Monday, November 15, 2010

Remembering Eddie Guerrero

I will always remember the date: November 13th, 2005. It was my birthday. Emily was cooking me a special dinner, and I was ordered into seclusion upstairs. So, I decided to entertain myself by surfing the net for an hour or so, and at some point, my browser led me to the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) website. It was there I was absolutely shocked and heartbroken by the headline, which was announcing the death of Eddie Guerrero. Eddie Guerrero, at 38 years old, was found dead in his hotel room due to heart failure. It was devastating for me not only because he was one of my all time favourite wrestlers, but because he was a man who had been fighting with the proverbial internal demons for years and finally, seemed to be in a spot where he had conquered them. Eddie had been struggling with substance abuse for several years, but had seemed to finally been able to overcome his addiction (though, it has later been shown he was still using some forms of steroids -- though had stopped his alcohol, pain killer and other drug abuse). Despite being fairly clean at the time, it was his years of physical abuse on his body due to wrestling an extremely high risk and physical style, but also the many years of consuming various harmful drugs (including painkillers and alcohol that was likely brought on by the previously mentioned physical wrestling style). It was a sad story because this was a man who had various struggles throughout his life, but has recently found religion and got his life back on track, but it turned out to be far too late.

The first time I remember watching Eddie Guerrero was in the fall of 1995, when Eric Bischoff, president of World Champion Wrestling (WCW), hired him along with several other incredibly talented, athletic and high impact lighter weight pro wrestler (or light weight for professional wrestling at the time) in order to fill up his under cards with fast paced matches. Eddie Guerrero, along with his newly signed friends, were a large reason why WCW's new Monday Nitro program was becoming the can't miss wrestling program of the week, and was beginning to hurt World Wrestling Federation's(WWF which was WWE's names at the time) Monday Night Raw in the ratings. It was a level of athleticism and fast paced action which was incredibly rare in mainstream United States wrestling at the time, and was quickly making WCW stand out as a fresh and exciting product. I instantly became a fan of Eddie Guerrero's wrestling style, and started seeking out tapes on matches he had done in previous promotions. I learned he was a big star in both Mexico and Extreme Championship Wrestling (known as ECW which was a big cult promotion out of Philadelphia that actually had a small run as a national company) before Eric gobbled him up for WCW.

I don't know if Eddie ever had a bad match his first year or so in WCW, but as a baby face (wrestling good guy) his personality was a little vanilla. I was a fan of his matches, but he was sort being lost in the shuffle of the company and I would find myself forgetting about him amongst all the big happenings of wrestling at the time (this was during a huge boom period in wrestling). This all changed in mid 1997 when Eddie Guerrero turned heel (bad guy), and showed off a cocky and smarmy personality that he was unable to portray as a good guy. It was pretty clear at this point the man had tons of charisma, and he quickly became one of my favourite wrestling villains (and also one of my favourite wrestlers). He played an excellent treacherous and back stabbing villain and quickly became one of the highlights on WCW programming.

Despite the fact Guerrero was easily one of the most compelling and entertaining wrestlers on the WCW roster, he was stuck in the mid card due to the WCW politics (even though he got one of the biggest crowd responses on the cards). Eddie continued to put on great matches, and often stole the show, but he was typically put in the exact same spot against the same opponents. Near the end of 1998, there was a storyline that Eddie Guerrero was pissed off at being stuck in the mid card, and wanted to be released by the company if they wouldn't allow him to get higher. It was a storyline that was playing up elements of real life, which was something WCW started doing more and more(though it rarely ever made money, and probably sped the death of the company). This was one of the first times WCW tried something like this, and captured the attention of the fans, and looked liked it would lead to Eddie finally getting a top spot in the company (as he would likely be feuding with the president of the company -- similar to what WWF was doing at the time with Stone Cold Steve Austin who was the most financially successful wrestler in wrestling history). Unfortunately, WCW politics reared its ugly head, and the storyline took an odd direction that most feel could not have been the initial plan (but feel one of the main event guys felt threatened by how interested fans were getting in the storyline, and thus caused it to be altered to make it less main event worthy). The story line's pay off was that Eddie formed an alliance of talented Mexican wrestlers (known as luchadores) but they had essentially all been enhancement talent for the last two years thus instantly became a group fans would care less about. Plus the group just ended up feuding with the exact same wrestlers Eddie had been wrestling every single night for the last few years anyway. The thing was, despite the fact this group was designed to just be another lower to mid card act, Eddie Guerrero's talent and charisma once again made him the most interesting wrestler on the show, and even though he wasn't in the main events, he often remained the highlight of the programs (and had by far the best matches on all the PPVs). It seemed out of sheer will and determination, Eddie and his group were bound to be elevated into a top spot. But then fate intervened in the cruelest way possible, because over the Christmas holiday, Eddie Guerrero got into a serious car accident. It later came out that Eddie was driving drunk and high, and was being plagued with suicidal thoughts on his car ride due to frustration and depression over his lack of career mobility in the company (and also, his marriage was in a rough spot at this point). The accident left Eddie's career in jeopardy, and WCW showed their class by never mentioning the accident and seemingly allowing him to disappear from existence.

