The Mean 08.29.03: Eddie Guerrero Pt. 1

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 Eddie Guererro

In my last column (like, a year ago), I took a look at William Regal; a wrestler who slowly climbed the ranks of WCW for years, only to experience a harsh fall, and then make the most of the second chance the WWF gave him. Regal’s story at times seems like a very unique one. Other wrestlers, including Scott Hall, X-Pac, Road Dogg, Shane Douglas, and others have numerous chances granted to them by both WCW and the WWF despite problems with drugs, behavioural issues, and more, and have blown them time and time again.

However, in a business where some performers seem to crumble before every hurdle of adversity, and cry in the corner until they are given another chance, there is at least one man who has managed to jump several hurdles and finish the race. And not only did Eddie Guererro keep on running, a lot of people say he deserves the gold medal (ok I think I’ve filled my analogy quotient for the next few years )

Eddie Guererro has followed a career path that could hardly be called stable, from entering the business with the pressure of a legend’s legacy, to tragedy both around him and in his own life. Yet Eddie has received acclaim in his native Mexico, in Japan, in WCW, ECW, the WWF, in the U.S. Independents is there anywhere else left (and don’t say “NWA-TNA!” wiseasses )? How did a man with so many roadblocks in his way still manage to achieve what Eddie Guererro has? Let’s take a closer look

If you’ve ever listened to Tony Schiavone, Mike Tenay, Jim Ross, Michael Cole, or any other announcer during an Eddie Guererro match (or Chavo Guererro Jr. match, for that matter), then you know that Eddie is a member of the second generation of Mexico’s famed Guererro wrestling family. Eddie’s father, Gory, was a huge star in Mexico, forming the famed La Pareja Atomica team with the most famous Mexican masked wrestler perhaps of all time, El Santo. Eddie’s older brothers Hector & Mando were already also well-known when Eddie made his Mexican debut in 1988 at age 21.

Eddie first wrestled for EMLL and as he was learning the ropes of the business, competed chiefly in Trios (six-man tag) matches with his brothers. Having been around the business all his life, Eddie was a natural, and despite a lack of size, he developed a speed and fluidity perfect for the lucha libre environment in which he was raised. Still, like all second-generation athletes, especially in wrestling, Eddie was saddled with the negatives as well as the positives of carrying a legacy.

In 1992, Eddie captured his first singles championship, the WWA welterweight title, and began to focus on honing his skills in the lighter weight divisions, moving out of the tag ranks. In the middle of the year, he switched over to AAA, wanting to really make a name for himself on his own, without his family name to hold him up. Donning a mask and naming himself Mascara Magica, Eddie became one of AAA’s most popular lightweights, feuding with Piloto Suicida (who he lost the WWA welterweight title to) and others.

Only five years into his career, still wearing a mask, Eddie received one of the highest honours a light-heavyweight competitor could receive: being invited to compete in New Japan’s prestigious Super J tournament. To celebrate his involvement, and to expand his character, Eddie donned a new mask and created the Black Tiger persona, which saw him take to the air even more than he did as Mascara Magica. Though he did not win the tournament, Eddie gained great international exposure and received rave reviews; he would return to New Japan for several more tours as Black Tiger.

Upon returning to Mexico in the latter part of 1993, Eddie felt he had progressed to the level where even using his real name he would be recognized as Eddie Guererro, not just a member of the Guererro family. Eddie even teamed with El Hijo del Santo and formed a new La Pareja Atomica to honour their fathers’ legendary team. However, by the end of 1993, Eddie would not only prove that he could survive without a mask, but without relying on the family name at all.

At the end of 1993, Eddie shocked the Mexican wrestling world by turning on El Hijo del Santo and joining up with hated American rudo “Love Machine” Art Barr (straight off a run in WCW as The Juicer, WCW’s answer to Beetlejuice). What made the heel turn unbelievable was that Eddie completely turned his back on Mexico, revelling in the fact that he was born in El Paso, Texas (a truth) and embracing his American heritage. The idea of America did not anger the Mexican fans so much as the fact that it was a native Mexican, a second generation member of a Mexican wrestling family steeped in tradition, no less, who was renouncing his heritage.

As La Pareja del Terror, Eddie & Barr won the AAA/IWC Tag Team titles as 1993 came to a close, and added Konnan, another formerly popular Mexican star who had turned his back on his country, to their team to make up the first permutation of Los Gringos Locos. As 1994 began, El Misterioso, Black Cat, Chicano Power, Louie Spiccolli & King Lion all joined the group, as Los Gringos Locos became the most hated group of rudos in Lucha Libre history. Though Eddie did not feud with his family (who were scattered amongst Mexican and U.S. promotions) directly, he maintained an intense feud with Santo, who was almost like his brother in the eyes of fans. Eddie & Barr lost the Tag Team titles to Santo & Octagon, setting up a Hair vs Masks match for the two teams at When Worlds Collide, the first AAA pay per view supercard that would be broadcast in the U.S. through a partnership with WCW. When Worlds Collide proved a pivotal event in both Lucha Libre and U.S. wrestling, as WCW and other U.S. promotions took notice of Rey Misterio Jr., Konnan, Psicosis, and other stars of Mexico whom they would soon sign, and in the process revolutionize the U.S. cruiserweight/light-heavyweight scene. But Guererro & Barr, in a losing effort against Santo & Octagon (which left the Gringos bald) impressed ECW officials, who began negotiating to bring the team to the U.S. to feud with Public Enemy. It seemed that Eddie Guererro led a charmed career, but tragic events would soon change that.

