Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Opinion: Reality check - What the wrestling industry can learn from the sporting world. (Sean Taylor-Richardson)

Sport or entertainment? Athletes or rock stars? ESPN or the SyFy channel?

Pro wrestling as a genre is hard to classify, its performers hard to define. It carries very real risks and physical exertions but these are often undermined by the accompanying theatrics and pre-determined nature of the beast. UFC head honcho Dana White’s “fake shit” tweet last year provoked an understandably furious reaction from those involved within the industry best known as “sport’s entertainment”: it was felt that a lack of respect had been shown to those who have suffered and bled for the art. Seemingly White’s disregard was shaped by his sense that the appeal of his legitimate sport was being undermined by what he perceived as a sideshow: how dare people compare his UFC (“as real as it gets”) to the WWE (where “putting smiles on faces” is a huge part of the ethos). Now wrestling will always struggle to appeal to many hardcore sports fans as it lacks a legitimacy some feel is necessary to engage with a pastime in a meaningful way. However, by adopting aspects of a more serious, sporting presentation, the business could showcase itself in a more credible way to both draw interest from outsiders, who might feel less alienated as they connect to recognisable sporting motifs. Furthermore long-time fans desperate for some form of change and craving a freshness to the televised product’s presentation would benefit from such adaptations. So what can pro wrestling learn from real sports? How can it replicate the passion, the prestige and the credibility of genuine sporting events and in doing so provide the genre with a facelift? Here are a few ideas which could serve as a starting point.

press conferences

We’ve seen the contract signing a million times; literally I think. That particular chestnut can be dropped. But what about the press conference? WWE does do these sometimes, usually for ‘Mania season (I particularly loved the press conference for Wrestlemania 3 that was included on the original Coliseum Home video release; Bobby Heenan stole the show with more spicy zingers than KFC) but why not do them for each PPV? They could air on the network, thus providing more content, and could showcase stars involved in the top matches, who could lay the table with angles and great promos. Inviting a mix of wrestling journalists, local press and WWE staffers (I’d like to be seated in between Meltzer and Renee Young please) and you can get more publicity for an upcoming show. This approach could be adopted by other wrestling groups but the Fed have the reach to really lead the way here, promoting fight cards, new signings, comebacks and retirements. It would feel real, build buzz and, if a Jose Mourinho/Louis Van Gaal presser is anything to go by, capture many hilarious breakdowns. Imagine a desolate Vince wheeled out in front of the press following Triple H’s Mania loss. “My work has been betrayed today- I told him Reigns would use the spear. The refs give us nothing in Texas. What are you looking at fat boy?”

tactical analysis

WWE has a panel for its big shows but they don’t really say much of real note. What we need is Monday Night Football level analysis. Select a competent host and pair with one or two analysts who really break down the strategy before and after matches. Imagine Corey Graves explaining how Kevin Owens cuts off the ring or how he subtly influences the referee and works the crowd to his advantage; JBL (I think this would be an ideal role for him) dissecting a John Cena comeback, looking at why he uses a certain move set and how his experience is key in defeating younger opponents; Booker T drawing on the screen with a magic pen. This could be a part of Raw and PPVs or it could even be a separate show on the Network. Indie groups could set up blogs on their website that follows a similar formula. Make it seem like these guys take real game plans into the ring and the matches and results have more consequence.

home and away form 

There have again been instances of this in the past: CM Punk was dominant in Chicago across 2011-2013, the USA v Canada feud was so heated that it fostered the outrage Bret Hart felt to lose the WWF title in Canada. But imagine if it was really tapped into; a wrestler in their hometown develops an aura. The crowd are rabid, the wrestler is extra confident as it seems they can’t lose. It wouldn’t work for all wrestlers (the face/ heel divide should not be tampered with in some cases) but a selection of stars could become unbeatable in their backyards. Imagine if wrestling’s never ending feud had been booked thus: over a period of years Cena never lost in Boston and Orton never lost in St Louis. They face off in their home towns, split wins before their adoring fans and need a neutral venue to settle the series, hereby utilising the setting to keep the story fresh. Another approach is to have a perennial winner lose a match at home to shock the audience in the arena and at home; a streak-ending moment if you will. One could build a heel who finds a way to win in all the baby faces’ towns until he faced the ultimate hero in their backyard.

On a non-televised, more local note, how could British Indies utilise the idea of home and away? Progress have cards in London and Manchester so feuds between Northern and Southern stars could be booked with away fans travelling between venues to cheer on their chosen representative in two legged affairs. There could even be away seating set up for certain shows: the back and forth between the fans would be electric. Rev Pro could use their fantastic array of imports to engender a home crowd atmosphere in York Hall, whereby the British stars are positioned as the local boys facing a tough overseas test.

the referees

Some refs are good and some are bad. Wrestling refs are for the most part consistently average but why? Imagine if a recognised dodgy ref walked out before a big match: the crowd could anticipate bedlam. He or she could become a character that sways the narrative- not because they’ve been bought out by evil authority figure #345 but because they’re a bit rubbish. Conversely, if a title fight needed a stern hand, the best official would walk out. A wrestling version of Pierluigi Collina, a man whose authority meant even the toughest of assignments in football were navigated smoothly, could be used in most of the big title fights and then cross over to other divisions (e.g. women’s or tag) to lend them gravitas for certain match ups. As for rules, educate audiences and enforce them. Use suspensions for the worst misdemeanors. Then it will mean more when heels break them. Trust me, it works for Diego Costa.

it’s only a game…

Now I wouldn’t change everything about wrestling. 20 years as a football fan has taught me that I should only ever really expect disappointment; wrestling should offer more joy than harrowing stress. 5 years as an NFL fan has taught me sport can be quite confusing; for the most part, wrestling should keep it simple. And whilst I wouldn’t expect a boxing hero of yore to interrupt a fight card by driving into the arena, making suggestive comments about fighter’s wives and chatting to the fans at ringside, I quite like it when The Rock does it. Yes, wrestling should be entertainment but it should maintain an air of a sporting event too.

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