Dispatches from the Wrestling Underground: Cross-Over Appeal

Hulk Hogan. Steve Austin. The Rock.

Through sheer force of popularity, these are names that transcend the wrestling industry. These are men that grew to be so popular that they became short-hand to describe an entire form of entertainment not unlike a Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan for their respective sports. Today, even most non-wrestling fans could tell you who those men are, describe exactly what they look like, and probably even recite their catchphrases. In part because of their popularity, wrestling promoters now try to find the next new thing, the next new cross-over star. Companies today are less concerned with fleshing out strong rosters with a sufficient upper, middle, and lower card, instead focusing their efforts on molding their stars into main event talent from the get-go in hopes that they’ve found the cool thing to latch on to.

But, is this pursuit of the cross-over star damaging the entire industry?

An argument could be made to support the idea that trying to create cross-over stars is harming the wrestling industry. Many have already argued that the popularity of men like Hogan, Austin, and Rock wasn’t necessarily an example of companies truly creating the stars themselves than it was a matter of right time, right place, and right person. To allow someone like Austin to truly flourish, it was actually more about WWE stepping aside and not following through with their typical star-making formula. Austin was allowed to develop as his own entity separate from many of WWE’s other character-driven personas.

Compare that to today’s wrestling industry when every fresh new face is hailed as the man that will save the wrestling industry. Frequently, hype will surround a wrestler the moment he enters the company regardless of his legitimate talent. Stars such as Ted Dibiase, Jr. and Brock Lesnar have been given the hype and expectations of becoming the next Rock or Austin. When those unrealistic expectations don’t pan out the way the company intended, they still persist in attempting to force their fans to believe it.

Inevitably, this is what causes some of the more unique crowd reactions at WWE events. For almost four years now, John Cena, despite being the company’s top face, garners a reaction from crowds that would cause most to believe he is in fact their top heel. Why? Because as a clean-cut, good-looking hero, Cena represents that kind of cross-over star that WWE could once rely on in Hulk Hogan. As Hogan began to get on in years and his popularity began to wane in the early ’90s, WWE made various attempts at creating new Hulk Hogans: The Ultimate Warrior, Lex Luger, and Diesel, just to name a few. Unfortunately, all these attempts ended in failure as the crowd (and the mainstream) rejected WWE’s attempts at recreating a new Hogan either through apathy (Luger) or outright hostility (Cena).

Once again, the only time the company stumbled upon the next cross-over star was when they actually got of the way of their own success. Instead of forcing Austin to become the next figure to be embraced by America, WWE allowed a groundswell to build up around Austin and rode his wave of popularity to unparalleled heights. At the same time, they also allowed the same to happen for The Rock, who had initially been forced into that Hulk Hogan mold as clean-cut newcomer Rocky Miavia. But as Rock shed the forced nature of his initial push, he developed into arguably wrestling’s best known and biggest star as he was successfully able to do what no other wrestler before him had done when he made a successful transition from wrestling to film.

Unfortunately, these lessons seem to have been quickly forgotten as WWE’s next attempt at a true superstar, John Cena, has floundered outside the wrestling world mostly because he’s a bland caricatures of earlier stars:

Cena, who in the middle part of the last decade, began building a groundswell of his own around an arrogant and vulgar white rapper persona saw his potential stunted as the company felt he first would be best as a hybrid of Rock and Austin, and then as another in a long line of Hulk Hogan clones. Instead of getting out of the way as they had before, the company began to micromanage every aspect of Cena’s character. They eventually even created an entire new subdivision within their own company, WWE Films, to promote movies starring Cena in an attempt to turn him into the sort of mainstream star they had stumbled upon with Rock and Austin.

Naturally, as has been noted, their own audience turned on both the idea of Cena as a mainstream star (as his movies have underperformed at the box office), and even as the company’s top star itself. Where old attempts at creating new Hogans in men like Lex Luger were met with mild indifference at worst, a large portion of their audience now outright jeers Cena when he makes appearances on their shows.

Still, the company persists in believing that they can create the next new star that will cross-over into mainstream popularity. To that end, they continually micromanage every character that comes into the promotion, even dropping the notion of the gimmick almost completely in hopes that wrestlers with real names will have an easier time being accepted by America. Odd for a company that was built on the names of men like Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker, and The Ultimate Warrior. Names like Heath Slater, Zach Ryder, and Dolph Ziggler don’t quite have the same ring to them, do they?

But the question remains, how far will the company push for its cross-over appeal before it realizes that its efforts are counter-productive?

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