By Mike Mooneyham

April 4, 2004

It was nearly three years ago when I talked to WWE executive Jim Ross about Shelton Benjamin. At the time I couldn’t quite understand why Benjamin was into his second year languishing in the company’s developmental Ohio Valley Wrestling camp.

In a May 2001 column, I wrote that “Shelton Benjamin may be one of the best wrestlers you’ve never seen.”

Ross, who has a natural eye for talent, agreed that the Orangeburg native had all the tools to be a major star. It was August 2002 before he was finally elevated to the main roster and an eventual spot on Smackdown.

Initially used as a backdrop for Kurt Angle and as fodder for fellow University of Minnesota wrestling sensation Brock Lesnar, with whom he teamed at Ohio Valley Wrestling and coached at UM, Benjamin enjoyed moderate success as part of Team Angle with former Seton Hall standout Charlie Haas. And while the two enjoyed among the most critically acclaimed matches on the Smackdown roster while trading tag-team belts with Los Guerreros and Eddie Guerrero and Tajiri, it wasn’t exactly the high-powered push that would garner Benjamin much notice beyond the mid-card level.

Shelton Benjamin

Shelton Benjamin

All that changed last Monday night. One week after being traded to the Raw roster as part of Vince McMahon’s draft lottery, Benjamin established himself as the breakout star he had seemed destined to become. Much like The Rock, Steve Austin and other WWE phenoms who seized opportunities in the past, Benjamin made the best of his chance last week on Raw and became the company’s latest breakout player.

If Benjamin was the star, the much-maligned Triple H was the star-maker. Hunter Hearst Helmsley accomplished in one evening what hadn’t been done in nearly two years on Smackdown. He made Shelton Benjamin a bona fide superstar. And if Triple H’s clean job to Chris Benoit at Wrestlemania didn’t serve to hush the critics, his loss to Benjamin last week surely had to have done the trick.

While it takes two to tango, in the wrestling business it often takes a seasoned announcer to complete the deal. Jim Ross once again proved why he’s the MVP of wrestling broadcasters by delivering an impassioned call of the match and giving the fans a reason to care. The wrestling business has always been about issues and emotions, and no one drives that home better than Ross.

One of the chief criticisms of WWE over the past several years has been its inability to create new stars. Pending an effective follow-up to Monday night, the company looks to have created one in Benjamin, who took the big step that many on the roster dream about taking but never quite do. Last week’s Raw was Benjamin’s coming out party, and there was an entire locker room which joined in the celebration. The show as a whole drew a strong 4.3 rating, while the overrun quarter featuring the Triple H-Benjamin match posted a very impressive 4.8.

Again, much of the credit goes to Triple H, who seems to have lost some of the excess bulk that hindered his ring work the past couple of years. His series of bouts with Benoit and Shawn Michaels have been among his best in recent years, and Monday night’s match with Benjamin showed that few are better than WWE’s “franchise player” in telling a story within the context of a wrestling match.

Those who know Triple H don’t question his passion for the business. The 34-year-old, whose real name is Paul Levesque, has always maintained that wrestling has been burned into him, a hobby that he enjoys doing every single day. The wrestlers he has admired the most reflect his appreciation for the history of the profession. Ric Flair is his favorite on a short list that includes names like Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, wrestlers he highly respected for their ability to have intense matches on a regular basis.

“I learned this business the old school way,” Helmsley said in a 2000 interview, crediting his ex-trainer, Killer Kowalski, and the older generation for paving the road for today’s stars. “I very strongly believe that it’s the best way – not just high spots and what gets the biggest pop or how to be flashy or do a four-minute match. It’s how to work, how to think and the psychology of the business. I was taught that from day one.”

Often unfairly criticized due to his McMahon family ties and perceived political maneuvering, his ascension in the wrestling ranks wasn’t exactly a fluke. Underutilized in WCW and initially stuck in a mid-card role as an aristocratic blueblood in WWE, Helmsley was far from an overnight sensation and paid his share of dues and time in the doghouse during his first few years with the company. When the proverbial ball was finally handed to him, he took it and ran. It’s the same advice he has offered to aspiring WWE ladder-climbers.

Much like his idol Flair, who catapulted Sting (Steve Borden) to national prominence in a memorable Clash of the Champions match in 1988, “The Game” may have given Shelton Benjamin his ticket to stardom. The proof, though, is in the pudding, and the positions Benjamin and Benoit hold six months from now will reveal if the company has actually moved toward a team-player and fan-responsive approach.

