By Mike Mooneyham

March 6, 2005

I’m sure that most of the folks who watch pro wrestling these days recognize the fact that Batista stands on the threshold of greatness. He’s not there yet – it takes more than a few months of strong interviews and good material to claim that level of recognition. But he’s close.

WWE has been literally scouring the countryside for the next big thing. The last big thing, Brock Lesnar, left the company high and dry a year ago after it had pumped millions into grooming him into a big-money player. Bill Goldberg, who was WCW’s most valuable commodity during the late ’90s, had run out of steam by the time WWE picked him up two years ago.

Much like The Rock, third-generation performer Randy Orton seemingly had all the tools to take it to the next level – the pedigree, the look, the skill. But Orton, a natural heel, was turned much too quickly into a babyface character that fans were reluctant to accept as the future of the company. The 24-year-old may still fulfill those lofty expectations, but it will be a rebuilding process that will require patience and competence on part of the creative team.

Dave Bautista

Dave Bautista

So far Batista, a 38-year-old relative newcomer to the business with average ring skills and untested speaking ability, has the best chance to assume a spot that few in the profession ever reach. It’s that elusive level at which a performer not only rises to the top of his profession, but has the charisma, the confidence and the stroke to transcend the business. While respected ring technicians like Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero have achieved the pinnacle of wrestling success, as evidenced by their twin world title victories last year at Wrestlemania, they hardly have become household names. That has been reserved for mainstream stars such as The Rock, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan.

Batista obviously lacks the credentials of his predecessors. He hasn’t put in the ring time yet, and it’s unlikely he could hold a candle to the promo abilities of the aforementioned. And unless you’ve followed the product closely over the past year, chances are you wouldn’t have even heard of the monster known as Batista. WWE is banking on that changing over the next few months, and for the most part has done a respectable job in slowly bringing along the company’s newest pet project.

The weeks immediately preceding and following Wrestlemania are critical for Batista’s transition to the money-drawing megastar the company is pinning its hopes on. That road, however, is fraught with peril. With the Stephanie McMahon Levesque-run creative staff naturally poised to please the boss, the advantage goes to Triple H.

Batista hit a minor bump in the road with his promo last week on Raw, when he at one point talked down to the audience by reminding them of Triple H’s credentials as 10-time heavyweight champion. While not particularly damaging, it’s something one couldn’t imagine the likes of The Rock or Steve Austin doing in the same situation. Batista and the creative staff would be well advised to consider that in future high-profile promos, or else risk having the crowd turn on their new star the way they soured on Orton.

Batista also will need a formidable group of heels fed to him after his likely title win at Wrestlemania. The program with Triple H will only stretch so far; that’s when Batista faces his real test.

Batista has connected with the fans in a big way, and that’s a sizable step in his march toward superstardom. It’s time for Triple H to let Batista take the ball and run with it, and it’s up to the creative staff to make sure they protect him by not exposing his weaknesses.

Batista’s fate ultimately will be determined by the true litmus test in this business – putting backsides in the seats. So far, so good, as he has produced some of Raw’s highest ratings of the year in recent weeks, along with increased attendance at house shows. Wrestlemania also should approach record numbers.

For the time being, though, who better to put over the 6-4, 290-pound monster than the ageless Ric Flair, who surely will be on the receiving end of at least one stiff Batista bomb Monday night on Raw. As fate would have it, the Nature Boy will do the honors smack dab in the middle of Flair country, Raleigh, N.C., where he has held court over a period of four decades, from the old Dorton Arena to the new RBC Center.

Not many performers can boast they celebrated their 56th birthday in the main event at Madison Square Garden, but that’s exactly how Flair marked his day Feb. 25, teaming with Triple H against Batista and Randy Orton. In true Flair fashion, there was plenty of bloodletting, with the MSG throng responding with a thunderous ovation for the 16-time world champion.

– Longtime live-in couple Matt Hardy and Lita (Amy Dumas) have split. The break-up is not an amicable one, with word surfacing that Dumas allegedly is now involved with Edge (Adam Copeland). Hardy has removed her photos from his Web site.

“I will address this appalling situation when the time is right,” Hardy posted last week.

Hardy and Dumas had been together five years.

“WWE is like one big high school where people just don’t grow up,” lamented one observer.

– Carolina Pro Wrestling Association will hold a show Saturday night at the Music Farm, 32 Ann St., downtown Charleston. The Storm Riders will meet Xavier Night and Malachi in a tables match for the CPWA tag-team title, plus Paul Phoenix vs. Titan for the CPWA title and a four-way ladder match for the Rush title. For more information, call 532-9924.

– The lineup thus far for Wrestlemania 21 shapes up as follows: Batista vs. Triple H for the WWE world heavyweight title; John Cena vs. JBL for the WWE championship; Shawn Michaels vs. Kurt Angle; The Undertaker vs. Randy Orton; Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio; and Roddy Piper hosting Piper’s Pit with Steve Austin. Not announced yet but probable is a women’s title match between Trish Stratus and Christy Hemme, and a six-man ladder match featuring Chris Jericho.

– Wrestler-turned-evangelist Ted DiBiase, who authored “Every Man Has His Price” in 1997, is getting a tryout with WWE as a road agent and a creative consultant. DiBiase, 51, has spent the better part of the past decade speaking out against the company’s sexual content and adult themes.

– Give credit to WWE for calling an audible following the botched finish of the Chris Benoit-Muhammad Hassan match last week on Raw. The original finish called for Hassan to pin Benoit after the latter hit the ring bell, but the spot was blown when the bell was out of position as Benoit landed atop Hassan after a head butt from the top rope.

WWE officials had no other choice than to scratch the planned pin and go to a disqualification. The defeat, albeit via DQ, was Hassan’s first since his arrival, although announcer Jim Ross was quick to note that he has yet to be pinned or forced to submit. The plan had been for Hassan to go into Wrestlemania with an unblemished record, and sources have reported that incoming WWE Hall of Fame inductee Hulk Hogan is being considered as an opponent for Hassan.