If there is one word you can use to describe Eddie, it was determination. Despite having an accident that could have ended his life, and was expected to end his career, Eddie Guerrero returned to WCW after being on the shelf for approximately six months. It was a remarkably quick recovery, but it was also at a great price. It was during this time that Eddie started taking an excessive amount of pain killers and other drugs in order to control the physical and mental pain he was suffering. On television, Eddie had returned to his greatest amount of popularity, and was at the highest level of card in his WCW career (though it still wasn't quite main events -- despite at this point clearly being one of the most popular people in the entire promotion), as he formed a group called the Filthy Animals which was sort of like a WWF version of Degeneration X (which was essentially a crude and sophmoric anti-establishment group that was incredibly popular among the cynical and rebellious '90s wrestling crowd). Unfortunately, as Eddie's rise in popularity and marketability began, there was also a massive increase in his dependency upon drugs and alcohol.

In January of 2000, a key moment in professional wrestling happened which ended up being massive positives for Eddie Guerrero's wrestling career, but most likely the final nail in the WCW's quickly built coffin (I'm sure I'll blog about this some day, but WCW rapid rise to top of the wrestling mountain was outdone by its even quicker plummet to obscurity). It was this month that WCW fired its head booker (Vince Russo who was quickly being revealed to be a hack, but at least was willing to give the younger talent a chance at reaching the main events), and replaced him with Kevin Sullivan who was a man who had a reputation of favouring the more established and older names. This was too much for Eddie Guerrero and his best friends Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit (along with several other younger stars). Their unrest and complaint lead to the then WCW Vice President (Bill Busch had replaced previous WCW President Eric Bischoff in the Fall of '99) allowing Eddy Guerrero, Dean Malenko, Perry Saturn and Chris Benoit to have full releases from WCW and allow them to immediately sign with the WWF. This was absolutely unheard of during a time when both companies were in a hot battle with each other, and did whatever they could to keep talent away from the competition. These four men were considered some of the most talented wrestlers in the world at the time, and was one of the biggest boosts that WWF could ever ask for. This lead to the most financially profitable year in WWF history (up to that point) and was the the peak in WWF's popularity in wrestling, and as for WCW, 2000 would be the final full year of its legitimate existence (WWF bought it in March of 2001 and kept its name around for the rest of the year for an -- failed -- invasion storyline). So, I am sure that is pretty good evidence for who benefited from the contract releases.

This release was definitely a massive benefit for Eddie Guerrero career wise. He entered into WWF with his friends, and they were instantly one of the top heel groups known as the Radicalz. The group was short lived, and actually, initially was formed for the sole purpose of getting Chris Benoit over as a top main event heel (right behind WWF's centrepiece heel, HHH -- who at time was pretty much untouchable in the main event bad guy role). But Eddie had a very unique charisma, and in an environment that allowed him to shine, he ended up becoming the most popular of the newly signed talent. In the spring he was turned into the babyface with his 'Latino Heat' character. This is a character that would probably normally be a massive flop, and actually be deemed offensive by many, but Eddie Guerrero with his charm and charisma really pulled off the role and became one of the can't miss acts of the company. By the end of the year, they did turn him heel again, but he was clearly one of the top stars in the eyes of the fans.

So, what exactly is the 'Latino Heat' character? Well, essentially Eddie would say that women could not resist him because of his 'Latino Heat'. He would come up riding a lowrider (which is so stereotypical Hispanic, but he did it with such charm that it didn't offend anyone that I was aware of), and enter the ring doing this shimmy and hip swivel. He eventually added the slogan, 'I Lie, I Cheat, and I Steal.' Though this initially was a motto and philosophy that was supposed to get him over as a top heel, the simple fact was his ways of cheating were so creative and he was so over the top charismatic that the fans couldn't help but love him. Despite the fact the company tried turning him heel so many times, Eddie Guerrero was such a a likable persona that he always was cheered no matter if he was a villain or good guy, thus he always ended up back as a face.

