I’ll never forget the night Scott Hall lost to a nobody. It was May 17, 1993, and Razor—Scott Hall’s iconic stage name—was in the ring against “the Kid,” whose real name was Sean Waltman. In those days, Raw was a squash match playground; sure, there were high-profile contests, but seeing a star like Razor work over a skinny upstart like the Kid was commonplace. It was expected. The presumption of victory was written all over Razor’s smirking face, it was clear in the relative apathy of the crowd, and it was inked in the playbook of the WWF creative team—which is why they were able to pull off a shocking reversal that night at WWF Monday Night Raw. In a flash, the Kid dodged a Razor charge, climbed to the top rope, and hit a moonsault that knocked Razor to the mat just long enough for the famous 1-2-3.
In that moment, Hall made Waltman a star, but more importantly, he made himself one. By that point, Razor Ramon was established in the WWF hierarchy due to his feuds with “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Bret Hart, but beneath the oozing machismo there was a sort of forced one-dimensionality to him, and just watching him flounce to the ring you could tell that there was a multidimensional human being just waiting to burst out. The sneer, the toothpick, the 8 o’clock shadow—it was one of the most iconic looks in wrestling history, but it was all surface. The shock, the absolute incomprehension on Razor’s face after the Kid pinned him—that was the first moment of revelation.
The feud with the 1-2-3 Kid that followed would see Razor come to respect his new rival and serve as a catalyst for Razor’s face turn. It was a long time coming. To that point, the WWF’s list of heels who fans actually rooted for against the expectations of the script was vanishingly short, especially when compared to today’s archetype-ambivalent standards. Jake Roberts, Randy Savage, maybe Roddy Piper and Mr. Perfect—that’s it. But the fans loved Razor.
The connection between Razor and the fans was central to the portrayal: the look directly into the camera when he tossed the toothpick, the eye contact before his fallaway slam, the thing he did when he jumped up and down sort of jabbing both his thumbs at himself, looking right dead at us watching at home. Where the previous generation worked the crowd—think Hulk Hogan’s post-match pose-down, Ric Flair’s ambient “WOOO!”—Hall worked the camera. He innately knew that the most direct line into the soul of the fan was through the TV screen, and he attacked it. “Say hello to the bad guy,” he would say, injecting a much needed jab of self-awareness into the proceedings and simultaneously ingratiating himself, even as a villain, into the hearts of viewers. That connection is why a guy with a knockoff Scarface gimmick could transcend the form. He was a human bursting out of a pro wrestler shell and somehow emerging … bigger? Stronger? Definitely cooler.
That match against 1-2-3 Kid is also significant because Hall elevated himself by elevating someone else. It’s a thing too many others in his position would have refused to do, and it was the rubric of his broader career. It’s a minor surprise that a guy who looked like Hall found himself jobbing for much of the first eight years of his career. (He had a few moments on the cusp: Verne Gagne tabbed him as his Hulk Hogan replacement in the AWA, but Hall took off for WCW, which tried to position him as an alligator wrestling upstart.) He had been a jobber, and so he knew the value of a win and the deeper value of a loss. He could make a loss into something amazing. He was willing to take one for the team, most famously as the more frequently pinned half of his team with fellow New World Order founder Kevin Nash. But the generosity ran deeper: When Hall was recruited away from the WWF to WCW, he recruited Nash to come with him, knowing full well that he’d end up being cast as the second banana to his 6-foot-10 pal.
When Scott Hall came through the crowd in his first appearance in 1996 at WCW, in that moment there was no bigger star in the wrestling world, and yet he was the third banana in the incipient nWo behind Nash and Hogan. The nWo, the defining story line of modern pro wrestling, would not have existed without Hall and it wouldn’t have worked without him either. He made the nWo—and wrestling moreover—cool, and believable, and bizarrely aspirational. Everyone wanted to be Razor Ramon, and later Scott Hall. He sublimated himself to the project of changing the face of the industry. And hey, somebody had to wrestle and occasionally lose. But even losses couldn’t define Hall. (Maybe it was all that machismo.) Being the guy who would take the pin made the failures immaterial, or at least inconsequential. He didn’t lose because he couldn’t win; he lost because nobody else could lose. There was victory in defeat, a virtue seemingly only Hall amongst his cronies could see.
