By Nathan C. Vance
The political climate of the United States is such that philosophical disagreements have led to civil unrest that could easily break off into civil war any day. Tensions nationally, are higher today than they have been at any point in my lifetime. Rather than write a piece focusing more time and attention on our combustible country, I think today is a good day to find a happy place. Mine has always been professional wrestling. To many, this athletic brand of performance art is a sub-cultural niche, but it continues to leave an indelible mark on the modern world. In 1999, one company, World Wrestling Entertainment, found four names that are still relevant inside and outside of the ring.
World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), like other sport and entertainment companies, has always been defined by its stars. Wrestling purists don’t always love the larger-than-life characters that grab the casual viewer and keep the money rolling in but they certainly know the names. In the beginning it was Bruno Sammartino, the muscular Italian hero who dominated the northeastern circuit for the better part of two decades. Bruno was the perfect Italian immigrant hero for New York’s melting pot fan base and allowed WWE to gain control of the world’s biggest entertainment market.
When Vince McMahon Jr. purchased the company from his father in the early 1980s, a new mega star emerged. His name was Hulk Hogan. He was able to cross-over into mainstream pop-culture with spots on the then revolutionary MTV, he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and he even starred in a series of feature films. He was responsible for taking the company to a national audience and, financially, into another stratosphere. Hogan wasn’t the first wrestler to become a household name in mainstream America but for his time, his influence was the largest. He is unquestionably among the very biggest draws the profession has ever seen.
When Hulk Hogan joined a rival wrestling company in the late 1990s, two performers rose seemingly out of thin air, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, to catapult WWE to new record-high financials. The momentum built during the height of popularity of these two iconic stars enabled WWE to become a publically traded company. IMDB lists The Rock as the highest paid actor of 2016 at $64,500,000. Steve Austin is the host of several successful TV shows and a podcast that Rolling Stone Magazine ranked # 8 in the world among wrestling podcasts.
In late 2016 Forbes.com estimated WWE’s current value at north of $1.5 billion. Company CEO, Vince McMahon, has always had an eye for the types of performers that truly resonated with the audience. Amazingly, it was a different executive that found the golden geese that have carried the company, and the industry, since the turn of the century.
Jim Ross is widely regarded as the greatest announcer in wrestling history. For my money, he is among the all-time great announcers in any sporting arena. His voice has added quality, color, and context to some of the biggest moments in wrestling history. But it was his role as a talent executive that may have best served the long-term health of WWE. In 1999, Jim Ross was responsible for signing not one, but four, performers who continue to dominate both wrestling and pop-culture nearly 20 years later. Their names are Dave Bautista, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, and John Cena.
Dave Bautista, known as “The Animal” Batista in wrestling circles because of his size, impressive physique, and no-nonsense personality, retired from wrestling and specifically from WWE in 2014. Since, he has become a big name actor in Hollywood. His newest film, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, where he starred as Drax the Destroyer, has already grossed over $500 million after only 17 days of worldwide release according to Forbes.com. Bautista has been featured in numerous other films including the first Guardians movie as well as the James Bond film, Spectre. During his time in the WWE he was a six-time world champion, and was among the top names in the industry from 2000 to 2014. Still today, the internet stays abuzz with rumors of a potential return to WWE.
Randy Orton is an active member of the WWE roster and is the current WWE World Heavyweight Champion. This is his 13th reign as world champion with the company, which is the fourth-most reigns in the history of the company. Orton is a third-generation wrestler and a natural performer who has combined good looks and a dark demeanor as his recipe for success. He has starred in many WWE produced films and has made multiple appearances on mainstream shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live and Deal or No Deal. His signature move, the RKO, has also become an internet sensation and has trended on social media sites like Vine. His legacy is undeniable.
Brock Lesnar is best described in the famous words of Dr. Chilton from The Silence of the Lambs, when he said of Hannibal Lecter, “Oh, he’s a monster.” In July of 2016, sportingnews.com published an article making the case that Brock Lesnar was the greatest combat sports athlete of all-time. He is the only athlete to win an NCAA heavyweight wrestling championship, become WWE champion (the youngest ever), and the UFC Heavyweight champion. He also participated in mini-camp as a defensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings. Brock is the current WWE Universal Champion. He has been a world champion in WWE on five occasions and has also been the world champion for New Japan pro-wrestling on one occasion. Lesnar’s presence in WWE has given the company legitimacy and has helped the company garner coverage from the sports media giant ESPN. If he ever does decide to try out Hollywood, he should be immediately cast as Ronald Niederman for the rebooted Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. I’m already having nightmares about him doing the dirty work for the sinister Alexander Zalachenko.
John Cena is probably the most beloved and most hated wrestler in the world at the same time and has maintained that status for more than a decade. He co-holds the all-time record for world championships in wrestling history with legend Ric Flair, having been champion on 16 occasions. Cena has starred in numerous films, and has guest-hosted popular shows including Today on NBC, Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards, and The ESPY awards on ESPN. He is also the host of the Fox TV reality show American Grit. He has been featured on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Saturday Night Live, and The Conan O’Brien Show. Beyond his fame, Cena has granted the most wishes in Make-A-Wish foundation history at over 500 wishes. He is a fixture in modern pop culture, and has been the most consistent financial draw in wrestling since the year 2000. It could easily be argued that his face belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of WWE superstars all-time. WWE will be worse whenever he decides to move on to other ventures, but I suspect his career will only just be getting started.
In college sports, you can look back at recruiting classes and rankings and understand how teams become juggernauts in the way that Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson have in football and Kentucky, Kansas, and North Carolina have in basketball. Wrestling doesn’t have recruiting class rankings but it’s easy to see why WWE has been able to sustain its success through the years. This millennia can be traced back to the class of 1999 and what were obviously four blue-chip recruits: Dave Bautista, Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, and John Cena. When you think of the world of overexposure that they have existed in, it is incredible to realize that all four men are still achieving after all these years. It is a credit to the caliber of talent that each one possesses.
Today, I am happy to think on the accomplishments of this extraordinary recruiting class rather than to focus on the chaotic state of our world; it reminds me that it is still a wonderful place. With Jim Ross recently returning to WWE, the company should be as healthy as ever. It will be interesting to see if he does anymore recruiting. Four first ballot hall of famers in one class ain’t bad! The fan in me hopes that he can do it again.