Triple H, October 2011:

“When I grew up, I hated Hogan. I thought he was terrible and didn’t like to watch him. I was like Punk in a way. I liked the Steamboats and Flairs and the ones that could go. Would I be right in saying that Hogan was the wrong guy to go with, and they should’ve changed directions and gone with Steamboat because he was the better wrestler? Ludicrous.” - Triple H. October, 2011.

Road to Wrestlemania XXIII - Part 5

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Part 4 is here.

Road to Wrestlemania XXIII – Part V

If you skipped the first four parts, the historical overview of Wrestlemanias 1-22, consider taking a look at it, within those pieces I started the build for XXIII, taking a broad view of some of the matchups, seeing how, they take shape years in advance.

9 matches on tap for the big show from Detroit.

In what may become our newest Mania staple – We have a Contract Match. After the Rumble, Dusty and Steamboat crossed shows in order to put together a WWF v. NWA match at Mania featuring two prospects, one found by Steamboat, one by Dusty – they meet at Mania, winner signs a deal – loser goes home.

Dusty’s guy – a former NFL linebacker – Monte Brown. We see video packages of Brown, ideally shots from the NFL if they can get the permission. Video packages of former teammates/opponents – ex NFL guys will do anything for a couple of bucks, it’s easy name value to put Brown over as a beast. JR and Bradshaw (recall, they’re the announce on Friday Night Fight Night) talk about Brown as having wrestled in a small promotion in Orlando and now being ready for the big time. As we get closer to Mania – Brown appears on Fight Night, cuts some promos – ‘cause Brown can cut a promo – calls Fight Night the Serengeti, you know the deal.

His opponent –

Okay, we’re going viral and aping the Kimbo Slice rise.

Sometime, actually in the end of ’06, streetfights appear online. It’s a Samoan, big tatted up motherfucker, kicking the hell out of guys on the street. It’s Umaga, who we’re gonna call Eddie Little (either because of Omar from The Wire or Malcolm X, you can decide). The key here is there can’t be a whiff of work about it, no sign of WWF-ness, no production value – WWF pays guys to just get the hell beaten out of them on dudes’ cell phones.

Let it roll for a few months. Build whatever type of street level support that can be found; for EXC, it turned into a prime time deal with CBS, so, you know, any cut of that action would be cool, thanks.

A couple weeks after Dusty reveals Brown, and the Brown packages start and the NWA crew starts talking up how their guy is a former NLF linebacker – and who will the WWF guy be – is the NWA gonna go show up the WWF at their premiere event, Wrestlemania XXIII --- with Joey and Taz speculating who Ricky Steamboat will find – then the videos start playing on RAW.

Edited – ‘cause the actual videos should be profane – swearing and girls – full on non-corporate product – so what airs will be less than that – but ideally, it should still feel RAW (I try not to editorialize about real world WWE, but is there a show in television history which is so clearly the opposite of its name?) Little (you’ll get used to it) is kept off TV, actually, there’s talk that Steamboat can’t get him, that he’s uncontrollable – he’s a streetfighter and not a trained worker – that he’s a thug, what is Steamboat doing, bringing a criminal element to Wrestlemania XXIII – maybe Little won’t even show – then the Fight Night before Mania, Little will come out of the crowd and attack Brown – Brown’s gotta juice, Brown goes all crimson mask on Fight Night but keeps fighting – there’s a pull apart, massive security, that kinda thing.

Eddie Little (Umaga) meets the Alpha Male Monte Brown at Wrestlemania XXIII.

