Ring Architect 5.25.14: Drop the Mic
Posted by Obi Justice on 05.25.2014
Talk is cheap and the wrestling world is flooded with it. Obi Justice looks when promos are effective and when they can take away from a storyline.
"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.
Some of the most seminal moments in professional wrestling history have been interviews, viginettes, "promos." Jake "The Snake" Roberts made as much of his impact by being a slimy, evil, dangerous man on the microphone as well as in the ring. "Hard Times" by Dusty Rhodes is perhaps the greatest wrestling promo of all time. Mick Foley gave us both "Cane Dewey" from ECW and "Rock, This Is Your Life" in WWE. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's "Austin 3:16" speech was a defining point in Austin's career and the Attitude Era in general. And for better or worse, Triple H and the Undertaker's silent promo for WrestleMania XXVII was one of the more memorable ones of the past few years and I believe, especially with the WWE machine behind it, it'll stand the test of time.
The current WWE product is flush with great talkers. Dean Ambrose of the Shield is my current favorite by a mile, but Bray Wyatt and Paul Heyman are also fantastic. Bad News Barrett, Dolph Ziggler, Cody Rhodes, and others more than hold their own. AJ Lee is on point when she wants to be and the same can be said, in a different way, of John Cena. None of these people may be the best actors, but they don't need to be. Wrestling presentation isn't about being expert at every little detail like method acting, it's about getting the plot point across as strongly and as broadly as possible. The great thing about speaking is that you don't need to interpret emotions much, you simply need to understand the language. A forceful speech about the storyline can do a lot to establish the scene (as it were) for the audience.
On that score, then, the Shield vs. Evolution storyline should be doing pretty damn great. I'm not a great admirer of Mr. H's on the stick but he is good, and Orton and Batista can hold up their end. Plus, Stephanie is good enough for all of them. I don't really know why Rollins keeps getting the last word on Shield promos but he's not bad and Reigns is great at the U-God "let me just throw some bass on this" bit. They've been able to have a lot of really tense segments that sell the idea that these guys really hate each other from the depths of their beings. Great. Problem is, for me, that the hook's sailed out. I really don't see this storyline as in a much different place than it was last month at Extreme Rules. They still dislike each other, Evolution still has all the tricks in the bag but the Shield are finding a way to keep themselves in the fight. The Shield are one up in PPV matches, but that hasn't really back-footed Evolution any and it hasn't made them push harder.
The Bray Wyatt/John Cena storyline has this syndrome written all over it. Wyatt's a great promo, no one can deny that. He's why the Wyatt Family gimmick works at all. At the same time, he and his group haven't really progressed beyond tormenting John Cena because the fans "shouldn't" love him. This has gone on twice as long as the Shield/Evolution story. Bray Wyatt's promos haven't gotten worse, though without new material, I don't know if they've gotten better. He's certainly kept the crowd interested in him. They know why Bray Wyatt is fighting and they know why John Cena is fighting, but I think the audiences all singing along with a guy who should be the personification of evil shows that words alone might not be enough to change people's opinions.
Red corner is pro. Blue corner is con.
RED CORNER: Promos allow characters to get across complex ideas like the history of a feud in a way that action (in or out of the ring) just can't. Daniel Bryan's long road to the WWE World Heavyweight title involved quite a few twists and turns. He battled Randy Orton time and time again, always denied by the Authority. He was targeted by the Wyatt Family, joined them, broke free. He struggled against Triple H again, determined to get his deserved shot at the title. So before WrestleMania, Bryan giving a promo laying all that out makes sense. The journey took a year and there was a lot of effort and heartache. More than that, though, those details couldn't be conveyed in a match. The important part of it, the emotional core, does come out. But sometimes, to get really invested in a story, you do need those details. It's something that motion and context can't provide on their own.
When you're talking about a fight, there's got to be a winner and there's got to be a loser. You can't simply have someone present their side unopposed, like you would in a debate. That makes it really hard for people to just say "This is who I am and what I stand for," and when you don't know someone well -- or when you're trying to get invested in them -- that stand-alone statement can be very valuable. It's one of the reasons that those picture-in-picture promos are effective. You get to see a little bit of who this person thinks they are before they meet reality and have that tested. And in the case that you have out-there characters like Bray Wyatt or Goldust who just seem too weird to contemplate, the promos help to bring them down to Earth. Even if they still appear crazy, it's no longer just your surface opinion, it's their beliefs that sketch you out as well.
