If WWE claims guardianship over pro wrestling’s past, they’ve done a stellar job at that task for 2017 with a varied group .
Photo by Miguel Discart/CC BY-SA 2.0
WrestleMania is nearly here, which means that all of WrestleMania's attendant events are nearly here, too. The week leading up to WWE's biggest show of the year has become a joyous celebration of all things pro wrestling, with wrestlers showing up to talk to fans in the most carny ways possible and independent events tapping into the swell of people in whatever city is playing host (this year, it's Orlando). The list of things going on is staggering—whatever your tastes, there's something for you.
WWE, of course, offers up more fare than just WrestleMania, with a now traditional big NXT show the night before and fan outreach through arranged meet-and-greets with wrestlers. One of the week's highlights is the induction ceremony for the WWE Hall of Fame.
The WWE Hall of Fame has become, by dint of the promotion's scale and its capture of competitors' tape libraries, pro wrestling's hall of fame. That broad claim to authority isn't without controversy, and there are other pro wrestling halls of fame, such as the Cauliflower Alley Club, but what the WWE Hall lacks in some of the sport's quirkier figures, it makes up for in spectacle and reach.
This year's class is one of the best ever, a carefully stitched tapestry that brings together several threads of pro wrestling's recent history: a pair of important transitional wrestlers, one of the three or four best tag teams in history, two strangely underrated all-time greats (who double as two of my five favorite wrestlers of all time), and one of the most beloved post-retirement turns in the business.
The transitional figures are Beth Phoenix and Teddy Long. Phoenix was a musclebound wrestler during the nadir of women's wrestling in WWE. It's probably incorrect to say that she was a great wrestler, but The Glamazon was undoubtedly important in a low-key way: Phoenix essentially carried the torch for a style of women's wrestling that was deeply out of fashion among WWE brass between 2007 and 2015, until the divas eventually gave way to it.
Teddy Long's best work, meanwhile, came well before his WWE tenure, though his stints as an on-screen authority figure will undoubtedly get the most airplay during the ceremonies. He started out in the 1980s as a referee in WCW before transitioning to manager, where he acted as mouthpiece for various tag teams, most notably Doom (Butch Reed and Ron Simmons). It was exceedingly rare to see black men as managers in Southern pro wrestling at the time (WCW was based out of Georgia), and Long quickly established himself as one of the best in the business. His work with Doom also helped elevate Simmons' profile, which eventually led to Simmons' reign as wrestling's first African-American world champion in 1992.
The Rock n Roll Express occupy the tag team slot. Looking back with jaded 21st-century eyes, two small, mulleted guys wearing colored bandanas all over their tights might seem hopelessly cheesy, but then their music would hit and the crowd would go nuts in some of the biggest reactions in history. Some of it was the weird sort of "cute" factor that has always sustained teen idols, but a lot of it was that The Rock n Roll Express were just good. Ricky Morton, the smaller of the pair, would regularly sustain a beating, teasing audience sympathy to its boiling point before a hot tag to Robert Gibson caused the place to erupt all over again. It was formulaic, but it was magic, and arguably the greatest working of the crowd by any tag team in history.
Kurt Angle is the headliner. I've already written about the winding down of his career in this column, but it could perhaps be summed up like this: Angle was every bit as good as anyone in the business and may very well be the best pro wrestler of his generation; he could work any style, from strikes to grappling to high flying, and he did it all while constantly reinventing himself, from an archly ironic comedy act to a deathly serious, quasi-legitimate late career renaissance. Only he was cursed (or blessed) to reach prominence at the same time as Austin and The Rock, which has made him perversely underrated. That he's finally returning to WWE, where he did his best work despite spending most of his career in TNA, is wonderful.
Rick Rude is nearly as underrated as Angle. Rude was one of pro wrestling's consummate journeyman, initially making his name in World Class Championship Wrestling, where he was world champion, before moving through Jim Crockett Promotions and eventually WWE. It was there that he found his greatest fame through feuds with Jake "The Snake" Roberts and The Ultimate Warrior.
Rude took the role of vain, bodybuilding heel to unseen levels of obnoxiousness. He'd have his manager, Bobby Heenan, oil him up before matches. His tights would be airbrushed with images of the wives of his enemies, a motif he took on the road to Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. As good as he was at all of that, when he went to WCW after his WWE run, he toned it all down to become a menacing bruiser; he still flexed and gyrated, but any hint of humor was gone. In its place was a sense of danger, backed up by the fact that, despite WWE's reluctance to let its wrestlers put on extended technical displays, he could go.
Lastly, the Hall is inducting Diamond Dallas Page. Page's entire career arc has been decidedly odd. He was a midcard manager in the early '90s when he decided he wanted to transition to pro wrestler. Which was fine, other than the fact that he was nearly 40 years old when he started wrestling in earnest. Against all odds, he succeeded, even thrived. Along with Sting, he was WCW's biggest babyface during wrestling's hot period in the late 90s; for him to reach midcard status after going from barely wrestling to full-time in his 40s would have been too much to expect, but to become nearly as big as Sting was unthinkable. And it wasn't simply a case of giving the old guy a run—Page was legitimately good and wildly popular.
Page's second act is even stranger. In the 2000s, he started hocking his own take on yoga, called DDP Yoga. Pitched as a path to wellness with a hint of a carnival barker's call, Page's late life calling as a health and wellness guru actually worked. He has been credited with personally saving the lives of down on their luck wrestlers, including luminaries like Jake Roberts and Scott Hall, and with preserving the health of wrestlers in middle age like Chris Jericho. The stakes were and are so much bigger out of the ring than in it for these men and women as they wind down. Page getting into the Hall is recognition of that.
Taken together, this is one of those Hall of Fame classes that stirs the memory and emotions. If WWE claims guardianship over pro wrestling's past, this year they've done a stellar job at that task.
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