“Hunter has been doing a great job lately,” said former Dory Funk Jr., who held the NWA world title from 1969-73. “His matches with Shawn (Michaels) and Shelton Benjamin have been excellent. Shelton’s going to do a great job for them. They’re (WWE) finally coming around more to wrestling. They had gotten far away from it a few years ago, but they’re working their way back around. You have to tell that story in the ring, and you have to include the fans.”

“That was an awesome match,” said Jack Brisco, who held the NWA world title on two occasions from 1973-75. “Watching that match and listening to Jim Ross reminded me of when he and Gordon (Solie) were together on TBS. Gordon helped make a lot of stars.”

– “Stone Cold” Steve Austin is again making headlines outside the ring. His most recent domestic spat has put the Texas Rattlesnake back under the media microscope. Among the tabloids preparing stories on Austin is The National Enquirer, and the renewed public scrutiny is expected to temporarily curtail Austin’s beer-swilling activity on camera.

Austin, whose real name is Steve Williams, allegedly assaulted his girlfriend during a recent dispute at this Texas home, according to a San Antonio Police Department report. Tess Broussard, 37, told officers that she met with Austin to discuss the couple’s troubled year-long relationship. But Austin became irritable and yelled at Broussard, telling her he was “tired of talking about this …” and demanding that she “shut up,” according to the report.

Broussard claimed that Austin grabbed her, and she began struggling with the wrestler, who eventually threw her to the ground. She landed on her hands and knees, and later told officers she had injured her right hand. Broussard provided a written statement to police, who photographed her injuries and are now investigating the incident.

Austin appeared as scheduled last weekend for an autograph signing in New Jersey and Monday night on Raw.

– Adrian Lewis of Carolina Pro Wrestling will hold a tryout for his wrestling school at 2 p.m. April 17 at the New Omni Health & Fitness Center, 1401 Sam Rittenberg Blvd., West Ashley. For more information, call Tank at 532-9924.

– President George Bush is having lunch Monday in Charlotte with an elite list that includes “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, Teresa Earnhardt (Dale’s widow) and car owner Rick Hendick. Footage may air Monday night on Raw from Houston.

– The next Hogan in line for a major push isn’t Hulkster, but instead his daughter.

Brooke Hogan (Bollea), a 16-year-old singer and pianist, is being labeled by some music insiders as the next Britney Spears. The New York Post reported last week that she has a VH1 special airing this summer, and Backstreet Boys impressario Lou Pearlman’s Trans-Continental/I-4 Records is releasing her debut album in the fall.

The blonde, 5-foot-10 ninth-grader, who has a single out called “Everything to Me” and has opened for Hilary Duff, is preparing for her first tour. Her dad has been influential in opening doors for her in the entertainment industry.

“I got a problem,” Hogan told the New York Daily News last week. “She’s 15 and beautiful … The way she runs around during the day is perfect. But when you put stage makeup on these young kids, she’s perceived as being older, so we have these 22-year-old guys calling.

“I tell them, ‘She’s not old enough to date yet. Yes, you’re 22, yes, you have a nice Corvette, but she’s 15! There’s nothing to talk about … She’ll be old enough to date when she’s 35.”

Hogan, who is positioning himself to be his daughter’s full-time handler, believes she’s destined for stardom.

“When you see her on that stage, I’ve never seen anybody that steps up to the plate like my daughter.”

– Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson a favorable review for his performance in “Walking Tall,” a remake of the 1970s movies based on the life of the late Tennessee sheriff Bufford Pusser.

“The Rock comes out of the movie more or less intact, career-wise,” wrote Ebert. “I’ve felt from the beginning that he had the makings of a movie star, and I still think so; he has a kind of inner quiet that allows him to inhabit preposterous scenes without being overwhelmed by them. His acting style is flat and uninflected, authoritative without pushing it; he’s a little like John Wayne that way.

“Also like Wayne, he’s a big, physically intimidating man who is able to suggest a certain gentleness; he’s not inflamed, not looking for a fight, not shoving people around, but simply trying to right wrongs. I seriously doubt that he could play a convincing villain. Not even with a name tag.”

Johnson has completed filming a supporting part in “Be Cool,” a sequel to the 1995 smash “Get Shorty.” He will then start work on “Spy Hunter,” an adaptation of the classic 1980s arcade game. Johnson revealed on the Howard Stern show Friday that he wasn’t sure what his wrestling future might hold after his WWE contact expires this year. He also told Stern that he now owns the rights to the name “The Rock” and that he was surprised that Vince McMahon agreed to sign over the rights to the name.

