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“Well, Vince asked me a couple years ago (to go into the WWE Hall of Fame)… and I said no.  I said they had to tell the right story. So we negotiated for two years to get to the place where I knew they’re going to tell the right story.”

Ultimate Warrior (during an exclusive interview on WWE.com, posted April 5, 2014)

Ultimate WarriorFor almost two decades, Ultimate Warrior’s story was one without an ending.  It had colorful, larger-than-life characters. It had stirring (albeit somewhat indecipherable) speeches.  Most of all, it had conflict– and not just the “between the ropes” kinds of conflicts, but the “multiple-terminations/ protracted lawsuits/disparaging DVDs” kinds of conflicts.   Yes, The Ultimate Warrior’s story had it all… just not an ending.

And honestly, it didn’t seem an ultimate ending was coming anytime soon, at least as far as Warrior’s relationship with World Wrestling Entertainment, the company that made him a star, was concerned.  There was just too much bad blood between the two.

And just how bad was the blood? Well, in 2005, the WWE released a DVD entitled The Self-Destruction of the Ultimate Warrior, which alleged (among other things) that Warrior (a) couldn’t wrestle and was reckless with his opponents; (b) refused to go out for his SummerSlam 1991 match unless he got a raise; and (c) was a stand-offish jerk that none of the other wrestlers could stand.

Now, I admit: I bought the DVD and found it entertaining.  But I also acknowledge it was completely one-sided and pretty mean-spirited.  At the very least, it didn’t help mend any fences between Warrior and his former employer.

Then, several months ago, came the announcement wrestling fans thought they’d never hear: the Ultimate Warrior was being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.  Upon hearing the news, all members of the WWE Universe seemingly had the same reactions: (1) How cool is that? and (2) What is his acceptance speech going to be like?

Will he give a signature “speaking-in-tongues” promo, complete with a lot of snorts and bizarre imagery? Will he go off on an ultra-conservative political rant (as he was known to do in his “real” life)?  Will he tee off on everyone involved in the Self-Destruction DVD?  WWE promised they were going to give Warrior a live mic, so it was anyone’s guess.

As it turns out, on the night of the Hall of Fame, Warrior didn’t do any of those things.  Yeah, he addressed the DVD, said that it angered him and made him sad (without ever really conceding that he may have played a part in the contentious relationship he had with WWE).  But mostly he remained upbeat: he congratulated superstar John Cena for all the work he does with the Make-A-Wish Foundation; he suggested that the WWE use the Hall of Fame to honor not only the superstars on camera but the unsung heroes who work behind the scenes; he said he was excited to serve as an “ambassador” for the WWE; and most of all, he expressed his love for his wife and two daughters. (“The most awesome thing I will ever do,” he told his daughters from the podium, “is be your father.”)

That was Saturday night, April 5th.  On Sunday night, April 6th, Warrior made an appearance at WrestleMania XXX, in front of 75,000 fans in the New Orleans Superdome chanting his name.  And on Monday night, April 7th, for the first time in eighteen years, Warrior appeared on Monday Night Raw and delivered an old-school Ultimate Warrior promo– complete with rope-shaking.

And on Tuesday, April 7th, while walking to his car with his wife, Warrior died of a massive heart attack.

This isn’t the first time wrestling fans had to hear that one of their favorites dropped dead.  (Warrior was 54, which sadly is a little on the old side as far as wrestling deaths are concerned.)  But Warrior’s death is unusual for two main reasons.

First, his death comes right on the heels of his homecoming.  Many wrestlers have been on the outs with the WWE at the time of their death.  But Warrior came back– to the company, to the fans, to the limelight.  That makes a big difference.  Compare the attention Warrior’s death is getting to the meager testimonies given to Randy “Macho Man” Savage, who died back in May 2011 (also of a heart attack).  Back in the 80s and early 90s, Savage had been just as big a star as the Warrior (if not a bigger star), but when he died, he had been gone from the WWE for seventeen years.  Warrior came back, if for only a few days.  But he came back.

