Inside Pulse 11 Celebrating 11 years of pop culture

The Moss Covered, Three Handled Family Gredunza

Fixing Wrestling

Last week, I talked about how, although it seems that the mainstream history of wrestling ended in 1999, it was important to remember that there have been several instances of every year worth studying since then. I’m not suggesting that the last 8 years have been just as good in terms of quality of product, but, rather, that there are just as many things to discuss. That isn’t to say that wrestling is worse, either. If one were to go back to watch a live show from the “attitude” era, one would find a heavy foray of botched angles, the wrong wrestler winning, and, most importantly, a severe dip in the quality of wrestling. Still, it’s no secret that fewer people are watching, respect for the industry is at an all-time low, and wrestlers seem to be dropping like flies. What happened, and how can we fix it?

There have been thousands of articles throughout the years on what went wrong, who to blame, and how to fix our precious “sport.” Fingers mostly point to corruption and power-mongering in the locker room, the inability of management to push new talent and give fans “what they want,” and the absolute incapability to lose the stigma that wrestling is for backyard hicks who don’t have jobs. All of these things may have happened, and all of them may be true, but unfortunately, these aren’t the reasons. If they were, then interest in wrestling would have piqued at the various points in the last 8 years where HHH was out of action, new champions were being crowned, and stable, respectable wrestling was given to us instead of garbage hardcore stuff. But it hasn’t.

I’m going to introduce an idea that undermines just about every previous article I’ve read on the matter of how to “fix” the wrestling industry. I’ve put quotation marks around “fix” because there is a very prominent theory that wrestling isn’t broken at all, and no changes need to be made. This theory is based on the idea that while wrestling has always been exactly the same, the invested and vocal audience has changed. This can largely be blamed on the internet. There was a huge influx of people writing about wrestling on the internet in 1999, and with this came a desire to be famous, cause controversy, and build a loyal audience. Everyone who has ever written about professional wrestling in an online forum started out as a fan. As they got older, their fandom dwindled. This may have been caused by the shift in quality in 2001, but it could also be the simple matter of slowly growing beyond WWE’s demographic. For whatever reason, these writers would often become bitter, and when new fans went online to find out more about wrestling, they would face this wall of bitter, angry smarks. Some fans liked what they heard. Some fans were turned off entirely. The more interesting of the pack decided to take up writing a wrestling column and, after years of reading the know-it-all complainers, took up their style, thinking that this was how a wrestling column was written. It is because of this problem that we–the people on the internet–can’t help but view WWE through stained glass. Put simply, wrestling hasn’t changed; it’s still for kids and teenagers. It’s really about us not being able to let go.

However, I do think that there has been a very clear downturn in the programming given to us by the pro wrestling industry since 1999, and I’d like to explain why (this, by the way, does not discount the fact that some bitter writers do need to let go. You’re no longer entertaining, and you’re ruining it for the rest of us. Please stop). First, though, it’s important to dismantle the three typical excuses mentioned above.

First: The idea that corruption in the locker room has plagued the wrestling world is a constant argument that fans have made. The rise of HHH’s political power has been parallel to the downward spiral of the WWE, and many point to this as the perfect formula for disaster. As well, there are constant claims that Jeff Jarrett’s stranglehold on the top spot in TNA for it’s first four years crippled the organization before it even had a chance. Both of these wrestlers have squashed other talent, and arguably held their spot for too long. The one thing people have to understand about top brass talent who also hold political sway in a company is that this is nothing new. It is not only common for this to happen; it is, in fact, inevitable. Every single promotion that has ever existed had to deal with this problem. Whether it be the owner of the company himself–like Verne Gagne’s vice-grip on his own company’s title for the better bits of twenty years–or a celebrity-like superstar treating the promotion like a forgettable stomping ground–such as Hollywood Hogan in WCW–there isn’t a single promotion that didn’t have a politically permanent character on top. It has always happened, and it always will, and there isn’t a single thing any one of us can do about it, so we might as well focus on what can be changed instead.

Secondly: The most common of any complaint I’ve ever seen is that WWE and TNA (and just about everybody else) should be pushing new wrestlers. People are sick of the current crop, so they should get rid of them and begin anew. I couldn’t believe how many articles I read in 2002 on why WWE should completely reset itself for a new fan-base. This is a complaint mostly made by the fan who grew up thinking that any one company was the only thing around. If you look at the WWE roster in 1988, it’s almost completely different than it is in 1993, 1998, and 2003. the active roster in those years hold very few similarities. However, the wrestlers in 1988 didn’t retire; for the most part, they continued wrestling elsewhere, in places the average fan couldn’t or wouldn’t follow them. While the Mexican and Japanese circuits are still fairly closed off to casual viewing (where guys like Brock Lesner and X-Pac still tread), fans know that when a current wrestler leaves Raw, he’s almost definitely going to either Smackdown, ECW, or TNA, and since this is easy enough to follow, fans don’t get a break from any particular wrestler. As well, character changes and turns happen with less regularity now, so the wrestler you liked in WWE is still pretty much the same one in TNA and vice versa.