– Bret Hart is suing insurers Lloyd’s of London for $2.2 million in damages the wrestler says the company owes him for a career-ending ring injury. Hart is claiming more than $1.2 million in unpaid disability benefits plus $1 million more in punitive damages.

Hart made an insurance claim Hart to Lloyd’s after he suffered a concussion in a Dec. 19, 1999, WCW match in Baltimore. According to a statement of claim, Hart received a “severe and violent” mule-kick to the head by Bill Goldberg, which eventually forced the Canadian star into retirement.

Hart apparently bears Goldberg no ill will, concluding the kick was accidental and, instead, blamed wrestling promoters for his injury by forcing inexperienced wrestlers, like Goldberg, to fight before they’re ready.

Hart has been examined by doctors for the insurance company but has not received any compensation from them for the injury. Lloyd’s has maintained it is not denying Hart’s claim and the company remains committed to the highest of ethical and business standards.

– Former WCW official Gary Juster promoted the highest-drawing American independent wrestling show of the year last weekend at Gwinnett Arena in Atlanta. The Lucha Libre event drew an estimated 6,000 fans. A previous Lucha event promoted by Juster in the same building several months ago drew an estimated crowd of 4,000.

El Hijo Del Santo defeated La Parka by disqualification in the main event of the March 28 show.

– Former Southern mat star and current WWE trainer Dr. Tom Prichard took umbrage with recent comments made by Kevin Nash concerning the company’s developmental camp at Ohio Valley Wrestling.

“The problem with our developmental system is the trainers there have never drawn any money? So let me get this straight. Jim Cornette never drew or was around anybody who has drawn money in this business? Danny Davis has never drawn or been around anybody who has drawn money in this business? Wow. Then I look at who’s saying it and the picture becomes clearer. They know everything about nothing! They had a short run on top and killed their company or territory an have moved on to other adventures and have suddenly become ‘experts’ in what’s wrong with the way new talent is being taught in Louisville.”

– John “Bradshaw” Layfield, who teamed with Simmons as The Acolyte Protection Agency, has been positioned for a major push on the Smackdown roster now that the tired APA gimmick has been laid to rest. Hopefully the suit and cowboy hat can make fans forget about the trash-talking Texan’s former character.

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

– Bill Goldberg recently told an Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, radio station that his WWE contract expired March 14 and that he was “done with the soap opera called the WWE.” Goldberg said WWE was “like being in a circus” and that it wasn’t an ideal situation working for Vince McMahon and WWE at this time in his life, adding that he didn’t need to be around “all that stuff.”

– Triple H said in an interview in the latest issue of Muscle & Fitness Magazine that his quadriceps will never be 100 percent due to the injury he suffered several years ago, and that he was going to enjoy every moment since he didn’t know how much longer he could wrestle.

– Sting (Steve Borden) is in Nashville filming a movie about his life. Sting plays himself in the film, appropriately titled “Sting: The Movie,” which is expected to be distributed through religious outlets.

Donny Fallgatter, a Nashville fitness manager, portrays Sting in his younger years. Former TNA Red Shirt Security member Ryan Wilson will play a young Ultimate Warrior.

Sting’s longtime manager, Kathy King of Franklin, Tenn., and her husband, George King, a Christian music industry veteran, found Sting’s story compelling enough to be made into a film.

– The Cauliflower Alley Club will hold its annual blowout April 17-19 in Las Vegas. Charlie Thesz, Lou’s widow, is scheduled to present Antonio Inoki with the Lou Thesz Memorial Award.

– The Mid-Atlantic Legends Convention will hold a Legends Fanfest Aug. 14-15 in Fayetteville, N.C., at the Clarion Hotel. A tribute to Starrcade is scheduled Nov. 26-28 at the University Place Hilton in Charlotte.

The plan is to reunite early Starrcade participants Ric Flair, Harley Race, Roddy Piper, Greg Valentine, Ricky Steamboat, Tully Blanchard, Magnum T.A., J.J. Dillon, The Rock ‘N Roll Express, Dusty Rhodes, Baby Doll, Ronnie Garvin, Jimmy Valiant, Ivan and Nikita Koloff, Jimmy Garvin and Precious, Ole and Arn Anderson, and Jack and Jerry Brisco over the Thanksgiving weekend.

Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at mooneyham@postandcourier.com. He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment,” which was recently released in paperback. For wrestling updates during the week, call The Post and Courier Info Line at 937-6000, ext. 3090.