Tales of Bittersweet Loyalty

Archive for the ‘Wrestling’ Category

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.

Perfecting the Big Question: The First Game

In Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Houston, Loyalty, New York, Perfecting the Big Question, Seattle, Wrestling on July 29, 2011 at 12:03 PM

With a varied list of contributors to Perfecting the Upset, we decided it made sense to start a series of articles where we’d throw out a question to the crew and see how they stand.  This week, we ask:

What was the first game you ever attended?

(Don’t forget to check out our Allegiances table to know our loyalties.)

Rahat Ahmed
The first professional game I attended soon became part of one of my first memorable heartbreaks: Game 6 of the 1992-93 Western Conference finals between the Houston Rockets and the Seattle SuperSonics.  My uncle surprised me with tickets, which led to me frantically printing out “banners” on our old dot matrix to cheer on Olajuwon and crew. (They were terrible, but an eleven year old has to make do with the technology he has access to.)  The first five games of the series had been decided by an average of 14.4 points, all won by the team at home.  Game 5, in fact, ended in a 25 slaughter by the Shawn Kemp-led Sonics.

The game was tight through half-time until Kenny “The Jet” Smith took it upon himself and ripped the Sonics 36-15 in the third quarter with his 13-for-16 shooting.  We won 103-90.  But the real memory of that series remains in two parts: The first was Game 7, which ended in a 3 point loss at Seattle in overtime.  It was the only game in the series that went down to the wire, where The Jet had a chance to clinch it at the end of regulation but failed.  We lost 103-100 because we simply couldn’t stop Sam Perkins.  Brutal.

But what I’ve never forgotten was outside the series, and why I’ve come to hate David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs so much: Game 82 of the regular season was against them. We won the game outright during regulation, but Hugh Evans decided to count a tip-in at the buzzer that was clearly too late.  It was enough to send the game to overtime and help the Spurs eek out a 119-117 victory.  Most importantly?  It gave Seattle home court advantage against us, even though we both ended the season with the same record.  And considering we were 2-6 against them over the past two seasons due to our inability to contain Kemp, Payton and Perkins, we could have used that.  (Perkins, especially, was one of the few players in the league who gave Olajuwon problems due to his range and height.)

We know that one decision in the regular season doesn’t lead to your final seeding, but I’ve never been able to forget about it.  My first experience at The Summit remains blood-stained by Robinson and Evan and kept us from having a go at Jordan.

Nick Britton
I assume that the first sporting event I went to was a minor league baseball game but I don’t remember anything about it. And when I was a young’un I saw the Washington Bullets a couple of times and the Washington Capitals once. That’s all I remember.

The first game for which I remember any details was a Seattle Mariners/Baltimore Orioles game on June 6, 1993 at Camden Yards in Baltimore. The stadium was only about a year old then. I remember this game for a couple of reasons: One, my dad had procured access to the Tyson Chicken corporate luxury box, so I got to watch the game in style; and two, there was a giant brawl in the middle of the game.

The fight I remember well but the people involved faded from my memory over the past 18 years until a friend of mine found the box score for me. I knew Harold Reyonlds, Mike Mussina and Norm Charlton were involved and that Lou Piniella got thrown out for a temper tantrum. It was an epic fight by baseball standards, and it started as baseball fights usually do: Team A’s pitcher throws at or hits Team B’s batter and then Team B’s pitcher retaliates shortly thereafter. In this case, Chris Bosio of the M’s went headhunting and Mike Mussina of the O’s nailed some dude I’ve never heard of. Fight!

What I remember most was how the fight never seemed to end. Usually, these things end quickly and everyone’s standing around. The guys from the bullpen run in just to get some cardio in. But this fight just kept going on and on. The pile kept moving around the infield like those cups in that cup game they always throw up on the video board. Fights were breaking out all over the place. McNulty and Bunk tried to break things up until the umpires stopped them (the police did try to intervene). Apparently, Ripken was at the bottom of that mess. Everyone in the stadium was standing up just in awe of a real, honest-to-god fight on the baseball diamond. I was pretty sure it was the greatest thing I’d seen in my 14 years of life so far.

