The Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame Class of 2016 & The WWE’s Influence on The Pundit Culture

As strange as it may read, one of my happiest moments as a years long pro-wrestling obsessive came just over a year ago when I received an email from Dave Meltzer. The email was unexpected. Dave had little reason to email me; it had been months since the writing of my last email – and years since I had sent one warranting a direct reply. More confusing still was the subject of the email’s subject, an obscure reply to a report submission years old, one that I could only muster the slightest of recollections of sending. But, there it sat in my inbox “Re: <some or other NJPW show from 2012 Review>”. This will most assuredly read as hyperbolic, but the contents of the email made me smile –smile for quite some time – as contained therein was my first Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame ballot.


I joined the Wrestling Observer/Figure Four Online community in 2011 and in that year’s final quarter, and every year subsequent, my favourite wrestling coverage globally, with little exception, has been that of the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame. Much of this enjoyment has been derived from Dave’s annual Hall of Fame bios, most certainly, but even more valuable to me as a fan of wrestling history has been the discussion surrounding the Hall of Fame itself. Coverage on most of my favourite podcasts, news sites, and message boards spanning vastly different sectors of the fandom generates levels of research, insight, and debate involving large cross sections of the fanbase on a scale simply unseen during most any other periodic event in professional wrestling fan culture.


2016 WWE and WON Hall of Famer, Sting.

2016 WWE and WON Hall of Famer, Sting.

These discussions are, of course, essential to the voting process and the presentation of results that follow, but even more importantly, heated debate, discussion, and campaigning serves the Observer Hall of Fame – and by proxy its candidates and the newsletter itself – as an institution. The discussion surrounding the Observer Hall of Fame is no longer but a necessary component of the balloting process, but an institution in its own right. The presence of periodic spaces for open debate regarding the placement of historical and modern figures in wrestling within broader wrestling history does a great service towards furthering a goal I believe many observers and pundits hope to see fulfilled for the sake of the medium – for pro-wrestling to be recognized as a topic worthy of critical debate, serious assessment, civil dialogue, and careful consideration.


My first ballot was comically sparse. Conservatively I listed but four candidates, two from Modern Canada & The United States and two gaijin in the Japanese region – Ivan Koloff, Daniel Bryan, Volk Han, and the Sharpe Brothers – five if a blank vote in the non-wrestler category qualifies as vote of some kind. Realistically I wasn’t expecting much for the candidates on my ballot, although I thought Daniel Bryan was a clear lock and Ivan Koloff a favourite. Upon the release of the official results but a month or so subsequent the Observer presented Ivan Koloff, Shinsuke Nakamura, Brock Lesnar, Perro Aguayo Jr., The Assassins, and Carlos Colon as candidates who had passed the 60% threshold for their respective regions, qualifying for induction in what stands as the biggest Observer Hall of Fame classes of the past decade.


I wasn’t at the time, nor am I now, in a position of sufficient historical and regional knowledge to debate many of these inductees. I thought that Colon was worthy of induction but haven’t seen or read nearly enough on Puerto Rico to make a call. Much the same is true about Aguayo and The Assassins. But what of the other inductees? What of Brock Lesnar? What of Shinsuke Nakamura?


Many of my concerns regarding Lesnar and Nakamura were addressed in a 2015 edition of this newsletter, but the results perhaps in 2016 more than ever, signal a significant shift in the perspectives of many voters in two of the three categories in which I am an active participant in debate and voter.


The Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame makes its points of evaluation quite clearly — “Longevity should be a prime consideration rather than a hot two or three year run, unless someone is so significant as a trend-setter or a historical figure in the business, or valuable to the industry, that they need to be included. However, just longevity without being either a long-term main eventer, a top draw and/or a top caliber in-ring performer should be seen as relatively meaningless.”


Lesnar was an important figure for WWE during his original 2002-2004 run, but was never its true top star, nor was he particularly proficient at elevating others in 2003-2004. By all metrics his 2002-2004 run was not Hall of Fame calibre – not by a long shot. His 2012-2015 years had grander working highs with the likes of CM Punk and John Cena, but Lesnar has been more of a special attraction for big events than a full-time asset to the roster – and this is at a time when the special attraction role means less business-wise than it ever has; there are no buy-rates to pop, and evidence for any one star adding significant numbers of subscribers to the Network is dubious at best, non-existent at worst.


Akira Taue, Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada Log Carry Beach

Akira Taue (far right), the only member of the four pillars not in the WON Hall of Fame.

