This is going to be one of those essays I periodically write about wrestling that’s of no consequence. It’s not recent, it’s not modern, and it’s not meant to be a grand statement about what wrestling can and can’t do—it’s just an essay about something I like because in 2020, as a person whose week-to-week schedule is built on the unforgivably constant churn of wrestling content and news, it’s nice to be reminded that I really, truly do love this goofy, brutal sport. If you’re in need of that reminder too, just pick someone and watch their stuff on YouTube for awhile, and don’t be picky. Squash matches, promos, major matches, appearances outside of wrestling—really get a sense of the wrestler, divorced from this moment in history, and start developing weird opinions like the one that serves as the title of this essay.
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I’ve always loved Kevin Nash. I was 10 years old in 1998, a Detroit kid who was a sucker for cool logos and catchphrases, and “Big Sexy” was a genius way ahead of his time in those departments. Watch any documentary about the nWo and it’s pretty obvious—the idea of keeping a strict separation between the stable and WCW, making it seem as though the nWo really was a rogue organization looking to take over the bloated promotion where the big boys played? A lot of that was at Nash’s insistence, and it worked. My all-time favorite grift in professional wrestling? Taking the absurdly popular black-and-white nWo shirts, reprinting them in red, and selling them to the same people who already had the original. It’s a brilliant feat of marketing that worked so well it killed WCW because nobody knew when to let go.
But this is not an essay about Kevin Nash. This is an essay about Diesel, the greatest wrestler of all time.
Two Dudes with Attitudes
Something that’s relatively underrepresented in Shawn Michaels career retrospectives is that until his 2002 return from a back injury that took four years off of his career, he was almost exclusively a wrestler tied to a second personality. Marty Jannetty, Sensational Sherri, Luna Vachon, Diesel, Sid Vicious, Jose Lothario, D-Generation X—there’s almost always someone else there, ready to hit someone with a high heel or a powerbomb or whatever. It’s one of my favorite things about Michaels, how this singular, unbelievably charismatic talent was able to modify his character to fit whoever was standing by his side. Sometimes he was successful in doing this and sometimes he wasn’t, but beyond DX, which is altogether famous in a different way than the individual members of the faction, no Shawn Michaels pairing was as successful or popular as the one he shared with Diesel, laughable “Two Dudes with Attitudes” moniker aside.
While such inquests are better left to fanfic authors, one of the things I love most about Diesel is that his relationship with Michaels effectively queered the Heartbreak Kid character. After kicking Jannetty through a window, HBK transformed himself from a wholesome hair rocker to a womanizing playboy, with “Sensational” Sherri Martel operating as a woman who loved Michaels unrequitedly, and Michaels as a man who used that to his advantage, not just in having Martel running interference on the outside, but in his toying with her emotions for his own enjoyment. She caught on to this and was replaced by Luna Vachon, immediately nerfing the potential for romance between wrestler and valet, as she was just a bruising, terrifying woman doing a job. At the same time, Michaels’ iconic “Sexy Boy” entrance music transitioned from the original, Martel-sung version, where it’s all second person pronouns and heterosexual admiration, to one sung by Michaels, heavy on the first person pronouns and narcissism. The song wasn’t about desire anymore, it was about Michaels’ rejection of desire. When Vachon didn’t work out (reportedly because Michaels hated the pairing), he needed a second—a character like his, a talented, sneaky heel who was a bit undersized for a promotion that was still a land of giants, required a second. Enter Diesel.
Debuting inauspiciously on a June 1993 episode of Raw, seconding Michaels to the ring for an Intercontinental Championship defense against Kamala, he didn’t look much like the Diesel who’d become an integral part of mid-90s WWF, nor the Kevin Nash who was an integral part of the Monday Night War era of 90s wrestling. He wore denim, for one—an acid washed Canadian tuxedo with a jacket bedazzled in a similar fashion as HBK’s entrance gear—and cowboy boots. What remained consistent was the black leather glove, both a thing a trucker might presumably use (though trucker gloves come in pairs and are way less stylized than Diesel’s open-fingered number) and a thing fairly common in fetish play. You may think this is a stretch, but there’ve been a litany of bodyguard characters in wrestling, most of whom dressed like weird mob types in white button down shirts and suspenders, a fedora atop their head—hired killer drag for Saturday morning wrestling. Diesel, by contrast, is a leather-clad trucker. Where do you find truckers? Where do you find men in head-to-toe leather? And what is the broad cultural conception of either of those places—truck stops and leather bars—in 1993? What happens in those spaces? And what was it about Diesel that prompted Shawn to find another tall man in a leather vest to take his place when the two split up?
