Tag Archives: Being a twenty-something year old man into wrestling

The Year. Interlude – The Greatest Guest Post In The History Of Sports Entertainment

In 2011, I concluded my rumspringa and returned to my natural state of watching and caring about professional wrestling. Weirdly, it happened by coincidence about two months before CM Punk did the thing that made other people like me go back to caring about professional wrestling. I just watch a lot of television and noticed that it was still the kind of thing that rewards consistent attention.

Michael Healy, who wrote this guest post, is a serious wrestling fan, as you’ll find out in this post. This is his take on the CM Punk thing, and an interesting look at what the Greatest Sports Entertainment Company In The History Of Sports Entertainment’s apparent proffering of a hand to the smarks looked like to the people it may or may not have been aimed at.

CM Punk, Success and Disaster, My Fragile Emotional State

Sitting down to write this wrap-up for the year in pro wrestling, my first impulse was to put on my independent wrestling fancypants and drop some esoteric internet Knowledge about the diverse, often remarkable performances of pro wrestling’s finest artists. Manly tears were shed in Ring of Honor, skinny men chopped one another in Chikara, Fergal Devitt continued to proudly fly the tricolour as he kicked Asian gentlemen unnecessarily hard in the head for New Japan.

But the real wrestling story of 2011 was the momentary, fleeting, maddeningly tantalising instant where mainstream professional wrestling became relevant, engaging and culturally unique once again. WWE’s American ratings, their share of the Monday night prime time viewership, has been justifiably declining over the year, now boasting the same numbers that Vince Russo managed to draw in WCW with strokes of brilliance like “the KISS guy” and outrageous creative abominations like “Jeff Jarrett.” The WWE is a bland, bloated, politically fraught, creatively bankrupt, embarrassing product, a complacent monopoly aimed at delivering consistent paycheques to incompetent, disinterested employees onscreen and behind the scenes, exploiting the vulnerabilities of especially dumb children.

I say “especially dumb children” because I have no recollection of having had such terrible taste as a kid. Nor do I remember ever fawning over the pederastic gestures of the company’s most visible babyface. One of my earliest wrestling memories is seeing Brian Pillman pull a gun on Stone Cold Steve Austin when Stone Cold attacked him in his home, as they literally tried to murder each other. These were the guys I got interested in. I liked Mankind because he punched himself in the head. My sister and I liked the Undertaker because he was a magical wrestling corpse. I did not like seeing Shawn Michaels dance around the ring with his pants down as small boys reached out to touch him. Those kids were dicks. Point is this: In 2011 it’s for some reason socially acceptable for children to watch High School Musical and iCarly and to cheer John Cena instead of playing Quake and screaming for the bad guys to mutilate people on live television. If the WWF of 1997 had run an anti-bullying campaign the way the WWE of 2011 is doing I wouldn’t have watched. But the dumbass children of 2011 are lapping it up.

Point is this: the WWF that every single friend I have loved growing up, lads and woman-lads alike, is now the very antithesis of what it once was. Instead of the counter-cultural, rebellious, unique television we watched as kids (which led some of us to appreciate pro wrestling on whole new, possibly ill-advised levels) the WWE has become a company obsessed with trying to prove its relevance by engaging in po-faced stories about inclusiveness and inoffensiveness and wide-eyed schlock. I don’t know what it’s going to be like for the grown-up Glee generation in a few years time (I suspect most children watching now will simply forget about the wrestling show much as our generation don’t really run around dropping Biker Grove or Echo Island references to get cheap pub laughs) but for my friends the memories of the WWF from 1997 to 2001 are very strong.

For me and people like me, cursed with the psychological weakness of pro wrestling bearing the same cultural relevance, the same bearing on life and learning as any book or film or piece of arcane religious knowledge, have kept this period of wrestling with us and explored many many more. Most of my friends have naturally drifted away, alienated by the deteriorating quality of mainstream wrestling, embarrassed that they were ever fond of a product that aspires to (and fails to meet) the standards of the worst trends in popular culture that we have to endure in early adulthood. Last week the WWE ran a commercial for their new network with a dubstep soundtrack running over it. Jesus Christ.

