Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

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A Fond Farewell to the ‘Fourth Wall’

In Wrestling on August 9, 2011 at 3:33 PM

It’s hard to tell whether CM Punk was born of the wrong era, or if he came along at precisely the right time.

On one hand, his brash demeanor, tattoos and conversational promo skills would have fit right in during WWE’s late 90s Attitude Era. It’s quite easy to imagine Punk engaging in memorable (and profitable) feuds with the likes of Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, HHH and The Undertaker, among many other stars from that era.

On the other hand, perhaps Punk is best suited to shine as a lone wolf in professional wrestling’s modern-day, toned-down, PG-rated era, where “superstars” (i.e., politically correct merchandise movers) like John Cena, Kofi Kingston and Rey Mysterio curry more favor than do malcontents like Punk. In 2011, Punk’s rebellious tone, “voice of the voiceless” mantra, and underdog backstory have fused together to create what is unquestionably wrestling’s biggest “lightning in a bottle” movement since Austin captivated viewers more than a decade ago with his brash, no-nonsense style. In fact, Punk is appealing to those very same fans, many of whom moved on from WWE when Attitude Era stars like Austin and Rock exited stage left.

The Summer of Punk culminates on Sunday night, August 14, when Punk and Cena square off in the main event at SummerSlam, emanating from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. You know the story. Punk rode a wave of momentum and epic promos to a thrilling championship victory over Cena at last month’s Money in the Bank pay-per-view, then took the belt with him out the door as his contract expired. Vince McMahon, who was later “relieved of his duties” in favor of son-in-law HHH, instituted a WWE title tournament to replace the departed Punk. Cena won this tournament. Punk returned, having gone on a two-week guerilla campaign in his time away, claiming to still be the rightful champ. Enter a title unification bout at SummerSlam, with HHH (now WWE’s storyline Chief Operating Officer) as the special guest referee.

The buildup to this bout has been textbook. Both Punk and Cena have starred in their respective roles—Punk as the lifelong underdog who came up on the independent scene and values championships over merchandise sales and wrestling over sports entertainment; Cena the corporate face who moves more merchandise than any wrestler in the game today. They have torn down the “fourth wall”—code for what goes on behind the scenes in professional wrestling—and have referenced previous real-life confrontations, fired wrestlers, corporate cronies, wives, girlfriends. the list goes on.

This dichotomy has created a unique conundrum heading into one of the most hotly anticipated WWE matches in the last decade—there is no clear-cut babyface, nor is there a clear-cut heel/villain. Cena, who appeals to women and children, is loathed by teenage boys and men who view him as a corporate puppet. Punk, meanwhile, has sparked a cult-like movement among males age 18-34 while eliciting a negative reaction from younger fans.

How will it all go down on Sunday night? I don’t know, and quite frankly, I don’t want to. Punk has been steadfast in his opinion that marks and online know-it-alls should just enjoy the ride and let the storyline unfold, and I’m prone to agree. Whether the Punk-Cena feud extends beyond SummerSlam and into the fall is uncertain.

Whether it’s helped breathe life into a stale product by showcasing two of the game’s top talents in their respective primes, meanwhile, is a certainty.

NFL 2011: Who Will Rise?

In Football, Houston on August 1, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Let’s get this out of the way—I don’t like the Houston Texans.

To me, they are saccharine, the master-planned suburban community of the NFL. Sure, it looks nice, has that glean to it, all the amenities you could ask for, and yet, you’ve completely forgotten it the moment you drive away. It’s all there, and yet, something’s missing.

In the Texans’ case, that certain something is personality.

From bland superstars like Andre Johnson and Arian Foster to their cookie-cutter stadium to the fact that Texans gameday feels exactly as you think it would (right down to the crowd chanting predictabilities in unison), there are no surprises with the Texans, no “wow” factor. That includes the annual inevitability that is the Texans’ disappointing record.

That changes this year. In 2011, talent finally prevails, and the Texans have plenty of it. Mark it down—the Houston Texans, after years of not quite getting there, are finally going to reach the postseason.

History dictates as much. Think of the Cincinnati Bengals of two years ago, the Chicago Bears of last year, the near-Super Bowl champion Arizona Cardinals of 2008. Every year, someone rises from a gang of also-rans to reach the postseason. This year, in the post-lockout world where stability will be of extra importance, the Texans—with vets like Matt Schaub, Johnson, DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams—are primed for a playoff berth.

Let’s dissect how this conclusion was made.

For starters, go ahead and eliminate all of the last year’s playoff teams, as you can’t exactly rise from the ashes when the house was never on fire. That eliminates the New York Jets, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, New England, New Orleans, Seattle, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta.

