Being The Man, With a Tear in Your Eye

It Came From the Vault, #7: Royal Rumble 1992
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Being Mr. Money in the Bank is nice. Getting crowned King of the Ring didn’t seem too bad, either. And I’m sure winning the Royal Rumble still gets you second looks from the WWE Universe and the Divas (Total or otherwise). But if you want to be somebody, you need The Belt.

Not the Big Gold one the World Heavyweight Champion holds, of course. While that 11-or-100-year-old-depending-on-who-you-talk-to-title -- which turns Alberto Del Rio into (as Mr. Brandon Stroud has commented) “a killer f*cking shark monster” when he’s without it -- is a nice belt with a (comically complicated) lineage all its own, it’s not something that makes you immortal.

In order to be relevant to not just wrestling fans, but be what those on the “outside” think of when they hear “professional wrestler”, you need that beautiful black and gold class ring-turned-title-belt that John Cena has been carrying around since defeating The Rock for it at WrestleMania 29. It’s that recognition, and attendant power, Daniel Bryan -- who faces Cena in SummerSlam’s main event on August 18th -- wants. And it may just be what the industry needs.

When a performer becomes WWE Champion, they no longer exist in the fanboy-infested nether regions of “wrestling famous” (not to be confused with “baseball famous”). Propelled into the world of talk show appearances and television commercials, he becomes the face of not just one of the larger entertainment companies in the world, but the avatar for an entire industry.

It’s a significantly harder job than it once was, and not just because for many years most people were wrestling fans, proudly. Much of the rapid rise in television was propelled by the overwhelming popularity of professional wrestling, and giants of the industry, from individuals like Ted Turner to corporations like the USA Network, have rode the enormous popularity of wrestling to prominent places in the pantheon of the cable. Like drugs, professional wrestling sold itself, until it didn’t. It’s that as the single major player -- sorry, TNA -- the WWE Champion must be able to stand out in a crowded entertainment marketplace and perform well enough to consistently engage those who are already in on the fun.

Champions have always had to sell the shows at which they are performing -- getting people in the building will forever be the name of the game -- but as the building has transformed from bingo halls to arenas and pavilions of various sizes to football stadiums and a multimedia engagement platform with over 10 hours of original content produced weekly, the role of the WWE champion is to represent the industry to new potential consumers.

But it wasn’t always this way.

***

While the equation now -- to non-Japanese and Mexican fans -- may be WWE = Professional Wrestling, for the first half of the company’s existence, their title and name were considered to be only slightly more than a significant regional title: an SEC championship (on steroids).

During this era, the NWA -- National Wrestling Alliance (think NCAA) -- World’s Champion was considered to be The Champ, touring the country to challenge the equivalent of Pac-12, Big 12 and Big-10 champions in regional promotions like the Hart family’s Calgary-based Stampede Wrestling, the Funks’ NWA outpost in Amarillo, TX and St. Louis Wrestling Club.

Created in 1963, the then-WWWF (and eventually WWF) title served as the primary belt for the disenfranchised World Wide Wrestling Federation based out of New York, who split from the NWA after the organization refused to put their title on Vince McMahon, Sr.’s star, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. Following health problems -- as in a heart attack -- Buddy Rogers lost the WWWF’s belt to Bruno Sammartino, who would spend the next 2803 days (over eight years!) making the belt mean something.

During this time, immortals like Lou Thesz held the NWA title, with Sammartino essentially working as New York’s champion, supposedly selling out Madison Square Garden nearly 200 times. From there, a fragile alliance between the NWA and WWWF kept McMahon, Sr.’s belt as a secondary title passed between Sammartino, Pedro Morales, “Superstar” Billy Graham and Bob Backlund.

It wasn’t until Backlund dropped the belt to Iranian villain and Twitter superstar The Iron Sheik, who (almost immediately) handed it over to Hulk Hogan, that the belt -- and the company’s place in the industry -- began to change. Shaky decisions by competitors, inherent advantages of the New York media market and the irrepressible brilliance of Vince McMahon, Jr. pushed the WWF to the top of the business. That made Hogan, his champion, the biggest star (and unfortunately, the man most closely associated with professional wrestling) in the history of the business.

After a four-year reign as champion largely considered to be the catalyst of the “Golden Age” of wrestling, Hogan would switch the belt back and forth on an almost yearly basis with superstars of the era like Randy Savage and Ultimate Warrior in the late 80s/early 90s. While the belt had significance at this point, it was largely a self-generated level of importance, with NWA/WCW fans considering their champion -- usually Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes or Sting -- to be the best in the industry.

It wasn’t until Flair (who was so “wrestling famous” that he may as well have been actually famous) signed with the WWF in 1991 that this begin to change. Flair -- who bolted WCW/NWA in June of that year, leaving Lex Luger to take the reigns in a cage match against Barry Windham at one of the worst PPVs of all time --  came in hotter than the sun to the WWE, claiming loudly that he was the real world’s champion. And because of a contractual loophole that allowed him to retain possession of the NWA’s belt for a short time when he was first introduced, he brought the proof with him, setting off a series of events that would change the very concept of what it means to hold the world title forever.

