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SLAM! WRESTLING: And Nothing but the Truth

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Benner is SLAM! Wrestling's regular Friday columnist.

Friday, October 27, 2000

Why Angle will be a bad champion

Eric Benner
By ERIC BENNER
Special to SLAM! Sports


A weekly
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I was thrilled to see Kurt Angle best The Rock in Sunday's championship contest at No Mercy. Well, he admittedly didn't best anyone, but he did make the best of a bad situation to take the title for himself. Angle seems like the best of both worlds as a wrestling champion. He's completely hated by fans everywhere as a heel, while wrestling enthusiasts get to enjoy the effort he puts on and show he puts forth between the ropes.

Ultimately, though, he'll make a bad champion.

I hate to write things like that. Kurt Angle is an excellent athlete, a superb showman, and as deserving as anyone to be WWF champion. He's fun, entertaining, and really does exemplify his three I's: integrity, intensity, and intelligence. He's supposedly easy to work with in and out of the ring, easy-going, and a generally nice guy. That's certainly how he comes off in his mainstream appearances. Still, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, or something. That is to say that just because he deserves to be the champ doesn't mean he'll make much of a good one.

Allow me to qualify that statement. In many ways, Kurt Angle is the best champion the WWF has had this year. In some ways, he may their best champ ever. Angle puts on good wrestling matches, he's fresh, he's young, he's resilient, he's bent on self-improvement, and he clearly loves what he does. The fans hate him, though I have a feeling they'd get behind him should he turn face, and he has good chemistry with just about everyone he faces, be it Rock, Triple H, Chris Benoit, Undertaker, Kane, or Chris Jericho. When I say best champ ever, I mean simply that he's a normal, average guy. He's got the build of a regular-sized guy (who works long, hard, and often), the looks of someone you might meet anywhere, the sound of someone who might be a college professor or an accountant or a company CEO or anything, and the strange combination of someone who's at the same time comfortable in front of a crowd but not at home there.

Big guys like Undertaker or Hulk Hogan are hard to identify with (though often easy to cheer), as are extremely ugly or overly handsome wrestlers. Someone like Bret Hart seems like he was born in a wrestling ring, and a guy like Shawn Michaels, someone who just soaks up the crowd, doesn't seem normal. Steve Austin, I think, comes closest to the common man (though clearly, much of that is perception manipulation caused by his character), and The Rock is more of a throw-back to Hulk Hogan's day. Angle takes the idea of a wrestling champ and makes it much more mainstream, and does that more than anyone I've ever seen. He's a rookie, he had a life before pro wrestling, and despite the fact that he was an amateur wrestler, somehow that seems more real. He's the perfect People's Champ.

Angle
Kurt Angle as the new WWF World Heavyweight Champion.
And that's exactly his biggest problem.

When a wrestler makes an appearance on Regis, or David Letterman, or any mainstream show, he's there to promote wrestling, to help his fed and his own exposure. From the point of view of the show though, he's there to 'exhibit' wrestling. It's sort of like having 'wrestling' on your program, as if that were a style or something. We've got a 'wrestler' on today, between the zoo animals and the circus performers. Something like that. Typically, the same kinds of wrestlers have always made the appearances. Top stars, obviously, but also stars who fit the 'profile' of a wrestler. Someone who generally will dwarf the host (and don't forget, Austin and Triple H and The Rock all look bigger than the typical person, if not the typical wrestler), someone big enough that even people who don't watch wrestling might be interested in the guy because he's big. It's a gimmick, it's the wrestling gimmick.

Of course, you've got to add charisma to the equation. And that's why stars like Austin and Hulk Hogan and so on have always made the most (and best) mainstream appearances. Triple H and The Rock are also doing well for themselves. Even Chyna fits the bill.

But Lita doesn't. If you were to take a non-wrestling fan, put them in a room and force them to watch a given pay-per-view, and then ask them who's higher in the WWF pecking order -- Chyna or Lita, I'd bet even money they'd say Lita. I mean, you could easily argue it's Chyna, but Lita is up there with her. Yet we don't see Lita making these appearances. I don't see much of Chris Jericho, either. Or Jeff Jarrett. All of these guys are champions in the sport, and yet, when presented to the casual fan or even non-fan, they don't fit the bill of the stereotypical wrestler. And as much as I hate to say it, that's all mainstream media wants: big brutes who spew sound-bytes for a living. With the exception of shows wherein the hosts themselves are fans of sport, most dialogue on these shows sticks to the most mundane of possible topics:

Jay Leno: So what's it like, taking a wrestling move from one of these big men?
Chyna: It's no different for me than anyone. I can play with the big boys!
Crowd: Oooooooooh!

That's more likely what you'll see, when I -- in theory, the audience they're attracting with these guests -- would rather hear:

Jay Leno: You've been promoted with the men, competing in that division and mixing more with men than other women wrestlers. Do you think that's because the WWF believes you to be more marketable and has pushed you harder than other competitors of your gender, or because you're actually less marketable in the women's division because of your size? (however he'd say it)
Chyna: (whatever her answer would be)
Audience: (actually listening and paying attention instead of popping for catch-phrases)

Maybe that's just my preference, I can't speak for everyone.

