Alternate Reality by Vin Tastic – Friends and rivals…

It’s an old story that we all know quite well. An underhanded, diabolical villain with only acquisition and power on his mind forces the hand of a heroic do-gooder via a cowardly attack, theft of something precious, or some other nefarious means. The two engage in a series of battles with each experiencing ups and downs, enjoying triumphs and suffering losses along the way, until the virtuous hero emerges from their final confrontation victorious and all is right with the world once again. Although this common storytelling concept is the basis for most pro wrestling feuds or angles, every once in a while promoters take a different approach in the form of the friendly rivalry.

TODAY’S ISSUE: Friendly rivalries.

In the (kayfabe) highly competitive world of professional wrestling, the athletes who battle between the ropes want to win. Most characters, and the wrestlers who portray the characters for that matter, train for the ring with visions of championship gold, fame, and fortune dancing through their heads even while their bodies are battered by abusive trainers and fellow students as they learn their craft. Not many green rookies dream of one day becoming a sidekick, or backup for some other guy who gets all the glory, or the tag team partner of the breakout star who moves onto bigger and better things while leaving his former pal behind. Most want to be the big dog, the champ, the man.

Think of how many times in your wrestling fandom you’ve witnessed friends turning on each other if they thought it might earn them a title shot or a chance for something else they value. For example you often see tag team partners, stable-mates or even family members double-crossing each other in a battle royal when something important is on the line. Even the best of friends, within the storyline, will be forced to consider their own personal goals over allegiance to one another when the stakes are high enough, and that inner motivation for individual success can drive some fun dramatic twists as these arcs unfold.

A face-versus-face scenario opens new creative doors for wrestlers to tell a unique story between the ropes. One of the great plot devices available when friends square off is that if tempers start to flare, as they inevitably do, it comes as a shock and the intensity is triple what it would be in a standard face/heel contest. It’s so unexpected and out of character when two good guys start getting excessively aggressive with each other, and fans are drawn to the new personality developments occurring before their eyes. After all, nice guys finish last and the wrestler who follows the old Scott Hall axiom is more likely to gain success than he who stands aside and allows his pal to grasp the brass ring.

According to Hall, an old-timer once gave him a bit of advice when he was a young rookie. The veteran said, “In this business you can either have friends or make money”, and when the former Razor Ramon made his decision to jump ship from Vince McMahon’s then-WWF to join rising mega-promotion WCW and begin the legendary nWo storyline, Hall claims his thought process was, “I already have some friends, now I’d like to make the money”. While this wasn’t the actual character talking but rather the real life performer, his logic was still sound. And while several of Hall’s other personal and professional choices might not pass the same test of logic, his decision to sign with Ted Turner’s promotion rather than remaining with McMahon certainly cemented his own iconic status in the business, and likely made him that money he was looking for as well. This is the sort of decision pro wrestlers are faced with when a friend stands across the ring from them.

When two buddies find themselves as opponents who both really want or need a victory, the matches inherently possess an extra degree of intrigue due to the “will they/won’t they” factor regarding following rules, being sportsmen, and going in for the proverbial kill. Sure they’ll play fair at first, avoiding shortcuts like illegal weapons or attacks on the outside, for example ramming their opponent’s shoulder into the ring post, and go for the victory in the least physically harmful way possible. You’ll see lots of roll-ups and pinfall attempts in place of the usual big maneuvers and knockout strikes, especially in the early going. But once their tempers flare and their natural intensity begins to surface, their passion and will to win may boil over and get out of control. That’s when things can get interesting.

Should a friend attack a known weak point even if he realizes it could force his pal out of action for a while? Certainly he’d go after an injured body part on another opponent, but it’s a tougher decision when the aggressor truly cares about the well being of his buddy. Taking it a step further, what if it’s the very friendship with the injured opponent that allowed the guy on offense to find out just where to strike? There’s clearly an ethical dilemma there, but if a wrestler wants to win a match badly enough and knows ahead of time about a particular strategy that’s likely to succeed, like targeting a bad leg or focusing on an injured neck, he should utilize that knowledge to earn a victory. It’s difficult within kayfabe for a wrestler to climb the ladder and advance his career, which he’s worked so hard to build in the first place, and unless he’s willing to be a ruthless bastard the way Stone Cold Steve Austin did during his meteoric rise to the top in the WWF, he risks becoming an afterthought, a George McFly (before Marty taught him to stand up for himself) who stays out of everyone’s way and never realizes his dream of reaching the top of the mountain.

After all, when people remember the Rattlesnake character today, they don’t talk about what a jerk he was for stunning his partners after tag team matches or attacking innocent non-wrestling employees whenever it suited him. They talk about how incredibly successful he was throughout his WWF career, the caliber of men he defeated, the championships he earned, his connection to the fans, his in-your-face attitude, and his tough-as-nails demeanor. Even when Austin-lovers do recall his more infamous deeds, like attacking the late Brian Pillman in his home, challenging Mike Tyson with dual middle fingers on RAW, or destroying thousands of dollars worth of other folks’ property, it isn’t with disgust and hatred, but with a kind of respect and admiration for his unwavering ability to look out for number one. “Don’t trust anybody” was much more than a catchphrase for another Austin t-shirt; it was a way of life for the character, and a very successful one at that.

But for those wrestlers who wish to emerge from matches against one another with their friendship intact, they have to walk a fine line between competition and aggression, forced to consider adjusting their standard arsenal and thinking of a lot more than how to earn a victory. That’s what makes face-versus-face matches and feuds so uncommon, because it’s incredibly difficult to execute such a subtle angle without allowing it to degenerate into a situation in which one face turns heel and the storyline reverts to your typical good guy/bad guy affair. When you do get to see a friendly rivalry unfold between two grapplers, it’s certainly fun to watch and definitely keeps things fresh and interesting.

Within the simulated world of professional wrestling, we fans should realize that these characters work together, travel together, eat, hit the gym, watch DVDs, go to movies, and hang out “off duty” together, so it only makes sense when they become friends and develop their own groups or cliques. If you had to go on a business trip tomorrow that involved three coworkers joining you for a long drive, then finding a hotel in a strange town, looking for a place to eat, and doing whatever you do for a living there before starting the whole journey to a new location the night after, I bet it wouldn’t take too long for you to think of the folks with whom you’d like to share those miles, and even less time to name the people with whom you’d rather kill yourself than have to spend all that time in tight quarters.

And what would you do if, after all that bonding and closeness from the long road trips and shared experiences, the boss told you that the best employee would get a big raise and a company car, but it might mean one of your buddies would be demoted to the mail room and out of contention for promotions and bonuses for the next six months? Would you drive as hard to the hoop as possible? Would you think only of yourself, or would you remain true to your good friend? These are tough questions, and you don’t even have to consider locking your buddies in painful submission holds or kicking the crap out of them for that promotion. That’s why friendly rivalries can be so intriguing, and are well worth the time to watch and enjoy when properly executed.

One such “civil war” was the recent friendly rivalry between Jay Briscoe and Roderick Strong. Based on mutual respect as well as a desire to show their toughness and wrestling ability, the feud saw each man win a match, the first at Stylin’ & Profilin’, and the second on part two of Double Feature II, and the rubber match took place on the ROH on HDNet cable program. Their battles featured the exact sort of sophisticated storytelling and great in-ring action you’d expect from a war between two evenly-matched opponents who respect each other enough to play fair while still giving their all to try to win.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled reality.

p.s. – “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” – Abraham Lincoln