Selflessness In The Selfish World of Professional Wrestling: Part Two

In the last part of this series, we focused on how living legends Ricky Steamboat and Terry Funk tackled how to properly put over the next generation in defeat with Bret Hart and Eddie Guerrero, respectively. In keeping with this theme, It’s only right, then, that we check on how these two up-and-comers adapt to being the one in charge. Do they succumb to the egocentric nature of the sport they bleed for, or do they stand above the rest with their actions like the ones that led them in the past?

Bret Hart vs. 1-2-3 Kid, WWF Monday Night Raw (7/11/94)

This match is for Bret’s WWF Championship, which he won from Yokozuna at WrestleMania X in March. 

With reviews like this, some people might feel compelled to exaggerate the underdog narrative of the 1-2-3 Kid here. 

Yes, in kayfabe, he absolutely hasn’t been portrayed to be at the level of the world champion yet, but in reality Sean Waltman was one of the best wrestlers in North America at this moment. He was highly touted as a prospect as far back as 1990 with his series as Lightning Kid against Jerry Lynn, and since debuting with the WWF in 1993, he’s arguably been the best TV wrestler in the company. Indeed, in comparison to the two underdogs mentioned in the last part, the 1-2-3 Kid is light years ahead as a singles competitor from where Bret and Eddie were in their careers, respectively.

I say all of this to say that this match seeks to achieve a different purpose than the previous two mentioned. It’s certainly more in line with Bret/Steamboat, which served to establish Bret as a potentially major singles competitor, than Funk/Guerrero, which was meant to be a competitive squash match, but I think that this match achieves something more, something innately special, that sets the precedent for it being one of the best TV matches of all time.

You can immediately tell from the opening lockup, in which Kid hits an armdrag takedown, earning him a gesture of respect from the champion. Indeed, the entire first part of the match up to the commercial break is all Waltman, utilizing his speed advantage and even getting the better of the Excellence of Execution in the technical exchanges, establishing himself as a worthy opponent. Even when Bret gains a modicum of control with an elbow to the face, it’s not long before he’s getting hit with a flurry of kicks that send him flying out of the ring.

Out of the commercial break it’s Kid yet again with the advantage on the mat, taking control of Bret’s arm. The champion gets up tries to use the ropes to get the tenacious challenger off of him, but is thwarted again as Kid maintains control of his arm. Eventually, he does get some space and just nails 1-2-3 Kid with a knee lift to the gut. 

One of my favorite aspects of Bret’s performance here is how he takes to being in control. It’s one of the most aggressive performances I’ve ever seen from the Hitman; everything he throws, whether it be his stomps to the abdomen or his European uppercuts in the corner, have so much weight behind them. Really, he toes the line of being borderline heelish here with his stiffness, but he maintains just enough integrity to where the face vs. face aspect of the match isn’t lost, and this plays right into the end of the second part of the match as Bret counters a desperate crucifix pin from 1-2-3 Kid to go for a pinfall of his own, with Kid getting his foot on the ropes and the referee not seeing it. As soon as the referee counts three, Bret is indignant that the match be restarted, leading into the second commercial break. 

This moment is crucial to the narrative of the match because it really puts 1-2-3 Kid over as the challenger, showing that someone as high up on the totem pole as Bret would rather risk the opportunity to lose his belt again than to win by dishonorable means. It’s one of those details that always stick with you as a fan, long after the first time you watched it.

Out of the commercial break, we see Bret in control one more, hitting a butterfly suplex for a two count before applying a chinlock. Kid generates sympathy from the crowd here with his arms before getting back to his feet; Bret tries to hip toss him but the Kid counters into a backslide pin, really conveying his desperation to win here, but it’s not long before Hart is back in control of the action. Bret goes to the middle rope to hit a move but 1-2-3 Kid gets his boot up, leading into one of my favorite sequences of the match. Bret misses a clotheslines and gets BLASTED with a spinning wheel kick from Kid, then hit with an even better spinning kick in the corner, before getting nailed with an absurd dropkick. 

Kid decides that he needs to start flying to regain an advantage, and he does just that as he frantically hit a flying crossbody, then a powerbomb, then goes back to the top rope for a leg drop that only gets two. He (barely) hits a rolling senton to the outside, but misses the next one inside the ring. Ultimately, his reliance on aerial maneuvers becomes his downfall as he gets countered into a sharpshooter for the finish.

This is one of the first matches I think of when I think of selfless performances. Bret gives his opponent a ton to work with here, playing up Kid’s speed advantage and technical skill at the start, hitting him with some brutal offense to showcase his extraordinary selling ability, and overall just making him look like a worthy challenger. In a landmark year for Bret Hart, this TV match serves as maybe the crown jewel of his 1994 world title run, and one that has yet to be forgotten in the eyes of many. 

Eddie Guerrero and CM Punk

The first time I really thought about what it means to be unselfish in the world of professional wrestling, it was listening to a soundbite from CM Punk’s sitdown interview with Jim Ross.

He told a story about wrestling Eddie in Pennsylvania one night in 2002. By this point, between WCW and WWF Eddie had been a mainstay on American television for years, while Punk was, relatively speaking, a nobody. Much like Bret in 1986 and Eddie himself in 1989, Punk’s time in the spotlight would come eventually but, by all intents and purposes, this was another instance of a living legend up against someone lower on the totem pole.

This was at the very end of Eddie’s indie run, after he had been fired from WWE due to his own personal demons; as Punk explains, he was actually the WWE Intercontinental Champion at the time of this match. It always stuck with me how Guerrero, with all the power in this situation, could have easily just big leagued this 23 year old that self-admittedly wasn’t on his level, and he just… doesn’t. He chose instead to work a 30-minute time limit draw against Punk, because he knew how important it was to make the guy that’s actually gonna be at these shows after that day look good. That’s something that I don’t think you can say for many wrestlers in that position, and it makes me think higher of him as a wrestler.

Pictured: Eddie Guerrero with the WWE Intercontinental Championship at his last ROH show on April 27th, 2002.

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have footage of this match. We do have footage of one of their matches in IWA Mid-South, but I feel that the anecdote given by Punk in that interview is a lot more poignant for the purposes of this piece than just going play-by-play and describing what makes Eddie such a generous performer like I have with the last three matches. The fact that this story stuck with Punk so much that, nearly two decades later, it’s the first thing that comes to mind for him when asked what he wants to do in the company he just signed with, is truly a testament to what a mind and heart Eddie Guerrero had for the business and for his peers.

So, when you take a wrestler like CM Punk, a man that’s wrestled both Terry Funk and Eddie Guerrero, who’s been in the ring with Ricky Steamboat, who’s professed his love for Bret Hart countless times, what happens when you put him in a position where he’s the one that’s giving back to the generation that followed him, where he’s the ring general and has to decide where he wants to go in his first wrestling match in over 7 years. 

What does CM Punk do in the selfish world of professional wrestling?

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