Scott Hall, Wrestling’s Bad Guy, Was Eternally Cool

Scott Hall died on Monday, March 14, of after an attempted hip replacement surgery loosed a blood clot which caused three heart attacks two days earlier. He was 63 years old.

I have been struggling for two days to think of something to say about his passing, but it’s difficult. I’m not an historian, nor was I acquainted with him, so the obituary and the eulogy feel locked off. What I am, however, is a fan. Based on my mom doing a Razor Ramon impersonation when I told her the news, I’ve apparently been a fan for longer than my brain is capable of storing and processing memory, and I’ve never stopped being a fan of Scott Hall. Something I can say, then, through the lens of childhood and adult fandom, is this: Scott Hall was one of the most important wrestlers in the history of professional wrestling.

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I don’t know if that would have been a controversial sentiment before Hall’s passing, but I find it inarguable, if only on the strength of his WrestleMania X ladder match against Shawn Michaels, and on his “You Wanted a War?” promo on WCW Monday Nitro that launched the new World order angle, accelerating the budding the Monday Night War between World Championship Wrestling and the World Wrestling Federation.

I’m going to dig deeper into both of those things, but in brief, here’s what those moments did. The former, the WWF’s second ladder match (but first televised one) launched an entire genre of wrestling matches. The way a ladder match was wrestled changed significantly with the dawn of the triple threat matches between Edge and Christian, the Dudley Boyz, and the Hardy Boyz, but the road to those matches, and the ubiquitous nature of the ladder match in general, began at WrestleMania X and with Hall and Michaels’ rematch at SummerSlam. Hall’s promo on Monday Nitro launched the new World order, which is still a machine that prints money. How successful that angle was going to be hinged entirely on how well Hall pulled off an angle and promo that had its forbearers, but had never been done to that scale or with so much riding on it. It’s basically perfect, one of the early angles that accelerated the Monday Night War, and something that’s as quotable today as it was in 1996.

Razor Ramon

As Scott Hall told it, Razor Ramon began like this: He pitched Vince McMahon and Pat Patterson Scarface: The Wrestling Character. A Cuban-American bully with showy cars and clothes, a devil-may-care attitude about his job, and endless, undeniable swagger. Complete with the accent, it blew the two of them away (they hadn’t seen Scarface) and was on television almost immediately, beginning with a series of vignettes that have lived in the memory of those that saw them first, acting as a kind of “things were better back then” touchstone when it comes to wrestler debuts.

Razor Ramon
WWE

While Scarface‘s influence is obvious on the Ramon character, what made it successful is where Hall deviated from Tony Montana, ditching his manic and lethargic streaks to create a character more cool, emotionally and in terms of how fans saw him. He spoke slowly. He had catchphrases. His Razor’s Edge finisher was one of the most visually impressive of his time. He could (and did) lose his cool, he would do things like beat the hell out of Owen Hart to intimidate his brother, but his vibe was slow and low, particularly when he was a babyface, like nothing could shake him, regardless of what the World Wrestling Federation had to offer.

There have been attempts to duplicate this, to at least steal a little of it, but none have been truly successful. It’s not that Razor Ramon belongs to a time when bright, flashy characters in gaudy costumes (oh, man, Ramon’s gear) were en vogue and they haven’t been for nearly thirty years. Razor Ramon is one of a few characters who transcended the boundaries of the New Generation era, largely because of how cool the man playing him was. I’ve used the word “cool” a lot, I know, but there’s really no other way of describing the Ramon character or Scott Hall the wrestler. “Cool” is one of those attributes you can’t learn or teach—you either have it or you don’t, and most professional wrestlers do not have it.

Obviously, Scott Hall did. And while I haven’t seen as much of his pre-Razor Ramon work as I’d like to, occupying this character was the key that unlocked the way wrestling fans saw him for 30 years, even when he was struggling. His slow walk to the ring, his toothpick, the way he presented himself to the crowd, the way he dared his opponents to step up and strike him. He was somehow able to escalate that when he needed to, like in the WrestleMania X ladder match when he walked under the ladders before the match, or how he celebrated with both Intercontinental Championships with his arms outstretched at the end, setting a mostly un-met precedence for looking great after getting the shit kicked out of you in a ladder match.

