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Friday, February 25, 2011

From Mysterio to Mistico, WWE Is Very Diverse (But You Already Know That)

As a young WWE fans in the 1980s, there was no shortage of reasons to like Tito Santana. He was young and exciting, tremendously athletic, and an honorable Intercontinental and tag team champion.

But there was another reason many of my friends and I were fans of Tito Santana. He looked and sounded like us.

I was born in the Bronx, the son of immigrants from Nicaragua and Ecuador, and grew up speaking Spanish in my home with my two brothers. Many of my friends had similar experiences as the children of parents who came to New York from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American nations.

While we may have shared different geographical origins with each other, and with Tito, many of our customs and experiences were similar, from the food we ate for dinner, to the slang we used, to the modes of discipline we were subjected to by our folks.

And consciously or not, we were drawn to public figures who had similar cultural backgrounds, whether it was Luis & Maria on Sesame Street, Alvaro Espinoza on the New York Yankees, or Lisa Lisa on the radio.

They represented us, and they had made it, just like Tito. And it was important for us, as young Hispanic Americans, to see that.

I bring this up to draw attention to one of the most important and under-reported stories coming out of WWE in recent years—the growing minority representation in the company’s on-air product.

Earlier this week, WWE finalized one of the most important talent acquisitions in years—the signing of Mexican luchador Mistico, whose praises have been sung in the pages of the Pro Wrestling Illustrated family of magazines for many years. What’s more, WWE treated it as one of its most important talent acquisitions in years, with a full court press in Mexico City and here in the United States.

This comes at the same time that Alberto Del Rio prepares to headline WrestleMania just months after debuting in WWE, and after Rey Mysterio stole the show with Edge in the Smackdown Elimination Chamber match this past Sunday.

We wrestling journalist-types often spend a lot of our time and energy focusing on what wrestling companies are doing wrong. So I think it’s very important that WWE gets credit for something it is doing very much right, namely promoting the most ethnically and culturally diverse pro wrestling product in history.

More impressive, WWE has been doing so quietly, and without drawing attention to that fact.

Consider this: More than half of WWE’s on-air talent, including wrestlers, announcers and managers, are non-white. They range from Korean American Gail Kim to African-born Kofi Kingston, to Indian native The Great Kahli to Japanese dynamo Yoshi Tatsu to my fellow Nicaraguan Eve Torres.

As such, WWE’s on-air product features one of the most diverse cast of performers of any show on television.

More importantly, WWE has largely moved away from the days when an ethnic talent’s background was something to exploit or even draw attention to. Far removed from the days when Juventud Guerrera drove into the ring on a lawnmower, Alberto Del Rio has risen to become one of WWE’s top stars not by portraying an ignorant stereotype of Mexican Americans, but rather by playing a rich, elitist jerk—a role usually previously reserved for the likes of Ted DiBiase and John Bradshaw Layfield.

For years now, two-time World champion Rey Mysterio has been featured as one of the most popular acts in all of WWE, not because he’s Mexican, but because he’s damn cool. But whatever the motivation, you can be sure that when Rey inserts a few lines in Spanish in his promos, there are fans out there who appreciate it. I’m one of them.

This is not to say WWE is perfect. With its penchant for lowbrow humor, some racial and cultural stereotypes still make it onto to the on-air product. I can do without Rico Rodriguez singing “La Cucaracha” or Edge needlessly referring to Del Rio as “amigo.” For that matter, I wouldn’t mind if I never heard John Cena make another gay joke or take a jab at Sheamus’ pale complexion. (Can you imagine the backlash if wrestlers were scripted to make fun of how dark R-Truth is?)

But for a long time now, WWE has clearly been moving in the right direction with the right motivation. That is to reach out to fans of all colors and cultures throughout the world and show them talented performers who look like them and sound like them.

By doing so they send a message: One day, you can be them.

Al Castle
PWI Senior Writer

Monday, February 21, 2011

WrestleMania's Main Events Needed Freshening Up, And Here's Proof

A year ago, it would have been impossible to predict that The Miz and Mexican lucha star Dos Caras Jr. (Alberto Del Rio) would be competing in the two world title matches at WrestleMania.

For sure, the involvement of the two relatively fresh faces in the top matches at WrestleMania XXVII is a testament to the youth movement that has been in full swing in WWE for more than a year now.

