As I write these words, I am not sick. Praise Allah, or whoever is responsible.
REVISITING THE VERY RECENT PAST
In my very last column at 411 (read it here, if you want, but I’m going to copy all the relevant stuff anyway), I examined four WWE wrestlers in a critical stage in their careers. These were four men who had received or were receiving strong pushes, but were still lacking something or another to really get them as over as they needed to be for the type of push they were getting. The four wrestlers were Batista, Edge, Rene Dupree and the Undertaker. Well, it’s only three and a half months later, but I thought maybe now would be a good time to check in on how these folks were doing, and maybe add in a couple more people who are in a similar situation now.
What I wrote in July:
There are certain moments when wrestlers start to break away from the pack. Some are universally accepted by all (i.e., the original Austin 3:16 speech), and others are more subjective (I became a Randy Orton booster when he and Evolution beat up Mick Foley at backstage catering area). Batista has had two of these moments (for me at least) in recent months…. This guy is going to be huge.
Correction: He will potentially be huge, because developing characters for monsters is one of the hardest of all tricks in wrestling [note from the present: I did actually address this topic
in my first column for IP]. Further complicating Batista’s ascent up the card is his presence in Evolution. Batista has a clear role in the group–the enforcer. Any additional character development will introduce new and more complex motivation–and chances are that these motivations will be something more than the desire to provide muscle for HHH and Randy Orton. Thus, making Batista a well-rounded character is probably a prelude to his exit from the stable.
Fortunately for DAVE (tm Ross Williams), it looks like we’re starting to enter endgame for Evolution as we know it. If reports of HHH-Orton for Wrestlemania are true, then we can safely assume that one or the other will be leaving the group. This will give Batista much more room to shine. It’s time to put more effort into developing a character for him. Ric Flair hinted at a background as a street fighter for Batista, and his struggle to hold his rage in check. That’s a possibility, though maybe not the best one. The key is to come up with something.
Today: Batista is in pretty good shape right now. He continues to improve in the ring and on the mic. Evolution hasn’t broken up, or even added another member–it’s a trio right now. This has made Batista a much more important figure within the stable, and therefore an even more prominent figure on Raw. He’s arguably the number two heel on the show right now (pending where they go with Edge), and there’s no reason to think that he won’t maintain that position (though the continued presence of HHH suggests that he probably won’t surpass it).
The great thing about Batista’s newfound prominence is that his character has adapted to his new situation. The previous missions of Evolution were (1) protect HHH’s position on top; (2) help Orton get up to the same level as HHH; and (3) help out Batista and Flair with whatever energy anyone had left. In reality, (1) and (2) were apparently the same, given HHH’s reaction to Orton winning the title. Apparently HHH had a vision for Evolution much like a cycling team–the other members of the team would operate simply to try to keep HHH’s opponents from catching up to him.
Evolution’s mission has been far clearer since Orton’s ejection–the group is now all about protecting HHH. You’d think that this would actually hurt Batista, but in fact it’s helped him. With the entire Raw locker room arrayed against him, HHH is an increasingly paranoid figure, in danger of losing touch with reality. Flair, on the other hand, has completely gone off the deep end–his promos are less about how great Evolution is and more like rambling and raving denunciations of all that is not Evolution. Positioned between these two chaotic personalities is Batista, who has really become the rock of Evolution. Batista is the one who keeps his head, the one whose words calm both Flair and HHH. In fact, one could easily argue that Evolution would not exist if not for Batista’s efforts. This is terrific news for the big man. When he and HHH inevitably part ways, they’ll actually have something to fight over. While Orton really didn’t have much of anything to say when he was tossed out of Evolution, Batista will be able to claim that he was the glue that held the stable together. In the meantime, Batista continues to gain credibility with his cool, businesslike approach to the enforcer role in the group. He still dishes out the violence, but his tweaked character does so in a much more meaningful way.
My verdict: The WWE is definitely on track with Batista. The future looks bright for DAVE.
