Shining a Spotlight 02.08.13: The True Man
Well, you can’t say the Super Bowl didn’t deliver some drama. From the blackout to the near-comeback by the 49’ers, it was a pretty exciting broadcast. In the end, the Ravens held on to win it and give Baltimore the crown again. Various stories abounding over the game and its players, most prominently Ray Lewis, who had announced his plans to retire a few months ago and now goes out as a champion. Most are saying this is great, this veteran going out on top and that it sets a fine example for other players in the NFL.
Lost amid this push, however, has been the full talk on Lewis’ part in a 2000 fight that ended in the deaths of two people, Lewis brought up on murder charges. Lewis would plead guilty to obstruction of justice in return for testimony on two other defendants, earning 12 months suspension from the courts and a record #250,000 fine from the NFL. Since then, Lewis has kept himself pretty clean, involved in various charities and such but the shadow of what happened has hung over him. It’s gotten more increased with the Super Bowl coverage as I’ve seen more than a few guys say it’s unfair that a man who helped cover up a pair of murders is still revered while Lance Armstrong is ripped apart for lying about his use of drugs to win so many races. It makes you think about that, how some guys can be ripped despite their decent output while others who are up to some nasty stuff get passes. It happens too often in wrestling and says a lot of the fandom and how it works.
We all have our baggage, that’s for sure. But some guys carry more than others and that’s especially true for athletes. Guys like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth are lucky the current media scene didn’t exist in their time or everyone would fully know of Ruth’s drinking and womanizing and Cobb’s blatant racism and brutality. It carries over decades, various guys brilliant on the field but also pretty nasty off-camera. Athletes are dealing with a pressure cooker setting and keep in mind how for a lot of guys, going from small homes to earning millions of dollars a year changes their perspectives a lot. And performers can have that too; witness how Clint Eastwood’s bizarre bit at the Republican National Convention has led to a backlash against his movies and Tom Cruise is still living down the couch-jumping on Oprah. We don’t like seeing guys whose work we enjoy turning so strangely but it happens.
Of course, you can’t always judge by just appearances. One of my favorite quotes was a sportswriter talking about Barry Bonds being an egotist but pointing out that “the two nicest guys in sports I ever knew were Pete Rose and O.J. Simpson.” Everyone is flawed, we can’t expect athletes to be different. Where it differs is that many of these guys are seen as role models by younger fans and should be able to live up to that. Yet so many don’t yet too many reporters and others are willing to overlook those flaws. I remember Rolling Stone basically giving a pass to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s marital cheating because he did great things for the environment as governor (although, let’s face it, RS is so far left, it’s ridiculous) and others seem to just brush that aside as well. And yet, in some cases, we seem to rip guys apart for things while giving others a pass for stuff a bit more serious.
Lance Armstrong is a great case. The issue isn’t so much that he was doping all those years he won seven Tour de France races; I mean, we all pretty much believed he was anyhow. A great bit on The Daily Show was Lewis Black talking about how Armstrong had the body chemistry of someone much younger and able to process heart rate and metabolism better and said “the question isn’t whether he’s juicing, the question is why aren’t we all juicing?!” No, what has people riled is that Armstrong kept right on denying it year after year, time after time, even under mounting evidence, he kept on denying it before finally deciding to come clean to Oprah. Had he opened up earlier, maybe he wouldn’t be facing this outrage. The fact is, the man does still deserve respect; drugs or not, winning one of the most grueling races on earth seven times is still damn impressive, especially after a fight with cancer. Armstrong did put a lot of energy into that and did seem to want to help others with charity work but sadly, his decision to lie has tarnished all of that.
Yet, at the end of the day, that’s all he did: Juiced and lied about it. Lewis, on the other hand, may not have actually killed anyone himself but still helped impede the investigation into a pair of deaths which got him arrested. He still doesn’t talk fully about that night and in a recent interview, actually talked about the whole thing being a fate by God as part of the plan to get Lewis to where he is now. More than a few people grouse about such an attitude and yet Lewis is still being hailed by others as an epitome of a veteran going out on top and even given slack because of it. Also, look at Mike Tyson, turned to as a fun guy by movies and TV shows who overlook how the man is a convicted rapist and hasn’t exactly shown major remorse over his actions. It’s a rough double-standard but it exists. And in wrestling, that’s even bigger.
