Words From the World of Wrestling Monthly #11
Passing The Torch
May 16, 2009
I offer a shorter column this month (about half the length of last month’s lengthy review of Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker from Wrestlemania 25), but one that is no less thought-provoking than my others, I hope.
This month I?d like to offer what might potentially be a controversial thesis statement: The phrase ?passing the torch? (a concept that raises the ire of many fans when discussing wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, Jeff Jarrett, and Triple H). This concept that might seem fundamental to our understanding of professional wrestling’s strange and storied history, this concept . . . is a myth. When fans complain that Hulk Hogan never passed the torch or that Triple H never passed the torch (and still refuses to), I would like to take my monthly allotment of cyberspace to argue that such fans adhere to an illusion. As far as I know, the idea of ?passing the torch? is antithetical to the very mechanics of professional wrestling (as well as to the economics of professional wrestling).
In short, fans that claim that certain wrestlers never pass the torch to younger talent object to the breaking of a tradition that they themselves have imagined.
To help elucidate my argument, it may help to linger over what the phrase ?passing the torch? means in the first place; the following list offers a few examples taken from a recent Wrestleview Discussion Thread:
Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan (WWF Wrestlemania III)
Hulk Hogan vs. Ultimate Warrior (WWF Wrestlemania VI)
Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Mitsuharu Misawa (AJPW June 8th, 1990)
Mr. Perfect vs. Bret Hart (WWF Summerslam 1991)
Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels (WWF Wrestlemania XII)
Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin (WWF Wrestlemania XIII)
Shawn Michaels vs. Steve Austin (WWF Wrestlemania XIV)
Hulk Hogan vs. Bill Goldberg (WCW Monday Nitro)
Hulk Hogan vs. The Rock (WWF Wrestlemania X8)
John Cena vs. Edge (WWE New Year’s Revolution 2006)
Shawn Michaels vs. John Cena (WWE Wrestlemania 23)
A few things to note concerning this incoherent list: (1) Apparently Hulk Hogan passed the torch three times; doesn?t the idea of ?passing the torch? imply a kind of unreturnable shift? (I will return to this in a moment.) And how can we say that Hulk Hogan passed it to The Rock when Hulk Hogan won the Undisputed Championship a month later? This match was not about The Rock (who left the company for several months a few weeks later). It was about Toronto’s love for Hulk Hogan and the resurrection of Hulkamania, a combined force that completed revised any and all booking plans. (2) Apparently Shawn Michaels passed it twice (once to a guy that apparently already passed it to Edge?), (3) Bret Hart apparently received the torch from a guy who never had it (i.e. Mr. Perfect), and (4) at least a few people are familiar with perhaps the most famous AJPW match of the 1990s . . . although I hope to trouble the idea of ?passing the torch? in this case as well. Despite losing to a flash pin in mid-1990, Jumbo got his return match in September of the same year and put Misawa down decisively (no flash pin in this case). Misawa/Tsuruta was definitely a significant moment (perhaps the most important moment in of that decade in AJPW), but it certainly was not a certain passing-of-the-torch. It couldn?t be.
These last sentences reminds me to clarify something: Although I am attempting argue that ?passing the torch? is a myth that wrestling fans continue to create (with the help of professional wrestling itself, of course), I am not suggesting that the matches listed above are not significant. Of course they are!
But the phrase itself implies a kind of generational transition, a gesture of bestowing a gift of ?lighting-the-way? to another, i.e. to a Second that will become the First. Such a gift initially suggests that the First makes the decision not only to whom he or she will bestow the gift but also when he or she will bestow the gift. It also suggests that the ?passing? is double: a passing-to someone else and a passing-away of the First.
