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Guest spots and the meanings of titles

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Scott: All right, now it’s time to get the ball rolling on our second post. I asked you to watch King of the Ring 1996 because I’m a guest on a recent episode of What A Maneuverwhere we discussed that show. Also we are finally getting some movement on Raw and Smackdown leading into the Money in the Bank show, which is just a few weeks away. Which of those is more at top of mind for you — a sneaky-good mid-90s WWF pay-per-view or one of the last two-hour Raw episodes ever?

• • •

David: King of the Ring, definitely. I’m writing this on Tuesday, so while last night’s Raw is fresh in my mind, it really didn’t do much for me, including the announcement of the competitors in the Money in the Bank match relating to the WWE Title. Kane, Cena, Jericho and Big Show in a ladder match does not excite me in the least. So, while we do have movement toward the next Money in the Bank, I’m not sure it was movement forward.

However, forward movement was a big part of that King of the Ring 1996 pay-per-view. As history shows, they made a big star that night. What’s interesting is they did it in a completely atypical way. Atypical for the mid-90s WWF, anyway. When I think of the WWF from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, it was a place where the good guys won the big prizes. They had their setbacks along the way, but when push came to shove the virtuous were the ones who came out on top.

The confusing poster for WWF King of the Ring 1996

The story being told in the King of the Ring tournament seems to be heading that way for the most part. Jake “The Snake” Roberts is the hero who has overcome his personal demons, and is trying to make good with what might be his last chance. Standing in his way first is the Mastodon, Big Van Vader, who is defeated, but damages our hero’s chances. In a fairy tale or even in mythology, the hero would, of course, overcome the setback that is Jake’s rib injury. The way the final match with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin unfolds, you could be forgiven for thinking the storytelling was a bit “paint by numbers.” Of course, Austin spends most of the match in control, even prompting President Gorilla Monsoon to come to the ring to give Jake a chance to quit. But as any hero would, Roberts forges ahead, even taking control for a brief period. Somewhat surprisingly, Jake doesn’t keep control for very long, and ends up succumbing to the Stone Cold Stunner, which leads to the famous “Austin 3:16” promo Austin delivers.

When people think about King of the Ring 1996, two things generally come to mind: the persistent rumor Triple H was supposed to win until the “Curtain Call”, and the Austin 3:16 promo. If you asked the average wrestling fan who the main character of the King of the Ring tournament was, most would probably say it was Austin. But I submit it was Roberts who was the main character, and that the story was far more about his failure to overcome than it was about Austin becoming King of the Ring.

What do you think? If Jake was a literary-style hero, do you think his King of the Ring defeat was supposed to serve merely as a setback, with another opportunity for redemption coming later?

• • •

Scott: You’re very right — the story of the night, at least in terms of the tournament itself, is very much the idea of a Jake Roberts redemption and his (somewhat, in retrospect) surprising failure to do so. As you pointed out, WWF fans of the era would have been conditioned to expect a conquering hero. Instead they get a broken man coming up short in his last grasp for glory.

To be perfectly honest, I’d forgotten Roberts got to hang around for the rest of 1996 and into early 1997. He was on the same Survivor Series team as Rocky Maivia and got tossed from the ‘97 Royal Rumble by Austin. And while there were countless good reasons to not elevate him past his spot, it is somewhat odd to consider he failed to win the tournament despite the buildup. That said, in playing to your point about WWF/E being a place “where the good guys won the big prizes,” it’s notable that Austin’s coronation was not the end of the show — that spot was reserved for a really great Shawn Michaels-Davey Boy Smith WWF Title Match.

Conversely, at the 1993 King of the Ring, good guy Hulk Hogan lost the WWF Title to Yokozuna in the middle of the show so it could end with good guy Bret Hart winning the crown. The same happened at Survivor Series 1991, when Hogan lost his title to the Undertaker yet the show ended with the Legion of Doom raising their hands in victory. The vast majority of the major WWF/E pay-per-views going back to 1985 end with heroic triumph. I’m not a great historian of the 2000s, and I’m sure there’s examples in that decade of the converse proving true, but not so many as to signal a shift in storytelling theory, at least not one with any staying power.

In many ways this isn’t terribly surprising. After all, boiling the major plot down to “good guy overcomes odds” is probably true for the large bulk of American television and movies, too. People love happy endings. They might like to be challenged on the way there, or to be convinced the desired outcome is impossible, but in general, they want to go home smiling.

This idea of the hero warding off great challenges, of course, is in stark contrast to the NWA approach of Ric Flair essentially controlling the belt for ages. Sure, he lost the belt every now and again. But you can’t escape the difference in the way the promotions approached their top stars. I understand TNA is a very different place than WWE in this regard as well, though I’m not informed enough to make any educated statements.