The opening tag features Heat: Montel Porter and Elijah Burke, protégées of Booker T, taking on John Cena and Ken Kennedy. Cena and Kennedy, Joey and Taz note, are getting better – Cena’s biggest problem, Taz points out, is he had success before he was ready, winning the tag straps with Orton, and he and Kennedy are still trying to find themselves. We’ve been watching Burke and Porter with Book for months now; the announce positions these two young men as being the inspiration behind the incredible career resurgence for Book – now wrestling for the WWF Championship at Wrestlemania XXIII – they’ve re-energized Book, gotten him some of that old fire, that old hunger – they’ve brought some new school gangsta to Book’s gimmick. They introduce him to some Jim Jones, for example. Meanwhile – Book smartens them up. Harnesses their energy. Gives them the old Harlem Heat colors. Book tells them a story in one vignette, about how he and Stevie Ray don’t talk anymore – ‘cause when the old NWA collapsed and he came to WWF, he could have brought Stevie Ray with him, but then he would have been a tag wrestler forever. Or – he could come in and wrestle Kurt Angle for the strap.

And he let Stevie go. And Stevie never got a shot. His own brother, and he turned on him.

Book makes sure they get that’s how gangsta the business is – it’s the game, it’s cutthroat – it’s about getting your spot and keeping your spot. You sweat and bleed and die with your boys – but at the end of the day, it’s about you doing anything you can for your spot – and they gotsta remember that, yo.

That’s the Opening Tag – it’s Heat: Porter and Burke, against Cena and Kennedy.

The Legends Match: Undertaker v. Shawn Michaels

How ‘bout that?

Undertaker is the king of the legends match, having 5 wins. He also has 7 wins overall, one behind Bret and HHH for the all time Mania record.

And Shawn Michaels is Shawn Michaels – Triple Crown Winner. WWF Immortal.

They banded together in the fall of ’06, fighting Flair/HHH and the 51% Solution, they were the locker room leaders – believing that the Solution was harmful for the sport, devaluing the belts with their manipulative shenanigans. It was really a play off where Michaels had been evolving for over a year – as the self appointed moral authority of the locker room, the “conscience” of the WWF. Michaels constantly talking about protecting the business and doing things the right way and taking on the representation of the boys in the back.

He brings in the ‘Taker, as fellow veteran, to his cause.

But part of that Michaels evolution had been to rub people the wrong way – not just heels like Edge, but babyfaces like Matt, had effectively told him to keep his nose out of their business, thanks. Who the hell did he think he was – back when he used to be the man – the Heartbreak Kid – the Showstopper – The Main Event – he never cared about anyone but him – and now he wants to tell everyone how to live.

Shawn views himself as an unappreciated good guy – maybe other guys think of him as a phony.

So – when Michaels aids the Undertaker in preparing for his WWF Title tournament match against unbeaten wrecking machine Executioner Lashley – and that aid turns into Michaels inadvertently superkicking the Taker at the Rumble, allowing Lashley to get the win and costing the Dead Man a shot at the strap – and that turns into the Dead Man turning his back on Michaels – what’s left is a Shawn Michaels who feels he is all alone in the WWF – completely righteous, completely moral – completely neglected.

Especially when the fans start to turn in favor of the Dead Man in the buildup to Mania.

Undertaker’s Undertaker. Solid, veteran, the Legends Match is his match. He’s going for 6 legends wins – 8 overall wins. All about history and tradition and he’s stable, solid, salt of the earth babyface.

Michaels is a little smug about it. I mean, come on – come on. The Taker is great, sure, he’s a great guy – but he has his spot….and Shawn has his spot.

Shawn Michaels is a multi-time World Champion. Multi time WWF Champion. Multi Time IC Champion. Multi Time Tag Champion. Triple Crown winner. You want to build a Mt. Rushmore of the greatest wrestlers in WWF history – and Shawn Michaels is on that mountain.

And the Undertaker, Shawn tells us, isn’t.

He just isn’t.

Shawn big times the Dead Man like that.

The Taker is now the rock of the locker room – no one’s more respected. And Shawn is unappreciated, misunderstood, disrespected Shawn Michaels.

They meet in the Legends Match at Wrestlemania XXIII.

5 titles, an all time record, on the line at Wrestlemania XXIII.

