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Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Pro Wrestling--- Samoa Joe Dominates Annual Draft Feature in Pro Wrestling Torch
The Pro Wrestling Torch has released its annual list of the Top 50 Reader Draft Picks, and Samoa Joe ran away with the #1 position in a vote that was not even close. The draft feature has been an annual staple in the Torch Newsletter since 1997, and it is generally an excellent barometer of which performers are perceived by the hardcore fans to be the most valuable in the pro wrestling industry.
Each individual reader who participated in the balloting process submitted a list of their top ten hypothetical picks (I published my ballot recently on this page), and wrestlers were given ten points for each #1 ranking, nine points for each #2 ranking, and so forth.
In lieu of publishing the entire Top 50 rankings, I will just list the top ten finishers and write extensively about this. Later this week, I will be back with some additional comments on many of the wrestlers who didn't make the top ten.
Top 10 Reader Picks in the Pro Wrestling Torch 2005 Draft
(based on combined fan voting)
1. Samoa Joe
2. AJ Styles
3. Chris Benoit
4. Shawn Michaels
5. Kurt Angle
6. Shelton Benjamin
7. Christopher Daniels
8. Triple H
Breakdown of Top Ten Wrestlers
1. Samoa Joe
Joe was also my #1 choice, and he won the overall ballot in a run-away. Torch editor Wade Keller wrote, "Samoa Joe's margin of victory over second-place finisher AJ Styles was larger than any other margin among the top five finishers. In other words, he ran away with first place. It was no contest."
This is not surprising given that there were literally more Match of the Year candidates in 2005 that had Samoa Joe in them than there were Match of the Year candidates that did not have Samoa Joe in them. Also, the Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer has given a perfect five-star rating to a grand total of four matches since the mid-1990's... and Samoa Joe has been in three of those four matches.
Here's a brief excerpt of what Wade Keller wrote about Samoa Joe in the Torch Newsletter this week: "Joe represents a no-nonsense style that is as remarkable, compelling, and original as Hulkamania, Austin 3:16, and the rise and incredible falls of Mick Foley during their breakthrough years... [Joe] is like nothing wrestling fans have seen over the past two generations... There is something about him, and even more so his strong, realistic, no-nonsense in-ring style, that could be the next trend that leads to a boom period."
2. AJ Styles
Styles was also #2 on my list. Wade Keller wrote, "Styles gets shared credit for Joe's rise because he has been such a perfect opponent--- a Magic Johnson to his Larry Bird... I'm with the readers on this. I have expressed my belief in a smaller, athletic style being a gold mine for the first promoter to properly invest in it and portray it as the top-of-the-card style. Styles would be the ideal choice to head up such a division." I think that sums it up well. Styles' amazing talent is surpassed only by that of Samoa Joe, and his in-ring style is a perfect foil for Joe's extremely stiff style.
3. Chris Benoit
Amazingly, Chris Benoit has finished in the top five of the annual draft feature in eight of the nine years since its inception in 1997. No one else has ever placed in the top five on five different occasions, much less eight. I excluded Benoit from my top ten only because he's in his late 30's and has been working at a world-class, high-impact level for over 15 years now (minus one year that he had to sit out after breaking his neck). Benoit's in-ring style and work ethic combine to put a tremendous amount of stress on his body, and unfortunately one has to think that it could be just a matter of time before injuries start to catch up to him. If none of that were a factor, he would have definitely been in my top five.
One also has to consider the recent Torch news item about Benoit being depressed and much more isolated in the locker room ever since his long-time best friend, Eddie Guerrero, died last month. (The Torch also reported that Benoit may be "questioning his loyalty to WWE," which would make sense given the way that WWE shamelessly exploited Eddie's death to further a pro wrestling storyline two weeks after he died...)
Benoit is probably doing a lot of soul-searching right now because he shares two of the issues that his best friend struggled with for so many years... A) Putting an incredible physical strain on his body with an in-ring work ethic that would be almost impossible to sustain with only the doctor-prescribed amount of pain pills, and B) Maintaining a body type that is carrying far more muscle mass than his frame was ever meant to hold. While Benoit is an absolute freak in terms of working out (doing 1,000 Hindu squats per day, going up and down dozens of flights of stairs per day, etc.), just being physically fit does not mean that he is in good health.
Benoit is in his late 30's and has a WWE contract that expires in early 2006. Given that he is one of the most respected wrestlers in all of WWE, someone who the entire locker room looks up to (from the veterans to the younger wrestlers), the choices that Chris Benoit makes in the next few months could have an enormous impact on the pro wrestling industry.
4. Shawn Michaels
After having finished as the top vote-getter in the first two years that the annual Torch draft existed (1997 and 1998), Michaels retired from wrestling due to a severe back injury. Ever since he returned to the ring in 2002, everyone has been holding their collective breath waiting to see how his back would hold up to the rigors of a full-time WWE schedule. Not only has Michaels' back held up, but he is arguably just as good as ever at the finer aspects of working a pro wrestling match in the ring. Michaels has been climbing in the rankings every year since 2002 and is now back in the top five for the first time since 1998. As Wade Keller wrote, Michaels is "making a case as the best in-ring worker ever with every additional year he stacks on top of his already stellar resume." I excluded Michaels from my top ten only because of the fact that at 40 years old, he's only going to be able to maintain his current in-ring athleticism for so many more years.
5. Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle needs help and should not step foot into a wrestling ring again until he gets it. The Pro Wrestling Torch has reported in a series of news items that are getting less and less subtle every week that Kurt Angle's life is in danger due to an extreme addiction to high levels of prescription pain pills. Rather than taking time off to let injuries heal (or undergoing major surgery that could be career-ending), Angle wants to prove to WWE management that he can continue to work the full-time WWE schedule and be a reliable main event wrestler. He continues to work despite the fact that he still has what is essentially a broken neck, and he also has an additional major injury (to his back) that he suffered this year. Angle has already lost his wife and children due to his extreme dedication to continuing to work the WWE schedule at all costs, and if someone doesn't do something, this story is not going to have a happy ending.
The Torch was more direct than ever about Kurt Angle's situation in this week's issue. Wade Keller wrote, "[Angle] may push himself so hard without a break that any chance of another entrance into the ring is extinguished. With a neck, back, and overall body as broken down as anyone in the industry today, any match could be his final."
The Torch's Jason Powell was also very direct: "As much as I admire Kurt's work ethic and desire to be the best in the business, I wouldn't put someone in his physical condition in the ring."
We can only hope that someone in WWE steps up and forces Kurt Angle to get the help that he needs before it is too late.
6. Shelton Benjamin
Benjamin has never gotten the push that he deserves in WWE and probably never will no matter how talented he is, for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has followed WWE for any number of years. Benjamin was my #7 pick due to his unlimited potential and his streak of amazing athletic performances earlier this year at WrestleMania 21, and in singles matches against Shawn Michaels and Chris Jericho.
7. Christopher Daniels
Ironically, when I made Christopher Daniels my #4 pick last week, I wrote that "even with Daniels being as acclaimed as he is, I still think he's under-rated." Now that has come to pass once again, as he finished with a great ranking in the overall Torch reader voting but is still under-rated. Daniels does not have the health concerns associated with him that Benoit, Michaels, and Angle have. I would choose Daniels over Benjamin because while Benjamin has the potential to one day have four-star-plus matches on a regular basis, Daniels already has an established track record of doing so.
8. Triple H
The only reason Triple H is on anyone's top ten list is because he's the final main-eventer from the Monday Night War boom period who is still an active, full-time wrestler, and he's going to draw from that well into it's completely dry. Triple H took several months off this past summer in order to attempt to start a family with his wife, Stephanie McMahon. Perhaps coincidentally (or perhaps not), he has gotten noticeably smaller and lethargic ever since he started trying to have a family. I would strongly doubt that Triple H is going to be told to "have a family on your own time," which is what the late Rick Rude was once told when he wanted to start a family.
As Wade Keller wrote in this week's Torch Newsletter, "[Triple H] has seemed lethargic and uninspired... worn out or bored. His character hasn't advanced in years. His matches, while still good, seem all too familiar." Though it's usually left unsaid by the insider pro wrestling media outlets like the Torch and Observer, the fact is that Triple H wouldn't be where he is today if he hadn't started a relationship with Vince McMahon's daughter and subsequently married her. Talent did have some role in Triple H's almost non-stop run of PPV main events over the past six years, but nepotism had a much bigger role.
Edge is in a constant cycle of being punished by WWE management in part for being a younger, fresher, and more talented version of Vince McMahon's son-in-law. Ignoring the fact that he hasn't gotten the full-fledged main event push that he deserves, and ignoring the fact that in real life he slept with Matt Hardy's long-time girlfriend and showed no remorse for doing so (and the fact that his now-former wife publicly outed him as a steroid user when she found out about the affair), the fact remains that Edge is one of the most talented wrestlers in the business today, which is why I made him the #5 choice on my ballot. Like all-too-many WWE wrestlers, Edge is likely to "pain-pill" his way through a major injury (in his case, a torn pectoral muscle) by returning earlier than he should, although at least he's actually taking some time off from in-ring action to let his pectoral muscle heal to some degree (unlike Batista, who is working a full-time schedule with a torn lat muscle in his back).
When Edge recovers from his injury, I imagine that most wrestling fans will remember that Edge has delivered world-class, four-star matches when he has been put in a situation where he is called upon to do so. In the last year in particular, he has also evolved with his smarmy heel promos to the point that he is now one of the best promo guys in the entire business. In addition to playing the arrogant jackass heel, Edge is also capable of turning it up a notch and delivering extremely intense, impassioned promos, as seen on several occasions this past summer. I expect to see Edge ranked even higher next year.
Christian was the #9 pick on my ballot and the #10 pick in the overall Torch standings. It's ironic that Christian and his old tag team partner, Edge, both broke into the top ten in the same year, and it's also ironic that Christian continues to be perceived as one small notch below Edge.
While Edge and Christian are both among the best in the industry on the microphone (in two completely different ways), I don't think you'll find too many people who would argue that Christian is better than Edge in the ring. There is something about the speed and intensity of Edge's in-ring work in main event-type situations that Christian just doesn't seem to fully have a handle on yet.
On the other hand, while Edge remained mired in WWE politics this year, Christian became the first WWE wrestler to turn down a WWE contract renewal offer in order to sign with TNA instead (and he won't be the last). Christian, who is only moderately muscled and certainly not a musclehead, didn't have the right "body type" to get a main event push in WWE. Wade Keller wrote the following about Christian's break-out year: "Although Christian doesn't fit the mold in terms of body type that Vince McMahon saw as a potential main eventer, fans didn't care--- they were entertained by him."
I'll be back later this week with my thoughts on many of the wrestlers who didn't make the Torch's top ten.