WWE and the Hall of Fame: Part 1

Each year, one of the centerpieces of Wrestlemania week is the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Typically, the year’s honorees begin to be revealed weekly just after the Royal Rumble, the event which kicks off the “Road to Wrestlemania” officially. Thanks to the WWE’s status in sports and entertainment, coverage of and reaction to the announced names extends from not just WWE.com and the traditional WWE programs to mainstream outlets like ESPN.com, USA Today, and E! Entertainment News.

Though there is no physical structure members of the WWE Universe can visit to learn more about these heroes of the squared circle as there is for other sports greatest athletes, membership into this hallowed Hall is just as revered. Upon his induction into the WWE HOF in 2015, Kevin Nash equivocated the honor with winning his first championship. In a sport where kingdoms are built and legends are made by championship reigns, this is quite a claim. In number, there are only 164 total members and of those, 105 have been inducted as individual honorees (excluding those inducted under the Legends banner). Quite impressive considering the number of wrestlers, federations, and territories that have run across the globe over the course of the last 100 years.

Because of the exclusivity associated with the invitation to join these hallowed ranks, there is much controversy and discussion concerning past, present, and future honorees. Generally, the arguments are broken into four general questions:

Who is in the hall that shouldn’t be?

Who are locks as future honorees?

Who isn’t a mortal lock but is deserving nonetheless?

Who is NEVER getting in (or why it doesn’t seem like they ever will)?

So which ten wrestlers (or sports-entertainers) serve as answers to each of these questions? For the purposes of finding answers, I’m only going to consider singles performers inducted individually. There is no need to debate whether or not Chris Von Erich (most notable for tragedy), Donald Trump (eww), or Lou Thesz (absolutely) belongs, as all were elected as part of a group or as a celebrity or legend.  Also, placement on any list isn’t indicative of most/least deserving, only that the listed falls into that category.

Now then, at the risk of finding myself on the receiving end of a stink face, let’s start with the members that maybe shouldn’t be…

“Really? They’re in?” or “The Hall of Very Good”

Greg “The Hammer” Valentine

Wendi Richter

Tito Santana

Koko B. Ware

“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan

Rikishi

The Godfather

The Big Bossman

Don “The Rock” Muraco

Nikolai Volkoff

Now, there are some fantastic workers on this list who compiled quite a list of accomplishments over the course of their long careers. In fact, most of these performers held titles in multiple territories throughout that era. Their inclusion on this list is not meant to demean or degrade their legacy. In fact, their very presence in this category only exists because they have already achieved Hall of Fame status. In short, their legend is already written and the opinions of a mark, keyboard jockey changes nothing.

It’s that it is called the “WWE Hall of Fame” not the “WWE Hall of Very Good” (h/t to my friend Scott for introducing me to that phrasing in regards to the baseball HOF about 15 years ago, though there is little chance he ever reads this).

When looking over the list of members, there should be feeling of awe and reverence, not confusion and wonderment. That these 10 names comprise 10 percent of individually inducted wrestlers is astounding. Even in a sport which is openly subject to storylines, there is little tangible evidence to support those listed being included in the pantheon of wrestling’s greatest ever.

The standard for inclusion into a given sport’s hall of fame was once described to me as this: the sport’s history could not be fully written without including this athlete. Ask yourself how many of these names fill that criteria.

Sure, Greg Valentine had one of the most bloody matches EVER versus Roddy Piper at Starrcade ‘83 (Piper experienced permanent hearing loss as a result) and had brief runs as WWE Intercontinental and Tag Team champion, but he was never in the upper echelon of superstars during the Rock N Wrestling era.

Tito Santana is much the same. Santana is the only man not named Hulk Hogan to appear in matches at each of the first nine Wrestlemanias, a two-time Intercontinental and Tag Team champion but did anyone ever buy a PPV to see Tito wrestle?

Wendi Richter was a huge part of the “Rock N Wrestling” era, but the women’s division wasn’t exactly deep at the time. Truthfully, it was Cyndi Lauper and Moolah who were the stars of the program, Wendi was more of the wrestling stand-in for Cyndi. Considering she was the victim of the “Original Screwjob”, it’s almost incredible that she was inducted at all.

