Friday, June 19, 2020

Quarantine Writing Prompts: Second-and-Third Generation Wrestlers

Whether as The Natural or Goldust, Dustin Rhodes may be the quintessential second-generation wrestler
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My friends over at The Wrestling Estate posed a good question the other day. Who is the best second-or-third generation wrestler ever? Wrestling has its share of sons and daughters who took up the family business and had success to varying degrees. Sometimes, those wrestlers' family connections are well-promoted and made part of their characters. Others toil sometimes in defiance of their parents' fame. Either way, there are enough wrestlers with forefathers in the industry that this is an intriguing topic. I don't want to rank mine, but I will put them into categories, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I may miss a few wrestlers, and honestly, most of the ones I mention will be in the first category.

The Good

Dustin Rhodes - "The Natural" probably isn't the best wrestler to have a famous parent in the industry, but he might be the first answer that comes to mind given how he broke into it. His father, Dusty Rhodes, was inescapable in the '70s and '80s, and he was his son's guide to get into the biz in the early '90s. One of dad's most famous promos ever, "The View Never Changes," was an impassioned plea to Dustin even. One could argue that son surpassed father in one area, in the ring. Dustin was regarded as one of the best in-ring wrestlers in early World Championship Wrestling, which was no small feat given WHO wrestled there during that time. Still, being pushed as the son of a son of a plumber when dear old dad was just a metaphorical Sirius in a sky of red dwarves. He never could escape that shadow, at least in WCW.

Then, he ventured up north to the World Wrestling Federation. As fate would have it, Dustin inherited his father's quirky personality traits, and with some persuasion, maybe from Vince McMahon, maybe from Vince Russo, maybe from no one but himself, he transformed into Goldust, looking like an Oscar statue come to life and skirting the lines of masculinity all the while. While the then-WWF punted the ball on Goldust's in-character sexuality, making his emphatic "no" answer to Jerry Lawler's question of whether he was gay a babyface turn, he still felt at home as an outsized and bizarre creature of impulse in a company that was embracing those kinds of characters. The funny thing was that no matter how many times he left WWE, when he tried to reboot "The Natural" or do a play on the Goldust character in a company that didn't have rights to it, he flopped, save this current run as an All Elite elder statesman. But no matter how many times he came back to WWE, no matter how many times the incarnation of Goldust was nothing like the one that worked in WWE prior, he found some niche, some groove where he could survive at least, and in some cases, thrive.

It's easy to say that some of the people listed later on are better wrestlers and thus better "second generation" ones, but given how much of Dustin's career was first following in Dusty's footprints and then breaking out of his shadow, I might be inclined to say he's the quintessential inheritor of the family business, even if he didn't surpass dad in terms of legacy. Sometimes, it's okay to have a great career on your own, even if it doesn't transcend the way the ones who came before did.

"Macho Man" Randy Savage - It's funny to see Jim Cornette decry "outlaw mudshows" today when perhaps the greatest wrestler ever to live got his start in one. Randy Savage began working for his father Angelo's rogue promotion in Kentucky, horning in on Memphis' Mid-South territory, and it led to him going on an organic hot streak that may have defined wrestling in the '80s more than Hulk Hogan's run as Vince McMahon's Aryan superman or Ric Flair's salad days as The World's Champion. It's easy for kids today to forget Angelo Poffo because he was active so long ago and is now known more as a promoter. It's easy for them to forget how lucky wrestling was to have gotten Savage too. He was a highly-touted prospect for the Cincinnati Reds who was on track to make the Major Leagues until an injury set his career back and sent him to his dad's work. The best things in wrestling almost always happen by accident though.

Terry Funk - From the Double Cross Ranch in Amarillo, Texas, the Funker made huge impacts in no fewer than three decades in pro wrestling while continuing to work late into his 70s. Like Rhodes, he had big shoes to fill, not just from his father, Dory, Sr. but brother Dory, Jr., who broke in first and won the National Wrestling Alliance Championship first. Still, it's hard to discount people who say Terry was the one who ended up being a candidate to be the best ever. Certainly, his resume speaks louder than all but a handful of other people, and it wasn't as a one-trick pony either. You couldn't tell me that the Funk who terrorized Jerry Lawler as a larger-than-life cocky villain looking to get knocked down a peg or two was the same as the vicious killer who piledrove Flair through a table or as the scrappy legend looking for one last run in Extreme Championship Wrestling. But he was so good at everything he did for longer than so many other people, it's hard to look at him and not lay superlatives at his feet.

