Heroes and Villains: It’s Alive!

WELL, HERE I AM

“¦on this new site. More on that later. For those of you who never read any of the columns from my 2 month run on 411 (now archived here at Inside Pulse, in case you’re curious), this is a weekly discussion of character development in wrestling (though I do occasionally stray a little from that). I also like to write in parentheses a lot. I’m a grad student (history, thanks for asking), so a few big words may make their way into this column on occasion. Don’t worry, it’s nothing you can’t handle. If you guys are smart enough to have followed us here, then you’re smart enough to figure out what I’m saying. And for whatever reason, Mordecai tends to pop up a lot in my columns. For those of you who did read my column on 411, you might remember that I promised to discuss the issue of the “monster” character in wrestling. Here it is.

IT’S HEADING FOR THE VILLAGE!

Webster’s defines “monster” as”¦. No, no, I’m kidding. I’m not doing the old “Webster’s defines” thing. I’ve graded many a poorly-written student paper that began that way, and I’m not so sadistic as to subject an audience to the same. (Seriously, you college and high school students out there, don’t do this when writing essays. It makes it seem as if you were too lazy to think of a proper introduction.) Still, I would like to touch on the etymology of the word “monster.” The root of the word is actually the same as that of the verb “demonstrate,” meaning that “monster,” at least at the time that the word was coined, referred to a being that one pointed at—not to laugh, but to warn children to avoid. I also see the phrase “ill omen” tossed around in online etymologies.

That’s a pretty good introduction for my understanding of the monster character in wrestling. Wrestling is full of scary guys, but these are the scariest. They’re big guys—Mordecai aside, usually at least 6’6″—and portray unstoppable killing machines. They’re the only guys ever booked in squash matches on the “A” shows these days. Though they sell in their matches against top guys, they are less likely to sell the offense of mid-carders. In fact, they rarely flat-out lose to anyone; an opponent usually beats them only through chicanery, luck, brilliant strategy, or some combination of the three. Monsters don’t talk much, and when they do it’s often in a slow, deliberate manner intended to cast them as cold blooded killers (Undertaker). Alternately, they’re crazy-as-hell hotheads who shout and scream a lot (Sid Vicious). And their motivation is to, uh”¦.

Well, that’s the problem with the monster character—the problem I have with them, at least. Why the hell are they wrestling? Let’s take the premier monster in the WWE today—Kane. Poor Kane. He’s been buried up to his neck in shit, from both the WWE writers and the IWC (including yours truly). As I’ve mentioned before, a big reason why Kane’s character is not completely effective is because he’s a sadist first and a wrestler second. And his commitment to wrestling comes in a very distant second (at least here lately). So why bother with the wrestling? Why not do something a bit more gratifying to his antisocial tendencies, like torturing and killing people? Why is Kane a wrestler, when “serial killer” seems more in line with his interests and talents?

This, to me, is the problem with all monsters whose character is limited to “unstoppable killing machine.” If they’re such unstoppable killers, why aren’t they doing more killing? As I’ve stated repeatedly in past columns, modern wrestling walks a fine line between simulated athletic competition and story-based spectacle. Despite what mainstream sports writers think, no wrestling fan seriously thinks that it’s all real. In fact, a large portion of modern audiences would be bored with (or worse yet, feel insulted by) a product that gives audiences nothing more than fake combat. At the same time, this fake combat is at the center of wrestling. Without in-ring action, no one would watch wrestling. Think about it. Take out the wrestling, and what do you have? A bizarre soap opera with ridiculous stories and really, truly bad acting (I’m looking at you, Matt Hardy).

It’s the in-ring competition that makes the “monster” character so unrealistic, in my eyes. A wrestling match rarely looks like a guy trying to inflict as much pain on the other as he possibly can. There’s an obvious reason why—it’s too dangerous to try to do this. Sure, there are a few guys who can credibly simulate an absolute ass-walloping, like Chris Benoit. And you occasionally see guys (and gals) on the indy scene or in Japan who really lay in a whuppin’ on their opponents. But then again, a lot of the folks in those promotions don’t think they’re earning their paychecks unless they get dropped on their heads a half dozen times a weekend.

