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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Memories Of Dark Days

With Bret Hart’s return to Montreal, a Pat Patterson appreciation event, and Paul Heyman’s new association with WWE Champion CM Punk, the September 10 edition of Raw promised to be a memorable event. All those storylines became afterthoughts, however, when color commentator Jerry “The King” Lawler suffered a heart attack on live television, less than 30 minutes after competing in a tag team match.
As of this writing, Lawler is recovering from emergency heart surgery and is reported to be in stable condition. The entire wrestling world is hoping and praying for him, and we hope “The King” can make a full recovery.

Unfortunately, pro wrestling has seen more than its fair share of tragedy through the years. We have seen larger-than-life heroes and villains prove to be mere mortals, and we have seen many unforgettable performers leave us before their time.

While watching Monday’s telecast, I was struck by the atmosphere of the Bell Centre – the confused fans straining to see what was happening as medical personnel administered to Lawler; the somber, stoic updates from Michael Cole; the overwhelming sense of anxiety, concern, and fear for a man who fans have invited into their living room every Monday night for nearly 20 years.

That atmosphere reminded me of several times when tragedy suddenly struck the wrestling world, when death thrust its horrid head into our little world of fantasy and entertainment. As a wrestling fan, I have experienced that atmosphere, and those emotions, on several occasions.

We hope and pray that Lawler’s story will prove to be one of survival. Unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending. Here are 10 deaths that stunned the wrestling world. All of them proved as jarring and disconcerting to the wrestling community as Monday’s incident. Video clips are included.

Bruiser Brody
Wrestling’s Wildman was stabbed to death in a lockerroom shower in Puerto Rico in 1988. He died at the peak of his career and was one of the most popular, and respected, stars on both hemispheres.

Owen Hart
Owen Hart died in the ring during a WWE pay-per-view event in a freak accident when he slipped out of a harness lowering him from the rafters at the Kemper Arena. The tragedy, and WWE’s response, were unprecedented.

David Von Erich
The heir apparent to the NWA World title died under controversial circumstances while touring Japan in 1984. It would not be the last tragedy to afflict Denton’s first family.

Gino Hernandez
“The Handsome Half-breed” was one of wrestling’s most dynamic and influential young stars until a cocaine overdose ended his life in 1986.

Andre the Giant
Never was the phrase “larger than life” more appropriate than when used describing Andre the Giant. Acromegaly, the condition that caused him to grow to such an enormous size, ultimately led to the health failures that ended his life at age 46.

Brian Pillman
Recurring throat polyps, a smallish size in an era of super heavyweights, a life-threatening car accident weeks before realizing his dream and signing with WWE … Brian Pillman’s life was all about beating the odds. But in 1997, he died due to heart disease the day of a scheduled WWE PPV match.

Chris Benoit
Eradicated by WWE, Benoit’s in-ring accomplishments live on in the hearts of wrestling fans. The circumstances of his death were monstrous and continue to cast a shadow over the wrestling world today.

Eddie Guerrero
Guerrero entitled his autobiography Cheating Death, Saving Life. His was a story of redemption, perseverance, and survival, which made his sudden death such a bitter pill for wrestling fans to swallow.

Jay Youngblood
The handsome Native American was one of the young lions of the NWA. He died at the age of 30 following a match in Australia, after reportedly rupturing his spleen and suffering a series of heart attacks.

Mitsuhara Misawa
One of Japan’s all-time greatest stars died in the ring after breaking his neck after a suplex. It was a horrifying incident, and a reminder of the dangers and potential tragedy every time a wrestler enters the ring.