I wish to God that when I said to a group of people the other week that a mutual friend of ours “had that kind of El Generico physique” that they wouldn’t have looked at me like I was having a stroke. My brain, like the brains of the afflicted, wants to be able to express its thoughts and emotions by talking about Terry Funk promos from 1988. I want to tell people that I totally dropped a Macho Man elbow on a sandwich at lunch without people thinking I’m a fan of that show that their 5-year-old cousin with the cleft pallet and divorced parents always wants to talk about at awkward family dinners. And while I could try and tell the world about ROH’s bro-hugs and Chikara’s svelte gentlemen in funny masks and the guy from Bray wearing the Junior Heavyweight Gold in Japan, the industry leader is all anybody knows. The WWE is the touchstone for pro wrestling everywhere and every real fan has to deal with it. Our interest will forever be associated with this weak, bland, failing nonsense.

And then there was hope.

CM Punk, having suffered the same obscurity in the WWE as every other passionate indie-alumnus with the company, used the leverage of his expiring contract and their evident need keep him onboard to build the first significant angle in the company for years. First he cut a shocking promo as Raw went off the air, calling Vince McMahon and Triple incompetent, telling the world he was about to walk away from this terrible company and sprinkling a bit of kayfabe magic into what seemed to be a legitimate shoot promo, telling the audience he’d be taking the WWE championship with him. In the weeks that followed he would promote this view on TV and in proper, grown-up, real world interviews with intrigued news and sports organisations. ESPN listened to him talk about the creative deficiencies behind the scenes in the WWE, that John Cena (the champion and his opponent at Money in the Bank) represented all that was wrong with the company and all of the true fans’ frustrations. He told the world that the wrestling industry might just die out this generation if Vince McMahon and Triple H continued down this path of apathy and irrelevance. One way or another he was wouldn’t be a part of it.

In a space of a few weeks, Punk created from scratch single-handedly what every great mainstream wrestling storyline comes eventually to contain: Two strong personalities with clear but sophisticated moral positions, on the same competitive footing in the continuity of the sport, the outcome of the feud unknown and promising tremendous change. A story the fans could invest in, a philosophical dispute the world could scratch its head over, glowingly debate about in pubs and bars and restaurants, the promise of something new and unknown to think about and emotionally react to. Every relationship in the story, The Cena/Punk, McMahon/Punk and even Cena/McMahon dynamics were multifarious and gave the impression of depth and sophistication. It was a story that I could direct my friends to go watch, link them to Punk’s promos on YouTube and have faith that they were going to get excited. Two sides of a profound argument, a dispute over values, loyalty, change and moral relativism were to collide and be creatively expressed through the medium of the wrestling match. It was truly riveting and, best of all, the cyber-bullying hysteria generation had no idea what was going on.

Remarkably, unexpectedly, the match delivered. A rabid Chicago crowd made up of mostly adults, unique these days outside of Wrestlemania, followed and reacted to every hold, every turn, every shift of momentum, every gesture of defiance issued by both wrestlers. As Punk and Cena toyed with the expectations and hopes of a volatile audience, Vince McMahon walked down to the ring to interfere in the match, ordering the bell to be rung as Cena held Punk in an STF. This was the same Vince McMahon we remembered as kids, not the steroid-loaded cartoon character we’ve had to endure now for years. Cena, true to his square-jawed heroism, released the hold and stopped McMahon from cheating on his behalf, allowing Punk to hit his finish and take the title away from him. McMahon ordered Alberto del Rio to the ring to challenge for the belt with the shot he’d earned earlier in the evening, only for Punk to knock him out and flee into the adoring Chicago crowd, leaving McMahon behind with a look of trauma on his face, his hand outstretched following the new champion out of the building and out of the company.

It was as good a story as has ever been told in a wrestling ring. The mainstream sports media gushed over the show for weeks to come, filling column inches with enthusiastic endorsements of WWE’s first triumph in a decade, encouraging them to keep delivering, often going so far as to predict a new golden age for the wrestling, a new well of creativity having seemingly been tapped. I watched the match the morning after it was broadcast. I remember jumping up and down, screaming at the TV, cheering Punk to his fake victory in a manner that a cynical wrestling aficionado seldom does anymore. Credit is due to John Cena for his facilitating of the story, no doubt. But this was Punk’s baby, the dream of a child of the independents finally getting the chance to do something new on the biggest wrestling stage in the world (smaller though it might have gotten over the years).

But then the hope faded. And once again I looked like an idiot for recommending the WWE to proper, full-on adult friends.