Boy, has the IWC ever sour on this guy. I still like him. He had one of those great moments back in May, shortly after winning a rematch with John Cena via count out, when he delivered a vicious beatdown. Dupree showed real fire and great heel charisma. And it was a very promising kind of heel charisma–the type that made him look strong enough to credibly turn face at some point down the line. Unfortunately, he was soon right back with his poodle and baguette routine.
Dupree is in peril of becoming another midcard freak show act. His Churchy LaFemme act ain’t striking fear, or even respect, in anybody’s heart. He’s not getting the high profile wins he needs. His association with Booker T and Kenzo Suzuki is making him look like a chump–another stupid ethnic cliche.
There’s no reason to give up on Dupree. The key is to tap into that vicious side, so that Dupree looks like a formidable opponent. Aspects of the sissy French act could stay, actually. We’ve all seen movies with sadistic yet effete villains (see, for instance, the dude with all the electrified strings in Ninja Scroll). That would probably be a good starting point for Dupree, one which would gibe nicely with his French persona–especially if they try to go in a 17th century direction with it. Might I suggest the writers check out Barry Lyndon for further inspiration? (Yes, I know that Barry Lyndon himself wasn’t French, or even particularly evil, but it’s a good movie.)
Today: I can’t believe that Dupree was pushed so hard just a few months ago. Rather than downplay his stupid ethnic stereotype, the Smackdown writers have put him in a tag team with Suzuki, who portrays an even dumber stereotypical ethnic character. Worse yet, there’s absolutely nothing to his character at this point other than his Frenchness and his penchant for cheating. Yes, he is one half of the tag team champions, but does anyone really care? This reeks of a lack of interest on the writers’ part.
I stand by my statements of July: if used properly, Rene Dupree could be a brutal, killer heel. Right now he’s playing second banana to Kenzo Suzuki, a man with little long term future in the WWE. Vince McMahon had better start taking an interest in Dupree, lest today’s prodigy become tomorrow’s Test.
My verdict: He’s no longer even close to being over. If the WWE are serious about this guy, there’s a lot of rebuilding ahead; and if they don’t get started, then Dupree will be just another roster cut victim.
What I wrote in July:
[In 2003, Ross Williams and Iain Burnside said] he can’t play the “cool guy” forever. To that I might add that any guy whose gimmick is that he’s “cool” is almost certainly not cool in any conventional sense of the word (see Fonzarelli, Arthur).
So what’s to be done? Edge’s recent actions suggest heel turn, but that’s probably not in his best interests. There’s no more room for another top level heel, barring a HHH or Orton face turn in the next 1-2 months. In the future it might be a good idea, and one that I would like to see, but in the short term it seems ill-advised. So”¦what’s to be done?
Well, they’ve teased the “childhood dream” angle, but that’s not really sustainable as the very essence of a character. At least I don’t think so. In the pre-“Smackdown Six” era, Edge’s character was, more or less, that of a merry prankster, but that was lame. Edge is no Chris Jericho, and he shouldn’t try to be. To me, Edge’s strengths are in his enthusiasm and intensity, which seems to lend itself to a Jeff Hardy type gimmick…but I think most of us would rather not see Edge in that role. Maybe the WWE should build on what they’ve been teasing and make Edge into a badass tweener type…. Still, there’s something about Edge’s elocution that makes that route seem a bit questionable. The guy is so Canadian. Now I’m no Canuck basher–you guys gave us Neil Young, after all–but his accent doesn’t especially intimidate me.
Today: Well, Orton did turn face, and lo and behold, suddenly there’s room for Edge as a top level heel. What’s more, he’s not some generic “angry” or “arrogant” heel–he’s actually got a distinctive personality. He’s egotistical, but not in the classic clueless sense. He saw that he wasn’t as popular as the other upper card faces, and as a result he turned on the fans. Once again I’m reminded of the theory Mick Foley credits to Dr. Tom Prichard–a good heel will absolutely believe in what he says, no matter how crazy. This is clearly the case with Edge.
