By Mike Mooneyham

May 1, 2004

Notice anything different about WWE lately?

How about the actual wrestling – they’re doing a lot more of it these days, and it seems to be paying off.

Ratings, particularly on the Raw side, are inching back up. House show attendance is on the increase, and pay-per-view buyrates are coming in strong. More importantly, fan interest, on the wane the past couple of years, seems to have returned.

Despite the loss of two major stars (Brock Lesnar and Steve Austin) in recent weeks, the company’s doing pretty good business. And much of the success can be attributed to the fact that Vince McMahon and his staff are placing a bigger emphasis on wrestling and all that it entails. That’s not to say they’re doing away with the edgier entertainment side, although they have ratcheted down the content in recent months. But that’s probably due more to the federal government’s crackdown on indecency over the airwaves, with WWE not wanting to ruffle any feathers unnecessarily.

Eddie Guerrero

Eddie Guerrero

The main thrust behind the back-to-the-mat philosophy, however, was the growing number of injuries to WWE performers, especially the back and neck variety that were putting top stars on the shelf for extended periods. That’s not good business in anybody’s book, and McMahon has smartly pushed for a less high-risk and more mat-oriented presentation.

The fact that the company’s two major champions, Chris Benoit and Eddy Guerrero, are skilled ring technicians has made the transition that much smoother.

The only significant downside in recent weeks has been the Smackdown brand. With the loss of one of its biggest stars, Lesnar, and the injury status of Kurt Angle and Big Show, the division has fallen on hard times.

Raw, however, has been a different story. Last week’s Raw main event (Chris Benoit and Edge vs. Ric Flair and Batista), a rematch from the previous week’s WWE tag-team title showdown, showcased 20 minutes of solid wrestling.

– Ric Flair took a shot at hardcore wrestling pundits in a recent interview with the United Kingdom’s Sun newspaper. In addition to ripping hardcore king Mick Foley, Flair also used the opportunity to assess NWA-TNA and one of its top performers, Raven (Scott Levy).

“Jeff Jarrett is a good performer, but some of the stuff they’ve had on it with Raven and others wasn’t enjoyable,” said Flair. “I wouldn’t pay a dollar to see Raven headline.”

“I’ve never seen a good match on NWA-TNA,” he added. “People talk about the high-flying stuff, but that’s not wrestling. That’s just raising the bar and one of the reasons the WWE has toned back down is those guys won’t last five years.

Raven took Flair’s critique in stride.

“I don’t know whether to be insulted or amused,” he responded on his Web site. “I believe he said he wouldn’t spend a dime to see me headline. Well, he wouldn’t have to. I’ll get him some comp seats. I think I’d actually be insulted if I thought he’d seen enough of my work to comment. Honestly, I doubt he’s seen much of my stuff at all. Besides, he only had a sentence or two to say about me while he eviscerated Mick Foley – wow! Last person I saw buried that deep was Una Thurman in ‘Kill Bill 2.’ But at least she crawled her way out. Oh well, it’s better than being dissed by a jobber, I guess. At least the dis came right from the best.”

Foley isn’t likely to respond as favorably to his critique.

“It is like Mick Foley – falling off a building does not make you a wrestler,” Flair told the newspaper. “Where would he be if he hadn’t fallen on a bed of thumbtacks? I get along with Mick, he’s drawn a lot of money and been very successful, but he’s not a great wrestler by any means. He’s a stuntman. He couldn’t have even got started when I started in the business.

“Could Mick wrestle for an hour? Does anyone think he could go for 60 minutes tomorrow against Chris Benoit or Eddie Guerrero? You’re kidding, he’s out of shape. I’m just telling it how I see it. They’ll replay that bump Mick took off the cage and through the table forever, but where do you go with that? He can only wrestle one style of match. Look at Steve Austin, probably the biggest star WWE has ever had, did he do any hardcore wrestling? Did Hogan, The Rock, Hunter or Shawn Michaels? No.”

The 16-time world champion became a grandfather for the first time when daughter Megan gave birth to Morgan Lee on Tuesday evening. She came in at a healthy six pounds, nine ounces and 21 inches long.

– Newest WWE phenom Shelton Benjamin recently listed Molly Holly as his “celebrity crush” on the company’s Web site.

The former WWE women’s champ was flattered when learning that Benjamin had a crush on her.

“I mean, not only is he a great wrestler, tall, dark and handsome, but he is just a wonderful person. To know … he had a crush on me, that just made my day,” responded Molly, whose celebrity crush choice was Jay of “Jay and Silent Bob” fame.

