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The following is Wade Keller’s feature editorial from 20 years ago this week ranking and evaluating the WWF roster, broken into tiers, just before Bret Hart’s departure. PWTorch VIP members have access to all past PWTorch Newsletters and Wade Keller’s entire library of cover stories, editorials, Torch Talk interviews, PPV coverage, Raw and Nitro coverage, and everything else from everyone else in over 1,500 back issues chronicling the wrestling industry dating back to the late 1980s.
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Annual Roster Evaluation – WWF roster, minus Bret Hart
By Wade Keller, Torch editor
The WWF had referred to their top quartet of wrestlers — Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin, and Undertaker — as “The Big Four.” They hoped Jeff Jarrett would make it the “Big Five.” Now, with Bret Hart’s imminent departure, there is only a “Big Three.” And of those three, two are in questionable physical condition. Michaels’s cumulative knee injuries prevent him from ever wrestling a full-time schedule again. Austin’s spinal chord injury may prevent him from ever being the worker he once was.
The Patriot was knocking on the door of entering the top tier of the WWF roster, but yet another serious tricep injury has set him back again and he may never be able to return to the ring. Yokozuna, once the top heel in the WWF and a long-running WWF Champion, has been unable to fight off his weight problem and is therefore unable to pass athletic commission physicals. He may have wrestled his last WWF match. That said, the WWF roster is not without promise and presence. There are several underutilized wrestlers with immediate breakout star potential and a few projects who, with patience and smart promoting, could become stars.
The Sporting News features weekly “Power Ratings” which rank teams in respective sports in order of strength based on not just their record, but the quality of their opposition, durability, experience, and intangibles. Let’s take a similar look at the WWF by examining what’s left of their roster, and picking out the untapped strengths and hidden weaknesses of the singles wrestlers whom they need to step up with the loss of so much talent recently. The rankings are based on each wrestler’s value to the WWF in the immediate future (i.e. next six months) in terms of how the WWF has them positioned now. In the comments is an evaluation of the likelihood of each wrestler either falling short of their push or rising above expectations.
(1) Undertaker: He is the WWF’s top star for a variety of reasons. Mainly, he is the only true top tier wrestler with full-time wrestling ability. He is limited in that he is a bit of a retro cartoon character which goes against current trends, but at the same time is athletically gifted enough to be carried to really good matches with a variety of good opponents. Behind the scenes he is a joy to work with most of the time as he keeps quiet, arrives on time, avoids politics, rises to the occasion when called upon, and keeps crowds interested in his character. [Solid foundation]
(2) Steve Austin: The runaway number one star in the WWF if not for his questionable neck condition. It’s a sad story if Austin really is done as a full-time wrestler or if he has to limit his ring style drastically. He may able to find a new, acceptable rhythm within the confines of a somewhat restricted style and rise to be a perennial WWF Champion main eventer. The WWF hopes that is the case. He won’t be 100 percent of what he was, but 70 percent of the hottest star in wrestling is more than 100 percent of anybody else on the WWF’s roster right now. [Fingers crossed]
(3) Shawn Michaels: He is the most proven drawing card, the best worker, and the most compelling performer the WWF has. He is also the biggest headache, still a walking time bomb, and with bad knees only a part time wrestler. He will remain a perennial top tier wrestler, but his value to the WWF is limited by being able to work only a few times a month. His weekly presence on TV, as is also the case with Austin, will make the WWF’s main event roster seem stronger than it really is. That said, though, it only hurts house show attendance when two of its top stars according to television pushes aren’t wrestling on most live arena events. [Questionable stability]
(4) Owen Hart: With the departure of Bret Hart, Owen immediately takes his place in the Big Four. Owen has been around long enough to be established as a major player in fans’ eyes, although he has been a second tier wrestler long enough that he may not be capable of carrying the ball in a major PPV main event. To have the Big Four reduced to having a wrestler incapable of being taken seriously in a PPV main event means the WWF has some major rebuilding to do. Owen has potential over the next six months to be moved up a level. His interview skills are excellent, although they are a bit too juvenile in tone for him to be taken as seriously as Bret was. Owen is a better worker than Bret is today, in part due to youth and in part due to better natural athletic ability. The WWF needs to tap Owen’s “Hart name value” and build him in a way that suggests they were left with the better of the two brothers. The WWF and Owen can only pray that his concussion doesn’t lead to a long-term problem that also puts his ability to work full time at risk. [Needs credibility boost]