Art Barr died suddenly at age 28 in late 1994 from a heart attack that most concluded was drug-related. Eddie was shattered, as in addition to being his tag team partner, Barr was his mentor and his friend. Eddie took a brief personal sabbatical before returning at the beginning of 1995, adopting Barr’s top rope “frog splash” finisher. For two months, Eddie split his time between both teaming and feuding with Konnan in Mexico, and wrestling in Japan as Black Tiger, before coming to terms with ECW and joining the Philadelphia-based promotion in April. Many long-time ECW fans felt that Eddie’s high-flying, technical style would be out of place in the hardcore domain of The Sandman and Cactus Jack, and were shocked when Guererro won the Television title from ECW’s premiere high-flyer, 2 Cold Scorpio, shortly after his debut. Guererro’s English-speaking skills were still largely unpolished, so his ECW tenure was light on promos, but heavy on in-ring work, which the fans quickly came to appreciate, feeling Eddie and other new ECW stars, such as Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit, brought a new dimension to the promotion.

Eddie and Malenko would begin a classic rivalry that would continue for over five years. Their showcases of pure wrestling redefined the benchmark for American wrestling style and had even the cynical ECW audience giving them standing ovations. Throughout the spring and summer, the two men squared off both in singles matches and in tag team contests where Eddie teamed with Taz and Malenko with Scorpio. In July, Eddie dropped the TV title to Malenko, then regained it, then lost it back to Scorpio in August. But at this point, WCW had begun to make a push to at long last overtake the WWF, and a key component was bringing in technical and international wrestlers. Eddie, Malenko, and Chris Benoit were signed to make their WCW debuts in the fall of 1995. But before they left ECW, Eddie and Malenko wrestled to a draw in a 2/3 Falls match on August 26 that many ECW fans would refer to as the greatest match in the promotion’s history right up until it’s closing, and that some call among the greatest of all time.

When Eddie made his WCW debut at the very end of 1995, he surprised his long-time fans by appearing as a clean cut babyface with glittery tights and a big smile who gave the ringside fans high fives. Eddie’s interview skills were still coming along and WCW felt they could get more use out of him as a fan favourite who earned support through ringwork rather than a silent “foreign menace” heel. He made his pay per view debut at March’s Uncensored 1996 with a loss in a U.S. title match against champ and long-time rival/ally Konnan, but slowly began to amass a solid support base.

Eddie’s next pay-per-view matchup would place him in the ring with three legends, as the “random” drawing for Battlebowl, the single elimination tag tournament at Slamboree 1996, paired him with Arn Anderson of the Four Horsemen against two former World champions (and arch-rivals) in Randy Savage and Anderson’s best friend Ric Flair. As the other three participants were somewhat caught up in the “bitter enemies as partners” storyline, and because Anderson would only put offense in against Savage, not Flair, it was on Eddie’s shoulders to carry most of the actual wrestling in the match. And he did a good job, not getting intimidated by who he was working with, and pulling a great match out of a throwaway that could have easily been overwhelmed by the storyline. The finish saw Anderson turn on Eddie and DDT him to give lair the pin, but Flair was so impressed with Eddie’s work that he would push to work with him several more times in the future.

Riding high on the Slamboree match and the newfound respect he was getting from legends like Ric Flair, Eddie returned to New Japan for the 1996 Super J in June, competing under his own name and with no mask for the first time. In another first for Eddie, he won the tournament, defeating no less than Jushin Liger, creator of the tournament and the man considered by most to be Japan’s all-time top junior-heavyweight, in the finals. Eddie was a truly international superstar now, and expected to find a WCW that would welcome him back with open arms and push him to the top; he was partially right.

As most wrestling fans now, WCW circa 1996 was an especially interesting place. After a reliance on older “big name” stars like Hulk Hogan and his peers had nearly driven WCW into bankruptcy in the two years prior, WCW under Eric Bischoff in 1996 was beginning to hire more talented wrestlers in the vein of Guererro, Malenko, Chris Benoit, and later Rey Misterio Jr., Chris Jericho, and others. Though at first the Cruiserweight division (complete with championship, which was traded between Malenko and Misterio for the first few months of its existence) was nothing more than a side attraction while WCW figured out what to do with their played out main eventers, many assumed that perhaps the cruiserweights would soon take center stage and WCW would once again become an alternative to the WWF, showcasing technical wrestling over entertainment, as it had been for years. The problem was, a little something called the New World Order came along

In the summer of 1996, the New World Order emerged and revolutionized WCW. The group captivated the audience, and suddenly Hogan and his new buddies, 40-something WWF transplants Kevin Nash & Scott Hall, were the stars of the show once again, with other veterans like Randy Savage, Sting & Lex Luger serving as their adversaries. However, as many of the older main eventers were limited in their wrestling ability and in their stamina, Bischoff still relied on the cruiserweights to, one, get the crowd excited before the slower main event matches, and two, fill two hours of Nitro each week plus pay per views with fifteen minute-plus matches. Bischoff was both the greatest ally and enemy of the cruiserweights; he gave them more exposure than they had ever seen and made cruiserweight-style wrestling a vital part of the North American wrestling scene for the first time ever, but he also pigeon-holed them in a mid-card position that made it difficult for fans to ever picture them advancing towards the main event (Kevin Nash throwing Rey Misterio into the side of a truck like a lawn dart in August of 1996 typified this).

So Eddie Guererro, a huge star in Japan and respected by everybody in the business, found himself in a company in which the top was an unattainable peak. It should be noted that Guererro did fare better than most of his peers in terms of upward mobility. While Benoit and Malenko wrestled each other, Guererro got to feud with Flair; while Misterio had to chase the Cruiserweight title, Guererro ended a feud with Diamond Dallas Page by defeating him in the finals of a tournament for the United States title, the second most prestigious championship in WCW, behind only the World title.

