PG Week rolls on here on the Blogodoom. This is new feature that is based on the old Rant Crew that Scott did back in the day. Basically, if something is bugging me, I will spend time blowing off steam about it. It will be heavy-handed (probably), it will be controversial (possibly), it will stir discussion (hopefully), and it will get the idea off my chest (with any luck). I don’t expect you to agree with me. I doubt you will, in fact. But I do expect that you’ll at least have an opinion on the topic and we can beat it into the ground. WARNING: This is a long one and is based on my experiences on other messageboards. Everything expressed here is my perspective and may not match what you know.
Most of the time, this will be in the form of Then and Now, where I look at something that’s been making headlines (in or out of the ring) today and compare it to moments throughout history. This time, the infamous cartoon of AJ, Lita, and Punk caught my attention. You already know where I stand… but there’s a darker side to it all, in my opinion. Hit the link to read on.
Then and Now #1: Love Who We Say
How many of you remember SummerSlam in 1991? I’m willing to bet some of you weren’t born then, so I’ll explain: the big event of that show, bigger than any match, was the storyline wedding of Macho Man Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth. They were already married in real life, but their character arc — spanning at least three years of separation, reconciliation, highs, lows, and everything in between — would peak at this moment. To this day, it’s the only wedding on a wrestling Pay-Per-View, and it’s one of the very few weddings to go off without a catch. There was no interruption, no double cross, no last-second objection. To the WWF fan, this was their William and Kate, their Charles and Diana, their fairytale come true.
And sure, the reception would be crashed by Jake the Snake Roberts, who traumatized the characters for life and became Public Enemy #1 in just about everyone’s minds — not least of which is because Savage, in a forced retirement, could not retaliate — but for those few hours, everything seemed right.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that the people we see on TV are actors playing characters. The spirit of kayfabe that runs through wrestling means we tend to conflate their on-screen role with their off-screen personality. Unlike in television or the movies, wrestlers are actors defined by their greatest role. Mark Callaway will never not be the Undertaker; Philip Brooks might as well change his name to CM Punk; Michael Hickenbottom couldn’t stop being Shawn Michaels if he tried. It isn’t just because these are their most successful roles, either; while Vin Diesel isn’t Riddick, Dwayne Johnson is the Rock.
This can lead to complications down the line. Because so often, what happens to the character isn’t what the person would do, fans can be confused as to where one ends and the other begins. Of course, so can the wrestler himself; Ric Flair never stopped being Ric Flair even when he couldn’t afford it. But the consequences can be devastating. In the 1980s, it was a bigger deal that Jim Duggan was in the same car with Iron Sheik than it was that he was on drugs and booze and speeding down the highway.
Nowhere can this be more damaging than in matters of the heart. It’s hard enough staying in love with someone through the perils of the road; now imagine doing it when everyone wants you to break up. Not for your sake, but for theirs.
WrestleMania 21 had come and gone, but the reception afterward was a bit of a fiasco for the WWE. Rhyno had had a meltdown and broken an expensive vase in the lobby. Meanwhile, Matt Hardy was desperately trying to hold together the remnants of his relationship and making a public scene over it. The next day, the WWE had no choice but to release both men. Rhyno took the time off, gathered himself personally, and went to TNA, where he had another chapter and became their champion.
Matt Hardy, however, had other ideas. Throughout April of 2005, while sitting out the 90 days required between company transfers, he launched a social media campaign. In the days before Facebook and in the early days of YouTube, it was MySpace that everyone paid attention to. And Matt Hardy was telling the full story.
Well, his side of the full story, anyway.
Sometimes the need to push two people together is somewhat benign, especially when everyone recognizes it’s the two characters getting pushed that way. Take 2011-12 and the Zack Ryder romance arc. In late 2011, Ryder was the rising star babyface in large part due to his own internet show. Fans began to want to see more, and more, and more of him, to the point where it became clear: the character meant nothing, they identified with the PERSON.
And this was a problem, because his character never changed. He was a Long Island club rat on-screen, and even after the webcasts made clear he was just a wrestling fan made good, he STAYED a club rat. This led to some serious disconnect; if you’ve ever met the person Zack Ryder pretends to be on screen, you know they’re not known for their people skills, but Ryder himself was by all accounts a great guy and a man of the fans.
