The Reality of Wrestling: New Guard Rising

Pro Wrestling’s version of a makeover

There have always been select years in wrestling history that see the rise and introduction of new talent into the main-event circle or just new guys getting the big pushes; 2008 will be remembered as such a year. As of now the champions in America’s big three promotions (The E, TNA, ROH) are Samoa Joe, C.M. Punk, and Nigel McGuinness. Nobody, and I mean nobody, would’ve thought this possible at the beginning of the year or any year for that matter. A lot of E fans may note 2005 because of the rise of Batista and John Cena or 2004 with Benoit and Guerrero, but the difference is that Benoit & Guerrero’s pushes basically ended when their title reigns did and The E will always push homegrown talent to the top (what promotion wouldn’t?) and Punk came from ROH and The E’s history with ROH talent hasn’t exactly been the smoothest. The other big difference between this year and other years is that the elevation of new talent to the highest points of a promotion is happening all over the planet with Suwama winning All Japan’s Champions Carnival and the Triple Crown in the same month and Takeshi Morishima finally winning the GHC world title in Pro Wrestling NOAH. There’s something special in the air these days with wrestling in general not only feeling fresh, but also actually being fresh.

P.C. Says: Elevation is the lifeblood of any promotion even if it isn’t always noticeable

To put this year in a historical perspective I think it would be good to look back at 2002 in the world of wrestling. It was the first post-Attitude Era year in the U.S., ROH began operation, TNA began operation and the wrestling world was changing in Japan with the stars that were groomed during the 90’s getting their first crack at main-event status. In the U.S., Brock Lesnar turned out to be the only big push for The E that year as the SmackDown Six wrestled fruitlessly for respect and the pushes that Tajiri and Rob Van Dam received in 2001 were halted in subtle and not so subtle ways. In ROH, Low-Ki, Christopher Daniels, and Bryan Danielson were the stars out of the gate, and A.J. Styles was TNA’s pet project from the beginning. In Japan there were more familiar faces rising to the main-event in almost every promotion (New Japan: Yuji Nagata, Hiroyoshi Tenzan; All-Japan: Satoshi Kojima, Taiyo Kea; NOAH: Takeshi Morishima, Takeshi Rikio, Jun Akiyama, Naomichi Marufuji, KENTA; Zero-One: Shinjiro Ohtani, Masato Tanaka, Wataru Sakata). The moral of the year was that the ones who had made their promotions so successful in the 90’s and had the power within set promotions were not willing to fully give up their spots yet. Almost every initial push of the wrestlers listed above in Japan were nixed fairly quickly or the wrestlers in question were simply devalued through being booked to lose in next to every big match they were in—especially against members of the old guard—or MMA played a role snatching Sakata from active wrestling and killing Nagata’s mainstream appeal with the Cro Cop disaster.

Promotions have always been willing to push new talent—they have to in the long run—with the catch being how long the push will last; will it be long-term or just something to tease the fans into thinking the promotion’s product is fresh and new? In America, the answer is usually the latter. In Japan, the pushes are usually sincere until they reach a fail-safe point—the first big matchup against a top-tier guy who happens to be the booker or president of the promotion—and that’s where things usually get hairy. Backstage politics exists everywhere and 2002 and the years that followed can be looked at as an example of the uglier side of politics in Japanese wrestling.

Even in The E, the pushes can be sincere as was evident with Rob Van Dam’s initial push after the death of ECW as well as Team Angle’s push in ’03. However, both of those pushes eventually hit the wall, but both for vastly different reasons. In Van Dam’s case he was on the wrong show at the wrong time with the wrong guy on top while Team Angle were broken up and put on different shows because The E’s tag division had basically died and they wrongly believed they would give the two decent singles pushes.

I mentioned earlier that Punk’s push was a surprise and that is because he came to prominence in ROH, not OVW or in Florida or any other E territory used as a minor league to Vince’s big league show. Usually, if you come to Vince’s world from anywhere outside of Vince’s world, you’re screwed. You may get pushed, but it will become crystal clear pretty quickly that the glass ceiling is real and you are right up against it. People from WCW, ECW, ROH, and TNA have all entered The E and barely any have made any significant impact or even been given a chance, and Chris Harris likely will be next. The fact that Punk broke through can be attributed to the fact that HHH is a fan of his because Punk being in the doghouse like he was for a good chunk of last year is usually the death-knell for someone in The E. Still, I do give Vince credit for giving Punk the belt even if he likely will lose it Sunday (Batista/Cena does smell more like money for SummerSlam), the fact that he even got the belt and got to keep it past one week is already satisfactory because with younger guys getting pushed, that’s all we’ve usually been able to hope for in Vince’s world. Kudos Vinnie Mac.

