With Brock Lesnar having dominated John Cena at SummerSlam 2014 in a way nobody has ever done—in a championship match no less—it’s only fitting The Art of Gimmickry explores the bad ass character. It’s safe to say that the idea for such a gimmick came about during the late 90’s, specifically around the Attitude Era. But not because of guys like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who was more of an anti-hero than a one-man wrecking machine. What really helped inform the creation of the bad ass gimmick was the rise of the UFC.
Whenever an athlete from another sporting world joins the wrestling racket their legitimacy is played up and is used to lend some credibility to pro wrestling. Even though it also hurts the product because if the clarification has been made that wrestling is sports entertainment, then isn’t the guy with the legitimate sports background also part of the charade? How much more real is it going to be once he’s involved? As with most things in wrestling, don’t think about it too much or else your head will cave in on itself. Much the same way the WWE clings on to any mainstream pop culture relevance that surrounds a wrestler who’s had some crossover success, the same applies to wrestlers who have been successful in other sporting arenas. Even when said sporting arena is relatively new.
There was quite a bit of publicity when Ken Shamrock joined the WWE in 1997. The UFC was just four years old, but gaining some mainstream traction. He even got a nice rub from one of the greatest WrestleMania matches of all time when he refereed the Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart “I Quit” Match at WrestleMania 13. And billing him as “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” didn’t hurt either. He definitely looked and acted like a guy who could legitimately choke fools out. But this being wrestling, and Shamrock still being greener than goose s--t, much of that bad ass aura ebbed and flowed consistently. Although he improved with every match and got a run with the Intercontinental Title as well as a King of the Ring win by defeating The Rock in the finals, Shamrock was just another wrestler inside a ring when it came down to it. He didn’t exactly dominate the competition the way a guy called “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” would. Then again, the UFC wasn’t yet the internationally successful name brand it is today. For the time, Shamrock did okay as an ambassador of the UFC. He could’ve done a lot worse.
Dan Severn was brought in by Jim Cornette as part of his horrible 1998 “NWA” invasion that consisted of current or former WWE wrestlers. Even though the NWA had pretty much been dead since 1991, its once-prestigious world title ended up on Severn’s waist. But even with the devalued NWA title and multiple MMA belts draped over his body, Severn didn’t seem like the UFC flag bearer that the WWE was hoping for. Or maybe the WWE intentionally wanted the UFC to look bad by not doing much with Severn. The somewhat anticipated match between him and former UFC rival, Ken Shamrock, never came to fruition. At the very least, the WWE could’ve ran with his old school style and look and gone full-blown Matt Classic with him. Even that would’ve been a step up for Severn as his look and style served little use and made him seem less of a bad ass and more like a wrestler that time had forgotten. I guess it’s fitting, then, that he was the NWA Champion.
WWE wasn’t the only organization trying to legitimize itself with MMA fighters. Since WCW had pretty much made Bill Goldberg to look and act like a UFC-style fighter, they figured they’d bring in an actual fighter to feed to Goldberg and bump up his cred. Enter Tank Abbott, an even more insane-looking Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, but without all the charisma (and by ‘charisma,’ I mean being loud and laughing maniacally). WCW’s idea of making Abbott look like a bad ass was to have him feud over a leather jacket and become the biggest groupie of the boy-band inspired trio 3 Count. If booked properly, Goldberg beating a legitimately tough Tank Abbott would’ve been a really smart move by WCW, but smart moves weren’t exactly WCW’s forte.
While Brock Lesnar is no doubt the most successful crossover, legitimate bad ass, Kurt Angle is clearly the most talented all-around. Originally made to look like a white bread babyface weenie who was out of touch with the times, Angle’s wrestling ability made him instantly stand out. It was a while before bad ass Kurt Angle emerged as an actual character and, as a result, his matches were even better. He definitely lived up to “The Wrestling Machine” moniker and his feuds/matches with Chris Benoit and Lesnar proved that and more.
Suddenly, Kurt Angle winning the Olympic gold medal in freestyle wrestling with a broken freakin’ neck was a huge deal and a testament to what a bad ass this guy really was. The fact that he actually took down Lesnar before a WWE TV taping in front of “the boys” as was mentioned and confirmed recently on an episode of Jim Ross’ podcast The Ross Report tells you that ‘bad ass’ wasn’t just a gimmick for him. It was true; it was damn true! At any given time, the WWE could’ve made Angle their top guy, the ultimate wrestling bad ass. But more often than not, Angle was used to elevate his peers. Still, Angle’s rapid success was proof that amateurs could make the transition to pro wrestling, and was instrumental in bringing in guys like Charlie Haas, Shelton Benjamin, and Jack Swagger.
Brock Lesnar, on the other the hand, didn’t need Angle to pave the way. The big beastly bastard that is Brock Lesnar plowed his way through the ranks, earning himself the most impressive rookie year in WWE history. He was essentially 1980’s Mike Tyson. A goddamn monster. Fast forward 10 years later and not much has changed. Lesnar’s look and NCAA championship background made him a credible star, but after leaving the WWE to go and conquer do well in the UFC, Lesnar’s legitimacy hit an all-time high. The fact that Lesnar was booked to lose to Cena in his first match back in the WWE certainly didn’t help, but that was obviously the WWE’s passive aggressive way of not getting over him leaving in the first place.
