Or where the wheels metaphorically fell off...
Wrestling is a funny business. Too often promoters forget that for all of its own rules and quirks, wrestling has always had a reflective side to it. Workers who manage to tap into the Zeitgeist always manage to rise further than those who seem anachronistic. If you don't believe me, look at the following two pictures.
That top one is from Rock's time as a full-time wrestler. There is nothing about that picture that suggests 'man of the people'. The Rock was over with the crowd because he was brash, flashy, cocky and frankly the dude we all wanted to be. Everyone wanted to talk trash like the Rock. We loved the fact he wore expensive shirts to the ring because it seemed to reflect a society that was ready to party.
The one below is from his return during the John Cena feud. This Rock is a bit different. Instead of expensive shirts, he wears singlets, often with American motifs on them. Gone are the flashy shirts- even the glasses look more normal- aviators instead of cool designer glasses. When he does his promos now he talks about how he drives his pick-up truck to the arena where Raw was held. Can you imagine the Rock in 2000 claiming that he drove a pick up truck?! Even the eyebrow has been reduced.
In other words, as the Rock has become more 'Hollywood' in real life, his character has moved to a more 'Middle America' audience. Part of this I imagine is to do with the Rock himself- who probably wants to protect his brand, but I think part of it is also due to the changing times. A post-GFC world has seen the Rock wanting to become more empathetic to the Average Joe.
This then is the story of another potential #1 guy for Vince and where it went oh-so-wrong.
By the middle of 1993 Hulk Hogan had decided that enough was enough and he was going to pack his bags and leave WWE. Sick and tired of the steroid trials, the fact that Vince was clearly looking forward rather to the glory years of Hulkamania and (probably) knowing deep down that the WWE had squeezed all it could out of the gimmick. So the question was where was Vince going to place the crown next- particularly with Yokozuna running (or lumbering) around as the champion in mid-1993.
Ironically, Luger had come into Vince's employ when he was tinkering with the World Bodybuilding Federation, where Luger was to co-host (!) on WBF BodyStars (and yes I am not kidding, that is what the show was called). Unfortunately soon Luger was laid low in a motorcycle accident and when he came back the WBF had gone out of business.
After this, Luger appeared in the WWE as a narcissistic heel, who would knock people out with the surgical steel plate in his forearm- allowing him to pin his opponents with consummate ease. It was actually a pretty cool gimmick and a nice way of getting Luger over as a bad-ass heel, culminating in Luger defeating Mr Perfect at Wrestlemania IX.
But when Mr Bollea left the building, Luger was repackaged into a patriotic baby face, with the nickname "the All-American" and lined up against the evil foreign champion Yokozuna. This included taking on Yoko in a body slam challenge on the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier on Independence Day where he managed to body slam the near-600 pound champion. The only way it could have been more overtly patriotic is if Uncle Sam came down and put Mr Fuji in some sort of ankle lock while Johnny Appleseed looked on...
By body slamming Yoko, Luger also got a ticket to Summerslam to fight the champion for the title, a match Yoko's manager Jim Cornette agreed to on two conditions- this would be Luger's only shot at the title and he would have to cover up that arm with the metal plate in it. Luger agreed and we were off to the races.
Or rather, we weren't...
Y'see the problem with all of this is that it wasn't really a push that made a lot of sense. Less than a month before Luger was still a narcissistic heel and now fans were supposed to swallow him as the only hope for the company? He only debuted in January for crying out loud! So essentially, WWE had to operate a bit ass-backwards. Having given him the title shot, they now had to give him the push to justify it.
And the Lex Express was born.
The concept of the Lex Express seemed to be some sort of strange hybrid between a political campaign and one of those parades teams have when they've won a championship of sorts...except that in this case the title hadn't been fought over yet. Footage was brought back every week on TV in lovely montages of Lex waving with kiddies with corny music and motifs of America not far away.
Anyone allergic to saccharine, please do not seek these videos out!
But surely they would have endeared Lex to our hearts.
Because, of course we'd seen all this before.
Hulk Hogan was patriotic and Hulk Hogan was also inspiring (with all that milk and vitamins schtick). But Hogan was, more importantly, something else.
Whatever you thought of the guy, you could hardly ever call a Hogan promo dull. Same with the Ultimate Warrior. These were guys who managed to sell themselves as larger than life guys who occasionally would defend their nation's honour (if Warrior was from the US instead of 'parts unknown' that week...) but also were characters that meant so much more. Luger was so wrapped in the flag that it eventually made him seem one-dimensional, like there was nothing more to the gimmick. And what made it worse was the fact that guys like Warrior and Hogan could connect to the crowd because we as an audience became empathetic with their characters. Sure the Warrior was nonsensical, but he was a lot of fun to watch! Luger was just so damn...starched- complete with all the nods to Iwo Jima and the Lincoln Memorial.
