Last week, WWE announced that the D-Generation X stable would be the headline inductees at the 2019 WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony over WrestleMania weekend in April. This week, The Honky Tonk Man was added to the lineup of honorees. If the WWE Hall of Fame is going to exist, it should have all those wrestlers in it, but as usual with WWE it’s not quite as simple as that. What makes these selections particularly interesting is that the DX group includes the posthumous induction of Chyna, who had been persona non grata in the promotion for years, even after her death. Honky Tonk Man, for his part, had long been a vocal critic of the company, although relations have improved between the two in recent years.
This calculation regarding how much longstanding institutional grudges are worth has become something of a pattern where the Hall is concerned, particularly in terms of finding a suitable “main eventer” to sell tickets each year. That has often meant that former stars, previously on bad terms with WWE, smoothed over the relationship before signing on for an induction. Often, a licensee, usually 2K Sports, will facilitate the deal after getting approval to license that person for the video game. Pro wrestling is a business, always. But it’s personal, too.
But what exactly does all of this mean to anyone? For fans, especially the element of the fandom that is into WWE exclusively and on a super hardcore level, the induction is a special occasion to celebrate the careers of a number of past stars and listen to them tell cool stories. On the wrestler side, it’s harder to say, mostly because it seems like everyone has different reasons for doing it. Induction clearly meant a lot to Ric Flair, for instance, while it’s unclear if the honor mattered more to inductees like Kurt Angle and Jeff Jarrett than the opportunity to return to the WWE fold after leaving on bad terms years earlier.
WWE’s side of things is easier to understand, at least on the face of it. When the promotion looks to make amends, it’s so they can have marketable attractions for the live event first and foremost, which has become a particular issue in the last several years. This goes back to 2013, when WrestleMania hit the New York City market for the first time in nine years and, not coincidentally, the first time since ‘Mania had become exclusively a stadium-size event. Looking for a big hook, Paul “Triple H” Levesque attempted to woo Bruno Sammartino, WWE’s all-time most beloved wrestler and its signature star throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. At the time, Bruno had been on bad terms with the company for a quarter century after leaving his job as an announcer in early 1988, and had been vocal about both the product becoming more circus-like and the promotion’s over-reliance on steroid-enhanced physiques. According to Dave Meltzer’s reporting in the February 11, 2013 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, though, that changed after months of conversations with Levesque. In those talks, Vince McMahon’s son-in-law turned lieutenant listened intently to Bruno airing his grievances—all of them, going back to being screwed out of his promised percentage of the gate on major shows in the ‘70s, which included working on a broken neck to save the 1976 Shea Stadium card built around a closed circuit broadcast of the [in]famous Muhammad Ali-Antonio Inoki fight.
While not all of Sammartino’s complaints were about money, a notable number of them were. He asked for what Meltzer termed “a price that he thought would be turned down...in line with what one of the company’s top stars would earn for a WrestleMania payoff.” And while it took some work, McMahon signed off on it and Sammartino got his payday at last. There were other factors, too, with the most significant of those being that Dr. Joseph Maroon, the physician who oversees the WWE Talent Wellness Program that includes drug testing, also happened to be the neurosurgeon who put Sammartino’s spine back together. Keeping Bruno out of a wheelchair and saving him from a life of severe pain earned Maroon the wrestler’s trust, and between that, seeing fewer blatant steroid monsters on TV at the time, and the payoff, Sammartino was willing to make the deal. (It’s worth noting that it also didn’t hurt that Levesque was trained by Sammartino’s friend, the late Killer Kowalski, and was one of the pallbearers at his funeral.)
After that, the biggest omission in the WWE Hall was gone, but Sammartino’s induction invited a different problem. The most enduring attraction in the history of Madison Square Garden had to be inducted there, not at the Izod Center/Meadowlands Arena, which was where WWE’s other non-WrestleMania events took place that weekend. And so the much more expensive MSG was booked, and to justify that, WWE secured the most loaded Hall of Fame lineup in its history: Sammartino, ’90s star Mick “Mankind” Foley, Sammartino’s successor Bob Backlund, 2000s women’s star Trish Stratus, and the company’s second-ever black world champion, Booker T. There was also a celebrity inductee in Donald Trump, but...well, all told, it was a lovely night.