Now, all that has changed. This past Sunday’s decimation of the WWE’s top performer of the past decade was proof of that. And we can all thank the UFC for not only providing bros the world over with aggressive t-shirts to wear, but for being a household name brand. Had the UFC been as popular as it is now back in 1997, Ken Shamrock would’ve beaten Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 14, not Steve Austin. I know, he obviously wouldn’t. Besides, Shamrock doesn’t look anything like Brock Lesnar. Nobody looks like Brock Lesnar.
Kayfabe Bad Asses
While being a dominant pro wrestler, as much as it is entertainment, should be enough reason for backing up their claims as bad asses, these wrestlers didn’t compete in other legitimate sports that had to do with fighting or wrestling. While sports like football and judo are very competitive and more “realistic,” it wasn’t enough to build a gimmick off of. However, these men were presented as legitimate fighters, at least as much as one can be in professional wrestling.
Before wearing MMA fighting gloves in wrestling was cool, there was 90’s WCW Big Van Vader, easily one of the biggest and baddest men in wrestling. During a time when monster heels were usually built to fall at the feet of the top babyface, Vader created a path of destruction that led him to the WCW World Championship. But the best example of Vader’s brutality, at least in the U.S., was his hard-hitting feud that left Cactus Jack on the receiving end of multiple hospital visits. Vader seemed unstoppable until Starrcade 1993. He was beaten by a returning babyface Ric Flair. And while Flair is as credible as they come, he’s never been known to take down big men easily, especially without a little outside help. By the time Hulk Hogan arrived to WCW you could see the writing on the wall. Hope was restored when Vader debuted in the WWE, but after an impressive start, the goddamn poison that was mid-90’s Shawn Michaels made sure Vader wouldn’t come close to being his old self.
Perhaps one of the best examples of Paul Heyman’s genius booking is the human suplex machine, Taz. Taz went from savage caricature to unbeatable human suplexing machine despite being only 5’9″. There was clearly a UFC influence as Taz added an awesome rear-naked chokehold to complement his devastating suplexes. The myth building continued with a “shoot fight” between him and UFC fighter Paul Varelans which Taz won by submission. And he was taking out guys twice his size like Bam Bam Bigelow. While I can’t comment on Taz’s actual real-life legitimacy as a tough bastard, most wrestling nerds are aware of Rob Van Dam slapping the taste out of Taz’s mouth and Taz not doing anything about it. Regardless of whether or not Taz was a real bad ass, his accomplishments on TV helped clear a path for smaller wrestlers to be taken as serious threats to their much bigger counterparts.
Much like Taz, Bill Goldberg’s tough guy persona was called into question during his WWE stint when Chris Jericho took him down backstage with a front face lock. On TV, Goldberg was presented in a much better light. With his football background lending that much needed cred that the wrestling industry is always desperate to exploit, Goldberg was destroying guys left and right. Again, this was due to smart booking. With a limited arsenal, Goldberg was laying waste to guys in a matter of minutes, even shorter than your average wrestling match during that time. But it worked perfectly. The guy was massive and the few moves he used were hard hitting and given cool names like The Spear and Jackhammer. WCW was on a roll and had finally developed its first homegrown superstar in a long time. But then Kevin Nash beat him at Starrcade ’98 and the seemingly indestructible Goldberg was never the same.
Based on the wrestlers highlighted in this article, we can conclude that the true mark of a wrestling bad ass is a nice pair of black MMA gloves. But in the case of Samoa Joe, makeshift gloves made out of wrist tape will also do. Samoa Joe was basically a bigger, badder, Samoan version of Taz. While Olympic experience had less to do with judo and more with Polynesian dancing, he is a former California State Junior Judo Champion. While it’s not the type of recognition that wrestling promoters salivate at the chance of exploiting, Joe did increase his stock by performing in several strong style matches in Japan (is there any other kind?). This experience coupled with his various submission holds definitely warrant the “Joe’s gonna kill you” chants that he receives whenever he wrestles. Samoa Joe was the modern day bad ass that blended together all the different types of fighting styles that made his wrestling look believable and extremely painful. Having terrorized ROH and the independent scene, Joe was positioned to make an impact in TNA. And he did. For a while. But like everything else good in wrestling, TNA had to find a way screw it up.
The Undertaker never once stepped outside the squared circle to try his hand in mixed martial arts or any other kind of legitimate fighting. But given his strength and size, The Undertaker has always been a bad ass in professional wrestling. Hell, he went by the nickname “The American Bad Ass” during latter part of the Attitude Era. But it wasn’t until he adopted the gogoplata chokehold, which he dubbed the Hell’s Gate, to go along with his MMA-gloved strikes that Undertaker became a much more different kind of bad ass. It made The Dead Man’s ass whoopings seem more realistic. Being a noted huge fan of UFC obviously inspired this change in character. Given the respect he had earned over the years becoming an all-around gritty veteran only helped cement the fact that he was still a dominant bad ass even in his later years. Why else would The Streak last so long?
And who better to end it than the baddest bad ass of them all? As mentioned earlier, nobody looks or acts like Brock Lesnar. Even when he’s vulnerable, he doesn’t look it. He still trudges along like a massive grizzly bear fighting, shaking off the fatigue of tranquilizer darts. Granted, the credentials and physical presence of Lesnar will only help serve the greater purpose of creating the WWE’s next top star, but it also means we’re going to get Brock Lesnar steamrolling through guys and making it look believable and awesome, the way a bad ass should. And we should all enjoy it because it’ll be a long time before we get another wrestler who’s able to embody this gimmick the way Lesnar has. He might even be the last true bad ass wrestler.