Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Talking the talk…

In the bizarre amalgam of athleticism and drama known as professional wrestling, the ability of a performer to connect with the crowd is invaluable. An effective heel makes fans want to see him get forced to shut his trap, and a beloved babyface makes the crowd want to support him on his quest for gold, justice, or whatever other goal he seeks. Without the touch of theatre created when wrestlers draw in the fans via interviews (or promos), our beloved quasi-sport is nothing more than an admittedly homoerotic display of two oiled up men in spandex underwear rolling around and pretending to fight.

TODAY’S ISSUE: Great microphone men.

There have been many outstanding athletes, impressive physical specimens, and solid in-ring performers to grace the squared circle since professional wrestling became a regularly televised event. But only a select few of them have possessed the gifts of charisma, quick wit, and intellect that allowed them to take their character to another level. Certainly there are plenty of guys who do just fine on the stick, so I’m not saying the men discussed below are the only noteworthy talkers ever in the business, but they are among the cream of the crop.

When you’re talking about the best of anything in wrestling, you don’t have to look much further than the Nature Boy, Ric Flair. Not only a phenomenal in-ring talent and an incredibly giving opponent (Flair has made many a young wrestler look like a million bucks between the ropes), Flair was always an outstanding promo. Putting Slick Ric in front of a television camera for 3-5 minutes was surefire entertainment, as he always put himself over while making his challenger seem important as well. He made those programmed against him seem important, rather than cutting them down.

Flair promos have given us the classic phrases “a limousine-ridin’, jet-flyin’, kiss-stealin’, wheelin’-dealin’ son of a gun”, “to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man”, “Space Mountain”, and “walk that aisle”. Flair bragged about his custom-made clothes, the all-night parties, having any woman he wanted, and strolling right into any VIP section that caught his eye. He made the championship he dominated for years seem important because he discussed the lifestyle he was afforded thanks to carrying that “10 pounds of gold”. In doing so, he made every championship match crucial; therefore, he sold tickets to live shows and generated pay-per-view buys.

A fantastic talker, Flair was great at making some fans hate him so much that they’d pay good money to watch him get beat up, ala Muhammad Ali, while still making some envy him and his partying lifestyle, despite his cheating ways and cowardly heel tactics. You couldn’t ask for more from a perpetual heel champion being chased by every babyface to cross his path.

No wrestler in history could be more Flair’s polar opposite than Mick Foley. Like his maverick wrestling style his promos were brutal, intense, scary, and passionate. His 1995 “Cane Dewey” interview is the stuff of legends. Foley’s ability to craft the emotion around a story and give motivation for his sick, violent actions was a testament to the man’s creativity and intelligence. It’s no surprise a guy with those traits has written a couple of New York Times bestsellers.

When he took Cactus Jack’s bag of tricks to Vince McMahon and stuffed them into the ridiculous get-up of Mankind, it seemed the Hardcore Legend’s best days were behind him. But Foley took the Mankind character as an opportunity and instead of a shallow, two-dimensional profile cooked up by WWF’s (not-so) creative department about a child piano prodigy abused by his parents, Foley crafted a deep, logical, heart-wrenching back-story for this mutilated freak, and made fans care. The fans began to care not about the Mankind character but again, thanks to Foley’s genius, the man inside the character. And my friends, making professional wrestling fans care is a license to print money.

Ironically, after doing such a wonderful job of transforming the essence of Cactus Jack into the devastatingly dangerous Mankind in the WWF, Foley got to bring Cactus Jack back to life. Leading into the 2000 Royal Rumble ppv, Foley delivered one of my all time favorite pro wrestling moments when he unmasked and removed Mankind’s bloody, tattered shirt to reveal the dark core beneath, Cactus Jack. In that promo, Mankind described a kind of multiple personality disorder that surfaced due to the intense physical, emotional, and psychological torment he’d endured at the hands of the reigning WWF Champion, Triple H.

The “return of Cactus Jack” angle (and admittedly, Triple H’s excellent reaction to it) breathed new life into the feud, both television shows, and the entire company. Very few men could take off a shirt and mask and make it mean so much, but Foley delivered to his customary, high-quality level and things turned a corner for the WWF excitement-wise.

Speaking of Royal Rumble 2000, a third man was involved in the Cactus Jack/Triple H Street Fight for a brief but important moment, and he’s one of the greatest mic men pro wrestling has ever seen. Back then this former world champion was known simply as the Rock. Having grown up in the business, some would say they expected more out of Dwayne Johnson in the actual wrestling department, but although the Rock was merely a fair-to-good performer between the ropes, there was nobody who could connect with fans the way he did.

