Monday, February 27, 2017

Phantom on Wrestling: WWE vs. The Universe

By Phantom Troublemaker

I’ve been wanting to write about wrestling (WWE) for a while now and since WrestleMania is fast approaching I think it’s a good time to, as Stone Cold says, “Spew the bullshit in muh brain”. Hopefully I’ll be able to schedule our pal Stephen Platinum for the podcast soon, but until then my solo written words will have to do.

I’m writing as I think, so bear with me.

There is recent evidence that WWE is figuring us (the fans) out and starting to use our cynicism against us (in a good way).

You’d think that this wouldn’t be a particularly exciting or recent development, as they’ve been doing essentially the same job for thirty-seven years, plus about twenty-eight, give or take, prior to the Vince McMahon, Jr. takeover. They should know what they’re doing. But quite often it seems to us that they don’t. Some of this is due to the fact that we’re ignorant to a huge number of aspects of the business and could never fully comprehend what are the best decisions for a company that is unique in the world to make.

Some of it is due to the fact that WWE is run by a single person with a strong will and tastes that are occasionally… odd.

As an example of recent booking that wasn’t very appealing, a few months ago the Main Events of RAW and Smackdown Live were turned into what I like to refer to as The Dueling Clown Shows.

RAW featured top talents Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho claiming to be the WWE Universal Champion, ultimate BFFs, and generally being huge goofballs. Entertaining goofballs, but definitely not heels that anyone should be taking seriously.

Meanwhile, on Smackdown Live WWE Champion AJ Styles was doing his best to be a serious heel who was the Best in the World (a legitimate claim), all while consistently losing matches to a guy that had about as much credibility as my dentist (whose name is not Isaac Yankem, DDS). There was plenty of chicanery involved in the multiple losses that AJ (who could legitimately claim to be the best professional wrestler in the world today) suffered at the hands of James Ellsworth, but the point remains that AJ, as Champion, was involved in a Clown Show.

I have two issues with the Dueling Clown Shows scenario. First is that I prefer to keep comedy away from the Main Event. There’s a longer point to be made here discussing the various types of “comedy” and how characters like The Rock can get away with being funny without being clowns, but that’s not my point today. In general, your Main Event players need to be taken seriously and for several months neither top Champion had any real gravitas.

The second issue is that if WWE insists upon running a comedy program in either Main Event, they shouldn’t be doing it on both shows at the same time.  But they did, so now
I want to look at each program and what I perceived as faulty.

Kevin Owens debuted on RAW (and NXT before that) as a true dastardly heel (bad guy). He had a mean streak, he was possessed of no agenda other than getting himself over so that he could make the most money, and he did not play to the fans at all. He would immediately shut down any approving reactions that he got. This sort of heel is in sadly short supply these days. I’d go so far as to say that Miz and Alexa Bliss are the only committed (and over) heels working in WWE right now.

Well, them and Stephanie McMahon.

Over time Owens developed a relationship with Chris Jericho. It could be argued that for the most part there has been more good than bad that resulted from this angle. Jericho has been the best he’s been in years. He has transformed from a part-timer who relied on tired shtick and whose appearances I dreaded into one of the best and most entertaining talents in the company. And I say this about a guy that is one of my favorite wrestlers of all time.
Management recognized the crowd reaction to this relationship and went with it. 

Unfortunately, while allowing Owens plenty of latitude to retain his Championship via nefarious means, it also softened his hard-edged heel character. No longer was he the monster who gave no fucks and might at any given time put your favorite babyface (good guy) on the shelf. Now he was affable Kev, who not only put up with but participated in the antics of Jericho the (highly entertaining) clown.

In my opinion the loss of the vicious, remorseless Kevin Owens was not worth the trade-off for the highly entertaining Kevin and Chris Clown Show. Because the Clown Show could have still happened without Owens’ involvement.

Clown Shows happen in wrestling all the time and if they’re good they can be fun and entertaining and can really get the audience invested in a character. And the Kevin and Chris show was among the best.