Punk’s contract renewed, the company went back to its old ways. In what could have been a cutting parody of WWE logic if produced by anybody else, Punk’s return landed him inexplicably in a feud with Triple H and, of all people, Kevin Nash, losing the title at Summerslam because of them. Next month, he lost a no disqualification match to Triple H. Online, people were hopeful. Punk had lost after interference from no less than three people, they said, he’ll get his win back in the future. What they failed to realise was that this was classic Hulk Hogan in WCW booking. Hogan used to justify winning by ending the match in nonsense and controversy. What nobody could verbalise was that the hero losing, even losing against significant odds, pours a whole lot of cold water on that previously superlative hero, as well as making everybody look silly. Hogan knew this. Triple H knew this. The WWE knew this. This piece of baffling booking ended what was a glorious month of pro wrestling TV, driving away all the press and lapsed fan attention they were getting, letting the company settle back into its comfortable little rut of appealing to unintelligent children and frustrated, captive wrestling fans.

So that is the story of 2011. For five minutes everybody sat forward, paid attention to wrestling for the first time in a decade, offered me and my wrestling-addled brain the hope that once again I could express my fondness for this unique art form in public and share this ludicrous passion I’ve had to carry with me since childhood with other normal human beings. And then that hope was smothered by the same hideous booking that made WCW a joke back when adults were actually watching. Money In The Bank 2011 will forever be recorded as a classic, Punk’s masterpiece built against the odds in adverse circumstances, but it’s clear the WWE wanted no part of it. So in 2012 I’ll again be spending more time and money on the manly emotions of Ring of Honor, the nerdy humour of Chikara and face kicking antics of New Japan than on the most successful company in the sport’s history. Everything now seems more hopeless in the wake of that optimistic spark of creative insight. Ultimately, 2011 may have only lent credence to Punk’s prediction that this might well be the last generation of pro wrestling in America, such is the incompetence and offensive negligence of the industry leaders.

Also, Randy Savage died.

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The Chaff #2 (for TN2): You People Make Me Sick

The second of my back page columns for the student newspaper I used to edit in college, this time about wrestling. This is another article about wrestling I did for this blog.

Professional wrestling is anathema to grown-ups. It’s fake and it’s for kids. It’s probably been half a decade since you were last in a situation where you even had to argue that with a peer. But it hasn’t gone away. WWE’s Raw is the longest running weekly episodic programme in the history of American television and for eighteen years it has aired, mostly live but always at least recorded live, every Monday night. There is no inherent value in longevity obviously, but the fact that Raw has been a constant since January 1993 means that its story arcs, trends and stylistic decisions provide an interesting means of looking at how society changed in that time.

You could watch Reeling In The Years for a more straightforward account, no doubt, but news stories don’t happen in front of a live crowd. Events that do, like ‘real ‘ sports, aren’t scripted, so there’s no way you can find out anything useful about what people want from them. A wrestling crowd will only cheer or boo when they care. It’s the job of the bookers to make the crowd care in real time, live, every single Monday. And no disrespect to wrestling fans, but the average Raw attendee isn’t exactly a modern liberal. They’re not making a political statement with their ticket purchase, but the things they cheer and boo tell us something about societal attitudes and prejudices that we won’t get in the same form anywhere else.

Take, for example, the character of Goldust, portrayed by Dustin Runnels, son of Hall of Famer and lunatic Dusty Rhodes. Goldust entered the WWE (then WWF) in 1995 with the nickname “the bizarre one” and proceeded to develop a gimmick based on “creeping out” opponents by blowing kisses to them, groping them mid-fight and wearing a full-body metallic gold suit. Goldust’s gimmick, effectively, was that he was gay. It worked, too. Dig a little through YouTube archives and you can see the palpable discomfort of the crowd first hand as Goldust ‘accidentally’ bumps his crotch into his opponent from behind or strokes their chest before delivering a punch. You’ll also find an on-air interview with current wildly popular commentator Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler ahead of the 1996 King of the Ring in which the crowd totally erupts when Lawler calls Goldust a “flaming fag”.

It’s uncomfortable viewing, but the WWE is always looking for the path of least resistance to a reaction, and that got one. In 2004, just about far enough from September 11th, 2001 to get away with it, the company introduced a pair of characters, Daivari and Hassan, whose gimmick involved complaining about their mistreatment as Arab-Americans. Despite being Iranian-American and Italian-American (seriously) respectively, they wore Arabic headdress and made what the average university student would probably consider fairly profound points about racism in modern America. Guess what? They were wildly unpopular. Just like the Russian and Arab characters of old, they drew immediate cheap heat and USA chants just for showing up and being “foreign”.

The last few weeks of Hassan’s run in the WWE involved one of the most shameful moments in the company’s history of tastelessness, as a crew of masked men with garrots – with obvious ‘Al Qaeda’ implications – came to the ring to do his bidding on an episode that aired the same day as the London bombings. This was the end of what could probably be described as WWE’s most recent straightforwardly racist angle as the Italian-American whose initial gimmick was to speak out against prejudice ended up losing his job because the WWE’s television network partners demanded that he be kept off air.