Rock’s “sing-along” promos were so popular that appreciative fans literally forced a face-turn for the heel version of his character. Famous lines like “if ya smellllllll what the Rock is cooking”, “Finally, the Rock has come back to [city/town]…”, and “it doesn’t matter…” were crowd favorites night after night. He often delivered the scary-yet-funny threat to opponents in which he would pick an object, “shine it up real nice, turn that sumbitch sideways, and stick it straight up [their] candy ass!” or perhaps he’d “layeth the Smacketh down on [their] roody-poo, candy ass!”

The Rock always seemed to be one step ahead of everyone, including the promoter signing his paychecks. It was almost as if he would wink imperceptibly at the viewers during his promos, letting them know that while he was well aware this was all a bit silly, he was going to do everything in his power to make it highly entertaining. And he never disappointed. To this day, if the Rock were to appear on WWE television, millions around the world would pop in a mark-out moment of glory.

When I think of the Rock, I automatically think of the highest grossing wrestler in the history of the business, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin and the Rock were linked throughout their WWF tenures, and had some classic verbal confrontations to go along with their fantastic in-ring rivalry. From the moment Austin won the King of the Ring tournament way back in 1996 (has it REALLY been that long?) and spouted his infamous “Austin 3:16 says I just whipped your ass” line, it was clear that this highly skilled wrestler was also a great promo.

Actually, his mic proficiency became evident between his WCW and WWF runs, in the original ECW, but fewer fans got the opportunity to view those outstanding moments at the time. Austin’s everyman approach and angry demeanor made a lot of fans admire him. Hell, how many of us have had at least one pretentious boss we’d love to kick in the gut, pour beer on, and give the middle finger? Austin got to tell off his employer, Vince McMahon, in some of the most creative and outlandish ways, building a cult following that still goes crazy today whenever he makes one of his sporadic appearances.

“That’s the bottom line, because Stone Cold said so” is one of those phrases wrestling fans won’t soon forget. Unfortunately, his What? catchphrase, although painfully popular, was perverted into a stupid joke by unimaginative fans. It started intense and serious, but crowds the world over simply would not let it go, and chanted it far too often and at inappropriate times. I guess you can’t win ‘em all…

Well before the days of Austin, Rock, and Foley, Superstar Billy Graham liked to rhyme, creating such noteworthy gems as, “I’m the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour”, and “I lift barbell plates, I eat t-bone steaks, and I’m sweeter than a German chocolate cake. How much of me can you take?” He also considered himself “the reflection of perfection, the number one selection”, and “women’s pet but men’s regret.” According to the Superstar, “What you see is what you get, and what you don’t is better yet.” If wrestling t-shirts had been as popular during Graham’s run in the 1970s as they became later, he would have had all of these phrases on different shirts, and he likely would have made a lot of money from their sales.

I’m not certain, but Graham may have also coined another favorite phrase of mine, “200 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal”, but that might have come from Sputnick Munroe. It’s hard to be sure who created what. Another favorite I can’t confirm credit for is, “I am every mother’s nightmare and every school girl’s dream.” These bouncy catchprases roll off the tongue, look good on merchandise, and help the fans remember a particular performer among a veritable parade of wrestlers. Again, that means they care, and if they care, they pay.

Other notable mic men (there are so many, I might be forced to revisit this topic soon) include Chris Jericho, Dusty Rhodes, Edge and Christian, Hulk Hogan, and the Macho Man Randy Savage. They each brought something unique to the art of the promo, and always displayed a certain quality lacked by their peers. I think a lot of the bland wrestling personalities on television these days could greatly benefit by watching old video footage of these folks, although some obviously have the gift of gab, like Santino Marella. I also find Matt Striker to be a fair promo, and of course, ROH’s Larry Sweeney is a genius, although he’s technically only on tv during pay-per-views.

When a wrestler can talk the talk on the mic and walk the walk between the ropes, they have the total package and can do it all in the industry. It takes a special kind of person to possess athletic talent, timing, toughness and ring generalship. Finding one with all that plus a great personality, creativity, and comfort in front of thousands of live fans and millions watching at home is a daunting task. But we, the devoted wrestling fans, will never forget the few who had it all.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” – Mae West

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