Ring Architect 4.08.14: Dr. Hardy & Mr. Willow
Posted by Obi Justice on 04.08.2014
So you came back as a nuclear assassin from Jupiter and you've got a brand new finisher, but why should I care? Obi Justice looks at just what alter egos can and can't do for a wrestler.
"Ring Architect" is a format I've come up with to break down wrestling topics. The 20' x 20' is the main idea that I'll be talking about in the column. Red Corner/Blue Corner are two opposing takes on it that I see. Of course, it'll just be my thoughts on it, so I'll leave it to you guys in the comments to see how valid they are. And the last bit, the Main Strands, are three key pieces of information that I think should be kept in mind when considering the topic. Spare Parts is just a quick summary. The format'll definitely help me sort out my thoughts and hopefully it makes things easy for you guys to read.
The whole deal, the main idea.
In the wrestling world, it's hard to get closer to that Tim Burton feel than TNA's Willow. Lots of characters play with weird language, costumes, and odd camera shots, but most of these are monstrous or evil. Bray Wyatt, the Undertaker, and "Antichrist" Jeff Hardy have all walked that path. They want to terrify and conquer. Even Goldust, who is an out-there character if there ever was one, seemed to be trying to get inside his opponent's head a lot of the time. With Willow, this stilted perspective is his reality; it's a character trait rather than a tactic. When I first started seeing the Willow character, that's what really caught me about it. It was bizarre but, especially in TNA which has been hurting for fresh characters, I can always appreciate a step on the ledge.
Taz and Mike Tenay haven't been shy in letting us know that Willow is Jeff Hardy. Of course, it was never a huge secret. He wears a shirt with his Hardy Boyz symbol on it, after all. He helps the same people that he always did and, aside from a few new mannerisms, acts like himself. As one of the most popular guys on the TNA roster, it's tough to see just why Hardy would want to step into a new character like this. At the same time, people do react to him differently now and maybe that's the point. Even if he's just slotted into Hardy's place, he's a new presence there and that could help shake up both himself and give him a new direction.
Hardy's not the only one who's used an alter ego, of course. The Undertaker has had his American Bad Ass persona, and that's not counting the gimmicks he used in his pre-WWE days. Goldust was notably "The Natural" Dustin Rhodes in WCW and a basically similar character in WWE before becoming the freakshow artist. Keiji Mutoh came up under his real name as a straight-ahead wrestler before adopting the devilish Great Muta persona. These new personas were all used to help these guys reinvent themselves, not just in the eyes of the fans but for themselves. One might say that Hardy's at a late stage to change much, but Taker was already a longtime vet when he became the Bad Ass and since he's incorporated lots of MMA.
At the same time, you've got the many gimmicks of Al Snow, none of them resulting in any particularly huge success despite his talent. One Man Gang becoming Akeem the African Dream was fun but I'd be hard-pressed to say it really improved his career. Just changing attire and character isn't quite enough. Hardy's Willow character sticks out because of this. I'm not convinced that the new (Hardyish) music or the mask is enough to make it work. He'll still be Jeff Hardy, of course, but there's nothing about Willow that is really must see.
Red corner is pro. Blue corner is con.
RED CORNER: Having a new look and a new style has a definite effect on increasing interest. Wade Barrett's thousands of tunes is a bit of a gag at this point. I've liked some of them, hated others, but at a certain point you kind of just wish they'd stick with something. One thing that's undeniable is that they've got an interest in him, though. He has not had the most stellar WWE career but he's consistently been brought back and repackaged, positioned well on Raw, lots of mic time. They're doing it because they want to bring eyes back to him. Any sort of reintroduction will get attention, and when it's something that's different than people have seen before, their attention will probably be held longer. It's a pretty simple theory that you can see at work in all sorts of ways. Hell, if they bring out an old movie on a new player, people will rush out to buy it even if they'd got it on the old player and don't have a TV capable of the new extra mega 8-dimensional resolution.
This goes double when you consider a guy like Sting. He was one of the top stars in WCW while under the colored paint. He'd battled Ric Flair time and time again, joined and warred with the Four Horsemen, become one of the greatest Television champions in history, and more. Yet when he came back from an injury in '97 it was as the morbid, ominous Crow Sting. No longer was he calling on fans for support and standing up for the little guy. He was on his own, watching from the shadows, striking only at opportune moments. If there was one clear message it was that Sting had changed. And, even as loved as Sting had already been, the crowd just got more interested in him. And when he did another subtle but visible change to Joker Sting in TNA, there was another uptick in interest. Sure, it was not nearly as iconic as his evolution into the Crow, but he definitely became hot in a way he hadn't been in TNA for a while. If you can pull it off, an alter ego can definitely give you new energy.