Well at least Hogan and Warrior were out of the company, so there was no other baby face that was really over-
In 1993 Bret Hart was the most over baby face in the company. While Hogan was tiring on top, the Hitman had gone from strength to strength and despite shenanigans from the likes of Hogan was still being positioned by Vince to be one of the guys to take the WWE forward. Unlike Luger, whose push seemed artificial and shallow, the fans felt a massive connection with Hart- seeing him as an awesome wrestler who (at the time) probably came across as a bit rebellious with his leather jacket and shades. His knowledge of ring psychology and storytelling meant that the fans were willing to be taken for the ride in a Bret Hart match. Luger? Not so much.
With all that in mind, the question still needs to be asked. Would Luger have got over if he had won the title at Summerslam? And, perhaps equally as important but not talked about anywhere near as much is: was the finish at Summerslam predetermined weeks out or was it a last minute thing after seeing the Lex Express not take off as well as it should? Because I honestly think there was a part of Vince's mind and/or conscience that wanted Hart and Yoko to go again at Wrestlemania X with Hart getting his win back. But was Vince tempted to strike while the iron was hot (or at least quite warm) and give Luger a run with the title? Quite the dilemma.
On top of that, there were a couple of other problems.
Y'see, in 1993 the PPV structure of the WWE was very...front heavy. You had Royal Rumble in January, Wrestlemania in April, King of the Ring in June and Summerslam in August. After that there was just Survivor Series in November- which often had the champ involved in some sort of elimination match. So, it would have been quite feasible that Luger would win the championship...and not defend it on a PPV until the Royal Rumble the next year. Not exactly the best way to legitimise a new champion.
And in any case, if Luger had won the belt from Yoko, who was the next heel to step up? Nobody at the time looked as unstoppable as Yoko. He beat Hogan for Christ's sake only a couple of months before that (albeit dirty, but still). Not only that, but many of the undercard heels were foreigners too- just like Yoko. The WWE needed time before they managed to get the next top heel ready.
So it wasn't just that Luger probably wasn't the babyface the crowds wanted to see (although that was a big part of it), but a whole load of other problems that Vince was tossing up about. And so, days before Summerslam, rather than give Luger the title, Vince blinked.
Oh sure, Luger still got the win but by countout?! There's a reason that essentially never happens in a main event today. It's because it's a shitty way to leave a PPV for the fans- no matter how many Steiner Brothers you get to lift the 'American Hero' onto their shoulders (particularly since Luger doesn't seem to care about Yoko getting counted out and doesn't attempt to bring him back in).
From there, Luger's career as potential top babyface was a bit of a shot bird. It may have taken off again if guys like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon and the Undertaker weren't around to provide more obviously compelling in-ring workers as well as characters, but that was not the case. All of those guys looked to be potentially more interesting babyfaces if given the go-ahead. As a one-dimensional patriotic babyface who couldn't get over with the Lex Express gimmick, it seemed difficult to see how much more of a push the WWE could give the guy.
So maybe he could slide Lex back into the IC picture?
Well, the problem with that was in those days the IC Title was very much the wrestler's title and for all of his good points, Luger was not in the same league with Razor Ramon, Owen Hart and HBK.
So Luger kinda got shunted to the side into a feud with Tatanka (Tatanka?!) at Summerslam 1994 after losing to Jeff Jarrett by countout in the King of the Ring qualifying rounds.
A lot of people have compared Lex Luger with another, later star.
However, I actually would slightly disagree. I think the problem with Reigns lies in the fact that the WWE had a bone fide star and couldn't wait for him to actually get there organically so they decided to essentially try and rush his arc to the point where the fans are still resenting Roman being forced upon them. The fact that Reigns got the title in November of 2015 rather than Wrestlemania of 2015 shows that Vince was willing to delay, but he was never going to waver totally from the view that Roman had 'it'.
Not that they booked that any better, mind...(we'll get to that one in the future).
Luger, on the other hand was never a star that Vince had total confidence in moving the WWE forward into the new era. Now, part of this may have been because Vince was still reeling from the idea of a post-Hogan world and part of it may have had to do with the fact that it was Hart that Hogan was supposed to put over first, rather than Yoko. But the fact remains that the main event of Summerslam almost certainly was to usher Luger in as a main event star, but when it came to the crunch, Vince ducked and never thought to go back to it.
The Lex Express is historically significant because it showed the paralysis surrounding creative when Hulkamania left the building. The grand irony is that if Bret actually feuded with Yoko throughout the summer of 93, rather being shunted to the side for Hogan's farewell tour with the title, Luger could have been left to cook a little longer and maybe even wrestle Hulk Hogan in his last match- with Hogan putting him over either by losing or eking out a win and then raising Luger's hand. Instead Luger was rushed into a storyline and a push that forced him into a white meat babyface category that didn't really reflect the sentiments of the time. And that gimmick, rather than push him to the moon, constricted him to the point where he was stuck in a sort of limbo- something that Luger thought he could only escape by jumping ship to WCW.
Not that I'm saying that he wasn't a total dick by the way he did it...
And that's article 67! Join us next time as we examine another wrestler's failed push that happens to be in the news recently.
See you then!
Article One: Shane has a surprise for Daddy
Article Two: Booker T vs Buff Bagwell and the Temple of Boos
Article Three: Daddy's little Girl Gets in on the Action
Article Four: "WHY AUSTIN DAMMIT?! WHY?