Last night at the WWE TLC pay-per-view, long-time indy favorite and beloved smallish pro wrestler Daniel Bryan did the unthinkable: He pinned a 500-pound wrestling giant to win the World Heavyweight Championship. When the above picture of fellow champion CM Punk and Bryan surfaced, comparisons to the late, regaled and internationally celebrated Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero were instant: Two scruffy, 200-pound darlings of the hardcore type of fan had finally made it in the land of storybook monsters and mythological heroes. Think this is going to last very long? History tells you not to bet on it.
What seems like a million years ago but was really only in 1992, the WWF was staving off the symptoms of internal sex, drugs and rock-and-roll scandals. A handful of then-current and then-past WWF employees were being accused of sexual exploits with under-aged, starry-eyed, same-sex nubiles. Vince McMahon was being implicated in stories from women painting him an insatiable sexual monster. Multi-time champion, world-renown hero and No. 1 merchandise peddler Hulk Hogan needed a break after eight years, not because Hulkamania no longer went wild but because the gravy train took a stop at “The Arsenio Hall Show,” where the 800-pound orange gorilla lied about his steroid use (“One time, brother,” and the needle had been stuck there ever since, dude), an issue that would put McMahon on trial for the better part of the next 18 months.
Without the Hulkster to weigh down the company, the WWF went in a few different directions with its headliners and championships. This experimentation was largely unheard of for the billion-dollar company; it had sold out arenas with the same guy on top since Bruno Sammartino’s inaugural eight-year reign. (Sure, Bob Backlund, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, was a pale, smallish guy, but a lot of other, bigger wrestlers headlined those cards.) Tinkering with success was simply not in the WWF formula, until fate (and the company’s own misgivings) forced its hand. Thankfully, in 1991, McMahon had brought in Ric Flair, largely considered the greatest professional wrestler ever, to be the chief antagonist, first for Hogan, then for famed star Roddy Piper, and later for Macho Man Randy Savage. It was with Savage that Flair battled for the WWF Championship, a prize normally held by someone who either weighed or looked like he could bench-press 300 pounds.
With the steroid issue bringing the WWF’s roster of physiques into question, McMahon began putting the belt on smaller, yet very accomplished wrestlers: first Flair, then Savage, then Flair again. But the writing was on the wall; one Wembley Stadium 80,000-plus sellout aside, box offices were dwindling as the WWF moved away from Goliath-versus-goliath main events. If there’s one other thing the McMahon family has always had a penchant for besides Herculean physiques, it’s Samoans.
Enter the 500-pound Japanese sumo powerhouse, Yokozuna. Yoko wasn’t always 500 pounds. Hell, he wasn’t always Japanese. Rodney Anoai, of the legendary Anoai Samoan family, followed in his uncle Afa the Wild Samoan’s footsteps and began wrestling in 1984 under the name the Great Kokina. Surely, McMahon and his scouts were keeping an eye on Kokina, whose lineage as a wrestler paralleled McMahon’s as a promoter. The McMahons had relied on Afa, brother Sika, blood uncle Peter Maivia, and other “islanders” up and down the card, but gargantuans like Hogan, Andre the Giant, King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd always seemed to find their way to the main event.
To have such a large wrestler with such traditional roots on McMahon’s roster? What a scoop!
With his jingoistic promoter’s eye on the man he’d soon turn into a 500-pound former sumo and future WWF champion, and with the Ric Flair experiment gone monetarily awry, McMahon decided to transition his championship to a man who a) rarely if ever missed a shot, b) wasn’t as old (and wise and political and volatile) as Randy Savage, c) wasn’t leaving the company like Flair was about to, and d) was such a mark for himself that he’d gladly accept the title, because, shucks and darn it, he’d prove to that crusty old McMahon that smaller but internationally recognized, hard-working wrestlers like himself could win over fans and sell out stadiums worldwide.
Give it to poor, gullible Bret Hart.
