Ringside Shadows #167: First Impressions
There's an old quote, floating about the annals of history that says something like "you can't judge a book by its cover." And while there's certainly an application for that line in the world of wrestling, I find myself more often than not obeying another, more contradictory quote; "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." Better yet, "one bad promo can last a lifetime."
The wrestling fan base, as a whole, is very easily excited. All it takes to renew interest in an otherwise fading talent is a quick jump between promotions. The Big Show, Paul Wight, serves as an ideal case and point. During his last days in WCW, The Giant had reached an all time low in terms of workrate, motivation and crowd interest. He'd gone from the promotion's top face to "that big guy who smokes on his way to the ring." Not even a membership in the still-warm nWo of the day could solve his problems. Then, talk of his hop to the WWF hit the internet and the seven foot athlete was suddenly the talk of the town. I've got to admit, even I felt a little tingle in my bottom when that first shot of the former WCW champ was posted on WWF.com. So when he did finally make that inevitable in-ring appearance, (in this case, during the main event of the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" PPV) fans went ballistic.
More so than a heel turn, a gimmick tweak or a promising feud, switching employers is, without fail, the best option one can take to get himself over. Perhaps it's got something to do with seeing that unfamiliar logo in the corner of the screen while your favorite worker is on the screen, maybe it's the possibilities that open up in terms of a long sought-after feud or match. Whatever the case, the interest is almost instantaneous. And you couldn't ask for a bigger audience, a larger stage or a louder microphone upon which to define yourself anew. It's in that first promo or physical confrontation that a worker will define everything he's going to be about for the extent of his run with the company. Like I said, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Unless, I suppose, you jump promotions again.
How you present yourself, what you say, even what you're wearing is going to affect how this new audience is going to perceive you. To be blunt, your career will be made or broken within those first ten minutes. It's a harsh, unforgiving fact, but a fact nonetheless. With so many other performers vying for the viewer's time, there's no room for error. You define the limits of the character, and you're forced to live within them for the remainder of your contract with the company.
Still, despite those intimidating odds, there have been more than a handful of unforgettably great debuts, re-introductions and first appearances throughout the history of both the WWF and WCW. Some came in groups, most as singles, but they all understood the importance of the situation. And instead of shying away from the risk and ultimately costing themselves the spotlight, they embraced it. What follows are eight of the most memorable first impressions of the last ten years, the situations that led to them, and how that first appearance directly influenced their advancement in the federation. Chances are, you'll remember more than one.
Arguably the biggest news item of 2000. With rumors of unhappiness in the WCW locker rooms at an all time high, yet another shakeup was taking place behind the scenes. Not even a full year after long time president Eric Bischoff was toppled from his seat of power, not ten months after his unnamed successors had the carpet yanked out from under them and less than two weeks after Vince Russo watched his chance fly out the window, the corporate execs were looking for yet another change. This time, though, something was different. In Kevin Sullivan, they chose as head booker, a man who had a strong personal bias against several men on the WCW roster. One of these men was the newly crowned World Champion, Chris Benoit. Standing by his side were the heart and soul of WCW's famed midcard roster; Eddy Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Perry Saturn, Shane Douglas, Billy Kidman, Konnan, Vampiro, and one or two others.
Benoit and company pushed for their release and, in one of the most ill-advised decisions in the federation's history, their request was granted. Though Konnan, Kidman, Vampiro and the others backed out, Saturn, Benoit, Malenko and Guerrero took the opportunity and dove headfirst into the fertile waters of the WWF powerhouse.
Their debut was handled just about ideally. Sitting at ringside during the first match of the evening, they were greeted by fellow ECW alumnus Al Snow on his way to the ring. Midway through the said match, Snow's opponents for the evening, the New Age Outlaws, decided to introduce themselves in the unique language of violence. No sooner had Billy Gunn thrown the first punch, then Saturn was over the railing and on those familiar black tarps that surround the WWF ring. A heartbeat later, and all four were in the ring. The Pittsburgh crowd went nuts as Saturn drilled one of his signature suplexes, Guerrero delivered a frog splash, Malenko laid down a snap suplex and Benoit hit his diving headbutt.