Bret and Owen Hart - Stu Hart's two most successful sons in wrestling made their hay in totally different ways. Families can breed a lot of things, but brothers don't have to be clones of the father or even themselves. Bret was methodical, self-serious, a brawling technician who made sure to show the work in everything he did. He was cunning, planning, living up to his nickname in every single way. Owen, however, was free-wheeling, emotional, fiery, and bold. Maybe that's the reason they were such great rivals. They completed each other in ways that Bret's other big rival, Shawn Michaels, couldn't even say. Both of their careers ended prematurely and tragically. Bret may have gotten off easy in comparison, but he bore Owen's fate with him all these years as well since Owen surely couldn't from the grave. Wrestling is a business that chews people and spits them out.

Lucha, in general - Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio, Jr. are perhaps the most famous wrestlers to make it to America from Mexico or more accurately Mexican heritage. While they were both born in America, their families were lucha royalty. Mexico is the place where they made their initial hay, although one could argue Mysterio and especially Guerrero got supernova huge elsewhere. The thing is that they're only really unique from their home scene in the fact that they left for America in the first place. In many respects, lucha is a family business. There are so many wrestlers with Jr. or Roman numerals after their names or "El Hijo/La Hija de" before that you'd think having a relative in the business was a prerequisite. The success rate is astounding in most cases. Even the cultural behemoth El Santo had a son who went into lucha. If you think Dusty Rhodes had big cowboy boots to fill, imagine being the kid of a man who resembled Mexican monoculture. Lightning almost never strikes twice in the same way, but you can't call El Hijo del Santo's career anything less than a success even with how much pressure he had on him. For as much as wrestling in America can be weird and insular, there's something charming and warm about how many families are born into lucha.

The Bad

Randy Orton - It's not to say Orton has had a bad career or is a failure as a wrestler. Maybe in this spot, "overrated" might be the right term to use because he's always been pumped up, either by his company or by rabid fans of said company who see appeal in him more than a finisher or his recent spate of seeking social justice. Orton has always felt like wasted potential, someone where he had to be motivated to keep up his end of the bargain. There have been times in his career where he lived up to his potential and then some. Surprisingly, the first thing that pops out is the Extreme Rules '12 match against Kane where they just beat the shit out of each other around the arena. The other times were all the matches he had with Daniel Bryan, which might seem unsurprising on the surface. I mean, Bryan could have a great match with a broomstick. The thing is, Christian could make a similar claim. Sometimes, I feel like I'm Squidward peeking at SpongeBob and Patrick from the window when it comes to that series of matches, but they without question always left me flat. How could Orton have seamlessly great matches with Bryan Danielson and not Christian Cage? Look at how much he gave Bryan, and then how much he didn't give Christian. It's a microcosm of his entire career. When Orton felt like giving a shit, he gave everything he had, but that always felt rare compared to the times he didn't, no matter how many cool RKOs he dished out in improbable situations.

Cody Rhodes - I think it's undisputed that the younger grandson of a plumber is probably more objectively successful than Dustin. The company he founded and runs has lasted a year and gotten on TNT. He successfully built a brand away from the megalith and thus started his own budding megalith to compete. It's hard to say anything he's done is unsuccessful, but every time I watch anything he does outside of a few oases here or there, it elicits a cringe. He followed up an impassioned speech that evoked his father's oratory skills against one wrestler, Chris Jericho, with basically trying to measure dicks with another, MJF, by letting everyone know how rich he was, which to me speaks to the fact that he never really got what made his dad special. It didn't matter if his dad had all the booking power in a company behind the scenes. He never let anyone forget for whom he was fighting when the lights were on or the cameras were rolling. Cody just lets that line get blurred, and it's going to make whatever heel turn he has cooked up down the line feel limp, because how can you look at him outside of a few spots since leaving WWE and think he's been anything but a half-baked villain anyway? I understand the desire to like Cody, but the point is he spent so many years of his career with bad editors giving him shit to work with that he jumped right into having no filter and no one to tell him he was coming up with bad ideas, and the whiplash has made him the most cognitively dissonant character in all of wrestling.