***

Because the market for professional wrestling has always been built on the ego of promoters, mentioning that other organizations exist was considered to be taboo in many federations. When Flair -- immediately identified by those presenting the show -- came from a different organization it forced fans to accept that not only did aliens (from the Outer Banks) exist, but that their claims of being the best in the world (with physical evidence to back it up) was something that may fundamentally change the way fans felt about the product they were watching, their champion and the nature of the show they were watching.

If Flair, who had been producing popular and critically acclaimed work in North Carolina as a member of Jim Crockett Promotions, and later WCW, was a world champion just like Hogan, had everything we’d ever known about wrestling been a lie? These were the existential questions that were posited with the Nature Boy’s introduction, and Flair would prove to not only the fans, the promoters and likely himself, that while it may all be a lie, Ric Flair was The Truth.

The storyline controversy generated by the appearance of a second world’s championship, at this point a blurred Tag Team title belt once the NWA legally made McMahon take their signature strap off of WWF television, forced storyline-WWE president Jack Tunney to strip both Hogan and Flair of their belts. Tunney rule that the two titans would challenge 28 other men in the 1992 Royal Rumble to determine the Real World’s Champion.

Flair having the single greatest match and individual performance ever -- beyond even the wildest expectations of what fans and the McMahons hope that Daniel Bryan and John Cena will come out with during their match -- may not have been guaranteed, it was at least expected considering Ric’s remarkable in-ring talent. That this match would make the WWE title the most important belt in the industry, almost entirely through Flair christening it with one of the truly transcendent pieces of mic work in history (in the video), did come as a bit of a surprise.

In that promo, beyond the hysterics, Flair establishes that not only was the WWE championship the premier award (think Best Actor) in an industry built entirely on the things, but the single greatest prize in the history of the business.

Being WWE champion meant that not only did you beat The Man, it made you The Man automatically, a cache no other belt had ever *truly* had. It cut to the heart of arguments that had lingered since the belt was introduced in the early 60s, when fans wondered if Bruno or Lou would prevail if the two ever challenged for the same title. Ric Flair was the best because he held the WWF title, and the WWF title was the best because performers like Ric Flair nearly killed themselves in order to obtain it.

And this held true for the most part over the next decade, even with WCW’s dominance through the mid 90s in terms of ratings and mainstream interest. The WWF name, and the heavyweight title meant that you were the best the industry had to offer. No one wondered who would win in a fight between Hulk (or Hollywood Hulk) Hogan and Bret Hart after the former left for the greener pastures of Ted Turner’s guaranteed money or between Shawn Michaels and Bret after the latter was screwed out of the title in front of his home crowd.

In fact, the idea of legitimately screwing someone out of the WCW title seemed like an impossibility considering how little the belt meant to WCW or its big-picture branding. It was largely the Money in the Bank contract, inasmuch as it simply served as a “semiotic mean to a narrative end”. However, the importance of the WWE title has endured through its Attitude era hot-potatoing, an ill-fated unification following the demise of WCW (precipitated in large part by the devaluation of their world title with champions like David Arquette and Vince Russo), and the Money in the Bank era, which has allowed those in the mid-card to cash in a title run without them necessarily warranting such an opportunity from a strictly business perspective.

Which is why the World Heavyweight Championship has largely ceased to function as a major title. Even the Money in the Bank contract matches at last month’s PPV (one for each title) were clearly designated as matches between “All-Stars“ for the WWE title contract and “up-and-coming” stars for the WHC contract. Such delineations between the titles, as well as the accompanying placement of the title matches on the card have re-re-established the belt’s prominent place in the industry.

***

Which brings us to Daniel Bryan, who like Bret Hart before him, has worked his way up from the small time promotions on the periphery of the industry to the precipice of regularly main eventing major PPVs with the biggest stars of his era. His work -- on the mic, in the ring and with the crowd -- largely speaks for itself, but what it is says is something different than what we’ve spent the last ten (largely wonderful) years hearing.

In his promo following a McMahon-mandated “corporate makeover,” Daniel Bryan began digging in on perennial champion John Cena’s perceived lack of “cred,” inside of the ring and out of it. After getting himself over as an “against all odds” good guy, he preceded to talk about the life of luxury that John Cena had grown accustomed to in his years as The Man. After some light-hearted cheapshots, he finally landed on the idea that while John Cena is an entertainer, Daniel Bryan would continue  to live his life every day -- whether or not he was still gainfully employed by the WWE -- as a wrestler. That this was the reason he was going to make John Cena “tap out” at one of the biggest shows of the year.

For the company, one that spent much of their time since their largest boom period moving away from their role as the primary wrestling company in the world to a multi-media entertainment conglomerate in a sea of like-minded behemoths, this is a Big Deal.

Such blatant emphasis on wrestling is the natural growth of the seeds planted summers ago by CM Punk, who went out of his way to challenge the fans (and more directly, the people in the back) to accept more wrestling in their lives, to understand what truly differentiates the WWE from other companies is not their ability to make mediocre films or produce terrible comedy sketches, but to be the best example of their unique form of entertainment. And for the fans, it means that we’re back to the days where in order to Beat the Man, you’ll have to Be The Man.


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