The Column With No Name #3: Sweating the Small Stuff

A quick note to start off this week’s column:

This column still doesn’t have a name. I really don’t care if it ever gets one, but putting “The Column With No Name” every week doesn’t really leave a lot of room for the actual subject.  So starting next week, I’m just going to start abbreviating. Instead of “The Column With No Name”, it will just be “TCWNN” and whatever # week I’m on of doing this gig.  It’s still awkward and unwieldy, but it will do as a place holder until something comes to mind (there aren’t a lot of wrestling related puns to name your opinion column when your name is Morgado). I could just go without a column name, but that would be taking away something that I think is very important, especially when it comes to wrestling, and that’s the details. The small stuff, if you will (insert bad Dusty Rhodes impression here).

Which brings me to this weeks column. I’m sure we’ve all noticed that for some time now, the WWE has made it their policy to keep their referees anonymous on television, and as much in the background during a match as possible. Now, on the one hand, this is fine. The focus is and should be the wrestlers, not the ref. But on the other hand, knowing the name of the referee is the type of detail that enhances the reality presented on screen.  A small detail to be sure, but it’s those small details are part of what keeps me hooked on wrestling. Knowing the names of the referee, the ring announcer, the announcers… knowing why the cameras were backstage… these are things that help create the world the storylines are taking place in. Wrestling is in this weird place now where it doesn’t make any effort to define it’s boundaries. The audience doesn’t know what kind of world it exists in. At one point, it was simple. A wrestling show was based around an athletic competition, with the goal being to be the one with the title. Along the way, personal grudges would be settled. That’s it. A totally simple, “small” description (if you will).

The death of kayfabe and the advent of the Attitude era pretty much decimated that simple description. It didn’t have to, but it did. But that was because of the people behind the scenes who decided they didn’t want to be a “rasslin’ company” anymore, not the audience. The audience still understood, or was willing to understand, that the athletic competition framework was still the world of the show, and would go along with it. It just went unsaid. The small details that created this world still existed in the product. Now, however, a lot of those details have fallen by the way side. I know the old saying goes “don’t sweat the small stuff”, but when it comes to wrestling I think “the devil is in the details” is far a more appropriate adage to try and adhere to.

It seems to me that in their quest to become a mainstream television drama devoid of all but the barest trappings of “professional rasslin”, the modern WWE has lost all interest in those small details. The anonymous referees are just a symptom of that. Look at their younger talent. For the most part, it’s interchangeable Abercrombie model jock types with nice abs, shiny tans, and short trunks. There may be some variations on hair style and race, maybe a tattoo here or there, but for the most part they all fit this mold. Their promos all sound the same, probably because they’re being repeated verbatim from a script. Their ring work hasn’t progressed to the point where they’ve left their own mark on it, there’s no individual style to the moves. The guys that can put their own mark on their work by excelling in the ring are saddled with  WWE style and the same rigid generic promo formula that the other guys use, and then are left floundering with no direction. No one is protected in a way that allows them to build on the little things that create a fully formed character. Every so often, we’ll see a touch of it, but it never seems to go anywhere. One of the reasons Randy Orton giving Dusty Rhodes the RKO at the end of this past Monday’s Raw worked so well for me is because it did something that months and months of Orton-lite promos failed to do: defined Cody Rhode’s character. For those final minutes, he was no longer just Cody Rhodes, replaceable cookie cutter flunky.  He was Cody Rhodes, the young wrestler who idolizes the despicable champion to the point that an attack on his father leaves him unable to act against his idol. It’s the type of abusive villain/toadie relationship seen in everything from Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain series to Mr Burns and Smithers on The Simpsons. Even better, it’s something that can be built on. It’s a small touch that gives the audience a reason to care. We just have to be allowed to.

Before I finish, I want to go back to the issue that set me off on all of this, which was the WWE not naming their referees on television. For me, Charles Robinson’s sprint down the aisle at Wrestlemania 24 loses a bit of impact when I think of it as a generic black and white striped shirt instead of “Lil Naitch”. As a viewer, I have history with that ref. I watched him dress up as Flair and wrestle Macho Man’s valet Gorgeous George for crying out loud. To me, having a history with ALL the characters on screen adds another layer to what I’m watching. It’s not something that has to be shoved to the forefront, but it’s the type of minor detail that sticks.  Even setting aside a viewers personal history watching a character in the show, there’s still decades of history and storylines being cast aside by turning the ref from a character to a cipher.

Remember Dangerous Danny Davis, the wrestling referee? What about Evil N.W.O. Referee Nick Patrick, or the rule enforcing pain in the ass that was mid 90s Fonzie in ECW? The charisma of the late, great Brian Hildebrand, aka Mark Curtis, famous not only with “smart” fans as being one of the most well liked and respected men in the business but with many of today’s casual fans for the well circulated video of him taking down an interfering fan via guillotine choke? Randy “Pee Wee” Anderson? Tim White and the Friendly Tap? These guys were characters all on their own, but their character served only to enhance, not to steal the spotlight. Some, like Teddy Long and the aforementioned Fonzie, moved on to greater success as managers. I don’t see that happening with a ref that isn’t allowed to develop a noticeable style. Storyline wise, what about the infamous swap out of Earl and Dave Hebner that put Ted Dibiase the closest he ever got to being WWF Champion, or Earl‘s mini-feud with HHH and Stephanie that was used to get HHH even more heel heat as the biggest dick in the world?  What about Chris Jericho’s pet referee Scott Dickinson and their attempts to ruin Perry Saturn?  These storylines didn’t put the refs over, they were used to get heat on the wrestlers. In an era where wrestlers are regularly being released because “creative doesn’t have anything for them”, it boggles my mind that a valuable creative commodity like the referee can be so easily cast aside. And there’s a certain well known, well used stipulation that leads me to ask the question…

What good is a special referee if being a referee isn’t special?

See you all next week.

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