The second thing that makes Warrior’s death so unusual  is that we essentially got to hear his “last words”– not his actual last words, of course, but his character’s last words.  And man, are those words bizarrely fitting. Here’s what he said in his eerily prescient final promo on Raw, April 7th:

 No WWE talent becomes a legend on their own. Every man’s heart one day beats its final beat. His lungs breathe a final breath. And if what that man did in his life makes the blood pulse through the body of others, and makes them believe deeper in something larger than life, then his essence, his spirit, will be immortalized– by the storytellers, by the loyalty, by the memory of those who honor him and make the running the man did live forever.

You, you, you, you, you, you are the legend-makers of Ultimate Warrior. In the back, I see many potential legends, some of them with warrior spirits. And you will do the same for them. You will decide if they lived with the passion and intensity. So much so that you will tell your stories and you will make them legends, as well. I am Ultimate Warrior. You are the Ultimate Warrior fans. And the spirit of Ultimate Warrior will run forever!

When I think about that speech, that de facto eulogy, I keep returning to that line from Twelfth Night: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn in as an improbable fiction.” (Yep, I just quoted Shakespeare in an  Ultimate Warrior tribute.)  Truly, if this happened in a movie– the prodigal son returning home and then suddenly dying, not twenty-four hours after delivering a speech about beating hearts and eternal spirits– I’d dismiss it as hopelessly corny. But it actually happened.  In real life.

In terms of years, Ultimate Warrior’s career in the WWE was relatively short.  But he definitely made an impact.  You can say the same thing about his death.  It’s sort of like a pay-per-view event:  if your last match is memorable, you can sort of forgive some of the less impressive stuff on the undercard.  You need that great ending. And Warrior got that.  It’s a tragic ending, certainly, but it’s a great one.

In an online interview that aired just three days before his death, Warrior said he wanted to make sure that the WWE told the right “story” as far as the Ultimate Warrior’s character is concerned. As it turns out, they didn’t need to.  The Ultimate Warrior’s story– complete with its ultimate ending– tells itself.

 

 

 

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John CenaDear John:

You don’t know me, but for years, I hated you.

It’s nothing personal, since I didn’t actually hate the person “John Cena.”  Just the character “John Cena”—the one on TV, the one you’ve played for a decade in World Wrestling Entertainment.  The handsome, muscular, high-fivin’, flag-salutin’, corny-joke-crackin’ company man.  The modern-day superhero, who wears brightly-colored T-shirts while forever preaching the values of “hustle, loyalty, and respect.”

Man, I hated that guy.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:  “Why?  Why such animosity directed toward an obviously righteous and upstanding guy?  After all, would you hate on Superman?”  Apparently, yes.  And I wasn’t alone, judging by the boos and jeers you routinely inspire from a large segment of the WWE Universe.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: you have millions of devoted, rabid fans who will cheer your every move.  But you also have equally devoted, rabid detractors—just as many and just as loud. In fact, whenever you’re in the ring, arenas across the country resound with dueling chants:

“Let’s go, Cena!”
“Cena sucks!”

“LET’S GO, CENA!”
“CENA SUCKS!”

Now, as to why they think you suck, I can’t say for sure. Maybe they resent that you’re always the focus of the show, or that your matches are predictable, or that you vanquish bad guys too effortlessly. Or maybe some folks don’t like you because you’re not Stone Cold Steve Austin.  You don’t swear.  You don’t flip people off.  You don’t drink beer in the ring.  You’re the smiling, perfectly manufactured poster-boy for a kinder, gentler WWE. And for that, they hate you.

And me? My beef had more to do with your character’s lack of dimension.  Basically, you’re too heroic, too virtuous—and as a result, not particularly compelling, dramatically.  After all, any interesting character, in any form of entertainment, needs to have cracks, vulnerabilities, shades of grey.  In terms of drama, your lack of imperfections is your biggest weakness.

None of this is your fault, incidentally.  You’ve been saddled with the hardest role in professional wrestling—that of the squeaky-clean good guy.  And you play that role well.  No one, not even the Haters, can question your work ethic or your dedication to the company.