And a quick glimpse at the history of the wrestlers who have competed in WrestleMania shows how unique it is to feature two such relative newcomers:

. Del Rio has worked his way to a WrestleMania world title match after only seven months as a member of WWE’s main roster. You’d have to go back 18 years to find another wrestler who headlined WrestleMania less than a year into a televised WWE run. Yokozuna won—and lost—the WWE title in the main event of WrestleMania IX in 1993 after debuting on television five months earlier.

. The Miz headlines WrestleMania in his fifth year as a member of WWE's main roster. The last wrestler with five years WWE experience or less to compete in a WrestleMania world title match: Batista, who six years ago participated in the main event of WrestleMania 21 in his third year on WWE television.

. This will not only be Del Rio’s first WrestleMania world title match, but his first WrestleMania match altogether. The last person to make his WrestleMania debut in a world title match: Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XIX in 2003.

. There have been 27 slots for participants in world title matches in WrestleMania since 2005. Those slots have been filled by just 13 men.

. From WrestleMania I to WrestleMania X, all world title matches included at least one first-time WrestleMania headliner. The first WrestleMania to feature exclusively repeat Mania headliners was XII, when Bret Hart, who headlined Manias IX and X, took on Shawn Michaels, who headlined WrestlerMania XI.

. Since 2009, WrestleMania’s world title matches have only involved wrestlers who participated in past WrestleMania world title matches. (John Cena, Triple-H, Randy Orton, The Big Show, Batista, Chris Jericho and Edge)

. The Miz and Alberto Del Rio are both competing in their first WrestleMania world title matches. The last first-time WrestleMania world title match participant was Edge, who headlined WrestleMania XXIV against the Undertaker, a decade after debuting in 1998.

. The last WrestleMania world title match to feature exclusively first-time headliners was John Cena vs. John Bradshaw Layfield at WrestleMania 21.

. If The Miz vs. John Cena closes out WrestleMania XXVII, The Miz, who defended the tag team championship in last year’s Mania opener, will be only the second person in history to compete in the first match at WrestleMania one year, and the last match at WrestleMania the next. The only other wrestler with that distinction is Chris Jericho, who wrestled William Regal in the opening match of WrestleMania X-Seven in 2001, and wrestled Triple-H in the final match of WrestleMania X-8.

. This will be John Cena’s seventh consecutive WrestleMania world title match—a record. He also moves ahead of Hulk Hogan in total WrestleMania world title matches. Hogan had six. Triple-H holds the record for the most WrestleMania world title matches, with eight.

-Al Castle
Pro Wrestling Illustrated Senior Writer

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Things That Make You Feel Old

Inspiration comes in many forms, and today, mine is brought to you by Edge and the meatball sandwich currently swimming through my tummy.

Tomorrow marks a milestone for WWE Friday Night Smackdown: Episode number 600.

Sure, it's an arbitrary number simply because it's round—as opposed to, say, 100 or 500. But it really makes you think about the passage of time when you consider that that Smackdown is now in its 12th calendar year. I was at WWE for about a third of that, roughly 230½ episodes (does it count as 231 considering my final day at WWE ended 3 hours before that week's show aired?), and that feels like ages ago.

Either way, I didn't really think about the "milestone" when I read the spoilers this week (and, yes, I read them—don't judge), even with all the "celebration ballyhoo" they had.

I did, however, think about it when I bought lunch today. At the deli, I saw a sign. You know the one: "Do not sell tobacco to people born before this date on … ," whose year now reads 1993.

The year Raw went on the air.

I still consider myself a young man, especially considering how many of my similarly aged colleagues here at PWI are married, have children, etc. Speaking of old, I guess I'm the modern-day Matt Brock in that sense.

But I digress. I was 12 when Raw went on the air in January 1993. Now, as an enterprise, that program is old enough to purchase a pack of Camel Lights, vote for President, and register for the military. It would likely be graduating from high school in June and is, for all intents and purposes, an adult.

On Friday, little sister Smackdown officially celebrates its latest arbitrary milestone, and in six months, it will be old enough to receive a Bar Mitzvah.

I remember watching the first episode of Smackdown. August 27, 1999, the day before I moved into the dorms for my junior year at Temple University. But instead of seeing any of my friends in the area, I was locked in my room at the DoubleTree glued to UPN 57.

599 weeks later, I'll be sitting on my couch Saturday morning, coffee in hand, watching a DVR’d "600."


