Pro wrestling is a weird bastard art, and if you’re unfamiliar with its intricacies, the hordes of people in your social media circles obsessively pontificating about it every Monday night must be a truly confounding experience. Let our very own Dominic Griffin, lifelong wrestling enthusiast, teach you a little something right here, In This Very Ring…
Being a hardcore fan of professional wrestling, I spend a lot of time discussing the “sport,” online, at work, waiting in line at Subway. Usually, I run into three prevailing responses.
1. “You know it’s fake, right?”
2. “Yeah, I used to be into wrestling, but I kind of lost track after the Attitude Era. Hard to play catch-up.”
3. “Dude, sick Young Bucks shirt! You going to the Ring of Honor show in Manhattan?”
The first response makes me want to clothesline people. Of course I know it’s fake. Harry Potter is fake. Star Wars is fake. No one needs your smug assertion that the things you like have more validity than the things others like.
The third happens almost never, but when it does, I usually make a new best friend. It’s the second response that is the hardest to help with. People who were once fans of wrestling should, theoretically, be easier to convert, but that isn’t always the case.
Lapsed fans have a very strong, nostalgic connection to the superstars of their youth, so tuning into the current WWE product can be jarring for them. Most of the guys they used to cheer for are either retired (Steve Austin) or on their way there (The Undertaker), working part time schedules (like 420-friendly hardcore legend Rob Van Dam) or only popping up for special occasions (like The Rock). The guys they stopped watching wrestling over, like the divisive John Cena or former blue chipper Randy Orton, are top of the food chain, asserting that the wave of change that drove them away from watching in the first place hasn’t gone anywhere.
The other side of this coin, people who are interested in wrestling but were never serious viewers, has an even harder time. The WWE isn’t just a show you can binge on Netflix. Every week there’s 6.5 hours of new, in-canon programming. It’s much more like an expansive superhero universe. Imagine trying to get into the X-Men now, today. Fifty years of time travel, clones, and complicated resurrections, with a cast so vast and diverse you’d need an encyclopedia to follow along. Marvel will still relaunch the respective X-titles on a nearly annual basis, crafting new reader friendly jumping-on points to attract wider audiences with a brand new #1 issue.
Wrestling doesn’t quite do that, but there’s something pretty close: the week after WrestleMania.
For wrestling fans, WrestleMania is like the Super Bowl, the World Cup, March Madness, and Christmas all in one. It happens every year and represents the apex of what professional wrestling is capable of, packing giant stadiums full of people assembled to watch a century-old art with all of its action, intrigue, and pageantry. It’s the biggest game in town.
Really, it’s the only game in town. Vince McMahon’s WWE is Marvel if they bought DC Comics. Just like in comics, there is a much larger world out there if you choose to seek it out. There are plenty of other promotions that put out great wrestling product, like SoCal-based Pro Wrestling Guerilla or the prototypical American indie Ring of Honor or foreign juggernaut New Japan Pro Wrestling. For the purposes of this column, we’ll consider those further down the syllabus.
Wrestlemania isn’t just an end to a year’s worth of feuds and storylines. It is also also a beginning. Every year, the Big Two comics publishers force-feed us giant, line wide crossovers that promise to be “the biggest ever” and “change everything.” WWE commentary leading up to ‘Mania sounds the way Diamond Distribution solicits read. The nice thing with crossovers is they usually lead to a new status quo. Sometimes you go from Dark Reign to The Heroic Age and others you leave Flashpoint and wake up in the New 52. The Monday Night RAW following Wrestlemania is the same way.
Luckily for us (and for you, if this column entices you to join) WrestleMania XXX was awesome, a truly thrilling show with very few low points. Exciting matches with satisfying narrative follow-through and a climax that signaled a changing of the guard. Last Monday’s Raw cemented what the die-hards have been praying for: a focus on the younger generation of stars and a dedication to the future of the business.
You see, unlike comics where our heroes last forever, the very real performers in this “fake” sport have expiration dates. Superman is invincible, but eventually Hulk Hogan’s back just won’t support him emphatically flopping his spine onto a mat every night. Being a wrestler requires the psychological toll expected of method acting with the physical strain of being a stuntman. Improvisational action theater is a lot harder than it looks. As such, every few years, the WWE Machine requires new sacrifices, new idols to be born.
Unfortunately, the WWE hasn’t cemented new icons since 2005, when John Cena and Batista both won career-making matches against old guard champions. That’s how it works. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. It’s just been a really long time since any viable candidate stepped up and made the necessary connection with fans to get the torch handed to them.
Since it is always easier to watch a race you have a horse in, I’ve decided to introduce everyone to the five acts who saw their stock rise exponentially since WrestleMania, the new generation of superstars that are going to carry the business in the coming years. I’m sure at least one of these folks will become your new fave.
Everyone loves an underdog. Bryan Danielson was once the King of The Indies, a young wrestler who traveled the world perfecting his craft to become the most consistent in-ring performer alive. He could put on a thrilling match with literally anyone. Four years ago, he signed to the big leagues, had his name reversed, and struggled through a series of questionable booking decisions (like losing his first WrestleMania match in 18 seconds) to become a true darling in the eyes of the fans.