It is easy to forget that wrestling isn’t a sport. Because of this, we tend to believe that a wrestlers’ career is similar to those who play football or fight in the UFC. It’s also easy to forget just how long some people have been wrestling, while just as easy to forget how new others really are. HHH is really only going into his late teens as a wrestler. The Undertaker hasn’t even hit his twentieth year yet. Kurt Angle has only been wrestling professionally for seven years, but it’s impossible to picture a wrestling world without him. Yes, the “attitude” era accelerated story arcs, title changes, and changes in hero/villain allegiances, but that doesn’t mean these people still don’t need to continue to make a living.

Lastly, the argument the quality of the actual wrestling has gone down is simply absurd. The best-of tape for the last seven years from any promotion has absolutely no competition in the annals of history. Pro wrestling has never been more refined, more athletic, more psychologically-based, and more visually spectacular. The influx of amateur wrestlers like Kurt Angle and Brock Lesner changed what people expect from a main-event level wrestling match. The influx of the X-division permanently altered what fans expect from a cruiser-weight contest. Finally, the elevation of Benoit, Jericho, Mysterio, and Guerrero showed that Japanese and Mexican styles could headline in America. “Wrestling” in and of itself has only gotten better.

So, now that I’ve dealt with what isn’t wrong, let’s do a quick roundup of what is actually wrong. Many of these will be self explanatory, so I won’t bore you with details.

First off, it doesn’t matter how great a wrestling match is, it is absolutely worthless if it was fought over nothing. I’m going to paraphrase the Dynamite Kid here: “You act like the guy you fight is nobody. You throw him around like he’s nobody. You pin him and celebrate around him like he’s a nobody. So, who did you beat? Nobody.” This is an important mantra, but with a few slight changes. Here’s my take. “You treat the guy across from you as nobody, and he’s doing the same to you. Neither of you believe in anything. The stage you stand on means nothing. The crowd around you means nothing. The title around your waist means nothing. You pin the guy after treating him like nothing, and what have you, your opponent, and your fan base become? Nothing.” I remember watching Brock Lesner beat Kurt Angle in the main event of Wrestlemania 19 and wondering, exactly, what purpose it achieved. Yes, it was a technically impressive wrestling match (one of the best at the time), but what story did it tell? What did each character represent? Did one triumph over the other in a blaze of heroism and grace? Was anything actually said in that match?

Wrestling is done on a canvas. This is not a cheap metaphorical coincidence. The story painted on that canvas directly influences the size, scope, and class of the audience. In wrestling, everything can be charged with meaning. Every physical apparatus can mean something. In 1996, WCW made the rafters meaningful by placing Sting up there. That’s an example of thinking of the space as a real stage as opposed to a sporting field, where the stage became the arena, and vice versa. I remember as a kid wondering why other baseball teams wouldn’t run in and cost their rival a match. To me, sports have limits, while wrestling can go in any direction. Since 1999, the space, the wrestlers, the stories, and the fans have felt little in terms of new meaning and significance. Quite simply, creativity in and around the stage of pro wrestling has been in decline.

Secondly, it is incredibly easy to point at times in the last 20 years when wrestling was really great, and there is an exceptional reason as to why that is that everyone seems to gloss over. There is one thing that every hot point in wrestling has had; a sense of focus. Let’s take an easy example: WCW in 1996. The second the New World Order came into existence, it dominated the frame of WCW. One thing that really made me curious at this time was the fact that wrestlers who had no involvement in the NWO story (and some that would never, either) were mentioning them in their interviews. The NWO would be talked about constantly by the announcers. Lance Storm recently made a suggestion to TNA to fire their announcers because they talked up the main event throughout the whole show. The fact of the matter is, the commentary that underlies everything on the show is meant to tell just as much of a story as the wrestling itself. Having announcers talk about stories throughout the show, and having characters that aren’t involved in feuds and stories together create a sense of a singular story. This is a good thing, because it makes viewers feel like they’re watching one show instead of six. The lack of focus in the last few years has been a big problem. The last time WWE told a real story was with Guerrero and Mysterio in 2005, and the last time they told one where the audience was situated to feel real emotion was with Kurt Angle and Stephanie McMahon in 2000. The last time they had a macro story that encompassed the entire show was in mid-1999 with the corporation/ministry story.

Thirdly, wrestling in America is plagued by a red-state-filled stereotype. Wrestling is viewed as a republican, redneck sport that shares time with Larry the Cable Guy and his ilk. With the decline of republican politics and the embarrassment of red-state logic that is destroying American PR around the world, the last thing any company in the entertainment industry should do is keep ties with the right. Pandering to the republican fan-base leads to uncomfortable limits in programming, reliance on nostalgia acts like Stone Cold Steve Austin, and crippling acts of all-too-familiar story structures.

