4. He’s The New Bret Hart, But He’s Also The New Mick Foley…
Picture the scene: its April 4th, 1993. The WWF has come to Caesar’s Palace, Nevada for its ninth annual WrestleMania event. But things aren’t looking too good for The World Wrestling Federation…
Two years earlier, in July 1991, Dr. George Zahorian had been convicted of selling steroids to WWF wrestlers and sentenced to three years in jail. This was the beginning of the infamous ‘steroid scandal’ that would very nearly drive Vince McMahon to bankruptcy (and even bring him whisper close to a jail sentence) over the next couple of years.
One year after Zahorian’s arrest, wrestler Barry Orton (uncle of Randy) came forward and accused high-ranking WWF officials Terry Garvin and Pat Patterson of sexual misconduct, and he certainly wasn’t alone. Scandals seemed to be everywhere in early 90’s-WWF.
To make matters worse, the company’s next big star, the so-called Ultimate Warrior, had completely and utterly failed as both a Champion and a box office attraction, his appeal boiling down to a unique look, an awesome entrance and a series of nonsensical promos that make the speeches of George W. Bush look witty and urbane by comparison.
Warrior had dropped the belt to veteran grappler Sgt. Slaughter, who’s new ‘Iraqi sympathiser’ persona had seen the company attract yet more negative press with the outbreak of a full-on war in 1990…
As a result, it was up to Hulk Hogan to carry the company once again, but the Hulkster’s heart just wasn’t in it this time around. He was a movie star now, plus, the fans had seen him do his thing so many times, that even the die-hards must have been a little bit sick of it.
…Enter Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart. The best wrestler in a company that also included ‘Mr. Perfect’ Curt Hennig, ‘Ravishing’ Rick Rude and ‘Million Dollar Man’ Ted DiBiase (which really is saying something), Hart wanted to prove that he was truly ‘the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be’. His fans wanted it too.
The kids who’s older brothers and sisters still rooted for Hogan now wanted Hart as their champion. Leaner, meaner and a far better worker than Hogan, Hart had refined a new take on the classic babyface and was eager to show off what he could do. If Hogan represented The Beatles of wrestling, then seeing ‘The Hitman’ in action in ‘93 was like The Rolling Stones coming to town in ‘68.
The new era should have started there and then, at WrestleMania, the grandest stage of all. So what happened? Well, with Jim Ross wearing a toga at ringside (no, really), as almost 17,000 fans looked on, Hart should have roundly defeated monster heel Yokozuna, thus cementing himself as the star of this new chapter in WWF history. Instead, Yokozuna’s manager, Mr. Fuji, threw salt in Bret’s eyes and then Hulk Hogan came down and whupped Yoko’s Samoan ass in about thirty seconds flat. It made Hart and Yokozuna (both of whom had actually wrestled a decent main event match) look like third-rate jobbers. It also set Hart’s career back at least a year.
So, what does all this have to do with D-Bry?
Well, flash forward to SummerSlam 2013, the main event of which pitched WWE Champion John Cena against Number 1 Contender Daniel Bryan. In the storyline, Cena had handpicked Bryan to be his opponent, feeling that Bryan ‘deserved a shot’ (how delightfully condescending of him).
In reality, Cena needed time off for surgery and so was dropping the belt for a while. The usual fare in wrestling would be to have the champion job to a major heel, the nefarious villain would then (kayfabe) injure the champion, only for him to wage a triumphant return a few months later and take back the crown. Instead, kudos must go to WWE creative for doing a ‘babyface vs. babyface’ match instead and pleasantly surprising everyone.
Honestly, I think the WWE office initially saw Bryan as a transitional champion, somebody to shut up the Internet marks that constantly complain that Cena can’t actually wrestle very well (we all know that, yet they just keep telling us, over and over again ad infinitum).
However, the story that creative chose to tell with Bryan, played directly off of WWE’s (well-earned) reputation for being a ‘big Men only club’, which really struck a chord with the fanbase. Not only the die-hards, but crucially, the casual fans as well.
Casual fans in wrestling, despised by the so-called ‘smarks’ though they may be, are actually far and away the most important ones. Its true. No, just shut your mouth for a second and listen to me on this. They are akin to ‘swing States’ in American politics in that they more-often-than-not cast the deciding vote. It was the casual fans that elevated Austin to the top spot against Mr. McMahon, not the newsletters and magazines that had embiggened his noble spirit for a decade or so beforehand. It was casual fans that got The Rock’s character over and made him the star he was born to be (he now earns millions of Dollars in movie cheques every year, indicating that he has a lot of fans who could care less about wrestling). It was also casual fans that bought the WrestleMania PPV’s for the guest appearances of Mohammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Lawrence Taylor, but stayed for the ‘added bonus’ of wrestling matches. It was. You can argue all you like, but deep down, you know I’m right. Diehards may keep it afloat, but WWE owes its mega success to the intoxicated hipster revenue stream provided casual fans.
