The View From Down Here – Cult Of Personality

 The recent death of Randy Savage hit me surprisingly hard. I mean, I was knocked about a bit when Owen Hart died in a stupid stunt that, really, was “just one of those things”. Then Davey Boy Smith went and, while I was shocked, I was not surprised. Then came Curt Hennig, on a career resurgence and one of my favourites to watch. I fell strangely apart when I heard of Eddie Guerrero next. And then came Mike Awesome, another of my favourites, and this actually saw me take a step back. And then, a few months later, came Chris Benoit. When I first heard it, and saw the Raw that followed with its tribute (and, no, I don’t blame Vince for that at all – he did the right thing at the time), I was shocked. I enjoyed his work so much. But then the truth of the situation emerged and, well, I didn’t think another wrestling death would affect me because the whole murder-suicide thing made me numb. Sure enough, Kanyon died and I barely shrugged. But then Savage – my all-time favourite wrestler ever – died. And I was saddened so much more than I would have thought I would have been.

Now, I don’t want this to become yet another mawkish “Oh my God, look at all these dead wrestlers” style columns. There have been enough of these to fill a book… and enough books about them to fill a good few shelves in a public library. By the way, the pick of them is Scott Keith’s marvellous Dungeon Of Death (ignore the negative reviews, and the picture of Benoit on the cover – this is a book about death and wrestling) which I have recently re-read for entirely different reasons.

I started thinking about the current crop of ‘Superstars’. What will happen when they finally shuffle off this mortal coil? If one of them died suddenly next week, what would be their legacy? I don’t mean legends like Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan, who will be eulogised by wrestling fans and the mainstream media alike when they finally cark it. I mean the guys who have hit the big time, really, in the twenty-first century.

Well, we had a small taste of it recently when there was a bizarre report that John Cena had been killed by armed thugs. I wrote the report on this site that it was all a load of crap, but was still stunned to see just how many people with literacy issues and no internet etiquette wrote things like “Thank God he’s safe” and “Luv u 4eva Jon”. I laughed. But I also noticed very little eulogising on the matter from more serious pundits. When the rumours first emerged about Benoit being dead after no-showing a PPV, there were people already talking about his legacy. Cena? Just 12 year olds in love with a teenaged idol.

For a different matter (related to my reading of Keith’s book), I recently re-watched Triumph And Tragedy Of World Class Championship Wrestling. You want a tale of death? Christ, it’s depressing. But I have to say Kevin Von Erich has become the single strongest man I have ever seen. Not physically, but his dignity and his attitude are something to behold. I digress. Yet one thing stood out: the deaths of David and Kerry Von Erich, of Gino Hernandez, of Chris Adams, of Terry Gordy – they affected people. They really did. Would that happen nowadays if a modern era wrestler died?

First, I think it’s important to realise that this sort of outpouring of emotion most definitely does happen in this day and age. And you only have to go back a few years to the death of Michael Jackson to see that. Regardless of accusations against him, behaviours that appeared in some way odd, or the ever-changing appearances he affected, when he died there was a genuine feeling in the entertainment world that a great had passed. And the emotion of his fans of all ages was real and almost tangible.

However, with the way wrestlers / sports entertainers are portrayed nowadays, I do not think the twenty-first century wrestler would garner this sort of public reaction. The promotions have done their very best to put the promotion itself at the forefront of people’s minds, not the wrestlers. One only has to look at the treatment of Christian following his World Title win. Losing it so quickly and in the way he did was just a slap in the face to the supporters. Now, I know Christian is not a twenty-first century wrestling construct, but his treatment is symptomatic of what is prevalent in wrestling today – the personalities do not matter. The personalities are not allowed to connect with the fan-base… or stay connected. The personalities are portrayed as one-dimensional. They are barely personalities at all.

Either that or they try to force people upon the public that the audience is simply not prepared to accept. Michael Cole in WWE and Mr Anderson in TNA are two examples. Yes, Cole is hated, but it is real hate, and not for his character, but for him as a person. If he died tomorrow, it would be, “Oh, what a shame. But who cares?” Anderson has some people fooled, but if he died, they would sad for a week, and then he would be replaced by some other guy who can talk a little bit. Where is that connection, that genuine connection? Even some one who seems as over as Randy Orton – would his sudden death really be met with the outpouring of grief that came with Eddie Guerrero’s passing? Really? Sure, the 14 year olds in the audience might be sad, but they’d find some one else to replace him at the top of the roster pretty quickly.

And that is the problem. By building up and tearing down the wrestlers for so long both the big promotions have made their top tier guys essentially replaceable.

Now, on one hand, this is completely understandable. After the Monday Night Wars when people were jumping back and forth on what seemed to be a weekly basis, those who run the promotions grew scared. It was coming back to the old days where the only ones you could trust were family and yourself. Why were the Von Erichs always winning in WCCW, the Harts in Stampede, the Gagnes in AWA? Because you can trust family to not dump on you. And that is why HHH will always be a top tier guy in the WWE and Jeff Jarrett was there in TNA at its Jerry Jarrett inception – they are family. It has to be that way to avoid the situation of Madusa dumping the WWF Women’s Title in the bin on WCW Nitro, or Meng literally just giving the WCW Hardcore Title to Barbarian before making a bizarre one-off appearance at the Royal Rumble.

But on the other hand it does mean the product becomes dissociated from its fan base. A similar issue has been seen in football codes, and there it is treated quite differently. When quarterbacks change teams in the NFL, it is a big deal. When there are multi-million dollar transfer deals in soccer, it makes front page news in Europe. When the Gold Coast Suns in Australia’s AFL became the latest expansion team, the poaching of high profile talent was seen as a slap in the face to genuine supporters. But maybe that is a part of professional wrestling moving away from something of a sportive background into entertainment.

Then again, if the Rolling Stones suddenly lost Keith Richards, would they still be the Rolling Stones? Many say The Who have not been The Who since Keith Moon died. When The Beatles released Anthology they recorded new songs, but had John Lennon vocals on it, because without John it was not the Beatles. But this concept died in wrestling. It died in 1992 when Ric Flair turned up on WWF TV with some one else’s title belt. It was buried when Hulk Hogan paraded into WCW as a conquering hero. And it was over, kaput, never to be anything again when Mike Awesome, a WCW wrestler, lost the ECW title on an ECW show to Tazz, a WWF wrestler.

And this brings us back to the beginning. I think promotions and promoters have also become numbed by the ever growing list of those who died too young. Part of their rationale for not allowing anyone to develop a cult of personality is that it saves them a lot of heart ache, awkward questions, and media scrutiny down the line if (when?) the next wrestler dies young as a result of substance abuse, stupidity, suicide or any combination thereof. The crowd will go, “Oh no, Wrestler Q is dead! Ooh, look, something shiny,” not because they have the attention span of the proverbial goldfish, but because they were not all that invested in Wrestler Q to begin with.

It is the sheer number of young and early deaths that has created this. And so when a genuine legend like Randy Savage dies, and there is a genuine outpouring of grief, no one in wrestling is really sure how to handle it any more.

Death is a part of life, and an unfortunate part of modern life in the Western world is that many young people will die due to their own actions, made all the worse by the current age of instant media and everyone having access to that instant media from both sides (as makers and consumers). It is not something we like to think about, but it is the truth. Unfortunately, it has become such a part of life that it has lost a lot of its impact and its meaning. And never moreso than in the world of professional wrestling.

So I say, with all the conviction this fan can muster:

Vale, Randy “Macho Man” Savage. You will be missed.

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