But after a rousing 1996 in which he really came into his own, Guererro found himself floundering in the first part of 1997, despite being the U.S. champion. He had excellent matches, in particular successful title defenses over Syxx (the former 1-2-3 Kid and future X-Pac) at Souled Out (in a ladder match which was the highlight of the show) and Chris Jericho at Superbrawl. But the babyface persona was becoming bland, as WCW was highlighting the nWo in part because the crowds loved the bad ass cool guy heel act they had established (and Steve Austin later perfected in the WWF). Guererro was only hearing moderate cheers, particularly when he was programmed against nWo members (even lesser ones like Scott Norton and Mike Rotunda). But Guererro was still widely acknowledged as one of the company’s best workers, so there was no though of releasing him on the part of WCW, something about him just had to change.

After each had been in the company a bit over a year, it was time for old ECW rivals Guererro and Malenko to intersect once again. Guererro ran down during Cruiserweight champion Malenko’s match with Syxx at Superbrawl, and accidentally hit Malenko instead of Syxx, costing him the match. Following the match, Malenko and the announcers began to speculate over whether Guererro had returned to his long-passed, but now for the first time acknowledged, rulebreaking ways. Malenko had straddled the face/heel line since his WCW debut, and no effort was made to establish him as one or the other. WCW held out the possibility that either man could potentially have gotten frustrated with WCW’s lack of advancement against the nWo and the effect it was having on their own career stagnation (an interesting, if overlooked, commentary on the actual state of WCW at the time).

It was an interesting storyline with a lot of subtle nuances behind it which, done right, would have been something for both men’s standing in WCW. The problem was, as was common at the time, was that WCW was completely focused on the main nWo storyline, and anything involving non-established stars was somewhat thrown to the wayside (you can read more fleshed out treatises on this period in WCW in about a million other places on the web, so I won’t bother to elaborate). Syxx remained a part of the storyline both to keep some nWo influence over it and to create more tension (Syxx had been trained by Malenko’s father, but had used resentment against the elder Malenko as motivation for their own storyline. The possibility existed that Syxx was either working with Guererro against Malenko, or had reconciled with his trainer’s son). At Uncensored 1997, Malenko defeated Guererro in a no-disqualification match (an odd choice for a stipulation, given that both men were known for their technical skills, not their brawling tactics. This illustrated another problem in WCW at the time: attaching stipulations to a match merely for the sake of having them, not because they fit in any compelling way), with the (possibly) unintentional help of Syxx, becoming U.S. champion.

If certain sources are to be believed (and this is one backstage story that has been talked about enough in enough places that it’s more or less canon at this point), WCW had a somewhat interesting plan for Guererro and Malenko, as well as two others, going into the spring and summer of 1997. Malenko defended his U.S. title against Chris Benoit (another technical master and favorite of the internet) at Spring Stampede in a match that ended up getting marred by interference from Benoit’s rival Kevin Sullivan as well as his mentor and comrade in the latest permutation of the legendary Four Horsemen stable. Guererro also appeared (for the first time in a few weeks, and in a cast, as he had injured his arm), not taking an active role, but afterwards, leaving with Sullivan. More importantly, Benoit helped his opponent up after the match and said “he wasn’t supposed to be here.” There was speculation at the time about who “he” was, but in the past seven years, it’s been established that “he” was Guererro. The plan was for Benoit to become frustrated with the lack of commitment to excellence he felt Anderson, Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen concept was yielding; along with Malenko, Guererro, and Steven (now William) Regal, Benoit would from his own newer, more aggressive version of the Horsemen called Apocalypse, and would feud with both the Horsemen and the nWo. The Spring Stampede incident would represent Guererro jumping the gun on the four being seen together.

But the Apocalypse idea was shot down before it even got off the ground. There’s been conflicting reports of who in the backstage power structure was most against Apocalypse, but the common assumption seems to be that Hulk Hogan lead the charge, fearing that the Apocalypse angle would overshadow the older stars, with an angle potentially as intriguing as the nWo but with younger, more athletic participants (with possibly Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and even Ric Flair being on Hogan’s side). Regal would win the Television title then more or less fade into obscurity (documented in detail in my column on Regal himself), Malenko would drop the U.S. title to Jeff Jarrett and flounder for a bit before joining the Horsemen, and Benoit would continue feuding with Sullivan for another four months. As for Guererro, his arm injury turned out to be worse than originally thought, and since there would be no Apocalypse angle in which he could participate in a non-speaking role, WCW took him off-television, causing audiences to forget about any interesting aspects of his persona conflict that had been building for months.

Guererro made an inconspicuous return to WCW television in June of 1997, interfering in the reviled Jeff Jarrett’s match with Malenko and helping Jarrett to win the U.S. title. But due to a combination of his injury not being fully healed and WCW not having anything for him to do, Guererro disappeared for another month from television, then returned with no explanation, not feuding with Malenko (who was wrestling internationally at the time) and helping Jarrett for no given reason. Guererro was suddenly a rulebreaker, having left television months earlier as a conflicted personality who had, up until that point, been a fan favorite his entire tenure in WCW; mark fans who had never heard of Guererro prior to his WCW debut were left confused (not seeing rulebreaking as Guererro’s natural state), while Guererro’s more devoted longtime fans had their glee at seeing Guererro’s return to his old heel persona stifled by the lack of television and mic time he was given to showcase it. He attacked still-fan favorite nephew Chavo Guererro Jr. and decimated his brother Hector in a series of one-sided matches, but this only established that Guererro was now firmly a heel, not why.