Now, to be fair, Hart, who’d been a WWF wrestler for eight years up to this point and was gaining in popularity given his tenure as a tag team and Intercontinental champion, had just sold out Wembley Stadium in London… along with his English counterpart (and brother-in-law, and long-time opponent and traveling partner) Davey Boy Smith, the British Bulldog. He’d been a part of a number of huge shows – WrestleMania III in front of 93,000 fans, numerous packed crowds at Madison Square Garden – but he’d never been given the chance to carry the ball. Given Hart’s crisp, believable in-ring style, commentator and Mc-Right-Hand-Man Gorilla Monsoon gave Hart the moniker “the Excellence of Execution.”
The thing is, Hart believed the hype. Yes, he was damn good in the ring. His interview skills – his ability to “cut a promo” that would excite the ticket-buying public – were untested and questionable, but he hid his camera shyness under a cheap pair of giveaway glasses and, thus, had an air of coolness to him. And he had a lineage of his own: His father, Stu, was a legend in Calgary, mostly self-made, as tends to happen with the owner of the promotion for which he wrestles. Stu had stretched and beaten them all, and in fact had trained most of them, too, including all of his sons, who entered professional wrestling in some capacity via Stu’s promotion, Stampede Wrestling.
In 1984, in the throes of empirical acquisition mode, Vince McMahon bought out Stampede Wrestling and agreed to take on a handful of wrestlers on the roster, including the skinny but well-traveled Bret Hart. Some of the wrestlers panned out, most didn’t, and even more never got a job. Bret bulked up from about 190 to 230, donned a pink-and-black outfit, worked as a heel alongside established manager Jimmy Hart (no relation), and, over the next eight years, became one of the 4-5 more popular wrestlers on the roster.
Number one? Time would tell, but not for long.
With Charlotte-N.C.’s Ric Flair rumbling about leaving the WWF for his home territory, the Southern-based World Championship Wrestling, and with Savage not drawing the kind of money a long-time headliner should have been, McMahon put his top trophy on Bret “Hitman” Hart in October 1992. Have you seen that match? If you look hard enough on YouTube, you might find it. If you were one of the most diligent watchers of cheaply produced Coliseum Home Videos in the 1990s, you probably saw it. The match didn’t occur at WrestleMania, it wasn’t on pay-per-view, and a few minutes worth of clips may have made Prime Time Wrestling and/or Superstars. It’s actually a great 25 minutes of wrestling, worthy of entertaining a “smart” crowd not solely conditioned to react whenever a 400-pound man gets bodyslammed one time. Flair would leave the WWF three months later and not see a final run as a title contender. However, the heel side of the WWF’s roster was thin: Perennial contender Mr. Perfect was sidelined with an injury due to years of “proving small guys can do it, too” just like Hart (and keeping up with the McMahons by carrying about 40 extra pounds of muscle on his naturally slight frame didn’t help); fellow Minnesotan Rick Rude left for WCW, where steroid and drug testing was not very stringent; and the 6-foot-9, chiseled-from-stone Sid Justice was petering out as a psychopathic character due to unintentionally garbled interviews and plodding wrestling matches.
But when the government is breathing down your neck as allegations of steroid use and trafficking swirl, and your once-best bets are benched because they look a little too water-logged, how do you continue to go with what you know?
You ask a 400-pound Samoan to eat a shit-ton of sushi.
And thus was born Yokozuna, who, with long-time stereotype of a manager Mr. Fuji by his side, debuted in October 1992 as…
Wait, he made his television debut the same month that Bret Hart won the WWF Championship? Things that make you go “hmmm”…
… as the 505-pound sumo wrestler ready to take on the superstars of the World Wrestling Federation. By January 1993, he’d squashed (literally and figuratively) everyone in the company en route to winning the 30-man Royal Rumble match, which guaranteed him a title shot against Hart at WrestleMania IX. WrestleMania, generally considered the grandest stage in pro wrestling, is now also considered a launching pad to stardom, in wrestling and in the mainstream.
Which means Hulk Hogan simply couldn’t stay away.
WrestleMania IX was set to take place in its smallest venue in… carry the X… nine years, a makeshift outdoor arena at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. With only about 7,000 tickets sold, Hogan was wooed back by the chance to wrestle at the biggest grossing pay-per-view of the year… by name, anyway. He’d basically get a night off, teaming with his best buddy Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake against the aforementioned tax agent Irwin R. Schyster and another past opponent, Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase. He’d even get to win the match against the tag team champions, albeit by disqualification, so no title changed hands. Which was good, because who needs that shitty hardware in your suitcase when, unbeknownst to most, you’re about to win the WWF Championship.
