For Queen and Country #2
February 15, 2008
By: Daniel Browne of WrestleView.com
Greetings. In more recent times, ?Sunday? has come to signify less the Christian Sabbath (and so called "Day of rest") and more the crescendo of the week's sporting calendar. Regardless of whether you're an American and you love football (played with hands) or you're an Englishman and you love football (played, astonishingly enough, with feet) Sunday is invariably a good day to rest, vegetate, procrastinate (or some such euphemism) and take in your sport of choice. Personally, I find such a course to be both fulfilling and therapeutic; less so when my team is on and playing poorly (I'm a Chelsea F.C fan, which I'm sure will incur the wrath of any ?Ex Pats? quite possibly reading this) I decided this past Sunday to watch two football matches, one of which featured West Ham United (of East London) versus Manchester United (of any region, anywhere, that will buy merchandise.) For the record, it was a visually pleasing, albeit close affair that ended in a one-goal victory for Manchester United. It was not the game that caught my attention however. That particular honour was claimed by the presence of a certain individual in the crowd, a man who four and a half years ago took English football by storm. A Portuguese gentleman by the name of Jose Mourinho.
For those who haven't guessed, Mr. Mourinho is a football coach, and frankly a rather good one. In his three years in England he handpicked and built a team (costing a lot of money) and instilled in them a winner's philosophy. The end result was six trophies in three years. He was beloved by players, fans (and woman) alike, and they all wept in unison when the pitched battle of egos between Mourinho and the Russian billionaire owner of the club, Roman Abramovitch, came to a head and Jose was dispatched into the night. The club (my club) has been on an inexorably downward spiral ever since. You might inquire as to reasons for his dismissal. It's quite simple. Jose was then and is now no shrinking violet. He was confident to the point of arrogance, with a swagger and panache many a man aspires to but ultimately cannot attain. He enjoyed the glare of the media, and as someone possessing a strong intellect (alongside a psychology degree) he knew how to utilize the spotlight to enhance himself and his team. His witty candour, topical quotes and flair for controversy alienated the pious establishment of the game, but enriched the back pages of newspapers and got people talking about him instead of embellishing his team's potential problems. This was a man who captured the imagination of people with no previous interest in football because of the strength of his persona. He "turned up the volume" so to speak on his own quirks of personality and manipulated the curiosity and voyeurism of others. In doing so, he created an abstraction that the public loved and were distracted by, whilst the man underneath coached his team, influenced their minds and found a winning formula that brought success and fortune in equal measure. This is all starting to sound highly familiar...
It was Jim Cornette who noted the best characters in wrestling as being based on real people with the "volume turned way up". No finer example exists than that of Ric Flair, who embodies this notion so completely as to have inverted it. The most obvious way to construct something is to use the tools at your disposal; after all alchemists are very hard to come by. Granted, some character traits are easier to accentuate than others, and in the good old days if there was a breezeblock in your midst you simply employed a manager to offset the lack of charisma and/or articulation. With the concept of a mouthpiece essentially dead, it's a lot harder in contemporary times.
Rather than trusting in individuality, the industry has resorted to coloring the environment through, at varying times, sex and violence and overall shock value. It was Vince Russo who first understood that concepts outside of wrestling could be used effectively to make money in wrestling. What Mr. Russo didn't (and perhaps still doesn't) understand is the story and setting must be fundamentally sound before you embellish it with lights and colour. With Vince McMahon watching over him (In essence marrying these concepts to a sturdy backdrop) Russo played his part in rebuilding the WWF and launching the second boom period. That the WWF had it's most creative and commercially viable year in Two-Thousand sans Vince Russo qualifies as proof that a fundamentally sound wrestling product is more essential than shock and awe. Wrestling fans everywhere know what Vince Russo was doing in Two-Thousand. Without the editorial skills of Vince McMahon (or an equivalent) the ignorant, capricious, self-destructive Russo was playing a large part in the obliteration of World Championship Wrestling; something long term wrestling fans will never forgive or forget.
If shock value was the industry's first attempt to challenge the pre-requisite of ?larger than life characters?, then uniformity and the conveyor belt concepts are undoubtedly second. It's hilarious to an almost horrific degree witnessing the old timers the WWE keeps around (To ?instruct? the kids) obeying the McMahon dictum and scribbling down (in crayon) every word and the timing of every slam for the improperly trained greenhorn, then proceeding to prattle on about the ?old school? mentality. You know, the one that includes details of eight-hundred thousand mile round trips to Saskatchewan in minus seventy-five degrees in order to put such-and-such over in front of twenty-five people. A tale which inevitably includes a drooling eulogy to Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat working their billionth match whilst knowing only the color of each other's tights. You know, the one the corporate executives in their tailored attire only vaguely grasp when they watch Rocky with their children.
