Guerrero vs. Malenko: The rivalry that inspired a generation
Imagine turning on ECW television for the first time in late summer 1995. Your older brother’s friend told you about this wrestling organization that was unlike WWE or WCW; it was grittier, crazier, bloodier. You begged your mom to let you set your alarm for 2:00 a.m. on a school night so you could watch the outlaws in action. Finally, when you wipe the sleep away from your eyes, you tune in to see … Dean Malenko vs. Eddie Guerrero.
Lacking the physical presence of The British Bulldog and Vader that you’re used to, the two relatively normal looking guys with human names begin exchanging wrestling holds with utter disregard for the chairs and trashcans you’d been promised. But what begins as confusion — Do they not see the table? — and teeters on boredom eventually gives way to curiosity, then fascination. Soon, you realize you’ve never seen such grace or precision. The moves look unfamiliar, like an alien interpretation of the tried-and-true. Not only is the competition fierce, but it’s beautiful to watch. By the end, you’re entranced.
Perhaps more than any other rivalry in history, Guerrero vs. Malenko caused fans to view what transpired in the ring not as entertainment or sport, but as art.
“They physically moved in the ring differently than anybody I had ever seen in my life,” Seth Rollins said. “Their smoothness, their footwork, just the fluidity with which they wrestled, was like this beautiful, flowing water. It was so technically sound and spot-on that it basically revolutionized the way I thought about wrestling and the way I thought about wrestling as an art form.”
The legacies of WWE Hall of Famer Guerrero, who passed away in 2005, and Malenko, currently a WWE official, will be forever intertwined. They were peers, two second-generation wrestlers, born seven years apart, whose careers dovetailed at a time of creative discovery before flourishing into unlikely superstardom. They became great friends and travel buddies, and along the way modernized sports-entertainment, inspiring everyone from Daniel Bryan to Sami Zayn to CM Punk.
“There are things that changed the course of people’s ideas of what wrestling should be and in the ’90s I think between the two of them, there was a different outlook on what a wrestling match could be,” William Regal said. “It’s hard to explain, really.”
“My people wear a yarmulke, but your people wear sombreros,” Prof. Boris Malenko used to joke with Gory Guerrero in locker rooms in the Carolinas. Almost 30 years later, their youngest sons would meet for the first time while competing in a prestigious junior heavyweight tournament held by New Japan Pro Wrestling. Their in-ring chemistry was obvious from the start.
“After that, we spent pretty much our whole careers together,” Dean Malenko said.
An AAU tournament competitor since age 8, Malenko grew up in Tampa, Florida, admiring the smooth technique of Welsh wrestler Tony Charles, who competed alongside Prof. Malenko inside the Fort Hesterly Armory. The junior Malenko was well on his way to becoming the stone-faced “Man of 1,000 Holds” when he crossed paths with Guerrero in the Orient in 1993. Hailing from El Paso, Texas, Guerrero, who was also a former amateur wrestler, was entrenched in Mexico’s lucha libre tradition, though in New Japan he wrestled under the guise of Black Tiger II, a tribute to masked Englishman Mark Rocco.
Between their diverse backgrounds and influences, Malenko and Guerrero contributed to the stylistic melting pot that defined New Japan’s world-class junior heavyweight division. It’s what Malenko refers to as the “Heinz 57” style that so many fans would later associate with his series against Guerrero. “It’s a little bit of everything — it’s a little bit of European wrestling, it’s a little bit of lucha libre, it’s a little bit of catch-as-catch-can,” he explained.
Being the sons of Prof. Malenko and Gory Guerrero, respectively, did more than give Dean and Eddie MENSA-level wrestling IQs. It also ingrained in them what retired Superstar Finlay describes as the “greed of knowledge” that’s common among second- and third-generation Superstars.
“We’re greedy for the business,” said Finlay, a third-generation wrestler who competed against Guerrero and Malenko in Japan and later in WCW. “We’re greedy for that time in the ring, in front of the camera, in front of the people. It’s just a personal thing; you’re just greedy about it. They had that passion to keep it to themselves. ‘This is my game, my ball and I’m keeping it.’
