Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1980’s I was naturally a huge fan of Mike Schmidt. One of my first sports memories is of Michael Jack’s chase to 500 home runs. After hitting 500 he chased down Mel Ott, Eddie Matthews and Ernie Banks. Next up was Ted Williams. This may seem significant only because Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters of all time. To me there was more significance because Ted Williams was my grandfather’s favorite player. I recall the night Schmidt hit his 521st home run, tying him with Williams. I was watching with my grandfather and he couldn’t have been more disgusted, saying that Schmidt wasn’t half the player Williams was, how the game was so much better back then. I hated the thought of that, even at just eight years old, that something had somehow gotten worse. Twenty years later, I became guilty of the same type of thinking.
I’ve mentioned before that I took about a six year hiatus from pro wrestling. My reason for doing so was that I thought the current group of wrestlers weren’t as good as the ones I loved most. Shawn Michaels, Randy Savage, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Ric Flair and the list goes on. That crop of wrestlers that were relatively new in 2008 are now the old guard. I missed out on most of the careers of guys like John Cena, Randy Orton, CM Punk and Dolph Ziggler because I wasn’t willing to accept the changing of the guard. I didn’t want to believe the next wave could be as good as the last one. I know I’m not the only person who’s ever done it, but it’s just so unpleasant to be that person that is unwilling to accept the inevitability of progress. I made the mistake of listening to the Vince Russo review podcast of WrestleMania 32 with Disco Inferno and those are two guys who suffer from this problem.
Vince Russo typically doesn’t draw the same type of venom from me as many other wrestling fans. That’s mostly because he’s entitled to his opinion and often times I think he makes some good points. But that WrestleMania show was nothing but needless negativity in “bro” wrapping paper. Both guys insisted that performers fans love, namely Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn aren’t over. That they are marks themselves and that they appeal only to marks. That they aren’t really as good as we think they are. Earlier this week he went out of his way to say that Owens and Zayn aren’t great workers, they are great tumblers. He said he believed everything Bret Hart and Ric Flair did in the ring. He called the current crop of fans idiots for even using the term worker. Russo even went so far as to say the crowds at live events are like trained monkeys, reacting to everything as WWE tells us to.
If that were the case, would Roman Reigns be getting booed? Would fans be chanting for CM Punk still? Would fans still be doing the “What?” chant? Now don’t get me wrong, the last two of those three things annoy me to no end, but I will never agree that WWE fans just do as WWE tells them. There is definitely a rebellious spirit to most crowds to the point that it sometimes takes away from the show. So Vince, in my eyes, you are someone who still thinks pro wrestling needs to be done the way it used to be. That pro wrestling IS as it used to be. I was of this thinking at one time, but have realized that despite the flaws of today, there has still been progress. No sport is the same now as it was 20 years ago. Athletes continues getting stronger and faster. The games themselves are played at a higher pace. Pro wrestling is no different. The performers are in better shape, take better care of themselves and are, on average, more athletic than ever. That lends itself to the state of the product. And no current storyline spotlights this than the Intercontinental Championship picture, featuring the champion The Miz, Cesaro and the aforementioned Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn.
Calling back to an earlier statement, Miz is one of the performers I didn’t care for back in 2008 who is now almost an elder statesmen. He is 11 years in the company, he has been a WWE Champion, as much as that bothers many. He is currently in his fifth reign as Intercontinental Champion. He is doing arguably his best work ever as an arrogant, vain, self absorbed heel with his beautiful wife Maryse at his side. He’s consistently generating heat and is never in danger of being a heel that crowds cheer for. The work he’s doing is helping to get over the babyfaces in this feud, Sami Zayn and Cesaro. And while he will team up with Owens on occasion, he doesn’t care much for him either.
Cesaro has been criticized often for his inability to present a compelling character on TV. Vince McMahon himself said as much in his interview with Steve Austin. I thought he was coming along in that area as part of a tag team with Tyson Kidd, a run that was eventually cut short due to Kidd’s injury. He’s had starts and stops since and even suffered his own injury. He is trying this 007, Jason Statham-esque character that doesn’t seem like an improvement, but his work in the ring more than makes up for it. His variety of European uppercuts, the Cesaro Swing and his brute strength are enough to captivate any WWE crowd. And with the cast of characters around him, he isn’t required to add as much on the microphone.
Sami Zayn is arguably the most sympathetic babyface on the roster. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I can’t think of anyone that has captured his underdog spirit since Daniel Bryan. He hasn’t built up to Bryan’s level yet or even close, but he’s making strides. While his athleticism and fluidity are a joy to watch, that isn’t what impresses me most about him. As a wrestler who was masked for years, I’m amazed at his ability to express himself with his face. It is one of his biggest strengths, at least on TV. He also manages to convey his love for what he does and the appreciation he has for the opportunity to do it on the biggest possible stage.
I figured I’d leave my favorite of this group for last, Kevin Owens. There really is nothing the guy does that doesn’t turn into gold. First, his work in the ring is incredible. He has strength and power as you’d expect from a guy his size, but he compliments it with surprising athletic ability. His array of offense from the top rope and the ring apron rival anyone in the company. His Bullfrog Splash has been a revelation, whether it’s from the top rope or onto the floor and whether he hits or misses it. He also has an amazing ability to interact with the crowd and his opponent during a match. He consistently finds the most hilarious ways to verbally get under everyone’s skin.
On the microphone, his promos are always great. He can be cocky and condescending. He can be violent and ruthless. He can be equally a petulant, whining, spoiled, entitled baby, in a similar way to Chris Jericho. He also may even be the best commentator in WWE at the moment. Right down the the way he wears JBL’s hat and kicks his feet up on the table. He is a mark and his attention to the tiniest of details in everything he does is the main reason today’s fans love him so much. The only real criticism you can hit him with is his physique, which isn’t a big deal. I’ve defended Roman Reigns, saying not everyone is going to be a worker like AJ Styles or Sami Zayn and not every worker should be. If they were all the same it would be boring. Well not every wrestler should be built like Roman Reigns or John Cena. If everyone looked the same it would also be boring.
In addition to the talent involved, a key part of the story is that they are making it feel like that belt matters. Each time they’ve come into contact with each other, one of them closes the segment holding the belt high. Not in the comedic way everyone was taking turns stealing the Intercontinental Title leading up to WrestleMania 31, but in a way that shows they want it in their possession. That has been the problem with the mid card titles for a while, that no one cares about them and these four men are changing that perception every week.
Another reason I’m enjoying this story so much is that the Intercontinental Championship was always known as the worker’s belt. Apologies to Vince Russo, but finally the best workers in WWE are fighting to make it the worker’s belt once again, bro.
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