I've always maintained a healthy distance from the concept of paying dues in wrestling, because it's a little more than a hypocritical throwback to a bygone era. One should not have to undergo flagellation in order to succeed if they possess the requisite talent. Alas wrestling has a tendency to reward the Machiavellian and the greedy well before the gifted because of it's fundamentally fraudulent nature; the aforementioned ?dues? being little more than instruments of oppression. It is this survivor's principle, the notion of Canis Canem Edit, that drives the upper-echelons of all big business and it's Vince McMahon's folly, not nipping this phenomena in the bud when he had the chance, (i.e. before the McMahon-Helmsley union) that has allowed it to grow into malignancy.
I used to be my contention Vince would always, ultimately, do what's right for business. The ideal used to be build stars to make money, taking all necessary risks pursuant to this ideal. Nowadays, it seems Vince has become convinced the demise of both WCW and the original ECW was entirely his doing, and the central tenets of McMahon dogma have become not just the fabric of success but also the essence of reality. Vince has become so set in his ways he's forgotten the truth of individuality. I happened to listen recently to the new Voices CD containing the latest batch of entrance themes. I'm something of a fan (and collector) of wrestling entrance music, something I hope to profile in the near future. For me, music and the construction of the entrance are massively understated in their importance to an act getting over with the public. Contemplate for a moment the legacy and achievements of The Undertaker and consider how much the dimmed lights, thunder and lightning, smoke and eerie organ music augments the aura of the character. Granted, the 'Taker is a cartoon-era creation, but some of the simpler links between concept and creation have been lost in the 'shades of grey? era. Whilst listening to what is a perfectly dreadful collection of lifeless, listless and thoroughly nondescript rock tracks masquerading as signature themes, I can't help casting my mind back to classics like Real American, Snake Bite, Demolition and Sexy Boy, in the process yearning for a time when wrestling music, like wrestlers themselves, were memorable. In truth, the CD represents a truncated version of the real issues at play.
By and large, the performers who've emerged in the last few years confound originality and uniqueness. If I stated a new wrestler was quite tall with a decent build and a good tan, wrestled in trunks and black boots with slightly sped-up brawlers timing and used his promo time to make bad puns and bland allusions to kicking someone's arse (before departing to rock music performed by a band no one's heard of) who, precisely, am I referring to? It could be any one of a hundred. Thus, in a nutshell, the archetypal WWE ?Entertainer?.
In Randy Orton, Batista and John Cena you have the three biggest, emergent stars of the last five years. They were all initially saddled with absurd, incongruous gimmicks that threatened to torpedo their chances of success. However, through a combination of choice association (Evolution), tenacity and the old adage ?let them be themselves? the three became moneymaking headline attractions for WWE. Granted, not everyone who walks through the doors at Titan Towers have the necessary tools to become a star. The aforementioned three possess intangibles of character (Cena), aptitude (Orton) and charisma (Batista). These qualities were correctly identified and exploited to maximum effect via favorable gimmicks and well-established rubs. It was Paul Heyman who remarked (referencing ECW): ?Hide the negatives, accentuate the positives?. Both WWE and TNA peddle the same childish, disingenuous, terminally awkward and otherwise identical persona, with zero thought given to individuality and audience association. As such, we face a long wait for new, genuine moneymaking performers. Cast a glance over Raw and Smackdown and note all those among the current crop of superstars who might become money players in the near future. Cody Rhodes? Ted Dibiase? Now I'm struggling... Now consider the main event stars who, with the exception of Jeff Hardy and maybe Christian Cage are old, over-exposed, perilously close to breaking down, or never were. Over in TNA they're sensibly maximizing the collective drawing power of their established names with the Main Event Mafia, yet riskily building the whole thing around fifty-year old Steve ?Sting? Borden, a man who's inability to separate fantasy from reality very nearly fritzed the whole angle, and who's near deal-breaking moral reticence is, as a result, the de facto storyline direction. TNA has done such a bloody awful job of establishing anyone outside of the Mafia that they've had to resort to civil war just to give the Mafia a rival commensurate with their standing. Once the dust settles and the group disbands, TNA will doubtless rapidly begin to smell like WCW, post-NWO i.e. very noxious indeed...
In closing, I recall a time when non-wrestling fans would approach me in passing and allude to the exploits of ?Stone Cold? Steve Austin. The brashness and unhinged, surreal sense of rebellion suffused throughout captured and enlivened imaginations like nothing I've ever seen before in a wrestling character. Everything about him was loud and attention grabbing; a veritable cocktail of reality and fantasy totally unique to wrestling. The most interesting and memorable characters in wrestling are a combination of sometimes primal, real-life inspiration(s) and ostentatious, hyper-inflated personality traits. Together, they form an outlandish (yet accessible) cartoon character that fans can choose to cheer or boo, love or hate. Truly, anything below this sacrosanct ideal is an indulgent waste of everyone's time. In a business, which everyone knows is make believe, retaining credibility is paramount. In accepting this and thus manufacturing athletic competition and characters, then sprinkling a little farce and soap opera for good measure, wrestling is accepting it's place in the world. At the end of the day, be it films, wrestling and most of all in life, it's the characters that linger on and, in the words of ?Classy? Freddie Blassie: ?Defy time to forget them?.