Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame 2015 – The Role of Historical Influence
By Ryan Clingman
Emphasised on Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame ballots are the notions of value to the industry, trend-setting, and positive historical significance. All of these criteria may lie within the broad domain of "influence", however, much like the majority of the non-drawing related Hall of Fame criteria, a great deal is left to the voter's interpretation. How did historical context affect the success of a performer's run? Did the legacy the candidate leave result in further creative, artistic, and monetary victories in the business? Did the candidate define a role, and if so, would the niche have come about at all or been drastically different without them? These are all natural questions that arise from the fairly straightforward set of guidelines brought forth by the balloting guidelines, and are questions that we will be addressing below for specific candidates, the Sharpe Brothers and CM Punk.
Of all the Japanese candidates, and perhaps most of the candidates across all regions, very few, if any, were more instrumental in defining a specific niche in the industry than Mike & Ben Sharpe. There were interviewers before Mean Gene, announcers preceding Howard Finkel, and shoot wrestlers before Volk Han, but there simply weren't gaijin wrestlers prior to the appearance of Mike and Ben Sharpe in Japan. On a superficial level, this should all but guarantee their induction, as gaijin formed the basis for Japanese professional wrestling for the better part of three decades following the first appearance of the Sharpes in the country on February 19th 1954. However, when considering the social climate of Japan following World War II, and the context in which the Sharpes appeared, we are all but forced to ask further questions.
Could the gaijin role have been filled by any other team during the early days of the JWP? This is perhaps the first question that should be asked, as the Sharpe Brothers may have very well simply filled the basic criteria for Rikidozan at the time, that is, tall Americans (the Sharpes were actually Canadian, but then again, Rikidozan was Korean) who could serve as decent working competition, given the still developing style of the time, against Rikidozan and Masahiko Kimura, amongst others. Japan was highly nationalistic during the post-war period, and clung to the story of one of their own battling the American invaders. This was a story reflected in many forms of Japanese media at the time. But, if questions of this sort are to be asked, then what of almost any major wrestling draw in history? I cannot think of a major star in the history of the business not succeeding, at least to some extent, due to the social climate of the time. Bruno Sammartino, even with his physical features and natural charisma benefited from the support of minority groups in New York. Rikidozan was born from the aforementioned want from the culture for a Japanese hero, the same culture that spawned the likes of comic book icon, Astroboy. Inoki and Baba followed from what was built from Rikidozan, and Rock and Austin were born from a collection of circumstance and the entertainment edge of the 1990s.
To say that the candidacy of any of these performers should be questioned, simply due to their births from circumstance, is not only laughable, but also shows that almost any major star in pro-wrestling must, at least to some extent, resonate with the culture of the time. Whilst the Sharpes are clearly not the icons that Inoki, Baba, Rikidozan, Hogan, Rock, or Austin were, they are still two of the most important names in the history of Japanese professional wrestling. It is doubtful that puroresu would have become nearly as big or successful than it did without the Sharpes, who were the necessary opposition for Rikidozan, Kimura, and the nation of Japan in a post-war climate.
This argument is only further strengthened by the influence the Sharpes had on the working style in Japan, as they brought the initial American influence to early puroresu, as did Rikidozan to some extent following his excursions to the United States. And, of course, if the Sharpes hadn't played the role they did, at the time that they did, it is doubtful that gaijin acts such as the Destroyer, Lou Thesz, Freddie Blassie, or even later stars such as Stan Hansen would have been as effective, had they appeared at all The Sharpes in matches opposite Rikidozan and Kimura, aided additionally in the formation of a TV culture in Japan, as large crowds gathered around public televisions, or the initial wave of household TVs to watch the matches.
In my eyes it is quite apparent that of any of the current Hall of Fame candidates, specifically in the Modern US and Japan categories, which I follow, there is no set of candidates more instrumental in their niche than Mike and Ben Sharpe – after all, they founded their role, a rare feat.