With all the new pushes going on—Punk, Kingston, (Cody) Rhodes and (Ted Jr.) Dibiase in The E, Sabin & Shelley, A.J., and Joe in TNA—it’s obvious that the buyrate and ratings numbers aren’t going to be great or even good out of the gate. This is something that people have used as evidence of a push not working in past years (this century I mean), but the fact is that no push produces results like that out of the gate; even Steve Austin didn’t start drawing big money until he broke his neck. The point is that if a push doesn’t produce in it’s first month of T.V. or it’s first PPV, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t taking to the guy. People have to get used to seeing someone in a new spot on the proverbial food chain before they start shilling out oodles of cash just for that guy. If you’ll recall, Cena really didn’t start drawing big until his second title reign, and HHH wasn’t the draw that he became until Mick Foley taught him how to look like a real badass. If the fans are into someone, but aren’t willing to pay $40 upfront, it’s not just because the push isn’t working; it could be because they aren’t used to seeing him with a belt or in the main-event, it could be because they don’t buy the push (as America’s Big Two have taught people over the years), and it could be that $40 is a high price for a PPV, even TNA at $30 is seeming pricey (especially when compared to ROH’s $15).

Companies have to push new talent because nobody draws forever in this business. There are different ways that talent can sell tickets and pay-per-views and promotions are supposed to recognize when the time has come for fresh blood in a certain area. There are many ways that wrestlers and shows draw people—dream matches, who’s at the top, the quality of the show, a legend’s name alone, a wrestler’s name alone, the promotion’s reputation—and these days it seems that Japan and Mexico get it, but America is still having trouble. Japanese promotions have been relentless the past two years with pushing new talent and educating people on the fact that these are the guys who are going to occupy the spots still held by the remaining old guard wrestlers at the top. In Mexico, it’s been a never-ending cycle done to perfection, but in America it’s only just begun (hence all the talk about 2008’s historic quality). However, the fact that it’s begun in America for real does signal to me that now wrestling the world over can venture into a new day. Of course it could all go back to “same shit, different day” by next month.

The Reality is…if American promotions aren’t going to do it, the rest of the world will regardless. Suwama and Morishima’s world title wins are proof that the new generation is here in Japan as well as the fact that Katsuhiko Nakajima is continuing to make a name for himself, and Kohei Sato’s alignment with a legend (Masahiro Chono) will give him that rub from the legend. However, American promotions are producing new stars and potential stars; Tyler Black has now been welcomed into ROH’s main-event circle with some great showings in important matches, Samoa Joe is TNA World Champion, C.M. Punk is the E’s World Champion (on RAW), as well as a host of others in all three. In the case for Punk, he’ll likely lose his belt on Sunday, but then again, we don’t know HOW BIG a fan HHH is of Punk. With Joe (and stop blaming him for the lack of a ratings increase), considering who’s booking, the situation is more of a head-scratcher, especially with all this “Joe’s a heel now” bullshit flying around since Sunday’s PPV. Trust me, if that show had been held anywhere other than Houston, Joe would’ve gotten so much face heat for beating the shit out of Booker and everyone else. Plus, did you notice that Sting got a mostly negative reaction for whacking Joe with the baseball bat? Plus, if Joe/Nash is the plan for Ontario in September, does a heel turn have to happen? They’re both going to be cheered anyway, so why not have it be a student/teacher thing with Joe out to prove that he is as good as he says he is and Nash noting that he’s someone Joe hasn’t beaten; plus they do have a good back-and-forth on the mic. Anyway, it should go Joe/Booker in August, Joe/Nash in September, and Joe/Sting in October with Joe standing tall at the end of every one of those title matches to create a star they should’ve been able to create two years ago. I do believe that one more look at 2002 and a sort of “where are they now” thing is in order because it does offer a valuable lesson that The E and TNA both have failed to realize: a second push can produce when done well and done right. Jun Akiyama’s second push on top of NOAH did produce good business, Nagata’s second push as New Japan’s ace has helped revitalize business and has produced a ton of great stuff in the ring, Masato Tanaka has revitalized his career in the past year and a half, Morishima/Rikio is headlining NOAH’s Budokan Hall show this Friday, and Tenzan even seems to be returning to the form that earned him his first world title push in ’03 (and that’s Tenzan’s third or fourth push in the last five years). So, even if the current pushes that The E and ROH, and TNA are doing don’t work out, if the fans still cheer for them and want to see them, they’re worth a second shot.

PLUGS
Check out Kevin Wilson’s guest appearance.

Head to Strong Style Spirit and check out a wild week of New Japan at Korakuen Hall.

Any anti-Brett Favre people or Favre fans looking for something to rant about or people looking for a good laugh, check this out.

I started an MMA column. Here’s the first installment.

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