Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Total package…

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed an AJ Styles best of… compilation and opened by discussing the concept of the total package; wrestlers who possess both the in-ring ability and skill to entertain fans, who are also good enough actors to make viewers care about what’s happening between the ropes beyond the level of “that was a really cool move”. Who is the total package? (Hint: It’s NOT Lex Luger…)

TODAY’S ISSUE: Pro wrestling’s total package.

People always credit Ric Flair for being one of the best all-around performers ever, and they are correct. Flair’s skill set included everything required to be a success: in-ring ability, larger-than-life personality that allowed him to reach the fans and hold them in the palm of his hand whenever he wished, exceptional heel or face capabilities, a unique look, and a believable gimmick. Sadly, he got a bit one-dimensional in the ring in the last third of his career. Don’t get me wrong, he was still one of the greatest professional wrestlers in the world, but he coasted on reputation for a long time when he should have transitioned a long time ago to a non-wrestling role like a manager of some young lion or the inspirational leader of a heel stable. Yes he was the man and the measuring stick and all that, in 1988. But he stayed an active competitor for two more decades, and his in-ring work deteriorated before our eyes. I wish he had stepped out of the ring sooner and into a more dignified spot, something truly worthy of his legendary status. Still, at his peak and in his prime, there were few on the level of the Nature Boy.

In the modern era, one of the best examples of a wrestler with all the tools required to be a legend in the industry is Shawn Michaels. The Heartbreak Kid can have great matches against opponents of all shapes and sizes and can mat-wrestle, fly, or brawl with the best of them. Outside the ring he can be the most despicable, arrogant heel or the babyface you love to support. In fact, this first-ballot hall of famer might be the epitome of the total wrestling package. But if HBK is that great, then by way of association, two of his most heralded opponents were equally as multi-faceted: Bret the Hitman Hart and Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Hart is a point of contention amongst insider fans; no other wrestler polarizes us as strongly as the Hitman does. Some love him and think he was truly one of the brightest stars of all time, while others find him completely overrated and untalented. I’m in the first camp, a staunch believer in the Hart legacy. To me, the Hitman was not only amazing between the ropes, but he maintained a strong, believable gimmick with integrity and faithfulness to itself for his entire career. He never failed to draw the crowd into his current dilemma, and his ring psychology and generalship are head and shoulders above the average pro grappler. I will always see Bret Hart as one of the very best, period. Whether his greatest nemesis was HBK or Stone Cold makes for an interesting debate, but either way it’s ironic how the three warriors have been tied together, locked in epic wars against each other for years.

Stone Cold Steve Austin exploded onto the big stage thanks to his battles against Bret Hart, and once elevated by his involvement with the Hitman, the Bionic Redneck went on to dethrone Michaels at WrestleMania XIV and owned the pro wrestling world for years thereafter. Austin was a fantastic wrestler before his body began to deteriorate, and was far more than just a brawler and cock-sure bully. People forget that sometimes because for years he was limited in the ring thanks to all his injuries, but the fact that he redefined his style to match his new limitations and still found a way to provide entertaining, if not as technically sophisticated, main event matches against the biggest WWF stars of the day is evidence of his incredible mind for the art of performance. Obviously his character work is the stuff of legend, and his Rattlesnake character, the lone wolf, the anti-authority bad ass quite simply defined the antihero role in pro wrestling that was emulated, poorly in most cases, again and again all over the landscape. For too brief a time, Austin was the perfect convergence of backstage character and in-ring prowess.

Randy Savage had all the tools in his heyday, with explosiveness defining both his wrestling repertoire and his character. His promos are unforgettable, and his wrestling skill made him one of the first performers I personally recognized as exciting to watch work. During the reign of Hulkamania, I was as swept up as every other 12-year old fan was in the stories of Hogan’s “dramatic” comebacks against evil giants, but Savage made me excited to watch the match, not just the story. The late Ravishing Rick Rude was like that too; he made me hate his character (in the good way, as he intended me to) and love to watch his matches, and the same could be said for another dearly departed member of the wrestling fraternity, Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig. The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase also fell into that category, where strong character work made me want to see the match, and the match itself was entertaining thanks to his actual wrestling savvy.

Harley Race is another guy who had it all, as did Ricky the Dragon Steamboat. However, I wish Steamboat had worked one good run as a heel, just to push his character to a different place and see how he would have altered his in-ring move set to ensure the formerly loyal crowds recognized a change in his personality. Speaking of which, once WWE-only fans get a look at CM Punk’s heel side, they’ll understand why us indy geeks praise Phil Brooks as a master of character development. Punk is a phenomenal heel, and I know he’ll eventually be unleashed upon the WWE universe.

Edge, Christian, Kurt Angle, and Christopher Daniels all possess every critical skill, making them all-around great performers, as did the Triple H of 1999/2000. After years of injuries and bulking up, Hunter has really slowed down in the ring and no longer works miracles as he did ten years ago. To be fair, that’s to be expected in a career field where abusing your body several nights a week is part of your job description. Chris Jericho, Sting, and Mick Foley have it all, and while Foley doesn’t possess the classic set of grappling skills, he is one of the few workers able to compensate by being a truly great brawler, capable of building an exciting match via drama, emotion, guts, and by being a little bit crazy. He also possesses the psychology of a genius, pushing buttons like Hannibal Lecter.

