Heroes And Villains 06.17.04: Making The Most Of It


Last time, I endeavored to introduce you to the concept of the character in wrestling. I discussed how this marked a departure from gimmicks and personalities, and how this was a critical response to the destruction of the territorial system and eventually kayfabe. I then went out on a limb to say that most of the wrestling audience today embraced these changes, and that characters were now a fundamental aspect of the business.

Of course, not just any wrestler can play any character, however; an effective character will play to the wrestler’s strengths. But we can’t talk about matching character to worker until we talk about the basic skills which determine how well we respond to any given wrestler. As best I can break it down, there are five basic categories of things that we, the audience, look for in a wrestler: appearance, talking skills, charisma, athleticism, and ring skills. These are all categories for which there’s a certain conventional internet wisdom, which I think actually distorts reality. So I’ve also included my thoughts.

(Brief note: I don’t mean to say this is the end-all and be-all for judging wrestling talent—there are doubtless many other systems for evaluating wrestling talent. To give full credit where it’s due, mine is influenced by whichever build of EWR was available when I was playing it instead of working on my MA thesis back in 2002. So if you disagree, blame Adam Ryland.)

1. Appearance.
Conventional wisdom: A wrestler with a good “look” is tall, muscular, and has a thick head of hair. Lex Lugar is the tried and true example of a wrestler who is strong in this category.
My thoughts: That’s too limiting. Appearance isn’t just about having lucky genes or access to powerful steroids—it’s about crafting a visual tag that we as fans will remember. Many fans think that Jake Roberts had a great look—not because he was the biggest or the most muscular, but because he had serial killer eyes which suggested that this was a man who was capable of doing some very bad things (turns out that’s true, but the primary victim is sadly Jake himself). On a similar note, in the 90s Raven perfected a look (vaguely countercultural) which many others have since imitated. But at the time, Raven’s then-unique (in more ways than one, as no one in “real life” looked like him) appearance helped make him memorable.

2. Talking skills.
Conventional wisdom: This category refers to how a wrestler’s spoken words can convince you to order a PPV, or go to a house show. Or, in other words, deliver a “money promo.”
My thoughts: I’m not so interested in how many people pay to see a wrestler perform. What I am interested in is how a wrestler’s speaking abilities can make fans care about his character. All that I mean by talking skills is how much we as fans enjoy hearing someone talk; thus, by my definition, Kevin Nash and Cactus Jack had equally good talking skills, even though Nash was never as much of a “money promo” guy as Foley. Plus, when he was focused/motivated, Nash’s talking helped establish his character. When he wasn’t (which was the usual state of affairs after the whole finger poke incident), at least he was funny (except, as Hyatte has duly noted, during that last WWE run).

3. Charisma.
Conventional wisdom: In essence, a measure of how well a wrestler can create an emotional connection with the audience. Charismatic heels will make audiences boo, while charismatic faces will make them cheer.
My thoughts: That’s about right. Note that a wrestler can be charismatic without being a great talker—see, for instance, Ricky Steamboat.

4. Athleticism.
Conventional wisdom: Athleticism generally refers to agility (high flyers like RVD) or technical skills (people like Angle or Benoit who can simulate “shoot” wrestling).
My thoughts: Yes, but let’s not forget about endurance or strength. RVD and Benoit are obviously great athletes, but so is Johnny the Bull, whose displays of strengths (and precious little else) have really impressed me. Another overlooked guy is Mark Jindrak. He may not end up being a good worker (I haven’t seen enough to pass judgment, and he’s young enough to improve quite a bit), but his ultra-high dropkick erases all doubt about his athleticism. And fault HHH as you may, but when he’s healthy, he rarely gets blown up.

5. Ring skills.
Conventional wisdom: Usually you hear people use the term “psychology” for this category—which is basically a measure of how to work a good match. Examples include timing (how long to lay on the mat after being hit with a move) and selling (how to show pain, especially to any one particular part of the body).
My thoughts: The problem here is that so many people have so limited a definition of what constitutes a “good” match, usually as defined by Dave Meltzer. Meltzer’s approach (the one Scott Keith and others seem to follow) is certainly valid, and I can usually see his point in his ratings of matches. Still, there are other ways of determining what qualifies as good ring work. A worker whose matches are not typically five star classics by the Meltzer system can still create exciting bouts which keep the crowd enthralled. To me, ring skills are a measure of a wrestler’s ability to add drama to his or her matches. So, even though he’s usually considered a mediocre worker at best, Hulk Hogan gets good marks from me in this category. I don’t particularly like his matches as an adult, but I did as a child, as did millions of other fans throughout the years.

