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Legends, One and (Almost) All

Every year, World Wrestling Entertainment pays tribute to the best of its past–well, and some of the rest–at its Hall of Fame Induction, usually the night before its biggest show of the year, Wrestlemania. Yes, I still watch Wrestlemania. I know, I know, waste of time, you say…

Well, Wrestlemania weekend is upon us, and the card itself isn’t generating as much interest with me as it should. That’s pretty sad for an event that sees not only the return of the Rock, but also former Women’s Champion Trish Stratus (who is the closest anyone has ever come to being a female Rock, and was so beloved by fans and the company that she was allowed to win the title in her retirement match)–but I guess if you’ve got her tag teaming with Snooki, it sort of takes the fun out of it.

This year’s Hall of Fame class, however, is solid as usual, and even though there are a couple of head-scratchers, some of the greatest professional wrestlers ever are getting their due.

Ever since the WWE acquired the assets and tape libraries of some of its most storied former competitors, it has begun to honor men who have never competed in the promotion. A couple such men are “Bullet” Bob Armstrong and Abdullah the Butcher. Armstrong–born Joseph James–was a former Marine and later firefighter who developed a reputation in the wrestling business for being a legitimate tough guy, and won several championships in regional territories operating as part of the National Wrestling Alliance.

He also trained all four of his sons to wrestle, and here might lie the key to his induction. The best known of his brood, Brian, went on to wrestle for the WWF/E as “The Road Dogg” Jesse James, one half of the New Age Outlaws. Armstrong later appeared on national television to team with his son (wrestling at the time as B.G. James) in Total Nonstop Action.

Yes, “Bullet” Bob is a legit tough guy, even in his old age, and I won’t begrudge him having never worked for the company (Verne Gagne didn’t either, and he arguably deserved his induction). But there are a lot of legit tough guys who’ve won lots of titles, and their songs never wrestled for Vince McMahon, so they get squat. But you know, them’s the breaks, and hey, I won’t say Bob Armstrong didn’t deserve it.

Abdullah the Butcher (née Larry Shreve) is another guy who never wrestled for the WWF/E, but he made his mark as a pioneer of hardcore wrestling. It’s safe to say there wouldn’t be a Mick Foley, a Sabu, or an ECW without the Butcher. His savagery is the stuff of legend, using weapons such as chairs, water coolers, and the infamous fork he would jab into an opponent’s forehead.

Abdullah has wrestled for just about every major organization except for WWE and TNA, has feuded with foes ranging from Terry Funk and Mick Foley to Ivan Koloff and Sting, and continues to work the independents to this day. If anyone deserves to be a part of the Hall, it’s the Madman from Sudan.

But then we get to “Celebrity Wing” inductee Drew Carey…and geez, I don’t know what to say here. The WWE has a celebrity wing of its Hall of Fame, where they induct non-wrestlers who just kind of showed up at events, mainly Wrestlemanias. Carey joins such illustrious company as Pete Rose, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, and Bob Uecker.

Drew Carey’s moment to shine in the company came at Royal Rumble 2001, where he appeared to promote his Improv All-Stars pay-per-view. In a backstage segment, Carey started talking to Trish Stratus, who was having a (kayfabe) affair with Mr. McMahon at the time. (This was during her days as a valet, before she actually learned how to wrestle and became one of the best ever.) McMahon thought he was flirting and slotted the comedian in the Rumble. Needless to say, that’s more time I’ve spent talking about Drew Carey here than necessary.

“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan makes more sense, if only because he was a major name in the WWF of the late ’80s and early ’90s. His no-nonsense, super-patriot gimmick was especially over (i.e. popular) as the WWF capitalized on Gulf War jingoism. Duggan marched to the ring before every march with the flag in one arm and his trusty two-by-four in another. He hasn’t won a lot of major championships in his long career, the most notable being WCW’s United States Championship and Television Championship. However, he did win the inaugural Royal Rumble, a landmark event in WWF/E history.

Moreover, the kids loved him, and he sold merchandise. That’s what WWE is all about. I had the good fortune of meeting Duggan at a WWF house show as a shy little wrestling fan of ten years old, and damned if I didn’t leave with a big smile on my face.

I would have liked to meet Sunny, as she was becoming one of the faces of WWF as I was hitting puberty. Tammy Lynn Sytch was an ambitious blonde who got a break working in Smoky Mountain Wrestling with her boyfriend, the late Chris Candido. The two were discovered and signed by WWF, and before long, they were repackaged as Skip and Sunny, the Body Donnas, a pair of fitness-obsessed heels who taunted the excoriated the audience for their slothfulness.