At first, there were no issues; Ryder continued his club rat persona, it was played off as tongue-in-cheek, with heel announcer Michael Cole verbally rolling his eyes at the idea of taking it seriously. Meanwhile, the wrestler was rewarded with a United States title reign, long overdue, when he beat Dolph Ziggler in December in Baltimore to much rejoicing. In fact, the next night in Philadelphia, he was placed in elite company — alongside CM Punk and Daniel Bryan as the hot Internet darlings.
And then came the next week, and a match that changed everything.
Miss Elizabeth Hulette died on May 1, 2003, in a home she shared with Lex Luger. An autopsy confirmed that she had OD’d, an acute toxicity of painkillers and vodka. Her marriage to Randy Savage had long since failed, and a second marriage only lasted a couple of years. She and Luger were co-destructive, a bad pairing. Luger himself had had a domestic disturbance with Elizabeth just two weeks prior; he would be arrested after her death despite the death being ruled accidental.
Savage at the time was out of wrestling, but not retired entirely; he was doing minor voiceover work, still endorsing the Slim Jims, and had just appeared in the first installment of Sam Raimi’s hugely successful Spider-Man trilogy. It goes without saying the two were separated and had lived their separate lives. In fact, when in 2010, Savage married a longtime girlfriend from his baseball days, it seemed he’d found true love.
It wouldn’t last. Less than a year later, Randy Savage was dead from a heart attack. Tributes flowed in from all corners of the wrestling community as they lost a true icon of their industry. Raw and SmackDown were stopped for a 5-minute video segment honoring Savage. CM Punk adopted Savage’s color scheme as part of his regular appearance, modifying it to his Chicago roots as necessary, and even performed Savage’s top-rope elbow with theatrics as a setup move. Fans everywhere mourned the loss of their hero.
But a lasting refrain was: “He and Elizabeth are together again.”
Zack Ryder and Eve had just won a mixed tag match. There was seemingly no reason for their teaming; just the spirit of competition. However, in the excitement of victory, Ryder gave Eve a big hug. Eve, noticeably caught off-guard, tried to remain professional, but the damage was done. Ryder was smitten, and the fans pounced.
If you were to step into kayfabe at this time, you’d understand Eve’s apprehension. After all, Ryder had advanced on her out of nowhere and was clearly a determined man. He had just spent months harassing and needling every authority figure he could to get a US Title shot, and when it failed, to get another that succeeded. He didn’t exactly take no for an answer… and now, Eve, had to be thinking, he was coming after her.
At first, she played coy. Soon, she figured that one date wouldn’t hurt, but it became a disaster when Kane was going after the duo. Ryder, unable to change a flat and not attempting to defend himself, became Kane’s whipping boy, destroyed from pillar to post. Eve began to feel sympathy for Ryder, but it wasn’t clear if it was love yet. At least, not to the viewer. The fan at home knew better.
Where Ryder couldn’t protect her, though, John Cena could. Cena, after all, was Kane’s target — attacking Ryder and Eve was just a way to make Cena so mad he would do something he’d regret. And thus it was, right around Valentine’s Day as it turned out, that Kane was ready to capture and threaten Eve when Cena, not the wheelchair-bound Ryder, came to her rescue. She gave him a thank-you kiss. And Zack Ryder saw it.
Understand that at no point did Eve declare love or even emotion for Ryder. Understand also that both Eve and Cena had been under extreme emotional duress at the time and were engaging in one of Hollywood’s oldest cliches, the rescue kiss. Now understand how little of it mattered to the audience. They had adopted Ryder as their avatar, and to see the woman he was pursuing with another man was a slap in the face. It was the dark side that Kane wanted Cena to show, even though Eve never was dating anyone. Eve had cheated on Zack Ryder without ever dating him, because the fans wanted them to be dating.
Hardy’s videos and blog postings began to take a surreal turn. He wouldn’t refer to either Lita or Edge by name — real or stage — just FGF and FBF (former girlfriend and former best friend). He began talking about a rebirth as a new man, a vengeful spirit he called the Angelic Diablo, and referred to the scar from his knee surgery as the symbol of his betrayal. Things went from expression of grief to need for counseling when Hardy pulled out a cardboard cut-out of Lita and ran over it with his truck, dressed it in other women’s clothing, and shot at it with a prop gun. It was beginning to look like maybe Lita got out at the right time.