A lovely night, but maybe too lovely. In going for the gusto with that Hall of Fame class, WWE robbed itself of several years’ worth of headliners and co-headliners, and in the years since the headliners have largely been exiled stars who might not have been expected to be inducted at all until Bruno set off a chain reaction and Vince McMahon discovered the joy of making amends. These are names you know: The Ultimate Warrior in 2014, Randy Savage (posthumously) in 2015, Sting (who had not strictly been on bad terms, but also was not in the company at all until 18 months earlier) in 2016, Kurt Angle in 2017, and Bill Goldberg (see Sting, but having repaired a damaged relationship 18 months earlier instead of no previous relationship) in 2018, plus Jeff Jarrett on Goldberg’s “undercard.”
During her lifetime, Chyna seemed like unlikeliest inductees. In 1997, when Levesque was still just a wrestler, he suggested to Vince McMahon that Chyna be brought in to portray his bodyguard, and the two soon began a romantic relationship. She swiftly became a unique, larger than life star as the first woman to consistently wrestle men in WWE. As a performer, she was probably at her best and most entertaining as the silent muscle that grounded the sophomoric DX group, which included her, Triple H, and various combinations of Shawn Michaels, X-Pac, Road Dogg, and Billy Gunn. She was an instantly recognizable part of the promotion’s lurid heyday, but her WWE career ended in very public, dramatic, and especially pro wrestling-y way in 2001.
At the end of 1999, Chyna’s onscreen relationship with Triple H was completely severed after a shocking twist in which Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter, turned heel to align with Triple H, whom she had “married.” Everything seemed perfectly fine and professional at first, but as 2000 dragged on, things changed. Triple H and Stephanie started to behave like a real couple onscreen—touchy-feely in a non-performative way that didn’t quite feel related to their characters. At the time time—in a total fluke that I know sounds like a “my uncle works at Nintendo” story but which I swear is true—this writer’s father had a coworker who lived in the same apartment building as Stephanie, and relayed that he had seen Triple H around lately. At some point—when exactly is not super clear—the relationship between Levesque and Stephanie McMahon turned real. Sadly, it seemed as if Chyna was the last to know. In 2001, contract negotiations broke down, and she was gone. Levesque has been an executive vice president at WWE since 2013.
Levesque’s stated reason for Chyna not being in the Hall, which he offered a year before her death, was a vague statement that was, at least broadly, clearly about her career in porn after leaving pro wrestling. Even then, though, the statement is open to interpretation, and is potentially less judgmental way than it seems on the surface. Was Levesque referring to Chyna having done some porn scenes full stop, or was he referring to “my eight year old kid” seeing his ex doing porn scenes in which she had sex with characters satirizing himself, his wife, and his father-in-law? It’s not a great statement either way, and it still has not been elaborated upon.
Days later, Levesque and WWE were given more reason to tread lightly: Chyna alleged for the first time that Levesque hit her during an argument about Stephanie that led to the end of their relationship, which he quickly denied. (Her credibility took a hit a few months later when she added provably false allegations that Sean “X-Pac” Waltman sold what was marketed as their sex tape to a porn distributor without her consent.) Chyna died in 2016, at just 46 years of age; she is and has long been remembered much more as an iconic pro wrestler than she is as a woman who did some porn or dealt with mental illness. Her induction is overdue in a bunch of ways, but she’s still not being inducted on her own, at least not yet.
The reasoning behind Honky Tonk Man’s induction and the reason for its delay is a lot more cut and dry. It had clearly been a possibility for a long time, as Honky Tonk Man had come back into the fold to induct Koko B. Ware a decade ago, but the road back was not exactly a smooth one. In 2013, Honky Tonk Man was offered a spot and turned it down because his existing bookings with Wizard World would conflict with a new WWE contract. This all came years after he had ripped the company for the nature of its “nostalgia agreements” (colloquially “legends contracts”) given to many former stars, taking particular issue with how they only offered a $10,000 advance against future royalties and a small appearance fee for autograph signings. There was a question of whether he’d ever get in, but getting there was clearly a matter of making a mutually agreeable business deal and not about any sense of being honored at the induction. No one should expect him to be sentimental at April’s ceremony.
Then again, this is the WWE Hall of Fame, and there’s only so much to be sentimental about there. The WWE Hall of Fame is and has always been a cynical branding and marketing exercise, even by the standards of the promotion. Most recently, the ceremony has been a chance for the promotion’s most powerful cynics to use the persona of the truly, outwardly awful man that was The Ultimate Warrior to tell familiar feel-good stories. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun with the Hall of Fame, but it only means as much as you want it to. Honky Tonk Man has clearly made his peace with all that. It’s a shame that Chyna never got that chance.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.