In the spring of 2001, Eddie had not quite hit his stride as the bullet proof crowd favourite, but he still was regularly entertaining the fans despite being entrenched in the midcard at this point. The WWF had designed a storyline that seemed to be geared towards elevating Guerrero to the next level. Despite being a heel at the time, Guerrero was consistently attempting to the save the face Lita (the storyline and soon to be real life girlfriend of the incredible popular Matt Hardy). It got to the point, he would sacrifice himself to protect Lita, or even attack his own teammates in order to aid her. He then started dressing up like the Hardy Boys (brothers Matt and Jeff, who were managed by Lita), and would actively push to be their tag partner. The interesting part of this, was that their seemed to be an insincerity about Eddie, or at least, he was doing it a little too over the top (but in a way, you were supposed to know he was being over the top rather than it being a poorly acted way). Eddie at this point had a reputation of being deceitful and manipulative, and so the fans where led to believe he was doing all this in order to eventually turn on the Hardys. There was the whole element that Eddie had lost the European championship to Matt Hardy, and so this may have been some elaborate plan to gain revenge for this loss and get the title back. The thing was, every single week he would do something to earn the Hardys' trust, and continually remain loyal to them. It was a very intriguing storyline, and one of the most interesting plots at the time. Each week you waited to see what was the master plan of Eddie, and what this was all leading to. Unfortunately, this was during the period that Eddie was at his worse in regards to substance abuse, and so WWF had no choice but to send him to rehab. During the rehab, Eddie was caught drunk driving, which then led to his firing from WWF. So, I and all the wrestling fans were left wondering where that storyline was heading, and more importantly, worrying about the future of Eddie Guerrero.

Guerrero eventually returned to rehab, and started wrestling on the independent wrestling circuit. He cleaned up his act to the point he was rehired by the now WWE in April of 2002. He immediately became a upper midcard heel and consistently was putting on the most entertaining matches and segments. He was such an instant hit, that WWE megastar Steve Austin asked to be in a long term program with Eddie in June. Unfortunately, this was another storyline that was left with no finish, but this time it was not the fault of Guerrero. Austin was frustrated with how he was being used in the company, and also felt the writing was diminishing, which he claimed was the reason the WWE was declining in popularity (which really, he was completely correct about). This disagreement led to Austin walking out of the company, and meant the feud with Eddie Guerrero was suddenly terminated. Eddie recovered quickly, and by the fall was teamed up with his nephew Chavo, and they became one of the hottest tag teams in the WWE. They had a series of tag team matches with the teams Kurt Angle & Chris Benoit and Edge & Rey Mysterio, which were indisputably the most exciting matches and best part of the company in the fall of 2001 and winter of 2002. Eddie had hit a popularity peak despite being a heel, and by the virtue of the massive cheers was turned into the one of the top faces.

From everything I read, when the Radicalz group was brought into WWF, it was Chris Benoit that was to be the star. The other three were just going to be top talent used to round out the mid and upper parts of the wrestling shows. As Eddie's popularity grew, he started becoming a key part of the uppercards, but even then, I don't think WWE saw him as a main eventer. I definitely never thought WWE would make him the World Champion and thus the top guy in the promotion. I wanted him to be. At this point, he had become one of my all time favourite wrestlers. But I also knew the type of wrestlers WWE liked in the main event slot, and Eddie Guerrero was a little too small for their liking (though they had put smaller wrestlers in the top spot in the past). The WWE also had some other wrestlers that they were clearly trying to put in the top spot, and so it seemed there wasn't room for Eddie there. He seemed he would always be near the top, but never quite there.

This is why there will always be two key dates in 2004 when it comes to wrestling for me. The first came at the No Way Out PPV on February 15, 2004. Eddie Guerrero was in his first ever World Title main event, which was against then WWE World champion Brock Lesnar (yeah, that Lesnar). Lesnar at the time was the WWE golden boy and the entire company had essentially been revolving around him for the last two years. They saw him as the future of their promotion, and had done everything they could to establish him. This is all rather funny now, considering he would walk out of the promotion and never wrestle for them again just two months after this date, but nobody knew this then. So, when the No Way Out PPV arrived, everyone knew that Eddie was a superstar and definitely one of (if not the) most popular guys in company but almost everyone had a hard time seeing him beat Brock. Brock was the prototypical WWE champion, and Eddie, even in the the fake world of wrestling, was the major underdog. This is the reason why February 15th, will be one of my all time favourite wrestling moments. Eddie was always one of the guys I adored and rooted for. He was always one of the guys I wanted to be in the main events. He was also one of the guys I started believing would be destined to be one of the best wrestler ever, but always under appreciated by his company. He was one of the best in WCW but never got anywhere near a main event. He was now one of the best in WWE, but seemed likely to be the guy who'd get occasional main events but never get to stay there. I knew he should get the title because he was so popular, but I just couldn't see WWE ever pulling the trigger and letting him beat Brock. So, it was a very special moment for me as a long time fan, to finally see Eddie get the credit and honour he deserved. Eddie defeated Brock Lesnar for the title, and was chosen as the new face of the promotion.