Rikishi? Really? He’s more famous for his ass than anything else, including a storyline where he ran over Stone Cold Steve Austin. Over the course of his WWE run, Rikishi played so many characters (much like fellow list-mate The Godfather) that all floated near the mid-card, it’s very hard to consider any of them long-term successes (except for when The Godfather was known as Papa Shango and he made the Ultimate Warrior sweat blood. That was pretty dope.)

Duggan? He won the inaugural Royal Rumble but is still more known for yelling than anything in-ring. He also possessed the absolutely most boring signature move ever: the three point stance into shoulder tackle.

Bossman? A racist, Southern cop character who handcuffs guys to the ring ropes and hits them with a nightstick and was later hung to death by the Undertaker at Wrestlemania XV inside Hell in a Cell only to return as fully alive? Blah (and absolutely ridiculous, btw).

Don Muraco? No, despite being an IC champ. (but please watch Fuji Vice on the WWE Network)

Nikolai Volkoff? The first thing anyone thinks of is the USSR’s national anthem, not his time as Tag Team champ with the Iron Sheik.

And then there is Koko B. Ware. I don’t care how “over” he was in Memphis, the Frankie the Bird was more “over” than him during his time in WWE.

Again, these are inductees of the WWE Hall of Fame.

Combined WWE championships between them? 2, both by Wendi Richter.

Lots of good, just not great.

Next: Part 2: Who are the locks to be inducted soon?

NXT and WWE Part 2: You Made the Big Time, Now What?

Part 1 is here in case you missed it

All of this leads to the question: Why doesn’t stardom in NXT directly translate to success on the main roster? Why is there a disconnect between the WWE and NXT products?

It’s easy to assume that since the outcomes are pre-determined (sorry, it’s NOT been real to me dammit since I was 5 and my grandfather smartened me up), that even if a talent had trouble getting over on the main roster after a call-up, creative could just “reboot” whatever storyline got them over in the first place in NXT. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy, as there are a few things that need to be taken into consideration.

The first problem with this assumption is that we would be ignoring how insulated the product NXT is, for better or worse. Not only is NXT a one hour program that airs one day per week, in fact NXT optimizes their shooting schedule by taping multiple episodes on the same day. This allows talent that is already matched up by creative to work their matches through end to end before the tapings and for storylines that seemingly play out over weeks to actually play out over the course of a few hours building momentum in front of the same already-riled-up crowd. Also, because the programs are pre-taped, any gaffes or missed spots can be re-taped immediately, allowing the best version of the product to be available come showtime. This is something that the WWE has done in the past when Smackdown was taped on Tuesdays and aired later in the week.

Once promoted to WWE, talent have to be spot-perfect when live, as the safety net is gone. Programs must be worked with the utmost care. Promos must be delivered with expertise and on par with the opponent, otherwise fans will quickly check out of the program before the blowoff can happen since a majority of the build will come via mic work rather than physicality. Further complicating things is the post-brand split world, whatever time is afforded to this story by creative has to be maximized because it will not be addressed again on TV until the next week’s Raw/Smackdown. Heat has to be stoked perfectly or else the next crowd might sleep on what’s been built and kill any momentum. This is particularly dangerous for newly promoted superstars or mid-card talent. Until talent is “made” and the crowd pops solely based on hearing entrance music, they walk the tightrope between love and indifference and the latter is the poison pill for any superstar’s career.

Another insulator to NXT is that there is very little external pressure put on the product. As NXT is only available on the WWE Network, it is not subject to the same success criteria as Raw and Smackdown. WWE doesn’t have to worry about NXT’s ability to achieve ratings for a cable network like it does with Raw and Smackdown. In order for the WWE to be able to bargain their contracts and drive their profitability, they need to draw eyes to the TV product week in and week out, particularly in the most desirable rating demographics, so that the network can in-turn sell advertising that airs during their programming. NXT can be an anchor for the network, but there is little evidence that network subscriptions are hinged on NXT’s program quality and this affords the product quite a bit more freedom to find itself if it loses its way.

Perhaps the biggest hinderance to NXT talent on the main roster might be NXT’s greatest champion: Triple H. HHH puts so much of his time and effort into the Performance Center and NXT, that it is truly his tended flock. He has spoken time and time again about how happy NXT’s success makes him and how proud he is of the Performance Center and the work done
there, that it is very clear that NXT is the Cerebral Assassin’s magnum opus. He and the trainers do so much to help develop and refine these athletes that they can’t help but take pride in their successes. Again and again we witness success stories like the evolution of the generic Mike Dalton into the magical Tyler Breeze and Johnny Curtis into the jelly-hipped Fandango, only to watch them hit the main roster with a resounding thud.