BLUE CORNER: For an alter ego to really succeed, it has to be different enough to be a new character. New themes and viginettes do not an alter ego make. I wouldn't try to claim that Wade Barrett has really changed his character dramatically from when he came into WWE. Husky Harris was in FCW and NXT, much as Barrett was, and he seemed to be going nowhere in WWE, much as Barrett was. I don't think either of them had bad characters but they definitely weren't getting lots of traction. When Husky developed the Bray Wyatt character, though, things took a quantum leap. He improved in a lot of ways, that's true. But I'm not sure the two things are separate. It might be that finding the Bray Wyatt character helped him to really push ahead and work to get it right. Another NXT guy who changed characters recently is Adam Rose. I don't think anybody was really disappointed with his Leo Krueger character. I certainly wasn't. However, he came back with something totally new, he pulled it off, and it's just launched him even higher.
When Goldust goes to TNA as Black Reign or when Albert comes back to WWE as Tensai, it just isn't enough. Tensai was not different enough in his personal style from Albert for it to make much of a difference. It always seemed to me that people were more interested in seeing him as a wrestler back in WWE than they were in Tensai as a character doing anything. It might be that he just wasn't adaptable enough in that way to pull off such a dramatic character shift. Whatever it is, I don't think you can get away with just changing the superficial elements up. The alter ego has to be something pretty deeply explored or it feels false. It has to feel different enough that, as a viewer, I can believe that this person is not the guy I was seeing a few weeks before. Part of that is timing, it's true. You can't bring a guy right back as someone new. But a larger part of it is execution.
Important lines of thought.
TOP ROPE: It's very difficult to completely change your style and mannerisms. I don't know if you have ever tried to start saying something, but I have. I wanted to start saying "you tiny bitch" as a random insult, because people say "you little bitch" all the time and "you tiny bitch" is funnier to me. I'd get cut off in traffic or overcharged for something and always forget to say it. People have behaviors like biting their nails or grinding their teeth that they have to put forth a lot of effort to change. Wrestling is something that you have to learn by repeated practice, constantly getting it right. When you're coming up, you work out your gimmick along with your style, so usually they feed into each other somewhat. If it's tough to change any other habit, learned or not, it'll definitely be tough to try to change a wrestling style or character approach enough to make a real difference.
MIDDLE ROPE: Is there a difference between an alter ego and a total character change? The guy who really makes me ask this question is the Great Muta. If you've been following his work in Japan these last ten or so years, he has worked as both Keiji Mutoh and the Great Muta at various times. On the other hand, Steve Austin was basically his original Stunning Steve character when he came to WWE as the Ringmaster. His Stone Cold persona was a definite shift from Stunning Steve, but he's never gone back. That's a total reinvention, not just two sides of the same coin. Lots of guys will do that, but more seem to eventually come back to their original characters. Even Goldust reverted to Dustin Rhodes/Runnels a couple times, despite Goldust's massive success. It is a somewhat minor point, I grant, but I think it's worth noting when you think about the success of characters like Willow, who will most certainly revert to Jeff Hardy at some point. Does making it knowingly a temporary alter ego change the mindset? I don't really have an answer for this one, leave a comment.
BOTTOM ROPE: "True" alter egos give new storyline potentials. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there is a difference between an alter ego and a total character change. I think you'd have to concede, at least, that true alter egos give more directions for a storyline to go in. The Joseph Park/Abyss story shows this point excellently. Even when dealing with how to bring back Abyss, there are plenty of ways they could have gone with it, plenty of people they could have started to involve, perspectives they could have used, etc. You can turn one character against himself in a way that isn't really possible otherwise. Plus, you can totally change how stories progress. A heel Crow Sting is a lot different than a heel Joker Sting. Even if they're in the same slot, they do different things, and that weird double nature can add a lot to a segment's atmosphere.
Whatever's left to say.
Jeff Hardy's always been an out there cat, but that's the thing I respect most about him. I think it's important for more wrestlers to really go out there on the edge to try and find something that works. The Willow thing, though? I'm not sure it will. It appears to me to be something like a sketchbook drawing brought to life. It's a costume that Jeff wears, nothing more. If that's all it's gonna be, I think I'd rather just see Jeff. Willow could be interesting but there needs to be more to it than a mask and screaming.