Now, nearly a year and a half later, it's almost too easy to look back at those first move selections and read them as a sign of things to come. Perry Saturn, the first to initiate contact in the ring, chose to use one of his vicious suplex variations. And, while it was executed to perfection and looked rude as hell, in the end it was just a suplex. Fans didn't see a finisher, they saw a well performed power maneuver. Saturn won't go higher than the midcard.
Following Perry, Eddy Guerrero almost instantaneously landed a his beautiful top rope finisher, as JR growled; "Oh, my god what a frog splash." Just after landing, Guerrero jumped right to his feet and further taunted the defeated Outlaw. This established his personality and charisma, but more importantly introduced audiences to his signature maneuver. More so than with Saturn, Guerrero landed with conviction. He was serious about this run, and audiences took note. Eddy will one day main event in the WWF.
All eyes then turned to Dean Malenko, who stalled for a moment before delivering a picture perfect snap suplex. Moments later, Chris Benoit hit his diving headbutt before a frenzied crowd. Almost a mirror image of Saturn and Guerrero. Malenko chose to deliver a standard maneuver, even stalling beforehand. Benoit, however, went with something character-specific in the headbutt. Comparatively, Malenko won't likely go much further than the Light Heavyweight Title, while Benoit's already been involved in several World Title matches. Like his participation in this opening sequence, Dean will likely fade into the background for the rest of his time in the WWF.
When WCW was "relaunched" under the watch of Vince Russo and Eric Bischoff, a new regime was promised. Under Bischoff and Russo, WCW's youth was promised an even playing field, and the viewers were promised a brand new promotion. Interest was surprisingly high, especially considering the number of bridges WCW had burnt in the past with their shoddy handling of past popularity. And hell, that first Nitro remains a pretty solid program... perhaps the last they ever produced. Meanwhile, in the back woods of TNN, ECW had been putting together solid programs of their own for several months. Perhaps the backbones of the company at the time were the Mike Awesome / Masato Tanaka and Rob Van Dam / Jerry Lynn feuds. They were playing catchup, and in a big way.
WCW saw this, and made a move to eliminate the competition and boost their own product all in one fell swoop. They signed the active ECW champion, Mike Awesome. In fact, Awesome appeared on that very first Russo / Bischoff Nitro with the ECW title in hand, laying out Kevin Nash mid-promo and storming out of the ring like a man possessed. The appearance was sudden, shocking and very, very interesting, though more so for the possible implications than the man himself.
See, I was convinced that this meant Paul Heyman and the rest of ECW's finest were on their way to WCW, ready to do the invasion angle they'd tried in the WWF several years ago. It was, in my opinion, the one thing that could save WCW at the time, and I was exhillerated to see it happening right before my very eyes. Unfortunately, as we all know by now, it was merely Awesome breaching his contract and not the start of an inter-promotional angle. Still, the arrival itself was tremendous, if just for the possibility that such a thing was about to go down.
Without question, the greatest introduction in the history of the sport. Jericho's availability was the subject of much debate in the early part of 1999, and as every new day passed without word of the Lionheart's new contract in WCW, speculation increased that he was biding his time before a jump to the WWF. Once it was officially confirmed by Jericho himself, I don't think anything could have stopped this ball from rolling. Shortly after the confirmation, the WWF began airing short snippets of a "Countdown to the Millennium" timer on their weekly programming. No explanation was given, and the clips were kept just short enough to keep detail-oriented fans from figuring out that it would expire long before the year 2000 actually hit. When JR finally commented that it was bound to run out "next week," it was almost too obvious where they were headed.
As the Rock stepped out to deliver a standard promo around the nine o'clock hour, the timer reached zero. The arena went black, only lit by a half dozen multi-colored lights, scouring the crowd at random. When even those went out, the audience roared amidst the darkness, only to be cut off by a loud explosion, nondescript video of city streets and a catchy hard rock tune. When the vocals came in and the words "Jericho" flashed on the Titan Tron, I don't think there was a quiet member in the audience. It's the kind of ovation that sends shivers down your spine.
