Monday, 13 June 2016
Opinion: WWE24 - Injuries & Reality in the WWE or How Seth Rollins Redesigned, Rebuilt, Reclaimed our Hearts (Jozef Raczka)
Does reality have a place in Wrestling? Certainly anyone who recently watch Payback live might not think so. The tension of Enzo Amore knocking his head so brutally off the ropes, the confusion that followed, the look on Simon Gotch's face as if he'd killed someone, it wasn't till I saw tweets from official WWE accounts saying he was fine that I could relax and by that point, Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn were about two minutes into their match. And even now we're seeing spots of The Vaudevillains trying to prove the 'villain' part of their name by throwing Enzo into the same injury that caused the issues. It shows that the WWE creative team either have an incredibly cavalier attitude towards concussions or just that they really want to terrify us and the worst part? This wasn't even the worst case scenario. I can't even begin to imagine how it must have been to be in the arena for Owen Hart or Perro Aguayo Jr or any of the other superstars who perished in the ring. Obviously, no one wants to see people literally die for our entertainment but I don't think that either people want to watch someone get injured. As much as we care about people, it breaks the suspension that wrestling is 'fake'. The falsehood is important to the enjoyment of 'Sports Entertainment' because if we wanted to watch people legitimately beat the shit out of each other, we can watch MMA, or Bare-Knuckle Boxing or Japanese Death Matches. But put quite simply, one of the joys of pro-wrestling is that it isn't real, that even if we're invested in the characters we shouldn't have to be as worried about the performers as we are with the WWE's injury quota hitting Channel 4's The Jump levels of consistency.
The saddest thing about these injuries is how frequently they can be or threaten to be career ending, just look at Tyson Kidd, but also how easily something you've done over and over again can suddenly go wrong. It's a running theme in the most recent two editions of the crown jewel of WWE Original Programming - WWE24. The focus of their most recent special - Redesign, Rebuild, Reclaim, was Seth Rollins' road to recovery after (sorry for using fancy medical terms here) royally buggering up his knee during a match with Kane at a Dublin house show. Someone at WWE creative clearly loves disjointed narratives as the series' concept of following a person or person's over a 24hr period is supplemented with flashbacks and clips of Seth going all the way back to him as a child. But everything before last year, is mostly used as supporting footage of the determination of Coby Lopez. I normally hate 'that guy' who uses wrestlers real or indie circuit names when referring to WWE superstars but it is important to note that as much as they refer to him as Seth, what we're seeing is a documentary about Colby. Also, come on, I mean if I were writing about Johnny Depp you wouldn't correct me and say 'I think you mean Jack Sparrow'. The real focus is his road to recovery after the aforementioned Dublin knee buggery and it becomes an oddly compelling journey.
In my first article for this website, I wrote about predictability in wrestling and in its own way, knowing the ending of the documentary in advance actually helps the ending. Where the previous special 'Thank You, Daniel Bryan' was a fascinating watch, it was oddly depressing as well because you knew going into it that the ending was set, Bryan will retire, he's not going to pull through and be cleared and healthy, I am going to cry whenever Conor Michaelek is mentioned because I'm not a monster. Whereas we go into this documentary knowing that one week before we watched it, Seth came back and looked as good as ever. If I had one major complaint from the documentary, it's that I wanted more footage from the medical fitness of Seth's recovery. What we get is compelling, and occasionally oddly sweet with the friendship between him and Cesaro though I'm sure someone on Reddit has already made one hundred 'exposing the business' jokes about it. It sadly fills in a lot of gaps via talking heads from Seth explaining his fears that he might never make it back. While Seth, Coby, Tyler, whatever you want to call him, he's a compelling figure and as good at talking when he's himself giving a tour of his teenage basement hangout as he is in front of a crowd of thousands, there is a large feeling that a lot of it could be more compelling if we could actually see it. I'm aware they couldn't have cameras on him 24/7 from his injury through to his return but a little more visual content and less verbal could have gone a long way.
Much like the aforementioned Enzo angle, my other big issue is their insistence on repeatedly showing the injury. It's not even close to the most horrific recorded injury they have but still I winced every time I watched his leg buckle under him. I'm sure that was the intention but it still adds an air of callous disregard how freely they show it. It's confusing to try and understand what relation with reality the WWE wants to have. For every understandable moment like a Bryan or an Edge retirement speech, there's the apparent explanation that Darren Young is gay but Darren Young the character isn't necessarily or cancelling the (admittedly awful) Rusev-Lana-Summer Rae-Ziggler angle because of a real life engagement. Catherine Perry and Miroslav Barnayshev are engaged (maybe married at this point, I don't follow TMZ as much as it seems the WWE do) but there's no reason that Rusev and Lana have to be, immediately. Reality can inform fiction but it doesn't have to model itself on it. If a person is legitimately injured and has to be written off for a while, there is always the Hideo Itami option (whoever did give Itami that beatdown, in storyline, they did a number on him. He's been out for a year) but WWE has to be careful about being sensitive towards these things. One of the worst things about the Owen Hart incident is that even after it happened, they carried on the show. Now, the WWE is slowly seeming like its attitude towards safety and wellness is improving but it's a far way from perfect but I think as much as it seems necessary to show injuries like Seth's can happen, if nothing else it helps reinforce their 'Don't Try This At Home' message to the kids, eventually there becomes a point at which it's profiting on superstars misfortune. It can start to feel like the WWE is a few steps away from AJ Styles' 'cashing cheques, breaking necks' t-shirt, acknowledging their failings but not doing enough to prevent repeating them.
It's hard to understand whether WWE want us to treat in-ring as reality all the time or only when it actually invades their story. Seth is presented as a man stripped of everything he fought for because of circumstances beyond his control. His return is treated as a hero's welcome. If they'd had their way, Roman would have won the title from him eventually and Seth would have been treated as the coward he was when he left. But now he's back, they still want him to be the cowardly lion they made him before despite the audience treating him as the second coming. It's not so much that the WWE can't plan for injuries but they shouldn't have to. I'm not an expert but it seems like there's a much higher rate of injury than any time in recent history and that can't be helped by the overwhelming demands of being a WWE superstar. Between having five televised wrestling shows if you include NXT and a constant house show schedule, is anyone surprised that superstars are overstretching themselves leading to injuries? As this has been quite a positives-lite article, I'll finish by just recommending you watch WWE24. They are extremely well-produced, compelling pieces of television that really give you an endearing insight into the behind-the-scenes world of wrestling. Even the one about Roman Reigns is interesting. It's also worth noting that the Seth Rollins edition makes up for crushing my dreams that all the injured superstars sleep together in a long bed in the style of The Monkees with plenty of footage of tiny-skinny teenage Seth at his teenage wrestling show he set up in his garden with his friends. I mean frankly, if gawky teenage Seth can make it to be WWE Champion, there's hope for the rest of us right?