Secondly, let’s go ahead and remove teams that underwhelmed in 2010, but are expected to rebound and contend for a playoff spot in 2011. That takes care of Arizona, Dallas, San Diego and the New York Giants.

Next, let’s discard all the teams that are in rebuidling mode in 2011, throwing out young, unproven quarterbacks or washed-up vets (to play in front of those unproven youngsters) in the hopes of playing playoff spoiler to division rivals while potentially building for a more prosperous future. Include Carolina, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Denver,  Cleveland, Minnesota and Tennessee on that list.

Moving on, throw out the teams who came out of nowhere last year to contend, and while falling short of the playoffs, are primed for numerous playoff runs. These teams are no longer unknowns. That’d be Tampa Bay and St. Louis.

From there, let’s just go ahead and toss the franchise train wrecks out, since these organizations—as currently constructed—will never be anything beyond mediocre. We’re looking at you, Oakland and Washington.

That leaves five teams vying for status of “uprisers,” including the aforementioned Texans. Here is why the other four won’t get there in 2011.

Detroit: Because the Lions, like the Texans too many times before, are this year’s hot playoff pick. The problem is this, Matthew Stafford can’t stay healthy, and Detroit is housed in a division with Chicago and the defending Super Bowl champs. Maybe in 2012, but not now.

Jacksonville/Miami: I’m lumping these two together, as they’re pretty much the same team. Both based in Florida, both average and forgettable in every way, not awful, but not exactly awe-inspiring either. Wouldn’t be surprised if both finished 8-8; it would only be fitting for both to land right in the middle of the NFL pack.

San Francisco: Alex Smith. Need I say more?

That leaves Houston, who thanks to stable vets, an upgraded defense (both on the field and in the coaching box), and a weak division (even Indy isn’t a sure thing anymore), will finally reach the playoffs in 2011. 10-6. See you in the postseason Houston. Yes, I’m just as surprised as you.

The Family Man’s Guide to Being a Sports Fan

In Loyalty on July 26, 2011 at 10:35 AM

Alarm goes off. Get ready in a hurry and off to work. 8-5 it. Commute home. Get everyone fed. Bath time. Story time. Bed time. Time for random to-dos, maybe some time with the wife. Bed time around 11. Wake up the next day, and do it all over again. Welcome to life as a suburban family guy, where weekend birthday parties, youth league sports and stocking up on Capri Sun and Goldfish (love those things!) trump all. That includes sports.

Once upon a time, sports came first. I suffered through the post-Patrick/Olbermann era SportsCenter, all in the name of glossy highlight packages and over-coverage. Hell, I once filled out an NIT bracket. This led to an intervention, but I digress. Point is, with two kids on the payroll, the days of diehard sports fandom are long gone. These days, it’s all about being tactical, a quality-bests-quantity approach to sports, if you will.

Below are some tips to ensuring your love of sports doesn’t wilt with the arrival of your first born, meet-the-teacher nights, 2 a.m. wake-up calls, Saturday morning soccer matches and various other time-and-soul-draining parental tasks.

*Get a smartphone. iPhone. Droid. BlackBerry. Doesn’t matter. Get something portable with a dependable 3G signal and sports-friendly apps (I recommend Yahoo! Sportacular) that deliver timely score updates. That way, when you find yourself eating that second slice of cake at a child’s birthday party (red velvet rocks), or taking in the enjoyment (misery) that is a couple’s baby shower, you’ll be prepared should this event conflict with the big game.  Speaking of which, be prepared for all of these events to conflict with the big game. The karmic gods are sadistic that way.

*Avoid ESPN. It’s like crack. If you turn it on, you won’t turn it off, and the wife will treat you accordingly. Stick to the occasional online surfing session. Besides, you should be avoiding ESPN anyway because, well, ESPN sucks.

*Be a dedicated husband and father, thus ensuring “get out of jail free” status when it comes to watching sports at your undisturbed leisure. Yeah, right.

*Youth sports—pick the right season. Most suburban youth sports leagues operate on a four-season calendar. Pick the summer session for your kids, who should be allowed no say whatsoever in this matter. Considering most youth sports summer leagues run May-July, aside from baseball’s dog days and maybe an NBA playoff game here and there (assuming the league ever resumes play), you won’t miss much.

*Be selective. The days of 24/7 sports fandom are over, my friend. Time to get selective. College football or the NFL? NBA or the NHL? Gotta pick one, or risk become an uninformed, fairweather fan of both. Pare down fantasy football participation to a maximum of two teams, only one of which should be a money league (note: kids are expensive). Avoid fantasy baseball, which requires daily updating. As for fantasy basketball, well, no one plays fantasy basketball.