Let’s be honest, though—big wrestlers are, without a doubt, the least athletically gifted of all wrestlers. There are a couple of possible reasons why. First of all, it’s tough to move around as gracefully if you’re tall. I’m 6’2″ myself, and I’m constantly bumping into things. Maybe I’m just clumsy (in fact, I’m fairly certain that I am), but I can only imagine what sort of havoc I would unleash on my furniture, light fixtures, cat, and girlfriend if I were half a foot taller. There’s a reason why most female gymnasts, probably the most agile athletes in the world, are under 16 years old and short for their age. With height comes awkwardness. The second thing limiting the big guys is that the preference among all wrestling promoters (not just Vince McMahon) is for big guys. If you’re 6’6″ or taller, you’ll be given every chance to succeed. So there’s no shortage of tall guys who put in the minimum of effort, knowing that they’ll still have a job regardless of how lazy they are.

For whatever reason, “monsters” are rarely capable of making a severe beatdown look totally realistic. They might get in a few killer looking moves, but not everything is going to look high impact. Brock Lesnar’s knee strikes to the stomach always seemed like a waste of time to me. Almost everyone uses rest holds which seem to take down the intensity a few notches. You can count on one hand the number of wrestlers (regardless of size) who can make fake punches look real. And can someone explain to me why the Big Show, if he’s such a sadistic bastard, doesn’t just jump up and down on his opponent’s chests? Don’t tell me that this would qualify as attempted murder—HHH beating William Regal about the head with a sledge hammer seems like the same sort of thing to me, and I don’t see anyone pressing charges against him.

There’s only a few ways to explain wrestlers’ tendency to hold back. One is common decency—but you can’t play that up too much, or the crowd will boo. Another is sportsmanship—respect for opponents’ health, the camaraderie shared by fellow athletes, etc. Not that every wrestler (or legit athlete) necessarily has this quality, but they do interact with teammates and opponents who have that sort of respect for others. So for the jerks, there’s the fear of having to deal with a locker room full of angry people who may retaliate in a future match/game.

That’s all great for the average heel wrestler. But what about the monster heel (or, potentially, the monster face)? The monster character doesn’t fear a locker room full of irate fellow wrestlers, because he’s an unstoppable force of destruction, or something. He doesn’t feel the same sense of kinship with his fellow wrestlers”¦because he’s an unstoppable force of destruction. He doesn’t have a sense of common decency, because”¦you get the point. The only thing that’s holding him back in the ring is his desire not to be disqualified. AND, if “monster” is the extent of the wrestler’s character, then there’s no established reason for him to worry about winning or losing. All he cares about is hurting people. The result is that the monster’s matches always ring false, at least to me.

Side note: A really, really talented wrestler can make the offense of his opponent, no matter how much said opponent sucks, appear to be just short of homicide—Shawn Michaels being the most prominent example of this phenomenon. However, we are seeing fewer and fewer matches in which other wrestlers are willing or able to sell for their opponents to this extent. One problem is that very few wrestlers can sell a beating as convincingly as Michaels or, say, Curt Hennig. The bigger problem, however, is that the WWE rarely wants to sacrifice anyone in this way—thorough and complete demolition is seen as detrimental to a wrestler’s over-ness. So, Vince and his bookers usually only sacrifice guys like Spike Dudley to the likes of Jon Heidenreich. But since Spike Dudley, despite his popularity and talent, has little credible chance of winning the match in the first place, Heidenreich gains little to nothing by squashing him. Same thing for Akio, Funaki, Jamie Noble, Steven Richards, Maven, or any of the other jobbers in the WWE. Add to this the eternal problem of guys not wanting to sell properly out of egotism or a mistaken idea that they’re too over for this sort of thing—let’s call it “Bob Holly Syndrome”—and you can see the problem with trying to create monsters in the WWE today. The best solution seems to be the non-match-related assault, which has helped Kane and Brock Lesnar tremendously, I think. (Not that this is a new idea—many Hulk Hogan feuds seemed to start this way.)

This talk of squash matches (or the lack thereof) suggests another problem: how to account for the monster showing weakness, specifically losing matches. No one goes undefeated in wrestling. Everyone has to job, eventually. If a wrestler’s gimmick is simply that he’s an unstoppable killing machine, what does jobbing do? Well, it destroys that gimmick—clearly the guy is stoppable, after all. Just look at Goldberg. Yes, he remained tremendously popular even after losing to Kevin Nash. But there’s no denying that he never regained the focus he had during his undefeated streak, because there was absolutely nothing to his character beyond the undefeated streak. This, more than anything, reveals the perils of the simple “monster” gimmick.