But genuine heels barely ever happen anymore. In an age where the audience is “smart” and spends the entire show waiting for an opportunity to get themselves over with some asinine chant or song, a character that shuts them up and makes them suspend their disbelief is the rarest of commodities. Owens is now taking steps to regain his gravitas, but it’s a shame he ever lost it.

Side Note: I don’t blame Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho for any of this. Heck, I don’t even completely blame WWE management. All too often we clueless fans criticize WWE for not listening to us and doing things like forcing babyface Roman Reigns down our throats for three years when we obviously don’t want him. In this instance, they recognized the audience’s positive response to Team JeriKO and went with it. But there should have been someone in place on WWE’s creative team that recognized Owens’ value as a true villain and said, “Hey, guys – maybe there’s another way we can do this without undermining a valuable and unique commodity”.

Other Side Note: From a certain point of view, Team JeriKO does play into Owen’s past with Sami Zayn and Zayn’s warnings that Owens is not to be trusted. WWE even thought to mention that on RAW last Monday. I can go with that because in general I want to enjoy wrestling and suspending disbelief and going along for the ride are things I want to do. But I still don’t think that the last few months were the best way to do business.

AJ Styles is an entirely different kind of heel from Kevin Owens, but is no less valuable.
Rather than simply  being a complete bastard, AJ is respected enough that we as an audience want to give him the kind of response he is going for. Well, mostly. The guy is a legitimate working legend and future Hall of Famer, so he’s going to get cheered sometimes, but whether he is working face or heel, he knows how to get reactions and we want to give them to him.

WWE has a history of booking non-home-grown Champions to look weak. WWE has a history of booking “smaller” Champions to look weak. WWE has a history of booking Indie Wanker Fan Favorites to look weak.

WWE also has a history of not doing any of that. But when we’re discussing something like AJ Styles’ first run with the WWE Championship, I tend to notice examples like Rey Mysterio’s time as Champ more than CM Punk’s.

Side Note: There are so many variables here like the fact that Punk did get booked terribly at times and that Rey’s painful run was with the World Heavyweight Championship, which was no more home grown than he was. But from the “average fan” perspective, I daresay that the World Heavyweight Championship and the WWE Championship were essentially equal, just as the WWE Championship and Universal Championship are now. I understand that legacy-wise they are not, but if you want to enjoy wrestling at all you have to accept that those titles are equal, booking-wise.

Rey Mysterio’s run as World Heavyweight Champion mostly involved him getting beaten up and then retaining the title with fluke wins. What should have been an inspirational Championship reign – dedicated, as it was, to the recently deceased Eddie Guerrero – seemed to be WWE affirming that little guys didn’t belong in the Main Event, no matter how talented and over they were.

I’m not saying that’s the case with AJ Styles, as since 2005 we’ve had top talent of all shapes and sizes with the full force of WWE Creative behind them, but his initial run mostly consisted of losses to James Ellsworth:

AJ’s real opponent was former Champion Dean Ambrose, who was using Ellsworth to get under AJ’s skin, but that really didn’t help matters because Ambrose didn’t exactly have a stunning time as Champ. For whatever reason his character never really clicked as a title holder and the fans seemed to be losing interest. Prolonging his involvement with the Championship didn’t seem to do AJ any favors, especially when contenders like Mojo Rawley and Jack Swagger were available for programs.

Shit. I see the problem.

But my point remains that the nine week feud with Ellsworth that ended with Styles defeating Ellsworth easily in under a minute in their first untainted competition will always have the stink of those Ellsworth victories on it, and so will AJ. For a while, anyway.

What’s even more odd is that AJ spent the months prior to the Ellsworth nonsense not only Beating Up John Cena,  but racking up consecutive, mostly clean victories against Cena. You know John Cena – the WWE’s biggest asset and most consistent strongly-booked babyface of all time? The guy that has spent the last two years putting others over while somehow maintaining his name value? So AJ Styles – who has more definitive victories over Cena than anyone in recent memory – just can’t get the job done against the formidable power combo of James Ellsworth and Dean Ambrose. After only recently dominating the man that once beat the entire roster of RAW in a single match.