Devout baseball fans often talk about five tool players. I have no idea what that means. However, I tentatively propose that these five attributes define a true “five tool wrestler.” And if you think about it, exactly how many guys fit into that category? I could throw out any number of names, but I’m equally sure that any of you could throw out any number of objections to each of them. The Rock? His psychology was off. Shawn Michaels? Inconsistent as a talker (remember “Get to the point”?). Mick Foley? Didn’t look the part. Ric Flair? Okay, so maybe the objections are a bit slower in coming for the Nature Boy, but he’s an exception (maybe theexception, at least in the modern era of professional wrestling). Overall, there aren’t that many wrestlers who have excelled in all five of my categories. That proves two points. First, there is no such thing as the perfect wrestler. Chances are, your favorite wrestler (excluding Flair) isn’t stellar in all five categories, but he (or she) must be doing something right if he (or she) is your favorite. Second, since very few wrestlers have excelled in all five categories, it stands to reason that the best wrestlers have been able to tailor their careers to emphasize their strong points and minimize their weaker points.

And that, patient readers, is the point of this column. In order to create a winning character, a wrestler (and the promoter and the booker and the writers) must be able to develop a persona that maximizes those categories which favor the wrestler. You can bet that any successful wrestler has managed to forge a character that plays to all his strong suits, without asking him to do anything that made him look weak or phony. Jake Roberts never tried to play an unstoppable force who bowled over opponents with his brute strength; likewise, the Road Warriors were never portrayed as tactical geniuses. Steven Regal was never asked to play a quasi-suicidal thrillseeker, and Jeff Hardy never played an effete snob.

I’ll only go into detail for one wrestler: Ric Flair. Not the five tool player of 20 years ago (a subject we’ll save for another time), but today’s version. Obviously he’s slowed down a few steps. Obviously his 50+ year old body can’t take the same sort of punishment as he did in 1985 (that hasn’t stopped him from trying, but thankfully he’s decided to reduce the frequency of his matches). Obviously he couldn’t carry a broomstick to a three star match anymore. But he’s not all used up yet. He still has that old Flair charisma; he still has that signature Flair look (I hear people wondering what happened to his hair; I’m shocked he still has any hair left after all those years of bleaching it). His promos still seem to be preludes to full cardiac arrest. And though he’s no longer a world-class worker, he still can deliver in the ring, at least in limited doses (for a really great look at this, check out the comments of John Haley’s buddy Bill in Haley’s Comment yesterday). Since his late-2001 return, we’ve seen Flair as an owner who rarely wrestled, as a full-time competitor, and in his current role as mentor to a new generation of wrestlers and spiritual advisor (so to speak) to HHH. This latest role has been his best. He’s not being asked to carry the promotion on his back, because that’s not realistic for a guy his age. But we’re getting our weekly dose of Nature Boy, and he’s helping to get over Orton and Batista in the process (might I note that his association with HHH ensures that he’s never treated as an afterthought, as was often the case in 2002). And it’s a much stronger role than the commissioner/owner/GM role that a semi-retired wrestler normally gets, because it allows us to see him in an odd match, or cut a classic Flair promo—as co-owner, his “Whoooo” always seemed a bit forced and unnatural. Flair was good enough in those other roles, but he’s so much better today than he was in 2001 or 2002.

In the current WWE, there are plenty of guys who don’t rate highly in all five categories; among them are Batista, Cena (though I think he’s doing better than some of you seem to think), the Undertaker, and current fan fave Eugene. All of these folks are portraying characters that, with varying degrees of success, minimize weaknesses while emphasizing strengths. None of them fit into a single mold, as they may have been expected to do twenty years ago. If Vince McMahon asked any of them to conform to the classic profile of the babyface champion—stoic and virtuous, preferring scientific holds to brawling, and, let’s face it, maybe a bit bland (you know, the Bob Backlund role)—none of them would be very convincing (except maybe Nick Dinsmore). Thankfully, these wrestlers instead play characters that are believable because they play characters that, above all else, made them look good. And that, in the end, is what the wrestling character is all about.

In general, I intend this column to be a weekly deconstruction (with apologies to the Mad Stork) of what constitutes the character in the professional wrestling. I’m not going examine a different character every week, the way that Matt Nute dissects a single move every week. Instead, these columns will be more thematic. What do I mean? Well, here’s a list of the topics I hope to address in the near future: Can a wrestler portray the same character as both heel and face? How does a wrestler’s history, both kayfabed and “real,” affect the way audiences interpret his or her character? And here’s a real conundrum: was Goldberg a full-fledged character? I’ve got a bunch of other topics in mind as well, but I think next time I’ll try to look at three competing models for writing wrestling characters: the sitcom, the soap opera, and Greek mythology (trust me, it won’t be as pretentious as it might sound).

Once again, special thanks to Ross Williams for all his help. Ross, I am your lowly vassal. Thanks also to all of you who wrote in, especially those of you who offered suggestions for making the column stronger (though I like plain old praise as well). I’d also like to thank fellow Thursday inmate Iain Burnside for his words of encouragement. I hope that Heroes and Villains will be Night Court to yours and Hyatte’s Cheers and Cosby Show (I’ll leave it to the two of you to decide whose news report is which show) instead of The Single Guy to your Friends and Seinfield.