And if all else fails: Get divorced, die a sad, lonely sports diehard. Hey, we can’t all be winners, can we?

Perfecting the Top 10: Most Intimidating Athletes

In Baseball, Basketball, Boxing, Football, Hockey, MMA, Perfecting the Top 10, Wrestling on July 16, 2011 at 2:42 PM

Certain people draw plenty of attention when they speak. James Harrison, with his guns, brash attitude and status as one of the NFL’s top defensive players, is one of those people. Needless to say, Harrison had the nation’s attention with his recent comments regarding league commissioner Roger Goodell (crook, devil, puppet, dictator—the latter two of which I’m not sure can coexist, but I digress), as well as verbal digs against teammates and opponents alike.

What made Harrison’s comments so noteworthy—aside from their inflammatory nature—was the person from which they were spewing forth. Point being, Harrison (to quote Kevin from The Office) is a “Grade-A-Badass.” Herein lies a question: What other athletes currently share Harrison’s standing as legitimately frightening individuals, people with whom kicking up dust might not be the best idea? Let’s find out.

Note: These rankings are not based on an athlete’s ability in their sport, but rather, their sheer “fear factor.”

10. Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens: Yeah, Ray has lost a step. In fact, he’s probably only the third or fourth best player on his own defense at this point. That said, if it goes down, give me someone such as Ray-Ray, a wily vet with a noted mean streak, a ripped physique, unmatched intensity and an innate leadership quality. Plus, tell me this doesn’t frighten you just a bit.

9. Zdeno Chara, Defenseman, Boston Bruins: I don’t pretend to know much about hockey, but I do know that anytime a guy has to meet with police regarding an on-ice hit, this person gets a one-way ticket to this list, no questions asked.

8. Clay Matthews, Linebacker, Green Bay Packers. The hair doesn’t hurt matters; neither does unmatched ability to get to quarterbacks and dispatch them with extreme prejudice.

7. Manny Pacquiao, Boxer/Politician: The reasoning for this is simple … boxing is a sport in which success is measured by one’s ability to pummel his opponent into submission with his fists. No one in the world does this better than “Pac-Man.” Let’s move on.

6. The Undertaker, Professional Wrestler/Dead Man: Think it’s fake, huh? Try telling that to this 7-foot, 300-plus-pound Houstonian behemoth who, by the way, also trains in mixed martial arts. Plus, his 19-0 record at WrestleMania is professional wrestling’s 56-game hitting streak.

5. Kobe Bryant, Guard, Los Angeles Lakers: He’s not intimidating in terms of pure physical force, but Bryant’s intensity, work ethic and will to prevail on the court are second only to one Michael Jordan. Personally, that frightens me, if only because it indicates that Kobe is the type to sneak a shiv into a fists-only streetfight.

4. Albert Pujols, First Baseman, St. Louis Cardinals: By all accounts a good guy on and off the diamond, Pujols nonetheless looks like the meanest bouncer at the bar, the guy who spent all day working out in the hopes of inciting a riot later that night. His muscles have muscles. Hell, Brad Lidge never fully recovered from his brush with Big Albert.

3. Brock Lesnar, UFC Heavyweight/Ill-Tempered Minnesotan: No, Brock Lesnar is not an elite UFC competitor, at least not on par with the Anderson Silvas of the cage fighting world. That said, look at this man. Dude looks like he was manufactured in a lab. Hell, I’d go so far as to call Lesnar our nation’s 21st Century Ivan Drago.

2. Ron Artest (aka Metta World Peace), Forward/Resident Lunatic, Los Angeles Lakers:  The eyes don’t lie. Whether it’s that formerly-crazy girlfriend who alleges to have changed her ways, or a former bleacher-rushing Indiana Pacers forward who alleges to have done the same, the eyes don’t lie. And the eyes tell me, for all Artest’s on- and off-court improvements, there’s a tinge of crazy that has yet to be exterminated. And that sliver of crazy, no matter how small, is more than enough reason to vault near the top of this list.

1. James Harrison, Linebacker/Gun Enthusiast/Disgruntled NFL Employee, Pittsburgh Steelers: Easy call. Harrison is a 6-foot, 250-pound, mean-spirited, hard-hitting, gun-toting madman. A former Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison’s bone-crushing hits, their ensuring fines and his subsequent NFL blasts, are the stuff of legend. Tack on fellow Steeler defenders like Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, LaMarr Woodley, and Troy Polamalu, and it’s no wonder Carson Palmer can’t wait to exit the AFC North.

CM Punk and the Case of Wrestling’s Pseudo-Reality

In Wrestling on July 15, 2011 at 7:00 AM

To some, professional wrestling is nothing more than grown men play-fighting in (rather revealing) tights, all for the amusement of a gaggle of men age 14-40, men with too much time—and not enough female interaction—on their hands.