Wrestling is much harder to judge when it comes to personal aspects. Even today, wrestlers still maintain a shield around their personal lives and try to keep it out of their ring work. But it’s harder now than in the old kayfabe days thanks to the Internet. Which, of course, has made it more problematic due to the fact that so much online is totally wrong. I’m not the first to notice how it is that folks will ignore what actual news companies put out yet are eager to instantly buy anything from a third-hand source online, many of which are actually works to push a program along (like the talk of Cena and Lesnar having real-life heat last year). That makes it much harder to judge and of course, the knee-jerk reactions of far too many in the IWC don’t make it any easier.
A great bit I’ve heard from various radio hosts is that so often, the guys they admire the most come off as self-centered jerks while the guys with the poorest reputations are the nicest, most well-manered guests. We judge guys so often just be reps or stories from others, not by the guy himself. WWE is accused of “white-washing” guys in their DVDs but I feel it actually does a good job showing them in a fair light. The Randy Orton DVD had him totally up front over how much of an arrogant asshole he was breaking out and the McMahon one has people noting Vince’s ego and drive but also the respect he carries among the business.
Indeed, that’s a great point. Vince indulges in how people think the worst of him, used that to create the “Mr. McMahon” character that helped take WWF to new heights and enjoys the command he has over others. Even his own family aren’t sure where the character ends and the real Vince begins which adds to his reputation. At the same time, even many of his detractors note that Vince deserves respect for how he’s transformed wrestling and the drive to make his company so successful. But many will insist on focusing on the bad stuff of Vince, how he destroyed the “good old days” of the territories (forget how the system was always going to fall, no matter who was behind the push) and, of course, the litany of wrestling deaths. That, to me, is way unfair as these men made the decision to get into drugs and ignored the offers of help, many of them by Vince. It’s really aggravating when the list of guys who “died under Vince’s watch” includes World Class, a company Vince had nothing to do with or Stampede as well.
Vince is a bastard, we all know it. He openly admits it. But the man is not the sociopath so many like to paint him as. He has offered free rehab to any worker, past and present, a system even regular pro sports leagues don’t offer. Maybe he has stood in the way of a wrestling union but then, how come no one else has done it either? WCW was owned by one of the richest men alive and spent millions on rap stars and such and yet they never got such a system. The NWA voted down a pension plan every time it came up. Vince can he hard as hell and selfish and short-sighted but to blame him for ever ill of the entire business is just completely insane.
A few years back, I wrote a big column on how Ric Flair, in his prime, was just as much a spotlight-hogging politician as HHH or Hogan at their worst but gets a pass on it. I expected to get ripped apart yet found amazing support as a lot of folks agreed with my thoughts, that Flair put himself above his own company and the title far too often and it hurt things. Look at how he refused to put Luger over in ’88 despite how hot Luger was and the fans wanting him to win the belt which would have been a boost for Crockett. Or ’91 where Flair took the WCW title with him when he left for WWF, a major slap in the face for the traditions fans claim he personified. Yes, Flair is truly one of the best in the ring and on the mic but to ignore how he could hurt his own companies isn’t fair to him or wrestling itself.
It’s like that so often as Cena is ripped by guys over hogging the spotlight but the fact is, you never really hear stories of Cena throwing his weight around to get what he wants. He certainly could but you don’t hear it as he goes out of his way to provide help for charities, especially Make-a-Wish that make him more popular. Also, the fact that Cena really loves the business, has for years and really does give it his all. He’s a company man, accepts his pushes and doesn’t make many waves with management yet so many rip him apart for it, even claiming “he can’t wrestle” when he’s shown himself to be a damn good worker able to go long matches. It’s more laughable today to look back at the “One Night Stand” match in 2006 with the ECW crowd cheering on RVD and chanting “You can’t wrestle!” at Cena when Cena has shown able to handle the burden of being the top guy whereas RVD blew his big opportunity at the top in just a few weeks thanks to an arrest for drug possession. Yet people can still rant on RVD “denied the right opportunity” while ripping a guy who’s proven himself a true main event star.
