Last week on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s podcast, the host was interviewing Leon White, a.k.a. Big Van Vader, about his early days working in Vern Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. Austin asked about the Rockers — the tag team of Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty who got their start there. “Did you see greatness on those guys at an early age?” Austin asked. Vader answered with what seems like the industry’s consensus opinion: “They were talented. Specifically Shawn. He had been in the business at that time for less than a year and he could have a great match in his sleep … It was impressive to see Shawn at that early age. It was just natural for him. Marty obviously was the second part of that tag team.”
Tell that to preadolescent me. I loved Jannetty. I don’t even know why — maybe it was because he was slightly older, stronger, and steadier, or maybe it was just some random decision I made for no apparent reason. But I wasn’t objectively wrong. Sure, Michaels would go on to become a legend, a performer worthy of the nickname “Mr. WrestleMania,” but Jannetty was an equal partner in that team. He was a better in-ring performer through much of their pre-WWF career.1 Jannetty had stunningly acrobatic chain wrestling moves and could pull off all the high-flying stuff that Michaels could. Even though neither of them was very good on the mic back then, Jannetty was the interview anchor. Michaels would eventually develop into one of the most memorable talkers in WWE history, but in those days he was lucky to string together two coherent thoughts.
Meaning their 1988-92 run. They were in the WWF for a few weeks in 1987 but got fired for partying too much and not taking their work seriously. That’s living the gimmick, man.
They soared to stardom wherever they went. In a wrestling business that often seemed gallingly outmoded in the MTV era, the Rockers were fresh and modern. Their tassels and neon colors and Pizza Hut sunglasses and feathery mullets matched their gymnastics in the ring. They were cool — if transparently so — in a way that other wrestlers were not. (Consider the other “Rock n Roll” tag teams of the day: As great as they were in their heyday, nobody ever called the Rock n Roll Express “cool,” and the Rock n Roll RPMs looked like creepy uncles putting on Skynyrd T-shirts to flirt with teenage girls.) The Rockers started off at the bottom in the AWA, the CWA, and finally the WWF, but the crowd’s adoration pushed them up the card quickly. They were young, they were exciting, and they were different. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t much distance in ability between Michaels and Jannetty. Picking a favorite was a matter of irrational preference.
But sometime around 1990, my passion for Jannetty began to wane and I started leaning toward Michaels. I know I wasn’t alone. Due to some backstage disputes, it was determined that the Rockers should be split up to pursue singles careers, and Vince McMahon saw Michaels as the future star.2 After a series of matches ended in the two Rockers at odds over miscommunication, fans could see that something was awry. In what is still regarded as one of the most unforgettable heel turns in wrestling history, Michaels and Jannetty met in the Barber Shop — Brutus Beefcake’s interview segment set — to patch things up, only to have Michaels, conspicuously dressed in black workout pants and a black leather jacket with no shirt underneath, superkick Jannetty and slam his head through the shop’s plate glass window.
In one of those apocryphal backstage disputes, Roddy Piper thought the same thing. He supposedly drunkenly told Jannetty that Michaels was the future star of the team and goaded them into fighting.
The rest, as they say, is history. Michaels became one of wrestling’s biggest stars for the next decade. He headlined WrestleMania five times, had four world-title reigns, was the first WWE Grand Slam Champion, and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Jannetty, meanwhile, saw his feud with Michaels abandoned when he got sentenced to house arrest for attacking a police officer; he got rehired and fired again for supposedly being drunk during a match against Michaels at the 1993 Royal Rumble; he got rehired and released in 1994 after he accidentally broke a jobber’s neck during a bout; he got rehired and asked for his release after forming the abominable New Rockers; he got rehired and released after a domestic-violence arrest forced him to no-show some bookings; and … I think you get the picture. One man cruised to the top of the mountain, and his onetime partner struggled to stay on the radar. Even if you saw Michaels as the clear-cut star of the Rockers, it would have been almost impossible to predict that their roads would have diverged so dramatically. Like all great tragic endings, it changes the way we see everything that came after it.
Not a week goes by that somebody doesn’t mention the Barber Shop window incident to me, but this week, that famous shattering has been incredibly relevant, since at the end of Monday’s Raw (SPOILER ALERT!), Seth Rollins turned on his cohorts in the Shield and joined Triple H and Randy Orton’s Evolution faction.3
Their previous third member, Batista, quit earlier in the night.
