Tuesday, February 13, 2007

When wrestling gimmicks don't work

From IM conversations between the minutes of 10:20 to 10:25 Feb 13 2006:

Friend: and i am watchin ecw now
Friend: 3 women are dancing in the ring
Me: yes
Friend: and a vampire just came out
Me: sadly none of this is surprising anymore
Friend: its cuz ECW is so pitiful


Jackie Roe said...

Ah, the disaster that is the current ECW product. I'm sure I'm not the only one who misses the original ECW, and going through the "OMG Moment Archive" on WWE.com certainly brings back fond memories. Still, I remember being seriously disturbed by some of what ECW presented (think: the angle with The Sandman's son, Tyler; anything with New Jack) - to the point of questioning my interest in the promotion. Thoughts? Did anyone else feel this cognitive dissonance when watching ECW (or any promotion, for that matter)? Why do we wrestling fans stick with something that can, at times, feel so wrong to watch/support (or maybe I'm in the minority and most wrestling fans flee when they're dissatisfied with what they see?)?

Sam Ford said...

Jackie, I don't think you are wrong at all, and I think that some of what WWE has done was absolutely right, that ECW's model was not perfect. Particualrly, the emphasis on a style that doesn't leave people looking like Sabu.

Unfortunately, many of the parts of ECW's product I found most appalling remains a part of the WWE product, particularly its completely superficial treatment of its female characters. We're going to be delving into ECW more deeply as the semester reaches that era, but I think this is an interesting question to pose regarding the modern product.

Mike W. said...

I think Raven, in an interview, had a hackneyed theory that this is a very expensive attempt to get people to stop chanting "ECW" at WWE shows and during WWE matches. I could see where the legacy of ECW is bothersome to the WWE, but that's a really expensive way to go about it. I don't put any stock in the notion of spending millions of dollars for something that only matters to two or three people.

There are two aspects of presentation that bother me about ECW. First, the wrestling, in style, is hold for hold and move for move a "WWE" style. I first noticed this a few years ago, when WWE Cruiserweight matches started boring me to tears. I couldn't figure out why. Eventually, I began to notice that, outside of the occasional shooting star press (or somesuch similar hold), the majority of each and every match was the same, whether heavyweight or cruiserweight. The style and substance (very lucha libre in origin) was gone. Less wrestling holds, less unique submission holds; more armbars, lots more punches and rope running, and virtually no unique moves.

ECW has made this more apparent. I think what has made viewers angry is that this is "supposed to be ECW" (whatever that means). If this was "WWE Tuesday Night Wrestling" or some "other" (that is, non-ECW) brand, it wouldn't be a big deal. The match style, the production of the show, the segments are all very WWE (except for the dancers, as they are very "Nitro Girls").

Moreover, I don't know much about the new guys. I know CM Punk from the indy scene. I know Elijah Burke from OVW. However, because the WWE wants to ignore a wrestler's past when they start in any company (see: Monty Brown/Marcus CorVon), I expect them to give me a fleshed out character. This is my major grievance with the WWE product as a whole: I am given no reason to understand or care for these characters. If I asked the booker "give me five bullet points describing Kevin Thorn," I would get nothing. His character is that of a goth - or is he really a vampire? - or is the mystery part of his character? None of it has been expressed. Why is he aligned with Monty Brown? What the heck do they share in common?

The same could be said of any number of wrestlers: Carlito, Chris Masters, Kenny Dykstra. Those who can't self-promote are wholly dependent on the announcers to "sell" the character. When the announcers are focused in reminding us that we are supposed to boo or cheer for the guy, or they're promoting the main event, these guys get lost in the shuffle. Chris Masters has been in the WWE for possibly two years at this point, and other than his posing, I don't know a thing about him.

This is getting rather longwinded. Since the WWE is focusing more on characters and storylines at this point, trying to sculpt a television show more than a "wrestling show," I want to see characters I care about. It's the WWE's burden to explain to me why I ought to care, and giving me bullet points, backgrounds, interests, dislikes, m.o.s, etc, will help us appreciate the product, whether or not it's "the old ECW."

They seem to be fleshing out Lashley as a character, so they are aware that this is a problem. However, this is the kind of thing that needs to be done for *everyone*, and not after they've been a champion for three months.

As for Sam's mention of the superficial treatment of females, while the current treatment is different from the ECW, I would argue that one thing kept intact from the transition of "ECW" to "WWECW" is the degradation of women.

Sam Ford said...

I agree about both the treatment of female characters and the way that characters are just not being well-developed in general by WWE. The problem is that the writing team don't put any thought at all into developing any character past two-dimensional unless they are a main eventer, and since almost no one in ECW is seen as "main eventers" anyway, that gets problematic.

Here's what I would suggest, to make the three brands three different versions of WWE. Move all the tag teams to Smackdown. Move all the cruisers to ECW, and then establish three very different styles for the three brands...all three have a heavyweight champion, and then Raw is home to the women's title, Smackdown the tag titles, and ECW the cruiserweight title.

The main problem is making ECW feel like WWE-lite. Smackdown has done a very good job of setting its own tone and pace, which makes it feel like a refreshing show the majority of the time.

Mike W. said...

I think they've done that, to a certain degree. Raw has always had the women's title, Smackdown has had the Cruiserweight belt, and ECW is only a viable name as a result of the "style" of wrestling associated with it. Moreover, Kendrick and London have helped establish the tag titles, both with a long reign, and also the caliber of guys they've beaten. Although I'm partial to Deuce & Domino from their work in OVW, I thought the contrast in style b/w the champs and Regal/Taylor had the makings for matches that were great fun to watch. I could watch those two teams wrestle every week.

Smackdown is also offering more medium-length wrestling matches (7-15 minutes) than it has in the past, which helps it identity compared to Raw and ECW. It has a solid balance of wrestling and "sports entertainment," satisfying both the wrestling snob/"smart mark," and also the casual fan who is into characters.

Two large areas for improvement lie in fleshing out characters to be more than an outfit and a name, and to also allow wrestler's styles to shine through. If you watch old WCW cruiserweight matches (can't go wrong with anything involving Malenko, Guerrero, or Mysterio), and compare what they do to the style of the WWE cruiserweights, you see why the smaller guys are overlooked: they're just smaller guys doing roughly the same matches as the heavies in the WWE. Having seen Jimmy Yang in WCW, Jamie Knoble and Brian Kendrick in HWA and ROH, and others, I know they are excellent wrestlers (especially Knoble). They seem restricted not only in movesets, but also in match flow in the WWE. They seem like different wrestlers altogether, and far weaker by comparison.

If their wrestling matches are cropped and controlled, their characters not developed, you have a recipe for guaranteed failure. JBL refers to Gregory Helms as "smackdown's best kept secret." Gregory Helms is playing someone more "himself" than during his time as the Hurricane, but what do we, as fans, know about him? I can't think of a single thing. I can't care about him, because I'm given no reason to.

I seem to be ranting, and I apologize. The shortcomings in the ring can easily be overcome by character. Many of the WWE's top guys over the years (Warrior, Hogan) can easily attest to that, while highly reputed grapplers (Malenko, Bob Backlund) never went anywhere in this day and age of the business. However, when presenting images on television, my empathy for or disdain towards a person is directly related to how much I feel they are a "full character."

I sociology, ethnomethodologists often talk of how people tend to do a lot of work "filling in the blanks" of a conversation or idea. We don't know everything about Anna Nicole Smith, to choose one recent example, though we all have constructed our own narratives on what happened to her, the kind of person she was, and what will happen as a result of her passing. Do we know any of this for a fact? Outside of the forthcoming toxicology report, of course not. We put together a picture of Smith as a "whole person" based on selective elements of her life the media has decided we should know. The "short story long" here is that an ethnomethodologist would tell you there's really very little that needs to be stated in order for people to fill in the blanks on their own. However, the absence of even the most rudimentary information can lead to confusion, especially if we don't have the sorts of psychological schema (common understandings and stereotypes) available. I'd argue that the tag team Cryme Tyme fits in this mold. What do we know about them that WWE has told us? They're black and they steal. It's easier to fill in the blanks, since it's related to a convenient racial stereotype that many of us are familiar with. On the other hand, I grew up around a lot of straight edge kids, so someone like CM Punk comes across as natural to me; the same can be said of characters like Kevin Thorn. Those two aren't common threads of understanding the way racial stereotypes are. Again, short story long, a few bullet points to be made and reinforced by the performers and announcers will help people cognitively take care of the rest themselves.

It will be interesting to see how the entree of Vladimir Kozlov will be when he starts wrestling. I saw him at an OVW show this past weekend, along with another "russian" wrestler, Boris Alexiev (on a side note, I was very impressed with the wrestling styles of both). Since we're well past the end of the cold war, how will we view these two? Will the Ivan Koloff precedent still stand? Will we still boo someone for being Russian, and are negative feelings towards communist Russia still strong enough to matter? I don't know, but I do know that they sure are weaker than two decades ago, and more needs to be done than merely "being Russian" in order to get the crowd's attention and ire.

Sam Ford said...

All very good questions posed, Mike, and it is a reminder of why a character like Ludvig Borga was never as strong of a heel as we could have been. The main reason we were supposed to hate Ludvig was because he was from Finland. But...wait...why do we hate people from Finland? You are right that it's hard to rely on a stereotype when no stereotype is in place.

Knock the Vince Russo WWE era all you want, and I'm the first to do so in many cases, but the strength in 1997 and 1998, before things got too out of hand, is that a lot of work was done to flesh out the characters of several people on the roster aside from the main two or three.

Mike W. said...

Absolutely hilarious you mention Ludvig Borga. I was discussing him about an hour ago at the bar, and the very reason he was never very popular was because Americans don't, generally speaking, have a readily available understanding of what it means to be "Finnish," the way we do other nationalities.

Sam Ford said...

Now, Mike, that is ironic. "The Hellraiser from Helsinki" is on everyone's minds these days, I guess!