At WrestleMania XXX he beat Triple H, the last remaining King from the Attitude Era, to earn a title shot against entitled heel champion Randy Orton and part-time wrestler/full-time asshole Dave Batista (who is only back in wrestling to promote his turn as Drax in this summer’s Guardians of The Galaxy). These two matches, watched in succession, form the Godfathers 1 & 2 of David and Goliath stories. Every possible obstacle is thrown in Bryan’s way along his path to ultimate glory. It’s like watching Spider-Man defeat the entire Sinister Six. Now that he’s gotten his big rub, Bryan is being given a trial run as the face of the company. Putting the belt on someone so unanimously lauded for his hard work and preternatural talent for wrestling is a step in the right direction. He is impossible not to love.
Required viewing: Daniel Bryan vs Randy Orton
Another world-traveling indie worker who started out with Bryan, Cesaro is basically the best European 80s action movie villain. He’s handsome, bald, and sneers with such efficacy. He also has superhuman strength. No, seriously. A lot of wrestlers body build to look strong, but Cesaro is legitimately a monster. He regularly performs feats of strength that suggest he landed here in a Kryptonian rocket. At WrestleMania XXX he won the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal, beating thirty other superstars and bodyslamming the seven-foot plus, five hundred pound Big Show over the top rope in a superbly executed homage to the iconic main event of WrestleMania III. The next night on Raw, Cesaro aligned himself with Paul Heyman, arguably the best manager in pro wrestling and the former owner/head writer of ECW. Heyman is equal parts Don King and Joss Whedon, in terms of promotional ability and love from fans. Cesaro’s (perceived) weakness has always been his supposed lack of charisma on the mic, so giving him Heyman (the greatest talker in the business) as a mouthpiece is magic in the making.
Required viewing: Cesaro vs John Cena
Technically this is three guys, but as a unit they are one the greatest things in wrestling right now. Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns burst onto the scene a little over a year ago as monster heels who dominated the roster, dispatching every viable babyface in their path. Dean is basically Heath Ledger’s Joker and Seth is maybe the second best all around wrestler WWE has on the payroll, both having done tours on the indie scene before being called up, but it’s Reigns (a cousin of The Rock) with his insane good looks, towering physique, and potent charisma, who cements the trio as undeniable. Together, they have had some of the greatest matches on WWE television in over a decade.
After teasing a break-up, the team recently turned face, aligning with the good guys, making their act even more exciting. When they were bad guys, they got cheered because of how good they are, but now that they’re actively engaging the fans, arenas come unglued for them. The face turn is obviously a red herring to really break our hearts when one of them betrays the other, but for now, there is no more entertaining group of performers in the business.
Required viewing: literally anything. Any match. Mostly this promo, though.
A few years ago, Husky Harris was a third generation superstar who couldn’t get over. He didn’t fit the current mold. Fat, unorthodox physicality, not much character to speak of. He was repackaged as “Bray Wyatt,” an evil bayou preacher who dresses like Max Cady and calls himself “the devourer of worlds.” When a fan asked him on Twitter about the disparity, this happened:
@Charlie_WE He needed me, and i needed a vessel
— Bray Wyatt (@WWEBrayWyatt) January 17, 2013
Yeah, he’s possessed by the devil. It’s the best gimmick ever. Wyatt is a truck in the ring and the most singularly engrossing force on the microphone. His promos are full of dramatic verve and weight. Everything he does is in line with the character, from the way he moves to the way he speaks to the way he interacts with his two, massive followers, Luke Harper and Erick Rowan. He’s currently engrossed in a feud with WWE Superman John Cena, a morality play that reads like Miracle Monday but with body slams.
Required viewing: This fucking promo.
In the 90s, Vince McMahon employed actual female wrestlers with serious skill and then, for ratings, made them dress up like lingerie models and work “bra and panties” matches. Today, he tends to recruit models and then struggle to teach them how to wrestle. WWE Divas get treated like the halftime show, rarely given meaningful storylines or considerable TV time. They all exist in this circular vacuum. Luckily, the “Divas” division is on the verge of a Renaissance.
Paige comes from a legit wrestling family in the UK. Her mother, Saraya Knight, is like a bad ass Sharon Osborne who still fucks people up on the indies. Paige is sort of a Hot Topic poster child, an anti-diva. She’s one of the new class of female competitors all being trained by Sara Del Rey down at WWE’s Performance Center. Del Rey is the Meryl Streep of wrestling. Her talent and skill cannot be overstated. It’d be nice to see her in the ring regularly, but her students are kicking ass. Last Monday, Paige won the Divas Championship in her debut match. Fans know her from NXT, WWE’s developmental show, but to win a title on her first appearance means the company might be ready to move forward with their new class of Divas and hopefully start treating them like equals and not diversions.
Required viewing: Paige vs her nemesis Emma.
That’s it for this week. Check back here next time as I continue to indoctrinate you to the world of adults pretending to beat each other up while wearing wacky outfits, right here, In This Very Ring.
: The WWE did recently launch an on-demand streaming service with an enormous archive of past events. Read Dom’s thoughts on that here.
: WWE Raw airs on the USA Network beginning at 8pm ET.
: “Babyface” (often abbreviated to just “face”) is a term used for straight-laced “hero” type wrestlers who play by the rules. Their opposite numbers are “heels,” characters who fight dirty or behave like villains.
– Dylan “Death Editor” Roth