In a sense, the Shinsuke Nakamura induction mirrored that of Lesnar. Nakamura was inducted at what may very well be his peak as far as star power is concerned – in his last full year for NJPW. And whilst he had a longer consistent run than Lesnar on top I haven’t heard or read much in the way of arguments for Nakamura as a pre-2011 Hall of Fame level performer. He had moments as a legitimate traditional New Japan martial arts style ace, but these came during some of the lowest lows the company has ever seen.


The inductions of Lesnar and Nakamura were disagreeable to me as both a voter and fan of the Observer Hall of Fame. However, in late 2015 I wasn’t entirely sure if I was disagreeing with the inductions in context of what I thought the WON Hall of Fame ought to be based on Dave’s criteria, or on what the Hall of Fame truly was based on the casting of hundreds of ballots over 20 or so years. That is, were Lesnar and Nakamura deserving of their place in a Hall of Fame shaped by 20 previous classes regardless of my personal interpretation of Dave’s criteria?


Biases in the electorate are inevitable but are still worth minimising for obvious reasons. Most relevant here are biases towards specific idealizations of what the WON Hall of Fame itself should be based on Dave’s own criteria. Should we only induct the most elite performers from each era? Should, as Bryan Alvarez put it last year, treat the Observer Hall of Fame as a “Noah’s Arc” of sorts voting in the very best in each niche regardless of that niche’s overall importance to the industry: the most elite referees, announcers, interviewers, and so on? What sort of role should the so called “intangibles” play? I suspect that there is a wide spread of differing opinions amongst voters on questions of this sort, and it is this spread that only accentuates long standing (and often times irreconcilable) ideological differences in the electorate.


What the inductions of Lesnar and Nakamura meant to me is what I suspect the inductions of Ultimo Dragon (2004), Triple H (2005), Kurt Angle (2004), Chris Jericho (2010), and Shawn Michaels (2003) meant for a minority of voters in years past. It isn’t so much that these candidates contradicted Dave’s criteria, but rather they forced a change in our interpretations therein. If in 2004 a hypothetical voter viewed Kurt Angle as no more than a decent worker in an in-vogue style without much drawing or promo ability, then perhaps the most self consistent approach would have be for this voter in 2005to vote for any candidate with a case more substantial case than Angle, regardless of how low this would set one’s personal bar.


This hypothetical voter may have taken a different approach –in future votes they could simply chose candidates they believed strictly satisfied Dave’s criteria, regardless of who had been inducted in the past. But this is, in essence, changing the question of “does such and such a candidate belong in the Observer Hall of Fame” to “does such and such a candidate belong in my idealization of the Observer Hall of Fame”. Perhaps the distinction between these two voting philosophies reads as pedantic, but it is one that affected my 2016 ballot, and will alter dramatically every one I submit in future.


Optimistically, I viewed Brock Lesnar and Shinsuke Nakamura as the modern answer to a Undertaker type induction, hoping that like Undertaker in 2004,Lesnar and Nakamura would do enough in the coming years to at the end of their careers satisfy my interpretation of the WON Hall of Fame criteria. But regardless of whether their cases strengthen or weaken, the induction of Lesnar and Nakamura pushed me far further from the “voting on what the Hall of Fame ought to be” camp and deeper into “voting on what the Hall of Fame is”.


Candidates who were on the verge of making my ballot in 2015 – CM Punk and Jun Akiyama in particular – were appended to my 2016 list, as was Yoshiaki Fujiwara, a man returning to the ballot after falling off years ago. These additions were substantial given the ultra-conservative nature of my 2015 list, however, what will spawn further growth in the size of my ballot will be the results of 2016.


Daniel Bryan, Sting, Mean Gene Okerlund, and Col. James H. McLaughlin (voted in via special historical panel)composed the 2016 Hall of Fame class. My knowledge of McLaughlin is minimal, limited almost exclusively to Karl Stern’s excellent work on the pioneer era of wrestling, and very little else. However, from Stern’s work McLaughlin appears to be an oversight from the initial class of 1996 due to a research gap at the time. Daniel Bryan was inducted with 80% of the vote – the highest voting percentage of any one inductee this decade. Mene Gene, if you subscribe to the aforementioned Noah’s Ark model, is as strong a pick as any on the non-wrestler ballot.


Daniel Bryan as WWE World Heavyweight Champion, WrestleMania 30

Daniel Bryan as WWE World Heavyweight Champion, WrestleMania 30

Where my concerns begin is with the induction of Sting. Sting, in my estimation, now sits at the bottom end of the long list of performers inducted into the WON Hall of Fame since 1996, but this isn’t necessarily where my most major concerns lie. No, my true worries lie in the voting patterns leading up to Sting’s induction. Over the span of close to a decade Sting went from 18% (2007) to 24% (2008), 26% (2009), 20% (2010), 43% (2011), 38% (2012), 33% (2013), 33% (2014), 51% (2015), and 66% (2016). Apart from a sudden spike in 2010, one which doesn’t appear to have much bearing on what was occurring in Sting’s career at the time, Sting saw his biggest upticks in Hall of Fame support in 2015 and 2016 – upticks coinciding with his WWE debut against Triple H, final match against Seth Rollins in 2015, and WWE Hall of Fame induction in 2016.


