help put over Heyman’s top draw, Sabu, the human highlight reel. With Sabu’s take no prisoners aerial style and bumping ability and Tasmaniac’s tremendous strength and moveset, Heyman knew the two could produce impressive matches. The duo delivered and Tasmaniac impressed Heyman to the point that he felt he could be a major player in ECW and kept him around following the initial series with Sabu.

Tasmaniac was popular with the fans based on ability, but the goofiness of his character was still holding him back (he at times would even bring a bone to the ring with him, ala the Moondogs). A Tag Team title reign with veteran Kevin Sullivan in 1994 would help to solidify ECW’s faith in Tasmaniac’s ability as well as legitimize him slightly further in the eyes of the fans, but it still seemed that his full potential was not being utilized. It was a feud with 2 Cold Scorpio that also involved Dean Malenko and Eddy Guererro and an inadvertent maneuver on Malenko’s part that would prove the first step in the transition to the next stage of Tasmaniac’s career.

In late ’94 during a tag match teaming Tasmaniac with Guererro against Scorpio & Malenko, Tasmaniac had his neck badly injured by Malenko (with Scorpio’s help) off of a suplex. Rather than take time off to let his neck heal, Tasmaniac was back in the ring the very next week going wild and brutalizing his rivals. Known for being able to see a good thing coming, Heyman decided it was time to eliminate the outlandish elements of Pete Senercia’s old gimmick and transform Tasmaniac into Taz.

Taz, the name under which Pete Senercia gained international fame, was not a wildman from the jungles of of Tazmania, he was simply a miserable bad ass from the streets of Red Hook, New York who put in more hours in the gym than anybody and was willing to kick any ass that got in his way. Fitted with a character that was more or less nothing more than an extension of his true persona, Senercia flourished and became one of ECW’s most popular wrestlers. To capitalize on both the proven popularity of both men and on their past chemistry, Heyman teamed Taz with Sabu in early 1995 and made them Tag Team champions.

Sabu & Taz proved excellent Tag Team champions and had a classic series with the men who had broken their respective necks, Chris Benoit & Dean Malenko. Public Enemy also entered the feud, Benoit & Malenko captured the titles, and the stage was set for what would be ECW’s first ever Three Way Dance. However, Sabu shocked the world by abruptly departing ECW for WCW in the summer of 1995, just prior to the Three Way Dance, depriving the company of one of their top draws and Taz of a tag team partner. Taz ended up teaming with Rick Steiner in the Three Way Dance (which Public Enemy went on to win), but with Sabu gone, it was time to go in another direction once more.

Taz spent several months following Sabu’s departure squashing mid-carders, showing off his moveset, and developing a nice following as a singles fan favorite. Meanwhile another intriguing character had entered ECW: Bill Alfonso. Alfonso, a former referee in both WCW and the WWF, entered ECW as a trouble-shooting referee determined to bring order to the outlaw organization. Alfonso infuriated ECW fans by making legitimate calls (or they would have been legit in other federations anyways) that inevitable screwed ECW fan favorites like Tommy Dreamer. Both Taz and Alfonso were getting over on their own, but their paths would cross, and intersect with the returning Sabu, in a way nobody expected, at November To Remember 1995.

Sabu made his big return to ECW at November To Remember 1995, ECW’s cornerstone event, and there was Taz, the man whom Sabu had abandoned months earlier, to greet him. However, Taz brought an unexpected friend with him in the form of Bill Alfonso, possibly the most hated man in ECW and shockingly, Taz’s new manager. Taz was more miserable than ever at having been left by Sabu, so miserable that he turned his back on all of ECW and its fans in order to gain revenge on the more popular Sabu. Taz vowed to carve a “Path of Rage” until he got to Sabu and with Alfonso by his side, became one of the most hated men in ECW.

During 1996, Taz did not wrestle Sabu as Paul Heyman planned to build the inevitable confrontation as slowly as possible. What Taz did do was dismantle everybody in his path. He annihilated ECW mid-carders with his more devastating than ever array of Tazplexes, showed off his martial arts skills as Ultimate Fighters and martial artists from the world over were brought into ECW to fall before the Path of Rage, and he finished off every match with his deadly new finisher, a judo choke called the Katahajime, rechristened the Tazmission.

