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WRESTLING COLUMNS

The Best: Past, Present & Future
May 4, 2006 by Langdon Beck


One of the most common questions asked by wrestling fans involves the "best". This usually concerns the time period when wrestling was at its best, and who exactly the best wrestlers on the planet are.

The most frequent response to the first question: the years between 1997 and 2001, more often known as the Attitude Era. Epitomised by the WrestleMania X-Seven pay per view, it was during this time that it actually became uncool NOT to watch wrestling, rather than vice versa. The quality of one promotion caused another to work harder and improve. Ratings were consistently high, and audiences were consistently entertained, but not always by the wrestling (of which there was never a particularly large amount). The massive upswing in popularity was largely due to the storylines and characters, and so those wrestlers with successful storylines and characters, like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Undertaker and The Rock, were considered the "best".

The previous generation, however, would probably associate the peak of wrestling with the mid-to-late 1980s. There was the huge popularity of the WWF, with wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Ultimate Warrior, and Randy Savage, and shows like WrestleMania and Saturday Night's Main Event. For fans in other parts of the US, there were the likes of Jerry Lawler, Terry Funk, the Four Horsemen, Ricky Steamboat, the Freebirds and more. Wrestling had never - and has never been - bigger than it was in the UK during these years, with Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks reaching high levels of fame, and with events also featuring technical mastery from Rollerball Rocco, Dynamite Kid, Fit Finlay, and Marty Jones, there was something for everyone.

If you are of a more old-school sensibility, then there was likely no better time than the later years of the 1970s and the early 1980s (and earlier). As for the reasons why, and who made it so good ... well, that would depend on where you were from, at least from a fan's perspective. If you were a performer, then moving around different territories was the best thing you could possibly do to improve your skills.

The early and mid- 1990s may not have been great for storylines or ratings like the latter part of the decade, but for fans who liked pure wrestling action and in-ring athleticism, there was so much to enjoy. Bret Hart, Owen Hart and Davey Boy Smith in WWE, Chris Benoit, Eddy Guerrero, Dean Malenko and Scorpio in ECW, the luchadors and cruiserweights who came to the US in 1995, All Japan heavyweights such as Stan Hansen, Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada, New Japan junior heavyweights like Jushin Thunder Liger, Great Sasuke, and Super Delfin, not to mention the classic events, for example 1994's Super J Cup tournament.

Fans of independent wrestling may look to 2002 and 2003 as a high point. With AJ Styles, Low Ki, Jerry Lynn, Christopher Daniels, Spanky (and more) having great match after great match, and the rise of Paul London, Samoa Joe etc., along with increased recognition thanks to new companies such as Ring of Honor, and older promotions like CZW and FWA reaching high points, it was a very good time to be following the little guys.

So it's all very subjective. It depends on what kind of wrestling you like most, but primarily, it depends on when you started watching. The time period in which you became hooked is most likely, in your opinion, the best, because if it wasn't for that period of time, you wouldn't be a fan now. This is probably why so many people point to the Attitude Era as the time when wrestling was at its peak - it was also during this time that wrestling gained many new fans. The same explanation is true of the 1980s wrestling boom. Obviously, it follows that nobody can state for certain that any one period was the "best". But I'd like to suggest that maybe there is no better time to be a wrestling fan than NOW.

Why now" Ostensibly it would seem that wrestling isn't as great as it was. With WWE's monopoly on the mainstream, the lack of competition has resulted in a slight rut in terms of popularity. The closest alternative is still a distance from becoming real opposition. Some of the major Japanese promotions appear to be declining. But despite all this, I still think that now is the best time to be a fan. This is due to one thing: accessibility. It's never been easier to be a wrestling fan, if you know where to look. Even for those who only watch WWE, just by buying a DVD or checking out WWE 24/7 you can get immediate access to archive footage dating back decades, as well as WCW, ECW, AWA and much more. Independent wrestlers have probably never been more in demand, with promotions and supershows appearing all over America, Canada and Europe. The same is true of retired and semi-retired legends. Brits have The Wrestling Channel, a TV channel devoted to wrestling: Canadians have The Fight Network. And this accessibility in turn is largely because of a single entity - the internet. For all its flaws, and it has plenty, the internet has literally opened up an entire world of wrestling for anyone who wants it. There was a time where you would have to be incredibly dedicated in order to find the magazine or newsletter to find the tape trader who might have the show you want to see. Now all it takes is one click and you can find exactly what you're looking for, whether it's from Philadelphia or Mexico City, Doncaster or Tokyo. For all its flaws, and it has plenty, the internet has literally opened up an entire world of wrestling for anyone who wants it.

There is, however, one relatively major problem with wrestling today, and it is to do with the second part of the question in my opening paragraph. Naturally, there are many excellent wrestlers around today, but the vast majority of those who could be considered the "best" in the world originally belonged to other time periods - many of Japan's best wrestlers were also Japan's best wrestlers ten years ago. Chris Benoit was one of the best in the world ten years ago, Shawn Michaels nine years ago, Triple H six years ago, Kurt Angle four years ago... I am not saying these men are no longer among the best. They are, at least in my opinion. The problem is, wrestling today has very few new wrestlers to add to the list, and this time period will not be able to become truly great until it has its own group of wrestlers who can be regarded as the best in the world.