In the realm of voting trends we must proceed with caution, as for the Hall of Fame in particular, voting correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation. Often times spikes in support go seemingly unexplained, and similarly support usually builds for the recently retired or deceased with debates becoming reinvigorated and memories resurfacing. So in this sense Sting’s induction may have come but as a result of discussion brought for by what seemed to be an imminent retirement in 2015. However, whilst Sting’s announcement was only made final this year, the Observer readership was informed of this as a likelihood months prior, still in the later months of 2015. I therefore find it doubtful that WON Hall of Fame voters classified Sting as an active performer up until his official retirement announcement at the 2016 Hall of Fame ceremony – only choosing to reflect fully on his career when given the nod, wink, and okay from his WWE Hall of Fame speech. Indeed, those who followed WrestleMania Weekend closely this year will recall the Sting announcement getting buried under the sea of news and results surrounding the weekend, with many, including myself, caught off guard by the fact that he wasn’t officially retired already.


The true catalyst for this sudden rallying of support behind Sting was then, most likely, a result of WWE exposure. But why would this be the case given that Sting’s WWE run didn’t offer a great deal for the company in the short or long term, nor produce its share of quality angles or matches? I fear that, whether intentional or otherwise, the boost that the WWE gave Sting provides worrying credence to the new notion of WWE influence on the Observer Hall of Fame. Clearly this influence is indirect and unintentional, but at a time when the WWE has as deep-rooted and effective a monopoly on pro-wrestling as any company in the history of the business, and their largest competitor has been dead for close to 15 years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a former non-WWE star – regardless of how big or small hewas in his own company – would be “legitimized” by an appearance on the monopoly’s biggest stage.


For as much as the WWE attempts to distance itself from the history of professional wrestling, for as hard as Vince McMahon Jr. attempts to erase the term and its accompanying lexicon from common memory, the WWE has attempted to control wrestling’s history for the better part of three decades. As is evidenced here, they may very well have subverted – albeit unintentionally – what many (including myself) would believe to be an institution all but impervious to such manipulation in the Observer Hall of Fame. If this is indeed the case, and WWE has, by virtue of their monopoly on the industry alone, garnered an ability to distort history of the industry over which it rules even in circles as small as that of the WON Hall of Fame, then we face a major dilemma.


We saw this distortion elsewhere on the ballot this year and last, not so much in the list of inductees, but more in the results lower down on the ballot.


Whilst Brock Lesnar thrived on his UFC drawing credentials, CM Punk in his second year on the ballot –following his first professional MMA fight – dropped from 22% to 20%. Upon first inspection this development appears reasonable, after all Punk was decimated by a 2-0 rookie in Mickey Gall. But what component of Lesnar’s UFC run contributes to his Hall of Fame credentials? Certainly not his actual MMA performance beyond the fact that winning contributed to his pre-existing drawing power. Then why has CM Punk seen a drop in support? This is a man who was placed on a B-level UFC pay-per-view, and even by conservative estimates bumped the show up by 100,000 pay-per-view buys plus. Surely this is a drawing achievement and only strengthens Punk as a candidate – and yet he fell to but one third of the induction threshold. In light of Lesnar’s 2015 induction this drop is entirely unwarranted – a contradiction of sorts.


Of course, one could argue that CM Punk was a major draw in the UFC for a single fight, but wasn’t a major draw for the WWE. But, even if we take this as factual, what of Brock Lesnar who shows even less in the way of concrete pro-wrestling drawing ability? This is a man who has popped but a few pay-per-view buy-rates whilst costing the company millions in appearance fees. One could say that Punk walked out on the company in an unprofessional manner, but then what of Shawn Michaels? What of Triple H? What of many of the 1996 inductees like Bruiser Brody, Ernie Ladd, The Sheik, or Akira Maeda? And of course what of Brock Lesnar in 2004? Walkouts, whether legitimate or otherwise, didn’t affect the validity of these candidates.


Punk faces off with Micky Gall at the UFC 203 weigh-ins -- a pay-per-view he added hundreds of thousands of buys to by most accounts.

Punk faces off with Micky Gall at the UFC 203 weigh-ins — a pay-per-view he added hundreds of thousands of buys to by most accounts.

