Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wrestling As We Knew It

Wrestling fans have long predicted that Vince McMahon would rue the day he bought out his competition. As the summer progresses, the cracks are beginning to show. Since there are no challengers to their American wrestling throne, WWE is getting further and further away from what made their product worth watching in the first place.

It's never been a secret that Vince has longed to get away from the "rasslin" label in order to get more acceptance from the mainstream media, to the point that fans have been subjected to many labored, contrived attempts to seem relevant - from the Donald Trump/Rosie O'Donnell fiasco from 2007, to Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton making inexplicable appearances, to the current celebrity guest host gimmick. No matter how Busch League and out-of-touch it makes Vince seem, he will not give up. But this time, he has help.

The huge driving force behind how the product is presented now is Donna Hammer, CEO of USA Network. A Newsweek profile of her revealed an unprecedented level of control she has been allowed over Raw, to the point that she influenced Vince McMahon to start bringing in comedy and soap-opera writers. She's also a huge proponent of the current celebrity guest host shtick (featuring such luminaries as Freddy Prinze Jr, Jeremy Piven, Shaq and Seth Green), which has proven WWE's desperate need to redefine its niche within the entertainment industry. Long term planning and building towards a blow-off pay-per-view has become a thing of the past. In other words, wrestling doesn't want to be wrestling anymore.

And you know what? It's worked! Ratings are up from last year. But if USA and WWE expect any of that to sustain, they're sorely mistaken. They're going to run out of celebs (look who they've trotted out already for chrissakes), and the novelty of "Wow, Celebrity X is on a wrestling show??" will fade.

Compare this to what guest celebrity appearance (a rarity back then) helped set off the last wrestling boom period - Mike Tyson's appearance at Wrestlemania 14. He still generated interest just by virtue of being Mike Tyson, but that's not what hooked people. Tyson helped bring aboard a curious audience that got hooked on fresh, relatable characters like Steve Austin. The casual fan, used to the cartoonish superhero types like Hulk Hogan, had never seen anything like him. As a result, WWE took the time to craft the perfect adversary for him: Vince McMahon. Wrestling was once again a lot of fun, and business was great up through 2001.

What WWE is doing now is like waving shiny objects in a child's face. "Oooh, look at this! Now look at this! And this!" They don't seem to understand that a bigger opportunity lies in developing characters people care about, and spinning off natural rivalries. You know, basic wrestling stuff. History has bore this out. Tyson brought an opportunity, Austin and McMahon were the hook.

Now, it's absurd that WWE can create another Steve Austin out of thin air, but the discouraging thing is that they've barely tried, because they haven't felt the need. Wrestling fans have been stuck with Randy Orton, HHH, and John Cena for several long years now. found about a month ago that after Summerslam on Sunday, some combination of Orton, HHH and Cena will have wrestled 25 times on pay-per-view since August 2004. 25!! That's patently insane. That's even more than any combination of Rock, Austin, and Undertaker during the last boom period. (21 by my count, from January 1998 to December 2001.) Those guys were drawing tons of fan interest, not to mention bazillions of dollars. The guys dominating now are drawing substantially less interest. How can they continue to trot out these same matchups month after month? And they wonder why PPV buys are sinking from year to year?

Ah, but there's an explanation for this: Brock Lesnar. Quitting the way he did, after all the time and effort WWE had put into him, Brock messed up main event opportunities for every future star to come by planting a huge seed of doubt in the mind of management. WWE had given him the world - he won the WWE Title within 5 months of his debut and headlined the next year's Wrestlemania - but he said his heart wasn't into it. Bobby Lashley also spurred similar opportunities despite being featured in the much-publicized Trump/McMahon Hair vs. Hair match at Wrestlemania 23. I'd go as far as to say that Jeff Hardy's wishy-washy-ness of the past few years regarding being a full-time wrestler has furthered the doubt.

Last year, MVP, a likable and capable wrestler with a boatload of charisma, was made to lose 19 matches in a row on TV. The reasoning behind this, according to an Observer Newsletter in December 2008, was because the WWE was "mad about giving guys such as Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley huge pushes only to see them leave" and using it "as a way to make sure he's willing to stick out for the long haul."

Wait... what?

This is the equivalent of the Twins benching Denard Span, regardless of how he's performing, just to "see if he can handle being benched." It's like saying to Amy Adams, "You may be a beautiful and talented actress, but we're going to put you in some really terrible movies just to see how you do." The WWE is saying, "You might be good, the fans might like you, but we don't trust you. Screw the fans."

It hasn't stopped with MVP. Dolph Ziggler, a hugely talented guy who reminds me, both in physical resemblance and performance, of Mr. Perfect, was given one of the worst gimmicks in recent memory - he would enthusiastically introduce himself to everyone. That was it. Even before that, he was part of the embarrassingly stupid Spirit Squad in 2006. Again, WWE is saying "We're not going to give the fans an opportunity to get to know you or even like you."

Several new younger stars can be used as examples. The Miz was building on something interesting by calling out and making fun of John Cena week after week, only to be jobbed out to him about 79 straight times in just as many seconds. Kofi Kingston moves a bit of merchandise and is a natural babyface, both as a personality and as a worker, but is treated like an afterthought. In fact, I don't ever remember him getting the opportunity to talk. Jack Swagger is a heel custom built to oppose longtime babyfaces like HHH - he has the size, the look, the talent to keep up, and a decidedly different personality. Hell will freeze over before we see that program.

(To be fair, they've done a good job thus far with John Morrison and CM Punk, but they're on the B-show, Smackdown.)

Puzzling as it may seem, that's WWE's perogative, since there's no one to challenge their empire. (TNA is as much on the radar as the Kansas City Royals are in the pennant race.) Competition from WCW was a direct cause of WWE's boom period in the late 90s. Headliners like Austin, Rock and Mankind were given a chance out of pure necessity. WWE was desperate to compete, so they gave out lots of opportunities to anybody willing. I don't just mean "letting them be themselves", I mean really dedicating the time to see how good they can be - long matches, lots of mic time, letting the fans get familiar with them while creating memorable feuds. The Rock/HHH feud from 1998 is a perfect example of this. If Rock, Austin or Mankind came along 10 years later, it's hard to imagine them getting any kind of opportunity.

One of WWE's latest projects is the development of Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase Jr, two blander than bland guys the company expects fans to care about because they're the sons of bigger and better stars. Their "push" to superstar status has included lackey duty to Randy Orton and losing about 9 out of every 10 televised matches. They're a total joke, but WWE (particularly announcers Michael Cole and Jerry Lawler) are begging fans to believe otherwise. It's amazing how something as simple as WINNING MATCHES to elevate talent has gone by the wayside.

What's funny to me is that after DX squashes those two guys at Summerslam this Sunday, I can already hear HHH defending the decision to do so. "That's how wrestling works, the good guys go over the bad guys." Hey Hunter, you know what's more important than the good guys going over? Having bad guys that are worth a crap in the first place! Imagine that!

Look, I just want wrestling to be fun again. I don't want to be patronized, I don't want shiny objects waved in my face, I don't want to feel like an idiot for watching. The reason I became a fan in the first place was thanks to the very basics that make the wrestling industry what it is: fresh characters, budding rivalries and great matches. Is that so much to ask?

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