August 9, 2012

Kevin Nash and his place in pro wrestling history.

Until Thomas Golianopoulos came along, I didn't know the world needed 3,500 words on Kevin Nash.

But his excellent piece on Nash, his career and the aftermath got me thinking. How will Kevin Nash be remembered?

To many people, he's probably just that big dude who pretended to be a bodyguard/truck driver for a while and then started the nWo. And that's really all you need.

But for wrestling fans, it's never that simple. And most fans, especially those who frequent the Internet, hate Kevin Nash.

To them, Nash is the guy who kept Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero down for so many years. The wrestler-slash-booker who ruled over WWF and WCW with an iron fist, who pushed his Kliq buddies to the top and buried rising stars like Bill Goldberg when it served his purposes.

The more I think about it, though, the more I wonder why this viewpoint, which still rests on a lot of general speculation and rumors, somehow tarnishes Nash's wrestling career.

I've always assumed -- and the article confirms this a few times over -- that Nash is a smart guy. For one thing, he's still alive, which is more than most elderly professional wrestlers can say.

So how much can we blame him working his way into a position of power, for using his intelligence and skill at handling backstage politics to ensure a lengthy run at the top? It sounds like, to him, pro wrestling was and is a job. He was a floor manager at a strip club until he stumbled upon a new career that revolves around yelling into a microphone and fake-punching people, and it made him millions of dollars.

Now, I don't mean to excuse Nash of any wrongdoings along the way. But I know a little about how wrestling operates, and to me, he sounds more and more like the only sane person amongst a swarm of overenthusiastic psychopaths.

I really enjoyed the book Ring of Hell, a detailed look at the life of Chris Benoit and everything that led up to the eventual murder-suicide that forever changed the world of pro wrestling. The author, Matthew Randazzo V, paints Benoit as mentally imbalanced long before he committed any crimes. This isn't because he tortured little animals or terrorized his family; it's because he was hopelessly devoted to professional wrestling. Because he'd bash his own head in, day after day, just to put on a show. To be the best wrestler he could be, even if the pay was minimal, the audiences were nonexistent and a rise to the top of the industry was far from a certainty.

Randazzo has a point. Pro wrestlers are, by and large, insane. They have no union. I believe they pay for their own travel and their own health care. Most of them wrestle because it's what they were raised to do, what they were surrounded by as children. They throw themselves into these jobs (and you have to, because there are only so many) and most of them never come out the other end.

The logical way to approach a pro wrestling career is to get in and get out. Make as much money as you can, as fast as you can, and escape while you're still breathing. But when it's all you know, how do you just walk away? Most don't, and that's why the attrition rate is so damn high.

It was a little easier for Kevin Nash; he backed his way into the industry by virtue of being a giant. He's what most wrestling promoters are looking for, or at least what they were looking for, back in his day. Guys like Benoit and Guerrero had to battle for every inch, but Nash was essentially handed the heavyweight title in 1994. His path to wrestling fame, and the cash that accompanies it, was a lot less bumpy than most people's.

But from what I hear about the Benoits and the Guerreros of the world, it wasn't about fame or money to them. They wanted to be heavyweight champion because it meant you were number one. Like Bret Hart before them, they thought the belt was real. That it was something you could, and should, earn through hard work and commitment.

Which is absolutely insane. It's all fake. Vince McMahon and a team of writers decide who has the WWE title and why, and they can force you to drop it to someone else at any moment. For many wrestlers, the obsessed ones, its a carrot to dangle in front of their faces. "Go out and kill yourself every night, and maybe we'll think about giving you this hunk of metal in a few years."

Kevin Nash is the smart one. He understood, and understands, how this all works. He seems like a dick, and he probably buried a few careers unnecessarily along the way, but he found an industry that operates in a remarkably outdated fashion and capitalized. A lot of the backstage stories that emerge, about how Nash would hold both WWF and WCW hostage with ridiculous demands, are probably at least a little tinged with jealousy. As Diamond Dallas Page says in Golianopoulos's story, if someone like Kevin Nash had been in charge of his career, he'd probably have a few more million bucks. I suspect a lot of guys, looking back, feel the same.

And he ended up making his company, and everyone associated with it, a whole lot of money, too. He was one of the biggest reasons that WCW rose to the top in the 1990s; "smaller" guys like Jericho and Dean Malenko might not have had such a highly rated television program to show off on without Nash, Hulk Hogan and the nWo. And the desire to see those "vanilla midgets" rise to the top, the wave of support that led McMahon to offer them serious WWF contracts, that wouldn't have existed without Nash and his cronies "holding them back."

But even if he wasn't good for the business, even if he did value the careers of himself and his friends over a bunch of wrestlers who didn't necessarily look the part, to bash him for these presumed crimes seems to be buying a little too deeply into the twisted world of pro wrestling politics. Because it's not about right and wrong with pro wrestlers (and the devoted fans who love it). It's about perception, and dedication, and how much of your life you're willing to turn over to an industry that chews people up and spits them out.

Guys like Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero are put up on pedestals for giving it their all, and then they kill their families or die of drug-induced heart attacks. All enthusiastic pro wrestlers aren't necessarily degenerates, or twisted individuals. But maybe what makes them so enthusiastic is a flaw that can be neatly repackaged as a virtue. Maybe one day, when we look back on the history of pro wrestling, we'll see the ones who got out early and (relatively) healthy, who took what they needed for their families and moved on to less detrimental careers, as the only reasonable men in a business that should've been dismantled a long time ago.

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