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WRESTLING COLUMNS

Patient Hunger
WWE Superstar Shelton Benjamin overcomes at last to win his first WWE Championship.
May 2, 2007 by James "JT" Thomlison


CHICAGO - April 9th, 2006

Shelton Benjamin had 122 wins in his high school career. He won a Junior Collegiate Championship before heading to the University of Minnesota, where he racked up almost 40 more wins. He went on to record numerous wins as a four-time Ohio Valley Wrestling Tag Team Champion. Since then, he's had countless wins as a two-time WWE Tag Team Champion. He's impressively tallied over 100 wins as the WWE Intercontinental Champion. It would seem that Shelton knows nothing but winning, but that is not the case; and all of those wins combined aren't as important as the one he got last Monday night when he walked out of Chicago, Illinois, as the new WWE Champion.

Entering WrestleMania 22 just two days ago, Benjamin knew not to take anything for granted. "I've tasted the food at the top of the chain", said Benjamin prior to Sunday's event, "I've just never managed to get a seat at the table". I spent the last few days with Shelton, learning about his up and down road to get here, and his words echo possibly the perfect analogy.

When Benjamin was drafted to RAW in early 2004, no one was sure what to make of this young man. Sure, he excelled in a tag team environment, and - as JR would tell you - was the greatest pure athlete on the entire WWE roster. But how would he fare on his own? Would lack of experience in single's competition be his downfall? Surely he was simply not ready to step it up with the big dogs. There was just one problem with that, though. Somebody forgot to tell him that.

He made an immediate impact on the WWE's flagship program. In his first six months there, he got three wins over Triple H; arguably the most dangerous man on the roster at the time. He also beat guys like Ric Flair, Randy Orton, and Christian, and sponged knowledge while teaming with veterans like Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho. His run towards the top was halted though as he fractured his hand, taking him out of action for almost three months.

"That was really tough. I had so much momentum going, and to have it all halted instantly over a hand... ...it's not the kind of tough break you're expecting when you're doing so well."

Not to be deterred, he picked up right where he left off upon his return. Within a month of his comeback, the fans voted him into an Intercontinental Title match at the first ever WWE Taboo Tuesday. He would capitalize on this opportunity, getting an underdog victory over fan favorite Chris Jericho, and leaving Taboo Tuesday with his first Intercontinental Championship. It appeared his stock would continue to rise.

"I thought it was destiny" Shelton said Saturday night as we sat in his hotel room, "Everything seemed in place. I was back, I was winning, I was the Intercontinental Champion. I had great role models around me. To me, the sky was the limit and I was heading in one direction - up."

For a while, he was. Over the next two months Shelton rarely lost. While on his winning path he gained even more experience, taking in the lessons he learned by not only being successful as a fighting champion, but also by again teaming with some of the squared circle's most respected ring veterans such as Chris Benoit and William Regal. He was getting the best of both worlds; learning how to win on the big level while having great mentors around him. Despite his success, he never allowed his ego to turn into a lack of appreciation for what was happening around him. "I don't care who you are, and I don't care how many wins you get to notch into your belt. If you are privileged enough to be on the road learning and working out alongside someone like Chris Benoit and you aren't soaking in something, you have no place in this sport."

But again, his momentum would be halted, this time not by injury, but rather in the form of an old ghost. An old ghost by the name of Triple H. Now, don't confuse the facts. Much like before, Shelton had Triple H's number, but like most professional sports, some days you just get the ref who seems to have his eyes everywhere but the playing field. In the end, what matters is that Triple H got the win. This might normally not be such a big deal, but this was a "Beat The Clock" match, in which Shelton actually had the chance to replace Triple H in an Elimination Chamber for the World Heavyweight Championship at the January of 2005 Pay-Per-View, New Year's Resolution. Not winning this match was the second road block on his way to the top.

"It was much more difficult to me than the hand. You go down with an injury, it's rarely controllable. This match was in my in my control and I did everything I could to win. Hell, I did win. I felt robbed. It was a very conflictive night for me. I wanted it to be like the NFL and have Vince send me a letter the next day apologizing for the ref's mistake, but at the same time knew it wouldn't matter. There are no do-overs. He was heading to Resolution to fight for the world title and I wasn't. I just wanted acknowledgement from someone... anyone... that I had won that match."

