A WrestleMania Preview THAT CAME FROM THE VAULT: Sting vs. HHH

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With WrestleMania Sunday, it's time for The Classical to present a WrestleMania Preview THAT CAME FROM THE VAULT. Today, it's HHH vs. Sting.

There’s an exact moment in my childhood where I first realized that people saw me in a different way than others and that I was a fan of something. The time of year (or even which one) and the reason surrounding the moment is blurry, mostly, but I remember distinctly my Aunt Sue standing in front of me offering one of two WCW action figures.

The two options presented to me were Arn Anderson and "Surfer” Sting, with the former slightly balding in white trunks with red lettering and the latter wearing what I presume are electric turquoise spants with a scorpion print down the side of the leg and bright, almost-neon pink facepaint. Choosing between the two was hard as they were mortal enemies and, more importantly, not the wrestlers I liked.

Growing up on Long Island at the end of the Age of Hogan meant being a WWE fan. Especially for a child whose fandom was weaned on live events at the Coliseum, a building in which WCW never really ran shows. Sting looked way cooler, so I picked him, ripped open the packaging and started playing -- or attempting to play -- with the figure I had chosen. But, for those who remember them, those things were not so much toys as choking hazards for children with extraordinarily big mouths.

Because I didn’t understand the power of licensing at the time, it was odd to me in the moment that a company would make such a useless toy. Where were the movable arms, the twistable torso, the lever on the back to make someone do a press slam? And why would my Aunt Sue -- to this day, still my favorite relative -- give me this? It was then that I realized that she was aware of the fact that I liked wrestling, and being a good person, saw something I might like involving the thing I do like and got it for me.

I wasn’t totally aware of what a nice gesture something like that was or what exactly being a fan meant, although those were things I would eventually learn. I was completely aware of one thing, though: everything about WCW at that time sucked.

Even Sting, who represents WCW at its best more than anyone represents any single entity in sports outside of Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins, felt lame (mostly because he wasn’t Hulk Hogan) and was incredibly dumb (mostly because he apparently had never seen wrestling before.) Constantly falling for trick after trick, trusting potentially reformed heel after potentially reformed heel, hoping against hope that someone, anyone wouldn’t let him down only to be let down (and usually piledriven or given a figure-four) for caring too much.

And like their flagship performer, this era of WCW was always far too concerned with making sure everyone liked them. But, instead of trying to develop a show where there was something for each “type” of fan, they simply strove to be as inoffensively decent and mildly cartoonish as was humanly possible. This was, of course, better than when the show was so desperate to have everyone think it was cool that it rapidly devolved into a Ben Folds song. Marginally, anyways.

Though, looking back, at the time, I was at least slightly wrong about the total level of suckitude in WCW. But it’s not because I’ve been watching old Sting performances or that I was completely unaware of Pillman and Austin, Cactus Jack or William Regal at the time. It’s actually something I regret I was not involved with, and that’s informed my entire life as a fan of sports entertainment to this point: I should have picked Arn Anderson.

***

Arn Anderson is the quintessential examples of, as Jim Cornette once put it, “the guy you pay to see wrestle the guy you paid to see.” And, more so than anyone else in the history of wrestling, Sting needs that guy to be successful. Which is why it’s probably good he’s working with HHH, the only other guy on the same level as Arn in that category: consummate professionals who will always put on the best possible show during his match regardless of where it’s on the card, able to get himself over enough to make the person in the match look like a conquering hero when he had to do what business required of him.

These performers, until they reach the main event, are usually known as “mechanics” and, like Arn, represented -- as Dave puts it -- “everything that was right about WCW.” HHH is the latest in the long line of performers whose fidelity to the business and brand recognition are early as important as their considerable professional acumen. They can range from serious technically sound performers like HHH and Arn to goofy guys like The Miz to even high level superathletes like Seth Rollins. All that matters to them is the central goal of getting everyone involved over while leaving enough for themselves to get theirs.

That’s not to say that they can transition to bigger and better things, as The Miz and HHH have both main evented WrestleMania, and if Seth doesn’t at some point in the next two or three years I’ll eat my hat. In fact, the most famous “mechanic” of all time reached his highest levels not as a “good hand” helping to get others over, but as a beer-drinking, ass kicking juggernaut. Which is probably why “Stone Cold” Steve Austin was so upset that he had to work with Scott Hall instead of Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania X-8.

Because, while Scott Hall led the revolution that nearly changed the business he was never quite the man in the nWo. He wasn’t even second-in-command, but Nash was either too out of shape or too much of a stiff to work a match at the show. That Scott Hall had worked in the WWE was largely irrelevant, and the match yet another example of how the culmination of WCW vs. WWE was just a way for Vince McMahon to not only re-write history but reenact it through the proxy of people who left his empire.

Scott Hall, at that point, was a shell of his former self by the time his second WrestleMania moment came along. But, before that, he had done enough work for the other guys that the match should have meant something beyond “this is a thing we are doing because we assume people would pay to see this and, more importantly, accept what we tell them it represents.” Which is to say, of course, that he -- like WCW itself -- could have meant so much more not just to this show in particular, and the business in general. But because of choices he made and things he wanted to do -- which, considering what he was being offered as a guarantee, made all the sense in the world -- he end up joining back up in the company that could have done best for him far too late to make the impact he probably wanted.

He, like Sting may this evening, found himself in a place where a younger man (at least miles-wise) had to hold his hand to get to what ended up being a surprisingly enjoyable if not really memorable performance. But, for all his shortcomings -- his character’s sheer stupidity, his advanced age and the last decade or so slumming in TNA -- Sting will find himself in much better shape both mentally and physically to perform to the best of his abilities against HHH, who can almost be guaranteed will bring his best every single time on stage.

And, unlike Hall, Sting will be able to move past all of his problems from the past -- which are clearly significantly smaller and less serious that Hall’s -- and solidify his place not just among the broad idea of wrestling but the specific grandeur of the WWE if he can deliver. He’ll be able to move past the fact that, for all his physical talent and charisma, he represented almost everything that WCW lacked relative to WWE at the time. Like his dime-store Hulk Hogan talking while wearing Macho Man’s gimmick phase in the early 90s, most of the characters created by the Turner brain trust weren’t either one-dimensional or just empty husks of ideas that TNT had the rights to like Oz or blatant rip-offs of the ideas of others like Arachnaman. This wasn’t Sting’s fault, per se, but without what was to come -- beginning with Hogan and Savage, before the second wave of WWE performers joined the company -- it likely would have crashed and burned even sooner than it did running on nWo’s jet fuel.

I have my doubts, beyond my obvious preferences for HHH as a performer and WWE as a promotion. I’ve yet to “get” it, even after all these years, with regards to Sting as anything other than someone who had “it” and very little else. But, if he puts on a performance like he could be achieve only with the Arn Andersons and Ric Flairs of the world in his prime, that’ll all go away. If he can dig into that well where he presumably left all the Little Stingers after Scott Hall gave him the idea of becoming The Crow, he’ll cement his legacy not just a great performer but one of the most beloved characters in the history of the industry. But most importantly for me, I’ll be proven wrong by him and WCW one last time.

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