While we’re looking at election news and new gaming consoles, I want to come clean: I like Bad Wrestlers more than I like great wrestling. The suffixes are intentional: Watching a Bad Wrestler, a truly Bad Wrestler, holds more interest to me in 2020 than crisp technical wrestling, awe-inspiring acrobatics, or well-booked, consequential main events. If you are looking, you might be saying “ahh, Colette, you’ve written about this extensively, look at your articles about Diesel, Goldberg, and Lex Luger.” But to you I say this: There are wrestlers who are bad because they’re famous enough for everybody to have an opinion, and there are wrestlers whose badness is largely unexplored, wrestlers who were on major platforms who never looked comfortable in the ring, who never learned a basic wrestling sequence, whose role was to be tall or foreign or foreign and tall, your natural athletes, your imposing presences. Dudes buried in the middle of a three hour episode of Nitro. WWE Tough Enough rejects. Project wrestlers. Common adjectives appended to them and their work may include “rawboned,” “former NFL player,” “weightlifter,” “celebrity,” and “bowling-shoe ugly.”
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I can drop names, too. You may know some of them. Steve “Mongo” McMichael, 911, El Gigante, The Great Khali, Zeus, The Great Antonio—in a sport often referred to as “a game of human chess,” it’s questionable whether nor not any of these men were capable of human checkers. Some of them tried, some of them had legit bangers, and some of them got beaten to a pulp before disappearing into the aether. They, or at least most of them, are precious in my sight.
Everything about Steve "Mongo" McMichael is the best thing that ever happened to wrestling.
— colette arrand (@colettearrand) March 23, 2014
Why that’s the case is something that’s eluded me for much longer than 2020, which has sent me spiraling into the past as a means of avoiding the consequences of this “era” of professional wrestling. But now that I’m not alone, now that there are GIF accounts on Twitter celebrating characters like ol’ Mongo McMichael, I feel compelled to get to the bottom of this, to find out what compels me so. If the answer is as ugly as a Great Khali brain chop, so be it.
The Virgin Good Wrestler
I’ve got to be honest with you here: I have no idea what makes a wrestler “good” anymore. This isn’t me pulling an “old man yells at cloud” thing, mind you. I just don’t know. I’ve been following wrestling for so long that I remember several points in time where Internet wrestling fans argued for the likes of Kane as a Good Wrestler, deserving of a world title reign longer than the one day he got in the 1990s, and I remember being punished with a somewhat lengthy Kane run months later. Was Kane a good wrestler then? In the mid 2000s? In 1998? As a dentist? As the Unabomber? As a Christmas monster? The answer to that question, at least in my estimation, is no, even though the chokeslam is a central weapon in his arsenal and the arsenal of every bad wrestler I love.
But the fact that wrestlers like Kane do rank as good to some proves that there’s a bar somewhere, disputed or agreed upon, that one must meet in order to be deemed good. The thing about this generation of professional wrestlers is that that bar was so low for so long (I mean, Kane) that most wrestlers are on the right side of the bar. At the extreme end of that bar, on the Good Wrestler side, you have your Daniel Bryans, your Katsuyori Shibatas, your Minoru Suzukis, and your Toru Yanos. I don’t know that anybody wrestling in a major promotion in 2020 is at the extreme end of the bar on the Bad Wrestler side. It feels weird to say that my issue with wrestling is that it’s too good, so I won’t. What I’ll say, instead, is that everyone is too competent, and that one of the things that makes old wrestling fun to revisit is that sometimes companies would get behind wrestlers with hardly any ringtime and let them learn on nationally broadcast television shows with millions of dollars at stake. To some extent, that’s why I was suckered into the first Seth Rollins vs. Dominik Mysterio match, only to discover, to my horror, that Dominik, however raw he is, has already passed the bar and is a Good Wrestler.