It’s not pleasant stuff, and it’s not all like this, but it says something about what the average person on the street in middle America, outside of idealistic discourse and worries about what others will think, wants to see in their live entertainment. Female characters are mocked for being ‘fat’ if they’re not skinny. The most popular wrestlers are always white and American, to the extent that the most important title has never been held by a black wrestler. But the company still fills arenas, sells pay-per-view events and makes money. It’s supply and demand, I suppose. Give the people what they want.

A post you can ignore, extolling the merits of professional wrestling.

After the Super Bowl, I remember wondering aloud to someone about what I was going to fill my time with. I am ridiculously susceptible to phases, from cricket to Judaism in general, and I was aware that something was going to have to fill up the time I spent watching games, interviews and analysis, reading blogs and making predictions, especially with the (still unresolved) labour dispute between owners and players pending.

I predicted skateboarding. I did get into skateboarding (as a spectator sport entirely based on the internet), and even went so far as to write an introductory piece for Totally Dublin about it. But the thing that makes me stay up late when I have to be up early, which created another ten bookmarks to bounce through daily, which causes me to tweet unintelligible nonsense and occasionally try to sincerely explain a particularly arresting development to a glazed-eyed human being in real life is… professional wrestling.

You don’t like it and you think it’s stupid. It’s for kids, and it’s fake anyway.

Fair enough. It is, to a large degree, for kids. The thing is, though, it’s not like I’m not aware that it’s not actually a competitive sporting contest. I could not possibly have less interest in watching actual wrestling. Nobody condescendingly smiles at their mother as she watches Coronation Street and says “you do realise it’s fake?”

If you’re 7, you might genuinely believe that Rey Mysterio consistently gets beaten down because he’s small but then, due to his resilience and the support of the crowd, comes back to claim victory. But if you’re 23 (as I am now, since Monday) and you’re not overcome with grumpiness at the idea of being asked to believe something that proposes itself to be true but is not actually true (hello Odd Future haters), it’s not that difficult to accept that as a necessary, sometimes compelling story.

Kayfabe was broken in the 90s. The Kliq (a real-life group of mates consisting of Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, X-Pac, and Triple H) hugged in Madison Square Garden despite being kayfabe adversaries and since then it’s apparently grand to write shoot autobiographies and do interviews for shitty DVD magazines and stuff.

Kayfabe alone isn’t what makes wrestling good. Kayfabe was gone when you were really into wrestling too, so stop looking smug. Obvious storyline can be fun, but the point where the VU meter goes nuts and you’re standing on top of your couch going “NO FUCKING WAY” is the point where the writers see you at home with your smarky little head on you, pull you one way and then hit you with something completely different.

They do it surprisingly well and surprisingly often, and it usually works BECAUSE of smarks. Oh, smarks are pro wrestling fans who know what the craic is with pro wrestling, sorry. It works because of smarks, because if it was just kids and idiots, it’d just be monster bad guys attacking valiant good guys and eventually being beaten forever. There is an element of that with John Cena, whose gimmick was once being a rapper with a Boston accent but is now literally based on getting kids to try hard and be respectful.

Cena is annoying to smarks because he is clearly for kids and – as a result of the fact that kids will buy any type of crap – wins all the time in the exact same way, both in terms of set-up (he’s mauled and then gets a second wind) and execution (which are called the Five Moves of Doom by the internet – shoulder block, shoulder block, ducked clothesline to back suplex/spin out powerbomb, Five Knuckle Shuffle, Attitude Adjustment).

But you can hate Cena as much as you like, as far as the business is concerned. So long as you give a shit about Cena in any way shape or form, writers can manipulate your emotions and keep you watching. If you love him, hey, hope he wins. If you hate him? Well, you’ve probably been waiting on CM Punk.

Wrestling’s true unique selling point right now is the fact that it acknowledges that it’s scripted. Far from killing it, this means that there are now a million different ways to exploit the fact that people are constantly looking for continuity errors or examples of people going off script. One of them, and probably the best one, is to actually let someone go off script.

This is CM Punk’s worked shoot. You might have heard about it, you might not. But when this happened a few weeks ago. (and I was sitting there watching it live at 4.15am, obviously), it caused ructions. CM Punk is a straight edge dude. He is also the kind of heel that smarks go nuts for – he is good in the ring (in the sense that he makes matches look good/real), he is unbelievable at put-downs and he came up through the independent circuit.