Unfortunately, due to the need to feed the ratings beast and keep ad revenue at a level expected by the network and advertisers, if a character lands flat, even HHH can’t buy them time to get it right. At best, they will find themselves in matches on one of the peripheral main roster shows Main Event and at worst, they will go work things out in house shows and they will be repackaged and reintroduced. Regardless, since the Raw and Smackdown showrunner isn’t HHH himself, it’s not his call to make and any time someone is called up from NXT only to have trouble getting traction with the fans, it lessens HHH’s endorsement of the talent coming from NXT in the eyes of those running Raw/Smackdown. Plus, there is the added benefit to the main roster of when those talent fail, proven older talent gets pushed back to the forefront because they are a known commodity (see: The Big Show and Kane).

All of this causes the disconnect between WWE and NXT to grow and for NXT to feel less like a developmental system and more like a separate external brand in direct competition to WWE.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Competition has always inspired the WWE to be the very best. Back when WCW was beating the WWE week in and week out during the height of the Monday Night Wars, the WWE was in a serious talent deficit. The bench was short because of the talent exodus to WCW which was offering greener pastures (read: guaranteed contracts) and reduced work schedules. This forced the WWE to be more open to creative ideas and push the envelope of innovation and really let the young talent prove themselves and shine.

Take Stone Cold Steve Austin for example. He came to the WWE after being fired by WCW (and after a short stop-over in ECW) and was dubbed “The Ringmaster”. His gimmick? The character was sold to Austin as “the master of the ring” and he was given a manager, The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase. Austin was known by hardcore wrestling fans to be a master mechanic in the ring with loads of potential, but something was missing despite the push upon his arrival. Instead of sticking with the gimmick, Austin evolved the character into the Stone Cold character that became one of the top draws in the history of sports entertainment.

As has been mentioned, this same “work to find your character” mindset drives NXT and as more and more former members of the NXT system make it to the main roster, it will become the standard for the locker room and creative teams to follow.

Competition from WCW also pushed the WWE to invest in longer term storylines. Instead of a 3 month program with a big blowoff after 50/50 booking to keep everyone looking strong, WWE allowed stories like Austin/McMahon and Bret/Shawn the time to mature and gather serious heat before transitioning to a different storyline. In the absence of WCW, storyline ADD has affected WWE booking. Programs have been built and then dropped with little resolution beyond one match. Once NXT took off and they began building stars via 6 month-plus long programs, WWE began booking longer programs for their stars as they had in the past. If WWE would adopt this same idea for these newly promoted talents, there would be a greater opportunity for the new talent to establish themselves and to take the established talent to a new level.

Coming Soon: Part 3: How must the WWE/NXT relationship evolve and how does the future unfold?

NXT: The best and worst thing to happen to WWE…

It’s weird listening to Bruce Prichard and Tony Schiavone on their amazingly awesome podcasts tell behind the scenes stories from WCW and WWE. It’s very clear that the two companies had very different approaches to the pro wrestling product, right down to one company’s insistence on it’s product being called “sports-entertainment” versus the other’s company’s owner proudly proclaiming that he was now in the “pro wrasslin’ business”. One company was a media mogul’s pet project: his attempt at showing that his goose always laid a golden egg. The other company was run by industry royalty, who built his kingdom by being a robber-baron of sorts, eliminating his competition along the way. 

What makes this even more odd is that to hear the history of the company run by the media mastermind, a company with free air time and billions of dollars behind it, is that it was ran like a mom and pop organization, subject to the pitfalls of a small business who sees their scope grow beyond the scope of management so quickly that it ultimately collapses upon itself. The other company, the true mom and pop shop which was being run on a shoestring budget at the time, relied on their knowledge of the industry to wait out the hard times, leveraged their young talent, and ultimately won the day.

As the story of what became known as “The Monday Night Wars” has already been written (and re-written by the victors), there is little that hasn’t been stated. How and why all of this went down the way it did is the subject of numerous theories and expositions, discussed at length by both experts and fantasy bookers time and time again. There is very little story “meat” left on that bone. What is interesting is what has happened since and how the lessons and mistakes from the past could impact the future of the industry.