American Dragon Bryan Danielson possesses all the goods and is a miracle worker between the ropes, but for some reason his character work sometimes comes off as a tad flat. I’m not exactly sure why that is, exactly, but he doesn’t always convey on the mic what his in-ring ability delivers – maybe he’s just more a man of action than a “talker”. Still, I’ve seen him give intense promos against hated foes, and I believe he is capable of selling a storyline before he climbs between the ropes, where he always delivers the goods.

Davey Richards is there now, having really improved on character stuff outside the ring in the past two years. Now he talks as fiercely as he wrestles, and that’s a deadly combination. Roderick Strong needs to learn how to cut an intense promo. As great as he is in the ring, he really fails to display that fire you want to see on the stick. If only Strong could talk as crisply as he can chop his opponents’ chests. In contrast to Strong, Randy Orton’s great at playing a hateful bastard, but isn’t entertaining enough in the ring. Although I love the RKO as a finisher, his version lacks the could-come-from-anywhere explosiveness that DDP’s Diamond Cutter once brought to the table. Batista is too limited by bulk, injury, age, and a lazy attitude to satisfy between the ropes, and Rey Mysterio doesn’t traditionally do very much character-wise, although he’s still fun to watch wrestle.

Kenny King and Colt Cabana have it all, but I’d like to see King in some more high-profile settings and watch him deliver under a brighter spotlight. Cabana is fun in comedy matches but he’s only really in the zone when working a more serious storyline, which isn’t often enough for my taste. Tyler Black is a wizard after the bell rings but like Roderick Strong, he consistently fails to deliver the “foreplay” that whets the appetite for the payoff in the ring, and fans expect a guy at his level to be able to cut solid promos. Kevin Steen can do it all, but his look doesn’t fit with the “total package” concept. How he remains as agile as he is while carrying that huge beer gut, I’ll never know.

If you live for character work and promos, the Rock had that department all sewn up and I believe he was underrated as an in-ring competitor as well. If you’re all about the wrestling action and could care less about mic work, guys like AJ Styles are likely your cup of tea. But if you’re looking for the total package, there’s nobody better today on both sides of the curtain than the first ever two-time and currently reigning Ring of Honor world champion, Austin Aries. “A Double” can do it all. Between the ropes, he’s crisp, lightning fast, exciting, strong, agile, aggressive, and fearless. On the mic, he’s equally adept at portraying the intense tweener/face as he is the in-love-with-himself cocky heel. These days he’s been claiming to be possibly one of the greatest men who ever lived, and while you can see Dan Solwold’s tongue planted firmly in his cheek, you can also tell that the Aries character actually believes he’s that damn good.

Consistently delivering outstanding matches and playing his character to perfection regardless of position on the card, heel or face alignment, singles or tag team action, challenging for gold or reigning supreme as champion, Austin Aries is the consummate performer and the epitome of the total package. He’s got it all; case closed.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “When you come right down to it, the secret of having it all is loving it all.” – Dr. Joyce Brothers

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Elsewhere on Pulse Wrestling this week…

It’s a “Bash” bash! Sure, WWE can remove the words “Great” and “American” from a ppv title, but it’s still the same stuff. Our little “Bash” bash kicks off with the one and only bossman himself, as Inside Pulse owner Widro podcasts a preview of WWE’s Bash along with co-host Stu Staubler. Next comes the staff’s picks in the Rasslin’ Roundtable, and Mark Allen brings the live coverage of WWE’s latest pay-per-view.

But the Bash doesn’t end there! Widro, Tom Daniels, Josh Grutman and Shawn M. Smith kick off the new Pulse Wrestling Mango PPV Rewind, an in depth, post-show audio roundtable discussion about The Bash.

Big Andy Mac reviews the latest episode of ROH on HDNet.

Mark Allen discusses WWE news and happenings in This Week in ‘E.

Dale Clarke and Paul Marshall go head to head in the next edition of VERSUS. This week’s topic: Which former WWE wrestler will be the next to debut with TNA, and how should TNA debut him or her?

Ace Glazer is back and he’s Modest Blogging all over the place – check him out!

Here are Jon Bandit’s 10 Thoughts on TNA iMPACT!, Dale Clarke’s 10 Thoughts on SmackDown!, and Jonathan Kirschner’s 10 Thoughts on RAW for your reading pleasure.

In this week’s Cult of ROH, the Wis discusses upcoming (at the time) Ring of Honor events. It seems the Age of the Fall is back at it again… should be interesting!

More from Big Andy Mac, as he reviews the Stylin’ and Profilin’ DVD. I’ll bet Ric Flair made an appearance on that show.

Finally this week, David Brashear revisits the Mid-South Coliseum of 1986 in another One Year in Memphis.