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…
“Comics will break your heart.” – Jack Kirby
The King may as well as have been talking about professional wrestling. If you’ve seen anyone who watches wrestling openly crying this week, chances are it’s Seth Rollins’ fault. On last Monday’s edition of Raw, he turned his back on his compatriots in The Shield, joining evil authority figure Triple H and his Evolution faction. Here’s what it looked like (skip to 4:00):
Fucked up, right? But here’s what it FELT like:
Wrestling is the art of getting you to want to see two or more people fight. Usually this means they have to make you love one guy (or gal) and hate the other. When wrestling is at its best, it does both in one fell swoop, leaving debilitating heartache as a necessary byproduct. Heel turns and betrayal are as ingrained in wrestling’s DNA as suplexes and body slams, but the heart-wrenching dissolution of The Shield follows from a line ostensibly begat by one of the best betrayals in wrestling history: the break-up of The Rockers.
Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty were one of the best tag teams of the 1980s, and possibly of all time. Sure, they looked a little like a Wham! video come to life, but in the ring, they were fiercely ahead of their time and exciting to behold, all quick teamwork and rapidfire, innovative offense.
Cut to 1992. Shawn’s character is evolving to the point that his nascent charisma is manifesting at Dark Phoenix levels, so a break up is teased between the two longtime teammates. Marty brings Shawn onto Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake’s Barber Shop talk show segment to hash things out. The mulleted compadres seem to work things out until, well, they don’t.
That superkick changed wrestling history, and Janetty getting tossed through the glass became iconic. Shawn Michaels went on to become the best wrestler of all time (subjective? Sure, but it’s my column and he’s my fave) and Marty Janetty, after a decent feud with Shawn, fell into obscurity. Now, when a tag team dissolves, everyone’s first question is “who will be Shawn and who will be Marty?”
Teammate betrayals are devastating because the concept of tag team wrestling is something of an aberration. In a world built in the premise of every man for himself, two or more wrestlers working in tandem and developing a strong bond becomes sacrosanct. Even though history shows time and time again that no team lasts forever, you’re still torn apart when YOUR team comes to an end. What, then, of the other, more pernicious betrayal? Not between a wrestler and his partner, but a wrestler and his fans?
In last week’s column, I spoke of the ongoing storyline in Pro Wrestling Guerilla with Kevin Steen and his hated rivals, The Young Bucks. I teased the next chapter in that saga and lo and behold, it fits right in with our topic.
To set the stage: it’s Night Two of the 2013 Battle of Los Angeles tournament. The entire weekend, new PWG World Champion Adam Cole and his new best friends, Tag Team Champions, The Young Bucks, have wreaked havoc nonstop, assaulting whoever they want (including fan favorite Candice LeRae, the sometimes foil of returning PWG founder Joey Ryan) and dominating the competition. Cole’s former partner Kyle O’Reilly has just won BOLA, a feat Cole himself won the previous year. Watch the video:
Let’s break down how that insanity at the end plays so well.
1. Cole (officially) turns on his old partner. As O’Reilly started wrestling like a heroic underdog leading to the tournament, it was assumed he and Cole had split, but here it is official, turning in an old partner for two new ones.
2. Candice, still reeling from her earlier injuries, tries in vain to make the save, only for O’Reilly to use himself as a human shield to protect her. PWG’s gender politics are another column entirely, but here Candice looks strong for throwing herself into a losing situation and O’Reilly looks like a big babyface for trying to protect her.
3. Joey Ryan, who has wrestled in some three million “sexual harrassment” matches against Candice and has joined countless heel factions in the promotion (a continuity nod he himself references) asserts his face alignment by sticking with Candice.
4. Drake Younger, the man who filled the El Generico-sized babyface hole in PWG, comes out to uproarious cheers, followed by Rick Knox. We’ve seen an escalation of the tier of heroes coming to thwart our villains. All that’s left is the biggest, meanest gun: Kevin Steen.
5. All hope is lost. Commence tears. Game over, man.
That crowd just got swerved like four times and were still devastated by Steen turning on his friends and his fans to join the three people he hates the most. His rationale in a later promo was that fans didn’t love or respect him as much as he felt he deserved, the same cockiness that led The Bucks and Cole down this path. Together, they formed The Mount Rushmore of Wrestling, a faction that would have been killer without Steen, but using his turn as the catalyst, became huge.
