I finally got a copy of the eagerly-awaited PWI 500, the annual ranking from Pro Wrestling Illustrated of, roughly speaking, the top 500 wrestlers in the last grading period (in this case, August 2005 to July 2006). As far as I'm concerned, it's easily their best ranking in years (though not without controversy, as their own editorial about a sudden explosion of foreign market - i.e. Mexican and Japanese - stars details; how these competitors suddenly rate isn't properly justified, though the actual write-up has never been a key selling point of the list). Gone are such questionable #1 choices as Dean Malenko (1997) and Rob Van Dam (2002), or suspect judgment calls (Batista over John Cena last year, Chris Benoit over Eddie Guerrero in 2004). There was only one choice this year, even though the editors for months had been trying to build a case for another star they thankfully didn't go with, and didn't even rank second.
Ladies and gentlemen? This year was John Cena's. And right behind him, rightfully, is Kurt Angle in what might be his last-ever appearance (if he actually takes this retirement of his seriously so he doesn't end up crippled in old age, although as an update on Monday, it was announced at TNA's No Surrender last night that he'd joined that promotion). Jeff Jarrett (for the first time making an appearance in it for his TNA efforts) rounds out a top ten that also includes familiar faces in Edge (#3, Cena's chief rival after Angle in the year analyzed), Rey Mysterio (#6), Shawn Michaels (#9, who probably takes the place of a worthier, in terms of actual accomplishments, star, though his work still merits this surprise entry), Brock Lesnar (#7, another surprise, for an IWGP title reign that was mostly unremarkable even by PWI's estimation) and Samoa Joe (#4, hailed by PWI as the first TNA wrestler to appear solo on the cover of...PWI). In addition, there's Mistico (#5) and Kenta Kobashi (#8) from the international scene, and unlike years past, their write-ups actually justify their positioning as something other than PWI attempting to make nice with non-US-soil based promotions.
Some of the same problems plague the ranking. The first half of the grading period (which would have bore out the cases for Guerrero and Cena in the personally contested rankings already noted) still seems conveniently overlooked when spotting certain stars (even Cena, though his first half was nothing to sneeze at), and write-ups, even from nationally exposed stars, seem only dimly informed at best, like they've been typed from notes alone (and this is nothing about the elipses: Theatoretical Readers will note how I often use them myself). In addition, as always, there are mistakes a simple proofreader would have noticed, to add to the professional read of a compiling seeking journalistic pedigree. They want to be known as an authority, they should act like one.
That being said, I found this year's 500 to be the best in years. The choices were made without bias (Cena is not known as an unquestioned favorite, after all), and the decision to widen the perspective, even if not executed properly, was a good one. The long wait was definitely rewarded, and in truth, I'm only in the early three-hundreds as I read through (yes, faithful editors, I'm one of the readers who actually read through, as they've lamented about in the past, though this year, aside from the Stu Saks note that opens every issue, not a single column was devoted to the 500, an omission that's particularly glaring, as if everyone really was foused on other things this year, like last issue's dubious grading cards, and that's how it was done right for a change).
One more gripe: the conspicuous taboo of the late Eddie Guerrero. He should have warranted significant mentions in the write-ups for two prominent stars, Rey Mysterio and Batista, and yet all he got was the kind of shout-out in Rey's that's had so many fans rankled this year. Eddie wrestled for three months of the grading period. He finished an epic feud with Rey (winning the final match, but losing a pivotal one before that, which of course did not factor into Rey's Top Five Moments of the Year, on a basis in what I've already noted, a feud that launched Rey to the position where he could achieve a rank of #6), and was Batista's first opponent after two extended feuds and in fact last true challenger before Dave surrendered the World title in January (and the story that surrounded this card easily ranks in Batista's top three most memorable cards, along with his exit from Evolution and the hibernating grudge with Mark Henry). To have done this was even more egregious of PWI than denying Eddie the number one spot in 2004. It did nothing to respect a recently departed and much loved star. It actually disrespected Eddie. If he hadn't died, there's every reason to believe that he was, at the very least, poised for the kind of year Kurt Angle enjoyed. Understand what I mean? So, bad on you, PWI.
Maybe I should also stress that, whatever problems I inevitably have with these things, the PWI 500 has been a ranking I've eagerly anticipated for years. I think my first encounter with it in 1995, Kevin Nash's year, and I've devoured nearly every one of them since 1998 (I particularly lament missing 2000 and 2001, when Triple H and Kurt Angle, respectively, topped the ranks, deservedly). I always appreciate the effort. It can't be easy to do this when there's no such coverage of the whole scene, as there is for nearly every other sport, and certainly not the respect wrestlers earn every single night. PWI does its part (and maybe it's time to drop the kayfabe, guys), and this year made strides to correct past errors, making it that much easier for the day wrestling finally does get its due. It's not a fad, not a silly game of men in tights. I believe that this is the era we're going to discover this. The fans will wait for another "boom period." I hope we finally get over the need for such things.
I'll be back for nonwrestling thoughts, too, I swear.