Monday, January 28, 2013

The Dream of the 90s Finally Died In America

I’ve thought about the 1990’s a lot in recent weeks. No, it’s not because I’m getting old and nostalgic. No, it’s not because I saw the new Microsoft ad pandering to me.

It’s because everything about that decade seems to have been a house of cards that finally crumbled.

sosa si cover
Some crumbled quickly. The .com bubble burst a painful death a decade ago. The booming economy crumbled within years and was ground down to nothing by 2008. Our belief that the end of the Cold War meant a safe existence was destroyed on 9/11.

But in recent weeks, the men we held up as sports idols in the 1990’s have been cruelly tossed aside as pariahs that cheated the system.

When the Baseball Hall of Fame announced its class of 2013, it did so very quickly. No one was elected. Not Barry Bonds, the man who won multiple MVP awards in the decade. Not Mark McGwire, the man who smashed 70 home runs in 1998 and brought baseball back to relevance. Not Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza or Roger Clemens – three men who helped defined the game in the decade.

The reason wasn’t shocking, of course. All of those men* admitted or have been implied with great evidence to have taken some form of performance-enhancing drugs. Whether you feel that the Hall of Fame should ignore their accomplishments is beside the point – they were all cheating to get ahead.

*The Mike Piazza thing annoys me as a Mets fan since there is no evidence, which I’ve seen, fingering him on the same level of Bonds or Clemens or McGwire. But rumors are rumors and it wouldn’t exactly stun me if it was true. I don’t think we have enough evidence though to say he did.

What stands out to me is being a baseball fan in 1998 – a wide-eyed, naïve 16 year old who couldn’t get enough of McGwire and Sosa smashing baseballs further than any man had the right to. Steroids never crossed my mind. I believed the lied. I believed it was due to better weight training. I believed Sosa could transform himself into a power hitting God. I believed 70 home runs in a season were natural.

I was stupid.

In 1999, Lance Armstrong overcame cancer to win his first Tour de France and became one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet. The French press angered me with their accusations. They were spiteful. They were ignorant. They were wrong. Lance Armstrong was clean.

I was wrong. I was ignorant.

As Lance continued his web of lies to Oprah, telling half-truths and sort-of-lies, I became spiteful. I became angry that I had wasted any amount of time defending Lance. I became annoyed that I wasted my time watching him crush the Alps like he was going up a molehill.

I am sad.

The late 1990’s were, compared to today, the Roaring 20’s. The economy was humming. MTV still had Carson Daly. ESPN hadn’t yet destroyed the sports media by embracing debate. Napster existed. Facebook did not. High-speed Internet was a shiny new toy. People read newspapers.

It felt, if I can be cliché for a moment, that anything was possible. It rang clear through our sports idols. You could hit 70 home runs. You could win a Tour de France after beating cancer. We never imagined those things could happen, yet they did.

They shouldn’t have. And now I am depressed.

As a teenager, I had an excuse to being naïve. I grew up in a small farm town in eastern Connecticut. The big world was still foreign to me. What about the rest of us? How did we let everything slide? From Al-Qaeda to the economy to steroids, we missed it all. Were we having too much fun spending money like it was a never-ending supply? Were we blind on purpose? Or were we not even looking?

The dream of the 1990’s – that glorious time when people could sleep until 11am and still be functioning members of society – has faded for a while. It has finally succumbed and no longer exists.

The final death knell, fittingly, came in the form of song. Britney Spears, the vixen who stole many hearts – mine included, released a song with Will.I.Am. It is probably the worst song ever recorded.
Okay, that’s too much hyperbole. Let’s describe it more aptly as a few minutes of random noises, nonsensical lyrics and terrible beats.

That’s music today? Imagine going back to 1999 and Britney releasing that song to a throng of adoring TRL fans on a Wednesday afternoon. They would be horrified. They would be scared. They would be grief-stricken.

What happened to our Britney? What happened to our Lance? What happened to us?

The 2000s were not kind to our culture, and the 2010s haven’t started out much better.

Maybe we need this. Maybe we need to destroy what we built, so we can rebuild again. We should be better. We could be better. We will be better?

Let’s hope I’m not writing a similar blog post 15 years from now about a disgraced Michael Phelps or Tim Tebow. America thrives on heroes, especially of the sports variety.

It would just help if they deserved our affection.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why CM Punk Should Be WWE Champion Forever

Very rarely does pro wrestling give you something you haven’t seen before. The evil General Manager. The undefeated babyface monster. The chickenshit heel. Everything gets repeated, over and over.

