Scott: This morning’s Twitter conversation has inspired me. In a discussion about various wrestling moves and how some don’t age well (i.e., what was seen as devastating in 1993 is merely average offense today), I wrote: “Is there a list for people who always thought the stunner was lame? Line forms behind me.”
So, where do you stand on Steve Austin’s signature move?
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David: The Stone Cold Stunner is one of those moves that sort of changes based on who it’s being delivered to and how they sell it. The move itself is okay, although I’m in agreement with Jason Mann that I like the Diamond Cutter more. I think a more apropos question is related to a twitter discussion that also happened today (May 2). Jason asked who did the third best DDT behind Jake Roberts and Arn Anderson. Some of his followers turned the question, and started wondering who took the DDT the best. So I’d like to change your question: Who took the Stone Cold Stunner the best?
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Scott: I guess I’d have to say The Rock? Shane McMahon? I just watched WWE.com’s list of the 15 biggest Stunners, though I think those were more for historical impact than actual move performance. But of that list, I’d have to say Scott Hall at WrestleMania X-8 did as good a job as anyone making the Stunner look great. But still, it’s no Diamond Cutter.
Are there any other moves you can think of that get too much praise? Any that are underrated?
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David: That’s a hard question to answer, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’m not sure the words overrated or underrated really work for individual moves. However, the idea did start me on a path of thinking about moves differently, and I now wonder why it took me so long to think of wrestling as the true art form it is. When I started thinking about moves that get praised a lot, one of the first things that came to mind was Ricky Steamboat’s arm drags. All throughout my childhood, his arm drags were lauded. But why? Is an arm drag ever going to finish off an opponent? Probably not. An arm drag is a transitional move. Mostly it’s used to get an opponent off of his feet. Almost everyone who uses an arm drag is able to do that, right? So what made Steamboat’s any better than anyone else’s?
Of course, the answer is Steamboat’s arm drags looked amazing. The way that he hooked the bicep was different from the way most people performed the move at the time, and he gave this utilitarian move a flair (he also gave them to Flair in their great series of matches) it didn’t necessarily have before. The aesthetic and artistic beauty of his arm drags seemed to have more importance than the impact that the move created.
Of course, Steamboat’s arm drags aren’t alone. There are a lot of moves that are aesthetically pleasing. Do any spring to your mind?
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Scott: I’m surely not alone in being a fan of precision on the ring — execution of all sorts of moves by the likes of Bret or Owen Hart, Curt Hennig and so on. But in thinking of specific moves that are just the building blocks of a great performer, I envision things like Randy Savage’s punches, Bam Bam Bigelow’s headbutts or Davey Boy Smith’s delayed suplexes. I think of the way Roddy Piper’s ring style always perfectly matched his manic microphone work, or how Rick Rude’s cockiness came across every second he was on screen.
It probably says something about me that I’m coming up with examples that instantly hit the rewind button to the tune of 15 or 20 years. Surely there are guys currently on the big stage who have a consistency of character — attire, backstage segments, entrance routine, in-ring performance and more — that evoke the all-time greats. Guys like Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan come to mind immediately.
Some of the biggest problems experienced fans have with characters like Triple H or John Cena are the countless holes between what they say and how they act. The best recent example is Cena talking about how the year after he lost to the Rock at WrestleMania was the worst of his career, ignoring his wins at Money in the Bank and Royal Rumble, not to mention continued dominance of the roster week in and week out.
We come to wrestling expecting and intending to suspend disbelief, But we’d also like this fictional universe to have its own sort of rules or logical consistency that make the whole thing easier to follow and accept. I get a sense that smaller promotions, and I’m referencing Chikara primarily, but surely there are others, do a much better job of establishing the parameters in which they will tell stories and then sticking to the ground rules. You’re much more a follower of the non-WWE world than myself. Do you have any insight in that regard?
