May 9, 2000
Wrestling shows must evolve
Professional wrestling is the most successful form of improvisational theatre in the history of the world. Never in the history of the performing arts have audiences been mesmerized by live theatre (and its rebroadcasts) to the volume and degree that they are by today's professional wrestling shows. The shows are bold, colourful and delivered with considerable energy and commitment to character.
It seems that the shows couldn't get much better, but if the "sports entertainment industry" is to continue to flourish, the shows must evolve. In particular, the shows must focus on cleaner storylines and more complex character development.
A few years back, I rejoined the ranks of frequent professional wrestling viewers. I hadn't been a frequent viewer since the mid 1980s. I was channel flipping and happened to catch Scott Hall and Kevin Nash's first appearance on Nitro. They brought them in slowly and teased me just enough to keep bringing me back. Damn, Razor Ramon and Diesel suddenly had a brand new attitude! Hell, the whole show had a new attitude, a new feel. Wrestling was in a state of evolution. There was an energy I hadn't really felt since the glory days of the Four Horsemen or the Fabulous Freebirds! It was an exciting time to watch professional wrestling; the ascendancy of the anti-hero (anti-babyface?) was upon us.
All new story possibilities were about to open up. Anti-heroes were joined or at odds with collectives like NWO, Wolfpack, the Corporate Ministry, or DX. The stories of group dynamics felt as new and fresh as the attitude that went with them.
That was then, this is now. Professional wrestling needs to build on its successes without becoming enslaved to them. Certain themes which have been discovered (re-discovered) in recent years are definitely "keepers":
Let the actions of the characters do the talking! While the acting in the backstage sketches doesn't usually match up to the standards of excellence set by the in-ring performances, it is at least one way to advance a storyline through action, not words. Exposition, or set-up, in drama becomes boring if it is all done at once. No matter what else wrestling has become, it is still essentially a melodrama. The rants and set-ups need to be either broken up or replaced by something different. They are an essentially lazy way to tell a story. They are only one step up from the Ultimate Warrior standing in front of a plain blue tarp and rambling for five minutes about "the darkness."
One thing they could borrow from the Warrior's contemporaries in the 1980's wrestling boom is the growth of a babyface from a good wrestler who just can't get past his arch-nemesis, to a complete wrestler who ultimately can defeat his personal bogeyman. One example of this would be Hulk Hogan versus Zeus. Zeus was in Hogan's head for a long time, but then Hogan overcame him. It seems a bit hokey now, but it was good drama at the time. This storyline can even be played to its conclusion with the face never winning, but still going over in a huge way due to his extreme effort. Foley versus HHH is a tremendous example. The original movie "Rocky" ended in the same fashion, and was vastly superior to any of the sequels in which Rocky was victorious. Despite the egos involved in wrestling, the continuing development of wrestling as entertaining storytelling demands more faces at the top of the card to put the heel over in a dramatic fashion for a fair length of time before the climax of the storyline. Current stories are too dependent on the notion that the face would win every time if it weren't for cheapshots and interference.
Finally, there are the announcers, the narrators of our story. Many fans seem to regard announcing as a job any moron could do. I think that they drastically underestimate the demands of the job. Announcers are performers, and they have to operate at a high energy level for the length of the two hour (at least) show. They have to do this in a packed arena which is bound to have a few idiots who will constantly mess with them while they are trying to do it. Most wrestling announcers are competent and entertaining.
However, one element that works against them is the practice of constantly pumping the evening's main event or the next PPV during the call of an unrelated match. If Vampiro is fighting The Cat, then let's hear about Vampiro and The Cat, not about Hogan and Kidman. Frankly, during the Dean Malenko/Scotty 2 Hotty match, I don't really care if Stone Cold is in the building or not! It's disrespectful to the workers busting their tails in the ring to ignore their match at length in favor of something happening in two weeks. It also makes the match in front of us less interesting, since our narrator/storyteller is telling one story while we are watching another. I realize that they are just trying to convince that the upcoming main event is a tremendously exciting match, but their energy would be better spent convincing us that the match we are watching is an exciting event itself.
In recent years, the evolution of wrestling characters has been fairly linear. Everybody at the top has to have an edge or an attitude. Straight babyfaces are rarely found above the middle of the card. The result has been a newfound audience reaction to the characters. The toughness and aggressiveness of the contemporary face character makes the fans generous with their suspension of disbelief. We were willing to be marks for an S.O.B. as mean and tough as Stone Cold Steve Austin. This guy was a new kind of face. He seemed like he stepped out of a barroom, not out of a comic book. He was no Hulkster, and he sure as hell was no Tugboat! And we sold out completely when he was sticking it to the boss.
That is the trick of face work, getting us to buy whatever it is the character has to offer. We need Austin or The Rock to be arrogant, brash and outspoken and representative of a certain part of our collective character. We don't need everybody else who is a face to try and copy them. The best example of a face who went over without obscene gestures and "attitude" is Chris Benoit in his WCW incarnation. Benoit was underutilized by the bookers, but was loved by fans. He is excellent as a heel in WWF, but his focused style and excellent ring skills would allow him to go over either way. Creating original and interesting heroes is one of the true challenges in drama and storytelling. It may also be the single greatest challenge facing professional wrestling bookers today.
The heel is an ancient character, at least as old as the biblical character of Goliath. The top of the card heels have been getting too predictable over the past two years. They would cheat and win, cheat and win, and cheat but then ultimately lose at Wrestle Mania. The WWF recently established HHH as a consistent worker-heel champion who performs night in and night out. This is a step in the right direction, but it still hasn't gone quite far enough. HHH still wins 99% of his main event matches by chicanery. Hell in a Cell being an exception, and an exceptional exception at that!
I know what you're going to say, "Well, duh, he's the heel!" So? Does that mean he can't be as good a wrestler as the face? For example, as a Packer fan, I have never had a more bitter disposition toward a team than I did toward the Cowboys of the mid '90s. Why? Because they were arrogant, yes, but also because they were just plain good. We were on the verge of becoming the world champion, but they beat us 1-2-3 right in the middle of the mat every damn time we went down there! A heel champion who consistently beats top talent cleanly would be a huge departure from recent pro wrestling tradition. And a good heel could still generate plenty of heat. Jeff Jarrett could generate heat if he just stood in the ring and grinned smugly. Give the devil his due--he has a gift for abrasiveness. He doesn't need to smack everybody and their cousin with a guitar. Overuse of that type of device detracts from the real heat a heel generates. So does the constant interference from the NWO or DX or any other group hanging onto a notion that was hot a few years ago but has become a little tedious by now. Pin 'em clean, Slapnuts! When the dust settles from all the DDP and David Arquette angles going on right now, the WCW would be best off with Jarrett holding the strap and winning a good percentage of his main event matches by simply being a dirty, devious, contemptible heel who happens to be better than the other guy.
The bookers and workers in professional wrestling create a tremendous volume of quality work each year. In their efforts to do so, they must be careful not to become over-reliant on a few tricks that have worked for them over the past few years. This is a lesson the WCW has had to learn the hard way, and which may come the WWF's way if they don't shift a little more of their emphasis off of style and put it back into storytelling. For all that the Stone Cold character became a star based on style and attitude, they maintained it by creating a rivalry with the Vince McMahon character which evolved into a great story. That combination of character and story is what makes wrestling compelling theatre!
Nick J. Lowery is from Lakewood, Wisconsin. He has a degree in theatre and has worked professionally as a playwright, director and improvisational comic. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.