How? Because the ghosts of the Monday Night Wars haunt the present day WWE and how it approaches it’s most prominent competition. Who is this competitor?

No, not Impact Wrestling (they have their own issues).

Not Ring of Honor (incredible, but not in the same league as WWE).

New Japan? The combined forces of the indies? No and no (though these are two huge influencers of the WWE).

The answer: NXT.

So how is the WWE’s developmental system it’s very competition? How could it possibly negatively impact the main roster or the WWE as a whole being that NXT is run and booked by WWE officials?

First, let’s look at NXT’s history and then we can draw the parallels and predict the pitfalls.

Since the WWE launched NXT in it’s current iteration in 2012, NXT has grown into what many “hardcore” fans consider a superior pure product to the WWE. Where WWE can sometimes get stuck in repetitive 50/50 booking with the same 6-8 performers being featured in main events, NXT has focused on developing the right story for workers who can go. At times, WWE can be criticized for pushing the attraction (see: The Great Khali) over the superior performer (see: Ted Dibiase, who never won a major singles championship during his WWE run). In NXT, there have been a number of performers to hold the NXT Championship who don’t necessarily fit the typical WWE mold (hello Bo Dallas and Neville!) but were chosen as title holders because of the quality of their work and how over they were with the crowd.

How NXT has booked the champion is most close to how title holders had been utilized historically. Back when wrestling was a territory-driven industry, the champion had to be equal parts attraction and pure worker. When a champion was slated to appear in a territory, he had to have the star power to draw at the gate, but also the skill to put over the local talent before he left town. Making sure the local challenger looked like a million bucks, even if it was in a losing effort, ensured that the territory’s top talent was left looking strong while setting up the eventual return match the next time the champion came through.

That kind of approach also benefitted the true attractions of the territory era, like Andre the Giant, Abdullah the Butcher, and Bruiser Brody. Because these performers were judged more on their spectacle, their appearances in territories were focused on drawing box office. Often, there would be a special format match like a battle royal, loser leaves town, hair vs hair, 6 man tag, that featured these attractions. They would come in, parter up with the local babyface to take down the strong heel (or add additional heat to the local heel vs the strong babyface), and leave town with little to no impact on the territory championship picture.

In the early days of NXT, WWE would take talent from the main roster and have them work programs in NXT with the up and coming talent. These talent from the main roster who worked these programs were often mid-card performers who were actually quite special, just unfortunately lost in the shuffle for one reason or another and unable to get into programs on the main roster that would allow them to exhibit these talents with similarly built and skilled opponents. Veteran talent such as Tyson Kidd, Natalya, and Antonio Cesaro directly contributed to the rise of such future main roster talents as Neville, Charlotte Flair, and Sami Zayn by having some truly classic matches in NXT.

By treating these matchups as attractions, both the veteran talent and up and coming star were given a platform to show their skill set, grow their base, and gauge the fan’s interest in a potential main program down the road. Like the attractions of old, the main roster talent is able to come in and put over talent with little risk to damaging their overall brand, and return to the main roster unscathed.

Once NXT became a featured part of the WWE Network with it’s own dedicated fan base, the approach was adapted to what is the current approach. While still focused on bringing in and developing fresh new talent, NXT has taken special aim at bringing in proven independent talent. While NXT doesn’t use independent talent from other promotions on short-term contracts to draw as was common in the territory era, it has leveraged it’s status as the waypoint between the true indies and the WWE main roster to create buzz and draw feature performers to WWE’s developmental system. By signing talent such as Finn Balor (NJPW), Kevin Owens (Indies), Shinsuke Nakamura (NJPW), Samoa Joe (TNA), and Bobby Roode (TNA), WWE has shown that they look at NXT as more than just a pure developmental territory.

Brining in more seasoned talent to NXT instead of WWE directly has also allowed WWE to gauge fan interest in these performers, along with affording the talent the opportunity to learn “the WWE way” somewhere other than the main roster. In the past, WWE brought in talent that once brought into the spotlight and inserted into programs on the big stage, only to see them wilt in that very spotlight and get little to no reaction from the crowd. For every CM Punk or Daniel Bryan (which even then were slow builds to great heights), there was a Scotty Goldman (Colt Cabana): a very skilled performer saddled with a unfamiliar name and ridiculous gimmick who the fans never got behind. These perceived failures are what sentenced the main roster to recycled programs involving the same wrestlers, as the main roster product needed to be “protected” from these kinds of risks.