Few would dispute Punk’s promo abilities, and the argument for his influence – whilst subtle in that through his success he opened the doors for much of the current main roster – is a strong one. Without CM Punk’s success it is unlikely that Daniel Bryan would have been given the room to succeed even to the point that fans could begin to rally behind him. It was only after Punk’s biggest successes that Bryan was given the World Heavyweight Title; it was only after Punk that Bryan was placed high enough on the card to lose to Sheamus in eight seconds. Sting never elevated an entire caste of performers in this way and neither did Brock Lesnar. Neither man was the calibre of promo man that Punk was, and arguably neither man was the worker that Punk was, at least in the traditional sense. Punk drew in every metric that could have been expected of him at the time, performing well consistently in the quarter hours, carrying his share of the TV ratings whilst moving merchandise as well as anyone else in the company not named John Cena over the course of several years. Does Sting truly possess that much more than CM Punk as a candidate? Are the likes of Lesnar, Kurt Angle, and Triple H truly that much better than CM Punk in some regard?


In spite of this Lesnar and Sting as modern candidates genuinely have more going for them than Punk has and may likely ever have – they have the industries biggest and best hype machine behind them – they have the Network and the video games, the special entrances, and Hall of Fame ceremonies to highlight, distort and push their career legacies. Punk isn’t in favour and doesn’t possess these luxuries as a modern figure.


Whilst CM Punk is a personal favourite he did not make my 2015 ballot – although he came exceptionally close, likely falling off due to little more than over caution as a first time voter – I have had a pet project of sorts in the Japanese region, a candidate who I started campaigning for long before I received my first ballot or even considered it a possibility – Volk Han.


In terms of voter support Volk Han was on the ascent over the past several years, rising from 42% in 2013 to 51% in 2014, and 52% in 2015 before falling back down to 38% in 2016. The sudden decline for a long inactive and quite performer like Han is near inexplicable. This is especially so with a high vote draw in the Japanese voting region, Shinsuke Nakamura, being inducted in 2015, potentially freeing up ballot spots that Han wouldn’t have had available to him in 2015. The only explanation I could think of for this decline was the reintroduction after a multi-year absence of Yoshiaki Fujiwara to the ballot, a NJPW legend and shoot-style pioneer who likely drew from the same voter pool as Volk Han. Regardless of the 2016 voter rationale, Volk Han will fall off the 2017 ballot due to the 15 year rule introduced in 2015.


Col. James McLaughlin sometime in the late 19th century,

Col. James McLaughlin sometime in the late 19th century,

The 15 year rule is a controversial one, stating that performers who have been on the ballot for 15 years or longer are required to garner 50% or more in each year subsequent if they are to retain their place on the ballot. This was a rule intended to reduce the presence of log-jamming and seemed to influence many voters in 2015 to voice their support for candidates that had been teetering for years leading to the long standing candidates like The Assassins, Ivan Koloff, and Carlos Colon surpassing the 60% threshold. In this sense the rule was a positive for older candidates providing opportunities for more focused and urgent evaluation. However, in the second year of the rule’s implementation its true effects on voting patterns were made frustratingly unclear.


Three candidates were in danger of elimination from the 2017 ballot: Blue Panther, Cien Caras, and Volk Han. Panther sat on the threshold rising 10% to 50%, whilst Volk Han dropped significantly despite coming within a few percent of induction in the past as well as facing elimination this year.


For the past two to three years I have intended to write about Volk Han’s Hall of Fame case, because due to the death of shoot style in the Japanese pro-wrestling mainstream, Volk Han, much like Kiyoshi Tamura, isn’t as recognizable a name as the likes of Akiyama, Taue, and Cima elsewhere on the ballot. As laughably esoteric as this reasoning may be, those who voted for Mean Gene, as well as in the Japanese region should have felt obligated to vote for Volk Han. My reasoning hinges on the Noah’s Arc model outlined above, as if one believes that the very best at any particular wrestling niche should be inducted – the best interviewer in the case of Okerlund – then surely the best shoot style worker of all time (perhaps this title should go to Tamura) should be inducted too.


The influence argument would be a very difficult one to make, even when looking at the current “catch-point” style evolving across the global indie scene. However,it should not be forgotten that Kazushi Sakuraba (2004) is a member of the Hall of Fame. Sakuraba, whilst most commonly cited as an inductee based on his drawing power as a pro-wrestler in PRIDE – which consensus appears to dictate that manyin Japan saw as a professional wrestling promotion, or at the very least that Sakuraba represented the “martial art” of professional wrestling in PRIDE – at the time of his induction Sakuraba as far (as far as I know) had less than 75 career wrestling matches – at or slightly below the number of Volk Han’s.