Dan Murphy
PWI Senior Writer

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lingering Questions After The Lawler Scare

Last night’s Raw gave wrestling fans one of the scarier moments in the sport’s history when Jerry “The King” Lawler suffered a heart attack at the announcers’ table while providing color commentary for a match. It goes without saying that the primary concern of WWE officials, performers, and fans alike should be Lawler’s speedy recovery. Not only is “The King” a wrestling legend and a pop culture icon, but more importantly, he’s a father and a dear friend to countless people both in and out of the wrestling business. Whether he ever steps into the ring or behind the announce table is almost a trivial matter when compared to what’s really important—that Lawler get well and be able to enjoy the rest of his life with health and happiness.
That said, last night’s frightening incident does raise several important questions, even if right now is not the time to answer them.

Is it a good idea to have a 62-year-old man wrestle semi-regularly, or at all?
The answer to that question is probably not as obvious as it may seem. That’s because not all 62-year-old men are alike. Not only does Lawler appear to keep himself in good shape, but he also wrestles a fairly conservative style that should not take as much a toll on his body than if other wrestlers tried to compete at his age. That said, a more important number than Lawler’s age may be how long he’s been wrestling (an astonishing 42 years) and how many hours of travel his body endures each week—especially since he’s been wrestling at WWE live events as of late. The collective wear and tear of such a long career could cause serious health issues in a person even half Lawler’s age. And when you’re pushing senior-citizenship, it could be potentially life-threatening.

Have we seen the last of Jerry Lawler in the ring or behind the announce table?
We can all be certain that, at the very least, it will be months before Lawler calls another WWE match. And it’s a good bet that Vince McMahon won’t allow him to wrestle in one of his rings ever again. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Lawler’s wrestling career is over. The fact is, in recent years Lawler has been doing most of his wrestling on the independent circuit. If, God willing, he gets better, it may be next to impossible to keep Lawler out of a wrestling ring permanently. When wrestling is in your blood like it is in Lawler’s, it’s hard to accept that you’ve wrestled your final match. It’s a little more likely that Lawler will eventually return to the announce table, but certainly not a given. Regardless of whether he’s competing in the ring, working for WWE even once a week comes with a hectic travel schedule and can make it tough to live a healthy lifestyle.

Should the show have gone on?
It’s a tough question, and one that has haunted WWE for 13 years since the night Vince McMahon chose to go ahead with the Over the Edge pay-per-view even after Owen Hart fell to his death in the ring. Hindsight is always 20/20, and WWE could not know how serious Lawler’s situation was until he was admitted into a hospital and thoroughly examined. The company knew this much: Lawler was alive and breathing on his own when he left the building. What’s more, they knew they had a commitment to fill another hour of television time on the USA Network, and to put on a show for the fans inside the Bell Centre in Montreal. In the end, I think WWE officials handled the situation as best they could under the circumstances by having the planned in-ring segments take place without commentary, and using Michael Cole to regularly update fans. I’m sure nobody at WWE was much in the mood to work after seeing Lawler taken away in an ambulance, but they did all have a job to do.

Was it a lot to ask WWE’s Raw announce team to increase its workload by half when the show was extended to three hours?
It may only amount to an extra hour of work a week, but WWE’s decision to extend Raw from two hours to three hours in July assured that Lawler would spend 50 percent more time each Monday in the stressful position of calling live television. Little has been said about it, but the fact is that the WWE performers most affected by Raw’s expansion have been its announce team. Regardless of whether or not the extra work factored into Lawler’s health issues, it had to add a little more stress to his life.

Are part-time WWE performers, like Lawler, subject to the company’s Wellness Program, and should they be?
This question could probably be answered with a simple yes or no by WWE, but it’s not clear at this time. On one hand, as an announcer working on WWE’s production side, Lawler probably would not be subject to the wellness policy, which tests performers annually for cardiac issues. On the other hand, Lawler has been working a semi-regular ring schedule as of late alongside other WWE wrestlers who are subject to the policy. Certainly, any 62-year-old man would stand to benefit from getting his ticker regularly checked out, especially before exerting himself in a wrestling match.