Guererro was thrust into a bizarre heel alliance with Jarrett and Alex Wright, managed by Debra McMichael. Again, WCW’s lack of faith in anybody but their established (read: WWF-born) stars was evident: though Guererro, Jarrett and Wright have all since shown that they have tremendous mic skills, the irritating McMichael was made the mouthpiece of the group, and Jarrett (a former WWF Intercontinental champion) was its centrepiece, though both Guererro and Wright were drawing far more heel heat from the crowds.

Before the Guererro-Jarrett-Wright alliance even gained a name, the group went their separate ways, again demonstrating WCW’s inability to keep track of their mid card. But rather than any sort of clean break for the potentially intriguing group, they simply seemed to sputter out, with Wright going more or less solo to pursue the Cruiserweight and later the Television titles, and Guererro inadvertently costing Jarrett the U.S. title against Steve McMichael (less than few weeks after Jarrett had chosen Malenko as a partner in a tag match, the implications of which on his alliance with Guererro were never explored) and then pursuing Cruiserweight champion Chris Jericho on his own. Debra would later return to managing Wright after Jarrett left WCW to return to the WWF in the fall of 1997, but Guererro kept his distance.

Guererro got his first real chance to shine in his renewed feud with Jericho, whose bland babyface character was almost a direct parallel to Guererro’s former WCW persona (an interesting note: Jericho was another career heel WCW was trying to shoe-horn into a babyface and he would eventually go down the same path of reverting to his old persona that Guererro did only months later). Guererro was unsuccessful in his first bid for Jericho’s Cruiserweight title at the August Clash of the Champions, but he let his old persona, complete with aggression and blatant cheating attempts, emerge full-blown for the first time in almost three years, and the crowd reacted with intrigue. At Fall Brawl, Guererro dominated Jericho to win the title to a mixed reaction from a crowd that both wanted to boo his rulebreaking tactics, but enjoyed his colourful heel persona (especially in contrast to Jericho). More importantly, the Cruiserweight title gave Guererro focus; though it was not as prestigious as the U.S. title, this served to be beneficiary in some ways, as the pressure was reduced and Guererro could explore his heel persona as king of the Cruiserweight division with more freedom; not to mention he was now among his own kind in terms of athletic skill in the highly-competitive CW division.

In addition to Jericho and Guererro, the WCW Cruiserweight division circa fall of 1997 featured an international array of talent including Malenko, Ultimo Dragon, Juventud Guererra, Alex Wright and others. But far and away the most popular breakaway sensation of the year-old weight class was Rey Misterio Jr., the 140-pound masked daredevil who had risen to prominence in the Mexican ranks a few years after Guererro. Though both men had competed in AAA, ECW and WCW alongside one another for years, their paths had rarely crossed. But in 1997, they were polar opposites (Guererro the insidious heel, Misterio the fan-friendly, gutsy babyface) and perfect rivals.

The difference between the nWo-dominated heavyweight division in 1997 and the cruiserweight division, was that while the former was dominated by storyline twists (to compensate for the lack of athleticism of its aging principle players and to compete with the WWF’s style), the latter was based almost exclusively on athletic competition. There was a brief and basic story behind the Guererro-Misterio feud (Misterio defeated Guererro under a different mask when Guererro underestimated what he thought to be a rookie in a non-title match, thus Guererro was gunning for Misterio’s mask), but the main lure was athleticism. The two Mexican superstars (who had each been born in the U.S.) put on what was widely considered the best match of 1997 (and competing against classics like Hulk Hogan vs Roddy Piper not once, but twice um well the first Hell In a Cell anyways ), a Title vs Mask contest (a stipulation often used in Misterio matches) at Halloween Havoc. Misterio won the initial contest and the title, but the feud was far from over.

Guererro and Misterio had a long series of matches on Monday Nitro, WCW’s syndicated programming and in a pay-per-view return match the next month. Guererro and Misterio were so athletic with such diverse movesets that they could mix and match elements of previous encounters and still seem to come up with revolutionary new matches. The Cruiserweight division regained much of the luster it had lost during the period when Syxx had held the title earlier in the year and not defended it; it again became what Eric Bischoff relied on to pump up crowds before main events. It was no coincidence that the division sparked again with Guererro’s involvement; risk-takers like Misterio excited crowds, but Guererro’s charisma and story-telling ability brought it all together. Guererro regained the title from Misterio on an edition of Nitro and retained his title at November’s World War 3 pay-per-view.

The feud between Guererro and Malenko that had kicked off 1997 and been derailed by the Apocalypse abortion was thrown back on with no buildup and blown off at Starrcade, WCW’s biggest event of the year, where Guererro retained his title in a decent if uninspired match (it was a shame, given the storied history between the two, that WCW refused to devote time to their storyline the second time around after botching it the first). Feeling they had gotten enough mileage out of Guererro as Cruiserweight champion, WCW decided to use the title to elevate other mid-carders; on the Nitro after Starrcade, Guererro dropped the title to Ultimo Dragon (the belt would eventually find its way back to Jericho, via Juventud Guererra and Misterio, and gain him even greater heel stardom than it had Guererro).

Guererro wrestled a reduced schedule for about a month to let his body patch itself up from his intense run as Cruiserweight champion, and then he was given one of the more complex storylines of his career involving his nephew Chavo. Chavo challenged his uncle to a match on Thunder, demanding that if he won, Eddie returned to the babyface fold; Eddie agreed, under the stipulation that if he were to win, Chavo would have to join him in rulebreaking and true to form, Eddie cheated to win.

