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Madden: Angle could break WWE's steep fall

Saturday, June 29, 2002

The World Wrestling Federation recently lost a lawsuit that forced it to change its name to World Wrestling Entertainment.

Kind of funny, since every trace of entertainment has been purged from the company's product.

Stone Cold Steve Austin quit. The Rock has put wrestling on the back burner while he pursues a movie career. Has-beens such as Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker dominate way too much television time, as does the owner, who happens to sport a physique Ken Caminiti would be proud of. New stars get politically sabotaged by more established wrestlers looking to keep their top spots (and top paychecks).

The story lines veer between tragically trite and spectacularly stupid, done to please a handful of Internet insiders instead of the masses that matter. The creative team is headed by the boss' daughter, a failed Hollywood joke writer, and a man who, in his previous job, ran the wrestling promotion he owned into bankruptcy. I guess the people who scripted "Joanie Loves Chachi" weren't available.

Events that would draw a good TV rating or make money on pay-per-view after several weeks' worth of buildup have been given away as "surprises," i.e., out of desperation. As a result, the return of The Rock, the return of Shawn Michaels, and a match between Vince McMahon and Ric Flair for "sole ownership of WWE" made little or no impact on the company's seemingly unstoppable downhill slide.

Vince Russo, the man who creatively resurrected WWE in the late 1990s, was brought back to the company last week -- then hastily put in an insignificant role as "consultant" because he wanted to change things drastically. Er, Mr. McMahon ... your TV ratings, pay-per-view buy rates and live attendance are all plummeting. It seems to me that drastically changing things might be a good idea.

I worked seven years for now-defunct World Championship Wrestling. I saw everything that happened that led to the company going out of business. The same things are happening at WWE.

But they're happening quicker. WWE was once a billion-dollar company. But the way things are going, WWE could be out of business within a year or two.

Luckily for Mr. McMahon, I've got the answer to his problems: Kurt Angle. That's right, Pittsburgh's own.

WWE too often goes back and forth between "work" and "shoot," i.e., between story lines and reality, and it stinks. Everyone knows wrestling is fake. But no one wants that fact rubbed in his/her face during the course of watching wrestling. The great unwashed wants to suspend disbelief, and WWE doesn't allow them to do so. If you keep reminding everyone that it's fake, how are viewers supposed to care about who wins or loses? Or about any "personal issue" between the wrestlers?

But Angle is the ideal blend of "work" and "shoot." He has mastered the art of pro wrestling. No one is better in the ring. Few are better on the microphone. He looks terrific. He's not overexposed. Angle rivals Ric Flair at his peak when it comes to making opponents look good. And, either because of naivete or genuine unselfishness, Angle is one of a small minority of wrestlers readily willing to do so.

If you like a splash of reality with your shot of fake wrestling, Angle wrestled his way to Olympic gold in 1996. He is a totally credible performer.

Angle should be made WWE's No. 1 star. Period. He is that good.

So naturally, WWE presents Angle as a clown. Angle recently lost a "loser gets his head shaved" match, so he started coming to the ring wearing a wig held in place by amateur wrestling headgear and claiming his hair had grown back instantly.

Angle is constantly made to look stupid, so constantly that it's not even funny anymore.

But the Undertaker, for example, is made to look like an indomitable monster. WWE has an Olympic champion who is still fresh in the fans' eyes, and they have a cliched, overexposed Hell's Angel wannabe. WWE gives the credibility and a top spot to the latter. And to Hogan, a pathetic cripple whom I could beat in a foot race.

Guys like 'Taker and Hogan, of course, have "paid their dues," which gives them the right to go on TV and kill the ratings as long as they can draw breath. I'm not kidding. That's the thought process in WWE.

Of course, pro wrestling could never disappear. No need to worry about that. Roller Derby endured a few rough patches, but now, er ... OK, so it's gone for good. Bad example.

It's not impossible to create new stars. Austin once sported a lame persona called The Ringmaster. The Rock, as Rocky Maivia, used to be midcard tripe. It's merely a matter of spotting talent, trusting talent, having good creative instincts and not worrying about hurting some has-been's feelings.

Kurt Angle vs. Brock Lesnar, the behemoth former NCAA wrestling champion, must be the future of WWE.

Otherwise WWE might have very little future left.


Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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