So here’s how it lays out: Bret Hart outwrestles Yokozuna for about the only 9 minutes Yoko can handle, until the last minute, when the nefarious manager Fuji throws ceremonial salt in Hart’s eyes. Yoko pins Hart, wins the title, and, with typical ‘80s heroics, Hogan runs out to save the day, beat the big Jap brother and bring the title back to the good ol’ U. S. of A.!
Certainly not back to Japan, and apparently not back to Hart’s Canada, either.
It would be a year before Hart would get another fair shake at the company’s top prize, as the increasingly heavy Yoko would win the title back from the Incredible Shrinking Hulk (maybe in his year off he forgot how to cycle) and muscle-bound mushmouth Lex Luger (whose 3.7 college GPA must have gotten lost under a dorm-room couch or something). Anyone other than Hart, really.
Such was the life of a smaller wrestler in the WWF, and not much has changed in recent times. CM Punk and Daniel Bryan today are being compared to Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit in 2004, who respectively won their championships from the 300-pound beast Brock Lesnar and the large-looming bodybuilding fanatic Triple H, son-in-law and future WWE heir. For historical perspective, Benoit was a Canadian wrestler influenced heavily by former WWF tag team champion Dynamite Kid, whose international travel brought him fame and whose hard WWF schedule brought his steroided frame to the brink of destruction; Guerrero’s father and three brothers were top wrestlers in Mexico before Eddie brought the family name to prominence in the small but loud Extreme Championship Wrestling. The two traveled together for years, rising through the ranks of WCW before bumping the glass ceiling installed by recent defectee Hulk Hogan (damn, he loves to turn up, doesn’t he?) and, after years of frustration for not being given Hogan’s ball, left for the WWF in January 2000.
Benoit’s title win at WrestleMania XX (that huge event) in Madison Square Garden (that vaunted arena) and his celebration with other champion Guerrero was a momentary celebration of… well, it’s hard to say. Was it a nod to those “smart” fans who appreciate 25-minute wrestling matches like Hart vs. Flair? Was it a wink to those who want the “smaller” guys to win the big one, although, like Hart and Perfect and Rude before them, Benoit and Guerrero had jacked up their tiny, 5-foot-8 frames to a heavily muscled 220 pounds?
Who knows, and, in Vince McMahon’s mind, who cares? By May 2004, three months after winning his title, Guerrero lost one belt to the 6-foot-5, 300-pound John Bradshaw Layfield, while three months later, after wrestling basically nobody of note, Benoit handed over the other belt to the taller, muscular, third-generation prodigal son, Randy Orton, under the watchful eye of Triple H.
And now we have CM Punk, the “agent of change” whose “pipe bomb”-like antics on the microphone (all pre-approved by WWE brass, of course) shine a light on his own hard-scrabble high-school-gym wrestling past. And now we have Daniel Bryan, a play on the man’s real name, Bryan Danielson, which became “famous” to fans who read about wrestling on the Internet daily as he utilized his Shawn Michaels-taught, Chris Benoit-influenced style to acclaim in small yet not-as-loud companies in the U.S. And now we have two wrestlers who could have come from Calgary, made names in Japan, spent time in ECW, become beloved by the most hardcore of wrestling fans, been picked up by World Championship Wrestling, gotten frustrated and quit…
No, that’s all too convenient. What we have are two men who don’t fit the WWE mold, who will probably themselves never headline WrestleMania (although Punk is certainly closer to doing so than butt-of-jokes Bryan), and whose comparisons to Guerrero and Benoit should hit closer to home than they were meant to. A similar parallel article could be written likening current top babyface John Cena’s ascension to and retention of the throne to that of Hulk Hogan’s. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Put Punk over in his hometown of Chicago, or for the WWE Title, or on a secondary or tertiary PPV all you want, but where there’s a Cena or Triple H, there’s simply no way.