The word “legacy” carries a great deal of weight in wrestling. The McMahons themselves are a legacy, extending through Shane and Stephanie to their own children and extended families. When you think of legacy, you think now of the Flairs, the Rhodes, the Harts, the Anoa’is, the Mysterios or the wonky prestige of being called an Anderson. You can run down the line and talk about the Gagnes, the Watts, the Ortons, the Guerreros et al until you’ve exhausted every corner of wrestling history and catalogued it in your mental rolodex to recall during a random encounter with someone who’s as likeminded about wrestling as you are.
These people — the individuals, the duos, the families and the groups and everyone connected to them are tangible to us still in the extended generations we see on television such that we can never forget people like Ric Flair or Dusty Rhodes, or even Vince McMahon Sr. because we see or are aware of Vince, Shane, Steph, Charlotte, Dustin and Cody. We remember these legacies because succeeding generations remind us of legacy, much in the same way you could surmise that Rey and Dom Mysterio winning the tag titles is the beginning of the passing of the torch from one generation to the next to continue the Mysterio lineage.
What about what we don’t see though? The above examples are the obvious, they’re the known historical talking points when you discuss where wrestling was 10, 20, 30 and up to 116-odd years ago in the earliest contested “pro wrestling matches” with the original world heavyweight title.
The saying goes, to the victor go the spoils, and in conjunction with the notion that the “winners” control history, the flow of events often end up altered, revised and/or altogether forgotten other than to the people who witnessed the events. For the longest time the WWE network itself in its purest form was a bastion fighting against that, featuring content spanning decades — inclusive of many promotions of yesteryear — and for many the very core of when we started watching no matter the territory we idolized.
Through the PG lens, and more so now with NBC having cart blanche to utilize whatever content they please for Peacock while casting out any content that doesn’t fit a sterilized narrative, as memories fade in the absence of something tangible we lose the history of wrestling as it existed. Scrubbing history, even the controversial stuff, creates a narrative that eliminates progression of how we arrived at the present. Tag it, put a disclaimer on it, rate it in the most mature way possible, but without people like those came before — like a New Jack — who aren’t nearly as vaunted as the wrestling royal families listed above, we forget what they contributed. And so, wrestling history becomes censored.
Is there a lot of sensitive material in wrestling’s past? Certainly so. Yet, we still need to know it, be aware of it, and understand why it was incorrect so we don’t retread past steps as wrestlers, fans promoters, announcers, etc. We’re not a wholly intuitive bunch, us humans. And as critical as it is to be reminded of the pomp and circumstance of wrestling’s alpha wing, the nitty gritty, grimy details of history serve as warning of how to act, or in this case, the mistakes that were made in the ring, creatively, or through sheer violence.
Heyman made the point Friday, and rightly so, on Talking Smack that normally when a wrestler passes a video package is shown of their career highlights. But because of who New Jack was and how he approached professional wrestling, it can’t happen because he was that violent. So to the common, fresher viewer who didn’t know who he was or what he did, or watched ECW in its heyday, his death is relatively meaningless. It’s a cold reality of the flow of history and its revisions as decades pass.
The exception of course, is us. Me, you, your friends and family, or anyone else who stumbled onto wrestling moments often by complete accident be it on a VHS tape of Japanese matches featuring the Four Pillars or more broadly AJPW, NJPW, FMW and the like, early ECW matches, or even deathmatch content in addition to slews of matches and styles we were ignorant of at the time before we saw it. But someone did see it, and thought to record it. Thought to talk about it… they thought to share it.
That’s a bygone age, but its legacy continues on in discourse like this online: in message boards, comments sections, on Twitter or any other social media platform. We talk about what we watch, what we’ve seen and we share those thoughts, memories and appreciations with each other. It’s not gone in nature, it’s just evolved, but the past, like those listed names, is its legacy.
New Jack was imperfect and downright dangerous, and for as hardcore as you think someone might be, short of death match competitors like Onita, Foley, Funk or modern day ones like Nick Gage, people like New Jack were a special type of crazy maybe only rivaled by Sabu at the time. New Jack threw a man (Vic Grimes) from some rafters into a ring filled with stacked tables. It’s not hard to find the footage even now. That will probably never see the light of day on Peacock — I’m not even sure it was on WWE Network 1.0 — and it probably shouldn’t because he admittedly did it on purpose. There was also the Mass Transit incident on his record/conscience. Yet, those are small pieces of the story, it’s not the whole of who New Jack was. He was passionate, extremely charismatic, and could deliver genuinely engaging promos; if you couldn’t identify with him directly, you could understand his experiences and where he came from to arrive at the point where he was staring straight into you through the screen.
(There’s a thread forming here.)
New Jack fought his ass off and risked his body for the fans who loved him. I’m not even sure how many times I watched him dive off balconies on ECW events, but what I do know for certain is that aside from Sandman’s entrance to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” no other ECW wrestler ever got the reaction New Jack did once “Natural Born Killaz” revved up. New Jack cared about what he did, he cared about the connection he made with people in those arenas. He was also by most accounts — aside from his perspective on his son — a good man, and that shows in the tributes dedicated to him since his passing last week.
The reason I bring this up is because we need to remember what we’ve seen, not just what “Networks” catalogue, not just what shareholders deem appropriate. For better and worse wrestling is intricately synonymous with passion, real moments; legends and folk tales we tell each other to connect and keep other people’s legacies alive beyond simple mentions and statistics. Without maintaining our positions as fans as keepers of our own historical experiences, if others hadn’t witnessed it, how else would those stories live on?
The tales of the Hart Dungeon live on in the Harts, and through the work ethic and training conducted by the likes of Tyson Kidd and Lance Storm. If not, the memory of Stu Hart would eventually fade. We’re reminded most nights how great Ric Flair was through Charlotte, or how charismatic Dusty was nearly every time Cody cuts a promo. But those connections are there, and we remember the past through legacy.
When it comes to stories like New Jack’s though, or even Sabu, we need to talk about them. We need to remind ourselves — and each other — how hard the wrestlers who worked in ECW or similar promotions worked for us. Every one of them. We need to remember the moments we were shocked: New Jack’s dives, or Sabu tearing his bicep wide open on barbed wire, wrapping it up with athletic tape and finishing the match while his arm is still gushing blood. We take the good with the bad, because for every bad moment like Sandman’s crucifixion, there were genuine ones like those perfect moments we remember whether it’s a match, a pop, a spot or simply the roar of the crowd. Because to them it was real, it happened. Some witnessed it in person, others simply watched it from afar. Regardless, those moments shouldn’t be forgotten or lost to time.