Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame 2015 Discussion Part II: Modern Bias
A recent discussion on the Pro-Wrestling Only message board raised several interesting issues regarding the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame. One of the biggest points raised, one worthy of debate, and that has been discussed in different forms for quite some time, is that of modern bias amongst certain balloters. This is the question of whether modern performers, particularly in the Modern North America and Japanese categories, are judged with less rigour and more concessions than their historical counterparts.
This is a relevant discussion to have, and has been raging mostly in the form of age-limit debate in recent years. There is, at the very least, a significant minority of voters and observers of Hall of Fame discussion that believe that the minimum age limit should be raised from its current limit of 35 years, or 15 years in the business, to 40 years or 20 years in the business – some believe it should be higher. This would, of course result in a greater degree of historical perspective on the careers of most modern performers. However, emphasis is placed on the idea of performers being evaluated in the context of their era, by people who followed their careers in full, and in real time where possible, which would make the raising of the age limit improbable.
A larger concern, should perhaps be the standards to which modern performers are held. This, at very glance, would seem an easy enough task, however, when considering current business models, and changes that have taken place within the last fifteen years, defining a draw in 2015, or even 2010, can be a very difficult task. For one, there is, for all intents and purposes in the United States, a single major promotion, where the value of the brand far out-weighs that of any individual performer or group of performers. What is more, is that in the years to come concrete metrics will become ever more scarce with the loss of quarter hours and pay-per-view numbers becoming all but a thing of the past, at least for the WWE.
It can then be suggested that either only stars of the calibre of John Cena, seemingly once in a generation type stars, will be inducted, or none will. CM Punk, for example, as far as drawing goes, is by no means a Hall of Fame candidate in the eyes of most, it would seem. However, as a creative figure in the industry, a performer, and influence he may have a strong case, particularly in future years, when his influence on the WWE and their roster will become more (or less) apparent.
On the other hand, a performer like Randy Orton, held in incredibly high regard by those who have worked with him, as well as with former wrestlers to some extent, bolsters little chance for induction, even if he was the star second from the top for the majority of the last seven or so years. This isn’t necessarily an argument for Orton, and in actual fact something far from it, as I wouldn’t give Orton the most cursory of thoughts as a candidate at this time. Nevertheless, there should be more open discussion dedicated to deciding to what standards modern performers should be judged, even if a consensus will be hard to come by.
A related topic that was also addressed in said thread, was that on leniency towards the likes of Saito and Funaki in the Hall of Fame, and whilst there may be room to argue that those two did not deserve induction, I have no qualms with their status, especially, in the case of Funaki, given the duality between MMA and pro-wrestling in Japan. But, there are inductees such as Ultimo Dragon, whose inclusion is a little more debatable, although he did have undeniable influence, especially when considering the formation of Toryumon, and the birth of Dragon Gate that followed. Of course, Ultimo’s inclusion sets a large president for Cima’s induction too. At the same time, I don’t see Shinsuke Nakamura, at least at this time, as a worthy inductee, which is a shame considering the likelihood of his induction.
This isn’t to say that Nakamura hasn’t had a great career, because he has, and his reinvention in the 2010s should be at least mentioned in any argument for his induction. Still, whilst showcasing an 13 year career, he was only really Hall of Fame worthy for a third of them. He has been a consistently great worker over the past few years, and on his best days perhaps one of the best in the world. However, whilst consistently great, there have been others in the company, particularly fellow candidate Minoru Suzuki who saw a far more complex career in many respects. Nakamura is a candidate that I would have liked to have seen assessed for the first time at the age of forty, as the status of his legacy will have taken a much clearer form several years down the line than it has now. And this can be seen as one of the major benefits of a 40 year-old age limit, as many performers are still peaking at the age of 35, and some even have their largest career hot-streaks and failures, years later.
Another likely first ballot Hall of Famer is Daniel Bryan in the Modern US/Canada category, a man who will be on my ballot, perhaps a hypocritical move, although one that I have justified internally. Firstly, there are several performers in the Hall of Fame such as Shawn Michaels and Kurt Angle, who were both inducted primarily on work, one perhaps prematurely so (although I have very much enjoyed Angle as a worker over the years), both of whom were inferior workers to Danielson/Bryan in my eyes. Of course, in 2015 issuing criticism to the work of Shawn Michaels isn’t commonplace, but I do believe his body of work to have been somewhat overplayed over the years. He was an outstanding worker, but certainly not one of the greatest of all time. Bryan, on the other hand, depending on the day, may very well fit into that category, producing a vast and diverse catalogue of matches throughout his career. At the same time, he acted as an example of just how far an indie performer, who the company wasn’t particularly high on, could go when possessing as much talent as he did.
The drawing argument for Bryan is an interesting one, as he wasn’t a major draw for the WWE, nor was he given the chance to be. However, he drew far above his push, and was the ace of Ring of Honor. But, how much weight should being the ace of a mid-2000s indie really carry? Not a lot it would seem, at least at face value, but emerging from that mid-2000s ROH company were perhaps future central components of the main stream scene, Zayn, Owens, Cesaro, and Rollins, with perhaps more to come in future years. We don’t have ROH DVD sales figures like we had buy-rates for the same time period, nor do we have concrete merchandise numbers, and so putting concrete numbers to Bryan’s ROH is difficult, although I would wager that shows featuring Danielson drew more than ones that didn’t, although this is simply a hunch.
A candidate I have gone back and forth on for quite some time on is Volk Han, who was, at very best the largest draw for a medium sized mid-to-late 1990s Japanese promotion, and for the majority of his career the top gaijin in the promotion, but a distant overall second to company founder and ace Akira Maeda. Volk Han, however, was maybe the best hyper-realistic shoot style wrestler in the history of the business, and this is of course from his very first match onward. By this fact he should be inducted, as Kurt Angle acts as a precedent for someone who was an outstanding rookie, and was inducted off of that and work rate alone. But, I do think that voters at the time of Angle’s induction expected him to reach the status of an all-time great in the business, something that he didn’t end up attaining. Volk Han doesn’t have that prospect, as beyond being retired, he was the greatest rookie and best ever in a style that is largely dead, which may hurt his case in the eyes of many voters. However, with the likes of Benoit, Michaels, and Angle as inductees, I feel compelled to vote for him, with perhaps the only detraction being his astonishingly small match catalogue of under 50 matches.
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen quite enough of Volk Han’s most famous opponent, Kiyoshi Tamura, to justify a much needed vote to keep him on the ballot. Although, I hope to conduct some research in the following year, as he may have been close to Volk Han’s level in the style whilst still performing in a more traditional environment outside of RINGS for many years. As long as he breaks the threshold percentage of 10, Tamura will remain on the ballot, unlike Volk Han, who requires 50 percent for continued inclusion.
I believe this will be our penultimate week of pre-ballot submission discussion, and as such my current preliminary ballot is as follows.
Mike & Ben Sharpe