“Outside the ring they were pals, but inside the ring it was a battle over who was the better one,” he continued. “They were just trying to prove to each other the knowledge they had was better than the other. It was just an amazing thing to watch.”
It was poetry in motion. Though the nuances of Malenko and Guerrero’s style were in favor in Japan, they hadn’t yet been fully embraced in the over-the-top presentation of North American wrestling by the mid-’90s, nor were lightweight wrestlers as prominent a feature of the stateside landscape as they’d later become. Malenko was leery of coming to ECW in 1994 — “I never wanted to change my style,” he said — but Paul Heyman was adamant the extreme fan base in Philadelphia would be receptive. He was right, and a short time later Guerrero was brought into the picture.
One of the amazing traits of Guerrero and Malenko’s shared career path was that it always seemed to change brands at just the right time. Each sojourn in an organization was game-raising and each jump prescient. In 1995, ECW was doing everything WWE and WCW weren’t. In some cases that meant gluing shards of glass to the Rotten brothers’ fists; in other instances, it meant exploiting a highly progressive form of wrestling.
Guerrero vs. Malenko afforded ECW the bragging rights of having the best wrestling on the face of the planet, Heyman said. Add in the fact Guerrero was an emerging star with a huge personality and Malenko was a silent but deadly assassin inside the ring, and “the clash of personalities was perfect,” he added.
From spring to late summer 1995, the Malenko-Guerrero rivalry became a top attraction for ECW, with the Superstars warring over the TV Title. In May, they whetted appetites with a half-hour time-limit draw that main evented an episode of Hardcore TV. That August, their now-famous 2-out-of-3 Falls farewell match — their last bout in ECW before leaving for WCW — consumed an entire episode and was greeted with heartfelt chants of “Please don’t go.”
“They were extremely appreciative and very respectful of both me and Eddie and what we did from a performance standpoint the whole time we were there,” Malenko said of the ECW fans. “That really helped us, because wrestling is all about feeding off the audiences and audiences feeding off the talent.”
Transitioning to WCW from ECW was riskier in some senses than arriving in ECW. The wrestlers and the politics were bigger, and the national fan base didn’t necessarily share ECW fans’ alternative tastes. Yet, WCW president Eric Bischoff maintained a connection with the New Japan Pro Wrestling office that allowed Guerrero, Malenko and a select few other wrestlers to tour Japan on their off-dates with WCW. Together, and with the support of New Japan management, Malenko and Guerrero ventured on to where “the big boys played.”
It didn’t take long for the new audience to take notice. On just the fifth episode of Nitro, Guerrero pinned Malenko, and despite producers cutting away from the match to show Hulk Hogan’s arrival backstage, the WCW fans inside the arena followed the Superstars’ every move.
“Sometimes, you know how good certain people are and then you actually get to see them have the kind of matches you know they can have in front of an audience that isn’t used to seeing that,” Regal observed. “Then, in a few minutes the audience is on the edge of their seats, just through the sheer craftsmanship of their abilities. Eddie and Dean were able to captivate people’s attention through their skills, which is something to behold as far as I’m concerned.”
Again, the timing of their move was impeccable, as WCW was about to undergo a period of unprecedented growth. An integral part of the company’s late ’90s success was its cruiserweight division, which came about within a year of Malenko and Guerrero’s arrival. Much like New Japan’s junior heavyweights, the WCW cruiserweight roster featured an international assortment of talent.
As early centerpieces of the division, Malenko and Guerrero gave new hope to a future generation of Superstars.
“As a kid I was very small and though I wasn’t a psychic, I knew I probably wasn’t going to sprout to 7-feet tall,” Tyson Kidd said. “Seeing those guys on that stage showed that there was room for that style and they were the ones breaking the ground. So if they failed, then I wouldn’t be here. They were in WCW before Rey Mysterio, so maybe Rey Mysterio wouldn’t have been there without them. Their success really opened those doors.”
Now with a national audience, the matches between Malenko and Guerrero grew only more mesmerizing. While cruiserweights never received main-event recognition in the New World Order-dominated WCW, they did garner critical acclaim. After capturing numerous Cruiserweight Titles, Malenko and Guerrero fought over WCW’s United States Title. The championship changed, but the artistic output didn’t.