And that dynamite Styles/Ellsworth feud was competing against the Kevin and Chris Clown Show, which brings me back to my original points:

Side Note: I don't blame Ellsworth for this one bit. As a matter of fact, he played his role spectacularly and if I was in his position I would've done exactly the same thing. Styles played his role to perfection as well. In this case, I blame WWE creative entirely.

I prefer to keep comedy out of the Main Events and definitely don’t think WWE should taint both shows with it, leaving me with nothing to get truly invested in.

To close this thing out, I have the observation that started me on this tangent.

Twice since the end of January WWE has used our smarkiness against us. Or against me, anyway. I can’t speak for how well these swerves worked for anyone else or for their enjoyment of said developments.

I mentioned above the audience’s resistance to babyface Roman Reigns and how Dean Ambrose’s “Loose Cannon” act seemed to get as stale and predictable as his ridiculous rebound clothesline. As tone deaf as WWE appears to be at times, I feel like they were very aware of these two situations and used them to surprise us and, in one instance, persuade us to accept and even enthusiastically receive outcomes that we might not have otherwise accepted or enjoyed as much.

The first came at the end of the Royal Rumble when Roman Reigns entered at #30.
This pleased no one and seemed to telegraph a victory for the big mook. Nobody wanted Reigns to be the last entrant and nobody wanted him to win the Rumble. Almost literally anything would be better than that.

That “anything” turned out to be Randy Orton. Shocking everyone, Orton eliminated Reigns to get the win. Without the booking that put Reigns in at 30, Orton’s victory would have gotten a lukewarm reception at best. But high off of Roman’s elimination, the audience – live and at home in the Phantom Zone – gave Orton a decent reaction.

I am not addressing whether or not Orton should have won the Rumble. That’s a separate issue. My point is that WWE recognized our disdain for Reigns and used it to book things the way they wanted and get the reaction they wanted. That is some next-level shit compared to how they normally operate. Some Master Persuasion, if you will. I’m not saying Orton’s win was ideal, but as far as live reaction goes, an “At least it wasn’t that guy we hate” pop is better than no pop at all.

The second and most recent instance – spoiler alert – came in the Main Event of last Tuesday’s episode of Smackdown Live. There was a 6 possible winners + 4 warm bodies = 10 man battle royal to determine the #1 contender for Bray Wyatt’s WWE Championship. Dean Ambrose got laid out – but not eliminated – around the halfway mark. Your “smart” fan saw this as telegraphing an Ambrose win because obviously he was going to come back at the end when everyone had forgotten about him and eliminate whoever was left. We’ve seen it plenty of times and WWE does not avoid predictability.

Sure enough, once it was down to Luke Harper and AJ Styles, Ambrose returned to the ring and I almost sprained my eyeballs doing a Liz Lemon-esque eyeroll of impending stupidity.
But then Harper and Styles didn’t get eliminated. Not only that, Ambrose was cleanly and definitively eliminated himself, removing him from the picture if any shenanigans should ensue. And ensue they did, as Harper and Styles managed to hit the floor at the same time, leaving us with more compelling drama to hook us for next week’s show.

Now, I’m not saying that Ambrose is anywhere near the drag that Reigns is, but he was a distinct possibility to win that match without being anywhere near the most compelling. Watching that, I felt that WWE had once again used my expectations – the very ones that they have trained me to have over the past decade of mostly predictable storytelling – against me to provide a more exciting viewing experience. And I am good with that. I’d love to see more self-aware booking in the future.

And less Clown Shows.

Phantom Troublemaker has drawn money without ever being listed on a card, taken bumps without ever being booked in a match, and has worked in the business without ever receiving a check. He was the announcer for Monstrosity Championship Wrestling, Platinum Championship Wrestling, and is the current Voice of Dragon Con Wrestling. None of that makes him right, but it is nice to see at the bottom of a post about wrestling.

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