Razor Ramon ladder match wrestlemania 10
WWE

When announcers on WWE television talk about “WrestleMania moments,” it isn’t just world championship matches they’re invoking—it’s this. Razor Ramon’s victory over Shawn Michaels, his defiant pose at the top of the ladder—this is the peak of Scott Hall’s in-ring career. There are reasons for that, I think. WCW never really tasked Hall with working any classic matches, for one, and the Ramon character worked best, at least as a heel, as a kind of darkness on the edge of town, someone who could threaten Bret Hart, but whose role in the affair was to give fans the pleasure of seeing the bully beaten. As a babyface? Well, it was the Bret Hart era, and with the exception of Hulk Hogan’s fifth reign with the title, heels were generally the transitional champions of the time.

WrestleMania X

None of that matters, though. Razor Ramon’s win, despite an astonishing opening contest between Bret and Owen Hart, is the moment of WrestleMania X, is a memory fans and performers have lived with and aspired to for decades, and in a lineage of Pay Per Views built on flash, spectacle, and moments, this one sits at the top with the biggest of them, whether they defined an era or broke the cultural bonds wrestling normally finds itself in.

It’s such a cliche to say that this match is foundational to an entire genre of wrestling, but what else can you say? Wrestling has been on television for awhile and, as such, it doesn’t offer fans to watch as the visual grammar of it is established, but it’s there from the first frame, ladder hanging out in the entryway waiting for the two men who are going to use it. Michaels scoots around and Ramon ducks under—you’d think with that dichotomy that Michaels would be the one to play it safe, but this was the first televised ladder match—what does safe mean, in this context?

There are spots in this match that you still see in today’s more frenzied ladder matches. Shawn baseball slide dropkicks the ladder into Razor’s stomach, the way he rams and slams it into Ramon are standard, and Michaels taking a monkey flip into the ladder occasionally comes out of mothballs. One thing that’s missing from today is the drama of whether or not the ladder will break. Whenever Ramon and Michaels are on it together or knocking each other off, it twists and bends to the point that Jerry Lawler says that it’s broken. What happens then? Surely they have another ladder somewhere, but do they stop?

Shawn Michaels Razor Ramon
WWE

So a lot of the match’s biggest bumps feel like a highwire act, and Scott Hall excels at it as much as Michaels. When I was on message boards 15 years ago, it was not uncommon for people to credit this match to Shawn, mostly on the basis of his virtuosic, fearless selling. I internalized this because I hadn’t figured out the trick to how Shawn Michaels worked on the sell, that seeing him crash and burn was just as important as the move that got him—something that later made him a natural (and eventually good) babyface but functions as catharsis here. The thing is, though, that you need someone willing to roughhouse to really make that pop, and Razor Ramon was more than willing. His first major piece of offense is a beautiful chokeslam, a move he truly excelled at. His punches (also an aspect of his game that was exceptional) and clotheslines were snug throughout the match, giving Michaels something to chew on between the big spots, most of which belonged to him on either side of the advantage.

The spots that belong to Michaels are the most famous of the match. They’re also where Ramon gets to sell the most, outside of a Sweet Chin Music that he makes look like a home run shot as that move overtook the Tear Drop Suplex as Michaels’ finisher. I have always liked the way Scott Hall sells. He was a big man with long limbs, so when he got punched and his arm flew back as he staggered away from the blow, it looked like he really got rocked. It was a little theatrical, but in a way you could see a man take one on the chin in a Waffle House parking lot: surprised, pained, able to communicate both, somehow.