He got that acknowledgement from a very influential place and a very influential person. To spend the ringing in of New Year, he returned home to Orangeburg, South Carolina, and more specifically, his mother's home. She gave him a dose of exactly what he needed, love. "Nothing grounds like you like being in the presence of your mom" he told me, "No matter what you're going through, just by being around them... they remind you that it probably doesn't compare to anything they've ever done for you. They are there no matter what."

With the support of his mother (affectionately called Mama Benjamin by her family and friends) and his community, he headed back to the WWE, knowing that his third chance at gold was around the block at the the Royal Rumble, where the winner got a guaranteed title shot at WrestleMania. He had to get through January first, and get through he did. After effortless wins (yes, two) over Maven at New Years Resolution, and the next night defeating him again for a spot in the Rumble, Shelton was primed and ready. He entered ninth, but was eliminated by Edge less than twenty minutes later, killing his hopes of not only fighting for the World Title, but headlining WrestleMania. He had hit a low, or so he thought.

"When Edge threw me out, I just laid there for a minute. I had been thrown out of the ring, but all I could think was 'you've just been thrown out of your career'." Edge took it in stride, blowing off the up-and-comer. He condescendingly remarked afterwards, "Oh, did I eliminate him?".

A month later, in a chance to get some stride back, he tapped out to Chris Benoit. It was at this point he realized he still had a lot to learn about making it in the world of Professional Wrestling. It wouldn't be long however until fate yet again threw him a lifeline to the title. He was one of the men chosen to participate in the very first Money In The Bank Ladder match at WrestleMania 21, which saw six men go at it in a dogfight in an attempt to climb a ladder and retrieve a briefcase; a briefcase which held a guaranteed title shot anywhere at anytime. In an ironic twist of luck, and despite a great effort from Shelton, it was the same man who eliminated him from the Rumble, Edge, who won the match. For the fourth time in his career, Shelton had failed at reaching the next level and receiving a title shot.

He bounced back with several wins, and then again found himself in the title hunt, this time entering the "Goldrush Tournament". His first round opponent was Shawn Michaels, probably the last person he wished to face. "It's HBK. If you ever think your odds are better than HBK's, then you've never followed HBK." In his favor though was the fact that he in fact had followed HBK, and - while nervous - felt that he had a legitimate shot against the man the wrestling world refers to as "The Showstopper". Both men put in a spectacular effort, but Benjamin's efforts fell short after a Springboard off the top rope sent him directly into a devastating Sweet Chin Music, giving Michaels the win.

He had yet again failed to capitalize on an opportunity to step up and challenge for a major championship. A month later, he lost his Intercontinental Championship to Carlito Cool. Despite being only thirty years old, he for the second time felt he had hit rock bottom.

"At this point in my career, every time I lost one of these matches, it felt like a door was closing." He said this before pausing for a while before speaking again. "I felt like every time I lost one of these matches, a door closed. I thought to myself 'some guys never even get one shot at this, and how many doors have I let close now? Five? Six?', it was tough for me, and I wasn't sure I would recover after that fight."

The next six months might have been the most troubling of Shelton's career. He had great learning experiences such as facing great competitors such as Kurt Angle, Ric Flair, Rob Van Dam, and Shawn Michaels; but he also took unexpected losses against such underdogs as Trevor Murdoch and Kerwin White. In that time, his attitude change - and not for the good. He brought his mother in to support him on the road, something many thought would be good for him. Unfortunately, she fell under the same spell he was under, and possibly did more harm than good.

I spoke with Mama Benjamin about this. "He's my baby, and he can do no wrong. At least that's what I thought. I probably become more of a problem than a solution. I came to help guide him, but ended up encouraging his ridiculous behavior. It's not something I am proud of."

Despite his behavioral issues, there was yet another door opening for Shelton, the 2006 Royal Rumble. He again had the opportunity to clinch an opportunity to challenge for a title - this time again at WrestleMania no less. With his mother under his spell, he had a very fortunate situation as he drew #28, the third best spot one can draw for the 30 man contest. As if things hadn't gone ironic enough, it was Shawn Michaels - the man who had eliminated him from the Goldrush Tournament a few months ago - who eliminated him in a matter of minutes from the Rumble. He was done.

"I was finished. I agreed to fight on because of my contract, but I basically knew I was done. I had lost all confidence and didn't think I could win a single fight," he said afterward, "My mother was the only reason I even tried."