THIS IS THE PART OF THE COLUMN WHERE I NORMALLY IDENTIFY POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS

The easiest way to alleviate the “monster” problem is to let monsters show weakness. It’s working with Batista—he’s by no means invulnerable (Road Warriors aside, the mechanics of tag team wrestling seem to work against monsters, and Batista has mostly been a tag wrestler over the past year). And yet, despite showing himself to be a mere mortal on numerous occasions, he is pretty damned over and will probably be a cornerstone of the WWE through the end of the decade. As I mentioned two weeks ago, he’s got a ton of credibility, yet the outcome of his matches is never a foregone conclusion. This, in turn, makes his matches more interesting. Batista is one of the most well-rounded monsters in many years; maybe he’s over just because the audience likes to see him perform.

But then again, Batista’s vulnerability may make him something other than a monster. If you have to have traditional monsters, there’s one obvious motive to give to them. They can claim that professional wrestling is the only way which they can dish out (something close to) the type of punishment they like to dish out without being indicted for aggravated assault and battery (or worse). This can also explain why the monster might hold back—if he really goes all out, he might get fired or suspended for excessive brutality. This, I think, is the best way to explain Kane’s character. Though, I suppose, that Kane could commit a murder in a state without the death penalty and then dish out punishment in a penitentiary, Oz-style. Now there’s a plot point for the allegedly forthcoming Kane movie. The problem with this “lawful sadism” motivation is the same as I see for the “childhood dream” motivation (which I discussed a few of weeks ago). There might be a temptation to ascribe this motivation it to too many characters, thereby undermining its effectiveness. If everyone in the WWE (or TNA, or whatever) is a freaky sadist, then the audience isn’t going to care any more.

We have seen other ways to account for monsters’ motivations in the past. One way is assigning a manager to hold the monster in line—a “keeper,” if you will. There was Kim Chee with Kamala, Paul Bearer with Undertaker/Kane, Paul Heyman with the early Brock Lesnar, and Bobby Heenan with late-period Andre the Giant. It makes sense that a manager would want to keep his client in check—it’s his meal ticket, after all. Winning the match increases his cut of the purse. Winning a belt means an even bigger payday. And having one successful client makes it more likely that other wrestlers will seek out the manager’s services. (Add this to my ever-growing list of future column topics: an examination of managers in wrestling.) The question here, of course, is why the monster would want to have a manager in the first place, but that’s another thorny issue that deserves more in-depth analysis. (If you haven’t figured it out already, this is how I get out of answering questions that I pose. It’s also how I keep this column under 7 pages.)

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that the Undertaker’s character needed some tweaking. Ari Bernstein (whose work you can check out at either 411 music or thewrestlingblog.com, by the way) wrote in to suggest that the Undertaker should perhaps be modeled on the Spectre, a comic book character. (He also mentioned Ghost Rider, but the Spectre is like a gazillion times cooler than Ghost Rider.) The Spectre was the embodiment of the spirit of vengeance, sort of a corporeal manifestation of cosmic justice. He showed up to right wrongs for the weak and powerless. Ari suggested that the Undertaker also appear out of nowhere to help out the weak and powerless (i.e., Spike Dudley). Sounds like a good way to give motivation for the “monster” wrestler—by giving them a sort of vigilante gimmick. (Actually, I think the vigilante is an archetypical character in the modern wrestling world. So, yeah, I’ll probably have more thoughts on this in the future.)

We’ve also seen characters with more conventional senses of motivation who, nevertheless, have adopted certain elements of the “monster” persona. Brock Lesnar is probably the most obvious example of this. Lesnar certainly had his sadistic side (particularly during his second heel run, which I thought was really effective), but he clearly cared about wins, losses, and championships. Unfortunately, I think Brock was still in the process of defining his character when he left.

And, on one final note, we can consider the man who Brock Lesnar faced at Wrestlemania XX. Goldberg remains the premiere monster of the post-nWo era, but he’s too much to consider in this column. In fact, I’ll be discussing him in next week, when I attempt to answer the question: “Did Goldberg even have a character?”