By the time 1997 rolled around, the legend of Taz had grown beyond anything Paul Heyman could have imagined in the eyes of the loyal ECW faithful. Heyman had meticulously booked Taz to be slowly built, going over bigger and bigger stars as the push progressed, but more importantly, to never look weak. It was a strategy that had been used in the past (most notably with The Undertaker), but never to this degree. During the year plus long “Path of the Rage,” Taz was specifically booked not to bump for most people and was placed in the ring with people who would make his Tazplexes and Tazmission look like they could damn near kill somebody. Thanks to his association with Bill Alfonso, Taz was not only an unstoppable monster, he was a hated unstoppable monster. The logical final step was a showdown with arch-rival Sabu, the catalyst for the “Path of Rage,” and the defeat of the unstoppable monster but another twist was yet to come.

Taz and Sabu finally met one on one at Barely Legal in March of 1997; it was ECW’s long awaited first pay per view broadcast and the perfect stage for the long-awaited confrontation. Most people expected Sabu to finally end the Path of Rage and showcase himself as one of ECW’s major fan favorites on pay per views. Instead, after an intense technical matchup, Taz locked in the Tazmission and Sabu shocked the world after holding on for as long as he could but then tapping out. Surprisingly enough, Taz offered his longtime rival a handshake following the match which Sabu did not accept and instead attacked Taz with the aid of his tag team partner Rob Van Dam. This in itself was not unusual (it happened all the time in ECW), what was unusual was that Taz’s manager Bill Alfonso was leading the attack!

Without Bill Alfonso as the albatross around his neck, Taz was now still an unstoppable monster but an incredibly popular one. Suddenly Taz was the unstoppable superman that ECW fans had waited for (the other ECW fan favorites were always flawed and generally lost out to their rivals before getting a win in the end) and the most popular star in years just as Heyman had planned. A few months later Taz faced Sabu in a major rematch and lost after Sabu reversed the Tazmission. Taz remained in the ring afterwards and was taunted by hated ECW Television champion Shane Douglas (a man who had broken the neck of fan favorite Pit Bull I earlier in the year) about his loss. Taz challenged Shane to get in the ring and put his title on the line, which he reluctantly did thinking Taz would be too worn out following his previous match, and delighted the crowd by defeating Douglas to win the TV title with the Tazmission.

For the next nine months, Taz defended his TV title against every challenger from the technically sound Chris Candido to the monstrous Brakkus. As ECW entered into a fledgling feud with the WWF as well, Taz became the man who fans could count on to save Tommy Dreamer and The Sandman from a beatdown by the WWF loyalists at the end of the night. In the interim, Douglas won the World title and a feud simmered there as well with Douglas sending his henchmen Candido and Bam Bam Bigelow after Taz to regain the TV title even as Taz had designs on the World title. Taz also shifted his promo style from simply threatening his opponents to letting the fans know about his fanatic training style. In addition to his training regimen, Taz had also been serving as head instructor at the House of Hardcore, ECW’s training facility, since 1996. Never was it more evident than during this time in ECW Taz’s devotion and love for the game of which he was such a devout student.

In March of 1998, Taz dropped the TV title to Bam Bam Bigelow in a questionable match, but it seemed as if it would be only a matter of time before Taz defeated Douglas for the World title. However, Heyman planned to use the same strategy that he had used with the Taz-Sabu feud with Taz’s inevitable win over Douglas. He teased out the match over several months (in part due to booking, in part because Douglas suffered several injuries) rather than give it to the fans right away. Taz was occupied first by revisiting his feud with Bigelow and then forming a surprising team with Sabu & Van Dam against Douglas and friends, but what fans wanted was Taz as World champ and they wanted it now. It wouldn’t be until January of 1999, almost a year after Taz began chasing the World title, that he finally won it. Unfortunately 1999 fans weren’t the same as 1996 fans and by the time the win happened it was so inevitable and so delayed that it was not well received.

