Sunday, March 19, 2006

Article for the website

Credibility is King

By Todd Martin

Saturday Night’s Main Event was headlined by an exciting brawl between Shawn Michaels and Shane McMahon. It was a good show overall, and the main event was a strong point. It featured an impressive suplex off a ladder in the ring through two tables on the floor and a great call by Jim Ross. However, something about the match seemed off to me. I’m not talking about the finish. While it is passe to book finishes based around Montreal, and sleazy to try to sell PPVs by false advertising Bret Hart, it is smart for business. Rather, the match bothered me for a different reason.

Shane McMahon vs. Shawn Michaels bothered me for the same reason Kurt Angle vs. Shane McMahon did, or, for that matter, any number of matches that have been booked in recent years featuring Vince McMahon, Vince Russo and other non-wrestlers. Over the past 10 years, it has become acceptable for individuals who are not accepted as wrestlers by the audience to wrestle even matches with those that are. This is part of a larger trend where wrestling promoters and bookers do not put enough emphasis on the credibility of the in-ring product. That is highly problematic.

It also reminded me of a story from J.J. Dillon’s excellent 2005 autobiography. It is a shame that the wrestling book market has become so glutted, because there are some excellent books out there, and they aren’t given enough attention. There have been too many books published simply for a quick buck and to tell a few stories. Some are written essentially as memoirs. However, the best are the ones that are written to communicate a point, and to teach about the business. Those books are the most valuable to a business that has lost touch with its history and foundation, yet fans are much more like to have read Hulk Hogan or Rock’s books than those written by Ole Anderson, Lou Thesz, Jim Wilson or J.J. Dillon.

In the mid-1970s, Dillon was brought into Paul Boesch’s territory in Texas as a manager. Although he had rarely wrestled before the fans in the territory, he was booked in a match with a regular, the late Gino Hernandez. Dillon learned in that match and its aftermath a lesson that WWE could unmistakably learn from a full thirty years later:

“On April 9, 1976, I was booked on a card to wrestle Gino (Hernandez) in a two-out-of-three fall match. I had only worked a few times that year, so I wanted to have a tremendous match with Gino and call upon the skills I had used when I worked with Dick Murdoch and Leo Burke.

We had what I thought was a great match, but when I got to the back, Paul (Boesch) was fuming. In hindsight, I understand the point he made, but I didn’t understand it at the moment.

That was one of the few times in my career when I let my ego get the best of me. I went to the ring that night to show the other boys, and the fans, that I was a quality worker. I felt like a lot of the guys had forgotten that I was a pretty fair worker in my day. It wasn’t something that I dwelled on, but deep down, it really bothered me. I wanted to show everyone that I was a good worker, and it was the wrong thing to do-for the match, for the town, and for my career as a manager.

What I lost track of was the fact that the wrestling fans in Houston didn’t see me as a wrestler. They saw me as a loudmouth, not-so-hot, chickensh- manager. The things that I did in the ring with Gino – high spots, bumps, and timing – were not consistent with the character that I had developed, or what I was portrayed to be.

If I had been the great worker that I thought I was at the time, I would have gone out and worked like a manager. I would have used the skills that I was blessed with in that type of a match. Instead, I went out and let my ego get the best of me. I tried to have a great match and steal the show. It was stupid on my part. As I look back on it now, I can see that it made no sense. Paul Boesch was 100% correct.”

Professional wrestling changes rapidly, and when one closes their mind to what the business is, they quickly lose track of the business they once understood perfectly. Conversely, however, there are universal tenets of professional wrestling that will always be true. WWE has frequently forgotten this, and not paid nearly enough attention to it. Yet, WWE’s product would be so much better if they thought about what Sam Muchnick, Eddie Graham, Bill Watts or Vince McMahon, Sr. would have to say about their programming. They don’t have to look all that far. Jim Cornette, Jim Ross and Paul Heyman are just a phone call away. J.J. Dillon’s realization three decades ago is just as applicable today as it was then. Yet executives like Dillon with wrestling knowledge have been brushed aside for low-grade Hollywood writers.

This point isn’t unique to Dillon, either. Bobby Heenan is probably the greatest wrestling manager of all time. He could also wrestle, but when put into matches, he didn’t show off all the moves he could do. Rather, he took tons of bumps and sold how overmatched he was. He did this whether he was wrestling headliners like Dick the Bruiser and the Crusher, or mid-carders like the Red Rooster. He could have very entertaining matches without putting himself forward as a physical equal of his opponent.

