Professional wrestling is in a unique position when compared to other sports, or at least other physical activities that people pay to see done live. It's one of the few jobs out there where staff members can get booed and have things thrown at them and the company employing them still does well.
It's become public record that the success of a wrestling company is governed by how compelling a sport-related drama it can produce. As we know, this usually comes in the form of scripted victories, "unscheduled" interruptions, and short periods where performers get to speak their mind in the ring.
Most of the time, viewers can put aside their knowledge of this behind-the-scenes activity and "suspend their disbelief" as the poet Wordsworth put it, so that we can pretend that what we're watching is really going on as organically as we see it. Most of the time...
Unfortunately, over the past year or two (possibly more), plots and storylines found in the two main wrestling companies (WWE and TNA) have become flimsy and downright lazy. I feel this is in direct relation to how much risk both are taking when writing these stories for their performers.
In the past, we’ve seen a fair amount of risk taken. Take the match between Lex Luger and Tatanka at Summerslam ’94. The buildup that went into Lex’s selling out to DiBiase was incredible, and just when we think we have our answer, in a stunning turn, Tatanka ended up being the one who sold out.
Definitely a risky move. The political implications of a Native American Indian completely throwing away his lineage for the almighty dollar put all performers involved into a whirlwind of controversy. Granted, it didn’t do a lot for Tatanka, and DiBiase is now a Hall-of-Famer, but Lex’s popularity skyrocketed.
Speaking of corporations, here’s two great examples. Survivor Series ’98, Championship match between The Rock and Mankind. In a repeat of the infamous Montreal Screwjob, Vince gets the bell rung early when The Rock put Mankind in a Sharpshooter, revealing him as the Corporate Champion.
Similarly on April 1, 2001 aired Wrestlemania 17, when Stone Cold Steve Austin gets help from Vince to win the Championship from The Rock, revealing that even he had joined the Corporation. Before that moment, Austin was McMahon’s biggest rival. No one had pushed his buttons more than Stone Cold, and the people loved him for it.
Fact is, WWE risked some major hatred for having those two join Vince McMahon’s side, albeit at different times. But they went there, and did it, and Austin and The Rock are still beloved because of how they’ve affected us.
Now, Muhammad Hassan kneeling and praying that a group of masked men bound to the ring and beat down Undertaker because he's American? Little bit too risky for the time...but they tried...
For a taste of WCW’s contribution to risk-taking, let’s look at July ’96, WCW’s Bash at the Beach. The infamous Hostile Takeover Match where Hogan, Nash, and Hall announced that they were to be considered the New World Order of wrestling from that moment on. All three were fan favorites, all three still had promising careers ahead of them. The NWO’s influence would be felt so strongly from then on that NWO logos were placed next to WCW when simply referring to the company.
Hugely popular factions like DX and the Four Horsemen never got that kind of treatment.
At that event, the NWO started as a heel faction. They were the evil, villainous trio that wanted to undo the honor and legacy that WCW had tried so hard to build. I’m not positive if it was planned this way, but in an extraordinary turn of events, the NWO became huge favorites, which is likely why the faction went through so many changes, plot lines and trades. The creators of the group just didn’t see it coming, and had no idea how to handle them being over with the fans.
Then again, with NWO being so popular, keeping them in the spotlight showed their fear. They didn't want their meal ticket to disappear, and tried to keep the NWO idea fresh, and they failed.
TNA, as far as risk-taking, has gotten even worse. In the past year or two, they've brought in Hogan, Kurt Angle, countless ECW Originals, and either booted or benched a ton of exciting, unique talent so that they can give a push to performers who have already had their time in the spotlight. I used to consider TNA watchable and interesting, the six-sided ring was cool, and TNA really lived up to its name.
Each and every single match was Total Nonstop Action. Now? Their roster is pretty much made up of has-beens, their storylines are predictable or cliche, and their backstage promos are shot like reality shows, complete with obstructed views and shaky cam.
I watch now merely to see what has become of those who have left WWE. I'm not buying Kurt Angle's "JD from Scrubs" stubble either, sorry...
Anyway, much of what you see above (at least the good parts) involve heel turns, beloved fan favorites taking a shocking action that shows “their true colors,” or their colors at the time, as being completely counter to what the fans believed those colors to be.
