Friday Morning Backlash: The Rock’s WWE and Wrestling Legacy among the Greatest of All Time (Ric Flair, Eddie Guerrero, Shawn Michaels)

As usual when the Rock returns, there is an argument going around on whether he can work or not. I’ll make it simple for you all- not only can he work, but he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen in the ring. Chris Jericho, in his new book, notes this. Jim Ross has on numerous occasions, as well. Naturally, I have more to go on than expert opinions, so here’s some examination of his case.

To be able to be considered a truly elite, all-around wrestler, there are several traits one must posses. Here’s the list: 1. Be able to tell a story that’s character appropriate in the ring, 2. Be able to do so as a face and heel (no penalty incurred if you were never either a face or a heel due to circumstance), 3. Be able to job and not lose heat, 4. Be able to make people react on an emotional level, 5. Be able to walk the talk and talk the walk.

Let’s go over each spot on the list.

1. This is fairly obvious. It doesn’t mean you have to be a great technical worker. It means you have to master storytelling. It should be clear and obvious what you’re going for in the ring in most cases. This story should reflect the feud you’re in (heated feud = heated match) and how you react in the ring. Having one type of match that you simply do over and over due to nostalgia does not get this checked off. Hogan was excellent, but had one match for the majority of his career with various inserted opponents around it. As much as Flair takes heat for this, it was only true of him in the later part of his career, as it’s impossible to look at Flair-Funk I Quit and the Steamboat matches and call them the same. Some guys fall in the middle of this where they just quite don’t check it off. John Cena (contrary to popular belief) varies his matches and is character appropriate, but isn’t quite sound enough, while Kurt Angle is the definition of sound, but really only has one match.

2. Working as either a face or heel is important, as it keeps you fresh. Undertaker is probably my favorite example of this, as he was a horribly frightening heel upon his debut and against Austin, but has been a major face at practically every other point in his career. The guy is a top star in either role and not just due to push. Orton, too, managed to be the top face and the top heel. We would eliminate someone like Edge here, because he’s an effective face, but not really a star, while he’s an absolutely stellar heel. Ted Dibiase, too, although a personal favorite, comes off the list here. John Cena and Ricky Steamboat, however, who have worked almost exclusively as faces, would stick on the list.

3. This is ridiculously important and underrated. Yes, losing for a top guy can be rare, but they have to be able to lose, and lose regularly at some points for the good of the company. More, in losing, they can’t lose their heat. Jeff Hardy, top guy or not, lost a ton and was still among the more over workers on the roster. Chris Jericho, of course, lost far more often than he ever won. Undertaker, however, who was just praised earlier, almost never jobs and almost never jobs clean. He’s borderline here because he has lost to numerous top guys, but the man really almost never loses a feud. Triple H is the other obvious example here as his unwillingness to make anyone look good after around 2001 has cost numerous rising stars their spot. Yes, there are always exceptions; even for Hogan, Dusty Rhodes, and Goldberg- they don’t overcome the stigma of being out for themselves that always ends up costing the company in the long run – that’s why people get sick of Sting, Hogan and Triple H, but not Ric Flair or Chris Jericho.

4. This is going to be controversial, as it’s somewhat subjective, but I don’t mean get over. Edge is over as a face, sure, but he only checks this off as a heel. I mean make an arena come unglued in joy or hate like John Cena does. RVD doesn’t check much off of these lists (not #1, 2 or 5), but he has this as a face. Orton is likely the best currently at doing this as a face or heel, though Triple H isn’t far off. Somewhat controversially, I’m sure, this is where Bret Hart falls off the list and HBK really shines.

5. Being able to walk the talk and talk the walk isn’t about being an amazing promo and worker, although that certainly does help. It’s about being good enough at one so as not to detract from the other. Chris Benoit would be the perfect example of this if he existed. His promos were always a huge weakness that no amount of quality in the ring could make up. Of people that exist, Rey Mysterio is a good example. Barry Windham would be similar, but falls off as would Hogan had #1 not already eliminated him, but for the opposite reason. A good example of a guy who is just good enough on the ring to back up stellar mic is Cena. Ricky Steamboat isn’t great on the mic, but he gets his point across enough for his ring work to carry him.

That’s really it, and strikingly few people check everything off. Here’s the list for the modern era.

Eddie Guerrero – The surest guy on the list besides the guy the article is about, in my opinion. People reacted to him as a face or heel, he’s one of the great workers and talkers ever, he jobbed a ton, and was all about character. He’s probably the most complete wrestler I’ve ever seen.

Randy Savage – Another guy who nails everything. He’s the prototype of so much that we see today it’s ridiculous. He practically defines being a top face and heel.

Mick Foley – Foley is another easy choice. Excellent matches in every setting, face or heel, he was a top guy that people just got in their gut. He’s my ideal for making people care through unreal, relatable mic work. TNA doesn’t count against him as it does against Angle because Mick was so much past his prime when he went there. It’d be like holding post-80s Rolling Stones against their legacy.