NXT allows the WWE the opportunity to bring in these talents and afford them the opportunity to prove they can develop the kind of promo skills needed to succeed on the main roster while adapting their talent to the WWE work style in a more insulated learning environment, all the while providing a lessened financial risk for the company when signing these talents.

This is not to say that the talent that for lack of a better term “graduates” to the main roster from NXT is guaranteed success. Just as has always been, talent gets over with the crowd when the talent connects with the crowd. Having this built goodwill from NXT offers a certain amount of notoriety, but ultimately making it on the main stage requires additional work. WWE has done a good job of putting NXT stars in position to succeed historically.

One of the first and best examples of this is The Shield. All three performers were featured in either NXT’s forerunner FCW or NXT itself, so there was some name recognition to the hardcore base for all three members of The Shield (Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns). For Rollins and Ambrose, FCW/NXT allowed the young performers to adapt the skills honed during their time on the indies to the WWE. Reigns got the added instruction and pro wrestling experience that he didn’t already pickup from his legendary Samoan wrestling lineage while pursuing collegiate and professional football. When The Shield made their debut on the main roster, they were battle-ready and able to assume a high level position with the name talent. Both the hardcore fans who knew them and the main roster fans new to them recognized the talent and charisma immediately and they were an instant success.

The main roster debut and subsequent success of Kevin Owens is another example of NXT’s influence. Just 6 months after debuting in NXT, Owens debuted on Raw as a surprise challenger for John Cena’s United States championship. For both indy fans and NXT fans, the former Kevin Steen was a known commodity. In fact, while in NXT, Owens was able to continue his long-standing feud from the indies with Sami Zayn, who at the time had just won the NXT championship after a long, uphill fight. The familiarity between Owens and Zayn afforded both the opportunity to shine brightly, with Owens able to show his prowess as a great heel. By the time Owens stepped into the ring on Raw with Cena, he was a made man with the fans, with enough fan favor that beating Cena for the US championship in his first match wouldn’t have been a shock (like the Milan Miracle, perhaps).

Instead of having an official match with Cena that night on Raw, Owens beat Cena down and when the two had their first official match later that month, Owens beat Cena cleanly, setting the stage for Owens to go on and have one of the most successful first years in WWE history, cementing himself as one of the top heels and eventually becoming WWE Universal Champion.

Ascending to the main roster doesn’t always mean immediate success. Sometimes it has seemed that WWE has forced a transition too soon.

Adam Rose was brought up after weeks of vignettes showing the character’s “Party time all the time” attitude and featuring catchy entrance music. Unfortunately, the entrance proved to be the most memorable part of the character, as the pseudo Russell Brand-ian schtick fell flat with the fans. After floating around on the mid/low card for a couple of years, Rose was popped for a substance violation and was suspended by WWE. Soon after, Rose found himself in real world trouble after a domestic disturbance incident (the charges from which were eventually dropped by the prosecution) and was released by the company. Ultimately, Rose will be best remembered for a feud with a guy in a bunny suit that was never paid off for one reason or another more than for anything he actually did within the squared circle.

Another performer who seems to be languishing despite a world of potential is Apollo Crews. A highly touted signing for NXT after a successful run on the indies as Uhaa Nation, Crews had a short run in NXT, during which he never challenged for the championship but did have some memorable matches that flashed his impressive skills. After 7 months in NXT, Crews debuted on Monday Night Raw, defeating Tyler Breeze (another former NXT standout who has struggled to find his way on the main roster). Over the next few months, Crews found himself in matches with some of the WWE’s most high profile stars, such as Chris Jericho, Sheamus, and Dolph Ziggler, even challenging The Miz for the WWE Intercontinental Championship at Summerslam only to come up short. Though his talent is apparent, Crews hasn’t made much of an impact on the microphone and his star has yet to rise like many expected and many are beginning to wonder if the promotion was made too soon.

Next up: Why all of this matters to the WWE and how it could negatively impact the NXT and WWE products going forward.