WWE is deeply ensconced in modern media. Debuts are leaked in dribs and drabs to outlets like TMZ, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated for maximum PR. A McMahon sits on Donald Trump’s cabinet. The company doesn’t spring many genuine surprises on the public anymore, opting instead for a controlled burn.
Which is why Monday’s announcement that Jeff Jarrett is going into the WWE Hall of Fame’s 2018 class wasn’t just a true surprise on its own merits, but a true surprise in the context of WWE’s modern behavior. It was kept under wraps and involved a big name who, even more than The Ultimate Warrior, was never, ever supposed to come back.
The reason for that is Jeff Jarrett swindled Vince McMahon out of money. Maybe. The wrestling lore goes that Jarrett’s contract expired in late 1999, right before he was due to defend the Intercontinental championship against Chyna in a heavily hyped match. Jarrett lost the title at No Mercy, as scheduled, but he insisted on extra pay or else he’d walk, probably with the actual championship belt (showing up at a rival’s television show with a title belt that isn’t theirs is an anxiety wrestling promoters have held for generations).
McMahon, the story goes, felt extorted but paid the money, then promptly made Jarrett persona non grata in WWE. Jarrett went on to WCW, where he became a multiple-time champion in the brief two years he wrestled there, but when McMahon bought WCW, Jarrett was mentioned only once: when the WWE chairman fired him remotely on-air.
These are, again, the accepted stories of pro wrestling lore. Chyna’s biography, If They Only Knew, lays out the story, with The Death of WCW telling a similar tale. Jarrett insists there was no bad blood and that he asked only what he would’ve been owed normally from the pay-per-view. McMahon has remained silent on the specifics.
Regardless of precisely how it went down, there was clearly something poisoning the waters between the McMahons and Jarrett. One of the weirdest things about McMahon, and arguably the only admirable thing about him, is his willingness to not hold a grudge. Nearly everyone eventually comes back. Warrior. Savage. Hogan (though probably not this time, due to the publicity around his racist tirade). CM Punk will come back someday, certainly. But not Jeff Jarrett.
Invariably, the line is that Vince likes to make money, and everything dissolves under the acid of capitalist acquisition. Of course he’ll bring someone back if there’s a show to be put on and a crowd ready to pay money for tickets.
But there’s something else there if you watch McMahon interact with wrestlers in the backstage snippets we have. He seems to really like wrestlers. Not as a class of workers, which is very important to understand—if he liked them as a class, he’d pay their health insurance—but as a fratty, one-on-one collection of traveling pals and drinking buddies; he really does seem to like being around and with pro wrestlers.
So Jarrett is finally in, whatever problems with the McMahons patched up enough to allow for a place in the Hall of Fame. The question is whether he deserves it, which is a decided “probably, but...”
Jarrett’s career is something of an oddity. He’s a second-generation wrestler; his father is Jerry Jarrett, a legendary wrestling promoter who worked in the South during the Territory days. Owing something to that and a lot to training, he’s always been a solid hand in the ring, one of the wrestlers you rely on to give you a good, but not great, safe match.
This bland solidity extended to most of his persona. Jeff Jarrett mostly just existed, spending the bulk of the 1990s in an upper-midcard purgatory, never moving up or down, no matter who he was feuding with. He was the prototypical Intercontinental champion: good enough to distinguish from the bulk of the midcard, but not good enough to pin a promotion’s fortunes on.
He didn’t get a run at the top until he left WWE for WCW the final time in 1999—he’d done a short stint in WCW a few years earlier, which was mostly unremarkable. For whatever reason, he was made a frequent World champion from 2000-01. He called people “slapnuts” a lot, smashed a ton of guitars, and found his biggest WCW highlight in the bizarre laying down for Hulk Hogan in a title match, which represented the nadir of late-era WCW, even more than the notorious Finger Poke of Doom.
Jarrett spent the first two decades of this century trying to find the fleeting top-of-the-card status he enjoyed in WCW. Notably, he and his father created TNA. That promotion has had its ups and downs (mostly downs), but where Jarrett was concerned, it sometimes felt like his yearning for pro wrestling greatness drove this. He was, of course, often the champion. And why wouldn’t he be? He was the boss, of sorts, and if you can’t bring Jeff to the championship, bring the championship to Jeff. Rarely has anything in pro wrestling been as legitimately bonkers as someone creating a new promotion out of thin air, sinking hundreds of thousands into it, just to be the champion.
But a word for Jeff Jarrett, amidst all of the unspectacular solidity, the nepotism, and the involvement in possible pyramid schemes: Never has anyone been as much of a kindred spirit of Vince McMahon’s carny heart as Double J Jeff Jarrett.
Think about it: he maybe, probably stuck up the master carny himself. He latched onto Vince Russo on his way to WCW so he could finally get the title runs he felt he deserved (with attendant paydays). He founded two companies, Global Force Wrestling being the second, at least in part to get himself over. He cheated on his dying wife with Kurt Angle’s wife while he and the Angles were employed by TNA, and then turned it into a wrestling angle. He’s been a drunk, he’s been sober, he’s been born again, and he’s been a sinner.
Beneath that bland, blond exterior—and I know there are JJ fans, which is totally fine, he’s an acquired taste—beats the heart of pro wrestling. It’s weird and seedy. It’s also cool and vigorous. More than just about anyone else still active, Jeff Jarrett is pro wrestling. Certainly, he’s what pro wrestling once was, a tendril of old-school carny nonsense still worming its way into the modern form. For that, Double J deserves to be in the Hall of Fame as much as anyone.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.