Striking his crucifixion stance below the "wwf.com" sign, Jericho soaked up the adoration for everything it was worth before turning on his heel and taking in the sight of it. Enjoying the spotlight for a moment, Y2J then immediately turned on the audience and dove in with the kind of promo that gained him his fame in the first place. It's the stuff legends are made of, and I'd be surprised if Jericho doesn't go down in history because of it.
Perhaps a questionable choice amongst such notable others, Jarrett's latest jump to WCW is important because it proved the internet hadn't killed every bit of surprise left in the industry. Not yet, anyway. Spending my time as a dedicated follower of the sport, as well as a respected columnist, I'd thought I had seen the last big shock in the sport years prior. Sure, things hadn't yet arrived at the point where I knew the results before they happened, but as an educated fan I could make a pretty good guess on my own. Thus, the industry was starting to become dull. There was no excitement, as every single possibility had been covered to death on the internet time and time again. Every possibility, that is, but this one.
Jarrett's contract expiration somehow came up missing on every dirt sheet, newsboard and column section on the internet, and rightfully so. The man was the acting Intercontinental Champion until the day after his contract ran out. The WWF was apparently testing the waters for a feud between Jarrett and Steve Austin. There was little doubt he'd be remaining with Vince for the foreseeable future. So when he popped up on Nitro, drilled a guitar shot and vanished just as quickly, it caught me completely and totally off guard. More than that, it reminded me of a time when everything was new, surprising and off the wall. It reignited my interest in wrestling's current state.
And, for the first several months, WCW rode the impact of this move for everything it was worth. Jarrett jumped right into a slot at the top of the midcard. He took on Chris Benoit in a highly successful series of matches that raised the stock of both men. He just about owned the US Title. While the booking followed the personality and intensity he'd created with that unexpected first guitar smash, Jarrett was a house on fire. When they tried to push him into the main event too early, it went against the grain and blew up in their faces. Now Jarrett is a watered down former four time champion with little direction. I'd be willing to bet the story would have read a little differently if they'd just held off for a couple more months.
Not technically jumping promotions, Ric Flair had been off WCW television for an eternity while Eric Bischoff attempted to smear his legacy and break his fortune. And honestly, if it weren't for the fans and their love for The Nature Boy, I think Uncle Eric would've been successful. Instead, that adoration produced the most memorable moments I've ever seen on a wrestling program when he reappeared on the scene in good old North Carolina.
While Flair was gone, the idea of an ongoing Four Horsemen angle was continued... perhaps as an incentive to return to the federation he pretty much defined, perhaps as a slap to the face. On the very eve of his return, Flair wrapped the whole package up in a manner that only he could. In one of the few real moments the sport has ever seen, Flair found himself at a loss for words... and it was absolutely perfect. Where a bumbling promo or a prolonged silence from the speaker is usually a sign of big trouble, Flair's problems here only intensified a wonderful experience. Here was the most cocky, egotistical, outspoken man ever to step between the ropes, and he'd been left absolutely baffled by the appreciation of those in attendance. It was a personal affair, and at that moment I think every fan watching at home or live in attendance felt a certain affinity to Slick Ric. It was a big, big moment and we were all a part of it.
Much like the Flair speech I mentioned above, Sean Waltman's first public appearance since his termination from WCW wasn't the finest bit of verbal wizardry you'll ever see. In fact, just reading the manuscript, the speech itself fell rather flat. However, instead of reading from a predetermined script, Waltman was speaking from the heart. When he spoke of rebellion, of overturning the old regime and establishing a new one, one could tell it was something that meant the world to him. Add to that the emotion of his delivery and the reception from the crowd, and you'll see why I regard this as one of the defining moments of the late '90s.
Oh yeah, and I suppose there was that little matter of this interview finally turning the tide of the Monday night popularity contest back into the WWF's favor. Speaking from a historical perspective, this was the second most important debut of the 20th century. It popularized a new way of thinking, (the "Attitude" era) shifted the balance of power back to those who had enjoyed it for so long in the past and proved that WCW had, in the end, no real idea what the hell they were doing. After years of being teased by their competition on live television, the WWF finally shot back with Waltman... and were met with a resounding silence in response.