(5) Mankind: A great utility wrestler who may be seen as a perennial second tier wrestler if only because he isn’t perceived as a title threat. It’s not that he isn’t perceived as being at a title holder level, but his character (or characters) doesn’t seem all that interested in titles. Cactus Jack had top tier potential, and if Mick Foley returned to that character, he would have a better chance to become a regular PPV main eventer and drawing card. As Mankind or Dude Love, he will be a wrestler who carries his end of PPV semi-main events and occasional main events, but usually puts over a more established top tier wrestler or puts over an up-and-coming second tier wrestler who needs a big win to move up a level. He is a great asset to the WWF and like Owen Hart is probably underappreciated and underpaid. But given the current way he is being used, he probably will remain at the bottom of the top tier, but no higher. [Limited by his character]
(6) Jeff Jarrett: Jeff Jarrett may be the second best full-time worker the WWF has. Michaels is a part-time wrestler and Austin is now limited in what he can do, assuming he returns to the ring for a semi-full-time schedule. Jarrett is still trying to find himself in terms of what character will best get across the natural self-confidence he has. He is a very good worker, has a great physique, is good looking, has shown in his few WWF interviews more range behind the mic than previously given credit for, is smart, reliable, healthy, young (30 years old), and has a desire to move into the top tier. His downside guarantee is said to be of top tier level, so the WWF has major plans for him. He will definitely be given a chance to move up to that level — and quickly. The WWF hopes he leapfrogs ahead of Owen and Mankind quickly and becomes a PPV main event caliber wrestler. [Big upside]
(7) Hunter Hearst Helmsley: He has the physique, height, overall look, and athleticism to be a top tier wrestler. Since joining Shawn Michaels in Degeneration X, Hunter has finally broken away from his confining character and is beginning to show signs of top tier potential. To move up the roster into the top tier, either his persona needs to move up a couple more notches to be at the level of Michaels and Austin, or he needs to improve his mid-’80s style in the ring to compete with Owen and Jarrett in fans’ eyes. If he can do both — but he has moved slower than expected in both categories since joining the WWF — he could become a franchise wrestler. [Moving up]
(8) Ken Shamrock: The WWF dropped the ball on his initial push since he fell short of their expectations in terms of instant interview skills and in-ring charisma. Yet, he has both, they just need to be directed in a way that isn’t hokey. Shamrock has lost most of whatever rep he brought with him from his UFC days. He has now become just another wrestler struggling to become a top tier wrestler. He definitely has potential to be a PPV main eventer as he is a great athlete with a great look. He has his health, a good attitude, and is reliable — all valuable assets in short supply among top WWF wrestlers. The WWF needs to keep trying with him until they get it right. [Big upside]
(9) Ahmed Johnson: He has been given a considerable push since his debut in the WWF, but has been slowed by a variety of factors. The biggest liability, among many with Ahmed, is that he is injury prone. It seems to be one thing after another with him. Right now he has a four week streak of staying healthy, which is his longest streak in over a year. Now he has to stop hurting other wrestlers. He doesn’t have the respect of the locker room in a lot of circles because of his carelessness or lack of control in the ring. He is seen by many fellow wrestlers as still being a “mark” in a lot of ways, a guy who buys his own newsstand press and isn’t working hard enough to improve in his weaker areas. His coherence on interviews has improved the last two weeks, but he still has to show that he can control his energy level enough to keep a steady, comprehendible pace during interviews. He needs the same control in his matches. He is not yet a good worker, but has the raw athletic ability to become a decent worker within the confines of his character over time. Despite all of those liabilities, he has tremendous charisma, a good look, great desire (albeit somewhat unhinged), and a marketable persona. It’s a plus that his persona is himself, not a goofy or freakish gimmick. He needs to stay healthy for a year and show improvement in a few above mentioned areas, but he does have top tier potential. [Patience needed]
(10) Rocky Maivia: He’s tied up in the NOD gang, but he has the most upside of anyone on the WWF’s roster. He has been the breakout star of the NOD and has great heel heat. The WWF pegged him over a year ago as a potential break out star, but found that his smiling, nice-guy persona was ripe for fan ridicule. Now that he has an edge to him, fans are starting to pay him more respect and not just treat him like a pretty boy. He has charisma, he is healthy, he is reliable, he has a good attitude, and he has a desire to reach the top tier. Maivia should move up the WWF roster at a steady pace — not too fast to turn off fans, but not so slow that he gets pegged as a mid-carder. In 12-18 months, Rocky could be a PPV main event caliber wrestler competing with Jarrett, Hunter, and Shamrock for top tier positioning on house shows, but as he approaches that level he should be handled with care by the WWF. [Big upside]