With Jericho as one of the first Cruiserweight champions who was getting over based on his interview skills in addition to pure athleticism, WCW looked to develop the characters of the other cruiserweights as well to flesh out the division. The feud/forced partnership between the Guererros was used as a springboard to explore the speaking skills of both. Chavo had trouble at first, falling in the same holes both Eddie and Jericho had in the bland babyface role, but eventually found a niche when he was unable to win his way out of servitude and began portraying an insane character, driven over the edge by his need to please his rulebreaking uncle (in the process he’d end up talking to a stick horse ‘k, maybe Chavo’s another column ). Eddie, on the other hand, was a hit right off the bat, blending intensity with a surprisingly acute sense of comic timing and showing off interview skills he had only been able to previously display in AAA. Over the course of the spring of 1998, Eddie also kept up his streak of impressive matches with a foray into the heavyweight division against Television champion Booker T and in cruiserweight battles with Chavo, Dragon and others.

The Eddie/Chavo angle continued into the summer of 1998, culminating in August. WCW was impressed with Eddie’s substantial character development and were now looking at him as a legitimate star who they could base major mid-card angles around (still not big enough, in either a physical or a character sense, however, to enter the main event realm dominated by WCW’s older heavyweights). But rather than give Eddie another run as U.S. champ or even put him in the World title mix (see previous parentheses), they decided to attempt to use him to get the other luchadors over with the American crowd.

Eddie’s push into a larger role in WCW in the fall of 1998 began with an interesting premise: Eddie gave a solid series of interviews condemning WCW Vice President (and on-camera leader of the nWo) for exploitation of the luchadors. It was an idea that resonated both with mark fans (who hated Bischoff and had begun to enjoy the entertaining Eddie Guererro) and smart fans (who felt that Bischoff had in many ways exploited the luchadors, using them to get crowds excited for the main eventers and then not developing long-term angles for them). At first, Guererro refused to compete out of protest, then began to rally other luchadors to do the same until Bischoff showed them respect and granted them more high profile matches.

But, ironically enough, the very things that Guererro complained about in his promo would cripple this latest push and relegate it to the midcard. Bischoff (who was beginning to see himself more as an on-screen character with every day he spent around Hulk Hogan and friends) decided that him associating on-camera with Guererro, whom he still didn’t consider anywhere near a main-event level star, would cheapen his character, and by association dilute the nWo. The irony was that the crowd was rapidly losing interest in the nWo and popping for the charismatic Guererro, but Bischoff was too caught up with (unsuccessfully) trying to use mainstream celebrities like Dennis Rodman and Jay Leno and looking to the past (and failing) with the return of the Ultimate Warrior, not to mention hyping his new pet project Goldberg.

In a bizarre turn of events, Guererro seemed to abandon his vendetta against Bischoff in favor of using his newfound luchador allies as a gang to secure wins and titles. The only remnants of any involvement of Bischoff or any other “big” player in the angle was Guererro’s use of the name “Latino World Order” for his group and shirts in the style of the nWo (with the red, green and white colors of the Mexican flag) mocking Bischoff’s group, but the WCW VP was rarely mentioned by Guererro from that point forward and his group’s purpose became muddled and they became just another aimless midcard stable. Their ranks grew to include so many luchadors who could not speak English and who were barely known by fans that it practically smothered Guererro.

The abrupt halt to his quasi-face push and thrust back into heeldom killed the heat Guererro had worked so long to build with the crowd. WCW panicked and tried to retread what had worked in the past with Guererro, shoving him awkwardly back into the Cruiserweight division after he had spent a year working his way into the heavyweights. But he couldn’t contend for the title, because WCW was working to establish neophyte Billy Kidman as babyface champ and weren’t yet confident enough that crowds wouldn’t turn on him if he feuded with Guererro. To kill time, WCW backtracked more, placing Guererro back into a feud with Rey Misterio Jr. after Misterio turned down an offer to join the Latino World Order. To “build” the feud, WCW had Misterio face and defeat Guererro’s heatless henchmen, forgetting it was the amazing matches put on by Guererro and Misterio that had made their feud work so well before. They tried another bizarre love/hate storyline ala what they had done with Chavo, having Guererro defeat Misterio in a match, forcing him to join the Latino World Order, but the story was too bland this time, and too many other luchadors crowded the scene.

In an attempt to help Kidman get firmly over as babyface champ, WCW placed him in a feud with Guererro’s group, putting him over the only other members with credibility, Misterio and Juventud Guererra, in a Triangle match at Starrcade 1998. In a fit of rage, Guererro stormed the ring to berate his charges, only to fall to Kidman in a well-done impromptu challenge match. On the plus side, Kidman established major credibility, but on the down side, nearly all of Guererro’s was gone.

Just when it seemed everything had gone wrong for Guererro, it got worse. On New Year’s Eve, he was involved in an automobile accident (which may or may not have been his fault and may or may not have been alcohol-induced) suffering major injuries. He would miss months of action and have to undergo major rehabilitation. WCW broke up the Latino World Order, with the explanation that the newly regrouped nWo had beat up Eddie and threatened to do the same to the rest of the group if they didn’t disband (once more using Guererro to get others over).

WCW went through some difficult times as Guererro spent the early part of 1999 recuperating. The ratings war had turned staunchly in favor of the WWF and WCW did nothing but resort to the same things that had worked for the past three years. But the WWF and Vince McMahon had been weak creatively; they were once again operating at full force and the weaknesses in Eric Bischoff’s creative process became glaring. Backstage politics polluted the system as Kevin Nash, an aging main-eventer with limited wrestling skills and a once potent connection with the crowd that was fading, took control. Bischoff surrendered booking power to the politically shrewd Nash, who may have dashed WCW’s last hope, putting himself over their only star with enough potential to carry the company, Bill Goldberg, in a convoluted match that robbed both of them of significant credibility. With WCW at its worst, Hulk Hogan returned and made his own grab at another run with the World title, which also failed miserably; Ric Flair, Diamond Dallas Page, Sting, and WCW’s other proven commodities couldn’t stop the downward spiral. Even the ever-reliable New World Order angle had run out of steam and came to a slow end.

