It's time for our annual Scouring Monk review of the PWI 500!
First, a prelude. I don't know why I never really realized this before, but Pro Wrestling Illustrated's ranking period, roughly summer (A) to summer (B) has probably always been meant to skewer whoever WWE has chosen for the WrestleMania push. A second glance will make this obvious, and the moreso when WWE, for one reason or other, has failed to make a solid commitment in that role. The two most controversial selections in the PWI 500's history for the number one slot were Dean Malenko (1997) and Rob Van Dam (2002). No please, let me elaborate.
In 1997, WWE's WrestleMania plans were thwarted, by whom exactly the tales often vary. Shawn Michaels is the popular selection, and all the more by the events of that year's Survivor Series. By Bret Hart's reckoning, it was Shawn's refusal to exchange the favor he'd made the previous year (in, oh, the greatest main event championship match in the card's history; he never has a problem sharing the glory of 1992's Summer Slam match with Davey Boy Smith, possibly because fortune certainly smiled on him a bit more). Others have it that the Ultimate Warrior foiled the plans by failing to remain a viable employee for longer than a few months following his 1996 comeback. In any event, WWE scrambled to put together a Sid-Undertaker program. Clearly this had never been the plan (other than the fact that Sid had been engaged in a long-term program with Michaels at that point, and Undertaker enjoyed a lengthy reign after it).
At the same time, the nWo had completely overtaken WCW, and hey, the wrestling scene. PWI had listed HBK atop its 1996 500, but his reign wasn't all that popular with the fans (possibly because of the breaking nWo arc that coincided with the hottest months of his reign). Consequently, WCW was forced into the "controversial" position of pushing a star, Hulk Hogan, who was past his wrestling prime (or at least, initial popularity; whatever). This is crucial because PWI prides itself as an objective, even academic exercise, and the PWI 500 is its yearly crowning achievement in that regard. Yet, quite patently, there's nothing really scientific about it. PWI is a fan venture through and through, and it's only for the fact that it is about as close to academic as the wrestling community gets that it can assume to be an authority, even when at the most important moments, it's anything but. Hence the queer association between that WrestleMania push and the top ranking in almost every PWI 500.
Now, the only way a fan is different from whatever wrestling organization he chooses to follow (because for most fans, it's impossible to cover more than a small handful of the wrestling scene, something PWI has the luxury of doing, but routinely squanders in anything but the PWI 500, except in the meaningless reportage it does) is that he does not have to make the decisions that cast the fortunes of the wrestlers. He only has to observe and cheer or boo as he chooses. Simply put, he has the advantage, if he chooses, to make a completely objective stance. Any wrestler who garners any real reaction from that or any other fan, will automatically know it. That's the nature of wrestling.
Therefore, I submit that the only "scientific" way to judge the year of any wrestler is whether or not they've put on a consistently excellent performance, regardless of titles or matches won, how the company they happen to work for actually treats them. The only way to judge a wrestler is how the audience accepts him.
In that regard, PWI is often pretty good, otherwise it would never have chosen Malenko or Van Dam to represent its ranking, regardless of whether or not they actually earned it.
So this is to say, at the very least, given the way PWI's rankings went that year, one would assume that the nWo was in fact a miserable failure from the start, because Hogan's ranking was dismal indeed. In fact, he ought to have been #1.
In 2002, Triple H got the WrestleMania push, but not the top PWI 500 ranking, because his overall year wasn't impressive. He missed half the grading period rehabbing his quad, and his championship reign lasted only one month. Fair enough, PWI.
But RVD? Hardly. Only fans who were invested in the wrestler and not his actual performance would ever have thought so ridiculously highly of him for so long (it's the same reason Chris Benoit got the 2004 PWI 500 top slot over Eddie Guerrero - if you overlook the need for the big WrestleMania push to be the determining factor; it's also why Batista got the 2005 PWI 500 spot over John Cena, even though Guerrero and Cena had consistently better years, over the grading periods, than Benoit or Batista). (And hey, the 2004 question doesn't even mention the fact that Brock Lesnar, Goldberg, Kurt Angle, or Triple H would have made more credible selections than fan favorites Benoit or Guerrero.)
Chris Jericho had just spent a significant portion of the grading period headlining WWE's most important PPVs, wearing the unprecedented unified world championship (one of PWI's writers even tried to defend his ranking once again in this year's issue). If he wasn't good enough, there was Steve Austin, who had just completed his last great run with WWE (but was knocked for cutting out the last few months, which are about as significant when they need to be for PWI writers as the entire first half of the period, which is to say not very). He'd hijacked the Invasion angle, just as Hogan had dominated the nWo angle, despite the fact that technically, it was Hall and Nash's story, had a tremendous series of matches with Kurt Angle over the WWE title, and had still been in the title scene as late as February, when a resurrected nWo, Triple H, and Jericho had taken over the title scene. By nWo I count Hogan, who had his last run with the big belt right after Triple H's big comeback. Oh, and by referencing Hogan, I also mean to bring up The Rock, who deserved a ton of credit for making the defining wrestling match of the modern era with Hogan at WrestleMania.
Jericho, Austin, Angle, or The Rock would have been fine selections. RVD should never even have been in the running.
Speaking of The Rock, he might as well have had the 2000 PWI 500 spot as well. But if not him, then certainly Triple H.
All of this a prelude for Triple H's win in the 2009 PWI 500 lottery. Truth be told, I was somewhat surprised by it. Earlier this week, I had scribbled in my notebook the following names I expected to find in the top ten: Randy Orton (deservedly last year's selection), Jeff Hardy, Chris Jericho, CM Punk, Kurt Angle, and Sting.
I expected Orton to repeat, easily. He had developed himself into the most exciting performer at the start of the year by annihilating the entire McMahon clan, which led into the first legitimate war he's had in his career, with Triple H, who of course, by some twist of PWI logic, ended up with the default WrestleMania push (because he won, which itself was not a problem by any means).
Jeff Hardy I was somewhat pleasantly surprised, didn't make the top ten, because in truth, he didn't have the year to truly merit it. He fumbled around a little too much. Jericho could easily have been #1, if Orton hadn't been. There was nobody hotter than he was last fall, and he's turned dynamic turn after dynamic turn since then. Who else could have helped carry that terrific Ricky Steamboat comeback? Punk had been punked by PWI's reasoning last year, so it was nice to see he made it. Angle was TNA's Jericho, easily, but no respect for that. No respect, in fact, for TNA at all this year, even though, for me, it was a breakout period for the company. Sting got on the list, too.
A.J. Styles made a tremendous comeback from an admittedly lackluster 2008 PWI 500 year, but was hardly thanked for it. PWI sees the Main Event Mafia as a mistake. I see it as increasingly genius. Maybe it's because I hve the inevitable advantage of following developments that just missed the grading period, such as Samoa Joe being elevated to MEM status, or Styles elevating Matt Morgan. Even Hernandez, however, wasn't given any credit, even though he was on the cusp of his own elevation until injury temporarily put it on hold (it'll be the story of the second half of 2009). Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin, didn't get any love, even though they had breakout periods.
Oh, and Brian Kendrick. In is write-up, PWI didn't even bother to acknowledge how hot his fall was. It doesn't matter where he's ended up. A fan would know this, and acknowledge it.
Still, it was a fairly good edition, even if PWI itself failed to appreciate it.
Let's say it's the Monk's ambition to make a truly satisying 500 list.