One could justify or attempt to minimize this problem by saying that it only hurts the individual program. However, I believe it has larger repercussions for the entire card. The national audience saw the slightly pudgy son of the boss, who hasn’t wrestled in two years, wrestle an even match with a wrestler who headlined WrestleMania two years ago. The lesser evil is fans simply concluding that Shawn Michaels isn’t that good. The greater and more likely danger is a further erosion of the credibility of matches, and thus the significance of finishes.

The development of cognitive psychology over the past thirty years has taught us that mental processes are highly complex, and frequently driven by implicit assumptions and reasoning rather than by explicit decision-making. Most wrestling fans have known the business is a work for decades. Wrestling promoters years ago were afraid of the business being exposed, because they felt fans would stop watching. That fear proved to be completely unfounded.

John Stossel didn’t kill the business. Neither did Satoru Sayama. However, that doesn’t mean that credibility doesn’t matter. Fans simply have to suspend belief and become absorbed in the show every week. When they see Ashley Massaro pretending to have a wrestling match, they may not turn off the television and leave the room. However, their brain is drawing conclusions about what they are seeing.

The lesson for the audience is clear. This stuff doesn’t matter. It’s all a joke. Match results don’t matter, because the promotion will haphazardly put over whoever it feels like putting over, with no semblance of a meritocracy. When that happens in one match, it detracts from all the other matches, and over time, it decreases interest. There isn’t a single person that goes to a PWG show thinking it’s a shoot. But when Super Dragon and Davey Richards are having a match, the crowd believes. That’s the appeal of Samoa Joe, and that’s what old time wrestlers are talking about when they say that audience members told them everything else on the card was fake but their stuff was real.

When a movie-goer watches special effects and says they look fake, it doesn’t mean they are too stupid to realize that better looking special effects are also not real. It simply means that they want to be able to believe. The CGI werewolf that looks like an obvious animation takes away from the dramatic arc, because you can’t even pretend the protagonist is in danger. That protagonist can sell like crazy for the CGI werewolf, but it won’t matter because the audience doesn’t buy the werewolf’s offense. It sounds silly to apply this to wrestling, but it’s exactly the same. When the top faces are selling like crazy for heels that have no credibility with the audience, it makes the peril of the face seem less real.

When wrestling fans have it rubbed in their faces that the product is a work, the likely reaction isn’t that they will instantaneously give up on the product. So, what is their reaction? They withdraw. They put less of an emotional investment in the results of matches. Over time, they care less and less until they give up. Killing off your credibility breeds apathy, not anger. The millions of viewers that watched WWE five years ago and didn’t watch on Saturday were not skipping the show out of spite. The dangers of apathy may not be as immediate, but as five years of steady business decline can attest to, they are very real.



Anonymous Michael Madsen said...

Good article and I can only agree. However, didn't most of Angle vs. Shane consist of Angle killing Shane? It's been a while since I've seen it, so I may be wrong.

10:10 AM  
Anonymous Dave Sugarman said...

I thought the exact same thing when I was watching the Shane vs. Michaels match. When Shane was punching him, why was Michaels acting like he was hurt? It made no sense that a non-wrestler could beat up one of the greatest wrestlers of all time by just punching him.

Also, something that you didn't mention is that Shane doesn't have to worry about having to wrestle next week, or the week after that; he's not a full-time worker. It's very unfair that he gets to go out there and destroy his body, then recover for a year until his next match. The rest of the wrestlers can't take bumps like he can, because they have to wrestle 2 days later.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Todd Martin said...

I don't have my tape of Angle vs. Shane with me here in Cali, so I can't review it. I do remember Angle repeatedly throwing Shane through the glass panes, but I also really think Shane got some offense in. Remember he was the face, and the match went long, and I can't imagine Angle just beating him into the ground for 15 minutes when he's supposed to be the good guy.

11:02 PM  
Blogger GreatOne said...

Good call. When you mentioned Bobby Heenen it brought back a memory of something he said in his book "Bobby The Brain" In it he said he decided early on to "wrestle like a manager, and manage like a wrestler." I am a professional wrestler, and I decided that I am more a fan then a wrestler, so i will wrestle like a fan, andbe a fan who just happens to wrestle. And wrestling sure isn't what it used to be, thats for sure.

12:55 AM  

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