Regardless, almost all of Angle's public interviews -- and there hasn't been much high-profile stuff, compared to some of his peers -- have been more along the lines of the latter example than the former, and that's just not what the big shows are looking for. They want fluff. Rock talking in third person. The same stuff we cheer for inside the arenas.

And I've never seen Kurt Angle deliver that. When interviewed, he comes off as soft- but well-spoken, honest, sincere, interested, and interesting. He'll explain how, like acting, wrestling has a lot to do with effort and attitude, and that's what's gotten him today. It probably wouldn't be his instinct to call out Triple H or The Rock on live television, and that's exactly where he falters.

In this sense, he's just not the stereotypical wrestling champ in the sense that perhaps matters to bookers and promoters the most: the PR representative. Maybe he can be trained, or, preferably, maybe he'll try to train the media to accept him as he is instead of adapting to their style. I don't see it, though, and that's why I see the choice of Kurt Angle as next WWF champion as perhaps a poor one. Only Angle will suffer in the long run, if things don't work out.

Of course, maybe he'll just drop the strap in three days and then I'll look like an idiot, but it won't have been the first time.

MAILBAG

Here's the mail.

Jay, from Y2JayC2000@aol.com, writes:
"Thank you, thank you, thank you. All throughout wrestling forums, chat rooms, and now here on SLAM! Wrestling, people feel this need to set themselves off from the rest. They all want is to be considered 'smart' fans. What's a smart fan to them? Someone who bashes The Rock, Steve Austin, or anyone else popular. Someone who praises Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, and few others. Someone who insults the fans who enjoy all aspects of Raw. This REALLY gets on my nerves, and I'm glad that you put Mr. Goldberg in his place. It's good to know some 'smart' fans can still cheer faces. Thanks for your time."

Jay, I appreciate the comments. I write for casual and smart fan and everyone in between alike, and I don't know if I'd want to be categorized as any of the above. I just enjoy wrestling. And since I feel like both a 'smart' (someone with a deep appreciation of all things wrestling) and mark alike, I don't like to see one side bashing the other. And insulting a whole base of fans just seems mean.

I received a lot of mail with similar points of view, and what I liked most is that though only half of it actually agreed with my opinions (Rock makes a good champ, Benoit possibly overrated on the internet, and so on), just about everyone was positive about it. I think there's something to be said for positive thinking and civilized debate, though that's clearly not a concept shared by everyone.


Ezio Colicchia, from colicchi@windsor.igs.net, writes:
"I just want you to know my opinion. The WWF is boring. After 17 years of watching the WWF, I officially stopped when they made the switch to TNN. They do have a lot of talented guys in the WWF, but I just hate the WWF's fans. It makes me sick when they cheer for the guys that McMahon wants them to cheer for but they will leave to go buy a pop when a match with Taka Michinoku is taking place. That's just my opinion. I'll always be a wrestling fan, but the WWF is not what wrestling should be. I'll stick to Border City Wrestling, the greatest indy fed of them all."

I'm torn about your opinion. On the one hand, I can sympathize with someone finding the WWF boring at the moment. I'm starting to agree, but at the same time, they're elevating some very talented wrestlers and I'd suggest you give them a chance. You don't insult anyone and have a right to what you say.

But that doesn't make it right. You make one assumption in your arguments that I disagree with, and that's that somehow you cheer for the "right" wrestlers and everyone else cheers for the "wrong" ones (the ones McMahon tells them to by pushing them). Who's to say that in reality, people who cheer for Michinoku are "wrong" and those who cheer for Austin, Rock, and Jericho are 'right?'

Would it make me any less "wrong" if I told you that I don't like Taka Michinoku not because he's boring or anything, but because I find his style too acrobatic and too unrealistic? That I prefer the style of someone like Chris Benoit, who actually looks like he's hurting his opponent? That sounds more like what a 'smart' would say, so is that "right"? What if I said I couldn't take Taka seriously because of his small size and the larger opponents he often faces? Is that "wrong"?

What makes your opinion that people shouldn't ignore Taka Michinoku matches so set in stone?

I find myself caught in the middle, as do (I imagine) other fans. On the one hand, the more casual fans I know might call Benoit and Jericho and Angle "relative midgets" and consider them unable to realistically defeat the larger opponents like Kane or Undertaker or even Rock or Triple H. Then the smart fans -- the same ones who cheered for Rock as a heel, as if it were counter-culture cool or something -- seemingly refuse to cheer some wrestlers simply because they are popular.

I say just cheer for whomever you like and don't worry who everyone else cheers for. My top eight favourite wrestlers right now, in no particular order, are: Lance Storm, Jeff Jarrett, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, Edge, Kidman, and The Rock. Can you honestly tell me that I'm flat-out, scientifically, objectively wrong about any of these choices? Or is it possibly just subjective?

Maybe casual fans don't cheer for wrestlers because McMahon tells them to, but McMahon pushes wrestlers who fans cheer for. Maybe you don't cheer for wrestlers who are good, but who are unpopular. I wouldn't accuse you of it, but why is it any less likely than your suggested scenario?

Forgive me for going on, but if I convince one fan to see another point of view, I'll be a happy man.

I like Rock. Sue me.


Thanks for reading. Thanks for writing in, everyone. Have a great week!

Send email to ebenner@hotmail.com.


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