However, the WWE faithful only saw Lita, whom they had been told was eternally loyal to Matt Hardy, as having cavorted with Edge and broken his heart. Screams for vengeance filled arenas, fueled by Hardy’s sudden firing and Lita’s rival Trish fanning the flames. The WWE had little choice but to try to divert the trouble, having Lita join Edge and betray her on-screen husband Kane. It did nothing to stop the tide.
The WWE, realizing that they may as well make money off the situation, made the proper short-term business decision and revoked Matt’s termination. He returned — almost exactly 90 days after his firing, no less — and became involved in an on-screen rivalry with Edge, putting all the events in WWE canon. Edge won — largely because, as Mr. Money in the Bank, he had to, and also because Matt needed to show he’d play ball to be allowed back. And to all the world, it looked like Matt was avenging what had been done to him.
AJ Lee’s rise in 2012 was bizarre, to say the least. An NXT runner-up, she soon appeared alongside winner Kaitlyn, but it became clear there was something about her. Her relationship with Daniel Bryan was a rocky one (to say the least); she was playing CM Punk and Kane for jealousy; and her mental stability seemed affected by the treatment Bryan gave her. However, the more she showed unstable behavior and the more she bounced from man to man, the more the crowd took to her.
It soon became clear, or at least WWE brass soon had an idea, why. While the other Divas had Maxim Magazine looks, AJ seemed like a girl next door. The other Divas wore fashion designs outside the ring; she dressed in plaid and sneakers. Other girls had enhancements to their face and chest; AJ was still petite all over. The others were supermodels; she was barely 5’2. The female fans, especially the young ones, had adopted her as a fan surrogate.
Back in 1996, World Championship Wrestling had signed both Savage and Elizabeth, in hopes of reigniting their careers. However, the plans were never for Elizabeth to be with Savage for long; she soon migrated to the side of Ric Flair, with whom Savage had had a long-standing rivalry. Coincidentally, this was not the first time Flair would claim Elizabeth for his own; in the WWF, a storyline ran that Flair had been Elizabeth’s ex before she married Savage. None of the implications worked out, and soon Elizabeth was paired with the NWO. It was there, in 1999, that she’d begin her relationship with Lex Luger.
But 1996 saw a more interesting turn of events. Kevin Sullivan wanted to work with a hot hand, so he had himself against up-and-comer Chris Benoit in a midcard storyline. The idea behind the story was that Woman, who was Sullivan’s real-life wife, had a thing for Benoit that she first developed at Flair’s side while Benoit was a Horseman. In order to sell the story more, Sullivan encouraged his wife to spend time in public with the young man. Naturally, the fans ate it up; given their idolizing of all things Horsemen and knowledge of Sullivan’s backstage power, having the young star pull the ultimate fast one was a thing of beauty. Then, when it became clear that life was imitating art, the stage was set. The bitter, resentful Sullivan now had reason to curtail Benoit’s career; Benoit was an underdog who followed his heart.
AJ Lee was now General Manager of Raw, and as such every man was trying to win favor with her. But the ones the fans reacted most to — particularly the female fans — was Cena’s attempts to get on her good side. It was no secret that Cena’s fanbase disproportionately skewed female, and to put their chosen avatar with their chosen hero was a dream come true.
It all started innocently enough; AJ insisted on speaking to her top draw (WWE Champion CM Punk’s protests notwithstanding) over a business dinner. Of course, no one was fooled, and Cena and AJ’s denials only fueled the fire. Finally, in an effort to quiet the doubters, Cena just planted a kiss on AJ, hoping to give them something else to talk about.
The women in the crowd cheered, and their cheers only doubled when AJ returned the kiss with a more passionate one of her own… that Cena clearly accepted. Their dream couple had come together.
Chris Benoit’s deteriorating mental health led to the worst-case tragedy possible. June 25, 2007 brought sadness — Benoit, Nancy “Woman” Daus, and their son Daniel, all dead. No news had been brought out as to the cause of death, leaving the door open for everything from a botched burglary to carbon monoxide poisoning. But those who knew the wrestlers knew better.
Vince McMahon cancelled all live events for the Raw to take place that evening — unusual, since the last two wrestlers to die on his watch were given a memorial show with fans. Wrestlers were allowed to give comments on Chris and Nancy, but some, such as William Regal and JBL, were abrupt and only focused on his in-ring skill. Jerry Lawler’s final thoughts didn’t even concern Benoit; he merely talked about how we was going to tell his family he loved them.