Of course, the defeats mounted outside the ring and derailed his career. In a business full of people “battling personal demons,” it’s too easy to be inured to the diagnosis. For most of Scott Hall’s public life, fans—his adoring fans—were apt to watch him flail and say, “Oh well, that’s Scott,” without ever asking who Scott actually was.
When Hall debuted in the WWF as Razor Ramon, he came prepackaged with a full backstory: He was a Cuban American entrenched in the Miami drug trade. Sure, it was a backstory mostly borrowed from Scarface, but it was a useful framing technique upon which to hang a pro wrestling character. When he appeared in WCW four years later, it was without explanation. He alluded to the fact that he was there to start a war, and the fans filled in the blanks: He was an invader from the WWF sent to take down the competition. This is important, because backstory helps us understand the present, and when backstory isn’t there our minds create it wholesale—that’s how we make sense of life. That’s how we process what we’re experiencing.
We wrestling fans knew Scott Hall almost intimately, or we thought we did, but we never knew the backstory. And it’s as important in real life—even more so—than it is in fiction. In 1983, shortly before his pro wrestling career began, Scott Hall killed a man outside a bar in Orlando, Florida. He shot him in the head with the man’s own gun. According to Hall it was in self-defense. Years later, he was diagnosed with PTSD. No one knew this until 2011, when Hall told the world about it in an ESPN interview. That’s the backstory that informs the rest of Hall’s career—the dependency issues, the unreliability, the on-screen downward spiral spread across numerous companies. It’s meaningless without it.
There’s also the backstory to the wrestling career within the wrestling career. When Razor Ramon emerged into our lives, he came as a fully realized creation and fully formed pro wrestler. He had earned his spot by climbing slowly through the ranks, from enhancement talent to midcarder and finally into the spotlight, and had the preternatural depth of someone who had experienced … a lot. To talk about what Hall sacrificed—for wrestling and the life outside it—as meaningful as it is, doesn’t do justice to what he was inside the squared circle. He was an absolute icon, from the moment he came on screen to the moment he left. He could wrestle, he could talk, he could just stand there and be the most electric thing on the screen. He would have been a star in any era without changing a thing.
At a basic level, pro wrestling is about effortlessness, the art of making staged violence look smooth and natural. The ability to move with utter confidence through an utter sham. Nobody made it look easier than Scott Hall, from the moment he came out through the curtain with his hands extended, palms down on either side of himself, tiptoeing down the aisle and into the ring, grin on his face, toothpick in his mouth … to the moment he lifted his opponent high above his head, backward, into the Razor’s Edge, one of the most stunning and perilous moves in wrestling—a move Hall made look both devastating and easy.
To make it look that easy is to make it look real, and Hall was, if nothing else, real. He made Razor Ramon so real we forgot the inherent silliness of the whole thing almost immediately. Then he left that behind and became himself—by name anyway—in founding the nWo. And then his real-life issues swallowed his ring career, and we watched that story line unfold in the realest way possible. That gets us more or less to where we are today, saying goodbye to an aspirational villain. It’s a heartbreaking story, but it’s heartbreaking precisely because Hall gave so much to everyone he worked with, and everyone who watched him. We lost out on his prime in like 10 different ways, yet he was a legend anyway.
In his induction speech into the WWE Hall of Fame, Hall famously ended with this line: “Hard work pays off, dreams come true. Bad times don’t last, but bad guys do.” Hall’s death isn’t easy, not for the generation of fans and wrestlers he inspired, but there’s something real in the outpouring of respect, love, and reminiscence of the joy he brought us all. Something important. The man could make a loss into something amazing.