Westchester County Weekly – August 2, 2001
By Chris Kanaracus
Paramount to WWFE’s success is an ability to create new stars. While baseball, basketball and other sports certainly benefit from marquee draws like Michael Jordan and Pedro Martinez, pro wrestling depends on them. Storylines surround them. Fans root for, or razz them. Lucrative merchandise is created in their image.
One of the weaknesses the WWF developed over the past couple of years is potentially crippling: the company hasn’t created new stars on the level of marquee players like Triple H, Stone Cold and the Rock. Although H and Rock are due back in action shortly, their currency won’t last forever.
WCW’s rise to fortune can be credited almost entirely to Bill Goldberg, a juggernaut-like former football player who became the industry’s most popular performer within months of his debut, thanks to a to-the-moon promotional push, including a 100-plus win streak over the company’s top names. Goldberg, 34, is currently on the sidelines, riding out his lucrative Time-Warner contract.
Similarly, the WWF’s most recent wave of blockbuster business is tied to mega-stars like the Rock, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, 36. Austin had toiled in the mid-to-lower ranks of smaller federations, including WCW, for years, showing marked charisma on the microphone and plenty of in-ring talent, but never received a substantial promotional push. Shortly after arriving in the WWF, Austin was transformed into a trash-talking, beer-guzzling redneck superman. Storylines concerned a lengthy, often raucous feud with his boss, Vince McMahon, one that continues (and continually metamorphasises) to this day. The neo-populist approach resonated powerfully with wrestling’s largely blue-collar, plain-folk audiences, sending pay-per-view and merchandise business into the stratosphere.
But the Austin-driven gravy train may soon come to an end, due to his accumulated injuries and simple character burnout. Austin sports massive, cumbersome braces on both knees and on one elbow and had his neck fused after a 1998 in-ring accident that left him temporarily paralyzed. Currently, Austin is performing on a limited basis despite three broken bones in his back and two fractures in his hand.
Industry observers believe there is certainly another Bill Goldberg or Austin out there. One of the most often-named candidates is former NCAA wrestler and current WWF trainee Brock Lesnar, who is learning the ropes in a small, WWF-sponsored league in Ohio. From within the ranks are prospects such as the smallish, but highly charismatic Canadian wrestler Chris “Y2J” Jericho and Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle, to whom Dave Meltzer, publisher of Wrestling Observer Newsletter, gives the highest praise possible. “Within five years I think he could be the best all-around performer in the world.”
Where things get tricky for wrestling promoters is not only finding the right star, but knowing when, and how, to “elevate” them. Do you grant Up And Comer No. 1 a clean pin over an established veteran like Austin, or do you use Up And Comer to give someone already at their peak, such as the currently injured Triple H, a further push? And when do you give up on an older, but still viable employee? Throw in scads of backstage politicking, back-stabbing and cronyism, and things get even tougher to navigate.