When talking about angles in professional wrestling from decades past with people who used to watch certain angles inevitably come up. Here in California, those angles are usually the epic John Tolos and the “monsel” powder he threw in the eyes of Freddie Blassie or, if you lived in Northern California, Killer Kowalski dropping his knee into Pepper Gomez throat instead of his “cast-iron stomach.” Both events happened decades ago, but anybody who watched those feuds in those days remembers it well to this day and was drawn emotionally into the experience.
In some sense, where the professional wrestling of today takes its greatest departure from wrestling of the past is that it does not capture the emotions of viewers in the same way that it used to. Wrestling of today seeks to shock, to amuse, and above all, promote a brand image. It is no more and no less than the embodiment of Vince McMahon’s vision for pro wrestling. But in all its current characters, the missing ingredient of WWE’s success is the star that can put the company on the map again.
For this notion, the traditional characteristics of the star—“look,” “charisma,” and “talent”—are insufficient. The stars of today, including John Cena, Triple H, Kurt Angle, Edge, and Batista all possess varying degrees of these characteristics, but are ultimately less compelling because of the weaknesses of the promotional machine that produces them. As characters, the Steve Austins, Rocks, Mankinds, Undertakers, and Shawn Michaels that were produced and refined in the company’s better times overshadow them.
Austin alone drew more money the company had ever made before and the prototype of his character was the Hall-of-Fame wrestler Reginald “Crusher” Lisowski, the simple-spoken but long-running everyman who dominated Midwestern wrestling from the 1960s to the 1970s. He died three weeks ago at the age of 79.
In Da Crusher’s legacy we can find the true components of the wrestling star. It is the indistinguishable, unremarkable, imperfect man or woman that is the majority of society. And by extension, it is this sort of character (though exaggerated and amplified) that has appealed most broadly and successfully to wrestling fans.
Wrestling connects deeply with people on an emotional level. Outside of that deep and vicarious connection—the idea that the headline wrestler is a person much like you—the characters fall flat. What WWE’s insignificant Hollywood writers—who neither appreciate nor understand what makes the business tick—cannot bring to the table is a character as simple as Lisowski but one who is as resonant and identifiable with everyday people, with a dash of showmanship, carousing, and of course, a victory or two in the ring.
That is, after all, what it took for the talented Steve Williams, after several failed gimmicks, to bloom into the most successful wrestler ever.
Consistency, compelling angles, respect for fans, and a better system to recognize and push talent are going to be at the heart of rebuilding WWE into the compelling product that it can become. Ultimately, though, these steps are supplementary to presenting talent in a way with which fans can identify. As the number of people willing to pay to see the product decreases at a steady rate, WWE cannot reverse that trend without presenting a compelling product and star that truly inspires wrestling fans.
It’s time for a return to basics. Booking wrestling is not an exact science and WWE’s problems do not stem from not finding the magic formula to create a compelling character. Most basically, WWE must react to characters that catch on with fans. In the aftermath of the exit of Christian from WWE, one of the primary reasons that led to his frustration with the company was the creative team’s lack of response to his newfound popularity of fans when he cut promos on RAW that were negative to their top babyface John Cena.
Christian demonstrated above-average performance and the company responded by shuffling him around, from RAW to Smackdown, with no significant storyline or feud to follow up on his popularity. Now, Christian is gone, and it is WWE’s loss.
Striking gold with a performer involves a great number of variables—right place, right time, right person. It is about planning well and creating the ideal feuds that will best benefit the development of the headline star. But in order to create a star, the basic element always has to be present, and that is creating someone with whom fans can identify. In all their ambitious moves, Stephanie McMahon-Levesque and her cache of Hollywood writers haven’t yet brought that element to the table.
What do you think? Head over to The X-Forums to let your opinion be heard!