The biggest bumps he takes, at least for the narrative of the match, both involve the ladder. In the first, he takes a splash from the top of the ladder. In the second, Michaels goes to the top rope, ladder in hand, and rides it down across Ramon’s abdomen. The splash is iconic, but it’s just a splash with a couple of extra feet added to it. The one where Michaels drives his and the ladder’s weight into Ramon? I don’t care how many tables are broken, chairs are smashed, or ladders are cleverly erected like an erector set in service of today’s car wrecks—it still looks truly, miserably painful, the only spot eclipsing it being Michaels taking a Flair flop into the ladder and onto the floor.

Nothing about the match is gross, and nobody bleeds. It’s not a match wrestled around the fact of a ladder, but it is a match wrestled with the logic of a main event singles match. It doesn’t skimp on bombs early, but it manages to keep raising the bar, slowly but surely, until its climax, which is practically slapstick, feels satisfying. Shawn Michaels, a main event wrestler for most of his career, is frequently praised for his abilities as a ring general. Scott Hall does not often get the same praise. I think that’s a matter of opportunity, more than anything, of consistently being a wrestler fans loved to see win but who wouldn’t lose anything by taking a loss, who didn’t need to be the focal point of programming to be one of the most over wrestlers on the planet.

I think this match is Scott Hall’s peak as a performer. I think it’s also a glimpse at what he could have been in the WWF and WCW World Championship pictures more often than he was. He was a smart, measured wrestler who was just as good at drawing heat as he was at engendering sympathy. Simply put, he was a great wrestler. Strip this match of its gimmick and the proof is still there.

You Wanted a War?

Scott Hall was also a fantastic promo. However obvious that is, it should be stated up front. He got Razor Ramon over through a thick, fake Cuban accent. In an era of singalong catchphrases, he got “Hey yo” and an audience survey over. The mid to late 1990s, particularly in World Championship Wrestling, were dominated by long segments where gigantic stables took to the ring and passed around the microphone, with most of the time dedicated to Hollywood Hulk Hogan, so for the most part he got to do his survey, call someone a punk, and stumble around like Frankenstein’s monster to make fun of the Giant.

He was great in that role—the best, based on my recent re-watches of Nitro from that era—but most of the guys in the nWo weren’t; they stood around waiting for a cue or laughed like cartoon villains. The only members of the group who looked, acted, and sounded like renegades were Hollywood Hogan (you know, in a kind of fatherly way) and Hall’s tag team partner, Kevin Nash. Hall and Nash, the Outsiders, were unbelievably cool as a unit, as if shedding the gaudy patina of their wildly popular WWF personas allowed them to channel what made those characters through something much more natural: themselves.

It didn’t last, nothing in wrestling does, but nobody in the wrestling of the era they helped define had as much swagger as the Outsiders from 1996-1997 except maybe The Rock. Frankly, it would have been pointless to chase Big and Medium sexy. Their pre-tape promos had the gloss of uniquely nWo production. Their shirts, particularly the one with a promo photo of the two of them, are grails today. They got away with implausible angles like forcing the Steiner Brothers into a car accident and managed not to seem petulant in angles where they stripped the Steiner Brothers of the WCW Tag Team Championships. They stood apart from their division, from wrestlers in general until Steve Austin’s Austin 3:16 promo in June 1996, by being real guys. Most wrestlers after them who tried to be real guys, too, failed by virtue of one thing: Hall and Nash weren’t trying.

It’s crazy that two of the most important promos in wrestling history, two promos that completely changed the fortunes of WCW and the WWF, are separated by a little less than a month, with Scott Hall’s nWo-launching “You wanted a war?” speech preceding Austin 3:16. While nostalgia for the era has had its ups and downs for World Wrestling Entertainment, the speed with which the industry moved from one bombshell moment to the next was breathtaking, which became easy to romanticize when WCW was sold to WWE, beginning two decades of monopoly and stasis.

If you have any nostalgia for Scott Hall’s WCW debut on May 27, 1996, it is not misplaced. It is a perfect piece of television.