During the broadcast, the reason became clear. Fayette County police had reported they were treating the event as a family annihilation, and they believed he did it. A news conference was scheduled for the next day, in which everything would be laid out. Police departments don’t speculate in public; if they say something, they have probable cause to believe.
Wrestling fans were heartbroken. Disaster had hit home, and one of their cult favorites could no longer be seen in a positive light. His last act had, at the time, snuffed out everything he was. In their grief, they searched for some way, any way, that they could not be cheering a monster. Desperation sank in: they blamed Nancy, they blamed Kevin Sullivan, they blamed anyone they could think of. But when it became clear that the man they cheered had taken the relationship they cheered and destroyed it and the people in it, there was only one thing left to do.
Well, for some. Others simply pretended it never happened. A new meme sprung up on various forums: “I choose to remember.” It wasn’t enough to admit that we, the fans, were wrong about what we wanted; an Orwellian re-writing of a history of violence — reports that domestic disputes arose before, and that the wrestlers knew of Benoit’s short fuse and sadistic ways were summarily tossed aside as immaterial. We made him a hero; we helped him rescue the woman; there’s no way we backed the wrong horse.
If you’ve seen my last few Raw Recaps, you’ve read me referring to AJ Lee as a Homewrecker. In the strictest sense, this may be an overreaction. No reports have come up as to the timeline of Punk and Lita’s breakup and Punk and AJ’s hookup. However, compared to when Lita was in AJ’s position with regards to Edge, the reaction has been surprisingly muted.
Part of it, of course, that Lita left Matt. Although Matt’s brother Jeff Hardy would later claim Matt was controlling of Lita, at the time we had no idea. It was only hindsight that revealed Lita was not right for her longtime beau — be it Matt’s unstable home videos, his death threats to Edge, or even his similar meltdown when he broke up with Ashley Massaro (who subsequently dated Paul London for a short time). Although time has caused many to shrug it off and forgive, a select few still hold it against Amy.
But more to the point, while the male fanbase is every bit as upset at April Marquez as they were at Amy Dumas, the female reaction has been nonexistent. Total Divas has shown that AJ, still through her heel status an audience insertion, had no chance at John Cena. However, CM Punk was a strong second choice, and the guys approved of him more than of John. To the men, it was the two strong-willed pipe-bombing wrestling lifers, “indy darlings” coming together to join forces and take over the WWE; to the women, it was the closest they’d get to Punk himself.
We don’t know the private lives of the wrestlers, much as we want to. What we see on TV is simply what their fictional characters do. And yes, we can demand certain things happen — seeing Ryder with Eve or AJ with Cena is certainly harmless in the short run. But at some point, we have to remember that wrestlers are people too. They have lives, they have flaws; they have dark secrets, they have emotions. It’s not our place to say how they act, so long as they behave while in the public eye.
To be fair, most fans live up to the social contract. Usually, we can separate one from the other. We know that Stephanie McMahon really does have some faith in Daniel Bryan despite the Authority’s protests; after all, otherwise they’d never have John Cena keep his name afloat in the main event. We know that Zeb Colter and Jack Swagger are not xenophobic bigots (even if they had to tell Glenn Beck that). We know Goldust isn’t the quasi-sexual weirdo he portrayed in 1996, nor is he that today.
So why is this the hardest one to shake? Why do we believe that love between wrestlers is meant to be, and that two specific wrestlers — Savage and Liz, Matt and Lita, Benoit and Nancy — are perfect? And when they’re not, why do we the fans seem to take longer to accept it than the princples of the relationship themselves?
Love should be the last thing we try to “book” as a wrestling community. Instead, it’s often the last thing we let happen on its own.
Thanks for letting me compose this piece. I promise that tomorrow I’ll be back with more of the people in underwear pretending to hurt each other escapism we all love as I review SmackDown En Ciudad Mexico. PG Week rolls on.
Allow me to say, by the way, that I love having you as an audience, because you’ve actually helped me get better as a writer as we get more comfortable with each other. I think I’m better for having a crowd that doesn’t just post open smacktalk like some forums would. Your constructive criticism is awesome. You are awesome.