Malenko said he and Guerrero were constantly looking to outdo themselves.
“How do you top yourselves? That’s where the creative part comes in,” he said. “Eddie had a trust in me and I trusted him to have the right plan for a particular night. I knew exactly every step he would take and vice versa, and it was fun because it wasn’t like a job. It was just going out there and enjoying the fruits of your labor with somebody who has the same passion and thought process as you.”
Not enough can be said for the important dichotomy created by simultaneously being in-ring enemies and out-of-ring friends. It cultivated brilliance on the canvas, as well as industry-shifting moves, like Guerrero and Malenko’s eventual jump to WWE in 2000. As part of The Radicalz faction, The Iceman and Latino Heat registered arguably the most significant talent acquisitions of the fast-and-furious Monday Night War.
“There was a real kindred spirit between the two of them,” Chris Jericho said. “I think the fact they’re both second-generation wrestlers made a big difference. They knew what it’s like to grow up in the business, knew what it’s like to grow up with your dad as a hated villain, probably getting razzed in school and stuff like that. They had a lot in common in the ring and out, and that does make a big difference.”
“That’s the thing,” explained Big Show, who debuted in WCW around the time Malenko and Guerrero joined the company. “A lot of times when you get great rivalries it’s because the two guys are great friends and they push each other every night to go out and have the best match on the card. When you look at Eddie and Dean’s rivalry back then, just the way things were executed, it was poetry in motion.”
The lyricism of Guerrero vs. Malenko was not lost on later generations. Daniel Bryan has frequently credited their series as profoundly influencing his career. On the WWE documentary “ CM Punk: Best in the World,” Punk talked about emulating them during his formative years. NXT Superstar Sami Zayn has said Malenko and Guerrero’s conjoined career trajectories provided a blueprint for his own journey to WWE.
For talent that battled the stigma of being “undersized” and feared stateside success was unattainable, traveling abroad to sharpen one’s artisanal wit became an attractive way of becoming undeniably great.
“When we were young, we all looked up to the Jerichos and the Guerreros and the Malenkos and all these world-traveled guys who started where they were from and then made a name in Europe, then went to Mexico, then went to Japan, then went to ECW, then WCW and then they ended their careers here in WWE,” Zayn told WWE.com. “Those are the guys that I looked at like, ‘That’s what I want to be.’ Now, we’re that generation — we’re the Guerreros, we’re the Malenkos. It’s not a coincidence at all.”
Students of the game can recite Guerrero vs. Malenko matches hold for hold. Tyson Kidd, for example, recalled a specific handspring reversal The Man of 1,000 Holds used against Guerrero. “It’s something I only really saw him do against Eddie, and it’s something I’ve done in a bunch of my matches,” he said.
“It’s a neat thing,” Malenko said. “A lot of what I used to do in the ring you still see talent doing today, and it’s flattering to know what you did didn’t go unnoticed. Our business evolves all the time. What’s old is new again. I used to emulate Tony Charles. Guys turn around and emulate what Eddie and I did, and that process will continue on until this business doesn’t exist.”
Malenko called it a “heck of a nice pat on the back” to know some mutated form of the Guerrero-Malenko strain vicariously lives on and entertains people today. He still watches the ECW farewell match on certain days of the year when he’s reminded of his former travel partner.
“Eddie was not just a friend of mine, but he was just like a brother to me,” Malenko said. “I try to watch that match as much as I can and it brings back memories of a really dear friend and a guy who helped launch my career.”
Though their influence is visible today, their peers couldn’t help but express amazement at the body of work produced by Malenko and Guerrero. Regal called them “proper pros’ pros.” Jericho challenged everyone to watch a Guerrero vs. Malenko match from their peak.
“Don’t just talk about it like it’s this legendary thing,” he said. “Go back and watch it. It will blow your [freaking] mind.”
For those who witnessed Guerrero vs. Malenko, however, there is no doubting their artistry.
“In everybody’s minds and in everybody’s hearts,” Finlay said, “we see those two as masters of this game.”