A lot of people in wrestling like to claim that this segment (and the Hall and Nash ones that followed until Hogan joined the group at Bash at the Beach in June) felt real, that fans bought into the idea that Hall and Nash were rogue invaders from the WWF (to the extent that the WWF sued WCW over the angle’s implications to that effect). It’s easy to see why, as Hall’s debut has the air of a random event, an interruption of a nothing match between Steve Doll and Mike Enos mid-way through a WCW Monday Nitro in Macon, GA. Compared to the generic wrestlers in their wrestling gear and the squeaky-clean environs of WCW television, the Canadian tuxedo-clad Hall looked positively terrifying as he made his way to the ring through the audience.

“You people,” he begins, “you know who I am. But you don’t know why I’m here.”

Hall’s Razor Ramon accent is still in place for the first line, but it adds to the mystery he dangles in front of the WCW audience: why is he there? That takes much longer to unravel than the 2:16 this angle gets. From there, it’s pretty simple: He calls out a couple of WCW regulars by the mock names WWF had given them in their abysmal “Billionaire Ted’s Wrasslin’ Warroom” segments, he drops his first hillbilly “dubbya-cee-dubbya,” which would feature in practically every promo he did for the company for as long as there was an nWo for him to hang out in, and he dropped the line. The line.

“You want a war? You’re gonna get one.”

Here’s what this promo is: an opening line, a closing line, and body language. Watch enough wrestling promos, particularly backstage ones or ones where the wrestler is holding their own mic, and you’ll notice that a lot of them, even some who are otherwise very good promos, are kind of boxed in, moving like an NPC in a video game or not at all. Scott Hall’s movement in this promo is simple, one hand on the mic and the other gesturing, but he’s gripping the mic like he’s ready to deck anybody who’d try to take it away, and his free hand is constantly pointing at whoever he’s addressing from moment to moment. It’s a lot simpler than the oozing machismo of Razor Ramon, but it’s darker, too, like the lines he enters and exits on.

You can’t overstate how important this segment is. If Hall goes out and flubs it, not only does he need to regain his credibility, but the eventual debut of Kevin Nash and moonshot heel turn of Hulk Hogan (or Sting or whoever it ends up being in this scenario) don’t have as solid a foundation to work from. This needed to work, period, and while there are many promos that are legendary or stand out for whatever reason, very few of them needed to work to the scale this one did.

The Bad Guy

None of this, I realize, is what makes the loss of Scott Hall a tragedy. The first thing I thought of when the news became official was the time he was just at a wrestling show in Monroe, GA, filming his son Cody’s match for the Southern Fried Championship Wrestling Title, how when he wasn’t filming he was still watching every single match. For a wrestler who had a reputation as being difficult to work with, there’s a seemingly endless number of stories about him being generous in the ring with the likes of Sean Waltman and Hiroshi Tanahashi, to giving a career-changing idea to Sting, to freely offering advice to young wrestlers at indie shows like the one I saw him at, just being a guy enjoying the fruits of the very, very difficult labor that is overcoming substance abuse and becoming a better person. Despite how incredible his achievements in wrestling, the career he left behind, is secondary to that labor.

But I’m a fan, and that’s as far as I can go with Scott Hall the person. Scott Hall the performer is another story. I watched an episode of WWE’s Table For 3 featuring Hall, Sean Waltman, and Diamond Dallas Page, talking about the Monday Night War. Towards the end of it, Page tells both men that what they did will be a part of wrestling history for a long time. In my opinion, that’s a low-end estimate. Hall was loved in two wildly successful personas by two generations that are coming into prevalence in professional wrestling as fans, staff, and performers. Those generations took their kids to meet Hall at conventions and shows, took his advice, use his Razors Edge finisher. It’s already been a long time since the Monday Night War, but these things carry over.

I’m glad of that. Scott Hall deserves to be remembered, for a long time, for as long as there is professional wrestling, or somewhere in-between. He was unique, a singular talent, so much so that wrestling fans rarely refer to wrestlers as good guys and bad guys. There’s just one Bad Guy. It was him.