I am not against Good Wrestlers, but to some extent I think that when I say that I prefer Bad Wrestlers, I am saying that I resent that Good Wrestlers won the war, that Bad Wrestlers have been banished to the chicken auction barns I used to travel to the middle of nowhere so I could witness them toil for 50-60 people, dudes who literally wheezed as they threw loose punches, men who’d forget to gimmick the one table they brought for their tables match. I have seen Good Wrestling, y’all. There’s 10 hours of it between WWE and AEW a week at a minimum, and adding in AEW Dark’s variable runtimes, Ring of Honor, Impact, MLW, indies that won’t stop running, and a growing amount of easily accessible material from Mexico, Japan, England, and so on, I am beyond saturated with Good Wrestlers and Good Wrestling.
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate how long the road to this point was. Most of my favorite wrestlers growing up were, in fact, Good Wrestlers, as all of the Good Wrestlers got shunted off to weekend shows like WCW Saturday Night while Hulk Hogan and company held the fort on Nitro. William Regal, Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Chris Jericho, a gaggle of luchadors from Mexico—these were the guys I was obsessed with, along with the Bret Hart and Randy Savage stuff I gleaned from the VHS tapes I sometimes scored from friends who didn’t want their copy of WrestleMania IV anymore. Despite how frequently the word “genius” is flung around about the Monday Night War, actually watching the shows suggests that nobody really knew what they were doing, that everything was an experiment of the “spaghetti on the wall” variety. Good Wrestling and Good Wrestlers were something WCW cottoned to because they added a facet to their shows that WWE didn’t have at that point in time, and while a lot of them wound up being stars during their tenure in WCW (listen to how a Nitro audience pops for Dean Malenko and tell me he’s not one of the most over wrestlers on their roster), WCW was also a place ruled by old WWE talent and old WWE ideologies, and if the World Wrestling Federation of Hulk Hogan’s prime was known for anything, Good Wrestling wasn’t it.
It’s not like WWE knew any better, by the way. When they saw the critical acclaim WCW was getting for their cruiserweight division, they relaunched their Light Heavyweight Championship, and while pitting the stars of Japanese indie wrestling against the carnies of Memphis sounds like catnip as I type it out, it was clear that they had no idea what made WCW’s division click. In 1996, they signed Steve Austin, who at that point in time was one of the best wrestlers in the country who’d proven during his brief stint in ECW that he was also an exceptional promo (he’d proven it in WCW too, but with far less mic time). They gave him the name “The Ringmaster,” one of the all time Good Wrestler names, assigned Ted DiBiase to be his manager despite his being terrible at the role, and hardly let him speak. Six months after that, having dropped The Ringmaster name for “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, he cut the Austin 3:16 promo at King of the Ring and that was that.
Pretty much every Good Wrestler WWE managed to grab from WCW or ECW went through a long stretch of time where it was worth questioning whether or not they understood what they had. Wrestlers like Jericho and homegrown star Kurt Angle won the WWF Championship fairly early in their careers, but as comedy foils to the comings and goings of the McMahon family. Dean Malenko retired early in his WWE run, during a “ladies man” gimmick that disappeared, oddly enough, with the beginning of the WCW/ECW Invasion angle. With the exception of Brock Lesnar, there was a real nervousness to commit to the main event status of a lot of their no doubt, slam dunk wrestlers, and even then the bulk of them spent most of their time in the midcard—Chris Jericho’s nine Intercontinental Championship reigns read as an acknowledgement that the company knew they should be doing something with him and a confession that they didn’t know what.
But Good Wrestling won out. You can point to any number of factors. WrestleMania XX’s dueling Eddie Guerrero/Chris Benoit main event victories. WrestleMania XXX’s Daniel Bryan triumph. Maybe that’s it on a company level, but really I think what happened is that wrestlers started trading tapes, studying matches and envisioning a kind of professional wrestling where smaller, more athletically gifted, more technically sound wrestlers could succeed if given a chance to, and that the vacuum left by the WWE’s acquisition of WCW and ECW and the lack of talent that went back on the indies with those deaths meant that promotions like Ring of Honor launched under the auspices of providing something different, something you weren’t going to see on television, something better. An explosion of wrestling schools, twenty years of wrestlers like Daniel Bryan, AJ Styles, CM Punk, and Samoa Joe, and a generation of fans-turned-wrestlers who grew up on those wrestlers, the tapes they watched, and a growing body of evidence that proved that Good Wrestling could draw have created the world we live in now, a world where it’s virtually impossible to imagine WWE churning out someone on the level of Steve “Mongo” McMichael, even if they’re featuring an ex-punter on NXT.