Sunny became a runaway success in the WWF, and in 1996, she became the most downloaded woman on AOL. Indeed, she’s regarded as the first true WWF/E Diva as we know it, who set the template for female talent from Sable to Kelly Kelly. I don’t necessarily know if her influence was quite for the best, as it led to the rise of the “bra and panties match” down the road, but she did open a lot of doors. We wouldn’t have Trish Stratus if not for Sunny.

Then we have the Road Warriors, Hawk and Animal. I was a big fan of these guys growing up–who wasn’t in the ’80s and early ’90s. The Road Warriors, of course, took their names from the Mad Max sequel, and wore face paint and spiked shoulderpads to match. Alternately, they were called the Legion of Doom, a name they did indeed take from Challenge of the Superfriends. Pop culture origins aside, the LOD were two huge, sawed-off monsters, former bouncers who grew up together and learned their trade side by side. They were truly larger-than-life, brawlers who worked stiff and left their opponents beaten and bruised.

The Road Warriors were, along with the Fabulous Freebirds, one of the first teams of truly cool heels in its day. They looked like no one else before them, their interviews were often both hilarious and disturbing, and they really took no shit from anyone. Despite their rulebreaking ways, the fans loved them. When you’re that over with the fans, ultimately you turn face. While most heels lose their edge with a face turn, the LOD, already being hugley popular, changed nothing. All they did was fight bad guys instead of good guys, but their characters never softened. It helped that their face turn was against Ivan and Nikita Koloff (and Crusher Khrushchev, who was an old friend of theirs, Barry Darsow), who had major heat thanks to their Cold War-era gimmick.

Being inducted along side the LOD is their former manager, “Precious” Paul Ellering. Ellering was a wrestler in his day too, but transitioned into managing after a knee injury ended his in-ring career–as well as a premonition that he would one day manage the greatest tag team ever. His talent on the mic got him booked as a manager, and starting in 1983, Ellering was grouped with the Road Warriors. What made this unit special was that Ellering and the LOD developed such a trust that he not only served as their on-camera kayfabe manager, but literally took care of their financial interests out of the ring as well.

Under his guidance, the LOD really did become a force to reckon with, capturing the NWA and AWA tag titles. Later, the Warriors would venture to WWF without him, where they would win the tag belts from the Nasty Boys, becoming the first team to win every world tag championship from each major promotion of its day. (They’re one of the only two teams to do so in history, Team 3-D being the other.)

When Ellering joined his old charges in the WWF, Vince McMahon saddled him and LOD with Rocco, a ventriloquist dummy. No one liked Rocco, not even Ellering, and especially not Michael “Hawk” Hegstrand. But Hawk was a difficult man to know in general, in constant battle with his own demons of drugs and drink. His taste for the fast life and hair-trigger temper caused friction and even full-on dissent with Animal (aka James Laurinaitis). Hawk was ultimately able to conquer his vices, and reconciled with the man he called “brother” for a last run, but it was tragically cut short by his sudden death of a heart attack at age 46.

Despite Rocco’s unfortunate involvement, it’s about time the Legion of Doom and Precious Paul were inducted into the Hall.

But there may be no one more eligible for induction than Mr. Wrestlemania himself, the “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels.

I’ve written before about Shawn Michaels and his storied career, and better writers than me have written even more. There are cries of “too soon,” as he just retired last year after losing to the Undertaker. There may even be some cynicism, that his induction was pushed up thanks to a storyline between his best friend Triple H and the Undertaker. (The two will meet in a No Holds Barred match at Wrestlemania.)

But you know, Shawn Michaels was going to be inducted sooner or later. The Showstopper has pretty much done it all, and done just about all of it in WWE. He’s a four-time world champion, a six-time tag team champion, a three-time Intercontinental Champion, and a two-time Royal Rumble winner, one of only three men to win back to back Rumbles (along with Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin). He’s been in some of the most memorable matches of all time, and could have a great match with anyone. While his career has seen its share of controversy (most of it stemming from this one night in Montreal), he’s been able to rise above it and deliver some of the greatest moments ever in the sport, business, whatever you want to call it. So hell, Shawn Michaels in the Hall. I’m down.

Of course, as this is run by WWE and not an independent entity, many question the credibility of the Hall of Fame, and rightly so. Again, there are more than a few dubious inductions, and some glaring omissions. (Bruno Sammartino should have been there by now, and despite my disgust at the Celebrity Wing, Cyndi Lauper needs to be recognized.) The rules governing induction are…inconsistent if they even exist beyond Vince McMahon’s whims.

And yet, it’s hard to argue that there are people who absolutely deserve to be there. Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, Ric Flair, Fabulous Moolah and Wendi Richter…these men and women are now joined by the Road Warriors, Sunny, and Shawn Michaels, fitting inductions if there ever were. And these legends wait for generations to come to join their ranks.

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