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David: I do think that, to a certain extent, smaller promotions do have an easier time maintaining logical consistency and continuity in their product. A lot of independent promotions (especially Chikara) cater to a niche audience who are glad to come to that promotion because of what they bring to the table. Chikara deals quite a bit with a very surreal side of wrestling, what with ants, wrestling ice cream cones, horror figures like my oldest son’s favorites, Frightmare and Hallowicked, and so on. Ring of Honor has spent most of its life concentrating on the “sport” aspects of professional wrestling, and succeeding for the most part. CZW assumed the “hardcore” mantle that was left open when ECW folded in the early part of this century. What these groups all have in common (besides some level of shared talent) is they operate on a smaller national basis than the WWE. Because of their size, they’ve been able to gain fans of their specific product, as opposed to the general professional wrestling fan. In my mind that makes the connection deeper and more profound.
Since you are primarily a fan of WWE, do you think you have a deep connection with today’s product? I know you have a deep connection to the product we grew up with, but has that stuck with you through today?
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Scott: That’s a great question. Clearly wrestling was far more popular during our college years, which more or less coincided with the peak of the Attitude Era/Monday Night Wars, than it is today. But it’s fans like you and me, who were there long before the late-90s explosion, that are by and large still around today. That’s because all of the eras speak in some way to what we crave in our entertainment diet. Sure, the language may have evolved over time, but we’re fed nonetheless. How’s that for a mixed metaphor?
When I fell away from being a regular fan in the mid 2000s, it had more to do with my life schedule at the time than the actual product. Essentially, I couldn’t find the time to watch Raw, let alone Smackdown, and there were so many pay-per-view shows I just couldn’t keep up. That this coincided with the brand split made it all the more confusing. When I lived on my own for a few months in early 2007, I all of a sudden had the chance to commit to Raw on a regular basis. I spent a few hours looking up information online to fill me in on what I’d missed. I still consider summer 2002 to spring 2007 to be a pretty substantial void in my fan memory.
In this way, wrestling is very much like a soap opera. I actually committed to watching a soap opera once. It debuted during one of the summers I was home from college, so I figured I could get in on the ground floor. It was pretty easy to fit into my schedule at college as well. When I tried to keep up when regular viewing became a challenge, the same thing happened that I’d experienced with wrestling. There was enough familiarity to help ease me back in, but I still felt like someone who’d suffered some sort of traumatic brain injury when certain scenes didn’t register because that part of my memory was void.
All of which to say is sometimes I realize I’m watching a wrestling show out of sheer obligation to the fact I’ve been a fan since the mid 1980s. The May 13 Raw is a great example. I knew it would be a soft show, I plowed through it in an hour on the DVR while folding laundry and in retrospect I should have gotten caught up on “Parks & Recreation.” But I wanted to be part of the conversation, to read my regular recaps Tuesday and to be involved in Twitter when we all “watched” Extreme Rules. But if the Bulls actually had a chance to beat the Heat, I almost certainly would have given that priority.
All that said, there are times each year when I know why I’m still in on wrestling. When WWE is firing on all cylinders in a given story, I want to hear what the characters say, I want to see them mix it up in the ring and I spend far too much time thinking about who could or should win based on a variety of factors. Some shows have six or seven stories on this level. Some, like Extreme Rules, might not have any.
But there is something about the mix of scripted entertainment (so you know there will be drama, as opposed to say a “straight” sporting event that can completely fail to deliver if it’s a blowout) and the unpredictability of the live performance blended with impressive feats of athleticism that remain captivating after all these years.
Do I sit through a lot of absolute crap in order for those payoffs? Absolutely. But I’m a Cubs fan, so I’m rather used to waiting around for something good to happen.
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David: You’re right. Based on our history with wrestling it would appear there are fundamental aspects of the genre that appeal to us. And I think you’ve hit on it pretty closely. I’ve long said I prefer wrestling to MMA because I know I’m going to get a certain quantity of entertainment for the money I’m paying… even if I’m not always sure of the quality.
What I am sure of is every time I turn on any wrestling event, there is the possibility of seeing something that will excite me, and might make me say “I’ve never seen that before.” That happened this past weekend at the end of the Chikara “Aniversario: No Compromise” iPPV. I know you don’t watch Chikara, but I also know you run in similar online circles as I do, so I’m sure you’ve picked up the gist of what happened, and if you (or our readers) don’t know what happened, basically, the main event ended in a no contest when Condor Security stormed out and ended things, which included tearing apart the stage.