Did last night’s situation serve as an example of why WWE should avoid simulating such grave health scares in the future?
I was only half-paying attention to Raw last night when the Lawler incident occurred. And so when Michael Cole explained on camera later in the night that Lawler had passed out at the announce table, I thought the same thing that I imagine scores of other wrestling fans thought: that this was all part of the show. And even through the end of Raw, I was still a little skeptical that the Lawler situation was legitimate. It wasn’t until I visited various credible wrestling websites that confirmed that Lawler had collapsed that I was convinced that the situation was all too real. You can accuse me of being too cynical, but the sad truth is that WWE has cried wolf too many times with staged injuries and other medical emergencies that they’ve tried their hardest to pass off as legitimate. It seems like at least once a year a WWE announce team grimly addresses the fans at home about a storyline development with the same tone that Jim Ross used on the night Owen Hart died. In as much as WWE is in the drama business, I understand the need to present everything that happens on its television shows with a sense of realism. But the goal should be to keep fans’ suspension of disbelief while they are watching a product that they know is entertainment. It should not be to fool them. Imagine if the director of 1993’s The Crow put out a sequel to the film and made up a story about another actor being accidentally shot dead on the set, just like Brandon Lee was in the original film. It would be deceitful and tasteless. That’s not too far removed from what WWE has done time and again since Hart’s death. Think I'm exaggerating? Maybe you should be reminded of this 2007 press release on WWE's corporate website <> . And so when an actual tragedy occurs on one of their shows, inevitably some fans are going to be dubious about whether it’s legit.

Should last night mark the end of the heel Michael Cole character?
Unquestionably, the wrestling universe’s thoughts and sympathies should have been with Jerry Lawler and his family in the moments after he collapsed on television. But, I, for one, couldn’t help but feel for Michael Cole, who was put in the unenviable position of having to continue doing his job even as he watched his longtime friend and broadcast partner in a potentially life-threatening medical emergency beside him. Cole stepped up and did an admirable job, not only of calling the action until his WWE bosses made the call to go silent on commentary, but also of updating fans with the latest information on Lawler’s condition. Cole was sincere, composed, informed, authoritative, and even brave. It was a reminder of what, at its best, the job of a play-by-play man in any sport should be. It was also a reminder of how good Cole could be if he weren’t forced into the money-losing role of the villainous announcer who hates all things good, including Lawler, and whose primary task is to steal attention away from the real stars of the show. Cole is so much better than that, and he showed it last night. Let’s hope he doesn’t revert back to his old ways.

What becomes of WWE’s announce team?
In the grand scheme of things, this should be the least of WWE’s concerns. But nevertheless, the reality is that, come next Monday, there will be an empty seat to fill at the announcer’s table. Mostly likely, it will be occupied by Josh Mathews, who does a serviceable job with Cole on Smackdown every Friday night. With the brand split all but finished, it’s less of an issue now than ever to have the same announce team call both shows. But, in the long term, WWE needs to get new and talented announcers in the pipeline for the future. The  existing announcing roster is rounded out by the likes of the obnoxious Matt Striker and the overzealous Scott Stanford. William Regal has shown some promise doing commentary on some of WWE’s web shows, but his style may be too mellow and subdued for prime time viewers. Of course, WWE does have a fairly experienced employee on its payroll by the name of Jim Ross, who just happens to be the greatest wrestling announcer in history. But it’s become obvious over recent years that Vince McMahon just does not want Ross as the face of his flagship show. WWE will most likely scout for young, camera-friendly broadcaster-types, but it should also scout for older, more-seasoned wrestling veterans, like Lawler. They should even consider former WWE broadcasters from long ago. In most pro sports, age isn’t a negative for a broadcaster. It’s a positive, as fans want a wise and experienced voice calling the action. My wish list would include John Layfield, Sean Mooney, and Kevin Kelly. WWE might even try out veteran wrestlers with no past broadcasting experience, like Dustin Runnels, Ron Simmons, and even Edge, assuming any of them would be interested in the job.

