Tuesday, July 24, 2012

#441. Raw 1000

Now, it may come as a surprise to the A-to-Z set, but this blog has seen a lot of chatter on professional wrestling over the years, and if not strictly for tradition then out of continuing interest, I will do more of that...

Last night was the 1,000th episode of Monday Night Raw.  I have hardly watched every episode, but my practical experience does date back to 1993, the year it all began.  By the summer of that year, Samoan/"Japanese" star Yokozuna was the champion of WWE (then known, of course, as the WWF), and everyone was trying to figure out who would finally beat him.  The original answer was Lex Luger, who had been competing in WCW for years, but made his debut for Vince McMahon as the Narcissist, and then was quickly repackaged as the All-American.  He slammed Yokozuna on the deck of the Intrepid, and later that year led a patriotic team over so-called Foreign Fanatics at Survivor Series, the first PPV I ever saw.  At 1994's Royal Rumble, he and Bret Hart both emerged as the champion's competition for WrestleMania X.  Hart had been champion the previous year, lost the title to Yokozuna (who promptly dropped it to Hulk Hogan, and then won it back at King of the Ring thanks to a fireball, because even in his last WWE appearance before 2002, Hogan could not lose face in front of his fans, tough he could have it mildly scorched).  It may not be everyone's favorite era, but for me this was truly a time of magic, when anything was possible.

Raw hit the popular landscape when Stone Cold Steve Austin became champion in 1998 and started a hate-hate relationship with McMahon that stretched on for a couple years.  This was also when The Rock became a sizable commodity.  In 2001, the last Nitro from WCW ended with a simulcast that was a WWE promo, and after years of Monday Night Wars, Raw sat alone as the premier wrestling program, a distinction it holds to this day.  Many people still refuse to accept wrestling as anything other than low-grade drivel, a position that seemed to be vindicated in 2007 with the massive controversy that followed Chris Benoit's murder-suicide rampage, yet I have always embraced it as some of the most innovative art possible.  (Roger Ebert agrees.)  It is at once theater and athletic competition.  These guys (and gals) need to learn how to do this stuff, and then how to do it effectively, and then create a character people will actually care about.  Add all that together, and you will end up with The Rock, or CM Punk, or even Austin Aries.

Aries just became TNA champion, the latest ROH veteran to earn such a distinction in a major promotion.  Punk did it, and so did Daniel Bryan, who continues an unexpected run as a major figure in WWE thanks to the unlikely popularity of the mantra "Yes!"  Aries may not be on par with Punk or Bryan (or Brian Danielson, if you will), but he already has more momentum than Bobby Roode, the guy he beat for the title, who had a whole tournament last year dedicated to establishing his credentials, but still had nothing to speak for himself at the time he challenged Kurt Angle at TNA's WrestleMania, Bound for Glory, and so with some controversy didn't win, at least right away.  Roode did capture the title, of course, and held it for about the same length of time Punk has been champion in WWE, and developed a very ROH-like champion's ego, even though he had never competed in the promotion, and probably never will.  Aries, meanwhile, is like a Chris Jericho, a guy with something to prove, and the skills that will back him up.  He may not be the biggest man in the room, but he has tenacity.

Punk has more than that.  He has undeniable charisma.  WWE should know.  It tried denying that charisma for a number of years, even after he was champion a couple of times.  It wasn't until everything solidified for his career, repeating a move he'd made in ROH, last year with the infamous Pipebomb speech, that WWE finally realized what it had.  And so last night he made the biggest move of the biggest Raw ever, executing his finishing maneuver on The Rock to end the show, which was shocking, because both were supposed to be good guys.  If you didn't know CM Punk before, chances are you will now.  He has solidified himself as someone worth paying attention to.

At its best, wrestling is masterful storytelling.  It's certainly a different form of storytelling than most people will be used to, but for moments like this, it becomes a little easier.  Earlier in the show The Rock announced that he would challenge the current champion at next year's Royal Rumble.  He famously headlined this year's WrestleMania with John Cena, who had tried for years to make this match happen, sparking some private thoughts that became fodder for the buildup to the occasion.  Punk has been rumored to be resentful that someone like The Rock can be away from wrestling for years and stroll into the main event of the year's biggest show.  Cena used a version of this while hyping his clash with The Rock, but Cena is someone who refuses to be a bad guy.  He's classic passive aggressive.  Punk will likely improve on what you might have seen in the first few months of the year, and remind everyone of the Pipebomb he gave a year ago.  It is not unreasonable to compare the prospect of a match between Punk and The Rock to Raw's heyday, when the loose-cannon Steve Austin ran roughshod over predictability.  No, The Rock will not be on the show every week, but Punk will be able to channel his thoughts into other opponents the way Cena never could.  Punk has been champion since last fall.  For most of this reign he has simply be a competent champion.  He's just become a lightning rod.

Anyway, I think it's a good time to be a fan of this stuff.

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