Now, that sounds familiar. A lovable babyface hero who’s seemingly the only thing stopping an evil group from holding an entire promotion hostage, only to join up with them and effectively take over the world?
Let’s go back to 1996. The moment every child in America wept. Kevin Nash and Scott Hall have left WWE for lucrative contracts in Ted Turner’s WCW. Billing themselves as nebulously defined interlopers breaking all the rules, they claim to have a mystery partner in their planned six man tag against Sting, Macho Man Randy Savage and Lex Luger at Bash at The Beach. When all hope seems lost, as Hall and Nash are decimating their opponents, a hero comes to the rescue.
Did I say rescue? I meant he came to literally shatter the hopes and dreams of patriots everywhere, leaving fans young and old to ponder the existence of a higher power and their place in this dark, confusing world. Steen turning his back on PWG was sad, but he’s small potatoes. Beloved on the indies, but his reach is finite. Hulk Hogan was the single most important figure in wrestling and he was the hero of a generation. To see this man turn his back on all the little Hulkamaniacs was astonishing. This is like Superman becoming a villain, only instead of it being a diversionary twist in a story where good triumphs over evil, this shit lasted years. He instantly went from being a huge face to a top heel, adding longevity to a persona that was quickly becoming stale to modern audiences. Here, the heartbreak was a necessary evil.
Elsewhere, a similar gambit failed. Wrestlemania 17. 2001. A turn that ended The Attitude Era.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin had been the top face in WWE since around the time Hogan turned over with the distinguished competition. His ascendance as a tough talking antihero marked the shift in culture at the time. We didn’t want our heroes to tell us to say our prayers and eat our vitamins. We wanted them to swill Budweiser and open up cans of Whoop Ass on their needling bosses, just the way we wish we could. Austin was Wolverine for the pro wrestling audience. He was a hero in that he hurt the guys we don’t like, but he never did it the way an established good guy might.
In 2001, Austin was going into ‘Mania to try to get the world title back from his arch foe, The Rock. Neither was really the heel in this feud. The Rock was portrayed as this iconic star at the top of his game and Austin the desperate veteran who NEEDED to win this match. The two had a rivalry like none other, and they were both loved in a way few other stars could dream to come close to. Vince McMahon, Austin’s biggest enemy, had tinkered with the buildup to this event over and over, his motives questionable. When he finally got involved in the match itself, it led to a shocking conclusion.
Austin, who had come to prominence being a redneck voice for anti-establishment rhetoric, sells his soul to the devil, just to get one last shot at the gold. It’s a great fucking story, a damn good match, and the logical conclusion to this era of storytelling, so where are the tears? Why is this crowd cheering? Why aren’t they as broken and lost as the fans from Hogan’s turn?
One, they’re in Austin’s home fucking town. This was the first Wrestlemania to be held in a stadium in years and it was headlined by the two biggest stars in wrestling. Joy doesn’t begin to describe that kind of electricity. Two, as venomously portrayed and as viciously executed as Austin’s villainy was, it wasn’t that far removed from his usual antics. He’d always beat people with chairs and do what it took to get the job done. Here, just went a little farther than usual. Three, the Attitude Era was full of swerves like this. If every angle is a heel turn or a double cross, people get fatigued. You can’t get people to hate someone they love by having them do more of the same.
Seth Rollins hurts us because The Shield is about brotherhood. Those chairshots to Dean Ambrose’s spine sting because we know they’re supposed to be friends. (Also, peep how similar they are to Austin’s WM17 chairshots. Homage!) Shawn Michaels hurts us because we love The Rockers and want to see them keep “rocking and rolling” forever. Steen was our hero and he turned on us to hang out with the people he (and us) hate the most. Hulk Hogan broke children’s hearts.
Austin? Austin just pushed his paradigm to its logical extreme, but in an era of extremes, maybe he didn’t push enough. That heel run, while wild and a spectacle in its experimental humor, was a dud. I personally think Austin’s tenure as a corporate stooge/buffoon is like an odd Lou Reed album in the wrestling pantheon, but it just didn’t work. Injuries and personal issues ended his career not long after that.
If you want to really affect your audience and make a lasting impression, to use a shocking moment to tell even more engaging stories, it’s not enough to go for the jugular.
You’ve got to aim for the heart.