This was the wrestling landscape into which Guererro re-entered. The luchadors had been all but forgotten as WCW feverishly tried to create new stars to fill the gap left by Goldberg’s fall; due to the Mexican wrestlers’ inability to speak English, WCW did not place much faith in them. However, Guererro was regarded as a returning wrestler with a history of being over with the crowd and placed on a different level entirely.

Eddie Guererro’s status upon his return in the summer of 1999 is retrospectively interesting on a number of levels. He still wasn’t regarded as somebody with the potential to headline a pay-per-view or hold the World title, but WCW was at the point where any past name who had experienced even minor success was looked upon as a potential stopgap solution. WCW made an attempt both to move Guererro away from the luchadors he had been associated and at the same time use them to elevate him. To distance Guererro from his previous character, he praised former enemy Eric Bischoff (who had done a bizarre face turn in his time off) for paying his medical bills while he was injured (of course the obvious argument was that Bischoff was using Guererro to get himself over but if I get started on Eric the opportunist, that’s, again, a whole other column plus, I like him on Raw now). From there, Guererro returned to action and sought revenge on the LWO members who had caved to pressure and disbanded in his absence. Why Guererro would be angry at his former allies when he himself was praising Bischoff hardly made storyline sense, but the angle didn’t last for long.

What wasn’t dealt with by WCW was the lingering issue of whether alcohol had led to Guererro’s injuries in the first place. Bischoff and other WCW officials were pre-occupied with the problem of jump-starting their failing company. Guererro’s issues with substance abuse were not blatant and out in the open like those of Scott Hall or others. He did not create scenes or go in binges, he would just quietly use painkillers and occasionally drink a bit too much. If he wasn’t going to cry for help, WCW wasn’t going to provide it.

The taint of Kevin Nash’s influence remained in the main event as he dominated the World title scene in stale feuds with Randy Savage and Sid Vicious. But at the same time, the likes of Ric Flair, Roddy Piper and Diamond Dallas Page began to work programs with younger stars, attempting to help them get over, as Bischoff tried to capture lightning again as he had with Goldberg. However, Guererro was overlooked as he made his return after the angle was already underway. Chris Benoit and Buff Bagwell were tapped as the younger stars who were given the shot to ascend to the next level. After a few weeks of getting reintroduced to the crowd and working off ring rust in matches with the other luchadors, Guererro began working a mini-program against Vampiro, a Canadian native who was a big star in Mexico where he and Guererro had feuded in the past. Vampiro had worked short patches in WCW up to this point, but he was finally settling in for an extended run with WCW in the summer of 1999, and a lot of potential was seen in his unique look and synergy with the fans. WCW officials trusted Guererro to help him adjust to the WCW style.

His feud with Vampiro would lead Guererro into the next major phase of his career. Vampiro also worked in the music industry and had a close friendship with The Insane Clown Posse, a pair of shock value rappers with a cult following and who had worked briefly as a tag team in the WWF in addition to running their own independent federation. When ICP wanted to do a run as Vampiro’s partners, WCW paired Guererro with his old rival Rey Misterio Jr. and Misterio’s established partner Billy Kidman. All three had an exciting in-ring style and a similar look and attitude. The three took on the name The Filthy Animals, later adding Konnan to the group, and quickly became among WCW’s most popular stables. Their matches with the inexperienced ICP, even with Vampiro involved as well, were not classics, but the Animals definitely had more than enough skill to make their opponents look not completely out of place.

After disposing of Vampiro & ICP, the Animals were moved into a war of attrition with another midcard babyface group, The Revolution. The latter group consisted of Benoit, Shane Douglas, Dean Malenko & Perry Saturn. WCW had lost patience with the pushes of Benoit and Bagwell and never really given them a chance to succeed; instead, Bagwell was more or less forgotten and Benoit was shoved into the midcard. The Filthy Animals-Revolution feud both excited and confounded smart fans. On the plus side, just about every permutation of Animals vs Revolution (with the possible exception of Konnan vs Douglas) was a great match waiting to happen. On the minus side, the stated goal of The Revolution was to get into a main event scene dominated by people past their prime, and a feud with the Animals over nothing more defined than “who’s better” was a pretty clear indication that was not going to happen anytime soon (and with the returns of Hulk Hogan, Sting and Lex Luger, the possibility became even slimmer). The other problem was that both groups lost momentum of babyfaces by being programmed against one another, a situation that was nothing new to Guererro.

In October of 1999, Bischoff was ousted from power and abruptly replaced by former WWF head writer Vince Russo. Russo had been a big part of the WWF’s rise back to power, but had always had his more outrageous ideas held in check by the experience and vision of Vince McMahon, Shane McMahon, Jim Ross and others. WCW, desperate for a quick fix solution, gave Russo absolute power, with the only other creative force being Russo’s WWF assistant Ed Fererra, who was little more than a yes man.

The good news for Guererro and the other Filthy Animals and Revolution members was that Russo believed in pushing them at the expense of guys like Flair, Hogan and Piper. The bad news was that Russo seemed like he was booking on speed; he would throw different ideas and angles out seemingly every week with little to no structure or continuity. He had the Animals booked as acting like heels to dispose of the beloved Flair (whom Russo had no use for, so he had him injured by the Animals) but then had them as the babyfaces against the heel Revolution (who solidified their position by turning on and assaulting the popular Benoit). This split booking left the crowd with no idea how to react to the Animals.