Changing course completely — unless you have more to add — we’re starting to learn more about who will be in the secondary Money in the Bank match. The notion of the brand split is slowly dissolving for a variety of reasons, and the way WWE is approaching the two MITB matches to me says a lot about the way it views the two titles. Long positioned as effectively the Raw and Smackdown championships, and for a good run completely equal in terms of importance (as titles would switch shows on and off), now it seems we’re finally getting an acknowledgement, albeit unspoken, of the lower-tier presentation of the World Heavyweight Championship. Is this a good thing?

• • •

David: I’m writing this on Thursday, having read the spoilers for this week’s Smackdown, and I think I’m starting to understand (as much as I can) the way the WWE looks at its two shows. Raw is a big name show (did you know it’s been on for almost 1000 episodes?) for big name wrestlers. That’s why the Raw Money in the Bank match will only feature former WWE champions who will be fighting for the chance to recapture a title they used to hold. Over on Smackdown, though, they’re having qualifying matches to see who will be in their Money in the Bank match. Of the five men who have qualified so far, only one of them has held a world title. It strikes me that Smackdown is becoming a show for “up and coming” wrestlers and lower-tier established talent. If they stick with this approach, and use Smackdown to give solid air time to the Damien Sandows, Antonio Cesaros, Zack Ryders and Tyson Kidds of the world, I would be all for it.

Changes are afoot for what is quickly becoming one of the best WWE events of the year.

How does that relate to your question? Well, if the World Heavyweight Championship is the title of the up-and-comers in the WWE, then it certainly makes sense for it to be seen as a lesser title than the WWE Championship. As much as I like him, Sheamus is not CM Punk, John Cena, Chris Jericho or the Big Show. In terms of stardom, he’s a tier or two below them, and his title reflects that. The discrepancy between the two titles gives the World Heavyweight Champion something more to aspire to, even if it’s not until he’s lost the title and sees he can go after bigger things.

Daniel Bryan is a great example of this in action. After losing the World title at WrestleMania, Bryan had one more pay-per-view match against Sheamus, the fantastic two-out-of-three falls match at Extreme Rules. The next night, he was entered in the “Beat the Clock Challenge” to find a No. 1 contender to CM Punk’s WWE Championship. Ever since then, he has been firmly ensconced in the chase for that title. It’s almost as if he decided that the World Heavyweight Championship was no longer worth his time, and he wanted to chase the top prize. It seems like he has quickly made the leap to a tier above Sheamus.

But, if the World Heavyweight Championship is the secondary title in WWE, what does it mean for the US Championship and the Intercontinental Championship? In the 80s, the IC title was the secondary title, and looked at by some as the title held by the better wrestlers. At times it acted as a gateway to the main event in a way. When Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart were transitioning out of tag team wrestling, they each won the Intercontinental Title on their way to being multiple-time WWF Champions. The US title served a similar purpose in the NWA/WCW. But, if the World Heavyweight Championship is that same sort of gateway title, where does that leave the Intercontinental Championship and the US Championship? Who is chasing those titles, and why? On the latest International Object podcast, K Sawyer Paul and Richard Thomas discussed the idea the WWE has never fully defined what their titles mean for a reason. They want the audience to decide what the titles mean for themselves. If that’s the case, then the WWE is currently failing to help me understand what these titles mean.

I pose the question to you, Scott: what do the WWE’s assortment of singles titles mean to you?

• • •

Scott: First off, since you brought up the International Podcast, I want to give a hat tip to Rich Thomas and his idea for reinventing MITB. He wants to see a contract for every WWE title at stake on the show, yet only one contract would be available via the classic MITB ladder match. He also suggests the current champs be on commentary as their challenger ascends. I think that’s an amazing idea that would make for an incredibly solid build to SummerSlam (or Night of Champions, if MITB got moved to September). But we’re not here to fantasy book the WWE PPV schedule. At least not yet…

I don’t have a great way to answer your question. KSP is right — the titles are open-ended on purpose. It allows them to mean different things depending on who has them. Even recently, when Punk and Bryan held the top two belts they had meaningful champion vs. champion matches on Raw and Smackdown. But if we’re a month away from Tyson Kidd wearing the big gold belt, well, as much as I respect Tyson Kidd, that’s not going to have the same gravitas.

Going back a few years, there have been times where the promotion’s top star had the World Heavyweight Championship instead of the WWE belt. To me, it was more of a function of who they wanted on Raw at a given time. The only thing WWE will do is continue to present both — so long as they both exist — as “world titles” in order to preserve their historical continuity of who had the most reigns.

One thing possibly getting lost in the shuffle here is what’s being lost from MITB, that being the notion you could win the briefcase — Raw or Smackdown — and challenge for any belt. It was never implicit (in my recollection) that a Smackdown winner could only vie for titles linked to the Smackdown brand. I always envisioned a scenario where both briefcase winners raced out to try to cash in simultaneously — that would have been a fun spot.