So if Waltman's jump was only the second most important debut of the 20th century, which was the first? As if you even had to ask...
When Scott Hall and Kevin Nash walked out on Nitro, the world changed almost instantaneously. The pseudo-shoot nature of the angle they worked was unheard of beforehand. It was something you just didn't do, so when Bischoff up and did it, fans took notice. On top of all the changes this duo instigated, they also brought about the first competition the WWF had experienced in nearly two decades. In the 80s and 90s, the WWF was the beginning and the end of professional wrestling. Sure, WCW was technically a competitor then as well, but they were a distant second at best. When the top promotion of the industry found itself in trouble, Vince McMahon didn't have any idea what to do about it. After sitting in a holding pattern for so long, Vinnie Mac had lost touch with what brought him to the dance in the first place; his originality and natural ability to entertain.
Hall and Nash changed all that, though I'm sure it wasn't their direct intention. The way WCW handled their arrival was perfect, from the announcers who remained confused as to who these two were contracted to work for, to the reactions of the other members of the WCW roster. It remains probably the only thing WCW did correctly from start to finish.
Finally, the one that really started it all. No, you aren't seeing a typo. I didn't screw up and type the same name and description twice. Flair was just good enough to have been a part of two such memorable introductions. One during the twilight of his career in WCW and one just barely past his prime in the WWF.
On July 1st, 1991, only a few days after defending his World Title at a Clash of the Champions event, Flair met with WCW's officials to discuss the standings of his recently-expired contract. As far as WCW was concerned, everything was in order. They'd labeled Flair as the loyal, aging superstar of the company, one who'd never even consider jumping ship. Hell, he'd been with the promotion religiously for more than twenty years. However, they'd made a bad move in telling Flair their future booking plans. The champ was scheduled to lay down for Lex Luger, a task which Flair had refused several times in the past. He didn't believe "The Total Package" was ready to be a World Champion. The two sides drifted even further apart within the span of a the next several days, and when Flair signed a deal with the WWF he was stripped of both his WCW and NWA World Titles.
It should've ended there, but it didn't... politics found a way to get even more involved. See, when the World Title is placed around the waist of a man, he's responsible for its care, its well-being, its arrival at every event, night after night. Thus, an insurance deposit of a large sum of money is standard, as a collateral in case something happens to the gold along the way. Flair had indeed put down his money when the belt was given to him earlier in the year, and when the money wasn't returned upon his being stripped of the title, he took the belt with him to the WWF. Summerslam 1991 featured an incredible backstage segment; Bobby Heenan took a cameraman along with him as he knocked on Hulk Hogan's dressing room door backstage. Hogan turned, and Heenan offered up a challenge on behalf of the man himself, Ric Flair... and in Bobby's hands was the WCW World Title. It was a surreal sight, especially considering how quiet the word of Flair's contractual difficulties had been kept.
As is often the case, everything eventually sorted itself out. Flair publicly protested the questionable actions of the WCW commitee by showing up on WWF TV every week with their World Title, calling himself the "true world's champion" and working it all into an angle. WCW finally cracked and repaid his money in full, and Flair returned the belt immediately. I've heard rumors that Vince had asked Flair to hold onto the belt for the sake of continuing the gimmick, (and McMahon would have even paid the resulting legal fees from the ensuing WCW lawsuit) but Flair had too much class and stayed true to his word in returning the belt. But that's just a rumor, and Flair was WWF champion within a year, NWA belt or not.
In many ways, this was the first time a jump between promotions had caused such a commotion... and for good reason, too. In the '80s, there were two important names in the industry; Flair and Hogan. When one finally left their home of over a decade, it was bound to make waves. That Flair and Vince turned it into such an outstanding success is a credit to their combined brilliance. It's too bad they haven't worked together since.
All in all, the eternal swap between promotions has been a healthy experience for all, be it the reestablishment of a fading star, the introduction of an underexposed athlete to a larger audience or the big boost one promotion needed to take over another in the ratings struggle. More than any other, though, the fans stand to gain the most from such an exchange every time one comes down the pipes. It's entertaining, it's exciting and it's memorable, and isn't that the reason we're watching wrestling in the first place?
until next time, i remain