In the end, I do think that the monster character can be effective in the modern wrestling universe. The key, as is often the case, is to provide some sort of motivation. There has to be a hook beyond “this guy kicks ass” in order to make the audience to care. The lack of extreme violence in wrestling, the inevitability of jobbing, and even audience boredom all work against the idea that a wrestler can portray an unstoppable killing machine with no further characterization. And Batista might prove that the monster character isn’t always the best route to take with the big, intimidating guys. As always, I welcome any suggestions from you, the readers, on this. What do you think can be done to keep monsters interesting?

A FEW WORDS ON WRITING FOR THE PULSE

Those of you that don’t care about the politics of web sites can stop reading now. See you next week. As for the rest of you”¦.

When you saw my name on the wrestling page, some of you might have had that song from Sesame Street run through your mind: One of these things is not like the other”¦.

From the very moment I debuted on 411mania, I knew that I was in elite company. That, in fact, is the very reason that I applied to write at 411. I am supremely confident that I could have gotten a job writing for another site somewhere on the web. I’m reasonably confident that it could have been a pretty big site. I think there’s a pretty good chance it could have been on one of the four (or three, depending on how you view 1wrestling) “breaking news” type sites. But, once I made up my mind that I’d like to try my hand at internet punditry, 411 was the only site I ever considered. It just so happened that they were hiring just as I finished writing my sample column. Ross Williams read my stuff and liked it enough to offer me a spot on the site.

When Hyatte confirmed the rumors of a new site, I was immediately uncertain about my future at 411. Many of the writers who I most admired, the very ones who made me think that writing about wrestling was a worthwhile endeavor, were now leaving the site. Over the course of the day, more and more defections from different zones had been announced. I decided to email Widro to see if I’d be welcome here at Inside Pulse, just to see what my options would be. Then I learned that Ross (who was responsible for my very presence at 411) was leaving. And so were all of the entire games and comics writers.

By that point I had made up my mind. I enjoyed my brief time at 411. I deeply respect many of the guys who are staying there—Melchor, Nute, and Randle in particular (and you can add Ashish to that list if he returns to being an active columnist) are among the IWC elite, in my opinion. I knew that I would undoubtedly move up the totem pole if I stayed, all the while remaining at a very, very high quality site. Most of my fellow Class of 2004 writers seem to have come to a similar realization, considering that Jed and I are the only ones among them who have made the jump to this site (unless I missed somebody).

Here’s what ultimately convinced me to write for Inside Pulse: the realization that the 411 for which I had wanted to write was not going to be the site I would actually be writing for, had I stayed. Part of what made 411 so cool to me was the diversity of content, and the uniform high quality and integrity across the board. The video game people drive me nuts sometimes with what they say (for the record, I love the Resident Evil and Final Fantasy games, and I really don’t get Pokemon), and I quit reading superhero comics when I was in high school (about 10 years ago, btw). But I was still proud to be writing for a site with such well-respected writers. I like the music guys who have made the jump as well. I’m an antiquarian when it comes to music—I believe that popular music has been in steady decline since c. 1966. But I like those guys. I was never especially active on 411’s high and secret writer’s forum (aside from discussing of the merits of libertarianism with Brian Blottie, which I enjoyed doing), but I did read much of what was posted. There are some funny, talented, and genuinely nice guys writing for the music section on Insider Pulse, even if I have no idea what they’re talking about most of the time (ditto for the movie folks, most of whom remain at 411). And I will readily admit that I regularly check out the figure site, even if I never plan on buying any of that stuff—although I have had my eye on the Swedish Chef toy, the existence of which would be completely unknown to me were it not for Mike Batesman.

And obviously the quality of my fellow wrestling writers is beyond reproach. In the end, I guess I like the idea of writing alongside my favorite writers more than I like the idea of making a bigger name for myself by staying at 411. I don’t especially care where I end up in the IWC 100, should Flea ever decide to do it again. (By the way Flea, did I ever tell you that you were my favorite writer?) I’m not trying to fool any of you into liking me by siphoning heat from more accomplished writers. I just wanted to write at the same site as my IWC role models (“heroes” seemed a bit too strong, and kind of loser-ish). Though internet wrestling columnist isn’t at the very top of my list of my priorities and identities (teaching, finishing my dissertation, maintaining my relationship with my girlfriend, and spending time with my enormously fat cat Lupin all eclipse it), I’m still legitimately excited to be a part of this site. I hope you’ll keep reading. And writing too.