Before Monday, you could have made the case that the Shield are the Rockers of their generation. They’re young, they’re innovative, they represent a new movement in the industry, and they have sweet matching getups. Wrestling fans have come to expect these sudden, vicious tag-team breakups because of the Rockers split and a sea of other epic heel turns over the years. There was Hogan joining the nWo, the Freebirds turning on the Von Erichs, Larry Zbyszko turning on Bruno Sammartino, Cain turning on Abel. Since the Shield debuted two years ago, the one thing nobody could stop wondering was when they would split up — and, by corollary, which of the Shield’s three members would become the Michaels of the group, and which would be Jannetty. While nobody wishes the latter’s ignominy on anyone, asking the question was irresistible.
When Rollins swung the steel chair at Roman Reigns on Raw, it might not have had the poetry of a plate glass window, but it was plenty compelling. Just when WWE had lulled us into complacency with repetitive matches in the post-WrestleMania doldrums, they came out swinging — pun definitely intended — as children throughout the audience shrieked in dismay. We fans had imagined every possible iteration of the Shield’s dissolution — hell, we had even considered this one — but nobody thought it was going to happen right then and right there. And if my inbox is any indication, almost nobody suspected that Rollins would be the turncoat of the group. From the beginning, Rollins was (a not-too-distant) third on most lists of the Shield’s likely breakout stars, even though he had a record of success in the indies and WWE’s developmental territory. In the big leagues, however, Rollins just didn’t seem to have as much juice as his partners. Reigns had the look of a traditional WWE-style superstar and Ambrose had the spotlight-ready, electric character.
For the past several months, as WWE has teased fissures within the Shield, Rollins usually seemed to act as the peacemaker. Ambrose was too crazy and Reigns too steely to make amends. In the ring, all three were impressive, but Rollins excelled with his innovative move set. Even at a moment in the WWE when wrestlers like Daniel Bryan and Cesaro are importing indie technique to the mainstream, Rollins was an original. When I first profiled the Shield’s members, I called Rollins a potential five-tool guy, and though his microphone skills have always left something to be desired (like a certain Mr. Michaels early in his career), Rollins has made strides in recent months. Plus, as a member of Evolution, Rollins will be able to let Triple H handle most of the talking while Rollins develops into a more well-rounded character. He’ll get plenty of chances to shine in the ring — Rollins will be the designated workhorse of this new iteration of Evolution. He’s had the chance to work against Orton and Triple H, and now he’ll have the chance to work alongside them.
So what of Reigns and Ambrose? Are they Jannettys here just because their erstwhile pal nabbed the Shawnian boost that comes with turning heel on his compadres? Not in this case. Not by a long shot. Reigns is no less the Next Big Thing than he was last week — or last year, for that matter. WWE surely has his ascent to the throne carefully mapped out on a dry-erase board somewhere, and the company is sticking to its plan. I don’t doubt for a second that his many future championships are already in the script. And Ambrose also remains every bit the total package that he was before. He arguably benefited more than anyone in the Shield by getting to work as a good guy for the past several months, since his natural character lends itself so well to villainy, and Ambrose-style heels tend to have a ceiling. Rowdy Roddy Piper and Raven4 were never WWE world champions. Maybe proving himself as a hero will mean more opportunities for Ambrose down the line. He has been a steady hand in the ring, but he has mostly been seen as the Shield’s mouthpiece, while Reigns is the font of action-hero charisma. Both of them will have to become consistently dazzling in-ring performers to take up the slack for Rollins’s absence.
The other comparison is Brian Pillman, and we’ll sadly never know his ceiling.
I have little doubt they will, just as I have little doubt that Rollins will succeed in his new circumstances. He’ll be holding down the dark side while Ambrose and Reigns get a bump from teaming up with Daniel Bryan and/or John Cena. Unlike Jannetty (or even Michaels) back in the day, WWE already has huge investments in all three of the Shield’s original members. None of them should be expected to depart the spotlight anytime soon.
What made this “shocking” turn all the more satisfying was that it wasn’t all that shocking. In the Rockers’ day there were plenty of heel turns, but it was often a grave declaration, a full-on midcareer redirection. These days it’s status quo, part of a wrestler’s professional development. Rollins will go from hero to villain and back again several times over if he’s going to have anything resembling a Michaelsesque career — as will Reigns and Ambrose. The satisfaction comes from the realization that those wheels are in motion.