Nor can anyone doubt your success: your merchandise sales are right behind Hulk Hogan’s and Steve Austin’s.  (Pretty good company, I’d say.)  But that success also limits you: WWE execs don’t want to do anything too extreme with you—and that includes turning you into a bad guy (something pretty much every pro-wrestler does at some point)—for fear of messing with their cash-cow.

So, yeah, John… for many years, I was firmly in the “Cena Sucks!” camp.  But then something changed.  In a way, this change had a lot to do with one of your catch phrases. “You can’t see me,” you’re fond of saying—and it was true.  I couldn’t really “see” you, not fully, because I was only looking at you one way, from the perspective of a jaded wrestling fan.  But I’m also a parent.  So I tried “seeing” you as a parent would.  Or more accurately: I tried to see you as my own children would.

For years, I shielded my twin sons from wrestling.  After all, I lived through the WWE of the late ’90s; I couldn’t expose my kids to the occasionally mature (read: downright sleazy) content.  But a little over a year ago, knowing the WWE adopted a tamer, “PG” format, I took them to their first live wrestling event.  They were eleven years old.

They cheered for you, John. And I don’t even remember encouraging them to cheer for you; somehow, they just knew. As did all the other kids in the arena.  And at that moment, amidst the deafening “Let’s Go, Cena!’ chants, suddenly my mind flashed back, to a Larry King show (of all things).

It’s July 2007. Wrestler Chris Benoit had killed his family and then himself, and you and several other wrestlers are talking with Larry, trying to make sense of this horrific event.   A mom calls and asks what she should tell her children.  In reply, Bret “The Hitman” Hart offers up just three words: “Watch John Cena.”

Good advice.  Kids should watch—and admire—John Cena, both the person and the character.  The person John Cena, because you seem like a legitimately good guy: not only do you never get any bad press, but you’ve visited more sick and dying kids (over 300) than any celebrity in the history of the Make-A-Wish Foundation.  And the character John Cena, because you stand for something.   A lot of things, actually.  “Never Give Up.” “Rise Above Hate.” “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect.” These are the ideals emblazoned across your T-shirts—and they’re good ideals.  Ones I want my sons to embrace.

So, John… on April 7th, you’re set to face the WWE Champ, The Rock, in the main event of the WWE’s WrestleMania 29 pay-per-view extravaganza.  WWE hopes to shoehorn 90,000 fans into New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium—and you know half of them will be chanting, “Cena sucks!”  But I’m here to tell you: don’t let the Haters get you down.  Just keep concentrating on the other 45,000.  The kids.  The ones that need you.

Let’s Go, Cena!

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What we call “stories,” professional wrestlers call “angles.”  Basically, an angle is the reason for any match to take place. Some angles are good, some are God-awful (Big Bossman cooking an opponent’s dog was certainly a low point), but they’re always essential.  Without an angle, you just have two men in tights pretending to hit each other.

In today’s wrestling landscape, the key moments in any given angle tend to happen at the monthly pay-per-views; that’s when a wrestler may defeat a hated rival, convert to the dark side, or tussle with Snooki.  (Yeah, that happened.)

Twenty-five years ago, World Wrestling Entertainment only had one annual pay-per-view, WrestleMania.  But in November 1987, they added another one, Survivor Series—a tradition which continues to this day.  (Literally, to this day: the 26th installment is happening tonight.).  So, to celebrate twenty-five years of this event, I wanted to re-cap one of my favorite Survivor Series angles, from way back in 1994. I call it, “Bob Backlund is a Crazy Old Man… and now he’s a Crazy Old Champion.”

The seeds for this angle were actually sown eleven years prior, on December 26, 1983, the night Bob Backlund lost his (then) World Wrestling Federation Championship to the Iron Sheik.   During his championship reign, Bob was reliable and righteous—that is to say, quite boring. So, when Vince McMahon took over the WWF (now WWE) from his father, he wanted a champ with a little more pizazz, a little more charisma—and he was banking on his new recruit, a rookie named Hulk Hogan, to fill that role.

