Monday, January 28, 2008

More of Vince McMahon's hypocrisy

By Rick Morris

Before addressing the main point here, the rampant, constant hypocrisy of Vincent Kennedy McMahon, let's quickly examine a side issue. We at believe in analyzing all matters, not just fantasy sports, on a spectrum from most likely to least likely outcomes. Having said that, there are four possibilities for the "miracle comeback" of John Cena, who returned to the ring less than four months after allegedly suffering a major pectoral injury that was supposed to sideline him a year -- and those scenarios are in this exact order of likelihood:

^ This "injury" was a work from start to finish (scars can be kayfabed!).
^ The "injury" was real, but hyped way beyond the level of seriousness so as to obtain the desired shock return.
^ Cena was hurt, but cut a lot of corners, health-wise (ALLEGEDLY!) in his rehab and return.
^ Cena was actually hurt as severely as advertised and did have a supremely fortunate rehabilitation that legitimately got him back much sooner than anticipated.

Let's now move on to the main point at hand. The notion that Vinny Mac is a hucksterish hypocrite of the first order is well beyond dispute. Whether he is shedding crocodile tears for the premature deaths and chronic addictions that his company has contributed to with regards to its performers, whether he is crying about the predatory business practices of Turner Broadcasting when he went after the old territorial promoters the same way in the '80s, whether he is whining about vendettas from federal prosecutors while allowing revenge politics to thrive in his own company, Vince McMahon has always been in a league of his own when it comes to saying one thing and doing another.

But, as strange as it may sound when addressing the role in history of the only man to preside over two national wrestling booms, his biggest and most grand hypocritical pronouncement of all has been to claim that he has his finger on the pulse of his audience and that he reacts accordingly. We saw yet again last night at the Royal Rumble how false this truly is when he allowed his company to drop the ball on the Jeff Hardy WWE Title reign that his crowds have been clamoring for so much.

Jeff Hardy was deprived of his ascension to the top of the company (and yes, the top spot on RAW is and always will be the pinnacle of WWE) just a few weeks of the thirty-year anniversary that Superstar Billy Graham passed the torch to Bob Backlund -- with both matches taking place at Madison Square Garden, no less! Vince McMahon played an opposite role in both scenarios, proving that he is not consistent in his actions whatsoever.

Recently, I viewed the excellent documentary "20 Years Too Soon: The Superstar Billy Graham Story," and I also read parts of Graham's memoirs. First of all, it should be mentioned just as a side note that Graham was not actually 20 years ahead of his time, it was more like 10 because his colorful muscleman gimmick was the mid-to-late '80s prototype. But I do believe what Vince McMahon said on the DVD: Superstar would have been a huge phenomenon on the scene if he had been given a babyface run as champion.

Take yourself back to February 1978 for a moment. Graham had been drawing huge heat and sellout crowds as WWWF Champion for his entire 10-month reign. As an early forerunner of the "cool heel," he was drawing the type of appreciation from fans that could have led to him becoming a red-hot main event face. One suggestion internally was for onetime tag team partner Ivan Koloff to attack Graham, officially turning the Superstar into a "good guy." I believe that this feud would have drawn insane heat, because the Sergeant Slaughter/Iron Sheik feud of 1984 proved that geopolitics could draw at the box office and the prospect of Graham going toe-to-toe with a Hated Russkie back in '78 would have been quite similar.

Superstar and Vince were on the losing end of that argument, however, because Vince's dad, Vince McMahon Senior was still the boss at that time and he had promised Bob Backlund a title run. The classic wrestling old-timer, Vince Senior simply didn't possess the imagination to understand how big Graham could be. He was wedded to the version of the wholesome face champion anchor. Bruno Sammartino had held the belt for approximately 11 of the 14 years leading into Graham's reign, with Latino face Pedro Morales occupying the title for most of the rest of the time. Bob Backlund, dubbed "The All-American Boy," seemed merely to be the logical successor to this lineage once Graham's "transitional heel" reign was over.

But the strong reactions Graham got at the time argue for the case that he would have been huge as a "good guy" champion just because he was so much different from the rest back in '78. While he never could have reached the status of an '80s Hulk Hogan had WWWE remained merely a regional Northeast territory, he could have exploited New York City, the world's greatest media market, to cement the area as the most dominant one anywhere. Vince Junior is absolutely right that his father and the other cronies in the inner circle missed the boat on Superstar Billy Graham's potential.