This caused trouble. Smarks in the crowd (who tend to be neckbearded dudes wearing NJPW t-shirts) were chanting for Punk as he feuded with Cena. Every week it was “CM PUNK!” “LET’S GO CENA!” and gradually the CM Punk chants got louder, because smarks are men have naturally louder voices than 10 year old children. This is an issue, because Cena is Super Cena and doesn’t make sense if people don’t love him.

Punk’s contract is up. He wants to win the belt and leave with it. This is obviously story.

But then Punk cuts that promo. The show ends six minutes early with no warning, as if the feed had been cut intentionally by the WWE.

Here is a list of things he should not, if keeping strict kayfabe, have said, bold for important ones:

Talking about how he feels about Cena as a person, “in the back”.
Mentioning Hulk Hogan, who works for TNA, the rival promotion since WCW collapsed.
Calling The Rock Dwayne.
Talking about breaking the fourth wall, which is basically him raising a flag that says “this is a shoot promo, it is not scripted”
Referring to Hogan and The Rock as “asskissers” when it’s rumoured to have been true.
Saying the word “wrestler”.
Referring to Paul Heyman, a former booker who no longer works for the company.
Alluding to the talent development process by referring to himself as a “Paul Heyman guy”.
Mentioning Brock Lesnar, who’s also gone.
Referring to the fact that he is not “pushed” enough by the company.
Mentioning the (synergy-inspired) wrestler cameos on other USA Network shows and calling them crap.
Being pissed off that The Rock’s in the main event at next year’s Wrestlemania (against Cena) because he doesn’t, by hard-work-pays-off standards, deserve it.
Mentioning New Japan Pro Wrestling, another company.
Mentioning Ring of Honor, another company.

Mentioning Colt Cabana, who was fired by the WWE and is now back at Ring of Honor.
Complaining about the executives in WWE who aren’t actually onscreen characters.
Mentioning John Laurinaitis, Vice President of Talent Relations specifically as one of them
[bonus fact: his son is James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams middle linebacker and my favourite NFL player]
Saying the company will be better when Vince McMahon’s dead.
Insulting Vince McMahon’s family.
Attempting to tell a personal story about Vince McMahon being a bully that undermines WWE’s real world current anti-bullying campaign.

This is what they called a worked shoot. Obviously Punk never gets a microphone if he’s not scripted to get one. But it’s also obviously meant to be received as real. The relationship between kayfabe and real is incredibly blurry. No-one will ever know how much of that he was legitimately allowed to say – it might be all of it, it might be pretty much none, but it was live TV so what else can they do?

They cut the show with six minutes left and suspended Punk. He wasn’t on the next week’s show.

Watch the promo again because it’s great:

Now, when was the last time Steve McDonald complained that writers weren’t giving him enough of a push, or the Simpsons would be better when Matt Groening’s dead? The worked shoot, in its varying guises, is the greatest thing about wrestling, because only wrestling can do it the way it does. And, apart from the Montreal Screwjob (look it up if you don’t know it), this is the best worked shoot ever.

Then Cena jumps on board. He’s no Punk (partially because he’s clearly the golden boy, regardless of what happens in story), but he can carry a worked shoot.

The next week again, 11th July, they set up a ‘live contract renegotiation’. Cue more god-tier worked shooting from Punk, including getting Vince McMahon to apologise to Punk’s real life wrestler friends he’d fired/mistreated. Won’t recap all the shooty bits again, just watch.

That’s how the pay per view Money In The Bank is set up. It happened on Sunday. Torrent it, watch it, and then let’s be friends who talk about wrestling. And one last thing… if you’re the most cynical person alive and you still think the whole thing is 100% scripted, here’s a parable from a CM Punk promo in Ring of Honor before he ever got to the WWE.

There was once an old man, walking home from work. He was walking in the snow, and he stumbled upon a snake frozen in the ice. He took that snake, and he brought it home, and he took care of it, and he thawed it out, and he nursed it back to health. And as soon as that snake was well enough, it bit the old man. And as the old man lay there dying he asked the snake, “Why? I took care of you. I loved you. I saved your life.” And that snake looked that man right in the eye and said, “You stupid old man. I’m a snake.” The greatest thing the devil ever did was make you people believe he didn’t exist. You’re looking at him right now. I am the devil himself.”

The promo was taken off YouTube I’m pretty sure. You need more education if you need the relevance of that in this context explained to you.

Once more, the longer the post, the less coherent a point there is.
tl;dr wrestling’s good now
Goodnight