If you take a traditional view of where each belt ranks, it’s something of a crime Sheamus has a more prestigious title than Christian. And belt or no belt, Cena is the company’s top star by an order of magnitude. Until Monday, at least, he (and now Triple H and presumably Brock Lesnar) exist in an orbit outside the title picture, which I have enjoyed. It allows me to be interested in his story while also getting to see my other favorite guys involved in one of the main ongoing narratives.

A classic feud: Rick Rude and Jake Roberts.

To try to give you a direct answer, the titles to me are used to give wrestlers something to fight over because the writers don’t have a great idea of what else to have guys fight over. In the days of our youth, a good hot personality feud (say Rick Rude and Jake Roberts) could be a great TV, PPV and house show draw with no sniff of gold. It just doesn’t work like that now for a variety of reasons. No one expects to see titles change hand at a house show, I guess, but perhaps they idea they’ll be defended adds some heft to the proceedings?

To me, the best title matches are those in which it’s clearly demonstrated what the belt means to each combatant. And even if for one of them it’s not so much having the gold as it is taking it away from a rival, that still means something. I think WWE especially struggles to tell ongoing stories without a title as a prop. Do you agree?

• • •

David: It’s not that they don’t try to tell stories that don’t revolve around a title. Every Cena storyline for the past eight months has had nothing to do with the title. Punk/Jericho wasn’t really about the title as much as it was about what the title represented: the right to call yourself the “best in the world.” Even Big Show’s current story isn’t really about the title. It’s about the lack of respect he’s felt over a long period of time. The big problem is that the writing team doesn’t seem capable of telling these stories very well.

Lately, the WWE has reminded me of a fourth-grader who’s given an assignment to write a story. He comes up with a concept for the story, but when he starts telling the story, he struggles to come up with plot points. He forces some action into the narrative, and then has to come up with some kind of conclusion. He forces a conclusion, and, voila! He has a story.

Actually, I can’t even just put this solely on the WWE. The recent TNA angle with AJ Styles, Kazarian, Christopher Daniels and Dixie Carter is a great example. The creative team came up with this idea that Kaz and Daniels could start hinting that AJ and Dixie are having an affair. That’s an interesting idea, but the execution has been shoddy… at best. I was on Twitter during the June 21 episode of Impact where it was revealed they weren’t having an affair, but were helping a young mother-to-be who is a recovering addict. The reactions ranged from confused to outraged, but I didn’t see a single positive reaction to the way this story was unfolding.

It’s so frustrating to see a story start with promise, only to devolve into a muddled mess. It not only frustrates the audience, but can really cause a performer to regress in the eyes of the crowd. With a good story, everyone wins. The performer looks great, the writing team looks great and the fans have an enjoyable product to watch. With a poorly told story, everyone loses.

• • •

Scott: I feel like Cena is the exception to the rule. As I stated, he and a select few others (mostly the part-time megastars) exist in their own universe. The knock WWE takes for an inability to develop new stars, while largely unfair, I think has much more to do with an inability to give fans reasons to get invested in performers beyond the initial attraction. Many characters lack any semblance of depth. I mean, I’ve been back following Raw consistently since 2007, and I have no idea what makes Kofi Kingston tick. He’s far from the only one.

But that’s a common topic many folks have run into the ground. I often agree, but I don’t want to rehash. What I would like to do is try to give WWE a bit of slack in this regard, because I think most critics fail to at least acknowledge some of the particular difficulties of trying to tell stories in this crazy world. For starters, should the stories exist to get people to tune in every Monday and Friday? Or should they get people to buy arena tickets? Or are the TV shows and the arena business all about building pay-per-view buys?

WWE obviously is theater presented through the spectrum of a sporting event, and we’re all OK with that. The storytelling might be vastly improved if the shows were taped in advance like the top-rated cable dramas that get all the real buzz online. But again, it’s a fake sport, and no one wants to watch the NFC title game on tape delay, they want the thrill of sharing the live experience. Likewise, the “Mad Men” creative team probably doesn’t worry too much about Jon Hamm blowing out an elbow while acting in a crucial scene.

To me, those are just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, performing in front a live audience is challenging enough. But the “Saturday Night Live” folks are in the same studio for every episode, and the crowds generally have the same demeanor. A pro wrestling crowd in one city for Raw can be entirely different from the crowd for the next night’s Smackdown. Again, I’m not breaking new ground here, but it should be taken into consideration when we levy criticisms.

I think we’re getting to the point where we can wrap up for this week, but I want to plant some seeds for next week. With Money In The Bank approaching, as well as the changes in approach we’ve discussed earlier, there’s a lot of online discussion about this year’s show and people projecting outcomes and what plots might develop going forward. Next week I want to put on the fantasy booker hats and go WCW/nWo Hog Wild thinking about all the options WWE creative might be able to pursue. And also discuss ways the way WWE shows might be produced differently in an effort to freshen the experience.

• • •

Thanks for reading — please feel free to contact us via Twitter or the comments section. Your feedback is appreciated!

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  1. Pingback: International Object » Guest spots and the meanings of titles

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