Graham makes the point convincingly in his memoirs that Backlund was the beneficiary of almost unprecedented help from the promotion during his almost six-year run on top (leaving aside the question of whether Inoki legitimately was the titleholder for a fortnight back in '79). Backlund continued to sell out all around the circuit, but benefited from the strategic positioning on cards of Andre the Giant, Jimmy Snuka after his hugely successful face turn and Bruno Sammartino's white-hot farewell feud with Larry Zbyszko. Previous champs had not needed that kind of assistance from the bookers; they had always been the predominant focus of the promotion. Billy Graham wouldn't have needed that help either had his wish been granted.

So Vince Junior made what we can probably hypothesize would have been the right call in 1978 with the man he said was 20 years ahead of his time. Coincidentally, 20 years later, Vince put the belt on another man being reacted to hugely by the crowds and not created by the company. Stone Cold Steve Austin was a completely self-made man in the WWF, overcoming the internal perception of him as a mid-carder for life and establishing himself as a made man in 1996-97. In '98, Vince listened to the people and made Austin the face main event anchor that they wanted him to be. Austin built on the foundation of the NWO and DX and made himself (along with perhaps The Rock later on) the face of the late '90s wrestling craze.

Flash forward another ten years.

The "Attitude Era" boom has been dead for most of the decade. Historians will argue about where it breathed its last; I believe that I saw it live and in person at the "InVasion" of 2001 in Cleveland when Steve Austin joined the WCW/ECW alliance in an infamous booking decision that killed wrestling's ultimate dream angle. Since then, Vince has thrown everything he could at the wall, elevating formerly-derided "Vanilla Midgets" to World Title status (Benoit and Eddy), trying to ride the remaining stars of the '90s (HHH, HBK, Undertaker), pushing newcomers to the moon (Brock Lesnar), toying endlessly with nostalgia (Hulk Hogan comebacks) and getting strongly behind homegrown products (Cena, Batista). None of these moves have brought the WWE back to the mainstream status it enjoyed twice before.

And to be fair, there's no evidence to suggest that Jeff Hardy is the missing link, ready to become a household word and carry the company to the third national boom. He might not be the "game-changer" the company needs -- but the aforementioned options have had their chances to step up to that level and none of them have succeeded.

Vince and his daughter, Stephanie (the infamous head of creative control), pushed Hardy to the main event in a cautious, almost-experimental way. They were certainly not cramming him down the throats of the people; rather, they put him in circumstances where he would be able to rise or fall based on the reactions he drew. He shot up like a rocket as the crowds made it clear in no uncertain terms that they were hungering for the dramatic change that a title reign from this superstar would promise.

And yet, his rise to main event status was just a tease in the end, as Hardy was built up merely to be fed to mediocre heel champion Randy Orton, who has himself been built up merely to be fed to the returning hero Cena. Essentially, the company passed on elevating Hardy so that they could put Cena back in the #1 face spot posthaste (technically, now that Cena is cashing in his title shot at No Way Out in February instead of WrestleMania, he could face Hardy for the WWE Title at 'Mania -- but there's no way the company is going to put Hardy in with Cena and even if they did, it wouldn't be to have Hardy go over in the end).

So Vince McMahon, who prides himself on being the ultimate visionary, has shown that he only listens to the public when he feels like it. Rather than take a chance on Jeff Hardy, the acrobatic youngster with unique (mostly non-verbal) charisma and a fundamentally-sound but exciting style in the ring, McMahon is staying with the tried and true: Cena, the man who has improved greatly in the ring, but been neutered by the creative department. When you see him get booed relentlessly by significant parts of the crowd, it's almost impossible to reconcile that with the fact that he was such a cool heel in the fall of '03 that the company was all but forced to turn him. Young males, perhaps the most critical part of the fanbase, boo him in significant fashion (especially in major markets) because he is seen as having the worst characteristics of Hogan (Chain Gang = Hulkamanics 2K8), Backlund (wholesome character over the last few years, none of those raunchy raps that got him over with the crowd), the Rock'n'Roll Express (annoyingly beloved by kiddies and teenyboppers) and Hogan/Backlund together (he's the face who isn't believable in terms of being in significant jeopardy because he ALWAYS overcomes the odds and keeps his belt). Jeff Hardy, a man who was once defined in terms of fan perception as being the choice of those teenyboppers and kids, has transcended his early fan appeal to become widely popular across the board. And yet, Vince McMahon hasn't the slightest curiosity about what would happen with Hardy at the helm -- because in the end, crowd sentiment doesn't matter to him if it goes against his preconceived notions.

On the Vince McMahon Devious Behavior Scale, that may not rate that high. But it does serve to remind us yet again of his complete hypocrisy and the extent to which his ego compromises the final product in the ring.

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