Thursday, March 30, 2017

WrestleMania XXIV: I'm Sorry, I Love You

The end of a career (in theory)
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WrestleMania XXIV is still an eminently watchable show, probably one of the best of that era. There were only a couple bum matches, and even those didn't offend (except for one that I'll get to in a bit). Edge vs. Undertaker was as good of a main event as you could ask for from two consummate performers, and I am always surprised by the entertainment value of the triple threat between John Cena, Triple H, and Randy Orton. Add in a bruising JBL/Finlay match, CM Punk's first Money in the Bank win, and Big Show tossing Floyd Mayweather around, and this Mania was awesome.

But WrestleMania XXIV will always be most remembered as the show where Ric Flair was retired by Shawn Michaels. At 59 years old, Flair had already gone way past the point where he should have stopped wrestling, but due to his ability to push the limits of his own body (and due to his somehow ever-dwindling bank account), he had continued to go into the ring and do the best he could. His induction into the WWE Hall of Fame the night before all but guaranteed that the retirement stipulation in his match with Michaels would not be a red herring. It was really going to happen. But would the match be any good?

Uh, YEAH. It was. Though Flair couldn't go as hard as he used to, he and Michaels designed a match that specifically catered to the natural drama of the very real situation. If you want "workrate," this wasn't the one for you, but if that's all you watch wrestling for, then I think that's weird. Pro wrestling is all about making you feel strong feelings, and Flair vs. Michaels tugged at your heart and socked you in the gut.

What really gets me when watching today is how much the line between truth and fiction was blurred in this match. In the storyline, Flair was referred to as Old Yeller, a crusty, broken down dog who needed to be put down. Flair the Character would have you believe that this wasn't true. He was just as ready to go as Michaels. But Flair the Real Person was absolutely broken down; the years of terribly hard living had caught up to him, and he moved as if his entire past was standing on his shoulders and fixing his feet to the mat. So both the real person and the character were intersecting in this final surrender to the ravages of time, and it's a surrender that chills us still because we know that we will someday have to face the same decision, in one form or another.

We will debate forever about who was the greatest wrestler ever, but I don't think it can be disputed that Shawn Michaels was the best wrestler when it came to dramatic acting in the ring. Michaels was brilliant in this match with his facial expressions, as he kept finding himself unable to cut Flair off at the pass. Yet when he finally got Flair beaten down enough that he could only offer meek resistance, Michaels finally felt a pang of regret for what he had signed on to do. He almost couldn't follow through. But to cushion the blow of defeat and retirement, he said to his friend, "I'm sorry. I love you." And then he kicked him in the face and ended his career. Only in pro wrestling could a truly soul-stirring moment be centered around a kick to the face.

Before I go, I want to encourage you all to watch this show's "Playboy BunnyMania Lumberjill Match." It was just as nauseating as it sounds, and it might be tough, but do go back and check this out for some perspective.

To summarize, Beth Phoenix and Melina took on Maria and Ashley. Snoop Dogg emceed the match by driving a golf cart down the ramp at an excruciatingly slow pace while the "Lumberjills" followed behind, dancing and grinding to a Snoop Dogg song that sounded like background music for an HGTV show. I had no idea that Ashley's entrance music was the most godawful Good Charlotte ripoff, because as Jerry Lawler says, "She's more or less the punk rocker of the WWE Divas!" Snoop introduced the competitors as being beautiful Divas. Then the match started, and it was the longest five minutes of wrestling ever produced. Phoenix was good, Melina was alright, but poor Maria and Ashley were just terrible. And I don't even blame them. I blame WWE management who saw two pretty women and pushed them into spots where they should not have been, just to get them on TV in supposedly meaningful roles.

But none of the women in this segment came out looking meaningful, or strong, or competent, or like anything other than sexy distractions from the "real" wrestling. At the end of the match, Snoop consoled Maria by tenderly kissing her for no reason other than to remind us that these women are objects of sexual desire, and it sure is cool that all women will just let you kiss them if you force them to kiss you without asking.

Watch this segment and be reminded of how far we've come. We have two honest-to-goodness real women's matches at WrestleMania, and they both promise to be well-wrestled contests that won't rely one bit on the wrestlers' looks. And though Snoop won't be there this year, he was there last year, but solely to put over the ability and awesomeness of a female wrestler. It's not great, but it could be so, so much worse.