I’ll admit to the facetiousness of this mental exercise to an extent—Nash and Michaels’ chemistry together was great but hardly erotic—but the two of them changed the visual and narrative language of the wrestler/bodyguard dynamic. The likes of Virgil, Big Bubba Rogers, and Mr. Curtis Hughes didn’t work the same way after the Two Dudes with Attitudes—the dramatic push/pull of the pairing’s mutual desire for success within the squared circle is a much more fulfilling story than an obvious second’s subservience to a star wrestler or manager. So you get the relaunch of Sid Vicious as Michaels’ bodyguard. You get Big E and Drew McIntyre launching themselves on the main roster as seconds for Dolph Ziggler. You find roles for guys like Erick Rowan and Braun Strowman and Ryback (who also adopted leather when he was with Paul Heyman) and Wardlow that test the storytelling potential of their characters in and out of the ring without exposing them too much, protecting them by placing them in the role of protector. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but generally speaking the Diesel/Shawn relationship is a low risk/high reward one, something you’re going to see again and again and again because it’s endlessly repackagable and invites interest in the bodyguard by virtue of their obvious ability to take care of themselves in the ring.
What’s really fun about Diesel, the reason I like him so much, are his matches. I’ll admit, this is not the first thing that comes to mind when most people are asked what they think about Kevin Nash’s career, but wrestling changed rapidly around him, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and the rest of the WWF’s New Generation. As oft-repeated as this is, it’s worth remembering that in the wake of Hulk Hogan and his friends leaving the company and the 1994 steroid trial that the company barely weathered, the roster Vince McMahon was left with was a lot smaller than the one he rode to the top of the professional wrestling world. McMahon still loved (and still loves) men of size, but outside of Yokozuna (whose star was fading as his weight made it more difficult to function) and Razor Ramon (who’d later call himself “Medium Sexy” in relation to Nash’s “Big Sexy” moniker), and Sid, the size guys left to McMahon were either plug and play main eventers like Bam Bam Bigelow (who never got a major win and never recovered from losing to Lawrence Taylor at WrestleMania) or washed cannon fodder like King Kong Bundy. With the exception of Ramon, who was an effective face but had that fake Cuban gimmick with a built-in glass ceiling, the only big man in the WWF who could effectively turn face and be a credible champion and “leader” of the New Generation was Diesel. So that’s what happened.
Yeah, business cratered during his reign, but here’s the thing: The WWE still exists, and numbers are for absolute dorks. One of my favorite subgenres of basic wrestling match is Big Man vs. Smaller Man, and Diesel’s run atop the WWF is almost exclusively that. I’ve never looked at the negative aspects of larger wrestlers—mobility, moveset, relative worthiness to hold a championship compared to someone else on the roster—as a hinderance, but as a kind of puzzle. Hand a great wrestler a puzzle, have fun watching them put it together or fail to figure it out. Unlike most of the big guys I love to watch for that reason, Nash was fairly well put together in the ring. A former basketball player (albeit with a litany of knee surgeries already by 1995), Nash, as Diesel, carried himself like an athlete, and, given a richer character than any of the carny nonsense he was assigned in WCW, he came across like a legitimate menace from the start.
You can do a lot with a big man like that, and a lot of the WWF’s main event talent of the time did. While Hogan was in WCW stinking up major arenas with turgid rehashes of his Hulkamania rogues gallery, Diesel was having legitimate classics against Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, bangers against Sid and Lex Luger, and good stuff with the Undertaker. You can say he was carried, you can (and should) praise the agenting of Pat Patterson, but the fact of the matter is this: if Nash wasn’t up to the level of his opponents or the booker, none of it would have worked, and I wouldn’t be calling Diesel the greatest wrestler of all time. But since it did work, look at what you’re left with: a gigantic, well-dressed man with voluminous hair, truck horn theme music, and cool pyro who powerbombed people and could go 15-25 minutes when it was necessary. Over the past three weeks I’ve watched every Diesel main event, and the only one that didn’t deliver was a WWF Championship defense against British Bulldog, and that was entirely on Bulldog getting blown up and not knowing how to apply the Sharpshooter. You go into these matches looking for signs that Diesel needs help, but instead what you find is a character other wrestlers seem to have fun wrestling, and every single document of his era, from shoot interviews to documentaries to the actual shows from that time suggest that a palpable sense of fun was not a given.
So yeah, at this very moment, Diesel is the greatest wrestler of all time. I recently tweeted that he’s a better wrestler than Kenny Omega, and while that’s objectively not true, I can honestly say, having watched an equal amount of both this year, that I’ve enjoyed Diesel more. I can separate Diesel from the context that defines him (again, numbers are for dorks) in a way that I can’t with Omega, who is a highly skilled wrestler wrestling other highly skilled wrestlers in a year where it’s very difficult to enjoy anything because it can’t be separated from its context, either in its continued production despite a pandemic or its role as a distraction from social unrest. It’s hard not to be exhausted by it! So if you are, reorient yourself. Watch some Stan Hansen matches. Check out Manami Toyota. Watch TNA’s weekly pay-per-views or FMW tapes or the main event run of the Great Khali. Or follow my example, put on a bunch of Big Daddy Cool’s greatest hits, and start making some wild-ass statements that fly in the face of accepted critical thought. Diesel can be better than Kenny Omega if you want that reality bad enough. It’s been pretty nice in the New Generation. I’d be stoked if you decided to join.