The WWE has gone a step better than this however, as they’ve programmed him with Shawn Michaels (with WM presumably being the blow-off to the feud). I’m excited about this feud because it has a clear and strong theme–the relationship between the wrestlers and the fans. HBK’s promo a couple of weeks ago set the stage for this feud. Both men have good points pints, honestly. What this will come down to is which one is right–how much do the fans matter? Can the crowd’s support really mean the difference between victory and defeat? I love this kind of stuff. And the icing on the cake–this feud should give Edge every opportunity to propel himself into the main event scene. Another heel to complement HHH will really liven things up on Raw (I don’t buy that HHH will make a concerted effort to keep Edge down–another top level heel will take some of the pressure off him–but I don’t expect Edge to supplant HHH either).
My verdict: Edge is on the verge of finally getting to the top of the industry. After fumbling his comeback for the first few months, the writers have finally found a strong role for Edge.
My July thoughts:
What the hell is his character supposed to be now? Is that “Dead Man” shit supposed to be mindgames, or is he a freaky weirdo, or are we just supposed to be good little idiots and think that he’s actually a walking corpse or something? The WWE seems to want to go in all these directions at once.
This is not the time for an unfocused Undertaker. Smackdown isn’t as dire as some people think (you know who I’m talking about), but it’s not great either. They need all the help they can get on Thursday nights, and it looks like Undertaker is going to be a big part of that show, I guess. Meanwhile, although crowds are still erupting for his entrance, Taker’s matches aren’t getting so much reaction. Which probably means that people aren’t so eager to pay to see him wrestler either. [Note from the present: I think recent buyrate info bears this out.]
That’s just part of the bigger picture for the Undertaker. He’s drawn money, but more as an attraction than as a main eventer. He was effective earlier in the decade as a role player in the main event scene, but realistically he’s not in position to do even that right now. JBL vs. Evil Demon Taker is not a feud for the ages. It’s not even mildly compelling, except for the single dimension of a loudmouth braggart getting his comeuppance….
Explaining why he [the Undertaker] suddenly cares about winning the belt would be a good start. Actually, just a few words about why he came back in the first place would be nice as well. If we look at his two feuds since returning, we have one for revenge (Kane) and two in response to provocation (Booker T and the Dudleys). So one is basically Taker resolving unfinished business, and the other two are him reluctant responses to guys who were portrayed as something like insects in relation to the Undertaker. Both suggest that Taker isn’t a dedicated full-time wrestler, but a grizzled old timerÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Âlike Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven. His new Western themed ring attire seems to suggest this too. This still doesn’t sufficiently explain why he’d go after JBL, but I’m sure that one good promo could solve this. Actually, I think that we’ll probably get just that before Summerslam.
Today: Uh, guess I was wrong. There hasn’t been any real clarification on the Undertaker’s character, and I’ve almost abandoned all hope of seeing him in a positive role. The problem is that the writers seem incapable (possibly by McMahon fiat) of programming Taker in a decent role. With the exception of Heidenreich, all his opponents have run away with their tail between their legs, even if they won the blow-off. That’s lame.
Admittedly, the Heidenreich feud looks a lot better, but that’s really more of a testament to how bad Taker’s other feuds have been. I tell you what–if Heidenreich wins any match–any match whatsoever–during this feud, then I’ll give the Undertaker the benefit of the doubt. If not, I’ll have to consider him a black hole for Smackdown–a counterproductive presence that the show would be better off without.
My verdict: The Dead Man gimmick sells merch and pops the crowd. But does that offset the damage inflicted by his stale, ridiculous character and obstinate refusal to step out of the spotlight? I don’t just mean that as a rhetorical question, by the way.
TWO NEW ADDITIONS
Well, I think a look at these four characters provides some anecdotal evidence that Raw is doing a much better job at developing characters–even as it’s repeatedly criticized for being “stale.” I really enjoy Raw practically every week. Smackdown, however, is a frustrating ordeal as often as not. This time last year it was Matt Morgan and Nathan Jones. This year it’s Luther Reigns and Mark Jindrak. If Heyman’s got a plan to improve Smackdown, he sure is taking his time in implementing it.
Having said that, both rosters still have characters in a position similar to the one these four were in three months ago. These are characters who the WWE is pushing, but who really lack any clear direction or characterization. Two of these cases really stand out:
I like Mr. Benjamin. I have to–he’s a fellow South Carolinian. He’s also a lot of fun to watch. I hope that Vince McMahon is able to sign some more former amateurs like him in the future, because they seem to have a pretty solid track record (Lesnar, Angle, and Haas are also favorites of mine).
