The View From Down Here – Tell Me A Story

Introduction

To many non-fans, wrestling is just a mindless pastime, a never-ending sea of grown men in spandex bashing one another with “fake” moves. They say it appeals to the lowest common denominator – the basest instincts of violence made palatable. Even if it is pointed out that it is designed to be entertainment, the non-fan will inevitably scoff and say, “Well, so’s watching paint dry to some people.” And should you dare to call it an art form… well, some of the feedback I have received for saying just that verges on the same stereotype they accuse me of being – the toothless yokels drinkin’ corn mash and sayin’, “FU!” every time some one disagrees with them.

 

But there is one thing that does make it more than just a mindless bash (most of the time) – wrestling has story-lines. Now, I could go on here about the stories in the matches themselves. And there are many fine examples. Flair v Steamboat with each knowing the other so well they know how to counter and watch out for each other’s signature moves. Savage v Warrior (WM7) where Warrior destroys Savage but every time he gets cocky and goes for a higher impact move, Savage makes him pay for it and takes over. Bret Hart at the 1994 Royal Rumble where he sold that leg injury the entire show. But unless you have really strong ring presences in there, most of the time the in-ring story is predictable. Either (1) the heel beats up the face until he makes a super-hero comeback and wins, (2) the heel beats up the face but then goes down to a fluke loss, or (3) the face beats up the heel but is beaten by nefarious means, or (4) the heel takes the loss by count out or by disqualification just to toy with the face’s mind. That’s it nowadays. Take scenario, add wrestlers, stir, repeat.

 

No, what I’m talking about is the external storylines. In the old days, stories were simple – I want to be champ so I have to fight my way to the champ, you cost me a championship chance so I must get revenge, you beat up my friend so I must get revenge, you’re stopping my friend from being champ so I must help him. Everything revolved around the championships. But in the past thirty-odd years the championship has taken more of a back seat in the whole scheme of things as more “interesting” story-lines have been brought to the fore.

 

1. Story-lines that work

Now, some story-lines (apart from the tried and true four just mentioned) always work, no matter what. The best of these is the “you injured me and so I want revenge” story-line. Sometimes it’s over too quickly, as in the recent Christian v Alberto Del Rio rivalry. Sometimes it is done very well – see HHH and Shawn Michaels after Michaels was ‘hit by a car’. It is a simple way to have sympathy for the face and make the heel seem even more evil. It gives the face time off to heel up. It serves all manner of purposes. And if you’re lucky, it can lead to a good match now and then.

 

The next is the pure revenge motif. Wrestlers tend not to be Hamlet and act all anguished when something bad happens; they go for the more Laertes-style kick ass and ask questions later form of getting revenge. This is a little different from the injury story, however. As an example, recently we have seen the “you treated me like crap” revenge story with Riley and The Miz, and the crowd has eaten it up. It still works so well. Well, most of the time. We’ll get to those other times later.

 

The next is a great excuse for a heel turn, but seems to be all but gone with the manager role taking on less importance. The “I wanted more money” storyline. From Ted Dibiase paying off Andre the Giant and the second Hebner, to Chris Adams joining Gary Hart in WCCW, some one turning to the dark side for cash works because we, the audience, know that, given the chance, we might not be able to say, “No,” either.

 

And finally there is the come-uppance story. This is yet another form of the revenge story, but tends to last longer and have a more satisfying ending. The heel is just a jerk all the time, until, finally, the crowd sees them get their come-uppance. Classic example would be the Honky Tonk Man. He lost a number of his Intercontinental Title matches by count out or disqualification, but retained the title. The crowd were rabid to see him finally lose that belt, and it made him a success. But they could not milk it forever, and so down comes the Ultimate Warrior and, seven seconds later, the title has finally changed hands. The explosion when that happened was not just cheers for the Warrior (though that was certainly there), it was seeing the heel get his. A more recent example would be Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler, but the end results were maybe too long in coming and more of a “thank God that’s over!” type situation. Although, Alex Riley and the Miz was done well. Swings and roundabouts.

 

2. Story-lines that have become clichés

There are some stories that have been done to death, and either need a good half a decade or more being ignored, or need some sort of twist or need really compelling characters to carry them off. So these aren’t bad storylines, but they need a rest for a while to make them relevant again.

 

The first is the most obvious – the evil authority figure who makes life hell for the plucky baby-face. Be it the company owner, the general manager, the commissioner, the sheriff, the boss, whatever, this has become as stale as last week’s bread. And this includes evil referees (never better than Danny Davis). And yet it is still being used again and again. It does make everything work towards a common goal, but it has happened so often that the permutations have all been done to death.

 

The next is that tried and true staple: the tag team wrestler who turns on his partner. It has been done well – Shawn Michaels superkicking Marty Jannetty through the props of a pseudo-talk show comes to mind. It has also been done not so well, for which we only need to look to recent history and the Hart Dynasty. This leads into the new cliché of tag team partners who actually don’t like each other and yet are successful, even if for a little while. Even if it is just quick in order to set a storyline feud along, it happens too often.