For others in the Japanese category, lack of long term influence may act as a detraction. An example of this is Volk Han, who despite debuting a great worker, and perhaps being the greatest worker in the history of shoot-style wrestling, the widespread death of the style, leads to a position that is not uncommon, that the shoot-style of Volk Han and Tamura is but a relic of the late 80s and 90s – although, Tamura was admittedly more varied than Volk Han, working more matches. This is most certainly an interesting argument for why Volk Han should not be inducted into the Hall of Fame, in addition to the relatively small number of career matches that he worked, as well at the height of his powers only being the second biggest draw in a medium sized promotion.
As much as Volk Han and Tamura are interesting cases, a candidate far more relevant to a discussion of influence, and the role that it plays in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame voting criteria, comes from the Modern North American category. This candidate is CM Punk, who, unlike Volk Han, whilst still being an outstanding overall performer – generating memorable programmes with the likes of Rey Mysterio, Jeff Hardy, The Rock, John Cena, and Raven, and perhaps being the best promo of his generation – an argument for the inclusion of CM Punk in the Hall of Fame that is often times overlooked is his unique role of creating the foundations for independent talent in the WWE.
When CM Punk debuted in 2006 for WWE's rebooted ECW brand there existed a very clear ceiling for independent talent who were lucky enough to be offered a contract. In 2006, the roster was far different than it is today, with very few independent talents, and with the few that were positioned far from the main event scene. But, Punk's career is a story of opportunity, either capitalising on circumstance, or fighting to alter his environment in order to meet his seemingly immovable goals. Punk won his first WWE Championship/World Heavyweight Title in 2008, but was positioned at nearly every opportunity to fail. He had the star qualities, but failed to escape a seemingly perpetual cycle of momentum growth and destruction. Then in 2011 he delivered his famous Las Vegas promo in July that not only served as one of the more iconic pieces of mic work of his career, but also catapulted him into a babyface position second from the top for the rest of his WWE tenure.
What followed was numerous cooling and warming periods, with the company's then infatuation with Alberto Del Rio attempting to break into the Mexican market, infringing on Punk's ability to garner a long-term championship reign – this is, of course ignoring his rushed return following his superstar-making performance with John Cena at Money in the Bank 2011 in Chicago. Regardless, even when faced with seemingly doomed programmes with the likes of Triple H and Kevin Nash, Punk pulled through, which resulted in his highly touted year-plus-long championship reign, a run all but unfathomable but a couple of years prior.
Punk departed in memorable fashion, a story upon which Punk elaborated greatly in an interview with Colt Cabana in late 2014, but he surprisingly left a legacy of sorts with the company, as he opened the minds of some, as far as to what extent independent talent may be pushed. This is of course an outsider's perspective, however, since the rise of Punk, the likes of Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins have taken off as stars, with the later specifically being pushed by the company, who didn't need their hand forced as was the case with Daniel Bryan. The timing, however, of the WWE's version of the Summer of Punk is unfortunate for this argument, as it coincides with Paul Levesque's rise to prominence as Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events & Creative. This makes it fairly difficult to distinguish where Punk's influence ends and where Hunter's begins. And this is one of the stronger arguments that could be made against Punk as an influence on the future success of former-indie talent.
Creatively and artistically speaking, CM Punk had a Hall of Fame worthy career, but of course this statement is highly subjective. The argument of drawing power isn't as well defined as it once was, with the WWE brand drawing far more than any individual star for the most part. Drawing metrics will become even more difficult to analyse in future years with the distinct lack of pay-per-view buy-rates as the WWE Network continues to evolve. Even so, Punk's main drawing run would have taken place from 2011-2013, which, even if he had been a definitively strong draw, wouldn't have been a long enough period to secure him enough votes for induction. However, as more indie workers become WWE stars in the same vein as Seth Rollins, the argument for Punk will only grow stronger, given that he became, through tenacity and natural ability, a shining counter example to the negative stereotypes that WWE hold and held against independent talent.