In professional wrestling, however, this model of generational transfer, of a decisive, clean genealogical progression from one superstar to the next does not work. In fact, it cannot work; the characters, the personas that manage to click with fans generate in a very real way (this part isn?t made up!) a lot of money. To what degree can one truly blame Vince McMahon for the fact that Hulk Hogan’s first title reign lasted roughly four years? As much as I would have liked to see Ted DiBiase or King Kong Bundy or Terry Funk win that title, the money-making machine made it impossible to do so. We, the ones that fed that machine, also made it impossible to do so.
I would like to spend some time thinking through another example that seems to trouble my argument: Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels from Wrestlemania XII. After all, Shawn Michaels never held the World Title before hand; Bret Hart beat him in earlier encounters. He participated in the longest match in Wrestlemania history and walked away with a title belt that he would hold for the next seven-to-eight months.
But what was necessary for that moment of ?passing the torch? to feel so potent to our memories? The careers of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels take on a weird imbricated shape after Wrestlemania XII. After all, Bret Hart left the company for the seven-to-eight months that Shawn Michaels was champion. When he returned to face Steve Austin at the 1996 Survivor Series in November, Shawn Michaels lost the title to Psycho Sid. When Shawn Michaels wins the title back at the Royal Rumble, Bret Hart gets screwed out of the Rumble match itself. When Shawn Michaels walks away, vacating the title, Bret Hart wins it at The Final Four. And so on. And so on. This dance of collisions and near misses figures the impossibility of passing the torch. When one goes up, the other must come down . . . and come down hard. In fact, it is difficult to watch Bret Hart interrupt the main event of Wrestlemania XIII, a match that saw Shawn Michaels return to the WWF to do ringside commentary.
And, of course, this engine of imbalance that would not allow Shawn Michaels to take center stage whenever Bret Hart re-entered the picture, that would not allow Bret Hart to retain center stage because of Shawn Michaels? presence, this engine continues up to the 1997 Survivor Series, the famous match in which HBK defeats Bret Hart for the WWF Title for the second time. (I won?t get into the Screwjob at the moment.) Once again, Bret Hart leaves the company; this time, however, he never returns. Shawn Michaels would go on to lose the title to Steve Austin at Wrestlemania XIV (i.e. to a guy that Bret Hart already passed the torch to, if you believe the list above), an event that saw his last wrestling match . . . until 2002. And we all know what happened to Bret Hart in WCW.
What does this example teach us? That ?passing the torch? is anything but clean, anything but generational, anything but unreturnable. The careers of Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels from 1996 to 1998 (and beyond) perform a strange dance of presence-and-absence. In the absence of one, the other rises; with the presence of the other, the one sinks. But even this binary formula does not quite work, for who is responsible for Bret Hart’s title win at Summerslam 1997 (remember: a title win that follows the supposed passing of the torch to Steve Austin)? Shawn Michaels . . . the guest referee. The presence of both leads to the rise of one, but it also signifies that the Other who made it possible will not remain idle for long.
This unsettling formula that signals a continual giving-away, a passing that always already suggests a returning should ring true for us, especially in the examples of Hulk Hogan. He might ?put over? the Ultimate Warrior and Bill Goldberg and The Rock . . . but those losses always signal (and I?m not just talking contractually or politically, but affectively) his return and the immortality of Hulkamania.
In the end, whatever one might say about how a Superstar is created, it can never come down to a ?passing of the torch? because such a passing has never occurred and will never occur (except by an unreturnable passing . . . a death or a ?real? retirement). The creation of a Superstar requires a combination of forces, a play of variables that one can never calculate: lots of money, the response of a crowd (sometimes just one crowd in one city), the skill of the workers, the trust/risk of the bookers, the quality of the writing). In short, the creation of a Superstar comes with the sheer roll of an unknown number of multivalent dice.
Anyway, I believe I have made my point, but if it is not clear, feel free to write me. The issue of succession fascinates me, and I think as a community of fans we can do a lot of work to rethink how that succession happens. One thing is certain: it does not happen through passings of torches or passings-away. And it doesn?t even happen with puttings-over or ?rubs.?
I look forward to your thoughts.