With the crowd neither cheering nor booing the Filthy Animals, Russo decided to split the group up and see what he could do with them. He centered the angle on Kidman’s girlfriend (both in storyline and in real life), Torrie Wilson, who was also the Animals’ valet; Kidman caught Guererro making advances on Wilson and Konnan and Misterio were caught in the middle. The tension came to a head when Kidman, Guererro & Wilson took on Revolution members Malenko, Perry Saturn & Asya (a female bodybuilder in the mold of Chyna) in an elimination tag match at Mayhem ’99, with the bickering between Guererro and Kidman leading each to be eliminated and Wilson to be left alone with and decimated by Saturn. But bad luck struck, as before Russo was able to pull the trigger on the break-up and a Guererro-Kidman feud, the injury bug bit, with Guererro, Misterio and Kidman all needing time off for nagging injuries, and Russo pulling them all off television to make room for more of his ideas rather than try to book around the injuries.

Konnan, Kidman and Misterio made a sudden return as full babyfaces a month later when Russo needed some warm bodies to save Jim Duggan from a Revolution sneak attack. Guererro was still injured and Wilson was kept off television until he would be able to come back and Russo could try and salvage the Filthy Animals feud. Little did anybody realize that Russo’s time in WCW was not to last, and nobody could have predicted that Guererro’s appearance at Mayhem would be his last in WCW.

WCW would experience one of the greatest and most sudden upheavals in its tumultuous history in the week leading up to Souled Out in the final weeks of January 2000. World champion Bret Hart was informed only days before the event, where he was scheduled to face Sid Vicious, that a concussion suffered in a match with Bill Goldberg (injured at the time) would necessitate months off (and would ultimately cause him to retire later in the year). U.S. champion Jeff Jarrett, scheduled to face Benoit in a best of three series, also went down with an injury at the last minute. Russo was already in a tailspin, his ideas becoming more scatter shot and the ratings plummeting. With less than a day before Souled Out, Russo was relieved of his booking responsibilities (rumor has it that Russo suggested that completely inexperienced and out of shape Ultimate Fighting transfer Tank Abbot be given the World title, which was the last draw, but this has never been confirmed). Russo was offered the option of remaining on as part of a committee (similar to his situation during his successful WWF days), but he refused and quit.

A committee of WCW executives and agents decided to put the two challengers in the respective title matches, Vicious and Benoit, in a main event for the vacant World title. Kidman was called on to fill the best of three series against Malenko, Saturn and new Revolution member The Wall; the rest of the Animals were not involved because Guererro and Misterio were still injured while Konnan skipped the show out of protest for Russo, whom he’d grown close to. In an unexpected twist that had internet fans rejoicing, Benoit won the World title in the main event, and it looked as if WCW was headed in a bold new direction but the changes were not over.

Only moments after Souled Out concluded, WCW veteran Kevin Sullivan was named the heir to Russo’s head booker position. This was the same Kevin Sullivan whose wife had left him for Benoit and who had spent the last several years working against the elevation of Benoit, Guererro, and other younger, smaller wrestlers who worked a more exciting style that the veterans could not keep up with. Despite Sullivan’s vow that all that was in the past, the younger wrestlers were sceptical. In an unprecedented move, Benoit gave up the World title and his lucrative WCW contract and asked for his release; he was granted it. In an even bolder and gutsy move, Guererro, Malenko and Saturn also asked for and were given their releases. Four of the best wrestlers in WCW were now without a home, a situation that would not last long.

The WWF did not waste any time getting Benoit, Guererro, Malenko and Saturn under contract. Konnan and Shane Douglas attempted similar moves, but both had burned bridges in the past with Vince McMahon, and ended up crawling back to WCW at reduced salaries. Meanwhile, the “WCW Four” (as the group came to be briefly called) found themselves making less money than they had in WCW, but knew that the potential for career growth was astronomically larger in their new home. The WWF in the winter of 2000 was on a roll and that was due in large part to the kind of exciting quality wrestling that wrestlers like Guererro could provide.

The WCW Four was treated like main event stars immediately upon their entrance into the WWF, emerging from the audience on Raw and aiding the popular Mick Foley against top heel stable Degeneration X, which included World champion Triple H. Only their second night in the WWF, the Radicalz (as the foursome came to be called) were booked in a series of matches against DX, with the storyline going that if the Radicalz could win two out of three matches they would earn WWF contracts (Triple H was married to the owner’s daughter, Stephanie McMahon, in the storyline, and had the power to do so). Guererro teamed with Saturn in a losing effort against Tag Team champions The New Age Outlaws, but Guererro was perhaps the most over Radical, receiving loud cheers from the crowd throughout the match. Malenko also lost against X-Pac (the former Syxx) and Benoit lost to HHH in the main event. But even though they weren’t booked to win, the Radicalz were booked to be a big deal; they were the focal point of the show and presented to the crowd as extremely talented professionals. It was a far cry from what they had experienced for years in WCW.

But the night was not all good news for Guererro. When he launched himself off the top rope for his trademark Frog Splash the crowd erupted, but upon landing, Guererro injured his elbow in a gruesome fashion. Once again, the injury bug bit Guererro at an extremely inopportune time, as the WWF planned to continue pushing the Radicalz hard and fast. But rather than take Guererro off television during his convalescence, the WWF consulted with Guererro, who determined he was healthy enough to stay on the road, and inserted him into the role of manager for the other Radicalz. The next Monday on Raw, the Radicalz turned on Foley and helped DX in order to gain their contracts; that night, Benoit, Saturn & Malenko teamed with HHH & X-Pac against Foley, The Rock, Rikishi & Too Cool in a ten-man tag match that is to this day considered one of the best main events in the history of Raw. Guererro interfered from outside and infuriated the crowd with his heel tactics.

