Dear readers, I apologize for missing April. I would promise to write two columns this month or next month in order to make up for it, but I’m afraid I can’t promise much of anything these days. I offer the following excuses, for your amusement: hectic academic schedules, piles of papers in need of grading, dissertation proposals in need of writing, comprehensive exams in need of defending, and a monstrous dissertation in dire need of beginning (!). Over the past two months, however, I have indeed kept my eyes and mind tuned into the goings-on in the ‘World of Wrestling,’ and I want to take up space this month lingering over some of the many joys that captured my attention.
1. The Sense of an Ending
I originally wanted to write this month’s column about the ‘Extreme Rules’ PPV in April, focusing on the endings to the World Heavyweight Title and WWE Title matches. Although I no longer feel like writing 1500 words about these endings, something still needs to be said:
(a) The ending of the title match between Jack Swagger and Randy Orton exemplifies the meaning and the complexity of the phrase “clean win.” (I know a weapon was involved in the closing minute, but the fact that it was an Extreme Rules match and that Swagger never actually touched the chair allows us to retain the word “clean.”)
The affective force of a clean win, one of the most important mechanisms for putting over developing talent, has nothing at all to do with the mere FACT that one wrestler, lower down the hierarchy of talent, might defeat another “all by him- or herself.” Indeed, the simple fact of winning or losing means very little to the development of younger wrestlers (or wrestlers just coming into the spotlight). What matters, I argue, is HOW one wins or loses. The orchestration of an ending is so important, and I think most of us could name several matches that were engineered to “put over” young talent but that nevertheless failed miserably. Most of Shawn Michaels or Triple H’s matches with low-to-mid card wrestlers rarely succeeded as well as, say, Batista’s match against Bryan Danielson a few weeks ago on Monday Night RAW. Again, the simple FACT that Danielson lost means very little to his WWE future . . . it matters far more HOW he lost and HOW the match built up to the finish and HOW Batista continued to look frustrated, even after putting Danielson away.
Orton may have been slammed through a chair before Swagger’s Gutwrench Powerbomb, but the seconds BETWEEN the chair and the powerbomb capture the sweet spot of these closing moments. The champion didn’t just get lucky. He used his control segments throughout the match to target Orton’s torso, softening him up just enough for his reversal of the RKO to do the kind of damage it did (and without overdramatizing the situation as we so often see in Shawn Michaels’s “work the back” matches). Orton is tied to the railroad tracks and hears the whistle of the approaching train, but he cannot undo the ropes that hold him down. He scratches and claws to try to fight out of the gutwrench, but Swagger persistently keeps his hands locked, drags Orton to his feet, and nails his finishing move (the whole sequence takes less than a minute, but when I watched it live, it felt like a real struggle). The fact that Orton KNOWS he’s in trouble but that he cannot do anything about it makes for a beautiful orchestration that “puts over” Swagger far more than a flash pin or some shady tactics would have . . .
I love big-money matches that manage to create a moment where one knows the match is over. That’s the affective power of an ending: one senses a finish even before it takes place, and its effects linger on afterwards. An ending is immanent to its conditions of possibility and also leaves traces of itself behind, making new conditions of possibility for future endings. Sometimes fans want an ending to be clever and to hinge upon a mistake or to come out of nowhere (hence the complaints of ROH fans when they feel too many heels “cheat.”) When Kawada nails Misawa with the Ganso Bomb in January of 1999, for instance, he did not immediately win the match, but the feeling – the sense! – that he was going to win came to a fever pitch as soon as he hit the move. That is precisely the feeling I had while watching the end of this match: Orton’s stuck, and he knows there’s nothing he can do about it.
