Keynotes and Keyholds: Should wrestlers be ranked? (Desmond Wolfe, Vladmir Kozlov, Triple H, Undertaker, The Rock…)

Howdy,

Firstly, my apologies for last week’s absence. I am fortunate enough to have been blessed with a new job. On the one hand, this is fantastic news. On the other hand, combined with my two other jobs and doctorate (lest I forget!), I’m afraid that I will have to limit my lengthy Pulse contributions to fortnightly articles from now on. I hope that you don’t mind too much. Fear not, however: these columns will remain as endearingly pretentious as always.

On Christian

This is old news now, of course, but I would like to chip in with some comments on the matter. It is curious, in hindsight, that I found myself so perturbed last week by Christian’s rapid title loss. For my part, I predicted Christian to lose at Extreme Rules, and have long desired to see him return to his nefarious old ways. As such, the sight of Christian without the World Championship should not have surprised me, and the prospect of an imminent heel turn should have filled me with joy. However, after investing so heavily into Christian’s ascent, I lost sight of the bigger picture. Chalk it up to the kind of deep-seated emotional response that Stephen Gepp examines so very elegantly last week’s The View From Down Here (a wonderful read, by the way).

I’ve had two weeks to ponder the World Title situation, and my feelings on the matter have changed somewhat. You see, while it was extremely upsetting to see Christian’s first, hard-earned, title run finish a mere two days after it began, it must also be acknowledged that the World Heavyweight Championship was, in fact, never Christian’s at all. Andy Wheeler sums it up best in last week’s For Your Consideration. Wheeler points out that Christian’s win was ultimately the result of capitalising on Edge’s retirement. Yes, he officially won a battle royal to replace the ‘Rated R Superstar’, but in a month’s time, no one will remember that. Instead, our lasting impressions will be, quite simply, that Christian stood in for Edge at Extreme Rules. I think you will agree that seeing Christian’s first title run in the cold light of opportunism doesn’t reflect well on a man who deserves a far greater reward for his services to the business over the years.

As such, it should thus be rejoiced that more is being done to flesh out the character of ‘Captain Charisma’. One need only consider how very flat Rey Mysterio’s World Title tribute to Eddie Guerrero fell to see that a prominent run for Christian as a glorified succedaneum would have done little in the long run to benefit Christian or Smackdown. Furthermore, the trick of a wrestler acting as a stand-in for someone before ultimately turning on them has been done so often in wrestling (recent examples include Chris Jericho’s dedications to HBK in 2008 and Kane’s to Undertaker in 2010) that is has become rather tired.

Now, however, Christian is placed more prominently in the limelight than he ever has been and it seems that a heel turn and prolonged main event run is on the cards.  The heel turn, if it occurs, will be the result of organic character development, the sort of compelling slow-burn that we haven’t seen in a very long time. The story is Christian’s own, not Edge’s, and that in itself will make for a much more powerful viewing experience for those with emotional investment in the character. Christian is now a former World Heavyweight Champion and may yet become champion again. And when he does, the victory will be his alone to relish. For now, although Title may not be Christian’s, the World is certainly his oyster.

On the possibility of a ‘ranking’ system in professional wrestling

Last week I questioned whether or not a scheme in which performers were ‘ranked’ would ever be viable within the world of professional wrestling, and was very pleased with the response which I received from you, so thank you very much.

The reason I asked this is because I have often considered the effect that introducing ranking in a form akin to a league table or something similar -  would have on, for example, the WWE product. On the one hand, introducing ranking based on statistics would lend an air of legitimacy to the professional wrestling business and create new and interesting opportunities for changing the ways in which feuds work, augmenting the functions of various championship belts, and instilling even the most mundane of matches with a new kind of significance. On the other hand “rankings” in a performance which merely imitates sport, and where the results are predetermined, would make little to no sense. You might as well rank characters in The Simpsons for all the good it would do. Within what parameters do you rank them? By which criteria? By what standards?