For the WWE, this has posed has a significant problem in the recent years as the only game in town and 6 hours of TV to produce every week. The WWE has not been creative. The WWE has been stale. They have their formula. They mash through it every month. They keep their stock price afloat. They make money. They move on.

cm punk wwe champ
But on Sunday, the WWE has an opportunity to create something that most wrestling fans have not seen – and if they have, they’re old enough to remember Hulk Hogan’s first title run some 25 years ago.

CM Punk has been champion for more than a year, since November 2011. On Sunday, he will face the Rock for the title in what has to be one of the most anticipated non-WrestleMania matches in years. People I follow on Twitter who never talk about wrestling have been discussing this match.

Last July, during the Raw 1000 episode, CM Punk smacked the Rock in the forehead as he was giving the People’s Elbow. The match was set in stone – a 7-month buildup in an era of pay-per-view matches being announced mere weeks before.

Let’s not lose sight of why this match is so hyped – it’s because the Rock is the freakin’ Rock and he’s wrestling his first match since last WrestleMania. And if that were the only hook, this match and this show would still garner far more attention than any recent Royal Rumble has.

But it’s the opponent that has taken the hype from big to potentially company-altering.

CM Punk is the oldest of the old-school wrestlers, with the only exception being his disdain for drugs and alcohol. Like Randy Savage, or Mick Foley, or Steve Austin before him, Punk toiled in the independent scene and the mid-card for years before being given an opportunity in the Main Event. And even after getting that shot, he was still shuttled off to the side while Vince McMahon’s perfect star, John Cena, remained the top guy.

Through sure force of will, Punk has become the top guy, despite being cast as the heel in this feud with the Rock. His WWE title win in 2011 after his famous “pipe bomb” interview gave him mainstream attention. His Twitter is a constant source of amusement. He is the embodiment of pro wrestling in the 21st century – tech-savvy, hard-working and brutally honest.

Like most great stories in pro wrestling, the chance for greatness usually comes by accident. The grand schemes almost never work – the ones that aren’t planned turn into gold. When CM Punk won the title more than a year ago, I doubt anyone in the Stamford offices of the WWE gave much thought to how long he’d be champion. In fact, most assumed he’d drop the title to Chris Jericho at last year’s WrestleMania.

Instead, we stand on the precipice of history. I want CM Punk to win on Sunday. I want CM Punk to be champion rolling into WrestleMania, for his rumored match against the Undertaker. I want CM Punk to end the Undertaker’s undefeated streak and roll into the summer as champion. I want CM Punk to be champion until this year’s Survivor Series, so he can be the first wrestler since Hulk Hogan to hold the title for 2 full years.

I want to see history. And who doesn’t? Pro wrestling is still sports entertainment, with emphasis on sports, and what do sports fans go crazy for? Records. History. Things they haven’t seen before. It’s why no one batted any eyelash when Mark McGwire bashed 70 home runs with a head the size of a Volkswagen. It’s why Lance Armstrong’s 7 straight Tour de France victories were lauded at the time, instead of questioned. It’s why the Patriots’ 2007 run at perfection enraptured this entire country and somehow boosted even the incredible strength of the NFL.

The WWE is in a constant state of survival for what it craves most – mainstream attention. I can guarantee right now that CM Punk beating the Rock, and then the Undertaker and being champion for 18 months would be a story that would captivate not only the wrestling world, but the mainstream media.

Why? Because it’d be new. It’d be fresh. It’d be exciting. It’d be historic.

It would be so ridiculously easy to promote. Take a moment to imagine the reaction on Monday Night Raw, the night after WrestleMania, as CM Punk strolls to the ring after being the first man in history to defeat the Undertaker at WrestleMania. Think about that moment. Think about the grandeur. Think about the magnitude of that moment.

Think about how the WWE could book the next 6 months on auto-pilot – CM Punk’s reign vs. anybody would be money. And if he got through Survivor Series, he’s within shouting distance of another Road to WrestleMania as champion – approaching Hulk Hogan’s holy grail of modern title reigns, in the 80s when he brought pro wrestling to the masses.

I know none of this will happen. I know the WWE is hell-bent on giving us Rock/Cena 2 at WrestleMania for the WWE title. I know the Rock is beating Punk. I know Punk’s reign is almost over. I know the potential for greatness will remain a fleeting thought running through my imagination.

But I will be watching the Royal Rumble. And when the Rock wins, I’ll probably be disappointed.

It won’t be the first time. Everything in pro wrestling repeats itself, over and over and over…

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