The end result: Chris Bosio broke his collarbone for the second time that season. Two guys on the O’s got all bloodied up. Norm Charlton threw some punches. Eight players were ejected, including Piniella (shocker).

I only knew who won thanks to the box score. But two teams brawling out all over the diamond, that’s the kind of thing that sticks with you. The only equivalent would be Pedro Martinez throwing Don Zimmer to the ground like a bag of flour. But I wasn’t there for that.

Oh, and Cal Ripken? Ripken lived to see another day (or so).

Andrew Feingold
Technically, the first game I ever went to was Rockets vs. Knicks at Madison Square Garden on December 3, 1983, when my mom was pregnant with me. When I was old enough to hear this story, I instantly became a Knicks fan. During the 1983-84 season, the Knicks finished 47-35 and lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Celtics. As a Knicks fan, this was just the beginning of losing series to playoff rivals. Hubie Brown was the coach of the team at the time, and to this day he remains one of my favorite announcers to hear on the radio.

C.D. Hale
Survivor Series ’94. San Antonio. Freeman Coliseum. I was 12, and our poor asses smuggled food in from the outside, a pseudo-white trash family of four taking in the ‘rasslin for the night. Couldn’t have enjoyed it more, particularly when Undertaker extracted revenge by defeating Yokozuna in a casket match. The special enforcer for that main event match? A Mr. Chuck Norris, the man who doesn’t read books, but rather, stares them down until he gets the information he wants.

Sean Koo
In September ’94, my dad took my brother and me to our first Buccaneers game. It was at the Old Sombrero against the New Orleans Saints, and little did I know that this would be the start of my hatred of the ‘Aints. In the midst of the Bucs’ thirteen year run of losing seasons, Sam Wyche was trying to put a consistent winner out on the field, but even his Super Bowl resume couldn’t get it done in Tampa. In a game that you could call a “defensive showdown” or an “offensive letdown,” the Bucs lost to the Saints 9-7. It would be a couple of more games until I saw my first win, and years until my first winning season, but being in the stadium for the first time and taking in the experience in all of its smash-mouth-football glory had me hooked. Buccaneer football at the Old or New Sombrero was the only way to go.

Sreesha Vaman
My first sporting event was a Capitals regular season game against the Minnesota North Stars in 1987, but it wasn’t the first one I was supposed to go to.

On November 1, 1985, my Capitals hosted an early-season home game against the New York Islanders—those New York Islanders, who had won four straight Stanley Cups and came one win away from a fifth.  Bossy.  Trottier.  Smith.  Potvin.  Gillies.  LaFontaine.  Two Sutters.  Tonelli.  A stacked line-up, one of the greatest teams ever assembled in the NHL.

So needless to say I was excited for weeks when my friend told me that his dad got four tickets to the game from work, and I was getting the fourth ticket.

The day before the game, I stayed out playing night roller hockey with my friends in the cold Indian summer air wearing a t-shirt and shorts… and got sick.  I could barely move the next morning.  I skipped school, slept as much as I could, but couldn’t convince my mom I was healthy enough to go to the game.

The 4pm vomiting didn’t help my cause.

At 5pm I succumbed, and another friend went to the game.  I watched the Caps beat the Isles, 5-3, on television.  My friend’s dad brought me a Capitals team calendar, which was the promotion that night.

Missing that game was a source of inspiration from then on, though: I watched every minute of every Capitals game on TV (unless I went to the game in person) from that year until I went to college outside of the DC area 12 years later.

In my junior and senior year, there was some home tape-delaying involved since I was working, playing club hockey, and, for a little bit, entertaining a girlfriend who wasn’t a sports fan; go figure—but I made it happen.

Still, I wondered how great it would have been to see my Caps perfect the upset (pun intended!) against the vaunted 1980s Islanders.

I still am jealous to this day.

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.