The best professional wrestlers make good use of a mixture of quantitative components – attributes which can be measured, such as strength and stamina – and quantitative ones – the proverbial ‘X-factors’ such as charisma, imagination, timing, selling ability – which cannot be measured scientifically. These latter qualitative factors are as important, if not more so, to the success of a wrestler, team, or company than the quantitative attributes. Not that charisma and imagination aren’t important to the success of footballers, tennis players, or MMA fighters as well – but in the case of legitimate professional sport, a man’s or woman’s charisma has never made an ounce of difference to their ranked position (I defer you to the case of English tennis prodigy Tim Henman, a man at one point ranked fourth in the world despite a famous lack of absolutely anything resembling personality!). All that matters in legitimate sport is one’s win/loss record. In pro wrestling, on the other hand, win/loss records famously don’t influence a wrestler’s position within a company in the slightest. Instead, cause and effect are reversed: characters who frequently win do so because they are rated highly within the company, and not the other way around. High-profile wins and winning streaks are often the result of a push designed to make certain wrestlers look good – and not because those men and women necessarily are good (see Vladmir Kozlov’s 2008-9 path of destruction, which saw him victorious over Jeff Hardy and Undertaker among others). Similarly, wrestlers who have suffered prominent losses, that in any other profession would have placed them out of contention for major titles or forced to begin an uphill struggle, are often rewarded with championships and a place in the spotlight. The Miz lost three consecutive bouts for the US Championship on pay-per-view, and then promptly found himself the WWE Champion. Daniel Bryan, on the other hand, lost every single match that he was involved in in NXT Season 1, was fired, remained absent and unmentioned for months, and was then inserted straight into the main event of Summerslam.

What, then, is the current system – if any – for designating which wrestlers are better than others? And what are the alteratives? At the moment, professional wrestling operates on a never explicitly mentioned but quietly observed caste system consisting of the lower-, the mid-, and the upper-card. Although we are frequently told that “Kofi Kingston is a phenomenal athlete”, “Santino Marella could pull off the victory here!”, and “anything can happen on Monday Night Raw”, it is also an unspoken understanding that certain wrestlers operate at a higher level than others. If you are a seven-year old John Cena fan, you just know that John Cena is a better wrestler than Alex Riley, but would have trouble beating Randy Orton. If you are an older, more educated fan, you are familiar with the systems by which the business operates, and thus you know that Alex Riley is, at this stage in his career, little more than an extra in the Cena-Miz feud. Either way, you can be fairly certain that the chances of Alex Riley beating John Cena in a match on Raw are negligible.

All of this isn’t to say that professional wrestling hasn’t toyed with ranking wrestlers in the past, of course. The 2002 brand split, for example, took the form of a kayfabe draft more akin to a glorified popularity contest than a league table.  WWE grapplers were divided into Smackdown and Raw rosters which were chosen (kayfabe) by Vince McMahon and Ric Flair respectively. The initial rosters were selected in descending order, starting with number one picks The Rock at the top of McMahon’s list and Undertaker at the top of Flair’s, and everyone else was ranked beneath them. Although wrestlers were certainly ranked in a sense then, given that the draft picks were (in storyline terms, and, implicitly, backstage terms) chosen in order of preference, the system was far from scientific. Reasons for draft picks were not explained, tag teams and factions such as Billy and Chuck, and the NWO, were treated as a single pick, rather than as two or three, and there were two grapplers exempt from being drafted: Triple H, who was Undisputed Champion at the time, and Steve Austin, who was at liberty to “sign” with the brand of his choosing due to a contractual loophole. While the draft did demonstrate that some men and women were considered more important than others, these discrepancies were either glaringly obvious (Undertaker picked above Goldust. Who knew???), or, like the on-the-shelf Chris Benoit being placed a spot higher than the red-hot Hulk Hogan, felt a little forced. Moreover, the top players in the company at the time – those whom fans of the product would have been genuinely interested to see placed in ascending order – were all placed on more or less equal footing. That was the idea, of course: the purpose of the initial draft was to create a balance of talent on both brands, and not to say “so-and-so is better than so-and-so”. The 2002 Draft, which played out on television like two children picking football teams in the school playground, was thus an entirely arbitrary qualitative method of ranking. The “Power 25” section on WWE.com – the “official” WWE ranking system – is compiled in much the same manner. Although it claims to place wrestlers according to their wins and losses, at the time of writing Michael Cole is placed several spots higher than United States Champion Kofi Kingston and Kharma is placed at number 14 despite having not yet competed in a single match.

THQ’s acclaimed WWE Smackdown vs Raw video game franchise, on the other hand, ranks wrestlers entirely quantitatively – even where quantitative data is in fact unobtainable. Attributes such as “charisma”, “technical” skills and “hardcore” ability are given marks out of ten, along with “strength”, “speed” and so on, in order to give characters a total out of 100. Sure, the validity of these stats can be easily questioned (Randy Orton has a charisma rating of 9 / 10 in the latest instalment, and JBL had a strength of 9 / 10 in 2010), and they also change on a yearly basis to reflect the positions of wrestlers in real life – John Cena, for example, had a strength of 7.5 back in 2003 when he sported the “word life” gimmick, and a strength of 9 in 2005 when he was featured in the game as WWE Champion. What is more, to a great extent these character ratings are a moot point in terms of actual gameplay because most characters are capable of performing similar moves anyway and, in the hands of a skilled (read: downright cunning) player, Maryse can handily defeat Triple H.  However, the grand totals do at least provide a straight statistical comparison between wrestlers in-game that is lacking in real life. The latest instalments also record wins and losses so as to contribute a sense of legitimacy. In this, the Smackdown vs Raw strikes a balance between legitimacy and kayfabe that, if not necessarily comfortable, at least makes sense within the confines of the game.