Taz was a popular World champion, but definitely did not live up to expectations in part due to the time it had taken him to win the title. Taz’s character thrived on invincibility and that it took him nearly a year to win the title chipped away at that aura. To make matters worse, Taz had very little to follow up his win over Douglas with as ECW had few heels who were believable challenges for the “Human Suplex Machine.” Fans did not react kindly to Taz dominating newcomers like Yoshihiro Tajiri or tag team wrestlers like Buh Buh Ray Dudley. After so many years of being the hero of ECW, Taz was now getting stale.

Though the ECW fans seemed to be getting sick of Taz, he had made enough of an impact to attract the notice of powerful people elsewhere in the business, and thus in the Fall of 1999, just as ECW was going national on TV, Taz signed a deal with the WWF. Taz hastily dropped the World title to Mike Awesome in an impromptu three way also involving Masato Tanaka at Anarchy Rulez ’99 and then turned heel quickly just in time to put over TV champ Rob Van Dam on his way out. By December of ’99, Taz was gone from ECW after almost seven years and preparing to make his WWF debut.

And so the newly redubbed Tazz debuted in the WWF with a bang at the 2000 Royal Rumble as the surprise opponent for then undefeated former Olympic gold medallist (and future WWF champion) Kurt Angle. After a few of his trademark Tazzplexes, Tazz put Angle away with the Tazzmission. However, before the match even ended, the tremendous reaction Tazz had received upon his entrance began to die down, and the reason was evident: Angle was receiving offense of his own. Fans (ECW loyalists especially) were so used to Tazz going in, no-selling move after move from his opponent (be it a 300 pound monster or an Ultimate Fighter) and then brutalizing him; in the WWF it was not to be so.

Vince McMahon made it clear to Tazz coming in that he would pay his dues and have to prove himself before coming a star, and Tazz agreed to those terms; Tazz never asked Paul Heyman to make him invincible, Heyman just thought it was a good idea and it happened to work out. However, programs in which he struggled against the likes of Albert and The Big Bossman did nothing to help Tazz’s fledgling WWF career. In addition, perhaps a bigger problem came from the fact that Tazz had entered the WWF in a time when one of its up and comers, Darren Drozdov, had been paralyzed by a faulty powerbomb, and its biggest star, Steve Austin was out for over a year with major neck issues. Every superstar was wary of neck injuries and as a result McMahon had called for a ban on just about every move that was potentially dangerous to a wrestler’s neck; this list included the suplexes that comprised about 90% of Tazz’s offense.

With his aura of invincibility faded and his offensive repetoire reduced to a few lariats and chokes, Tazz had been stripped of much of what he had worked so hard for. In the fans eyes he became nothing more than a short stocky guy who won more than he lost. He could have been impressing the hell out of people by T-Bone Tazzplexing the 500 pound Big Show, instead he was delivering lariats to the 220 pound Crash Holly. Tazz was stagnating and going in circles in the Hardcore division when he injured his triceps in the spring of 2000.

When Tazz returned in the summer of 2000, the WWF decided to try something new with him. First they changed his look, dropping the singlet and going with a black and orange warmup suit. Second, they turned him heel and changed him from a bad ass to more of a crass bully. Third, they involved him in a feud with beloved announcer and sometime wrestler Jerry Lawler for the purpose of ultimately moving Tazz into his new home: the announce table. Though Tazz was known for his physical prowess and wrestling ability, he also had a sharp wit and penchant for improvisation. Since things weren’t working out for Tazz as an active wrestler, the WWF decided to see what he could do behind the announce table.

Initially response to Tazz the commentator was lukewarm and he served as a co-host on Heat with Michael Cole and remained a semi-active wrestler teaming and then feuding with fellow ECW alumni Raven. But by the time Lawler left the WWF in February of 2001, Tazz had found his niche, forming a great chemistry with Cole and becoming extremely popular as a commentator. He was given the role as Cole’s regular partner on Smackdown and started to become a beloved WWF fixture in much the way Lawler had before him.

