#AhmedJohnsonWeek: Better Know a Wrestler

Better Know Ahmed JohnsonWelcome to our very first (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week. As the name implies, every week we will be producing a series of pieces on a random (or not so random) performer who has either touched us in a special (no, not that type) way or is especially relevant at the time for one reason or the other.

Beginning with this, #AhmedJohnsonWeek, we will start every series off by making the WotW a Wrestler You (Should) Probably Know Better. Then we give you some Essential Viewing from their oeuvre, before dropping something good on y’all for Wednesday, like a Series of If…Whats. On Thursday, we’ll make our Amazon.com-on-steroids dreams come true with something we’re calling “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…“, and then we’ll finish everything off with a Difference of Opinion wherein two of us will discuss the merits of the performer for your entertainment.

When we came up with the idea of presenting a wrestler every week from every angle we could think of, Ahmed Johnson was (for obvious website name-related reasons) the only person we ever had in mind as the inaugural Wrestler of the Week. At least on a personal level, the Pearl River Powerhouse was always more than just a misheard catchphrase, bright red trunks and a walking lesson on the dangers of overeating and steroid use.

For people who grew up watching the WWF, giant men bursting at the seams with muscle (and steroids, naturally) were the main attraction. The only three performers without veins coming out of their veins were Jake Roberts, Roddy Pipper and the Guy Who Carried Hulk Hogan’s Bags, and we were trained to think “intense guy with epic look who also acted strong” was the Platonic ideal of what wrestling should be.

However, after Hulk Hogan — who for all his faults had enough charisma to (mostly) fill the Silverdome — a long string of Warriors and Warlords paraded through the WWF with their tassels and S&M gear trying to recapture the magic of Hulkamania. They achieved varying levels of success, but a lack of charisma for Warlord and discernible in-ring talent (along with a rather severe case of the crazies) for Warrior would ultimately doom them to short-lived runs of any significance, with Warlord’s excitement deficiency relegating him to tag team work and mid-card jobbing for much of his time in the WWF.

That’s because while being able to put on an armbar correctly is a basic building block for success in professional wrestling, what really matters is the ability to interest the crowd in what you are doing. This seems obvious, and it should be. The goal of a professional wrestler is to articulate to the crowd the intensity of what’s going on in the ring through his actions. When you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter how physically impressive you are, you become Nathan Jones: another name in a long line who never quite caught on or made anybody care about what you were doing.

Though too much on the other side isn’t any better, as was the case with Warrior. His complete inability to do almost anything correctly in the ring was nearly as big an impediment to his success to as keeping the fans interested without an ounce of natural charisma was to Warlord. Because charisma is perhaps the most important characteristic that all successful professional wrestlers share (other than timing), Warrior reached much greater heights than Warlord, despite a relative lack of polish in the ring.

But, telling a story through action only goes so far if you can’t speak the very basic language in the first place. Wrestling is just a series of tropes built on top of each other to tell a story. For anyone that’s ever watched Azarenka play Sharapova, grunting and over-the-top gesturing can only last for so long before people start to notice your inability to stop making unforced errors or get any winners off. It’s easy to forget that for all the rope shakes, Warrior’s finish wasn’t a Gorilla Press Slam followed by the Big Splash because it looked cool, but because it seemed like the best way to make him look strong and agile without requiring him to really be either. His “grammar” was terrible, constantly flubbing his moves, working in the wrong direction from the rest of the match and never really knowing his own strength, managing to both be not strong enough and too powerful for nearly half his moves to work in any match. So, when the time came to sell a WrestleMania by himself, it was clear he wasn’t up to the task despite filling the SkyDome the year before. For all the excitement he generated initially, it was the same exact story fans had been seeing for the better part of a year and they wanted something new.