A far less comfortable balance between shoot and work came in April 2010, when TNA / Impact Wrestling (is that official now?) introduced a “TNA Championship Ranking System” that designated the top ten wrestlers in the company into a sort of hierarchy to determine the number one contender for Rob Van Dam’s TNA Championship. Unlike the WWE’s 2002 Draft, this system promised to use statistical data (i.e. win/loss records) in combination with fan votes and the opinions of a panel of judges to construct the initial ranking table. Although the rankings were solely to determine the contender for a single title, that only ten wrestlers were featured rather than the entire roster served to underline the importance of each of the ten elect – simply being ranked was depicted as something to be proud of. By making the TNA Title the sole objective, things were kept nice and simple, and kept silliness amid the feuds which arose from the new system to a minimum. For the first time in a very long while, the hunt for the world title seemed to revolve around genuine competition, and the TNA landscape became very interesting indeed. Despite early promise, however, the end result was something of a disappointment. Desmond Wolfe led the rankings from start to finish, which was certainly no bad thing, and in a just world should have served to establish him firmly in the main event. In the world of TNA, however, the outcome was a disaster – TNA higher-ups, misreading their fanbase entirely, had been counting audience votes going in favour of Sting, Jeff Hardy, and Kurt Angle – the men who had been pushed incessantly down our collective throats throughout the weeks that preceded the ranking results. Wolfe’s popularity was not part of TNA’s grand plan, and Wolfe’s fans were punished for daring to like him more than Jeff Hardy by being forced to watch Van Dam handily beat Desmond in a short Impact main event. Nigel deserved better.

Fans should not have been surprised: wrestling companies seldom give fans any meaningful choices, as we have seen in the past with WWE’s Taboo Tuesday and Cyber Sunday concepts. McMahon never had any intention of letting fans dictate his product. Instead, WWE hoped to manipulate fans into voting in a certain direction. Sometimes it worked (such as Shelton Benjamin’s landslide election victory to face Chris Jericho in 2004), but when things didn’t quite go to plan, the fans were ultimately punished for having opinions which differed from WWE’s long-term plans, and any pretence of legitimacy was lost. In the run-up to Cyber Sunday 2008 WWE spent months pushing Vladmir Kozlov to the moon in the hope that fans would vote for Triple H vs Vladmir Kozlov for the WWE Championship. Fans instead voted for Triple H vs Jeff Hardy. We saw in operation exactly the same principle as TNA’s ranking system. Unsurprisingly, Jeff was booked to lose clean to the Pedigree, and it is no coincidence that Cyber Sunday 2008 was the last such event in the WWE.
Vince learned his lesson, and in 2011 WWE fans do not receive any real say in who should be successful. Let’s be honest: when your choices for the main event of Smackdown are Mark Henry, The Great Khali, and Randy Orton, who are you going to cheer for?

It should by now be clear that if one wishes to imbue professional wrestling with an air of legitimacy, arbitrary drafts and palpably manufactured fan votes are not the answer. The former style of ranking is inherently is unsatisfying, while the latter runs the risk of both irritating – even alienating – fans and upsetting management and long-term plans. To rank wrestlers solely in terms of qualitative factors, then – that is, ranking systems based on little more than “picking favourites” – has thus for proved to be unworkable. Instead of rankings based on what the Undertaker and co. truly are, then (actors – albeit in a very physical theatre), perhaps when considering rankings per se, we may be better served discuss them in light of what professional wrestlers present themselves as in performance: legitimate competitors. Only through treating pro wrestling as genuine sporting competition (instead of a crude facsimile thereof) can we determine objective criteria by which rank should be decided, and collate quantitative data with which to place wrestlers in order.

Which brings us back to wins and losses. In true sport, as mentioned already, wins and losses matter to rank. Professional wrestling, I believe, could attempt to emulate this philosophy. In doing so, it may just bring something new and exciting to the business which could in turn allow pro wrestling to engage with a wider audience and achieve greater mainstream acceptance.

The obvious comparisons would be with fight leagues such as UFC or the WBA – groups which tally up wins, losses, and draws in order to determine who the most dominant combatants are. Athletes in these companies, however, each have a singular focus: fighters and boxers are placed into a specific weight division depending on their size, and then ranked in order of proximity to a single title associated with that weight division. Certainly, rivalries do occur, and matches are about much more than just gold at the end of the rainbow, but with the number of guys in any one division limited to a certain number, and with just one title to contend for, boxing and MMA rankings (such as MMA has rankings – a topic for another time, maybe!) would struggle to accommodate the diversity of standard professional wrestling companies, with their multiplicities of grudge matches and numerous titles which anyone – regardless of weight – may compete for.