 

And then there is the contract signing. These things are never just done with two men and their agents signing a bit of paper, shaking hands and agreeing to settle it in the ring, like true gentlemen. No, one has to attack the other, normally using a chair or the table, and often with help from friends or comrades. Of course, there have been some recent changes, like a third party coming in to beat up both of the signees, but it’s still a contract signing that ends in chaos.

 

And how can we forget streaks? Winning streaks, losing streaks, DQ streaks, whatever – even the most naïve wrestling fan knows that the streak will one day come to an end. Sure, it can be done well so that the ending means something – see Ric Flair’s must win streak until he faced Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania – or it can be done well and then the ending comes to mean nothing (see Goldberg), or it can mean nothing at all (see Crimson in TNA). A streak is a story that the audience already knows the ending of, and so it takes something really special to pull it off.

 

And finally, brothers against brothers. The Harts? Excellent and well done story, with the ultimate reunification for the new Hart Foundation making sense as well. Sets a high bar which others have yet to match. The Steiners? Convoluted and confusing feud that seemed to end when Rick Steiner won the tag titles with Judy Bagwell and then joined forces with Scott again. Mimic and Grimm in RCW? Great build, great matches, but then all but forgotten in more recent times, and now apparently back on (which actually is okay as the feud has not ended, but they needed a break). The Hardys? Led to some surprisingly odd matches that seemed to have a lack of chemistry. But it’s been done so often that when we see real-life brothers we just know they are going to fight eventually.

 

3. Story-lines that should have been left on the desk

Oh, where to begin here? Feuding over a shampoo commercial? Check (Booker T v Christian). How about fighting over the paternity of a child? Check (Rey Mysterio Jr v Eddie Guerrero). What about eating some one else’s pet? Check (Earthquake and Jake Roberts). Yes, some stories would even be rejected for Days Of Our Lives, let alone professional wrestling.

 

But there are some that need to be completely chucked away. First, the Montreal Screwjob. That was a small slice of ‘reality’ in the wrestling landscape, with very real emotions and real conspiracies, etc. However, every attempt since to re-enact it is just a pathetic parody, and cannot match the original at all.

 

Oh, every storyline that involves miscarriage, they should never again blight our television screens. Especially when the acting is at sub-porno levels, making you think said miscarriage might just be a case of eating too many jalapeno peppers instead of something as earth-shattering and psychologically painful as losing an unborn child.

 

And finally, this one will be stated very shortly and without any further explanation: Katie Vick.

 

4. Story-lines that make little sense

Now, I’m going to avoid the little things here. Things like the way whenever some one turns face everything they did as par for the course as a heel is ignored, the way past feuds are ignored as soon as some one wins a match, little things without which wrestling would become the same two men beating each other up until one was dead.

 

No, these are things that stretch even the suspension of disbelief.

 

First is the parodying of real people. Be they Billionaire Ted with the Huckster and Nacho Man, or Fake Diesel and Fake Razor Ramon, or (God help us all) Oklahoma winning the WCW Cruiserweight belt, why bother? It only makes the fans realise what they are watching is second rate crap or makes them miss the original people all the more.

 

How about battling God? Well, the McMahons named God as Shawn Michaels’ tag team partner. And won. Yeah, well, it happened. And then this brings us to all the wrestling religious people. Deacons and ministers and preachers and Mordecai. Because nothing says love for God more than beating the snot out of people.

 

But, to my mind, the things that make the least sense are those that come from real life. These surely would not result in fighting it out in a wrestling ring to sort out. Of course this brings to mind Matt Hardy and Edge with Lita. That could have been the blood feud for the ages… instead we had a few matches and that was it. I mean, come on, if that happened to you, would you be happy just pinning the other guy or escaping from a cage? Really?

 

Oh, and everything about the convoluted story-lines involving Undertaker and Kane, including murder, arson, torture, death, attempted murder, coffin stealing, urn stealing, different fathers, burial alive and lights coming out of urns. None of that makes any sense, never has, never will…

 

5. In Conclusion

Story-lines are important for all forms of entertainment, if at least to hang our emotional hats on. Yes, little kids may listen to songs because of the beat and catchy choruses but most good songs that last the test of time and that people listen to 20 years later actually have some sort of story behind them. Great songs have a strong message or meaning, or convey great emotion. Films and books are based on stories (although watching some Hollywood blockbusters, I do have my doubts some times) even if the execution is poor. Painting and the visual arts all have some sort of story or explanation behind them. Even dance tells a story the majority of the time.

 

And so it is with wrestling. It needs to have a story that the audience can relate to. Sure, there have been some misses – many misses – but there have also been hits. And when those hits hit well, wrestling as an art form becomes much more intense, much more real… much, much better.

 

And that’s another view.

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