#AhmedJohnsonWeek: Essential Viewing

Essential Viewing Ahmed Johnson

It’s Day Two of #AhmedJohnsonWeek, our celebration of all things Pearl River, and the first installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. We started off with A Wrestler You Should Probably Know Better, and now we’ll give you the finer points of the Tony Norris oeuvre with this Essential Viewing. After spending some time tomorrow asking A Series of If…Whats, we’ll make our Amazon.com-on-steroids dreams come true with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…” before finishing everything off this Friday with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a Legal-Rights-to-the-Letter-T-fueled civil war.)

For all his faults, a young, healthy Ahmed Johnson was wholly capable of having a good match when everything clicked. With his NFL look and athleticism, he was a force to be reckoned with in the WWF from late 1995 to early 1998. Generally well taken care of by his opponents in spite of his shortcomings as a worker, he was instantly inserted into feuds with well-established heels, ultimately failing the grace part of the “under fire” test. Johnson had his moments of looking like a star, but was pushed beyond the level of what his training had prepared him for, and more often than not seemed completely lost in the WWF ring.

You know all the things “a natural” does? Ahmed Johnson didn’t. He was as smooth as an unsanded board, and his movements in the ring made it seem like he was playing some sport other than wrestling. He took an Irish whip like the ropes were a blocking sled and his opponent an assistant coach on a high school backfield. He did, however, have a small arsenal of powerhouse moves that he executed extremely well — his spinebuster and Pearl River Plunge finisher would make Scott Steiner blush — and, most importantly, “the look” that Vince McMahon covets in a top star. Ahmed stood somewhere between The Ultimate Warrior and Bill Goldberg on the roll call of action figure wrestlers from the 90s who couldn’t wrestle, but had the right mix of charisma, physicality, and intensity to be in the spotlight.

His match with Jeff Jarrett at the 1996 Royal Rumble stands as a testament to what Ahmed could do on a good night with the right opponent. The cowardly, stalling heel Jarrett brought out the best in the lumbering, but athletic Johnson. (Side Note: I defy you to find a single properly-executed Irish Whip in this match.)

Give Ahmed credit: he sells effectively throughout Jarrett’s long period of offense, and he clearly wants to please the crowd, going so far as to employ an Undertaker-esque suicide dive. It ends with him landing directly onto his head. Of course, our hero doesn’t sell the mistake a bit, and Mr. Perfect does his best on commentary to emphasize the impressive, athletic part of the dive and not the embarrassing, painful one. The apparently-impervious-to-head-trauma Johnson then climbs to top rope, pulls a spot out of the 2 Cold Scorpio playbook and lands on the mat in a manner that “injures his leg” (a staple of all mid-90s Jeff Jarrett matches) and also looks like it could injure the heck out of your leg. The finish is pure Jarrett silliness (and resulted in a concussion for Ahmed), but Johnson comes away from this match looking like a capable storyteller and a “close-enough-to-fake-it” athletic big man.

After his coming out party against Jarrett, Ahmed entered into a feud with Jim Cornette’s minions, particularly obnoxious heels “Slammy Award Winner” Owen Hart and “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith. Owen and Davey were at the very top of the midcard at this time, as Camp Cornette was a more-important-than-people-remember heel faction, and Owen had just blown off his feud with top star Shawn Michaels at In Your House 6: Rage in the Cage. This match from Superstars shows the dedication WWF had to getting over both Ahmed and supposed-coup acquisition Mark Mero. Bulldog seemed the perfect foil for Johnson, as Davey Boy matched Ahmed’s ungodly look and could still take an incredible bump at the correct moment.

Sure, there are a lot of house show tricks pulled out of the bag in this short match, but Ahmed looks every bit capable of taking on the gigantic Bulldog, who acts completely terrified of him, and the wily Hart, who can only look up at dismay as Ahmed stomps him out while inexplicably spinning around in circles. Johnson was never the best worker, but he knew what intimidating face to make and hand-picked, big-bumping opponents could make him look very good.

In spite of other men’s willingness to run into him and fall down, there were roadblocks that stood in Ahmed’s path. When cutting a promo, for instance, Johnson spoke with conviction and energy, but was at times unintelligible. The result was something that fans felt more than understood. This local ad spot for an MSG Supershow match reveals what a confusing mess Ahmed could make of even the most natural feud:

Johnson’s promo is built around telling The British Bulldog that there is no way the Bulldog will win in Madison Square Garden because it is Ahmed’s house (point of clarification: Johnson was born in Indiana and billed from Mississippi, so this statement makes no sense with even the most liberal interpretation of geography). He also brings in some borderline-racist comments about how long Davey Boy would last in the South Bronx and calls Bulldog “the stupidest man ever to come from Great Britain.” In spite of his promo’s nonsensical content and tough-to-follow diction, Ahmed’s delivery hits all the right inflections, and somehow manages to emote hitting all the right notes while in fact being completely incomprehensible. Try this: turn off the part of your brain that deciphers language and watch that promo again — super good, right?

While long-form promos weren’t Ahmed’s forte, he had a presence that could say a great deal with very few words. Johnson’s pre-match promo with Goldust at the 1996 King of the Ring was delivered in a focused, intense, and concise way that made him look like a man on a mission. Ahmed was embroiled in what had become a very personal feud with the Intercontinental Champion Goldust, who along with Brian Pillman set the standard for “shocking” on WWF television in 1996. Babyface Ahmed was displeased with Goldie’s homoerotic hijinks (this was the Attitude Era — let’s remember it in all its glory) and reached deep down to deliver this intense-as-anything promo to J.R.

Although Johnson didn’t have the longest or most successful career in the WWF, he did achieve something that most wrestlers would give an eye (or at least several teeth) for: a clean pin on The Rock. It’s mind-boggling to watch this match from Monday Night Raw in September of 1997 and hear the way Vince McMahon gushes over the intensity and abilities of Ahmed while saying almost nothing to put over The Rock.

Unfortunately, while this match shows how high up on the wrestling totem pole Ahmed Johnson got, it also puts the brightest spotlight right on his faults. He throws barrages of fake-looking punches, slices open his hand taking the steps (a bump in almost every single one of his matches), and looks generally ready to burst out of his skin throughout. Everything on Ahmed’s side of the match looks awkwardly timed, peppered throughout with him checking over his shoulder to find the ropes every single time before culminating in the ugliest Magistral Cradle to ever make WWF TV. At one point, heel truth-teller Jerry Lawler states matter-of-factly, “He’s injury-prone — face it!” Ahmed got pretty high on the card, but this match tells you all you need to know about why he never rose to the top position that Vince McMahon had envisioned for him (which, eventually wound up going to his opponent, The Rock).

Ahmed Johnson embodies many of the most frequently made mistakes of the WWE during his era. Presented as a top star when he was way too green to hold up his end of the bargain, propped up at the expense of more talented, deserving stars who was pushed and promoted because he “looked the part” before anybody decided how he was actually going to deliver. A Greek god look with cold, steely intensity comparable, he could have been something really big if he received proper training and creative planning. Superstars like Goldberg and Batista — whose super slow burn push seemed to have been a response to lessons the WWE learned promoting Johnson — made it to the very top of the business with essentially the same skillset. From an objective standpoint, his career was a failure: he never improved at his craft and he never reached the heights he was supposed to. But there is a sincerity of effort and an earnest terribleness that makes Ahmed Johnson one of the most intriguing fallen stars of the Attitude Era and, surely, Essential Viewing.

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