Problem, though: Hulk couldn’t fight Bob, because they were both good guys. Vince originally floated the idea of Bob becoming a bad guy.  When Bob declined, Vince went through his motley crew of villains, finally calling upon the Iron Sheik to serve as the transitional champ.

Sheik ended up beating Backlund with the dreaded Camel Clutch, but Vince did allow Bob to save a little bit of face: instead of having Backlund submit, Bob’s manager, Arnold Skaaland, threw in the towel, ending the match.

Less than a month later, Hulk Hogan beat the Sheik, and the 80s wrestling boom, and all the money and fame that came with it, officially began.  Unfortunately, Bob didn’t get to experience any of that; after his loss to the Sheik, he was immediately pushed down the card, his fall corresponding exactly with Hogan’s rise. Within a year, Backlund left the company and didn’t re –appear for another eight years.

Late 1992 saw Backlund return to WWE—to decidedly little fanfare.  Still as reliable and righteous and boring as ever, the former champion languished in the midcard for almost two years. Finally, in summer of 1994, Bob had a title match against champion and fellow good-guy, Bret “The Hit Man” Hart, in what was hyped as an “Old Generation vs. New Generation” match.  (The fact that Bob, just shy of 45 at the time, was only eight years older than Bret was never acknowledged.)

Bob ended up losing not only the match but something else: his apparent grip on reality.  After the match, the previously mild-mannered Backlund attacked Bret and put him in a bizarre submission hold known as the crossface chicken-wing.   As the aghast announcers blabbered on about how he had “snapped,” Bob looked down in horror at his hands, as if he himself couldn’t believe what he had done.

Throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall, Bob experienced more and more “snapping” incidents, until he finally became a permanent resident of Crazy Town.  He started doing evil things—like dressing in suits and using big words (only some of which used correctly).  And he beat up people too, including his former manager Arnold Skaaland, whom he blamed for costing him the title more than a decade before.  Indeed, the unstable Backlund claimed that, because he never actually submitted to the Iron Sheik, he should still be the champ.

And that brings us to November 23, 1994.  The event: Survivor Series.  The combatants: Champion Bret “Hit Man” Hart against Mr. Bob Backlund.  The special stipulation: a “Throw in a Towel” match, which meant  you could only lose if your corner-man stopped the match by throwing in the towel.

Now then… Did this match make the WWE a lot of money? No way.  And was the Hart-Backlund Survivor Series encounter a mat classic?  Not really.  In fact, I remember most of the match being pretty slow. But as far as an example of effective storytelling, I say it fired on all cylinders.

Consider: this angle had a “fallen angel” villain with a legitimate axe to grind. It had some nice symmetry, book-ended by two Hart-Backlund matches.  It developed slowly, over the course of five months. It even recalled past history, with the whole “Throw in the Towel” stipulation.

Finally, it had a twist ending: Bob took the title after his corner-man, Bret’s dastardly brother Owen, convinced his mom to throw in Bret’s towel, after Bret’s corner-man, the British Bulldog, got knocked out. And so, after eleven years, Bob Backlund was now back on top.   Not a bad bit of story-telling.

And then they ruined it.  Vince McMahon, you see, had no intentions of keeping Bob as champ.  Bob was just his transitional man, the role the Iron Sheik played back in 1983.  And Vince’s new Hulk Hogan, the man Vince planned to push to the moon?  A seven-foot monster named Diesel.  Poor Bob didn’t have a chance.

Three days after the 1994 Survivor Series— in a non-televised match, no less—Diesel beat Crazy Old Man Backlund, who once again slid down into the midcard until he eventually stopped competing altogether.  The Survivor Series angle was Bob’s last moment in the sun.  And the really said thing: the Diesel-Backlund match, the match where Bob lost the title, lasted only eight seconds.

Eight seconds.  It took eleven years for Bob Backlund to get back on top.  And only eight seconds to come crashing down.  I guess there’s a story in that, too.

So the lesson of the 1994 Survivor Series?  Simple: brawn over brains. For every intricate, well-crafted angle, there’s another seven-foot angle waiting in the wings, hoping to powerbomb it into oblivion.