The tag champs are Sandman and Dreamer – the ECW veterans, who finally grabbed gold (for Dreamer, his first belt of any sort – ever) at Rumble 07, going over Van Dam and Sabu with the help of Kendrick/Noble and the embrace of GDI. In the run up to Mania, they turn face, or rather, face enough to more thoroughly embrace the “crowd pops for Enter Sandman” aspect of their title run. Noble/Kendrick, punk kids that they are, begin to interfere too early in Sandman/Dreamer defenses – taking away a pinfall, stealing some of the spotlight. They attempt to put them in their place – Sandman/Dreamer saying they’re the Unified Tag Champs – and caning the hell out of Kendrick/Noble one Tuesday night on GDI

(A reminder – WWF is on RAW Mondays, it’s a show that looks like NOAH. GDI, which we all know stands for God Damn Independent, but for TV purposes is Global Dominant Independent, is on Tuesdays and looks like ROH, and NWA Friday Night Fight Night is, oddly, on Fridays and looks like UFC – no cage, it’s not MMA, it’s graps, but it’s the shootfight atmosphere that I want on Fridays.)

That feud gets some run on the way to Mania, Sandman/Dreamer v. Noble/Kendrick, but that’s not the Mania match – there will be some type of heavy juice match, like a Stairway to Hell, as much juice as Sci Fi will do – Sandman and Dreamer will keep – it will be positioned as “winner defends at Mania”

They’ll defend against the hottest tag act in the company – Carlito and Chavo, with Crazy on the floor – the Latino World Order.

Carlito, who ran both Psychosys and Juvie out of the LWO, grabbing control with Crazy as his sidekick, courted Chavo in the summer of ’06. Chavo, a babyface, refused, leading to a match at Summer Slam, where, because Carlito won, Chavo was forced to join.

He tried to subvert the group for awhile, but Carlito didn’t react with anger – he treated Chavo with warmth, said they were his family, the subtext of which (not the text, they don’t play the Eddy, or later, the Benoit cards in angles, it’s not to say they’re never mentioned…it’s a fine line, exploiting vs. honoring, I tend to give the company pretty wide expanse, when evaluating the ethics of WWF, in how they treat their recent dead; I’m unsure that I could do better; for example, my brother hates the Vickie/Edge program, finds it exploitative of Eddy and disrespectful, by omission, to the other dead workers who don’t get deified in the way that Eddy does…I don’t disagree with any of that, but I still really liked the angle; I preferred it when Chavo was part of it; as storytelling, I think it’s one of the few examples where WWE is doing something really well – it’s a hard line to draw. Much easier is, say, criticizing them for needing a screwjob to put Flair over Vince two weeks before Flair wrestles Michaels at Mania, which from every reasonable viewpoint is batshit crazy. So, I’ve renamed, as most of you are aware, the Triple Crown, the Hart-Guerrero Memorial Triple Crown, as it’s positioned as “beyond mere wrestling angles”…which is of course, just a wrestling angle in and of itself, but don’t tell me, I don’t want to hear that noise, and as I try to treat the wrestlers as actual people, when I can, and not writer’s creations – the Chavo character, the Rey character, the Jericho character when he returns, they’re going to be impacted by the deaths of the other wrestlers – I try to keep it on a subterranean level, so Chavo doesn’t say “Eddy’s dead and I’m using the affection of Carlito as a surrogate” but that’s what would happen to Chavo. Jericho didn’t say “I’m taking Owen’s spot” and when he comes back he won’t say “Benoit’s dead and I’m here to take his place” but you know, that’s sort of how it is. One’s mileage may vary on all of these things. Except for Vince and Flair. Batshit crazy).

Carlito’s warmth, his understanding – his constant confidence in Chavo, that he’d eventually come around to being a heel won him over – Chavo went full on devious LWO – they have run over the tag ranks in the WWF, humiliating (I don’t think that’s too strong) Cena/Kennedy for months, and on the night when Sandman/Dreamer dispose of London/Kendrick – the LWO invades GDI.