(b) I’ll say a bit less about the WWE Title Match. While the ending of John Cena and Batista is not quite as cool, the end of their Last Man Standing match generates the same “sense” of an ending. Again, the important fact of this ending is not so much the ducktaping of Batista or the fact that the bookers found a way to wiggle out of the double count-out double-bind. Again, the money moment at the end of this match is BETWEEN, that is, during the moments where Batista, unlike Orton, literally finds himself tied to the railroad tracks. There’s no train coming this time, however: just the ticking of a clock and the shortening of a time limit. I like the side of John Cena we see here, the side that mocks Batista and that waves his hand in front of his face as the big guy struggles to free himself: You Can’t See Me . . .
It was nearly as cool as Cena celebrating his win at Wrestlemania with the very section of the crowd that hated him.
2. Nature Boy’s Double
Although my criticisms of TNA match (sometimes double!) the intensity of many here at Wrestleview.com, I have to give the company props for how they opened their final Monday show on the 3rd of May. Jay Lethal has been stuck with this “imitation” gimmick for years now, but his impression of Ric Flair was nevertheless a masterpiece, from his opening strut to the way he bounced himself off the ropes before kneedropping his suit jacket to (and this is my favorite) the thumb to the eye that he gave the “actual” Ric Flair (which went unnoticed, sadly, by Mike Tenay and Taz).
The mileage of a gimmick like this is limited, but Lethal completely opened up that mileage later in the segment when he dropped out of “imitation mode. Now if only TNA could manage to remain consistent with their trajectories and developing plot arcs . . .
3. Mark Henry’s Headbutt
On his run-in on the May 10th episode of Monday Night RAW, I’m not entirely sure if Mark Henry headbutts or just shoves Batista, but, regardless, you have to love 300-lbs. Batista pulling out a “Shawn Michaels” take-three-steps-back-and-jump-as-high-as-you-can sell . . . Jesus, Batista is awesome.
Overselling has its purpose . . .
4. Bryan Danielson?
I cannot really hide my excitement for the future of Bryan Danielson. I know a lot of WWE fans have not seen the great majority of his work, nor would they necessarily like his work. However, if my opinion counts for anything, I’d say he’s easily in the top 10 when it comes to “Best Workers in the World.” His sense of timing, his innovative use of stretches and counters, his developed and developing strikes (which looked awesome even against Batista), his improved Sheik skills, his selling, and so on all come together in a unique assemblage of abilities that comprise a fantastic performer. Hell, even his size has now come to his advantage . . .
But what is his future? If I were Vince McMahon (and, of course, I’m not [nor do I want to be]), I would seriously continue investing in these younger wrestlers (as he’s done with CM Punk, Jack Swagger, and others). In months where we no longer have Shawn Michaels or Triple H or the Undertaker and are soon to be losing Batista (or so we think), it is certainly time to put the full force of the company behind a select few, and a guy like Danielson is a perfect candidate. He’s goofy, but he’s got so much ability . . .
5. A New Generation
I don’t think I’ve ever felt as great a shift in WWE’s focus to younger talent as I’ve felt over the past few months (and certainly most intensely in the last few weeks). Does anyone else see this? Feel this? I don’t want to be too premature, but the transition we find ourselves in the middle of parallels the shift in the WWF in the early-to-mid 1990s after the exodus of Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Scott Hall, Randy Savage, Kevin Nash, and so on to World Championship Wrestling. Although wrestlers are not necessarily leaving WWE for another company (the handful that have worked for TNA certainly don’t compare to the great exodus of the 1990s), almost all of WWE’s main event draws (except John Cena and Orton) are nearing or are in the middle of their 40s. In 2010, it isn’t competition from another wrestling company that drives the emergence of this new focus on or concern with a new generation that we see coming to life: it’s the survival of WWE in a much different world.
And survive they will. With a younger fan base, they have an opportunity to build up long careers in ways they could not quite do in the late 1990s when a larger chunk of the fanbase wanted to see a more “mature” product. That would be a great topic for someone to consider: does a focus on a young fanbase make long careers more possible? Perhaps something to consider next month . . .
Until then, readers . . .