Instead, then, how about this tailor-made ladder system, constructed by myself and regular reader Jay Hillard. Jay’s suggestions were instrumental here, and I believe that we may have designed a system which could fit WWE rather well (and other promotions too, with some tinkering…!)

Wrestlers could be ranked after an initial period of one month of competition. Their spots are determined through wins their wins and losses over the course of that month, and from then on a rule of “two up, two down” applies, which allows wrestlers to compete against only those two spots above them or less. Victory against an opponent places the winner in his defeated opponent’s spot, and the loser drops a place, giving a sense of progress while allowing for rematches in time-honoured pro wrestling tradition. The ultimate aim of moving up the ranks is to make it into the top five. Once in the top five, one may challenge for the brand’s world championship, be it the WWE or World Heavyweight. Given the work it takes to get there, a spot in the top five should have the feel of legitimacy – anyone there would have earned the position, and those five men would be able to battle it out for the number one contendership in a variety of ways… five men plus the champion? Sounds like an instant elimination chamber scenario to me. Instead of having won a qualification match to enter the chamber every February, however, the men in the chamber would have earned their spot through constant progress over the course of two months (if not more!). Ascents to the top from rising stars would, it is true to say, take much longer, once a fresh face had broken the top five then his title campaign would have instant credibility. Far from seeming thrust into the limelight, he would have appeared to have earned his (literal) spot.

The brand’s secondary title, on the other hand, can be differentiated from the world titles by being eligible for challenge by anyone regardless of where they stood in the rankings. That would give the IC and US belts a clear and separate identity from the WWE and World Heavyweight championships, and reinforce the role of those titles as potential ‘stepping-stones’ on the way to bigger things. Clearly there would have to be some kind of bonus for holding the Intercontinental or US title, otherwise no one would bother, and simply bypass it on the way to bigger things. As such, perhaps a stipulation could be added that allowed the secondary title holders to challenge anyone within five or ten spots of themselves in order to move up the ladder. The catch, of course, would be that secondary belts would need to be defended at least once every two weeks. Wrestlers in possession of secondary belts for a long time would thus seem all the more legitimate, and a six month reign would mean something special in a way sorely lacking today.

The Womens’ and Tag division would each have their own separate ladders, of course. Given that tag teams are a little rarer in mainstream wrestling than solo performers, perhaps there need only be five teams at any one time in the Tag Table, and only the team in spot number one is eligible to challenge for the title. How would singles success translate into the tag tables and vice versa? It wouldn’t. The two would be kept entirely separate, even though wrestlers could appear on two (or even three) ladders at the same time.

The ladder could of course be manipulated by unscrupulous McMahons and GMs, but their interferences would be far more palpable in a system where wins and losses appeared to matter. As long as their involvement was kept to a minimum for maximum effect, their infrequent contributions could be valuable to the success of such a system.

A kayfabe system based on wins and losses, then. Purely a hypothetical exercise, you understand, but still, it is fascinating to imagine how different things would be if wrestling took a leaf out of the book of legitimate sport. Would it cause more problems than it solved? Possibly. Would it imbue even the dullest of midcard matches with new import? Definitely. And while that may not be the biggest selling point of such a ranking system, matches that feel like they matter always go down a treat, don’t they?

Class dismissed.

 

*Extra Credit*

1) As always, your feedback is welcomed. My thanks again to Jay Hillard! The “ladder system” suggestion was his alone, and it is an absolute pleasure to be able to write for a site where readers are so keen to get involved. If you have any suggestions of your own, drop me an email! Do you have any suggestions of your own for how the processes by which contenders are decided and feuds are initiated may be augmented, improved, or harmed by ranking systems?

2) May 18th marked nine years since the passing of “The British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, a tremendously talented individual who left a lasting impression on the entire business. It would be nice to see a place in the Hall of Fame for him one day. For now, though, I’d settle with WWE giving his son another shot before he departs wrestling for the world of MMA.

Rest in peace, Bulldog. You are sorely missed.

3) Want proof that even the smallest of feuds can seem like major events given the right promotional tactics? Look no further than this excellent promotional video for the Jacob Novak / William Regal bout on last week’s NXT. Imagine if every feud were given this treatment.

4) I wonder what Mickie “Piggie” James thinks of WWE’s resurgent anti-bullying campaign?

5) Kue’s ReKall may be the funniest thing I’ve seen all week. A warning, though: once the tune has entered your skull, you may have great difficulty in removing it…

5) Johnny Curtis. The vigil continues

 

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