It’s like that with HHH as well. The man still has the stigma that the only reason for his push as champion so much was because he married Stephanie. But the fact is that you watch him breaking out in ‘95/96 and you could tell this guy was going to be a star, he just had that special something that would carry him over and he paid that off. In some ways, getting involved with Stephanie was a major risk; come on, can you imagine having Vince McMahon as a father-in-law? One missed slight to your wife and the boss makes your life hell. HHH has proven himself as a star and able to handle pressure, still delivering good bouts despite his knee injury. That’s an interesting thing, how some guys can bounce back from stuff. Shawn Michaels is another guy up front over what a complete and total bastard he was in his prime but has gained much more respect with his amazing comeback after a back injury that should have ended the career of anyone else. Yet there are still some guys who don’t merit that respect, no matter what happens.
The Breaking Point
Of course, if you’re talking about judging a guy on crimes, you have to talk about Benoit. I know, I know, folks hold to the “respect the work, not the man,” but that’s nearly impossible because more than most guys, Benoit was his character. Since his death, it’s come out that Benoit was one of those guys who took things far too seriously; a key reason for his brain damage was that he never protected his head from chair shots or flying headbutts, wanting to make it look real by being real. He took things far too seriously, wrapped up in how a match is always supposed to be the highlight, forgetting the brutal truth that there’s more to being a star than just the wrestling. Larry Matysik’s book on the 50 best wrestlers that I reviewed last week brings that up a lot and how Benoit, for all his skill, just wasn’t a “carry a company” guy. And that’s before what happened.
To me, it just isn’t right. It’s not right that fans will rip apart Cena, a good man doing his best to carry a company, as untalented while cheering the merits of a guy who murdered his wife and son and then killed himself. This isn’t a “small lapse,” this was a terrible, horrific, unthinkable act that shames anything else Chris Benoit did in his life. Talk all you want on the “work separate from the man” but there’s just no way you can watch a Benoit match without feeling a bit dirty. Even uber-mark Scott Keith has talked about how it’s hard for him to watch Benoit bouts today and maybe WWE is doing the right thing by ignoring him in DVDs and such. He truly is the O.J. Simpson of pro wrestling but perhaps worse given how highly he was regarded before it all happened.
And yet, people keep excusing that just for his great work in the ring. At the same time, they harp blame on Vince for the deaths of so many workers through no fault of their own .They tear at Cena as a terrible worker and not deserving of his spot when the man has proven himself a star and a good guy behind the scenes too. Folks can put on the blinders way too often with guys. I do hope Jeff Hardy’s run at TNA works and he’s gotten himself clean but the reason for doubt is that the man has a track record of blowing multiple main event pushes due to his drug issues. He’s hung together so far and still amazingly talented but his past does come up as it’s hurt him several times so I can’t be the only one out there watching and wondering if the shoe’s going to drop any day and we hear him arrested again.
Again, we all have baggage and guys in a prime position have fame have even more. That makes it harder to judge by just their merits and achievements alone. Again, guys like Cena and HHH have truly busted their asses getting to the top and deserve more respect for that. Flair and Hogan were amazing in their times and even their own stuff since hasn’t changed what they did for the business. Yet it seems wrong for them to be trashed so much while guys whose personal action are downright criminal get passes from fans due to their great work in the ring. ECW has been lionized way too much and even great things like WCCW are shadowed by the massive drug use of men involved. And of course, Benoit, the man who committed one of the most atrocious acts imaginable that put a massive black eye on wrestling continues to be revered by fans despite what he did.
You want to cheer who you want to cheer, that’s fine, that’s what being a fan is all about. But balance that with understanding how things work and that loving a guy is fine but blind adulation is something else. Some guys can overcome it but other continue to be shadowed by it. For fans, it’s important to balance the performer and the man a lot but not to let one overshadow the other too much. It’s not easy but it’s fandom and something about it that will never change, no matter how much the business does.
For this week, the spotlight is off.