Al Castle

PWI Senior Writer

Friday, September 7, 2012

The True Story Of The 2012 "PWI 500"

Look folks, I was there. I saw it all. Okay, maybe not all of it, but a lot of it, anyway. This was the first year I made the 11-hour trek from Dayton, Ohio, to the PWI office in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, to participate in the big meeting that would lay the foundation for this year’s "PWI 500." In my three decades as a wrestling fan, I never thought I’d be one of a handful of guys who would be sitting in a room drafting the international rankings for the best and brightest in the business. On that morning in mid-June, we knocked out the first 130 or so rankings before wrapping up with the understanding that the selection and review process would continue by e-mail, phone, and text for the next few weeks as Senior Writers Dan Murphy and Al Castle worked their way through numerous drafts and biographical sketches.

Indeed, a good amount of healthy follow-up discussion ensued, and at the end of it all, the senior writers and PWI staff put together a respectable list of the world’s best wrestlers for the evaluation period from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2012. Of course, there were a few issues with the final list as it appeared in digital and print formats, and these have been addressed in detail by Al Castle and Stu Saks. Heck, even our old pal Bill Apter recently addressed some of the regrettable shortcomings of the listings on one of his video presentations, noting the exceptional difficulties of compiling such a detailed roster of industry standouts.

Boners, snafus, and unfortunate omissions aside, the list is largely sound, presenting a cross-section of performers from many of the largest promotions in North America, Japan, and parts of Europe. Now, everyone has an opinion on this or that guy; not just about the big names like Punk, Roode, and Cena, mind you, but about where their favorite guys should’ve placed. For my part, I would’ve loved to see a hard-working indy journeyman like Philip Saunders or former POWW champ Ruff Crossing make this year’s list. And for my money, there’s not a better comedic heel in the business today than Arizona’s only Filipino grappler, the Knome King. But as big of a number as "500" may seem, it’s also kind of small compared to the sheer number of indy workers who perform week in and week out in what my pal Greek God Papadon refers to (in quasi-affectionate terms, I think) as an “alphabet soup” of independent wrestling organizations. Put simply, it’s darn near impossible to put 15 pounds of sugar into a five-pound bag. That’s one of the inherent limitations of any ranking system, including the "PWI 500."

For my part, as the newest guy in the mix this year, I have come to understand and appreciate the "PWI 500" with all of its facets and foibles. What I am having a hard time getting accustomed to, though, is how others see the "500," both inside the industry and well beyond. In fact, the sheer amount of misperceptions and disinformation bouncing around social media and the blogosphere read more like a script for a forthcoming episode of Jesse Ventura’s Conspiracy Theory show as opposed to anything that, in my personal experience, is even remotely associated with how the "PWI 500" really works.

Even Kurt Angle – ranked number-one in the 2001 "PWI 500" – weighed in this week with his own opinion of our ranking system, stating “Punk is not in top 10. Pwi is About title Runs. Not Wrestling. Orton is Better. AJ, Roode, Aries, Me: are Better.” Hey, Kurt and everyone else (including all of those smart guys and gals on the Internet who accuse us of using trained seals, chicken bones, and tea leaves as part of the selection process) are entitled to their own opinions. But the main problem with most of the haphazard armchair quarterbacking that’s flying around in the ether of cyberspace is that many of the folks who are doing the lion’s share of "gesticulating and criticizing" haven’t even read the full "PWI 500" It’s a given that some intrepid fans shelled out five clams for one of the first available digital copies of the "PWI 500" issue and then transcribed the rankings and posted them on various and sundry websites, but providing the list by itself effectively omits somewhere around 85 percent of the qualitative content of the "PWI 500" itself, including individual bios for every featured wrestler as well as our explanation of the selection criteria that appears in the introductory text.

Wins and losses, technical ability, and influence on the sport are among the most important criteria. As far as Kurt Angle’s take on things, it’s accurate at some level that title reigns do factor into the overall picture, but then again, any title reign is an indication that someone is in a good place in the industry.

