February 24, 2000
The new face-turn formula
Angle following The Rock's path
WWF European Champion and Real Athlete Kurt Angle and the People's Champion, The Rock, clearly share youthful good looks and talent in the ring. Both were promoted as "blue-chippers" by Jim Ross. While it's true that Angle's "It's true!" isn't an especially catchy phrase, neither was "Smell what The Rock is cookin'" originally. Angle's microphone skills are improving rapidly, and his character is developing compellingly, as did The Rock's.
The most fascinating similarity between these two superstars, however, is found in the way Angle's story is being written. He is following the very path mapped out by The Rock. It is a path that leads the man who takes it, if he treads with Integrity, Intensity and Intelligence, gradually to the status of a regular main event babyface and to multiple heavyweight title reigns. This all occurs through the most calculated manipulation of the fans' allegiances.
Ultimately, being a face has nothing to do with being a "good guy," only with being cheered. Admittedly, this is a great oversimplification. There are always those who cheer for the the heel, who boo the face, and so on. But wrestling is a business, and merchandise only sells in large quantities for characters who are cheered for by the vast majority of fans. The company therefore has a strong interest in developing enduring personalities of this sort.
It is well-known that wrestling fans today are a different breed. As a result, the writers must adopt increasingly clever and sneaky ways of staying one step ahead of them. Especially when they no longer respond to the traditional stimuli. Particularly when a growing proportion of them are fully aware of the various techniques by which their preferences are manipulated -- sometimes surrendering to them while at other times rebelling against them. How do you create a phenomenon like the People's Champion, beloved by nearly all, in this environment?
There was something different about The Rock's rise to glory, culminating in his first championship victory at Survivor Series 1998. Steve Austin had his defining moments - the birth of 3:16; stunning Vince McMahon in the middle of the ring - that put him over. Diesel had his famous Royal Rumble push. Shawn Michaels? Well, he hung out with Diesel (and he had the "lost his smile" vignette). But no particular action or interview can be pointed to that says, "this is what made The Rock so immensely popular." Until the moment Vince "screwed" Mankind and The Rock declared himself the Corporate Champion (bringing to a conclusion a conspiracy straight out of Machiavelli's Discourses -- but that's a story for another column), how had The Rock become the most popular wrestler in the company? You may well remember that even then, the People's Elbow had eclipsed the Stone Cold Stunner as the manoeuver winning the loudest approval from the crowd.
It happened like this. Rocky Miavia will probably go down as the last attempt to generate a traditional All-American Boy Scout babyface. The last, because the attempt failed so utterly. In the 3:16 era, nobody was going to cheer for a clean-cut smiley-faced hero. The chants of "Die Rocky Die!" and, of course, "Rocky Sucks!" soon filled every arena. After some time off, The Rock returned with an attitude. But here's the clincher -- no matter how loudly the fans voiced their disapproval, he insisted that he was their hero. He insulted them incessantly, but continued to proclaim himself The People's Champion. While the fans in attendance disparaged him audibly and visibly, he remained steadfast in his conviction that he was their representative. Concurrently recognizing how catchphrases helped elevate Austin, he engineered a few of his own. He developed and perfected amusing character quirks and (elbow-)padded his arsenal with trademark moves. Slowly but surely, he won the people over to his side, until they consented to his unofficial reign as their Champion. So much so, that he could not shake them even after he betrayed them -- so "sing-along-with-The-Rock" continued despite his expressed objections (or rather, precisely because of them) and he would go on to even greater stardom after being expelled from the Corporation.
What is the psychology here? Traditional face-turns that happen all at once, more or less, are still used regularly, but they have only a short-term payoff. The fans aren't so easily swayed anymore, largely because they resent being told so directly, "now you cheer for this guy." Instead, present them with someone who warrants their admiration and support by all conventional social standards (e.g., someone with an Olympic gold medal won under your flag), and see how strongly averse they are to him. Have him call himself their national hero, and watch them react with defiance. Even have him wrestle in a "boring," technical style in order to assure negative responses.
All the while, have him insult everyone. He will endear himself to those who love to see others insulted. Have him commit questionable acts that some fans will find entertaining, like assaulting an 80-year-old 'pregnant' woman. Originally, the fans hated him because they felt they were expected to like him. Gradually, some will like him precisely because everyone else dislikes him. The fans, thinking that they are doing the opposite of what is expected of them, will begin doing exactly what is desired of them. Eventually, they will even think themselves cleverly ironic, cheering for the man they think they are supposed to cheer against. They realize they were being tricked into cheering against him, since everyone knows that nobody seriously cheers for the "good guy" anymore. Only later, once they realize that getting you to cheer for him was the real plan all along, it has now become so enjoyable to do so that they play along anyway.
The art of manufacturing an enduring senstion of The Rock's magnitude is no easy task; it requires craftsmanship. But now they have a new formula.
Kurt Angle is now being primed for main event status. It's true! He is! He is rehearsing with the European strap just like The Rock did with the Intercontinental. Naturally, it will take time, and there will be twists and turns and surprises along the way.
Mark my words. The number of pro-Angle signs in the audience will only grow. And everyone who is currently chanting "Angle Sucks!" will be wearing his T-Shirts soon enough.
Travis D. Smith is from Brantford, ON, and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.