Why is this such a loss? For one thing, it used to be fun to see what a Good Wrestler could get out of a Bad Wrestler. Like, much of the “is Kane actually good?” argument is predicated upon a couple of matches he had against Bret Hart when he was playing the role of Jerry Lawler’s evil dentist. Nobody asks “is PCO good?” or “is Jinsei Shinzaki good?” because of their work against Bret Hart, despite his working them during the same stretch of time, because they were also Good Wrestlers, and in the mid-90s the disparity between a Good Wrestler and a Bad Wrestler was shockingly, painfully obvious, which is why things like William Regal attempting to chain wrestle an extremely green Goldberg stand out when fans go digging through old episodes of Nitro and Thunder.
The thing is, I love watching wrestlers learn how to wrestle, I love the uncertainty of the whole enterprise. WCW is littered with the near-unwatchable bodies of work of graduates of the WCW Power Plant, the in-house wrestling school whose two most successful graduates are Goldberg and the Big Show, both of whom were rushed to the ring as quickly as possible. When Show beat Hulk Hogan for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship? That was his second recorded match, booked because he was tall enough for the company to claim he was Andre the Giant’s son. Goldberg debuted within a year of joining the Power Plant, was built up (and had his flaws hidden) with squash matches, and has never had a reason to deviate from that style. Can I learn about wrestling by watching a match like this year’s Daniel Bryan vs. Drew Gulak showdown from Elimination Chamber, which I loved? Absolutely. Can I learn about wrestling by watching Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, and Chris Benoit try to keep it together while Steve “Mongo” McMichael is wrestling or talking on the microphone? Absolutely. At this point in my life, the question of Good Wrestler or Bad Wrestler comes down to which one will be more fun in the moment. At this point in my life, the answer to the question is going to be Bad Wrestler more often than not.
The Chad Bad Wrestler
The thing is, Bad Wrestlers don’t give a fuck. They cannot. However much one wants to believe in a wrestling where all wrestlers are Good Wrestlers, that there is a finite amount of time and effort that will nudge a Bad Wrestler over the line, the wrestling we have is one that’s still awed by size and potential, one that’s messed with its audience’s perception of what words like “large,” “small,” “tall,” and “short” mean. One of the things that struck me the most about a recent episode of AEW Dynamite was how tall Billy Gunn was in comparison to the other five men in the ring with him. He’s my height, 6’3″, but in a wrestling ring in 2020 he looks massive because wrestling has changed, meaning that his size is now an exception and not the rule. WWE’s vision of masculinity is always going to skew taller than average, and your 6’7″, 6’2″, 6’5″, and 6’1″ Hulk Hogans, Steve Austins, Dwayne Johnsons, and John Cenas of the world can’t just wrestle people of a similar height (there aren’t many) or exclusively work short kings (it doesn’t look fair). So you look for larger people, wrestlers who look imposing regardless of the circumstances, who can weather the constant cycle of house show losses and cheap finishes because despite how incredulous the average wrestling fan is, it’s still fun to see a smaller man pick up and throw down a much, much bigger man. It’s one of the fundamental building blocks of professional wrestling.
There are Bad Wrestlers who aren’t large, obviously, but if you’re applying a filter across the broad spectrum of professional wrestling, that’s a good one to go with. There are plenty of Good Wrestlers who are large, plenty of Bad Wrestlers who are not, but the size of a Bad Wrestler is often a sticking point because of the reasons I outlined above, because what a fan wishes wrestling was and what a promoter decides wrestling is are often two very, very different things. So when you sign Steve “Mongo” McMichael to a multi-year deal to work the commentary desk on Monday Nitro and find out that he sucks, you take stock of what you have—NFL veteran, Super Bowl champion, more guts than brains—and try him out in the ring. Because of those bonafides, and because he frankly doesn’t look or sound out of place unless he’s wrestling or speaking, you figure he can learn on the fly. You put him in a group with three of the best, most experienced wrestlers on the roster, two of the best talkers in the history of the game, and figure he’ll soak it up like a playbook. When he doesn’t, and when you keep trying, you end up making professional wrestling magic.