The WWF gave Guererro opportunities as a manager that WCW failed to give him in five years as a wrestler. They recognized that he was the most charismatic of the Radicalz and made him their mouthpiece. He was given the microphone more than ever before and established a rapport with the crowd, who loved to hate him. Guererro played up his accent and his sleaze, becoming an irritating heel that remained endearing as well. He christened himself “Latino Heat” and bragged to his teammates about his prowess with the women (something he had only exhibited shades of with Torrie Wilson in WCW).

Guererro’s new persona led him into conflict with one of the WWF’s most unique and most popular competitors: the Ninth Wonder of the World, Chyna, the female bodybuilder and former Intercontinental champion. Chyna had undergone cosmetic surgery over the prior year and had unbelievably enough become something of a sex symbol among the eccentric WWF crowd. Guererro began to stalk Chyna, much to the chagrin of both her as well as Guererro’s old WCW rival Chris Jericho, to whom Chyna served as a valet and tag team partner. Guererro made his in-ring return in a highly intense match with Jericho which served to transition Jericho into a feud with Benoit and further Guererro’s issue with Chyna. Guererro, Saturn & Malenko made their Wrestlemania debut facing Chyna & Too Cool in an exciting contest. The WWF was at an all-time high in terms of in-ring quality and the crowd truly appreciated the Radicalz on the biggest stage of them all. Chyna ended the match with a powerbomb on Guererro, sending the crowd home happy.

The next night on Raw, Guererro faced Jericho, who had won the European title at Wrestlemania, once again. In a twist, Chyna turned on Jericho and helped Guererro to win his first WWF title. The WWF was impressed with Guererro and wanted to see how far he could go with his new character; at the same time, Chyna was becoming stale in her role as “female pioneer” and the WWF hoped a pairing with Guererro would inject her with more personality and make her even more marketable. Almost immediately crowds began cheering the Guererro/Chyna pairing, as they engaged in entertaining skits like Guererro getting his G.E.D. and the two of them attending a prom in a low rider. Guererro also engaged in a series of European title defenses against unheralded luchador Essa Rios that proved to be surprising crowd favorites (and led to Rios’ valet Lita becoming a star). Guererro was becoming a well-rounded WWF superstar in the mold of The Rock: he was entertaining, he was funny, but could still be counted on to put on one hell of a show. Guererro was one of the WWF’s MVPs in 2000 and for the first time in a long time, his employers realized it.

Guererro was a hit with the crowd and Benoit was gaining credibility as a legitimate tough guy and heel threat. Malenko and Saturn weren’t fairing as well; Malenko was barely on the radar as Light-Heavyweight champion and Saturn wasn’t even registering a blip. The WWF decided to break up the group and increase the pushes of Benoit and Guererro. Benoit was cut from the group altogether, winning the Intercontinental title and helping Triple H in his World title feud with The Rock, no longer appearing on television with the other Radicalz. Guererro and Chyna had also been doing their own thing, but in May, Guererro was put in six man tag matches with Malenko & Guererro that resulted in a series of losses. Malenko & Saturn blamed Guererro’s association with Chyna for distracting him from the group, leading both to their losing streak as well as their own respective failures to thrive in the WWF. The focal point of the group’s dissention became Guererro’s European title, and a three-way match was signed for Judgment Day. The three Radicalz put on a fantastic match (on a great card) and Guererro went over with Chyna’s help, furthering his push, cutting his ties with Malenko & Saturn and ending the Radicalz.

Guererro cruised through the early summer of 2000 with Chyna at his side, in a secure upper mid-card position with the potential for advancement for the first time in his career; he even got his first t-shirt. Guererro lost to Val Venis in the opening round of the King of the Ring to prepare Venis for an Intercontinental title push. The next night on Raw, Benoit attacked Guererro & Chyna in order to prep for a World title shot at The Rock. It seemed as if the WWF was doing the same thing WCW had done, using Guererro’s status as a crowd favorite to get others over at his expense, but the difference was that once Guererro had put somebody over, the WWF would make sure he also benefited from their success. In the case of Benoit, Guererro and Chyna saved The Rock from a sneak attack by Benoit & Shane McMahon the week after the attack and teamed with him in a six man main event against Benoit and Tag Team champions Edge & Christian. With Venis, Guererro would end up renewing their feud later, but with the IC title at stake.

The one feud Guererro did not end up getting much from was a quick one with Saturn that culminated in Guererro losing the European title at Fully Loaded. But the intention of the Saturn feud was only to get the European title off of Guererro to prepare him for bigger things (the IC title feud with Venis) and give Saturn one more shot at getting over. The loss did not hurt Guererro’s credibility at all as there was very little build-up to the match and he moved on immediately afterwards.

This is where Guererro’s WWF career took an interesting twist. Instead of a one on one Guererro-Venis IC title match at Summerslam, Guererro & Chyna were signed to team against Venis and his manager Trish Stratus with the unique stipulation that whoever scored the winning pinfall (even Chyna or Stratus) would be the Intercontinental champion. As they built to the match, Chyna was made as much of a viable contender as Guererro and at Summerslam, she scored the winning pinfall on Stratus, regaining the IC title. Following the win, Guererro was ecstatic, congratulating his main squeeze but if you looked closely, as the two embraced, a look of quiet anger crept over his face.

Part 2 of The Mean’s special look at Eddie Guerrero will be posted on Saturday!