There are six guys who I think have the undeniable potential to be included in this group of wrestlers. Of course, this is just my opinion. You may disagree, or you may have different people in mind, but one day, when you think about the best wrestlers on the planet, I think you'll think of these men:

Alex Shelley: Trained in part by one of the most underappreciated men in wrestling, Joe E. Legend, as well as Scott D'Amore, Shelley has a solid background in American-style heavyweight and lighter-weight wrestling styles, as well as Japanese experience through regular touring with the Zero-One MAX promotion. He can fly, he can brawl, and has an extensive knowledge of submissions and European-style counters. What makes Shelley stand out is the way he combines everything he knows into his own unique style. But it's not all about wrestling ability, for Shelley also has the benefit of an on-screen personality; in ROH, he has shown he can cut a promo, and in TNA, he plays a character not unlike a stalker or paparazzi. It's a gimmick that hasn't really been done before, and it has pushed him up the card pretty successfully. And Shelley is still just twenty two. He has a lot of time to improve even further, and if it continues, Shelley will be X Division champion sooner rather than later - and he still won't have peaked. Not by a long shot.

Mistico: Many already believe Mistico to be one of the premier high fliers in the world today. While few of his moves reach new, untapped levels of insanity, his speed, fluidity and grace in the ring are irrefutable. Simply put, a Mistico arm drag is a thing of beauty. The first time I saw a Mistico match, I was reminded of the first Rey Mysterio match I saw, and hopefully in time - and at twenty three, he has plenty of time - he could become the "next" Mysterio, or at least achieve a similar amount of recognition. In fact, the World Heavyweight Champion himself has said he is a fan of Mistico. Although he's currently a huge star in Mexico, as yet there has been very little mainstream exposure elsewhere. In a recent radio interview, Mike Tenay claimed that TNA were in talks to bring Mistico in into the company as part of the Mexican World X Cup team. If this happens, then it'll be great news for everyone. If not, make sure to watch out for him if you ever get the chance to see the CMLL lucha libre promotion. He'll rock your world.

KENTA: A big star for Pro Wrestling NOAH as it is - he's not the GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion for nothing - the sky is still the limit for KENTA. At twenty five years old, he has yet to reach his full potential, but from the sheer number of great matches he's already wrestled, you wouldn't know it. From high-flying matches with Naomichi Marufuji, Juventud Guerrera, Ricky Marvin and Kotaro Suzuki, to tag team contests against Fujita & Hidaka or Kanemaru & Sugiura, matches against heavyweights such as Yoshihiro Takayama or Kenta Kobashi, to Junior Heavyweight title matches against Kanemaru, and his Ring Of Honor debut against Low Ki - KENTA can always be counted on to produce a great match. He wrestled again for ROH in March of this year, and will be making future appearances in upcoming months. His finisher is deceptively simple - basically, he gets his opponent in a fireman's carry, then drops them and knees them in the face - but devastatingly effective, as is his hard-hitting aerial style. Soon he'll be one of, if not the, biggest stars in Japanese wrestling, and then, possibly, the world...

Kenny Doane: I discussed Kenny's career thus far, and why I thought his inclusion in the Spirit Squad was a bad idea, a few months ago in my column 'They Got Spirit, But I'm Mad As Hell', so I'll try not to repeat myself too much. I still fear that the SS may follow him, haunt him even, for the rest of his career, stigmatising him to an extent. Hopefully, however, Kenny's ability and indisputable charisma will prevent this - he has more than enough of both. The fact he only just turned twenty is also bound to help. Although it's possible he may not spend his entire career in WWE - taking time off to improve, wrestle in Japan, form his own style etc is probably wise - with luck he should move up the roster to the main event with ease. Even within the relative confines of the Spirit Squad, he stands out, and although many fans (who, I might add, are "smart" enough to know everything that happened backstage on any given day, but can't name the World Tag Team Champions) probably don't remember his name, when asked their favourite member of the SS, the answer is invariably "the one with the cool leg drop". Well, it's a start.

Bryan Danielson: Hold up, some of you may be saying. Isn't Danielson already one of the best in the world" Kind of. He is without a doubt one of the better wrestlers around today, but he's only just getting started. About a year ago I wrote a column called 'Thankyou, Dragon' in which I talked about Danielson's career up to that point. Since then, he has incorporated new elements into his wrestling style, which has made him even better. His mic work has improved too. Bryan Danielson is a guy who just keeps on improving, and considering he's still just twenty four, it's almost scary to think how good he could become. WWE is a certainty, but not yet. William Regal explains why:

"Training Bryan Danielson is the proudest thing I've ever done in wrestling. He wears my boots, my trunks and does a lot of the stuff I showed him... [He] is turning into a great wrestler. He watches every single match on every single show, he even gets tapes sent over from England. He could have been in the WWE years ago if he wanted, they've offered him a job but he doesn't want to come. Bryan knows he's better off where he is."

Harry Smith: The final one of the six, and the guy who I think could one day surpass all the others. At nineteen years old, Harry already has a wealth of experience, not to mention genetics, on his side. He's the son of the British Bulldog, Davey Boy Smith. His grandfather is Stu Hart. He was trained by his father and Bruce Hart. He began training at eight years old, making his pro debut at fifteen. He has competed for New Japan Pro Wrestling, not to mention all over England, Canada, America and other parts of Europe, learning different styles and techniques. He has the talent and the 'look'. Everyone from Chris Benoit to TNA's Johnny Devine to Jim Ross has been helping him out, teaching him, and giving him advice. Last month he received a WWE contract, and will almost certainly bypass the developmental system and go straight to the main roster. All of this before he hits twenty years old. If it seems like he has a lot to live up to, well, that's probably because he does. As William Regal said, "when Harry comes in, he'll be something special already." Despite the pressure on him, it is my opinion that one day Harry Smith will be the best wrestler in the world.

There we have it. Six phenomenally talented guys, and the oldest one turned twenty five in March. Taking into account the fact that most wrestlers don't reach their peak or realise their potential until they're about thirty, in a few years' time we're sure to be in for something special. In a few years' time, when these six are leading the way, and people ask when wrestling was at its best... maybe someone somewhere will say, "Hey, what about right now""

by Langdon Beck --- [View Langdon Beck's Column Index]..


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