(11) Vader: Unlike Maivia above him, Vader has hit his peak as a drawing card and is on his way down — although not quickly. He is a veteran with name value who can be put in a house show main event and be perceived as being deserving of that position. At the same time, he doesn’t have the juice left to be a perennial PPV main eventer. His bad knees and ailing body have slowed him from when he was a top 15 worker in the world seven years ago. He has a disconcerting temperament that scares the WWF from pushing him too hard, yet he is professional enough that he is worthy of keeping around as a veteran utility wrestler. His current babyface persona is among the least compelling of his career as it comes across as a cheap take off on Austin’s “bad boy babyface” character. [Solid veteran presence]
(12) Goldust: The death of Brian Pillman derailed plans for his character. Now his heel turn has jarred his character once again, and maybe once too many times for fans to take him seriously. That said, when he’s inspired he has shown potential to be much more than a disappointing third-tier wrestler. It’s just that so often he appears uninspired, both behind the mic and in the ring. He has size, name value, athletic ability, and can show great fire. He is healthy, still in his 20s, and avoids political fireworks. The WWF hopes his heel turn moves him back to the spot he held 18 months ago — that of a borderline first-second tier asset who was seen as an Intercontinental Title threat. He may have to drop the Goldust character (and some weight) and become Dustin Rhodes again to be given another chance by fans. [Underachiever]
(13) British Bulldog: Much like Goldust, he has gotten lazy with age and his ring style so lacks innovation that he has unnecessarily limited himself. His mediocre mic work — due to lack of inspiration more than lack of ability — combined with his one-dimensional on-air personality limits him. He has been a PPV main eventer before and could be built into a top tier wrestler again, but it would take a change in attitude on his part and a renewed interest on the part of WWF management to take advantage of it. With the weakened roster, don’t be surprised if Bulldog seizes the opportunity and the WWF gives it to him. [Underachiever]
(14) Marc Mero: He could move quickly out of the third tier to the top of the second tier within six months if his new persona takes off. Unlike, say, Ahmed Johnson, Mero has few liabilities. It’s just that thus far he has been unable to catch on with fans. He is a very good worker with a lot of desire and is a reliable performer who avoids politics. If he catches on with fans, the WWF won’t hesitate to push him hard and fast. [Decent upside]
(15) Brian Christopher: It’s too early to tell how limiting being pegged a “light-heavyweight” is going to be for Christopher in the WWF. The WWF has never been able to get anyone over as even a semi-main eventer who is Christopher’s size — and he’s not all that small by today’s new standards set by WCW and ECW. He is in the size category of Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero and is a tad taller than Dean Malenko. Yet he has been pegged as a light-heavyweight. If the division takes off and if he learns to work a variety of styles (which is a very big “if” given his training ground) he could become a break out star for the WWF. More likely he will end up being a solid mid-card performer for years to come, but never a drawing card. His mouth is his strength. He needs a strong babyface rival to play off of, but may not get that in the light-heavyweight division. [Decent upside]
(16) Kane: A total dark horse right now, but has potential to become a big star. He also has potential to fizzle out. It’s too early to tell. He may just be another in a long line of freakish one-night stands for Undertaker. He will likely have semi-main event positioning at Wrestlemania in his first match against Undertaker. As “the new Diesel,” Glen Jacobs showed improvement. Jacobs might develop into a perennial solid second-tier wrestler, no matter what the incarnation of his character is, and eventually he may unmask and become “himself” and rise to the top tier. But that’s a big maybe. [Intriguing upside]
(17) Faarooq: He is good enough on the mic and in the ring to rise once a year to a PPV main or semi-main event, but otherwise is merely a steady utility veteran to hold solid ground in the middle of the card. [Solid veteran presence]
(18) Flash Funk: Despite doing so many jobs since debuting in the WWF, he still has so much untapped star potential that he could be rebuilt should the WWF decide to do so. There is a dark, untold secret that keeps him in the WWF’s proverbial dog house despite having break-out star charisma and athleticism. A best case scenario could see him moving up to be a semi-main eventer on the level of Mankind and Ahmed. The worst case scenario is currently playing out, with him being totally underutilized by the WWF as a jobber. His interview skills aren’t great, but he showed signs of improvement in his latter ECW days. Some day maybe Vince McMahon’s refusal to push Flash will be explained. Until then, it’s a big mystery and the WWF’s big loss. [Big upside]
Underutilized/Has an Upside: Light-Hvt. Division (especially Taka Michinoku and Aguila), Barry Windham (worth one solid singles push to see what he has left), Road Dog, Billy Gunn, Fatu (drop Sultan gimmick), D-Lo Brown (darkhorse with underdog charisma), Brian Lee (underrated on interviews), Jerry Lynn (very good worker), Justin Hawk Bradshaw (repackage him), Jackal…
Taking up roster space: Crush, Kama Mustafa, Skull & 8-Ball, Jim Neidhart…
Muddy Middleground: Savio Vega, the rest of Los Boricuas, Godwinns, Salvatore Sincere…
Okay for What They Are: LOD, Furnas & LaFon, Head Bangers, Recon & Sniper…
Unknowns: Brakus, Tiger Ali Singh, Glen Kulka, Mark Henry, Interrogator…