To me, it’s a masterpiece theater of athletes (yes, I said it) taking the stage night after night in a showcase of talent and charisma.

It’s the quintessential jock soap opera. Scripted? Yes. Fake? Hardly.

The latest example of wrestling’s blurred line of reality was on display two weeks ago via a Monday Night Raw promo from WWE superstar CM Punk, a straight-edge, tattooed heel who abstains from drugs, alcohol and other human vices. In this promo, Punk took to the mic and ripped down wrestling’s “fourth wall.” There were no sacred cows. He ripped WWE Chairman Vince McMahon for poor decision-making, the WWE marketing team for holding him and other performers back, powers-that-be such as Stephanie McMahon and husband HHH (heirs to the Vince McMahon throne) for their ineptitude and, most importantly, the fans for their continued contribution to what has, quite frankly, been a lousy on-air product since Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock left town.

Punk followed that up two weeks later by publicly chiding McMahon (on hand for this particular browbeating as part of a “contract negotiation”) for being out of touch with wrestling’s 2011 audience, for holding down and mistreating legitimate talents (many of whom Punk considers friends), for being a bully and, perhaps most importantly, for taking the fun out of wrestling nightly before thousands of adoring fans.

Punk, whose WWE contract is legitimately set for expiration at midnight on Monday, July 18, offered on both occasions what’s known as a “shoot” promo, wherein “real life” is brought into the WWE’s fictitious realm. Yes, both promos (particularly the latter exchange with McMahon) were scripted and approved by McMahon and WWE’s writing team, all in the hopes of upping the buyrate for WWE’s upcoming Money in the Bank pay-per-view—the main event of which will pit CM Punk against champion John Cena. If Punk wins the match in his hometown of Chicago, he’s taking the belt with him on his way out the door, perhaps to an independent organization like Ring of Honor.  If Cena loses, Vince McMahon has threatened to “fire” the PG-friendly champion for letting Punk do just that.

It’s all an act, part of a grand tale tailored to move merchandise, sell pay-per-views and increase hits on the WWE website. It’s also based in reality, something WWE has largely avoided since superstars like Austin, The Rock, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels rose to prominence, essentially, by playing themselves on camera.

Since then, WWE has made an effort, largely in vain, to force new stars upon the masses—Cena, HHH, Randy Orton, Batista, Edge, among others. These men have each experienced varied levels of success over the past decade—Cena, arguably, has experienced the most mainstream crossover success—but were always held back by one underlying factor. At the end of the night, it always felt like they were, to an extent, playing a disingenuous, on-air character.

Enter CM Punk.

A wrestling lifer who made his name on the independent circuits, Punk came to WWE a few years back promoting his straight-edge lifestyle and in-ring abilities. He fared well for himself, even holding the World Heavyweight Championship for a spell. His reign was fairly forgettable—in part because his on-air character felt forced and lacking in depth—and Punk went back to the mid-card, where he spent most of the time in inconsequential feuds that, while hardly mediocre, didn’t exactly excite fans to the point of shelling out their dollars on merchandise and pay-per-views. He had fallen into the realm of “good worker,” not a bad place to be in terms of job security, but certainly not a place designed for the upwardly mobile.

That is, until Monday, June 27, when Punk changed the course of his character and, temporarily at least, the professional wrestling landscape, with a pitch-perfect promo that highlighted WWE’s ills, his frustrations with the behind-the-scenes politics and the fact that the organization now favors “superstars” over actual “wrestlers.” Gone was the character Punk had been portraying for the past few years. On display was the raw emotion brought forth by a man who knew he—and WWE’s paying customers—deserved better.

The promo was an instant hit, a Twitter trend, garnering millions (and millions!) of hits on YouTube. Punk got mention from the likes of Jim Rome and Bill Simmons. Once again, if only for a passing moment, wrestling was “in” again. While his exchange with McMahon experienced slightly less online discourse, mostly because it was advertised in advance and thus came with less of a “shock” factor, that promo too served its purpose—for the first time in a long time, it gave wrestling fans a legitimate rooting interest in a WWE pay-per-view main event.

This, too, shall unfortunately pass. All indications are that Punk is legitimately gone after Money in the Bank, and that Cena (by all accounts a nice, hardworking guy) will retain the belt before moving on to his next (largely forgettable) feud—that is, until the inevitable hype machine cranks up for his showdown with The Rock at WrestleMania 28 next April.

Whatever the outcome, for an all-too-brief window of time in the summer of 2011, a tattooed malcontent took us back to the days when wrestling mattered, when Monday nights were anticipated,and when—even in a fictitious world—reality was still a possibility.