For reference, I remember watching the first episode of Raw, too. Prime Time Wrestling was the only program my mother let me stay up later than 10 on a school night to watch as a pre-teen, and I was mad that just as I was entering adolescence, wrestling came on earlier.

But there I was on January 1, 1993, watching Yokozuna literally squash Koko B. Ware and his Benny the Cab pants, glued to the screen as Undertaker (still my favorite 20+ years later) send Damien Demento back to the outer reaches of my mind with a Tombstone.

And now that I think about it (and thanks to some quick math via IM from a friend still inside Titan Tower), I realize that next summer, I'll likely be sitting on my couch watching that franchise reach four digits.

I can only wonder how old I'll feel then.

Louie Dee
Contributing Writer

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wrestling's Elite Eight

The hilarious NBC sitcom 30 Rock has recently helped popularize an entertainment industry term - the EGOT.

The word is used to refer to the elite few performers who have achieved the grand slam of entertainment achievement: winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony.

In the entire history of show business, only a dozen people have earned the distinction of being an EGOT. They include such heavyweights as Mel Brooks, Audrey Hepburn and Whoopi Goldberg.

Caught in the throes of awards season, I got to thinking: What would be the wrestling equivalent of an EGOT?

It would be the few wrestlers who have accomplished four of the most prestigious feats in the sport. I'm not talking winning a world championship, which is something of a given for wrestling headliners. Rather, it would have to be an achievement that relavtively few people in history have accomplished.

And so I came up with these four criteria: Having won a Royal Rumble match, having competed in a world title match at WrestleMania, Having won a PWI Wrestler of the Year Award, and having been ranked number 1 in the "PWI 500."

Unfortunately, there's no snappy acronym for the short list of wrestlers who have accomplished those four feats, so we'll have to settle for WRM1's (Wrestler of the year, Rumble winner, Mania headliner, and #1 ranked.)

And so, let me unveil, for the first time ever, wrestling's WRM1's!

1. Hulk Hogan
2. Steve Austin
3. Triple-H
4. Brock Lesnar
5. Chris Benoit
6. Batista
7. John Cena
8. Randy Orton

It's an interesting list, both for who is on it, and who is not. Lesnar, whose national wrestling career lasted just two years, makes the list, but some all-time greats, including Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels, do not. (Flair is missing a #1 "PWI 500" ranking. Michaels, surprisingly, has never been voted Wrestler of the Year.)

Obviously, there are several reasons why the list is far from a perfect gauge of wrestling greatness. For one, since 1993, winning the Rumble and headlining WrestleMania largely go hand-in-hand (although two Rumble winners, Austin in 1997 and Vince McMahon in 1999, did not go on to get their world title matches at the big show.) But Hogan and Flair both won Rumbles and headlined WrestleManias before the two feats became synonymous.

Also, some of these achievements have longer histories than others. For example, the "PWI 500" began in 1991, disqualifying some all-time greats whose wrestling primes came before then (including, arguably, Flair).

Nevertheless, considering the stature of the eight wrestlers on the list, I think my WRM1 concept has some merit.

Some trivia about the elite eight:

. Steve Austin is the only one to have accomplished all four achievements at least twice. (Two Wrestler of the Year awards, two "PWI 500" #1 rankings, three Rumble wins, and three WrestleMania world title matches.)

. Three of the eight men have also won WWE's "Triple Crown" - the WWE heavyweight, Intercontinental, and tag team championships. They are Austin, Triple-H, and Orton. (Benoit never won the original WWE heavyweight title, but rather the World title version created in 2002.)

. Three of the men are also past King of the Ring tournament winners: Austin, Triple-H and Lesnar.

. Six of the men have worn more than one version of a pro wrestling world title. Hogan and Benoit both won world titles in both WWE and WCW. Triple-H, Batista, Cena, and Orton have each worn both the WWE heavyweight and World titles.

. Lesnar is the only one to have won a world title in UFC.

. All have been WWE wrestlers. Four once competed in WCW: Hogan, Austin, Triple-H and Benoit. Only one of the men, Hogan, has ever competed in TNA.

. Two of the men - Hogan and Austin - are in the WWE Hall of Fame. Four are in The Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame: Hogan, Austin, Benoit and Triple-H.

