This past Sunday night at WWE’s Hell in a Cell saw the return of John Cena to the active WWE roster. He was last seen on WWE TV on Raw the night after losing the WWE title to Daniel Bryan. During that appearance, Cena announced he was leaving to repair a torn tricep (the legitimate reason for the title change). Cena, whether by his own choice or at the behest of WWE, returned to action several months before he was due to return with a shot at Alberto Del Rio’s World Heavyweight Championship. With the legitimate injury being worked into the match, Cena pulled off the comeback and defeated Del Rio for the WHC. His celebration was set for the opening segment the next night on Raw where he declared once again “the Champ is here.” However the Intellectual Savior of the Masses, Damien Sandow, with a combination of smarts and vicious opportunism attacks John Cena. He then cashes in his Money in the Bank briefcase for an impromptu title match. One can imagine the late, great Gorilla Monsoon verbally admonishing Sandow for doing a “Pearl Harbor job” on Cena.
So why the obvious rehashing of a recent angle? The match itself, with the smug and haughty heel versus the superhero, reminded me of another WWE TV match from October 1989 that had a smug and haughty heel (with a penchant for rhyme) versus the superhero. Then-WWF champion Hulk Hogan wrestled The Genius on NBC’s Saturday Night Main Event. Both matches, in their own respective ways, were fun exercises in presenting brains versus brawn. And both matches had different end results for the characters involved. For my first entry, I would like to take a moment to look at both of these matches because while the combatants may have similarities, the actual matches themselves couldn’t be more different.
Damien Sandow won the briefcase for a WHC title shot back in July at the Money In the Bank PPV. He then went on to feud with former tag partner Cody Rhodes, who pinned Sandow the next month at Summerslam. Sandow remained in the mid-card while Cody was bumped up to a sub-angle to the Daniel Bryan vs. The Authority story. One could be forgiven for forgetting that Sandow had the briefcase. However, the Raw after Hell in a Cell saw Sandow seize his opportunity and go after a face that maybe returned too soon from injury. The match itself was a terrific physical display that kept you on the edge of your seat. Both wrestlers did their very best to tell a story and try to put a different twist on a familiar plot. Cena did some excellent Bret Hart-worthy selling in the match and Sandow played the role of the sadistic intellect to the hilt. Sandow came close many times to either pinning or making Cena tap out. In the end, however, it was Cena who prevailed by eventually pinning Sandow. Yes, the champ won again. But make no mistake about it – he went through an unlikely hell to get there.
No one, however, could accuse the Genius for being a dominant competitor. Lanny Poffo had been in the WWE since 1985, at the behest of his older brother Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Since the roster was stacked with strong babyfaces, “Leaping” Lanny Poffo became the lower-card baby face who served as enhancement talent for the heels that were line for the eventual main event run. With his humorous poems directed toward his in-ring foes, Poffo became an entertaining opening act for the bigger names in the main event like Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage. All of that changed in 1989 when, once again at Savage’s suggestion, Lanny Poffo was repackaged as a heel. Donning a graduation gown, a mortar board cap, and then directing his poetic ire towards the baby faces; Poffo became The Genius. It wasn’t an entirely new idea – both Randy Savage (in his early days) and their father Angelo Poffo had both worked similar gimmicks. Damien Sandow’s character is a deliberate homage to the Genius. It was when slated as the manager of “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig that the Genius acquired his greatest notoriety, and that came because of the match with Hogan.
Despite having somewhat greater kayfabe fortunes, you wonder why the Genius was granted a title match. After all, he didn’t score any huge victories since his repackaging. But nevertheless, the fans were treated to a fun match. Poffo used classic old-school heel work (stalling, braggadocio, and incredible selling) and Hogan played the BabyFace foil very well. In fact, the match looks like it could have been from 1969 instead of 1989. The Hulkster looks to be having things his way when Mr. Perfect comes down to the ring to distract the champ. Genius takes advantage of the distraction and then scores a near-fall after hitting Hogan with the (new to WWE audiences) moonsault. After kicking out and Hulking up, however, Perfect comes back into play by striking Hogan outside the ring with the WWE title belt. Hogan is incapacitated enough for the Genius to score a quick count-out victory. The heels celebrate by stealing and famously vandalizing the WWE title belt. The aftermath? Hogan would eventually get his retribution. He and the Ultimate Warrior would defeat Perfect and the Genius on Saturday Night Main Event. Hogan would also defeat the two heels in handicap matches at WWE house shows that winter. Perfect and the Genius would be split up with the latter eventually managing the Beverly Brothers and the former being teamed up with managing legend Bobby Heenan for two memorable runs with the Intercontinental Title.
Yet, which heel came out better? Modern fans feel that since Damien Sandow couldn’t beat an injured John Cena (especially after having cheap shot-ed him before the match) that Sandow was effectively buried. Not necessarily so. He methodically and ruthlessly worked on Cena’s recovered left arm throughout the match. Both men had the live audience convinced that Sandow would actually score the upset victory. Conversely, no one (in kayfabe) thought the Genius stood a chance against Hogan or even had a chance of the upset. The Genius’ count out win seems to have been a plot device to further the Hogan-Perfect feud and it gave the fans a reason to be emotionally invested in it. Indeed, this feud and the Hogan/Warrior vs Perfect/Genius tag match set the stage for the real big money Hogan match: the match against the Warrior at Wrestlemania 6. Going back to the present, Sandow’s future depends on how WWE books him going forward and whether or not they capitalize on his brush with the current face of the WWE. In kayfabe, Sandow did everything a Money in the Bank winner is supposed to do and despite losing still put up a hellacious fight. It would, however, be a shame to waste Sandow’s potential – a great wrestling mind is a terrible thing to waste.