BLUE CORNER: Words don't define characters and, on their own, they don't advance storylines very much. If you listen to John Cena and Bray Wyatt, it's pretty clear who you should cheer for and who you shouldn't. I don't mean this in a "faces and heels" way. By any real moral standard, Bray Wyatt is scum and while Cena might be a bit of a Boy Scout, he's clearly not scum. However, that's not how the crowd reacts, and I think that has a lot to do with their actions. More specifically, Cena's actions, his long period of doing whatever he wanted with impunity, and more than that, with a smirk. His reign of being pretty much untouchable whether he won by hook or by crook. The Wyatts beating on him -- anybody beating on him, really -- basically get as much rope as they can in order to see if they can finally be the ones to permanently change Cena's attitude. Try as WWE might, as long as Cena retains this character of his, it's been hell trying to shift the crowd to like him more, and I think he'd be universally despised except for his diehards (who are, I'll admit, sizeable).
Basically, despite all the promos, Cena has remained the same smirking asshole "Boy Scout" and the Wyatts are still on a mission to do what all the non-Cenation's heroes have tried to do, and that's beat Cena's smile sideways. All the Wyatts' attacks are based on taking Cena out but, somehow, Cena always rises up to get his own back either that night or the next. The story is still the same even if the justification changes. So while Wyatt entertains the crowd with his excellent delivery and insane gibbering, he doesn't make them hate him because he's only explaining the evil reasons behind why he does exactly what the crowd wants him to do. Ultimately, the reasons don't really matter as long as the outcome is good. If we found out SEAL Team 6 was really working for a secret neo-Nazi splinter cell, I think we'd still give them a hand for getting bin Laden.
Important lines of thought.
TOP ROPE: Not all promos are created equal. Dolph Ziggler is a great wrestler between the ropes. I think he's really come into his character more that he's been down and out than when he was getting attention, honestly, because it's made him have to wear that swagger in good times and bad. That said, he's not outstanding on the mic, and when you put him up against a guy like Paul Heyman he's not always going to look the best. That doesn't mean Ziggler shouldn't talk, but when they put him in those big clown car segments or the long solo in-ring, I feel he flounders a bit. The problem crops up when you expect your promos to carry everything, because then you force a guy who has a lot of charisma but not A+ verbiage like Ziggler to try and carry a heap of time on his own.
MIDDLE ROPE: Excessive focus on promos (interviews & viginettes) seems to say that the company doesn't think people want to see wrestling. Vince Russo has said one thing I agree with, and it's on the subject of TV and PPV. To boil it down, he said that people pay money on PPV to see wrestling, so on PPV they have their good matches. On TV they have all the gaga so people don't change the channels. That makes sense to me. However, people do tune in to wrestling to watch wrestling. Even when you call it sports entertainment, those who stay fans are mainly going to be watching for the wrestling whether they are nerds about it like me or just enjoying an exciting fight. Forcing so many interviews and sketches into the mix can cloud what should be a largely in-ring product. If people wanted to watch comedy or soap opera, they would watch comedy shows or soap operas. The wrestling is what makes pro wrestling unique and worth watching for its own sake.
BOTTOM ROPE: Actions speak louder than words. An old adage but one that deserves remembering. It's not just wanting to see more wrestling that steers me against excessive mic time, it's needing to take storyline movement out of discussion and put it into physical action. The Rollins/Batista match from last week's Raw is a perfect example. First, you had them set up Evolution laying on the "all by myself" bit thick and then turning on it by having Triple H and Orton buck the rules. Perfect heel schtick, stacks the odds against the hero Rollins. Then Rollins calls the Shield out as well. Why? Now the stakes are even, just as they were before this whole thing started. It didn't show that the Authority were any more cunning, even though they had executed a nefarious plan, and it didn't show the resolve of the Shield any more than they had. It was a wash of a segment, and despite the fact that I know they'll talk it up as if something big happened, nothing actually did. On the other hand, everybody remembers Kane ripping the cage door off and tombstoning the Undertaker, and Kane didn't say shit.
All that's left to say.
Promos are hugely valuable for promoting characters and matches. You could say guys like Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, and the Rock owed a huge part of their success to their skill on the microphone. They're not the only method to develop characters and move a story forward. In fact, I'd say they're a lot less important than how people react and what actions they take, like who they run in to save and even how long it takes them to get to the save, who they team up with, and how hard they fight. A good way to get me to lose interest in a storyline, even one with two people I really like, is to have it mostly be a war of words with nothing material changing.