Fourth, finally, and most importantly, is that we haven’t heard a single iota of god honest truth come out of the company since November 2001. I played the clip of Paul Heyman letting loose on Vince McMahon the Thursday before Survivor Series. There hasn’t been one instance in the last 6 years that came close to the brutal, painful, and uncomfortable honesty that we witnessed that night. That sort of crisp truth was a reliable drug in the late 90s. Scripts were improvised to the point where it was difficult for wrestlers to do anything but dig deep into personal issues. Wrestlers would consistently wink at the cameras, act natural, and stand up for what they believed in, comical or not. It’s sad to think that the last real statement about standing up for one’s belief the Right to Censor. Perhaps that’s fitting. Wrestling hasn’t been about the truth in a long time, and because of that, it has lost the faith of the audience and the zeitgeist it once held.

So, there’s four solid and fairly unique explanations as to why wrestling is no longer viewed as something worth watching. I’m going to sum up by suggesting four of my own Lance Storm-esque suggestions to professional wrestling companies in the hopes they turn it around (if they feel they even need to. God knows they don’t need my money).

First, play with the space you’re given. Accept the fact that everyone knows it’s staged; you can stop pretending that it isn’t, and in every single way. Play with your characters; pair them up with strange people, and allow characters to bloom naturally. Allow your wrestlers a chance to do something silly or different. Accept that some wrestlers are going to be on the bottom of the card and that some are going to be on top. Griping about placement is like bitching that your favorite actor is the bit part instead of the lead. Realize that each wrestler has a career of 15-30 years, and begin planning on a grander scale.

Secondly, remember that each wrestling show is between one and three hours long. To keep a viewer interested in that kind of time frame, there has to be an idea that the entire show is important and not just the main event. This is another issue that can be blamed on Vegas sports like boxing. Remember that there are at least four stories to tell at all times: the one between the two wrestlers (micro), the one between the two announcers (micro), the one that encompasses the entire show (macro, and largely missing since 2001) and the one that encompasses the world (macro. This is the kind of thing that ties wrestling to popular culture, either by having special guests, spots on other shows, or any kind of tie to the “real world.” These can also be as simple as a Matt fact that says “Matt is dominant at putt-putt golf”). This kind of philosophy is what will ultimately bring the end of half-baked stories and the seemingly meaningless first 80% of a show. Bringing back Jericho won’t save WWE; bringing back Jericho with a macro story that will surround the brand for two years, however, just might.

Third, go green. Fact of the matter is, WWE (and I’m sure to some people, TNA) is a major role model for kids. And yet, like an evangelist church, the motif of professional wrestling is that of excess (they even named a show “excess” for a little while). This cannot continue in a world that is coming to grips with its own pollutive tendencies. This is where we need to remember that wrestlers can very easy be translated into rock stars. If U2 and Coldplay can have carbon neutral concerts, then so can WWE. Even if one doesn’t believe in the whole global warming thing (ie–even if you’re an idiot) you can’t forget how great the PR has been for people who have jumped on the “save the world” campaign. Pro wrestling is under intensive scrutiny lately for various foibles. Becoming a greener product (and promoting oneself as such) would help to reverse that. This will also make watching the product a little less embarrassing for those of us who aren’t moronic rednecks who voted twice for Bush.

Fourth, put “the greatest wrestlers are those who play themselves with the volume turned up to 11” on a plaque and make it the company policy. There is a very definite reason that Austin, Hogan, Rock, Foley, Michaels, Hart, Flair, Cena, and HHH have had a stranglehold on the main event scene in the last 3 decades. Every single one of them was playing an enhanced version of their own personalities. In short, they were pretty much telling the truth. Now, this isn’t meant to contradict my first point of playing with characters. That was a point about plot, whereas this is about truth. You can place HHH in various scenarios that stretch his character without actually changing his essence.

As well, there isn’t a single audience in the world who loves to hear characters break down and become “real” more than north American wrestling fans. Wink at the audience every now and then. Let them know that you’re letting them in on the joke, and that you appreciate them being there. There isn’t a single theatre in the world that, after the curtain drops, doesn’t let their actors come out and bow and thank the crowd for coming. This is vitally important.

Kyle David Paul is the author of the short story collection Everything We Haven’t Lost and is working on both a novel entitled No Chinook, which will be released in the fall of 2007, and an essay collection on professional wrestling and popular culture. The articles found on Inside Pulse are previews of what will be included in the work.

The moss covered, three-handled family gredunza is the third of Chris Jericho’s 1004 moves, preceeded by an armdrag and armbar, and to be followed by an armbar and the Saskatchewan spinning nerve hold. It is a reference to the Cat in the Hat’s TV special.

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