. Lesnar was the youngest to earn all four achievements. He was 26 in 2003 when he won Wrestler of the Year. Hogan was the oldest, having been 38 when he was ranked #1 in the inaugural "PWI 500."

. Just one full-time wrestler is one feat away from making the list. That's Kurt Angle (#1 ranked, Mania headliner, Wrestler of the Year). The semi-active Kevin Nash needs a Rumble win to make it. As I mentioned before, the largely-retired Flair is missing a #1 "PWI 500" ranking.

. All eight men, in my opinion, are infinitely more talented than Whoopi Goldberg.

- Al Castle
PWI Senior Writer

60 Sad Minutes With Nick (Sinn Bodhi) Cvjetkovich

Imagine the horror of having a close friend kill himself. Even worse, imagine having that friend put down his final thoughts in a chilling letter that details the last few desperate weeks of his life. Such is the sad situation faced by Nick Cvjetkovich (a.k.a. Sinn Bodhi, f.k.a. WWE's Kizarny and TNA's Sinn).

On Wednesday, January 26, 2011, the lives of Cvjetkovich and his wife, former WWE Diva Stacy "The Kat" Carter, were changed forever when they received an eerie text message from their good friend, Shawn McGrath (p.k.a. Shawn "Bad Seed" Osbourne). According to Cvjetkovich, the message was not a cry for help, but a quick goodbye. "I look back at that text, and I know it was just a farewell from him," observed Cvjetkovich. "So true to his form, Shawn did not want to be a bother to anyone. He went through great detail to accommodate other people, even at his darkest hour ... he even paid his rent a month in advance. That is just the kind of guy he was. He didn't want to bother anybody. He just wanted to leave."

Upon discovering McGrath's body, Tampa authorities also found a long farewell letter, which was later published online by Nick, Stacy, and others. Although some questioned their decision to put the sobering letter online for all to read, Cvjetkovich was very quick to defend his decision—and his friend—saying, "It's exactly what Shawn would have wanted. When you read the opening line of the letter, it says 'To All Who Care.' Shawn would have wanted everyone who did care to have the opportunity to hear what he had to say."

Recently, I had the chance to talk with Cvjetkovich for 60 emotional minutes, and listen as he sadly recalled the loss of his very close friend and colleague Shawn McGrath.

Brady Hicks: First off, condolences on the tremendous loss you have to be feeling right now.

Nick Cvjetkovich: Thank you, Brady. My emotions and my thoughts are attacking me at every direction, just trying to make rhyme or reason. Shawn was one of the nicest, most sincere and genuine guys you could ever meet. Sometimes people were a little put off by him because he could use snarkiness as a defense mechanism, to bury all that he had going on. Those who got to know the real Shawn, however, got a real treat.

BH: Please tell me a little about the circumstances in which you actually came to know the "real" Shawn.

NC: We were originally on shows together in OVW (Ohio Valley Wrestling, then a WWE developmental territory). I just really enjoyed his comedy. He would have to redo take after take after take ... all because Al Snow, who was the producer, would not be able to stop laughing. He just had such a natural delivery ... so funny and so talented. Through our interactions during our time in developmental sprung an extremely close friendship that we had up to this day.

BH: Knowing Shawn as such a great friend, what do you feel are some of the circumstances that led to all of this heartache?

NC: Shawn was a great guy who was just fed up with being sad. And he was sad about a lot of different things. He had just had enough. But at the same time, he was a really courteous guy. I think most people are in it for the now. What can you do for me today? Shawn wasn't like that. He was very attentive and concerned with others' thoughts and feelings. He felt best when those around him felt happy, no matter how he might have felt inside. That's just how he was.

BH: Can you elaborate on some of the things that caused Shawn such deep sadness?

NC: Shawn was very melancholy, by nature. He was estranged from his family. There were details about his family I don't even know, and I was his closest friend. He was really private about some things. So he had family issues, then his wrestling dreams were shattered upon his WWE release, and in what I call the hat trick—his three-for-three—was that Shawn's love life fell out the window as well. So, as much as he had friends around him, I think he just really felt alone and was just lonely.

BH: So you believe the pressures of a strained family, career troubles, and, finally, failed romances just kind of got the better of him?