Chris Jericho post-comeback – Jericho was hit and miss during his first WWE run. He was excellent at times, but often became an afterthought. He was over, often ridiculously so as a face, but as a heel, he just failed to make people care. Sure, they booed, but caring isn’t the same. Part of that was weak booking, sure, but part of it falls to Jericho himself. When he returned, he just got it. In the ring, on the mic, every which way, he got it. He got fans into his character on a visceral level and was absolutely enthralling on the mic. He didn’t do it as a face, you argue? Check his reactions against Nexus. Without saying a word, he made fans care; he made them want to cheer him badly. That is not the same as cheers for calling Stephanie a bottom feeding trashbag ho. As such, he’s the poster-boy for making people care.

Shawn Michaels post-comeback – Shawn was one of the greatest workers ever before he left, but you never got the Greatest of All Time talk until his return. Upon his return, he took everything he’d done before and started jobbing on top of it. That jobbing is what really cemented his legacy and took him to a new place in the eyes of those in the business.

Ric Flair – This is the first of 3 80s territory workers who epitomize everything on this list. Flair was a god, but so were the next two. Flair merely got more notoriety for being around when things went national and a famous WWE run. His matches stopped varying after that run, so he’s on the list for the first decade or so of his career. He’s also the top guy who absolutely jobbed the most.

Terry Funk – Funk is among the best mic talkers and most versatile workers of all time. He was more over in the states as a heel usually, but was also an incredible face (see ECW and Japan). His style was truly unique and changed regularly, as seen by his early 80s technical work and later deathmatch wizardry. There was nothing the Funker couldn’t do. Being an elite talker and worker is, if anything, Funk’s strongest point here. If he had come along a decade later, he’d be as respected as Flair, but as is he never got the WWE stage or national promotion via television that Naitch did.

Jerry Lawler – Lawler was a small-promotion guy in Memphis and as such, didn’t get the respect he deserved. He was in many of the best matches ever with Bill Dundee and Terry Funk, his mic work is still amazing, he was both a face and a heel a ton, made fans crazy for him as both, he jobbed titles seemingly every week… but really, as his Miz feud shows at 61-years-old, he’s the ultimate in ring storyteller. Fans cared and supported him for so long because everything about the guy was always, and I mean always, telling a story.
The next three are the maybes.

Brock Lesnar (maybe) – He’s a borderline candidate. Brock checks the entire list off, but, unfortunately, didn’t do it for long enough to be able to be sure he’d sustain it. Lots of guys did all of it for a brief burst like Brock – notably Kurt Angle – but fall of the list when they didn’t sustain it for one reason or another.

Ricky Steamboat (maybe) – Never working heel and weaker promos hold him back a bit, but the guy drew with phenomenal ring work and storytelling appropriate to his character.

Randy Orton (maybe) – He’s close. I need slightly improved ring work, mic work and a longer run as a face to be sure he makes the list. My guess is he gets there.

Finally we come to…

The Rock

1. The Rock is a consummate in-ring storyteller and you never forget for a second that you’re watching The Rock or fail to be drawn into what he’s doing. Every minor motion screams out his personality. He’s one of Jericho’s favorite opponents and has had classics, not great matches, all time, arguably among the best ever classics with Triple H, Austin, Jericho, Angle, Benoit, and Foley. He had one passing match with Eddie Guerrero that everyone remembers because it was so freaking obvious how special those two talents were and what they could do against one another. Some of his matches were brawls, some more technical, some Sports Entertainment run-in extravaganzas… all elite level.

2. Rock began as a heel. The character debuted with the nation, and when fans were dying to cheer for him, he headed the Corporation instead as either the #1 or #1a heel (Taker always counts). He then kicked off a ridiculous face run where no one even noticed Austin had taken a backseat to The Rock, and, pretty much the instant fans started to turn on him for his growing movie roles debuted Hollywood Rock. Hollywood Rock was a fantastically entertaining re-invention of the character and his usual pauses in the match got longer and became hubris that fed into face comebacks.

3. As the top guy, very few ever jobbed as much as the Rock has. Whether Austin, Triple H, Undertaker or Brock Lesnar, Rock put everyone asked over. He’s even the guy that lost to Foley for his big title run when no one thought Foley would or could be championship material. Think he stayed over through all his jobs?

4. In person, I’ve seen a lot of guys, from prime of life Hogan to Warrior to Flair to Austin to Triple H to HBK and Bret to Cena. Two pops for guys stand out above all the other most over guys- Hogan and Rock. Austin comes close. Everyone else is blown away. And these are the most over guys of their era. People didn’t just cheer Rock, they screamed their guts out for the guy. The devastated booing for the Survivor Series double-turn with Foley is still a thing of beauty. Fans were just betrayed.

5. He’s had great matches, we went over this. Think his mic work might be pretty good, too? He had like 20 catchphrases because every time one got stale, every single time, he added a new catchphrase and changed the timing on the ones he used already. He is arguably the single best mic worker ever. He took what Dusty Rhodes did, which was until then utterly unique in the business, and raised it to a whole new level.

So, I’m sure I forgot some people and the comments will argue them. I’m sure some haters will still hate on the Rock, but here is an argument on what it takes to not just draw money, not just be respected, but be in the discussion for best of all time at everything. Rock nails everything in that discussion for basically his entire run (rookie Rocky Maivia notwithstanding) better than absolutely everyone sans maybe Eddie Guerrero. People say Rock showed why everyone now is overrated and wrestling is weak now. That’s nonsense. Rock also showed why everyone before was antiquated and changed the game. He’s one of the best ever. That level of talent will do that.

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