Depending on the character, it can completely deepen or ruin them entirely. Taking a break from being beloved can expand on their performance abilities and give them a chance to try something new.
Look what it's done for CM Punk. He's an immense talent on WWE's roster, and when he first arrived in ECW, he was great. High flying mixed with martial arts, really stylish. But it was easy to pass him up. Now that he's the leader of the SES? He may be a heel, and a lot of people don't like him now, but I think the SES will grow in the future, in leaps and bounds.
My favorite wrestler of all time, though, has to be Paul Levesque. I’ve liked him ever since he first started in WWE with his gimmick as the debonair gentleman, Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Whether he was causing ruckus with Degeneration-X, leading Evolution in their wining and dining or by the side of Vince and Stephanie…whether he was the face to beat all faces, or the heel to beat all heels…he has always proved to be an entertaining force above the rest. He’s a great actor who plays all manner of good and bad parts well.
That could also be, however, because he’s been given those opportunities.
One guy I used to like a lot, despite many hating him then and now, was John Cena. I liked him when he was the brave rookie staring down Kurt Angle on Smackdown in 2002, and I even liked him when he started his rap gimmick.
Unfortunately, since that gimmick was taken on, it hasn’t evolved one single step. He’s had the rapper gimmick for at least 7 years now, and for the past 5 years he’s either had the WWE Title or been chasing it. Whether his own choice, or the choice of creative, John Cena has played into the fans too much, and his “story” is simply being dragged out too far.
The reason? No risk.
The Rock and Stone Cold are long since gone from regular appearances to challenge Cena’s position as “the face of the company,” and every obstacle in Cena’s way has been bulldozed. Creative kept trying to put impossible odds in front of John Cena, but John’s character had been developed to such a "resourceful" point that no matter how unlikely it was that he’d win, he’d still come out on top. For a while, even I liked seeing that. It meant he couldn’t be stopped. But like many, after a while, it got boring watching him win all the time.
The reason? John wasn’t taking any risks and creative wasn’t taking any with him.
He’s become the face of the company, and one reason he’s in that position is because every wrestler who’s ever thrown a collar-and-elbow-tie-up on an opponent wants to be where John Cena has been. Top of the food chain, huge fan favorite, etc. Hardcore wrestling fans know, however, that John’s character is simply a model, and no one with an analytical brain wants to see the perfect model of anything.
Nowadays, WWE appears to be starting something in motion that may very well kickstart the change we’ve been looking for. Wade Barrett has claimed “the winds of change are blowing.” I’m willing to believe it. John Cena’s repetitive title chasing has already been put on hold thanks to Nexus’ forcing him to look elsewhere.
Step 1, get the title away from John Cena...Complete.
The belt is currently around the waist of Sheamus who, despite taking grammar school level verbal abuse, is proving clever, interesting, and dominant. Dare I say it, but I see a bit of The Game in him.
Powerful song for his entrance with cool lyrics, well-built, good move set, and the craftiness to boot. His rivalry with The Miz, as long as Miz doesn’t blow things too quickly, could prove long and trying for both individuals. A best of five between them could show that Miz can compete against bigger, tougher opponents, and that Sheamus is quick enough mentally to take on small, speedy cruiserweights like Bourne and Mysterio. It could really boost both their credibilities.
I really believe WWE is priming themselves for some amazing storytelling and huge revelations to come out. They just can’t be so afraid! Even if they turn John Cena into a heel now—the hero that brought Team WWE together for Summerslam, and ended up being Nexus and not Against Us—they can always make John a face again later if they want.
It’s happened before in the past, a fan favorite turns on the fans, then has a change of heart down the road. Happens all the time.
For now, WWE needs to close their eyes and just jump. They need to go for it. The fans are already pretty split between loving and hating Cena. If he joins Nexus, he’ll still have plenty of fans. Only change will be that their viewership will skyrocket, and he’ll have lots more adults cheering him on than just kids.
Please, WWE…tell John to join Nexus. It’s what’s best. Do what’s right. John likes doing what’s right, doesn’t he? He's a goody-two-shoes like that.