This leads to my second favorite all time moment that happened to be in 2004. At Wrestlemania 20, on March 14, 2004, Eddie Guerrero defend the world title against Kurt Angle. Even though Eddie was the champion for only one month, I had a very strong feeling he would likely drop the title to Angle. Eddie seemed to be accepted as champion by the fans, and was still hugely popular. To me, it still seemed like WWE didn't see Eddie as the true star, and Angle at the time was a mega heel (and already had several world title reigns). I had a strange feeling the intention was to end the Eddie experiment quickly and reset things with Kurt Angle on top. It was a great feeling to see Eddy defeat one of the most established stars in the company and firmly plant himself as a legitimate main eventer (and doing this on the biggest show of the year -- WWE's signature annual event). The truly special moment of that night was seeing two best friends celebrate their world title victories (WWE now has two World titles -- which I know makes no sense, but WWE has got rather convoluted ever since WCW went out of business in 2001). Unfortunately, the great moment of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit raising their championships in the air as streamer fall and tear roll down, has been tarnished in the last few years. Benoit a few years later committed one of the most horrendous and despicable acts possible, and thus I can no longer see him the same way ever again (he committed a double homicide -- wife and son -- before taking his own life on June 24, 2007). But I still won't forget the butterflies in my gut and the emotion spreading throughout my whole body when I saw the image of those two standing proudly in the ring with their titles. I'll never forget knowing that WWE's 20th edition of their biggest event, ended with two unlikely world champions celebrating. It was two guys that never got a fair shot in WCW. Two guys that looked like they'd come close but never win the big one in WWE. Now, they were the two very top stars in the entire company (a promotion that had over hundred wrestlers jamming up the roster). It is a moment I'll never forget, and one that I treasured at the time. Like I said, Chris Benoit is no longer someone I can see the same way, or ever appreciate again. As for Eddie, I still look at that night as his shining moment, and the exact moment the company gave him their official stamp of approval.

Eddie's time as world champion ended up being fairly short (or at least for back then, when they didn't change the titles on every single major show). His title reign ended in June to another unlikely candidate JBL (now, he was unlikely not because I didn't think WWE wanted him to be champion, but rather because he wasn't getting over with the fans yet -- though turned out to be the top heel by years end after WWE persevered with him as champ). It later came out that Eddie Guerrero actually asked to lose the title (the plan was for him to be a long term champ), and he also chose JBL to win it since they were good friends. It seemed that Eddie was not handling the pressure of being on top very well, and was starting to slip back into his addictions. The choice was to put him back in a spot where he didn't have the need to carry the company, and could focus on his own well being and family.

Eddie was the star of a real life inspirational story. He was a man that was a little two small for a 'sport' that favoured muscled monsters. He was a guy plagued by demons and addictions. He rose above all those adversities. He became the top star in his chosen profession. He overcame all his addictions and struggles. He repaired his marriage, and had a very happy home life. He had become religious and was an inspiration for the locker room. It seemed like he would have the fairy tale ending.

Unfortunately, real life isn't a fairy tale. On November 13th, 2005 Eddie Guerrero passed away, and I never got to see my favourite wrestler perform again. But Eddie was only a TV figure to me. He meant a lot more to his daughters, wife, family and friends. They were the ones that really felt loss. They were the ones that really were impacted by his life. For them, I am sure they still feel the pain when that date comes by. For me, November 13th will never be entirely the same. Though I can never fathom the pain and suffering his loved ones feel, I will miss him. He was one of a kind, and will always be one of the all time best wrestlers.

RIP Eddie Guerrero. I still remember you.


2 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:05 am

    Dave Nelson via Facebook:

    i think this may be some of your most passionate and accessible writing Chris. I really loved it. A touching tribute

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you very much, Dave. I really appreciate the compliment.

    ReplyDelete