The two have a number of things in common. Both are in their mid-20s (she’s 26, he’s 27) and have made tremendous professional strides over the past year. They both have sported shaved heads, though Molly’s hair has grown back slightly since dropping a special stipulation match to Victoria at Wrestlemania.

Both performers also have ties to South Carolina. Although a native of Minnesota, Molly bought a home in West Ashley two years ago as an investment and spends several days a week in the Lowcountry while not on the road. Benjamin is a native of Orangeburg and was a football and wrestling standout at Orangeburg-Wilkinson High. Molly also was a competitive weightlifter as a teenager and the captain of her high school gymnastics team.

Then again, Molly also has a lot in common with former Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura. They’re both pro wrestling products from Minnesota with shaved domes, although Molly recently told the St. Paul Pioneer-Press that she’s not interested in politics. She also doesn’t like violence.

“The thing that I love best about our show is when I do comedy,” she said. “I’ve played a few funny characters, and that’s my favorite. I don’t really care for the violence. At all. But I do like competition. I like athletics. There are aspects of wrestling that are not only entertaining but I actually appreciate physically. But yeah, I’m not a big fan of violence.”

She told the paper that she takes precautions to make sure a Janet Jackson-like incident doesn’t happen in the ring.

“I take a lot of precautions to make sure there are no malfunctions. Sometimes, I will sew my outfit on to me. Like, if it has hooks that might come unhooked, I will sew a particular outfit of clothes. I also use double-sided tape and fabric glue. You name it, I try everything in my power to make sure that I don’t have to worry about my outfit while I’m trying to worry about winning.”

Molly’s new Sinead O’Connor look has drawn a number of admirers. Prior to leaving the company, the former “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (Steve Williams) joked that Molly looked good bald and that he only hoped she didn’t grow a goatee and steal his routine. Raw ring announcer Lilian Garcia commented that Molly had “the perfect head.”

Molly added that her parents didn’t mind that she had her head shaved, as her mother had her head shaved two years ago when she underwent chemotherapy, “so they have a good perspective on what’s important in life.”

– WWE executive Jim Ross recently addressed the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin situation.

“We had a great run with Stone Cold,” Ross said on the company’s Web site. “Stone Cold became a multi-millionaire in WWE.”

Ross said the two sides just couldn’t agree on terms of a new contract.

“I do think that somewhere down the line we’ll see Stone Cold back in the WWE. I hope that those who are advising him have enough intelligence not to put him back in the ring where he’ll be wrestling.”

Austin has been rumored to be exploring dates in Japan. Ross said it wouldn’t surprise him but pointed out, “They’re desperate. Japanese wrestling is sucking pond water.”

– Triple H is expected to miss considerable ring time during June and July while shooting a WWE-produced movie. The company has pushed back the shooting of the movie due to the recent departure of Steve Austin.

– Kurt Angle is scheduled to undergo another neck surgery with Dr. Hae-Dong Jho in Pittsburgh later this month. He is expected to miss several months of ring action. but return in time for Summer Slam. He is currently experience pain in his vertebrae and is said to have lost feeling in one of his fingers.

– Former WCW champion Diamond Dallas Page will return to the ring May 15 at a casino in Concho, Okla., where he will work for Dusty Rhodes’ Action Zone 1 promotion. It will mark DDP’s first match back since announcing his retirement in June 2002.

Page announced that he was “pulling a Terry Funk” and coming out of retirement. Page, who said he recently settled his insurance claim with Lloyd’s of London, is considering undergoing the same type of experimental neck surgery that Angle had last year.

– Calgary fans gave Lance Storm a standing ovation for his match with Steven Richards, taped for a Heat broadcast that aired on April 25, even though few knew it would be Storm’s final match.

Storm announced last week that he is retiring from active competition and taking a position as a trainer for Ohio Valley Wrestling. He wants to eventually move into a road agent job along with Arn Anderson, Dean Malenko and Dave “Fit” Finlay, who encouraged him to pursue the change.

“I have been dissatisfied with my in ring career for quite a while.” Storm said in recent commentary on his Web site. “I have been lost in the quagmire for the better part of the year, with no direction, no focus and quite frankly no forward motion. This isn’t anyone’s fault so much as it is a compilation of several factors. I have always wanted to be an important part of the product and I had come to the point where I was feeling that I could contribute more outside the ring than I have been inside it.”

In addition, four bulging discs and problems with his sciatic nerve has resulted in being unable to take some bumps, and “I am limping and in great pain after most matches, I have even had my legs go numb on me on a few occasions.”