After the steroid trials, and following Hulk Hogan’s DISASTROUS exit from stage left after WM IX/King of the Ring 1993, Vince McMahon seemed to realize that smaller workers who put an emphasis on storytelling in the ring would work if they had even a modicum of charisma. And thus the era of skinny wrestlers my dad thinks he could beat (that’s not a knock against them as much as how hilarious my dad’s perception of wrestling is) holding the belt as the WWF worked through its most fallow period, dropping in the ratings despite the talent at the top of the card with superstars like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon and Diesel putting on quality matches.

And while there were other reasons the product was down, like the insanity of the Day Job era and characters like Bastion Booger, this lack of interest was largely a function of the previous generation’s successes and excesses. Having trained fans for years that wrestlers should look like Davey Boy Smith or Don “The Rock” Muraco AT WORST, while the best of them looked like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, when “short skinny guys” Hart and Michaels were rolling around in the ring with the likes of Hakushi, something had to give.

That something was Ahmed Johnson.

***

After years of guys who looked like members of my family becoming champions, WWF fans were clearly ready for the type of big-bodied bruisers with charisma coming out of their pores (who couldn’t wrestle a lick) that the company had ridden to unprecedented success just a decade before. Which is why, after training for two years, Ahmed Johnson thrust into a series of serious feuds with wily veterans like Jeff Jarrett and Golddust, pushing Johnson rapidly to the top of the card despite a complete lack of experience and a less-than-stellar (read: terrible) understanding of the basics between the ropes.

That didn’t stop fans like me for loving him, though. He, for the first time in a generation (or at least what felt like a generation) gave us exactly what we wanted from a WWF Superstar. He was big, intense and charismatic. Although he couldn’t speak clearly into a microphone to save his life, he could say dramatic things and make the audience feel something. Whether or not that was homophobia is a whole different question, but wrestling fans in the 90’s weren’t ready to ask those questions and the lack of moral ambiguity  — Golddust was bad because he was a jerk, who also happened to be androgynous and enjoyed inciting “gay panic”, Ahmed was good because the WWF said so — answered them for us.

Ahmed Johnson spoke to us on a visceral level, through gestures, taunts and a certain level of bordering-on-reckless velocity at which he hit his spots. That he was not always (okay, more often than not) in the right spot, again, didn’t matter to us. He was there, he was ours, and he was going to beat up people we didn’t like because they had done wrong by him, and since he was us, us.

And while hilarious amounts of weight gain would ultimately be his downfall, his balls-to-the-walls style, done with a footballer’s intensity and the desperation of an impoverished youth got people behind in exactly the way Vince McMahon thought they would. He was, in fact, on his way to a WWF title match, and on the precipice of a truly remarkable career with his status as the first African-American Intercontinental Champion before injuries derailed everything. But, as was always the case with Ahmed, these were largely his fault. From cutting his hand during a spot he’d done in literally every single one of his matches to taking dangerous moves incorrectly or giving those same moves even more recklessly, he showed the danger of giving guys so green such power in the ring.

Which is why, following his injuries and his discarded push to the WWF title picture he essentially fell off the face of the earth. Other workers became tired of working with him, for fear of both their safety and his, and Vince McMahon realized that his Platonic ideal was a pipe dream, as the modern wrestling world had shifted from body slams and clotheslines to suplex and chair shots that a big burly guy who had trouble with the craft would never be safe enough to work with no matter how much charisma they had.

Guys that would come after him, most notably Batista, began going through much more intense training before being given the chance and the idea of pushing them in the ring before they were ready was seen — in large part — as an absolute no-no. While never expected to work at the level of their smaller counterparts and still injury-prone because human bodies aren’t totally supposed to built that way, these men are now expected to be safe with themselves (and even more so) their opponents.

Which is why, Ultimately (pun intended), along with helping to reinvigorate the idea of the “perfect look” McMahon Main Evetner, this will be a his legacy: revamping the requirements for a main event bruiser. Also, I mean, have you seen the Pearl River Plunge? That thing was the tits.

And because we are Juice Make Sugar, we leave you with this, the reason for our name and our favorite wrestling related things on the internet, Fun With Ahmed: