Monday, April 28, 2008

How Do They Do That?

Is the question that I had to ask myself after the Undertaker/Edge match at Backlash last night. How do they do that? By that, I am referring to something that happened at Wrestlemania this past March that happened again at Backlash last night. The ‘that’ I am referring to is this way of pacing a match that slowly draws the crowd in and ends with them erupting in a fury, all on their feet and screaming their hearts out when just minutes before there was only passive engagement. This is what Wrestlemania 24 ended on. Only there I was one of the mindless hordes that were completely enrapt with their performance. And last night I had enough awareness of the phenomenon that I stopped and watched the crowd. Amazed that like clockwork they had done it again.

What makes professional wrestling hard to manage is that it has one of the most diverse fan bases in entertainment. Some are going to be socially inept, some are going to be theater sophisticates, some are politicians and some are athletes in other sports, and the list can go on indefinitely. How do you entertain such a wide audience? Easy, you give them basic entertainment. The classic Greek mythology storylines with a modern twist, it worked for Homer and Hollywood still puts out a high amount of movies that are twists of the standard hero or heroine / villain or villainess dynamic that culminates with some profound self-discovery or violent resolution.

The only other arts that have attained this type of cross racial cross cultural cross everything audience ratio are television, movies and sports franchises. Basically the broadcasted media theory is that people who watch wrestling, basic television and sports in general are stupid and don’t actually require a high level of entertainment. The demographic of fans argues that theory, but how many industries would lose money if it were thought that professional wrestling was a suitable entertainment source? Why else would these factions make a point of telling audiences, you may be stupid, but at least you don't watch wrestling. I digress.

With that said, everything is in the hands of the performer. That is what is astounding about what I’ve witnessed two times in a row from The Undertaker and Edge. That type of consistency is pretty impressive. It’s knowing that Lebron James is going to give you 30 points tonight at least. That Jason Kidd will have double digit assists. That Kathleen Battle will always be on-key and that Jose Manuel Correno will be Jose Manuel Correno. This was a statement, that Edge and Taker will be gold, every time.

It reminded me of Stone Cold and Rock confrontations that left arenas practically ripping apart from the energy levels vibrating through the participants and the crowd. But Rock/Stone Cold was always as the characters were, barely leashed aggression threatening to boil over. Depending on the length of the match you would get quick bursts and pops when people were involved. But like most things that explode, the aftermath is short lived and generally just exhausts the source.

I am recalling specifically Wrestlemania 17, which I also was in attendance for. This pay per view was emotionally devastating from onset. After covering my eyes and cringing through TLC 2 and spending Triple H/ ‘Taker recovering still from TLC 2 and whatever other match happened in the interim, I was finally ready for Rock/Stone Cold. And the crowd was barely tethered. The match was long and the energy was high throughout, but lulled in odd spots. The crowd was growing increasingly exhausted, some fans couldn’t participate anymore because the intensely high energy level. Had the match been shorter it would’ve been outstanding, but the length, the energy, the dips and peaks were just too much. The ideal was the roller coaster effect, sudden pitches, hills and valleys, culminating in the big drop at the end as Stone Cold sells out to Vince McMahon in front of his hometown crowd. There was actual crying among the fans by the way.

I must admit that the slow build ending a pay per view as opposed to a roller coaster end is preferable. After Wrestlemania 24 I was resplendent in the after glow of this slow build match as I was able to slowly get there and burn everything out in the last few minutes, leaving me in a good place where I was properly emotionally exhausted while not being over-taxed. After the roller coaster 4-way elimination match I was agitated, a little jittery and had completely lost the glow from Undertaker/Edge 2. I’m all for diversity but it was hard not to notice the difference in the audience as well. But it accomplished its goal, left the people clamoring for more.

So back to the question at hand, how do they do that? How is it that two, although very talented performers, can go into a match and perform in a way that by increments the crowd is drawn in until eruption? It is amazing to me and mystifying all at the same time. This force, cult of personality that some people have and can channel for this business. How is it that this type of thing continues to not garner the respect it deserves in the public eye?

Vocally I’ve been known to bring down the house, no problem. But the idea of doing it on so many levels with such a widely diverse audience and with a partner is frankly beyond my skill set. Regardless I would like to say Kudos to The Undertaker and Edge, and huzzah. Fine performance gentlemen.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Salvation in the form of . . . . Steven Regal

I don't know about my professional wrestling contemporaries but I was taken aback by the culmination of the King of the Ring tournament and very grateful for it. As a seasoned wrestling fan I remember Lord Regal from days long past. And truly he is a character and performer that deserves the hall of fame without question. As I watched my choices fall one by one and had the unpleasant realization that it was going to either be CM Punk or Steven Regal, I knew without doubt that I wanted Regal. But was still pleasantly surprised that the WWE gave it to us.

I'm not an anti-CM Punkist. I believe that one day he will be a very accomplished performer and time spent on developing him is not wasted. My concern is that he will become a victim of too much too soon, or Lesnered as the case maybe. The WWE is in a lot of ways so very desperate for the younger generation of performers to assume the very big shoes that are about to be left open in coming years, that I think they are inadvertedly falling into the Brady trap. Which is the idea that you can take a young quarterback put him out there and have instant success. Not every young talented quarterback is Tom Brady, and not every young talented wrestler is Randy Orton. I realize that for gestation period concerns, CM Punk is not truly as new to this scene as he may seem. Unfortunately as his workload has gone up, there have been instances that have looked frighteningly similar to Tito Ortiz gassing out after the first round. Clumsily and sometimes sloppy ring work, a lackluster performance and a lack of commitment to hard sells and story while performing in the ring. When was the last time you saw Matt Hardy beat red and breathing heavy after 3 minutes of ring time? I believe my concern is well placed.

I openly questioned the decision to make CM Punk the new Money in the Bank at Wrestlemania. Let's be honest, Edge has wrecked that spot for anyone that comes after him. It will be very hard to fill the very heavy shoes of the Rated R Superstar who made Money in the Bank the sleazy opportunistic bacchanalia that it was always meant to be. I believe Ken Kennedy would've made it his own, John Morrison would've made it positively decadent and even Shelton Benjamin would've lived it up a little. The issue is that Money in the Bank was test driven by Rob Van Dam, his casual stoner ideology towards it made the story fly. Then Edge got a hold of it and the whole concept developed flesh and bones to become a living breathing presence. Now Money in the Bank has to be an aggressively talented heel, unless there is a face performer strong enough to reassign it. One day that face maybe CM Punk. But right now, he just isn't ready for that large of a task.

So I was relieved when Punk tapped out to Regal. With there being a question as to how well of a Money in the Bank he can actually be, adding the reintroduction of King of the Ring would’ve been devastating. Considering that the last King of the Ring was the always increasingly en fuego King Booker and Sharmell combo that brought back the original insanity of the Macho King and the Sensational Queen Sherri, this was not a job for a rookie. Only a seasoned veteran like Lord Regal could ever hope to reign in and supplant the legacy left by the last great King of the Ring and his unruly queen.

Being that I love the sport, the business, the performance, whatever you want to call it. I'm hoping that CM Punk will surprise me and make Money in the Bank his own. I'm hoping that this enables him to attain the status that the majority of fans seem to want for him and the organization wants for him. In the end perhaps these conditioning issues that I noticed are the real reason why he was de-throned so quickly for a ring warrior like Chavo Guerrero. ECW is a tough gig these days. Easily the least watched of the WWE television programming. This is not the time to present a champ that may not be up to snuff in some capacity. Hopefully sometime soon I can celebrate with the fan base the arrival of someone who can truly carry being the straight-edged hardcore Mr. Money in the Bank.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

THE NEW AGE OF PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING IN AMERICA

On a very recent episode of the WWE’s main flagship show Monday Night Raw, third generation professional wrestler Randy Orton declared to all that would hear him that we, being fans and other performers alike, had entered the “Age of Orton.” I thought the gesture was perfect, outlandish, idealistic and oppressively decisive all at once, a true masterstroke in regards to endearing envy and distain with faint traces of admiration. That is what the best heels do well, make you love to hate them. Over the weeks that followed I would find myself sitting somewhere in traffic or in a grocery store and I would randomly recall the declaration and giggle to myself. Not truly knowing what happened to spark the inspired moment to come to me again. But today I found myself reconsidering what had been said, and then honestly viewing it with a discerning eye, had to concede, mayhap the boy is right. Not just in regards to where this generation of individual wrestler stands but in regards to where this time period finds the state of professional wrestling in America. After all, Backlash pending, if he remains the WWE champion for the bulk of this intense transition period for the performing art that wrestling is starting to be recognized as, what better name for it could there be. I’m sure a few arguments could be raised for the ‘Era Rated R’ or perhaps a ‘V 1 Renaissance’, I digress.

Professional wrestling finds itself in a very interesting position in this new age of Sports Entertainment. Thanks to the outcry from the World Wildlife Federation, the organization that was incensed at the idea of having to share the acronym of WWF with an entity they considered false and ultimately beneath them, the owners of the WWE were forced to change what they had owned outright for years. Rightfully so, no astute businessman in his right mind goes to war with an organization that is trying to protect nature, it’s a no win situation. If you win, you’re the bad guy; if you lose you’re the bad guy and a loser. So, in a shrewd, but much debated move, Vince McMahon and family decided years ago to declare in a loud and unwavering voice. Yes, ‘wrestling is fake.’

The general public hasn’t been foolish enough to believe that professional wrestling was real for years now. But the general public is in general, much brighter than it used to be. There are plenty of factions in this country amongst higher education and big business that like to remind the civilians constantly in increasingly more offensive ways, that we are not the brightest lamps in the den. Vince McMahon and his board understood that as a popular source of entertainment for the upper middle to the lowest lower income ‘peasant’ classes that this country’s powers that be like to pretend don’t exist, perhaps they should stop doing so as well. Instead they have opted to use the very thing that none of the other outfits have even considered, the truth. In an age where just about every medication from a pharmaceutical company has to reveal months, sometimes years after product release, that it not only isn’t the best option to cure what ails you, but could now be the cause of your death, a little honesty is like a breath of fresh air. In a time where information about Senatorial, House Representative and Federal money misconduct is rampant and right-wing oppression is actively making a bid to try and make our democracy a monarchy, a little ‘we are not trying to pull the wool over your eyes’ feels like cold ice tea on a hot Sunday afternoon. Instead the WWE and other less affluent wrestling brands are handing out the blindfolds and letting their fans choose for themselves how much they will or won’t believe. This is in direct contrast and sometimes at the expense of our government which is making the rapid production of falsified ‘audience tailored’ information its own twisted art form. No blindfolds here, they’re opting to just poke out our eyes.

Wrestling has always held high levels of popularity depending on locale because the genre has always been more in touch with the common man than any other American entertainment vehicle. What is confusing to critics now is the somewhat sudden increase in popularity. My first thought is, this is not sudden. Wrestling events have been filling arenas with 50,000+ people since Hulkamania got its legs planted underneath it. But there has been a spike and I don’t believe anyone has factored into the equation the increasing number of people being relegated to common due to economic chaos. Tickets to professional level sporting events increase substantially every quarter to counter act the greed of the owners, players and agents in between. A family of four can expect to pay $200 for a mid to low ranking baseball game, a price increase of roughly 10.9 percent as studied by the Boston Globe. On average the prices for basketball and football have a similar rate of increase. Tickets for local wrestling events have an average price as what one would pay to go to the movies. With the exception of the WWE that starts tickets at about $19 to level at about $150 ringside for a weekly show. But if you plan a vacation around a Wrestlemania, not including flight and using the most frugal WWE offered vacation option for 4 days, 3 nights, that same family can go, with daily and nightly events included, for about $2000. For the last SuperBowl, average cost per ticket was $3000. Also I don’t think the fact that international audiences get quite a kick out of watching America finally making fun of itself with a respectable amount of cheek has been taken into account.

This new culture of wrestling works because it’s tapping into the crux of American frustration for mainlanders and international audiences alike. The fact that Americans constantly suffer the pangs of those in power feeling obligated to lie to them instead of being obligated by office to tell the truth opens a door for the sport that’s always not been considered one. And through this door there is an opportunity for this entertainment vehicle to redefine itself in an image that is true to form, making it the only aspect of American pop culture that actually tells the truth anymore. The truth is that this is all an elaborate stage show, complete with top tier performers, grand costumes, elaborate sets and stunning special effects. Professional wrestling is the new form of the Hollywood mega blockbuster.

Long gone are the days when one needed to be the much acclaimed triple threat. This now almost mythical creature that flaunted the ability to act intertwined lovingly with a great stage voice and an unhealthy amount of natural movement quality and rhythm. In my opinion the most ludicrous idea I’ve heard is the theory that wrestlers are bargain basement performers and low rent entertainers. In ancient Greece where the art of acting was cultivated and refined they would be larded as the most gifted of entertainers due to versatility and the way the art form has to be delivered. But not in this reality show driven age of Hollywood where a decent face and the ability to be obnoxious on queue tends to garner more attention and respect than a man or woman with a classical dance background, extensive voice training and the ability to perform physically almost nightly without many mistakes does. And yes I was actually speaking about a decent number of the men and women who are WWE top tier talent.

I have often likened this entertainment sport to classic Vaudeville. Where everybody knows where they stand. There’s going to be a good guy, there’s going to be a villain and just when you think that guys gonna actually get away with it, no dice; he gets what’s coming to him instead. The genre of professional wrestling is live stage performance, extreme theatre if you will. Men and women sacrifice their physical safety every single performance to insure the entertainment of their fans. But it is just a performance, sometimes it becomes bloody and a hair brutal because they respect our intelligence enough to give us as close to real as can be had without anyone getting seriously injured. They know that we love the live theatre of good versus evil, of struggle and triumph that is up to date with our concerns and our times. So while footage from war torn countries may pacify this nihilistic urge in some, most wrestling fans are just too humane to believe that anybody needs to get legitimately hurt or actually die for it to be entertainment worth watching. If only our politicians felt the same way.