Push or Pull: Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit in 2004
Vol. III Ed. XL
Written by: Dr. Trevor Hunnicutt
March 2, 2004
As a booker, one of Paul Heyman’s resounding strengths is hiding the weaknesses and highlighting the strengths of his characters. Heyman had and continues to have an amazing understanding of what a performer has to offer, and how he can best use what the performer has, and hide what they don’t. It has been apparent since Heyman’s former champions, like Taz, and as recent as Big Show, during Heyman’s former stint as lead booker for the SmackDown! product, when he did perhaps the best job of displaying Show as a monster, while everyone else simply tried and failed, because of their lack of rooting in the successes of André the Giant, who was a worse wrestler than Show, and was one of the biggest national stars in the 1980s, with a ton of credibility. Historically, Heyman was not the best to do this or the first, he just came around in a time when his moves could be better examined on a critical level. McMahon might even be a more worthy example of hiding weaknesses because he has done it in high profile cases.
A more critical fan will look at McMahon’s successes differently because McMahon, while being successful with performers in high-profile areas, has demonstrated a lack of comfort and success with making champions out of nothing. For every Hulk Hogan (well, there is only one Hogan), there are dozens of Lex Lugers and Kevin Nashs, overrated bad workers with good charisma depending on when you caught them in their careers. The one-year world championship reign of Nash, as Diesel, from November of 1994, was one of the most unsuccessful in the history of the company. After Steve Austin, McMahon has admittedly been unable to bounce back and create a profound new star. The main draw in the company is still Austin, on past reputation and charisma, even though he can no longer wrestle. For a company like WWE, this is a serious problem. The only notable comparison is WCW, and in their last years, people would make jokes about their reliance on old stars. The mystique was already transparent. The only successful star WWE feels that they have in their company is the world heavyweight champion, Triple H, who has a public reputation for manipulation to keep his spot, in which he has not positively drawn since late 2002, when he was already on the verge of being stale. Clearly, creation of stars, key to this business, requires a certain brand of commitment. The commitment, for example, that has been given to Triple H to the degree that it has had the opposite effect: people just get bored with it.
This leads us to the current problem. The SmackDown! brand of the company has more than surprised wrestling fans, making Eddie Guerrero, standing 5-8, the first Hispanic champion of the promotion since 1971’s Pedro Morales. Not as a transitional champion. Not as a joke champion. But as a real champion! And with a good storyline to back up his victory. Talk about a coup. WWE has shown a surprisingly refreshing commitment to Eddie Guerrero. Early indications show the fans like it too. Guerrero’s wrestling career is perfect for a made-for-TV movie. Moreover, the Guerrero victory is WWE at its best. Yes, WWE, where modern business meets old wrestling fundamentals to create one of the best entertainment spectacles around the world. Where 80s British star Fit Finlay and scriptwriter David Lagana and one of the best promoters ever’s daughter Stephanie McMahon and world-class athletes like Kurt Angle can gather around a table and be productive.
Well, it isn’t quite that easy, unfortunately. As surprising and wonderful it is that WWE decided to show commitment to Eddie Guerrero, Guerrero was already self-made. He took the problems that everyday people face, and turned it around. Now he’s a God-fearing man with a rock-solid life outside of wrestling that will shield him from self destructing on his path to success. As far as the business, he has tons of charisma, and tons of ability. WWE has already spent too much time ignoring the apparent with Guerrero—that he’s a ready-made star, and ignoring the possibilities with the Hispanic market. Finally, Guerrero is just one man, and as many doors as are being opened with him, WWE needs to commit to making more than one star right now, or else they’ll have the same problem in years to come. The work they do now with people like Guerrero and Cena will affect the product for the coming 1-3 years, just as the mistakes of 2001 and 2002 are killing the company now just as much as 2003. (Developmental has an even more long-term impact.) It’s the importance of making new stars that makes the company’s recent failures with Chris Benoit that much more problematic.
With almost two decades of experience and a tremendous amount of working ability, Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame inductee Chris Benoit is another good example of a tremendous worker who, for one reason or other, hasn’t really made it to the top level of competition in the business. He has come close, but his lack of star-level charisma has kept him back from not being pushed at the top level. This year, Benoit was given one of his best opportunities yet, winning this year’s Royal Rumble match after entering as the #1 competitor and going the distance, and then switching brands and challenging Triple H. The timing plucked him right in the middle of a feud between H and Shawn Michaels, after two inconclusive matches, a 29 minute, 17 second draw on the 12/29 RAW, and a double count-out result in their 23 minute, 5 second Last Man Standing match at the Royal Rumble. Politically, it’s a tough situation to be put into, but it’s an opportunity nonetheless. After an amazing Pat Patterson designed Royal Rumble match, and good, simple booking prior to that, everything has been booked miserably. Small problems killed Goldberg from having the desired effect, and I would venture to say that Benoit is a weaker challenger than Goldberg for so many reasons. WWE’s lack of commitment to Benoit is doubly damaging to Benoit.
The two key problems with what’s being done with Benoit is (1) the dilution of the Triple H-Benoit match, by adding Michaels, and (2) the portrayal and characterization of Benoit.
I think it was interesting to have Michaels involved and competing for the shot at the title. It adds an element of surprise to the show (for the same reasons that three-way feuds spice up the television before other PPVs) and does a great job in showing that the World Championship is the goal of every wrestler. However, making the title match a triple-threat match with Michaels in it has been misconceived, and possibly politically motivated. A triple-threat match will make for a weak match, even if it adds a nice tonal element to the TV shows. If it’s within the control of bookers, as this feud is, anything that tampers with the possibility of success of one of the main event matches at WrestleMania should be averted. Also, since Benoit is so weak already, a triple-threat match will only work to get him lost in the shuffle. What Benoit needed, immediately, was a strong one-on-one feud with Triple H. After building Benoit up with the feud, a triple-threat match with Michaels at the weak-looking April Backlash show would be well timed.
Quite frankly, the overall presentation of Benoit is disgusting. Since he’s not great on the mic, the problem solving option of choice, for WWE, was to put him in the middle of discussions between Michaels and Triple H. By ignoring Benoit, he is portrayed as less worthy than Michaels, meaning that his quest for the title is devalued and if he were to win the title, he would not be accepted as a serious champion, his victory considered a fluke. I’m fine with the Triple H and Ric Flair promos (reference Ric Flair at the Royal Rumble and Triple H before the contract signing on the 2/9 Raw) about Chris Benoit being less than and unable to reach HHH’s level, but once that makes up the entirety of the portrayal of Benoit, he is hurt.
This failure is not a new problem, and extends past Benoit. Benoit is another example of WWE’s sabotage of its own characters, which has included Goldberg, Kane, Rob Van Dam, Booker T (remember his feud with HHH last year going into WrestleMania?), and many others. I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to accept that with the long line of competitors that Triple H has faced, only Shawn Michaels could “deliver.” Linda McMahon has repeatedly defined one of the main problems facing the company as being their inability to create and solidify new stars. If the booking teams led by Chris Kreski and Vince Russo could, but the booking team led by Stephanie McMahon, Brian Gewirtz, David Lagana, and Michael Hayes just can’t, then I’d suggest that WWE find someone who can… who can do more than respond to a trend 4 months to late.
Either way, its do or die time. If WWE can keep the quality of the product up past WrestleMania, then they’ll really have something to brag about besides how well they can cut costs. A commitment to the success of new stars including and beyond Eddie Guerrero is a good first step. And Paul E. might not be that bad a person to learn from.
I welcome your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.