Recently, Tazz was brought back out from behind the announce table and turned heel to be inserted into the WWF vs WCW/ECW feud, but the WWF already seems to realized completely removing him is a mistake and has let him remain a commentator for Smackdown. Also, Tazz can now be seen weekly on the highly rated “Tough Enough” on MTV where along with Al Snow and other he trains young hopefuls to become possible WWF superstars. On “Tough Enough,” Tazz pulls no punches, being extremely harsh to the hopefuls and never letting them forget all the dues he and others had to pay to get where they are. So if Tazz paid so many dues to become a wrestler, why does he seem so content in his current role as a commentator? Let’s take a closer look

THE MARK: In the early years, the mark fans were apathetic towards the unspectacular Kid Krush and Tasmaniac, so Paul Heyman came up with a solution when he made him Taz: make him invisible. Tazz has a huge, impressive musculature, but it is overshadowed in the eyes of most fans once he steps in the ring and is dwarfed by all his competitors. In ECW this didn’t matter because even when Taz stepped in the ring with a sevent foot monster the fans were trained to expect him to win, but in the WWF this isn’t the case. In a sport that belongs either to the giants or the high-flyers, Tazz is neither; he is a little man who can perform some big man moves. Without Heyman’s meticulous booking and without the offense he perfected, it is near impossible for Tazz to get over with a first time wrestling fan.

THE SMART: Smart fans have been calling for a Tazz push since the minute he entered the WWF. Unlike the marks, they know that beneath Paul Heyman “invicible” booking also lies a wealth of talent and hard work. The smart fan wants to see Tazz be allowed to use his full arsenal again and show the world what he has. Ironically enough, many of the smart fans who criticized Taz’s monster push and no-selling in ECW no cry for him to receive the same treatment in the WWF. A popular argument these days is that Tazz deserves the monster push Rhyno is currently receiving as both men have similar builds, but Tazz is the better interview; what smart fans fail to recognize is that a Gore is far less likely to break a neck than a Dragon Tazplex.

And finally

THE MEAN: After writing this column, I do believe I have a better understanding of Tazz than when I began. The man has worked all his life for a goal: to become the best wrestler in the world. He has had to fight the odds his entire career because of his size, and did so through a mixture of hard work (developing his physique) and dedication (learning both basic and exotic moves and perfecting them). For a time, he had what he wanted: he was seen as one of the best wrestlers in the world, albeit not in front of a world audience. Now he has reached the big time, the world audience, and he has more or less had to start from square one. But rather than dismiss Tazz because of his size and tell him to seek employment elsewhere, the WWF offered him a different kind of opportunity, different from the one he had always wanted, but one that has still made him a success. I’m sure that there are times when Tazz looks back at all the countless hours of training and hardship and wonders what he’s doing sitting behind an announcer’s desk, but then I bet he realizes that he is one of the WWF’s most visible personalities, doesn’t have to go through the physical wear and tear of a wrestler, doesn’t have to work nearly as much for the same salary, and a little smile probably crosses his face. I’m sure there is a part of Tazz that longs to be in the ring dropping people on their heads, but at the same time he’s a smart enough guy to recognize that he had a great deal of success partially because he was in the right place at the right time in ECW, and that because of that he has now earned a new kind of success, and one that hurts a lot less; for a guy whose whole gimmick for awhile consisted of being miserable, I’m betting Tazz has to be pretty darn happy right now.

Tazz is a lucky man. There are many former ECW stars who found success in ECW simply they were allowed to do things there they can’t do elsewhere (Mike Awesome, The Sandman, etc.), but even without what made him Taz in ECW, Tazz is still a success in the WWF. In addition to the announcing career he already has, the popularity of “Tough Enough” is going to open up doors for Tazz he never even knew were there. I see in five to ten years Tazz being the new Jerry Lawler, a beloved fixture of the WWF who sits behind an announce table but whom the crowd goes will for whenever he feels the need to step out and resolve an issue. The real question is, will the memory of Taz, the unstoppable bad ass from ECW ever completely fade from fan’s minds? Only time will tell, but in the mean time, thanks for reading