This may come as something of a surprise to those who saw me only as a very minor player on the biggest show of the year, but this past Wrestlemania week may have been my busiest one yet. With no match or substantial role to worry about, I was able to take in the majesty of the occasion, and appreciate just how fortunate I was to take part in a veritable bonanza of Wrestlemania events. I visited a children’s hospital, presided over the WWE’s National Reading Challenge, walked the red carpet at a high-end fashion show, did a VIP signing at Axxess, attended the Hall of Fame induction ceremony and busted my butt to make my segment with Santino, Captain Keith and Ron Simmons the very best it could be. Truly, I felt like I was among the hardest working men in the WWE – with the keyword in that sentence being “men”. For if 2000 was the year I main-evented Mania, and 2004 was the reunion of the Rock’n’Sock Connection, and 2006 was the year I captured my elusive Mania “moment”, I believe I will look back on 2012 as the year I finally understood just how hard our WWE Divas work, how their contribution to the company extends far beyond their work inside the ring, and just how fortunate WWE is to have such diverse, determined group of young women representing them.
There will always be part of me that is proud to be considered “old school” - for that romantic image of sacrifice, paying dues and respect that such a sacred term brings to mind. Several years ago, when I heard of WWE’s intention to actually recruit beautiful women and teach them to wrestle, I thought the notion to be utterly ridiculous. You didn’t find the female stars of tomorrow through a televised search; you found them the old-fashioned way – by finding that certain quality that allowed talent to shine in the armories, middle school gyms, and county fairs that dot the independent wrestling landscape. Female wrestlers, I was sure, could only be found training in the Dojos of Japan, like Kharma, finding bookings in whatever country would have her, like Lita, catching eyes and turning heads at every stop like Melina or Beth Phoenix, or born with the business in their blood, like Natalya or Tamina.
I still think I’m largely right; combing those Indy shows is still a great way to find those stars of tomorrow, and I hope one day I can suggest a few women who have done great things, and fallen just short of a well-deserved shot with WWE. But as I’ve come to see, you really can recruit beautiful women and teach them to wrestle – if they’re willing to work for it. This business has a way of weeding out the ones that don’t really want it. If you don’t learn to love it, you’re usually going to hate it – that’s just the nature of the beast that asks those lucky enough to be selected to find the joy in being slammed repeatedly, both emotionally and physically, while traveling the country and the world at a pace that few could withstand.
I began to see the possibilities about the time I realized Candice Michelle had somehow morphed from a charming, beautiful young woman into a hard-working, top notch performer. I happened to be backstage getting ready for my match at the 2007 “Night of the Champions” when Candice returned from her match, tears of joy streaming down her face after winning her first World Championship. She’d learned to love the business – and it showed. It showed in so many of the new generation of Divas, too – from those mean girls in Lay Cool, to the naughty, demonstrative Maryse, (I’m still the only announcer to properly say her name) to the world’s most beautiful wedding planner, Alicia Fox, to my future partner in RAINN fund-raising, Eve Torres, to the two (or three, depending on how you look at it) most unlikely Diva success stories I could imagine – Kelly Kelly and The Bella Twins.
It’s hard for me to even fathom that Kelly Kelly has been in WWE since 2006. But go back to that summer and you can actually see footage of Ms Kelly dancing, with Melina and yours truly (yes, I was actually dancing on ECW, albeit poorly) while Joey Styles provides the very finest in shocked and bewildered commentary. I vividly remember thinking, “nice kid, beautiful girl…she’ll never make it”, after that initial dance extravaganza. Yet, there she was, six long years later, hitting a move I’d never seen, on the biggest show of the year in front of 78,000 screaming fans.
I smile every time I think of Brie and Nikki Bella. Maybe because I honestly never thought I’d see them again after our inaugural (quite memorable) interaction over five years ago. Months later, I was stunned to see them hanging on - when I had the opportunity to address WWE developmental talent in the fall of 2007. I had thought the wrestling business would have chewed them up and spit them out almost immediately. Yet there they were, perspiring profusely, listening intently, looking down-right determined, giving me tiny, identical waves, as if to say, “yes, it’s us, we’re still here…surprised?”
I’ve had a chance to see them progress from afar, and a little chance to get to know them as individuals since I’ve been back in WWE. I can even tell them apart most of the time. Most recently, I had a chance to watch them represent the WWE over a five day period in Miami. Remember me telling you how I felt like I was the hardest working man in WWE that week? But this particular man didn’t even come close to carrying the work-load of Brie or Nikki and so many of our wonderful Divas. They did everything I did..and then some – with finesse, elegance, beauty, and high-heels!
Maybe the Bellas make me smile because they are symbolic of the idea that sometimes, you really can teach an old dog new tricks – that my way may not be the only way and that that the venerable old-school – as tried and true as it may be, is not the only place to instill a passion, a love and a commitment for one’s craft. I used to resent those I encountered so frequently who judged my particular book by its tattered cover. But recently, I’ve come to see that I can be just as guilty when it comes to matters of pre-judging others in our business. I think it’s just human nature to jump to conclusions, whether those conclusions are arrived at by pre-judging beauties or the beasts.
Funny how our WWE Divas can make me feel so good about being so wrong on so many different occasions.