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Yesterday’s post discussed a bet between two poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Horace Smith, about who could write the better sonnet about the Egyptian pharaoh, Rameses II.  (Amazing that Judd Apatow hasn’t written a raunchy buddy comedy about this, huh?)

Shelley entitled his poem “Ozymandias” (another name for Rameses), while Smith called his “On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.”  Shelley, needless to say, won the bet.

Regarding the fundamental difference between Percy and Horace, writer Guy Davenport had this to say, in a 1978 New York Times editorial: “Genius may also be knowing how to title a poem.”  We’d like to apply that same quotation, with some slight modifications, to some other titles:

“Genius is knowing when to listen to your editor”… F. Scott Fitzgerald, apparently, never liked the title The Great Gatsby.  Instead, Fitzgerald entertained the following stinkers :  Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; The High-Bouncing Lover; and, worst of all, Trimalchio (which is the name of a lascivious character in a rather obscure 1st-century Roman satire).  Luckily, his editor Maxwell Perkins talked some sense into him.

“Genius is also knowing when to tell your editor to go pound sand”…  Apparently, Charles Schulz never liked the name Peanuts.  He originally called is strip Li’l Folks, but another strip called Little Folks beat him to it.  So the folks about Schulz went with Peanuts, as a nod to the peanut gallery in Howdy Doody.  Years later, Schulz called Peanuts a “totally ridiculous” name that “has no dignity”… and he’s kind of right. (Then again, how much dignity does the name Li’l Folks have?)

“Then again, genius maybe IS listening to your editor”… Can you imagine telling someone, “Well, I’m in quite a Catch-18 right now.”  Well, that’s what you’d be saying if Joseph Heller was able to go with his original title.  However, another book (by Leon Uris) was coming out at the same time named Mila 18, so Heller’s editor suggested Catch-22. Heller fought it at first—he offered Catch-14 as a second choice—but he finally reneged.

“Genius is coming up with a title that people can actually understand”… I remember, several years ago now, I was at the movies watching a preview for an upcoming James Bond movie.  And after two minutes chock-filled with explosions and car-wrecks and shaken martinis, the title of the movie filled the screen: Quantum of Solace.  And people started laughing.  Out loud.  (Now, I never saw the movie, so I can’t say whether or not the title actually fits.  But to me, it seems pretentiously stupid.)

“Genius is listening to your wife”…  When Steve Austin entered the (then) World Wrestling Federation in 1996, he was saddled with the ineffective name “Ringmaster.”  Austin thought he could do better.  Inspired by a HBO documentary about a serial killer nicknamed the “Ice-Man,” Austin decided to play an unfeeling, cold-hearted character and went to the creative folks saying he wanted an appropriate name.  According to legend, they went a little overboard with the “cold” imagery, coming up with names such as Chilly McFreeze and Ice Dagger. Later, a discouraged Austin sitting with his then-wife, a British woman named Jeannie Clark, who advised him to drink his tea before it came “stone-cold.”  And Stone Cold Steve Austin, the name that launched a million T-shirts, was born.  (Who knew pro-wrestling could teach us so much about marital cooperation?)

 “Genius is opting not to go with the title of the source material if that title is lame and/or confusing”… Don’t get me wrong:  The Steven Spielberg/ Tom Cruise film Minority Report is a fantastic, complex, criminally under-rated film.  But the title stinks.  Just stinks to high heaven.  Yeah, I know that the Philip K. Dick short story upon which the film is loosely based is also called “Minority Report.”  So what?   Did this story have so many legions of fans that they couldn’t possibly tinker with the title?  They changed the characters and the plot… why not the title?

 “Genius is making sure a word in your title doesn’t mean something inappropriate in Korean”… According to urban myth, the short-lived sit-com Joanie Loves Chachi (a spin-off of Happy Days) had huge ratings in Korea because the word “chichi” is Korean for… a certain part of the male anatomy.  That story, of course, is completely untrue: “chachi,” it turns out, is not a Korean word for anything.  Still, you may want to check on that beforehand…  you don’t want to take that chance!

Any other rotten, non-genius titles out there?  Let us know!

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