They attack the champs – caning them – Calito hits the Back Stabber on Dreamer, Chavo frog splashes Sandman through a table – the LWO is all up in yo’ kitchen.

I don’t know who the faces and heels really are at this point. Sandman and Dreamer are Sandman and Dreamer. They’ll get cheered by a healthy percentage of the crowd.

LWO are heels, but they’re WWF all the way – so they’ll get some support from the RAW announce – except when they don’t. Carlito cuts a promo on Joey and Taz – saying that when they talk about the contract match – they’re all about Eddie Little – and he’s some thug, some street brawler who’s never even been here before. He’s not one of us – but he’s gonna wear the WWF colors at Wrestlemania, gonna go up against Monte Brown and the NWA – so they’re gonna root for him.

But who are they for in the tag match, Carlito challenges?

‘Cause it seems to him that Joey and Taz are saying lots of good things about Sandman and Dreamer – let’s say they play the clip from the Rumble, Joey and Taz both very emotional when Dreamer holds his very first Championship belt.

Carlito knows they’re boys from back in the day. But ECW’s dead – and it’s Ricky Steamboat who signs their checks – and they need to get behind the team.

Joey tries to be diplomatic. But Taz says fuck that – Taz gets into Carlito’s face – says if he were as good a wrestler as the guy carrying the Mexican flag (that would be Crazy) maybe he wouldn’t need some announcers to cheer for him.

Steamboat enters.

And Steamboat cuts a promo on Taz.

He says he isn’t in love with the LWO tactics. But at Mania, there will be 6 announcers, JR and Bradshaw from the NWA, Josh Matthews and Al Snow from GDI, and Joey Styles and Taz – and there won’t be any question who those other four guys will be pulling for.

But Steamboat agrees with Carlito – there’s room to question Joey and Taz.

And that starts a chilly relationship between Steamboat and his announce team.

It also gives Steamboat another layer, besides white meat legendary babyface – he is 100% committed to all things WWF.

And it gives some “you’re with us or you’re against us” intrigue to the match.

It’ll be a “ECW Weapons Match” – obviously it has to be a garbage match, it’s Sandman and Dreamer – but I don’t want to use the glass light tubes, important not to do anything to detract from the Cell, given we’ve been building to it for a year – and actually much, much longer than that.

Sandman and Dreamer defending against Carlito and Chavo in a weapons match.

Still 5 matches left.

The IC is less complicated.

Sugar Shane Helms is the champ, he took from HHH at Survivor Series when the Solution imploded, kept over Crazy at the Rumble – and will now defend at Mania in a Triple Threat Match.

Note – the Triple Threat Match is one fall to a finish.

As distinguished from a Three Way Dance which is an elimination match.

The distinction is important for Mania, as both types of matches are on the docket.

Helms, the ultimate underdog babyface, is on the WWF roster – cuts a promo – thanks the fans – says since he was a kid he wanted to defend a title at WM – and in front of 70,000 people in Detroit – it’s going to be not just the biggest moment of his career – but of his whole life.

And there’s only one person he wants to share that moment with.

Jeff Hardy.

Jeff enters.

Jeff returned after years away at Summer Slam ’06, interfering in the Michaels/Edge ladder match over Matt’s contract. Jeff is clean (kayfabe) centered, focused, not a kid anymore – not reckless and wild out of nature – he’s stable. The Hardys broke themselves in their WWF tag run – the long, long war with Edge and Christian – it turned Matt into a shadowy character – sort of a Crow Sting/Stone Cold/Brian F’n Pillman combination – a monster enigmatic dark babyface.

But Jeff’s recovered – he’s at peace. He kills himself inside the ring because he wants to, not because he’s driven by the demons that obviously eat away at both Matt and Edge.

Jeff had a time limit draw with Michaels at Survivor Series.

We get, really the first time, the Helms/Hardys backstory – Helms being brought into the business by the Hardys in North Carolina – Matt and Jeff were WWF ringboys, but would go back home to work in front of 30 people in Omega. We see old clips of very young Jeff and even younger Helms.