Shinsuke Nakamura Kazushi Sakuraba WK7 Stomp

Kazushi Sakuraba double stomps fellow WON Hall of Famer, Shinsuke Nakamura, in their famous 2013 Tokyo Dome show semi-main event

Almost all of those matches were on the undercard or in major UWFi vs. NJPW multi-man matches in which Sakuraba was not at the helm. Contrast this with Volk Han who had approximately 60 total fights, but was always positioned on bigger, well drawing shows, often just under Maeda, and was quite clearly the biggest foreign star in RINGS – even ahead of Leon Dick Vrij. He debuted at the top in 1991 and remained there for the rest of his RINGS tenure, learning to work on the job, and debuting better than perhaps anyone else in the history of the business. Of course, RINGS was no PRIDE, but by the current standards of puroresu RINGS was, at the very least, a medium sized to medium-large sized company, drawing 10,000+ crowds relatively frequently over most of the 1990s. Ignoring house shows, this is a drawing resume similar to Nakamura for most of his major runs having only truly drawn 35,000 or so fans to a Tokyo Dome show at his peak – and that is with either Okada or Tanahashi as the company’s ace at the time. RINGS, in the 1993-1997 years was consistently selling or bordering on it, with Maeda as the local ace, and Han on top of most every gaijin in a promotion heavy on foreigners.


What outcomes such as this unfortunately expose is a recency bias within the electorate as well as the voting system itself. Candidates such as Volk Han, JYD, the Sharpes, or even CM Punk (who is a current candidate but isn’t in the direct modern spotlight) are dismissed based on the same shortcomings that have plagued Sting, Nakamura, Tanahashi, and Brock Lesnar throughout large portions of their careers. This is an unfortunate truth for the Observer Hall of Fame, given that Dave has reiterated his stance on recency bias numerous times, stating that he believes that it is only fair to evaluate candidates in the present when memories are at their freshest and most honest. And for as much criticism that this point receives it does have merit. Had Volk Han been evaluated in 2000 with the footage we have available today and the style still relevant he would have likely been inducted. The same is true for Punk during his year long streak, or JYD during his three or so hot years.

The man himself, Volk Han, some time in the early to mid 1990s.


Unfortunately, however, attempting to correct for this by making use of the 15 year rule to prevent logjams and the 35 year eligibility age serves to create a lottery of sorts. Those who are on the ballot during hot runs with the WWE, or are promoted as such, are given a strong advantage over those who peaked at the “wrong time” for the Hall of Fame. Mistico, who was one of the hottest acts of the mid-2000s, the only luchador to ever win the Thesz/Flair award, saw his peak in 2006 –seven years into his career – and experienced a fall from grace in the years subsequent. Had his peak coincided with his eligibility I can’t help but think that he would have achieved over 30% for his first time on the ballot.


Conversely, if Nakamura for whatever reason fails in the WWE being unable to succeed there it cannot be held against him as failing outside a home territory was for Carlos Colon for so many years – or even for our previous example, Mistico. The same holds true for a host of inductees: Triple H, Kurt Angle, and so on, and even caries through to promoters whose promotions faced their inevitable deaths during the death of the territories and growing wrestling monopolies.


This may read like a hard-line criticism of the Wresting Observer Hall of Fame, but this isn’t my intention. Dealing with well over 300 voters and the intrinsic biases therein is a naturally difficult problem, compounded further when assessing performance art with its intangibles and subjective elements. It isn’t as if these issues have gone unaddressed either, the presence of an historical panel for instance is a particularly effective correction to some of the problems outlined above. But, ultimately, correcting for the media power of a publicly traded juggernaut on an already niche industry whilst remaining fairly open and inclusive is a major undertaking – one that may not even have a true long term solution. The same is true in swaying voters to evaluate the likes of Volk Han and Kiyoshi Tamura with the same depth of study as a modern candidate with a mass hype behind them – Nakamura or Brock Lesnar. These issues naturally become ever more difficult with increasing voting pools.


Whether the WON Hall of Fame is moving in a progressive direction –that is a direction most beneficial to keeping as objective a wrestling history as possible alive – is very difficult to say. This year’s results felt like a regression of sorts, although by the Hall of Fame’s very nature, well-established strong personal opinions are always at play – this article is no exception. Tweaks can be made to the voting system, but if the greater fan culture, even amongst pundits, is being as heavily influenced by the victors of wrestling’s largest wars, as some results may lead us to believe, then perhaps the sanctity of important historical institutions – such as the Observer Hall of Fame – isn’t as safe as it may appear at first glance.

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