Saturday, May 2, 2009

WWE's HHH problem

By Rick Morris

When HHH wrapped up the first part of his springtime feud with Randy Orton by doing a clean job -- and stretcher job, no less -- at Backlash last week, he and the other WWE powers-that-be were met with one more reminder of the ability to successfully manipulate fans: the "Na Na Na Na" song while he was being carried out of the ring and a continuation of the trend of cheering for Orton at Hunter's expense.

This happened despite the best efforts of the company's creative arm, as over the past few months HHH has been set up to be the recipient of a lot of sympathy heat as he pursued Orton to avenge the various acts done to his family. Orton, meanwhile, was portrayed as a violent, sadistic heel and also showed enough signs of cowardly fear that he should not have been as popular as he has become.

Frankly, though, the problems that World Wrestling Entertainment is facing with one of their biggest stars should not have been completely unforseen -- for he is facing an unprecedented challenge in terms of not wearing out his welcome.

The collapse of World Championship Wrestling from 1999-2001, culminating in the company's absorption into WWE in '01, ensured that top wrestlers would no longer have a credible "second option" where they could move for a period of time. When TNA launched in 2002, they were at best a distant second American promotion and despite some growth, they have remained so to this day and have only been able to lure away wrestlers treated as marginal main-eventers like Booker T and damaged goods like oft-injured and formerly drugged Kurt Angle. The WWE, with their split into different "brands," has attempted to mitigate this factor by portraying the different shows as promotions-within-a-promotion.

But this is a doomed effort on their part, as the different writing staffs for the shows share common promotional philosophies and execute various angles in similar ways. Also, the fact that so many different wrestlers have been able to jump brands (at least temporarily) without explanation has rendered the concept of separation within the company a farce. And with the company having given up a few years ago on the notion of keeping the brands separate for most of the yearly pay-per-view events, most of the same wrestlers are occupying most of the same spots month after month and year after year.

What does this circumstance have to do with HHH? It's simple, really. This summer, he becomes the first man in the modern history of pro wrestling to spend a decade in the same company as a consistent main event wrestler without a significant change in persona. He's been a main event wrestler since the summer of '99 -- and if you want to look at this in a completely mind-boggling way, consider the fact that he's been in the main events for a full 40% of the time since the national expansion of 1984 got underway!

Can this possibly be true? Yes, it is. Hulk Hogan made it about nine years during his second WWF run (counting his pseudo-retirement of '92) and he was pretty stale by the very end. Ric Flair had shorter runs than that both times in the NWA and WCW and most other superstars didn't even make it as long in the main events for one company as they did.

There are a couple of caveats here. It's true that the Undertaker has been with the WWF/WWE since 1990 (ironically, the same year that Andre the Giant retired). Andre was a special attraction most of the time and only in the main events really from 1987-89. The Undertaker has been in the main events a bit more than that over 18 1/2 years, but he's really been the modern-day heir to Andre as far as mainly being utilized as a special attraction. And while Andre could travel the world in the territory days to stay fresh in his main home, the Undertaker has substituted frequent hiatus periods to achieve the same effect. Additionally, he spent 2000-2003 in the identity of the "American Badass" version of the character.

Speaking of character changes, that brings us to Sting, who was with NWA/WCW from the time of the UWF acquisition in 1987 to the closure of the company as an independent entity in 2001. Like the Undertaker, he was sometimes used as a special attraction, but he did spend the vast majority of his time in the main events. However, he only spent nine years in his original Cali bleached-blond excitable surfer version of the character before becoming "Crow Sting" for the final 4 1/2 years of his run with the company.

Is the distinction between special attraction and main event a false one when highlighting the reasons that HHH could not escape being stale? Of course not. Since 2000, HHH has missed WrestleMania due to injury in 2007 and he was not in a World or WWF/WWE title match in 2001. Every other time, he's been in a main event title match!

It's true that HHH has been away due to injury in 2001-02 and 2007, with an extra vacation in 2005 thrown in the mix. But none of these lasted more than eight months and every time his return was heavily promoted, contributing to the "How can we miss you if you won't go away?" feelings of the fans.

What has to make this reality even more daunting to the WWE is the certainty that HHH will push past the decade mark this summer and spend at least another 2-3 years in a top spot. Hunter has spoken previously of wanting to segue to a purely creative position in the company in the years to come. After he comes back this year, he will want to take the temperature of the fanbase and maybe accelerate those plans a bit -- because it's not like Vince is going to let him go down to TNA for a few years to freshen up!

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