The career of Stone Cold Steve Austin changed significantly at the King of the Ring ceremony. Granted, Austin was entrusted with being given the nod at the 1996 King of the Ring, and his sinister attitude had begun to shine through in week’s prior to the event. However, had Austin not uttered the words “Austin 3:16 says I just whopped your ass!” one can only imagine just how things may have turned out for Austin. Any one who has read Mick Foley’s book will instantly recall that Austin was initially slated to go under the guise of “Chilly McFreeze”, before (thank God) somebody vetoed the idea. As “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, the comment at the 1996 King of the Ring ceremony was even more befitting of his character, and within weeks the phrase “Austin 3:16” became embedded in the nation’s conscience. After that moment Austin went from strength to strength and, realising how the “Austin 3:16” and bad-ass attitude was catching on, the WWE capitalised on the changing direction of the business and made Austin their top dog, and ushered in what many consider the most successful era in wrestling – the “attitude” era.
One of the most popular and significant groups during the “attitude” era were the group known as Degeneration-X. Many people can recall their frat-like shenanigans and rebellious antics which were synonymous with the type of wrestlers and gimmicks that this period in wrestling embraced. However, few can recall just how Degeneration-X got their name. Much like the off-the-cuff nature of Austin’s biblical reference, Degeneration-X came about through a seemingly innocuous remark by none other than Bret “The Hitman” Hart. During a promo Bret lamented the childish antics of Shawn Michaels, Hunter Hearst Helmsley and Chyna, citing the phrase: “You’re nothing but a bunch of degenerates.” The group were quick to hit back and, using a playful twist on the popular sociological term for certain contemporary teenage groups know as generation-x, the group found themselves a name. The rest, as they say, is history.
Whether Hart’s comments and the subsequent birth of the Degeneration-X name were all pre-ordained, does not change the fact that the WWE had no way of knowing just how quickly the name would catch on. The fact is that the WWE capitalised on the near-instant embracing of the group’s new moniker, and the results probably far exceeded the company’s wildest imagination. If Bret Hart hadn’t uttered the aforementioned phrase during that promo, or the WWE hadn’t capitalised on the fans’ overt acceptance of the group’s name, Michaels and Helmsley may never have been kept together as a team, and, subsequently, their careers (particularly Helmsley’s) may have taken a far different direction.
The late, great Eddie Guerrero is another example of the precarious nature of the business, and how the littlest things can change your entire career. Guerrero was also a gifted athlete, and fans across the world always admired his in-ring skills, however, during his early WWE run, even Guerrero needed something to spark the interest of the fans. I read in an interview with Guerrero a few year’s ago that the decision to pair him with Chyna was made on a whim, and his subsequent referral to his own character as “Latino Heat” was initially intended to be a stand-alone reference at best. However, both he and the WWE soon realised that the fans caught on to the phrase “Latino Heat”, and it is now a nickname almost instantly associated with Guerrero’s legacy. Jerry Lawler would always screech the words “Latiiiiinnnnoooo Heeeeeeeat” when Eddie came to the ring, and Guerrero’s popularity sky-rocketed once his Casanova-like antics with his “mamacita” became more and more prominent. Eddie seemed destined to be the man you loved to hate before the era of “Latino Heat”, and few who saw his impeccable ability to garner boo’s from the fans could have ever imagined him as one of the top babyfaces in the industry. However, the moment he echoed the phrase “Latino Heat”, fans began to idolise Eddie. Guerrero went from the guy you loved to hate, to the guy you loved to love.
It is yet another case of the WWE ceasing the moment, a wrestler being allowed to run with the ball, so to speak. There are many other examples too – Rocky Maivia’s self-reference to the moniker “The Rock” and his subsequent catch-phrases and third-person directed interviews were quickly capitalised upon by both Dwayne Johnson and the WWE themselves. The quick decision to change Paul Wight’s nickname from “Big Nasty” to “The Big Show” lead to the name Paul Wight being scratched entirely from Show’s wrestling moniker once the WWE realised the nickname was catching on far greater than the real-life name. John Cena’s rap gimmick came about through an innocuous-looking backstage vignette where all the Smackdown! superstars were dressed in hallowe’en costumes. All of these examples represent an out-of-the-blue chance to completely change someone’s career being embraced and fulfilled for the better.
However, there is a flip-side. There are those that may be enjoying totally different careers right now had the WWE capitalised on the very same type of opportunities mentioned above. Christian Cage would almost certainly not be in TNA as NWA World Heavyweight Champion had the WWE decided to capitalise on his ever-growing popularity last year in the WWE. Christian’s popularity began to rise most notably when at the 2005 Royal Rumble he engaged in a battle rap with John Cena. The fans found hilarity in Christian’s goofy mannerisms as he tried to out-rap Cena. It was also during this period that Christian began to make more and more reference to his “peeps.” He also began to refer to himself as “Captain Charisma” which, combined with his periodic interview segment, “The Peep Show”, all contributed to a significant rise in fan interest towards Christian. Every once in a while Christian would take a cheap shot at Cena, which lead many to believe that a slowly built-up feud between the two was brewing. Many people even speculated that Christian would be the man to dethrone Cena during his 2005 title reign. Christian began to be talked about in the same bracket as the major players and main eventers of the WWE roster.