Charlotte Flair - On one hand, it's not her fault that McMahon has booked her the way that restlessly unsatisfied fans accused him of presenting Roman Reigns. On the other, does the fault matter when her presence on screen is overbearing? It's a chicken-egg argument, and it might be more interesting if she were as good as either Reigns or her now-pregnant counterpart Becky Lynch at her job. Like Orton, she's a textbook case of the word "overrated" having value in a conversation, although it's less because she's preternaturally talented and more because I'm not sure she was ever taught how to use her tall frame in a way that made her movement in the ring feel natural and not janky. One can only see her land on her knees on a moonsault attempt or move in almost the manner of stop motion animation taking Sasha Banks' lucha-inspired offense so many times before believing the hype that she's some generational talent. Of course, she will end up being to the WWE Women's division what her father was to the NWA and WCW, and it won't be entirely undeserved. One should probably just accept she's more American Hulk Hogan (in character of course, I'm not saying she's outwardly racist) than Steve Austin or John Cena even.

Vince McMahon - Did you know his father, Vincent James McMahon, didn't want him to follow in the family business? They grew up estranged from each other for the first 12 years of the son's life. In some respects, the world might have been a better place if they never did get in contact with each other, because no one has been as destructive a force in professional wrestling than Vincent Kennedy McMahon. From his monopolistic treatment of other promoters to his labor-busting of his talent, few people have set a tone like he has and done it in such a prominent role in the business. Wrestling promoters as a rule rarely if ever are good people, but the difference between someone like Jerry Jarrett and McMahon is the difference between someone robbing a bodega and Lex Luthor. Wrestling would be different if McMahon wasn't the man to take it national, but would it have been better? I have no idea, but I'm not sure it could be any worse.

The Ugly

Greg Gagne - Gagne is the bizarro McMahon in that his dad wanted him to be front and center, and it ended up tanking the company he worked for. Verne Gagne is rightly regarded as one of the best and most revered promoters in the game, building a wrestling empire out of the frozen northern Minnesota territory. It was part his own hubris that was his undoing. Sure, McMahon raiding his pantry didn't help, but Hogan didn't have to leave if Gagne had just put him over Nick Bockwinkel, for crying out loud. Still, the gambit with his son may have been the most damaging play of nepotism in an industry that has had a lot of fucking nepotism in it over the years. Maybe the AWA was circling the drain and would've gone belly up if Greg never set foot on camera. That being said, he's an easy mascot for the company's demise, like David Arquette or Vince Russo were for WCW or Justin Credible for ECW.

Richie Steamboat - To be completely fair, it wasn't Steamboat's fault AT ALL that his wrestling career ended the way it did. The kid had a promising career based on the Florida Championship Wrestling matches that got posted to YouTube. He was a fire white-meat babyface in the vein of his father against dastardly intellectual elitist Damien Sandow. There were high hopes for him. But then the ugliness reared its head in the form of Bill DeMott, whose training regimens could be described as "draconian" if one is being eminently charitable. One wrong moonsault done during drills, and Steamboat's career was effectively over thanks to a fucked back. What might have happened if DeMott, known as a taskmaster and a bully putting it lightly, was properly vetted for his job instead of hired in a fit of cronyism? Maybe Steamboat was the guy to take the mantel of pure-hearted hero from his father. Wrestling is a cruel business filled with cruel people.

Curtis Axel - WWE went from hating the idea that Axel had famous male forebears to trying to capitalize on it in the most half-assed way possible that it's almost admirable. Poor Axel never had a chance when his career arc went from "Genesis of McGillicutty" to Jerry Lawler openly questioning his and David Otunga's charisma when they were Tag Champions to making him a Paul Heyman Guy without ever telling Paul Heyman to care about him. It was perhaps the highest-profile case of management telling someone to go figure it out because his dad was a legend. It's a shame, because Axel always had a ruggedness around him, a real throwback to the days of barrel-chested dads whose kids bragged about them. I feel like there's always room for guys like him in any company, because burly guys brawling is perhaps the easiest route to a sustained fan reaction possible at this point.