So, the vox populi has spoken and it seems to have unanimously declared Daniel Bryan to be its golden boy.
Essentially a PG-era version of the ‘Austin vs. McMahon’ feud, Daniel Bryan found himself screwed out of the WWE Championship just seconds after winning it from Cena. That night, Randy Orton walked out of the arena with the big belt, while the Daniel Bryan character limped out with a headache and a vague sense of regret.
Over the next few weeks, as Bryan tried in vain to get the belt back (having it actually stripped away by the ‘corrupt’ McMahon-Helmsley regime, even after he’d defeated Orton cleanly in the centre of the ring), he elicited not only sympathy, but also a good deal of admiration from the fans.
The Internet fans were happy to see a smaller guy (and an amazing worker) breaking through at the top level but, to paraphrase The Rock, “it doesn’t matter what they think”. Its all about the reaction from the crowd, all of them, from the bored girlfriend in the back row, to the eager, wide-eyed kid at the front and even the dumbass, gap-toothed mark who still thinks that everything he sees is actually happening for real. Bryan has charisma enough to appeal to them. All of them. And that, my friends, is a sizeable market indeed.
A vacant WWE Championship slot presently marks Bryan’s ‘reign’ as Champion, but this is actually a masterpiece of quality booking, shoring up the title’s value without hazarding an extended, Cena-esque ‘unstoppable babyface’ run (which, in fairness, may be a hard sell with Bryan). Bryan’s appeal is unorthodox and, as a result, his booking has followed suit.
Bryan’s tireless pursuit of the Championship is compelling, character-driven storytelling, with just enough truth (he stands for all the underweight super-workers who never got a shot at the big belt) to capture the imaginations of jaded, long-time fans who sat through Kevin Nash vs. Hulk Hogan matches whilst the Eddie Guerreros and Ultimo Dragons of this world toiled in mid-card obscurity.
Bryan has more personality than Cena, he has more mainstream potential and he has tons more bona-fide wrestling credibility. Don’t get me wrong; John Cena comes across as a hell of a nice guy. He’s as hard a worker as there has ever been and he does a lot for charity, but he just doesn’t have ‘it’. Whatever Cena was ever going to do has since been done. Now, Cena is the Hulk Hogan of 1993.
In this equation, then, Bryan is Bret Hart. The newer model, the ‘wrestler’s wrestler’ with the ability to sell foam fingers and T-shirts everywhere he goes. In my opinion, (and I apologize in advance for s**tting in the CeNation’s collective cereal) Cena is not capable of drawing mainstream audiences like Bryan potentially could be. There, I said it.
To repeat: I am no Cena hater, but his time is done. I think about that moment on RAW a few weeks ago, where the WWE locker room finally vanquished The Shield before jubilantly hoisting Bryan up on their shoulders. It reminded me of Bret’s first Championship victory over Ric Flair, when the locker room did the exact same thing.
It is my fervent hope that WWE doesn’t simply put the strap back on Cena once he returns from his surgery, dropping Bryan’s push and burying him as a Main Event prospect in the process. To do so would be EXACTLY THE SAME as having Hogan drop the leg on Yoko and walk out of WrestleMania IX as WWF Champion. It would be, to put no finer point on it, a travesty. A World Heavyweight Championship feud with Alberto Del Rio is far smarter booking, and I’m pleased to see that WWE appear to agree.
Oh yeah, I also said Bryan was the ‘New Mick Foley’ didn’t I?
Now, I say this not in terms of style (that’s two totally different Men right there), but in terms of outsider appeal.
Foley could not have looked less like a McMahon-certified main eventer if he’d tried, but he won the hearts of fans via a mixture of having great matches (forget the hardcore stuff, Foley is one of the best ring psychologists and story tellers in the history of the business), always giving 150% to everything he was involved in (no matter what), and employing his own unique brand of oddball, self-deprecating humour. He could make the fans laugh before he wowed them with his in-ring daring and innate storytelling ability. Even in his non-wrestling role as Commissioner, Foley was a big draw. Even as a retired wrestler, Foley draws as a stand up comedian/public speaker to this day.
In Bryan, I see almost the exact same qualities. He’s a great wrestler, just like Foley. He has a weird and unique appeal, just like Foley and he has a crazy-ass, hobo-esque beard, just like Foley.
Mick Foley got some of his biggest pops from talking to a sock, whereas Bryan gets his by sheer dint of having a beard. Foley frequently referred to himself as a ‘nerd’ or a ‘dork’, while Bryan knowingly compares himself to a ‘Hobbit’. Foley was able to bring out subtle elements of comedy from the scowling badass characters like Steve Austin, just as Bryan did with Kane.
Lastly, it could be argued that Foley got over with the WWE fans long before he got over with Vince McMahon. In the case of Foley, it was the fans that said, “Hey Vince, this guy is one in a million. You should do more with him” and with Bryan, I assure you, it is going to be the exact same deal.
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This article was first posted on October 26, 2013