Benjamin has great talent, a strong winning streak, and the frequent praise of Jim Ross from the announcer’s table. What he doesn’t have, however, is a character. The fans continue to cheer for Benjamin for the three aforementioned reasons, but that won’t last forever unless the writers add some dimension to his character. There’s material to work with–he’s cocky in both his demeanors and his promos. All he needs are a few choice insults and/or catch phrases to make him into a cool, cocky character. Sounds like a job for Brian Gerwitz–who, as luck would have it, is the lead writer on Raw. There’s simply no excuse for dropping the ball with this guy.
The Big Show
Meanwhile, the Big Show’s return to Smackdown has somewhat alleviated the show’s hemorrhaging star power. He immediately returned to a reasonably hot angle–a revenge feud with Angle. He’s got a pretty solid push going, and he’s staying in the spotlight at Survivor Series.
But here’s the thing–how long can the Big Show seek revenge on Kurt Angle? Eventually there has to be something more to his character than this, but right now there’s no indication what that might be. We’re still early into his return, granted, but that’s no excuse. Unless the writers give us some reason to care about Show pretty soon, then the fans will grow bored with Big Show for the umpteenth time in his career. More so than practically any other character, the Big Show needs to stay focused and directed. A guy that big loses all credibility if he’s not portrayed as a menace. This is especially problematic given the current storyline, as Paul Wight hasn’t had nearly as much success as a face than as a heel (as either Show or the Giant). Hopefully Heyman’s keeping his eye on this situation.
Is it just me, or has Randy Orton gained a lot of weight? He used to be conspicuously skinny, relative to the other wrestlers on the roster. But he’s close to having a standard WWE body now–his back in particular has gotten huge. The other thing that I’m noticing more and more about Orton lately is his wide assortment of moronic facial expressions. I’m surprised he doesn’t stick his tongue out and cross his eyes when he’s put in a rest hold.
Looking back over the comments I made three months ago, I’m surprised how much I’ve come to dislike Orton. Back in July, I was quick to defend Orton from those who thought he was too green, too goofy, or too stiff to carry the promotion. I scoffed at this, pointing out his great cocky/oblivious heel routine. But what seemed funny then is annoying now. Many in the IWC, myself included, have criticized the Raw writers for just throwing Orton out as a face without properly turning him. It’s clear to me now, however, that we also need to blame Orton for utterly failing to adapt to his new role as a face. I still think there’s hope, but Batista and Shelton Benjamin sure look a lot more like the future of the WWE than Orton does right now.
One last note before we head off into the sunset: the interaction between HHH and Snitsky (and later Edge) was incredible. This is sort of thing I absolutely love–Snitsky acts realistically (he wants the belt) and intrigue is added to the Survivor Series match. And then they go and do the same for Edge. And Batista! Didn’t see that coming at all. I really don’t see how Raw is on the decline–not with stuff like this or the evolution of the Edge and Kane characters.
Ben Morse gives us the Mean for Victory Road. The best Victory Road recap I’ve read, or that I expect to read. I’m sure someone’s pointed it out to you by now, Ben, but midget luchadores (aka “minis”) have pretty loyal followings, even in the States. If reading the Mean puts you in the mood for more Morse, here’s some more reading material for you. I love those little drawings.
Liquidcross presents the history of the Legend of Zelda. Come on…I don’t need to sell you on this one, do I?
Holy bejeesus–Adult Swim toys? I dispute calling Shake’s toy an action figure, however–more of an inaction figure. And why even bother with those Brak figures? That show was a real stinker. Speaking of which, what the hell was with that…thing they showed on Sunday night?
Make sure to read Iain tomorrow…can’t tell you how glad I am that he’s back writing a wrestling column (nothing against the Nexus folks, but he did start out in our zone….). And at this point it goes without saying that you should be reading Gordi, right? He’ll be in tomorrow as well.
I’m really eager to do that column on kayfabe breakage. Hopefully that’s what you’ll see in this space next week.