As we now know, however, Christian’s big title shot came in the form of a triple threat match at Vengeance, which not only saw Christian lose, but also saw a quick de-push back down to the mid-card. He was also traded to Smackdown! away from rival Cena. Once it became apparent that the WWE was not willing to take a chance on Christian being a major World Title player for them, Christian quit the WWE and left for pastures new. Had the WWE capitalised on the ever-growing popularity of Christian, he may well be a WWE World Champion right now, launching himself to the superstardom in the WWE that the likes of The Rock had achieved. However, we’ll never know the answer to that question due to the WWE’s reluctance to put their faith in Christian and capitalise on a period where Captain Charisma’s name was one of the loudest chants in a WWE arena.
Christian’s career was less hampered from this setback due to the success that he has achieved in TNA since. However, one man had the chance to do the same as Christian, and leave for pastures new. Matt Hardy turned down the chance to join TNA for another run with the WWE. It was during this period that the fans began to chant “We want Matt” and “You screwed Matt” at arenas throughout the country. Hardy’s name was easily the loudest chant at any WWE arena, so much so that Vince Mcmahon realised that releasing Hardy was a mistake. When Hardy reappeared on WWE television the fans went crazy for him, and his angle with Edge was shit-hot. Therein existed a massive opportunity to capitalise on the major popularity of Hardy. However, while many look back fondly upon the Hardy-Edge feud (which was still easily the best of the summer, and one of the high points of 2005) this writer cannot help but lament the massive opportunity missed by the WWE to make Hardy a megastar.
Even as the losses amounted against men like Gene Snitsky and Rob Conway, the fans still chanted the loudest for Matt. However, there is only so many defeats a character can take before the pops begin to wain and the chants begin to quieten. Hardy’s “loser leaves Raw” defeat to Edge pretty much ended any chance of the WWE capitalising on a period where Hardy was probably the most over guy on the WWE roster. It makes one wonder just what might have been had the WWE ceased the moment. Perhaps we would see t-shirts with the phrase “I Will Not Die” throughout arenas. The WWE may even have gone as far as to use the nickname’s initially planned for Hardy’s return before his firing; “The Angelic Diablo” and the phrase “The Scar as a Symbol.” Both of which may have been incorporated in to Hardy’s character if the WWE had capitalised upon the initial reactions to Hardy’s return. Sadly, they did not, and it only makes me thankful that they did not adopt the same scepticism with Steve Austin all those year’s ago.
Let’s not forget, see, that as talented as Austin is, up until that point in 1996, he was merely another name on the roster, never showing any signs that he would one day be a World Champion, let alone a global megastar. The same can be said for The Rock and HHH if one looks back at their earlier times and matches for the WWE. Sometimes these things occur out-of-the-blue and without warning, simply from capitalising on something seemingly innocuous. This only makes it even more intriguing to ponder on the ‘What if’s?’ of the wrestling world. What if the WWE had capitalised on Christian? What if the WWE had capitalised on Hardy? What if the WWE had capitalised on Tazz during his run as a heel instead of booking him to lose to a commentator? What if Dustin Runnels, a wrestler who was as technically sound as any wrestler in North America in the early 90s, was never introduced to the WWE as Goldust? Until the day I die I will always wonder what might have been for an athlete who was once as gifted and so ahead of his peers as Runnels. What if? What if?
Perhaps one can place the WWE’s more recent refusal to capitalise and to take risks on their reliance on feeder feds such as OVW. Nowadays newer acquisitions have their gimmicks tried and tested in OVW before ever being considered for WWE programming. Guys like Eugene, the Spirit Squad, the Boogeyman, William Regal, MNM, to name but a few, all saw their gimmicks revealed to OVW audiences before a WWE audience. The ever-increasing number of tour dates may also be another contributing factor. Nowadays not only feuds are tested on house show audiences before a TV audience, but also gimmicks are too. HHH recently spoke about wrestlers like Austin, The Rock and himself making themselves stars by spawning their own catch-phrases and their own nuances. However, the fact that the guys with already established catch-phrases and legacies are the ones entrusted with the opportunity to speak in front of a live crowd or a television audience makes it even harder for those further down the card to break out from the pack. Many get lost in the shuffle. Few ever create these innocuous opportunities to make themselves a megastar. This makes it even more vital that the WWE cease these opportunities and capitalise on any potential star-in-the-making and, if they do not, we are forever wondering what might have been.
Until next time,
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