Speaking of his mother, she became fully supportive of his outlandish behavior, even faking a heart attack to help him win back the Intercontinental Championship, something he never foresaw as his supposed doom was imminent. Even with the title, he was unmotivated. He didn't even care when he was informed that because of his championship status, he would get what seemed to be a nineteenth shot at a title match at WrestleMania 22, again as a participant in the Money In The Bank match, only the second of it's kind. It was then that karma seemed to throw him a bone.

10 days before WrestleMania, he got a call from a welcomed friend, Kurt Angle. He wanted to meet for dinner, and Benjamin agreed. Little did he know that he wouldn't only be meeting Kurt Angle, but also having dinner with Chris Benoit, another mentor from his past. I'll let Shelton's words describe it. "They didn't have to say a word, the shame was instant. I looked into both of their eyes and my head dropped. Chris (Benoit) went to open his mouth and I stopped him. I said 'It's done. Don't worry. I've got this. I understand now'. At that point we all just had a relaxed dinner. We didn't even discuss WrestleMania, we just... talked. Nothing more needed to be said on the matter. The motivation had returned. The motivation was there."

Three days before the event, he called his mother who had returned home after realizing she wasn't helping his cause. He told her to fly to Chicago. He was going to win at WrestleMania, and he wanted her to be there. She arrived at 4 p.m. on Sunday, mere hours before his match.

We sat backstage as Shelton made his original analogy to me. He was ten minutes away, and more focused than he's maybe been in his entire life. One of the arena staff entered and told him it was time. I wished him good luck and promised him I would be watching, and also be waiting when he got back. An hour later, he returned to the locker room that both his mother and I were watching from, clutching a briefcase that he knew he would have. He had six words for us.

"Hope you guys aren't going far." We weren't. We weren't going anywhere. Fortunately for me, the five other competitors had more to say, as I attended their press conferences afterwards.

Newcomer Bobby Lashley, "He was motivated, no question. I hope that when I step up for a title, I'm as ready as he was."

Veteran Matt Hardy, "He's such an amazing athlete, it doesn't surprise me that he walked away with the win."

A man of few words, Fit Finlay, "I love to fight. He loves to win. He was the better man... at least tonight."

Fan favorite Rob Van Dam, "He can do things even I can't. His athleticism is unmatched, and if I were champion, I'd watch out."

16 time World Champion Ric Flair, "You know... I've watched Shelton grow so much in this sport, and I'm not sure I've ever seen heart like that. The kid just oozes victory. It wouldn't surprise me if he challenged the champion tomorrow and ended up winning, he's just that good. I wish him the best of luck, but I doubt he'll need it. He is something special."

Flair did eventually give the press his obligatory 'WOOOOOOOOOOOO!'.

Later that night in the hotel, Shelton told us that his win at WrestleMania 22 was the second most important win of his career. The reporter in me was compelled to ask what his first was. Again, he had only a couple of words. "Tomorrow night".

As RAW started the next night, I was fortunate enough to be backstage with him, as was Mama Benjamin. The night started with Lilian Garcia saying something, but before she got out two sentences, Benjamin rushed the staged and stole her microphone. Part of me wanted to go scold him and teach him the manners of being around a lady, but the other half knew that he was just doing what he had to do. His message to the crowd and to the back was clear. He would challenge John Cena for his WWE Championship that night.

Naturally, a match of this caliber would be reserved for the main event. Because of this, I got to watch about an hour of Shelton pacing back and forth in the back. I wanted to talk to him, but I didn't want to ruin his focus. After all, this was his shot. His chance. After everything that had stood in his way, he was finally here. I offered him water once, but he declined. I felt like the catcher who should run out 90 feet and make the sushi joke to calm his pitcher down, but even that seemed inappropriate. So I sat in silence. I watched him pace, and finally, it was time.

What transpired was an epic, 48 minute battle between two of the toughest competitors in the entire sport of professional wrestling. In the end, tears ran down Mama Benjamin's face as she watched the referee raise her son's arm in victory and hand him what he had sought after for years, the WWE Championship belt.

John Cena declined talking with reporters afterwards. Shelton didn't have much to say either, but what little he did share spoke volumes and again perfectly summed up what he had accomplished.

"I finally found a seat at the big table, and I'm starving. So I plan to eat here for a very, very long time."

Bon' appetite, sir. Bon' appetite.

by James "JT" Thomlison (View/Submit your feedback here)..




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