I consider my greatest formative influences in the field of wrestling journalism to be Scott Keith (the Paul Simon of the star-rating movement, in that he still creates today) and WrestleCrap’s RD Reynolds (the Dr. Demento of wrestling oddity). I discovered both in my impressionable teenage years, found that each man’s modes of incredulousness and dry sarcasm resonated with my sense of humor, and have since patterned my own writing to an extent after their time-tested works. Both are known for being, to some degree, excessively critical (Scott, critical? The hell you say!), but can also find positives in dismal circumstances. Having read enough of their works to allow influence upon me, I try to train myself to do the same thing.
So when Sheamus Brogue kicked Roman Reigns into confetti’d oblivion at Survivor Series and absconded with the WWE Championship, I came to the conclusion that mirrored WWE’s apparent intent: Reigns would probably be viewed more sympathetically against an unlikeable Sheamus. I like Reigns as a performer, and am of the mind that WWE has done him dirty with their hazy tunnel vision, and inflexible molding of what a babyface hero has to be in 2015. I also like Sheamus as a performer, and I think many agree with me that he was utterly ruined by how he was booked in 2012, as some alleged-babyface cousin of The O’Doyle family in Billy Madison.
The problem with the story, which goes a little way toward explaining why Raw averaged less than three million viewers an hour on November 23, is that while crowds boo Sheamus, the booing stems from legitimate dislike of him. Not ‘legitimate dislike’ that equates to, “I want to see the babyface kill him,” but rather, “I don’t want him on my TV.” That’s compounded by the existing vitriol toward Reigns, even though he likely has all of the qualities to be the one-man battalion that Vince McMahon yearns for him to be. Because Reigns has been presented less than satisfactorily, less people are interested in seeing him conquer The Ginger Goblin.
As McMahon and whoever else forge ahead stubbornly like Captain Ahab with the idea that Reignsamania will indeed run wild, I thought that Sheamus cutting him off was the best case scenario for the story. If you’re going to get Reigns over as a hero, give him a true villain to slay. Who’s more unlikeable than the cretin that helped ruin WrestleMania 28 out of the gate? Thus, looking for a silver lining, I concluded that the idea reasonably had legs.
When that unctuous Raw rating came in on November 24, the consensus quickly pointed the finger at Reigns-Sheamus driving away fans, effectively shooting my positive thinking to hell, and they’re probably not wrong. There’s a problem, I feel, that lies deeper, and that’s the idea that a large segment of the audience will not allow for an effective heel to exist in 2015.
Scour through the WWE roster of today, and ask yourself which prominent heels are actually respected by the most vocally-critical segment of the regular audience. To my way of thinking, if you’re talking ‘prominently pushed’ only, your list consists of Seth Rollins, The New Day, Kevin Owens, and Paige, who at least seems to be a heel this week. Rusev, King Barrett, and the lesser-seen Sasha Banks would be a tier or two below the first group in terms of push and use. How does the vocally-critical (read: IWC, if you need it spelled out) tend to view these performers?
Rollins is the most talented overall performer WWE has, combining Shawn Michaels’ showstealer gene, CM Punk’s credibility with the indy crowd, Edge’s natural smarm, and John Cena’s tireless work ethic. If Rollins were 6’5, Vince would have to ingest a gallon of saltpeter prior to ever making eye contact with him, because then he’d be everything WWE could want from a main event player. Since all of these qualities are trumpeted and brayed endlessly, that vaunted collection of four-star classics he’s strung together, it’s hard for him to get the momentum once afforded to the likes of Triple H 2000 or Roddy Piper 1985 when the most diehard fans hail him as their own long-haired, bearded messiah. Even after pulling off the best heel turn this decade, crossing his Shield-mates in utterly unexpected fashion, that sting would soon dissipate when he began stealing shows with the frequency of sunsets.
Rollins steals the show in the ring, while New Day owns the night with their outlandish antics, an affront to WWE’s 50/50 culture. Where the law of the land is bland, New Day eschews cookie cutters with a techicolor wake-up call for the audience. Even with the tongue-in-cheek ‘insincere sincerity’ that is the root of the unicorn adornments and trombone wails, are they really heels? Less-hip fans (the target demo) were thrilled when the Dudley Boyz planted Xavier Woods through tables, but it’s not like everyone’s clamoring for them to get stuffed. At the circus of the mundane, who’s going to jeer the only clowns with a real voice?
At least Owens does ‘heel things’, like back down from confrontations when it’s most convenient to him, or disparage the established heroes in with placid bluster. Of course, after ten years of John Cena’s .950 winning percentage dominating the A-shows, anyone expecting Owens to be vilified after his clean win over Cena in May were kidding themselves. Instead, it was the cause of a short-lived celebration, only snuffed out when top-draw Cena gained two return wins over Owens, one by submission. This was considered a ‘burial’ of Owens, which is like saying that 45-year-old Bruno Sammartino buried Larry Zbyszko at Shea Stadium. I realize WWE didn’t fill out any baseball venues for what was a rushed feud between two pros in Cena and Owens, but the point stands. The heel will always get his comeuppance. It’s just that modern WWE dictates that a blood feud contain three matches, no actual blood, and must be wrapped up within seven weeks. When you don’t sustain the story, I suppose the abrupt ending does feel like a burial.