Wins and losses are an interesting criterion to touch upon at this point, too. I think it’s sufficient to say that PWI is proudly “old school” in how we look at pro wrestling as a sport, and the ultimate outcome of individual matches definitely carries a great deal of weight in how we look at an individual’s overall performance.

Nevertheless, there will be folks who have their own personal reasons for taking issue with the "PWI 500." Some wrestlers feel slighted that they may have made the list in the past and didn’t get in this year. Others have been trying to make the list for a decade or more and continue to fall short. For many of the guys involved in the "PWI 500," we started hearing about this stuff weeks before we even got together in Philly. I personally received a number of texts and e-mails from wrestlers who wanted a sneak peek at the final rankings to see if they’d finally made it (which, even if permitted to, I actually couldn’t provide because I didn’t have one in the first place).

The day that the "500" issue was released in digital form, I got my share of angry notes, tweets, and Facebook posts from guys who felt like they’d been snubbed and insulted because they weren’t on the list. Stu, Frank Krewda, and the other guys have heard it all before, but this was a first for me. I heard and read folks alleging that PWI writers were “getting rich” by selling spots on the list this year. Some guys suggested that a wrestler’s proximity to the Philly scene was a major factor in consideration for a spot. Then there were the guys who just basically laid it all out and said they didn’t make it because they “didn’t kiss enough ass.” It’s hard to argue with broad-based generalizations and cathartic hyperbole. Not all of it was bad, though. Barry Wolf, a leading grappler in the Gulf region and southern U.S. and number-500 in the 2010 rankings, was a real class act about it, sending me a note that said he’d hoped to make the list, but understood that it wasn’t in the cards this year. I heard the same from John Campbell, who probably expected to make the cut but fell just a little short – and this is a guy who was even mentioned within the pages of PWI at least three times during the evaluation period, including a “One To Watch” write-up. Was he disappointed that he wasn’t part of the "500"? Sure. But he handled it like a pro.

There’s also the time-honored tradition of debating whether or not the "PWI 500" even has a place in the industry these days. One guy  on a user-generated sports reporting site is actually doing a whole series of articles arguing that the "PWI 500" is no longer “relevant” at all. It’s just my opinion, but the decision to pen an entire series about something that you’re trying to depict as wholly “irrelevant” raises serious questions about how you choose to spend your spare time. Moreover, it tends to suggest that the very thesis behind your argument is contradictory from the get-go. But I digress …

If you really want to know if the "PWI 500" is relevant, ask the guys who actually made the list. Hell, ask guys who didn’t make the list. Ask Darin Corbin, who was grateful to make  number 222 and still enthusiastic with his slide to 223 after we made accommodations for Hiroshi Tanahashi’s addition. Ask Matthew Theall, who didn’t place on the list but was mentioned in the blurb for Perry Von Vicious, who clocked in at 492. Matt sent me a personal message the night the "500" was released in which he excitedly mused, “Do you know how often managers are mentioned in "PWI 500" write-ups? How special am I?” Ask Chris Cairo, who didn’t place but continues to bust his butt throughout the Chicago area and beyond. You can even ask Chief Attakullakulla who has personally threatened to come to Dayton and “stinkface” me because he wasn’t in the "500." Does the "PWI 500" still matter? Is it relevant? To thousands upon thousands of fans and wrestlers, it absolutely, positively does matter. And it’ll continue to matter as long as hard-working guys suit up and grapple in hardscrabble towns and burgeoning cities around the world, week in and week out.

I admit it; I am hopelessly biased as a longtime PWI reader and as a contributing writer. But I think that this year’s "PWI 500" had a lot to offer in terms of its contribution to the overall canon of professional wrestling history. Eventually, the dust will settle and we’ll go back to business as usual, and folks will start looking forward to the 2013 "PWI 500." And if Dan Murphy is kept awake at night by calls from the likes of Knome King and Gentleman John Campbell, it may or may not be because I slipped them Dan’s home phone number.

Mike Bessler
PWI Contributing Writer
@OfficialPWI Contributor