By Mike Mooneyham

Dec. 23, 2001

The World Wrestling Federation plans to start the new year with a bang as Hunter Hearst Helmsley makes his long-awaited ring return on Jan. 7 at Raw from Madison Square Garden.

Triple H has been out of action the better part of 2001 after undergoing major knee surgery and extensive rehab, although he has taken an active role behind the scenes. His return will add yet another dimension to WWF programming, which has been boosted considerably in recent weeks by the addition of Ric Flair and the reinstatement of Jerry “The King” Lawler.

Jim Ross recently commented on the WWF’s Web site on the impact of Flair and Lawler:

[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]“It’s great to have Ric Flair back on World Wrestling Federation television. So many of our superstars are young and grew up idolizing the ‘Nature Boy.’ It’s kind of like a baseball player – a Jason Giambi – sitting around and talking hitting with a Mickey Mantle or a Pete Rose. Certainly Ric Flair is a Hall of Fame competitor and performer, and he’s really fitting in to the Federation environment extremely well. I’m sure his fans are very anxious for Ric to get more involved in the storylines. That’ll happen in time. But it’s great to have him back here in the Federation.

“The same can be said for my broadcast partner, Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler. Certainly, King’s approach to announcing is unique. I think that Jerry is extremely happy to be back in the Federation. We’ve had a lot of fun on our broadcasts since his return. It’s just hard not to have fun when you’re sitting next to King on a live television show. Having both these Hall of Famers back in our locker room is not only good for the young superstars, but certainly for the fans as well.”

In another effort to boost ratings for its Raw and Smackdown shows, the WWF is moving ahead with its plan to split into two promotions, and that angle could begin as early as the MSG Raw.

- Chris Jericho was stymied during his last world championship stint, but WWF officials appear committed to keeping the strap on him for a longer run this time while pushing him as a cocky heel in the Ric Flair mold. The jury is still out on whether the audience buys Y2J as serious world heavyweight championship material, or view him more as a comedic performer with great ring skills, similar to his former role in WCW. Jericho’s future success and title longevity will ultimately hinge on the bottom line – the ratings.

- Vince McMahon has done a nice job thus far handling Ric Flair’s return to the WWF. Too bad WCW didn’t take advantage of the many opportunities it had over the past several years. The ideal scenario (had WCW been a wiser company and survived) would have been to showcase the Nature Boy in a farewell tour spanning the entire year in all of the major cities across the country and culminating with one final showdown at Starrcade in Flair’s hometown. Such an event would have easily sold out the Charlotte Coliseum and produced tremendous pay-per-view numbers. Flair would have entered the ring to the strains of “2001” in what would surely have gone down as one of the greatest moments in the history of professional wrestling. And to give the legend his just due and make it an even more memorable occasion, Flair would have won the world heavyweight title and retired as champion. Before we finish out 2001, the final year of WCW’s existence, perhaps it bears saying one more time.

WCW blew it.

Having said that, the WWF has at its disposal the blueprint on how not to handle Ric Flair. McMahon, Ross and the other seasoned veterans in the front office are sage enough to learn from WCW’s many mistakes. One suggestion, however, would be for the WWF writers to let up a bit on some of the lamer skits, such as Flair’s backstage segments with Lance Storm that portray Flair as more of a generic commissioner, and concentrate on Flair’s impassioned and more believable promos.

The WWF crew reportedly has been very positive about having Flair on their side. Flair has been equally impressed with the reception he’s gotten thus far, and has been complimentary of the work ethic and professionalism exhibited by his WWF colleagues.

- The WWF is mourning the loss of one of its most promising developmental workers.

Russ Haas, 27, a member of the Cincinnati-based Heartland Wrestling Association, died in his sleep on Dec. 15. Haas had suffered a heart attack on Sept. 24 but had been cleared to return to the ring in January. He had been undergoing tests to determine the problem and was to have seen a cardiologist several days later as a precautionary measure.

“Russ Haas was one of our shining lights at Heartland Wrestling Association, and he was an even better human being,” Jim Ross said in a press statement. “Our deepest sympathies go out to the Haas family. Russ will truly be missed by all who knew him.”

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“Russ was a great young athlete with a growing passion for wrestling,” said HWA owner Les Thatcher. “We looked forward to working with him and his brother, Charlie, in the future. We are keenly aware that we will be missing someone very special and the staff, management, wrestlers and employees of the HWA would like to express our heartfelt condolences to Charline and the rest of the Haas family. Russ will be sorely missed.”

Russ often teamed with brother Charlie as The Haas Brothers in dark matches at WWF tapings.

- The WWF returns to the North Charleston Coliseum on Jan. 22 with a taping of its nationally televised Smackdown show. Among those scheduled to appear are Ric Flair, Vince McMahon, Steve Austin, The Rock, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle, Rob Van Dam, The Undertaker, Kane, The Dudleys, Rikishi, Lita, Edge, Christian and many others.

Tickets will go on sale at 10 a.m. Dec. 29 at the Coliseum ticket office, Ticketmaster outlets (including all Cat’s Music and Publix Grocery stores), charge by phone at (843) 554-6060 or www.ticketmaster.com. w Bobby Eaton, beset with personal problems, has been released by the WWF of his duties working with Ohio Valley Wrestling.

- Randy Orton, who has been drawing strong reviews working for Ohio Valley Wrestling, will be brought up by the WWF as soon as he recovers from a shoulder injury. Orton is the son of Cowboy Bob Orton Jr. and the grandson of ‘60s star Bob Orton Sr.

- Smackdown will air live on Jan. 3 from MCI Arena in Washington, D.C.