As for Paige, I think that one’s been beaten to death in the last several weeks. Lost in the callousness of dragging Reid Flair’s graven name into a heatless story was the fact that Paige, playing the role of ‘spiteful bitch’, did something a spiteful bitch would do, and it hit a nerve with the audience. As Brandon Stroud plainly stated, “I love heels being horrible people. I want them to be racist, sexist, belligerent, offensive and cruel. They’re the bad guys.” It is a shame that WWE’s well of storytelling is so shallow that they had to pluck a real gut-punch of a tragedy to draw bad vibes from, but I can at least appreciate what the goal was. Mission accomplished, a heel disgusted the audience. Sadly, it’s an audience that doesn’t know what to do with their disgust anymore.
Stroud later noted, “If they take (what Paige said) back because it made people mad at a heel, they’re missing the point of wrestling.” That’s just what WWE did, scrubbing all mentions of Reid from the Survivor Series pre-match video,and turning Paige’s other comments about Charlotte riding her family name into the sparkling fuse for Charlotte’s blacked-out attack. This is why we can’t have vile things.
I feel like today’s most vocally-critical fan (there’s that buzzphrase again) wants wrestling to be like the way it ‘used to be’, without realizing that they, in their current form, likely wouldn’t have enjoyed wrestling the way it ‘used to be’. Their tastes have matured with the passage of time. The kid that watched Garfield and Friends in 1990 doesn’t watch Phineas and Ferb today; they watch The Walking Dead instead. By that token, the adult that now appreciates what great and effective villains Ted Dibiase, Ric Flair, and Mr. Perfect were may be forgetting how thrilled they were to see The Ultimate Warrior and Sting vanquish those heels as children.
Transplant today’s 35-year-old wrestling fan back to 1990. He’s going to complain about Warrior beating Perfect on every house show, testifying that Perfect is a superior worker and is being wasted on some popped-vein maniac that cuts unintelligible promos. When he was ten years old, he was in front of his bathroom mirror, beating his chest like Warrior, before going to that house show where Warrior splashed Perfect following the gorilla press, cheering his little head off. Then he fell asleep in the backseat on the ride home, clutching the Warrior Wrestling Buddy his dad bought him that night.
No 35-year-old fan is expected to buy into wrestling the way they once did, just as no ten-year-old is expected to appreciate the subtle nuances of theatrical combat, nor will he care what evils happen when the Gods and monsters are dressed in their casual attire. Wrestling is a medium for all audiences, and it’s not designed to be wedged into the tastes of one particular age group, or especially one particular group of tastes.
What is today’s wrestling product supposed to look like to the vocal fans? Tastes seem to vary, but it’s almost like they want it to be a James Bond movie: the hero and the villain are equally dashing, nimble, and suave, and their war climaxes with enough action to fill the front of Michael Bay’s pants with life seeds. You don’t hate Bond, and you don’t hate the villain, because both break their backs to make the best climactic scenes imaginable, and neither looks weak until the villain dies. Actually, today’s fan would probably complain that Bond doesn’t do the job enough. They’d raise this point from their seats in the Blofeld Section.
I realize that WWE’s stories are staler than a long-forgotten Reggie Bar, but the micro-critiques from the disconnected-by-choice don’t help either. The heel runs away? WWE’s making him look weak. The face looks strong? WWE’s pushing him too hard at the expense of the villain. They complain when they realize that the heel is probably losing the feud, which is how 85 percent of feuds historically end. It’s understandable when the arcs are rushed so that nobody’s actions or words resonate, and that Cena as a character is as inflexible as a ring post, but I think in a number of instances, these fans get upset over the wrong things.
There have been many calls for the business to ‘evolve’, though there’s no concrete definition of what an evolving wrestling product entails. That’s quite a duplicity: some fans want to enjoy wrestling the way they did when they were clueless to the patterns and tropes and politics, but now that they have a grasp on what makes the mainstream wrasslin’ business tick, they want to be enthralled and enchanted the same way. Yet, their first instinct is going to be deconstruct every little thing they see on the programs. It seems pretty self-defeating to me.
And when they’re not deconstructing, they’re praising the very heels they would have booed in their days of ignorant bliss. There’s symbolism in there. WWE is viewed by the IWC for what it unabashedly is, a corporate machine that pats itself on the back and panders to the lowest common denominator. Cena and Reigns represent that machine, thus Rollins and New Day and Owens become some form of modern-day Guy Fawkes, as though Cena and Rollins aren’t sharing backslaps, Reigns and Owens fistbumps, once they’re behind the sanctity of the curtain.
It’s not like the fans are solely complicit in this perpetual exercise; WWE does plenty of damage with stories that are rushed, poorly-nuanced, or even just paint-by-numbers. Insert another tangent about the worthlessness of a three-hour show here. Add another rant about the uselessness of Smackdown here. From top to bottom, it’s a mess.
But for fans holding out for The Great Heel Hope, the new Flair or the new Savage, that utterly changes the game, let it go. Even when WWE manages to not trip over its own two clownshoes to provide you one, you’re not equipped to boo them the way you say you want to.