Go back and look at the Barber Shop scene. What stands out now isn’t the shock of the moment — it’s how obvious the turn is. Note Michaels’s swagger, his sly grin, his Darth Fonzie outfit, and his vile mullet. Watch the scene now and there’s no doubt that the Shawn we knew is gone. And that’s a good thing, because the Shawn we were getting in his place was way better. The superkick, the head through the window — those were signifiers of the character he would become. For a wrestling fan, that kind of gratuitous violence can be a beautiful thing to watch.
So the rumors were true. Batista “quit” the WWE on Monday night, putting his return to pro wrestling — for now, anyway — at just over four months. The overwhelming fan reaction was one of dejection, as he had only recently found his stride and reclaimed some of the magic that made him a deliciously despicable villain during his pre-Hollywood heyday. His final scene — churlishly demanding a title shot, then quitting and bidding the audience farewell with an ironic pageant wave — was a thing of beauty. It was a stark contrast to his return, when he was force-fed into the main event as a hero. During that fiasco, Batista’s bewildered response to the crowd’s boos seemed like the perfect reflection of WWE management’s inability to understand why it was a terrible idea to cast such a perfectly hateable character as a hero. And sure, for fans it’s sad to see him go, but I’m left with the overall feeling that his departure is a good thing. Regardless of the negative reaction to his return, it’s undeniable that the biggest reactions Batista got were upon his return and his departure. That’s the way the wrestling world is built these days. (And as I’ve argued, it’s also not a bad idea for the wrestlers’ health.) As good as he has been lately, this just means we’ll be even happier when he comes back again — even if we’ll show it by trying to boo him back into outer space.
Payback and Other Supercards
Sunday was WWE’s Payback pay-per-view, which, despite my misgivings, turned out to be a really fun show. There were several good matches — Cesaro-Sheamus, Paige–Alicia Fox, Rusev–Big E — and some fun scenes, like poor Hornswoggle getting his head shaved (I use that term loosely) and Brie Bella slapping the piss out of Stephanie McMahon. The two biggest matches of the night, Cena–Bray Wyatt and the Evolution-Shield elimination match, lived up to the hype. Sure, there weren’t any big surprises — Cena won his match in the most John Cena way imaginable — but WWE was saving the shock for Monday. It was reassuring to see that even when there’s no big “moment” to build around, WWE can put on a good show.
If there was any doubt that WWE could pull off a good, old-fashioned rasslin’ card, one didn’t need to look any further for assurance than Thursday’s NXT Takeover show on the WWE Network. If you missed it, stop what you’re doing now and watch the amazing match between Sami Zayn and the increasingly compelling Tyler Breeze. The bout pitting Ric Flair’s daughter Charlotte against Nattie Neidhart (with Flair in one corner and Bret Hart in the other) had all sorts of nostalgic charm, and NXT champ Adrian Neville versus Tyson Kidd was every bit the acrobatic exhibition you’d hope it to be.
While I’m at it, if you still haven’t seen the Ring of Honor–New Japan War of the Worlds show, watch that too. It might not have the slickness of WWE, but that’s the point. And the in-ring work was off-the-charts good: Nakamura vs. Steen was just incredible (and maybe Steen’s swan song before he inks a rumored WWE deal), Michael Elgin vs. AJ Styles vs. Okada was epic, and the reDRagon–Young Bucks tag match was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Plus, Jushin Liger wrestled, which should be exciting to anyone old enough to remember WCW Monday Nitro.
Your Obligatory Daniel Bryan Update
So Bryan had neck surgery a few weeks back, and they’re dragging out his return to action with almost lifelike uncertainty. And that, sadly, is because it is real life. Stephanie McMahon announced Monday that if Bryan is healthy, he’ll face Kane for the title at next month’s Money in the Bank show, and if he’s not, the title will be awarded to the winner of that night’s Money in the Bank match. And as far as I can tell, that’s not a story line — it’s actually the WWE front-office plan. Having it play out on the air is a little unsettling — you can sense the trepidation in the storytelling as it’s happening — but at least they’re keeping the strap on Bryan, and honoring that the real-life challenges of the Reality Era’s first transcendent star can’t be tossed aside for the purposes of mythmaking. Bryan’s real-life obstacles are the mythology. Hopefully he’ll be back to full strength soon, but if he’s not, there are two new-school studs ready to take his place in Reigns and Ambrose, newly solidified in their heroic bona fides by Rollins’s betrayal. Let’s hope they’re ready for it. The last thing WWE needs now is another Marty Jannetty.