NC: Stacy laid it out best, and the way she put it just hit me so hard: Shawn had finally gotten a taste of this one true love for which he had been searching, when suddenly it was all just swiped away from him. Basically, Shawn was atypical of so many wrestlers in that he never went for having 10 strippers on each arm. He never looked to bring home a different woman every night. And I guess the best way to put it is that losing the girl was not the end-all, be-all for Shawn, but it was yet another problem in his life that he was just a little too sad to deal with. And I think he was just like, I'm so over it. I'm out.

BH: Looking back on the emotional text message you received from Shawn on January 26 and upon reading what he had to say in his final letter, what is your reaction?

NC: I didn't think Shawn would do something like that. I look back and kick myself. How stupid could I have been to be Shawn's main confidante and not put my finger on what was coming? I could just see the sadness in some of the things he would talk about. His body language alone would just tell such a story about a pain I couldn't fathom. Even though he had friends, Shawn felt he was perpetually alone.

BH: And this feeling of isolation is something you think Shawn struggled with for years?

NC: Who knows how long? The document he typed his final letter in was started in early-January. That means he was drafting his final goodbyes for almost a month. I mean ... who does that?

BH: If nothing else, I can't imagine the torment of knowing my best friend's final, suicidal words are out there, lingering forever. In that letter, Shawn alludes to so many personal, private, negative emotions, compelling him to want to "check out." Why did you feel it was so important to make his words so available to the public eye?

NC: That letter should be sitting there, being a thorn in people's side. It's a really stiff reminder of what life will do to you. I'm not even pinning this on wrestling, but life in general. People just need to be more accountable ... and nice. Stacy and I had a long talk about publishing the letter, actually, and we both kind of felt that was what Shawn would want. His letter reads, "To All Who Care." Shawn felt his voice was never really heard in life, so I'll be damned if it wasn't going to at least be heard after the fact. I actually also had a couple of his family members reach out, and the only ones who said anything were those who were appreciative of us putting his words out there.

BH: What, if anything, do you think can be learned from all of this—in the wrestling industry and in life?

NC: There are always things people can do to fight the perception that it's bad to turn to others for help, and that goes for any facet of life. I think one of the biggest things is that people just need to be nicer to each other. Not just in the wrestling industry, but in any kind of job, and in life as a whole. A smile is really contagious. Can it really hurt sometimes to just look somebody in the eye and talk to them as a human being, sometimes? I think in Shawn's case, a little more compassion could have gone a very long way.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Welcome Back, "Great One"

Considering how many magazines he’s sold for us over the years, we’d be remiss if we didn’t ring in on the return of The Rock on last night’s Monday Night Raw.

Even after a seven-year absence from the ring, The Rock quickly reminded the wrestling universe why he is, indeed, “The Great One” by delivering an inspired 20-minute monologue that put to shame just about any wrestling promo in recent history.

With his speech, the Rock almost single-handedly made it finally feel like WrestleMania season. Even without competing in a match, his presence as host of the big show is enough to sell WrestleMania XXVIII. And his highly anticipated confrontation with John Cena is, essentially, WrestleMania’s new main event.

And yet, for all the joy in the wrestling community today, I can’t help but notice some of the bitter-sweetness of The Rock’s celebrated return. Yes, The Rock (2000’s PWI Wrestler of the Year) is a charismatic giant. Yes, he’s untouchable behind the microphone. Yes, he can elicit a crowd pop like no other.

And yes, he probably won’t be sticking around too long.

The Rock may have vowed last night “never” to leave WWE, but the reality is that his acting career will always come first. And there’s nothing wrong with that. And so while The Rock may make more regular appearances on WWE television than he has over the past seven years, the reality is that he is not a regular part of WWE’s roster.

And so I fear that the collective wrestling universe is in for the kind of depressing reality check that comes at the end of a really great vacation. You’ve just spent a week partying at poolside and staying in a nice resort, and then you return home to your regular life. Or in this case, your regular WWE product.

None of this is meant as a putdown of WWE, which has developed some big stars over the past decade in the likes of Cena, Randy Orton, and others. But none has risen to the level of not only of The Rock, but of other wrestling icons who have left the sport over the past 10 or so years.

Ironically, three of the biggest names who fall into that category—The Rock, Shawn Michaels, and Steve Austin—have all come back to WWE this WrestleMania season in non-wrestling roles. Their returns could be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, they could help “pass the torch” by endorsing the new generation of WWE wrestlers, who may some day reach their heights. On the other hand, they just drive home the fact none of them is even close to doing so.

- Al Castle
PWI Senior Writer