Sunday, July 12, 2009

What Works (and Doesn't) With Pro Wrestling

When I moved out here, I hadn't seen a total hour of pro wrestling in my life. Once I saw my youngest brother watching WCW Monday Nitro back in the 90s. On commercials, he'd flip over to the other channel and look at WWF Monday Night RAW for a while. Later I found out my wife used to do the same thing. I started out following her favorite wrestler, Mick Foley, on Monday Night RAW (now WWE) watching with her sister's boyfriend at the time, letting her know what was going on with the soap opera side of the show as I had Mondays off and she had to work. Didn't take long before I was hooked, and now it's almost four years later and I can't help but fancy myself a bit of an expert. I know there's a lot I haven't seen, though I've been watching RAW for a quarter of the 16 years it's been on TV (which is kinda scary). It's getting to the point where I feel like there's nothing new and it's time for a drastic change. So I have a few ideas I'd like to throw out there.

1. The WWE really needs to stop using the commercial breaks as a plot twist. It's extremely lame and screams to the audience "if you still don't think wrestling's fake, you're a bloody idiot". Here's what'll happen. The good guy (the babyface, or face, in backstage terminology) will build a good momentum against the bad guy (the heel), and typically knock them under or over the ropes to the outside area, between the ring and the crowd. Fade to black. Four minutes of commercials. Fade in from black. Face is on his back in the ring and Heel is beating the crap out of him. RAW isn't live anyway (despite them saying it is - half the time they don't even tell you where they are) so why not simply pause the broadcast at the commercial and resume where they left off? And it happens this way all the time. Another easy solution would be to plan the commercial breaks around the matches. Sometimes, toward the end they'll have an ad break, then an interview or sponsored segment (e.g. a "Just for Men" ad on the bottom half and a recap from last week on the top half), then another ad break, then one of the combatants will go to the ring, then a third ad break, then the other combatant will come out, the match starts, and we get a fourth and sometimes fifth ad break in the middle. I don't mind the frequent ad breaks near the end, but I'd prefer them not in the middle of matches, and then used as a quick reversal.

2. Characters, characters, characters. The Undertaker is one of WWE's most valuable assets, and most fans don't know the man's real name is Mark Calloway (or that he's in a serious relationship with Michelle McCool - I forget her real last name). They don't care, they love The Undertaker, and that's fine. Nevermind that from when his music hits, you can order a pizza, smoke a cigarette, take a #2 bathroom break, pay for your pizza, and have the pizza mostly finished by the time Taker removes his hat. No, I can't say anything bad about The Undertaker - he's a character done right. What I'd like to see less of is characters modeled after and/or named after real people they aren't related to or movie characters from movies not made by WWE. If WWE wanted to make a movie with one of their wrestlers and then incorporate the movie character into the wrestler's character, that's cool. They kind of did that with John Cena and "The Marine". Before the movie came out, he went from being a rapper/thug to being a Marine, or at least a generic army guy. And that's fine, too. But John Morrison (a parody of The Doors' Jim Morrison) and Evan Bourne (a parody, possibly, but more likely a tribute to Jason Bourne, of the Bourne trilogy of books and movies) are just ridiculous. And they're both great performers, but they're cheapened by these pop culture references that they really don't need.

3. I'd like to see more respect for the titles. Most notably, "distract the ref and cheat to win" shouldn't fly. Or assaulting the ref to be disqualified, or walking away from the match, should not constitute a title victory. A title should carry prestige and represent honor and should only be won honestly... otherwise it doesn't mean a thing. And if it doesn't, that's fine, I suppose, but then why have it in the first place? Currently both world titles were ill-gotten. RAW's WWE Championship was won fair and square by Batista, but was vacated and awarded to Randy Orton when Orton and his two lap dogs came out and broke Batista's arm. More on "injuries" in a bit. And CM Punk retained SmackDown's World Heavyweight Championship in a match against Jeff Hardy by kicking the referee. He'd tried everything, couldn't get a win, so he turns around and kicks the ref. It's a disqualification, he loses, but a title can only change hands if the title holder is pinned or made to submit. In a real sporting event it would be unfair, but since WWE is not a real sport, it falls to lazy scripting. It's a cheap copout. And that's entirely apart from my personal opinions about the matches and their contestants. Furthermore, when they call themselves an X Time World Champion, they're really shooting themselves in the foot, because if they're not holding the belt, all that means is they've lost it that many times. If they are holding the belt, they've lost it that many times minus one. Wouldn't it sound better to say that collectively they held a title for X Days? (They actually did this a while back, Santino Marella was Intercontinental Champion at the time, and every week, he'd announce that the Honky Tonk Man famously held the title the longest, for however many weeks, and he'd display how many weeks he'd had it.)

4. Injuries vs. Fake Injuries vs. Silent Absences and Departures. While it's nice that the WWE is bringing back its "PLEASE Don't Try This At Home" (or as John Cena says, "Please don't try this"), the fake injuries only undermine that point. Now, we know that all these guys get along backstage. There are a few real-life problems, but nearly all on-screen rivalries are pure fiction. The last on-screen rivalry with any basis in fact was between Matt Hardy and Edge over Lita, who was dating Matt but left him for Edge. The three agreed to do a short feud on-screen but have since settled their differences. Amy Dumas (Lita) has since retired, but Matt and Edge (Adam Copeland) still work together, and Matt even helped Edge in a feud against Matt's own brother, Jeff. In addition to that, we know that Randy Orton, Triple H (Paul Levesque, while I'm dropping real names), and Batista (Dave Bautista) all trained under and were mentored by Ric Flair (close enough to his real name). So seeing Randy Orton and his lackeys break Batista's arm on stage with a steel chair, while disturbing, didn't come across as real, at all. Think about it: If there were an unscripted all-out assault by three performers on another in a live event, security would be all over it. That's what they're there for, to prevent things from getting out of hand. So one must conclude that things were entirely under control.

5. Lastly, I'd like to see some semblance of order and more respect for the rules. I'd like to see win/loss records introduced, even if it's not genuine and subject to change (e.g. records wiped clean when a wrestler changes characters, such as when Johnny Nitro became John Morrison, or when a wrestler changes brands or alignment (heel/face)). I'd like to see the refs' authority and presence mean something, and I'd like to see some decisions reversed "upon closer examination of the footage". I'd like some matches to even possibly have rounds, e.g. have one person challenge another to a boxing match or an MMA-rules match. Of course, the outcome would still be scripted, but I think it could work out well.

All in all, I enjoy watching the WWE because they know how to put on an entertaining show. I've tried looking at real fighting (such as UFC) and it's just not as fun. What does impress me about the UFC is the sportsmanship and respect that UFC's fighters display. You know the WWE does it as well, it's just off-camera. And that's a shame, because I think that's the best part of UFC. That these guys can beat the holy hell out of one another and still respect the rules, and one another's skills.

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