— mongo and friends (@ThatsOurMongo) October 12, 2020
Bad Wrestlers take wrestling and reduce it down to its basics. They can reveal a Good Wrestler’s weaknesses. They can show off a lesser wrestler’s hidden strengths. One of my favorite wrestlers is The Great Khali. I know he’s a Bad Wrestler, but look—his finish was a brain chop, and he once squashed a watermelon in his bare hands to demonstrate how he could crush Batista’s head. Watch him walk down to the ring at the earliest point of his WWE run and you know you’re not in for your average wrestling match—were it possible for the Ents from Lord of the Rings to walk slower, that’s the kind of speed Khali was bringing in his prime. I wasn’t into wrestling in 2007, but wound up at a Buffalo Wild Wings the night of One Night Stand 2007, headlined by John Cena vs. The Great Khali in a falls count anywhere match. Until the WWE Network launched in 2014, places like Buffalo Wild Wings were where you went if you wanted to watch wrestling with a few dozen other wrestling fans, a small enclave in a strip mall parking lot where you could have serious conversations about workrate and wear wrestling shirts in public with no fear of reprisal.
I had no idea, and the crowd in the Allen Park, Michigan Buffalo Wild Wings was fairly mild. Until John Cena’s music hit. When it did, 100 people stood up, in unison, a thousand miles from his ears, and scream sang “JOHN CENA SUCKS” along with the trumpet riff of that theme song. I had never seen anything like that before, and outside of the first time fans sang along with “Judas,” I’ve never seen anything like it since. My interest was piqued. In that match, a surprisingly long affair that I have been earnestly recommending to people for 13 years, John Cena made me a believer. The Great Khali is a Bad Wrestler. He’s barely mobile, and his ability to intimidate pretty much evaporates as soon as he’s winded. John Cena took that man to a banger, even if nobody in that Buffalo Wild Wings saw it my way. I have loved John Cena ever since.
How much of that love is due to The Great Khali? A lot of it, actually. When I rewatched a good chunk of Raw in 2007 to recap The Battle of the Billionaires angle, I was actually stunned by how good, how compelling he was as WWE Champion. His feud against Umaga produced one of the best WWE matches in company history. His WrestleMania main event with Shawn Michaels was great. He and Kevin Federline had about as good of a modern Jerry Lawler/Andy Kaufman storyline as one could reasonably expect. I knew all of this, but I didn’t know. Wrestling couldn’t hold my attention in early 2007, and watching so much of it for the sake of a story in 2020, I’m honestly a little surprised that I’m talking about how good it was in this space. But everything before Cena/Khali is something I’m looking at in retrospect—I’ve been watching wrestling non-stop for 13 years because the reaction to him, to this match, made me sit back and pay attention to it, and without the benefit of a Shawn Michaels or a Umaga or any number of wrestlers who’ve supposedly carried John Cena in dozens of great matches, he took a slab of beef to an easy three stars.
That’s one reason why I love Bad Wrestlers. In stripping wrestling down to two or three moves and a narrative, they show how wrestling is like a puzzle, how a match is the result of two parties meshing (or not meshing) based on what they bring to the table. John Cena isn’t a great wrestler because he got something good out of Khali. Arn Anderson is not a bad promo because none of what he did influenced Mongo. But there’s something to be said for the little glimpses into what wrestlers can and can’t do when they’re presented a problem like a Bad Wrestler, an insight into what makes them work that you’re really not meant to see. What’s the fun in good wrestling when good wrestling is what you’ve come to expect from week to week, when the wrestling itself is so consistently good that imperfection is what’s exciting? Sometimes when I’m asked what I like about wrestling I say that I like watching impossible bodies do impossible things. Kenny Omega can get six stars in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, but could he get three out of Mongo? Could anybody? That’s the fun of loving Bad Wrestlers—you never know they’ve got it in them until you’re watching a random episode of Thunder. That surprise is nice. That surprise is missed.