Helms calls Jeff his hero.

Helms says Jeff hasn’t wrestled at Wrestlemania in 5 years.

And it would be his honor to put up his Worldwide Titles against Jeff Hardy at Wrestlemania XXIII.

So, they make the match.
Helms goes to Fight Night to defend his strap, say against Benjamin (note, how the IC is kept relevant is it and the tag belts are defended on all 3 shows, defended against any wrestler on any show – the singles Heavy titles are theoretically only contested between wrestlers from that particular show, but the Worldwide and the Unified tags are on all the shows, it keeps them special, and the 3 Heavy belts are obviously special – 5 special belts! Perhaps I’m reaching a little, but, you know – tradeoffs.) Helms goes over – and in mid celebration he is dropped by an Orton RKO.

The announce approves.

Another way to sell the split among the groups – when Helms, the WWF face, gets taken out by Orton, the NWA heel – JR and Bradshaw celebrate.

After that, there’s a tag – Helms and Jeff taking on ‘Taker and Shawn – selling both the Mania matches and playing off the Rumble match that just happened between Shawn and Jeff. All 4 babyfaces, even Shawn, despite the boos, Michaels has been a face now ever since his return, and he still thinks of himself completely as a babyface. Thinks that people have turned their backs on him – so he’s still Shawn Michaels – slapping five with the fans, dancing – smiling – he’s the legendary Heartbreak Kid….growing increasingly irritated…surprised…why are they booing me….I am above this….

Taker and Michaels don’t get along, there’s a mixup, Jeff gets the pinfall on Shawn.

Taker and Michaels argue – Helms and Jeff celebrate – and Orton, from nowhere – Double RKO! Jeff drops. Helms drops. Orton stands above both of them.

Recall the Orton arc – he and Cena were tag champs, he’s now starting the re-climb, he beat Fit at Survivor Series, losing then at the Rumble in the NWA Tourney – JR and Bradshaw sell the RKO – he can hit it at any time – from any angle – he is dangerous – he’s 3rd generation – he’s Randy Orton.

Orton cuts promo on Friday. Says 2 WWF guys shouldn’t be wrestling for the Worldwide belt. Says he wants to represent the NWA – says the combined age of the 2 guys wrestling for the World belt is a hundred years old – they might both have heart attacks and then there would be no NWA champ.

So that means the NWA needs to have control of the Worldwide Belts.

He wants in. Triple Threat Match – One Fall to a Finish – if Helms and Jeff want to gang up on him – that’s fine – he don’t sweat them – he’s Randy Orton and he’s ready to go to the next level.

Like the tag match, this match comes about relatively late. Most of the matches were made super early, the main event is a year in the making – the World matches were made at the Rumble and the ECW match is made soon after that. But this comes late – late enough that they don’t look to make much of a fissure between Jeff and Helms – they’re friends – but it’s one fall to a finish – it’s a Triple Threat Match – so they won’t be able to team up to eliminate Orton and then wrestle themselves – ‘cause it’s one fall.

That’s the IC. Helms v. Jeff v. Orton. One fall to a finish.

5 down.

4 to go.

Ric Flair is the 7 (or 8) time World Champion and in what may be his last match (it’s all very shadowy) he takes on Fit Finlay. Flair was Undisputed Champ in ’06, part of the 51% Solution, he took from Mysterio at Summer Slam, then dropped to Punk at Survivor Series. That destroyed the Solution, led to Punk throwing down two of the title belts, and kicked off the current phase of the WWF.

Flair willingly gave up all his power after Punk’s dastardly deed, helping him turn face. Flair went to the NWA, having virtually to beg Dusty to let him in the World Title Tournament. Flair, with rumors of his retirement if he were to lose circulating, went over Benjamin at the Rumble – and is now facing Fit Finlay, former Worldwide Champ, for the NWA strap at Wrestlemania.

Rumors continue to spread – we see Flair hanging out with Arn in the back – hey, look – there’s Barry Windham. Even Steamboat comes over, and we see laughter between the two longtime rivals. There is no announcement – but Flair occasionally tears up during promos – obviously emotional – and there is a point, say after Flair beats Haas (managed, of course, by Arn) where Arn keeps him in the ring.

Arn cuts promo – saying that Strong Style doesn’t have a match at Mania – so he’s free for the evening.

And after a quarter century of driving up and down the road with Ric Flair – Double A says he would like the privilege of standing up for Flair one more time – as his manager at Wrestlemania. Double A. Nature Boy – Wrestlemania XXIII. Woooooooooo!

Fit, is of course, with Dean. And they are the face of the NWA – just hard, uncompromising – stiff. The announce puts over Malenko as maybe the greatest manager in wrestling. Fit was retired, retired for years – he and Arn and Dean were the Titan Trust – they ran the company – and somehow, Dean was able to aid Fit in regaining that fire, getting back into condition – driving to win the IC belt from Benoit.

And now, with the new NWA all stiffness, all no nonsense fighting – Fit and Dean, hard’s men, are front and center.

The NWA Title – Ric Flair v. Fit Finlay. Wrestlemania XXIII.

3 matches left.
Booker T was a two time tag champ with Harlem Heat in the NWA and he and Bradshaw held the WWF tag belts. Book is in a career resurgence, propelled by his mentor/protégée relationship with Porter and Burke, who have been named Heat in reflection of that. They’ve been in a feud with Lashley during Heat’s entire WWF career – coming out on the squashed end, pretty much constantly – Book himself took a good beating by Lashley at Survivor Series.

But Book upset heavily favored Edge at the Rumble to advance to the finals of the WWF Heavyweight Tournament, Book and Heat – ballin’ all the way to Detroit. Ballin’! Ball….in’!

I get carried away sometimes.

Lashley’s unbeaten. A monster heel. The Executioner. And repeated clips of his ending the careers of Benoit…Hogan…Paul…Kane…are shown – and even Rey and Hunter – on the shelf with surgeries, missing Mania from the hands of Lashley. Dominators through tables. He’s an unstoppable force of nature. He can’t be stopped. He can’t be scored upon. He’s impenetrable. He knows no fear and feels no pain. Arrrrrrrrrrrghhhhhhhhh!!!!!

One of these two men will be the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World.

Which is unpleasant, ‘cause Jack Johnson was 90 years ago.

But Tony Dungy v. Lovie Smith was just a couple months before. Book, a wrestling historian and a champion of black causes, is not shy about “shoot style” promos where he talks about what it would mean to him. Where he talks about how men like Ernie Ladd and Bobo Brazill would be vindicated. Where he says he has an obligation to those who have gone before and those, like Porter and Burke, who will follow after he’s done. There’s gonna be a black man walking out of Detroit with the WWF Title around his waist – and he just can’t have it be Lashley – it’s not right, not right for the business.

It’s Book. It’s Lashley. WWF Title.

So – we’ve built 7 of 9.

Top 2 matches left. Still to come - the ECW title - who will Punk defend against?

And the Main Event. Only the 3rd Hell in a Cell match in WWF history -- the match a decade in the making -- Edge. Matt. Hell. Cell.

We'll talk about those matches this weekend.

Here's what we have so far:

WWF Title: Executioner Lashley v. Booker T
NWA Title: Ric Flair v. Fit Finlay
Worldwide Titles: Shane Helms v. Jeff Hardy v. Randy Orton
Unified Tags: Sandman/Dreamer v. LWO
Legends Match: Shawn Michaels v. Undertaker
Contract Match: Monte Brown v. Eddie Little
Opening Tag: Heat v. Cena/Kennedy
Top two matches coming next – as the Road to Wrestlemania XXIII concludes this weekend.

Next weekend, to coincide with real world XXIV – Counterfactual XXIII.

Call your cable company! The road continues.

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