The closest thing I can compare it to in mainstream wrestling was when the Nexus formed, and destroyed the ring and ringside area at the end of Raw in the summer of 2010. Even with that, though, there was no denying it was part of the story. Because of rumors and other things, there is just enough possibility that Chikara is done for good that people aren’t really sure what to think. I’m still pretty sure it’s part of the story, but again, the line is blurry enough I can’t be 100 percent positive.
The fact the line is blurred at all is pretty fascinating to me.
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Scott: In the days after the Chikara show I got into a Twitter discussion about the nature of what is and isn’t “real” in wrestling. It started with Wrestlespective’s Jason Mann tweeting: “Wondering if something is real or not is about 50,232nd on the list of reasons I’m interested in wrestling.” and I have to say I totally agree. I want to assume everything is part of the show.
Of course, that is not the same as saying I want everything to be predictable. Nor is it the same as, which Jason noted later, using reality to make a story more believable. Bringing in those real-world aspects of doubt and confusion, as with what’s happening with Chikara right now or the “will he or won’t he” questions surrounding CM Punk’s contract status in the weeks surrounding Money in the Bank 2011, is sometimes needed in order to keep fans guessing.
I think where the distinction comes into play for me is, at least in the Punk story, the company put the facts on the table and made them part of the story. Punk announced the date his contract expired, proclaimed he would win the title anyway and would leave as champion. For all I care, that could have been totally false. I don’t need a dirt sheet or website giving me the details of a contract to enjoy the show. In fact, when you do know these things — such as reports Chris Jericho would be going off the road following SummerSlam 2012, it takes an awful lot of wind from the sails of a retirement or “loser leaves town” match.
Some of the ideas in this conversation are why I don’t have much interest in following wrestlers on Twitter. I’m just more interested in the characters they play than the people they are, unless we have some sort of connection that goes beyond what happens in the ring. But I am totally on board with your description of wrestling as offering the promise of something exciting.
You and I both enjoy conventional sports, and we also have a background in theater (though yours is far deeper). I’d argue it’s hard to beat the drama of a live, high-stakes sporting event, but am compelled to note the disappointment when that drama is not delivered. The Cubs getting swept out of the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 was akin to Daniel Bryan losing in 18 seconds at WrestleMania. Months of buildup for absolutely no satisfaction past the introductions. But Bryan’s loss was notable because of its rarity. Stuff like what the Cubs did happens in baseball all the time.
Now, the St. Louis Cardinals’ run to the World Series in 2011 had about as much drama as anyone could bear — but that itself was notable in comparison to the team’s rather bland victory over the Tigers in 2006. If Bud Selig could script the Fall Classic every year, you’d never see pitchers making that many errors.
With theater, we go expecting drama (and laughter, perhaps music, dance and so on). We know absolutely everything is part of the act. Great performers make audiences suspend disbelief. The absolute best can take well-worn source material and still make it seem fresh. But aside from sets, costumes or the whims of a director, if you’ve seen “Death of a Salesman” a few times, you’re more or less appreciating how well one cast delivers versus those from the past.
Again, I’m not telling you anything you (or, likely, anyone reading this) don’t already know. Wrestling is a perfect mix. The story should be a secret to the audience. The feats of athleticism are fantastic, almost superhuman. Scripted or not, a spectacle is guaranteed. To me the art form takes the best of many other forms of entertainment, blurs the lines between them, and delivers a unique experience, and that goes far beyond the WWE product.
Have I made any sense? Does your acting career give you any additional insight?
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David: One of the great things about any form of performing art is the possibility of catharsis. To use your example: in Death of a Salesman Willy Loman’s funeral acts as a method for the characters on stage, and the audience, to release the emotions that have built up throughout the story. The same thing happens in wrestling… whether the good guy wins or loses. The end of the match allows us to cheer or boo, depending both on the story being told, and on our own personal preferences.
However, there is something to be said for a lack of catharsis in art… or at least delayed catharsis. It’s something very tricky to pull off in certain dramatic arts. Most plays are one-evening events that take about three hours. When that three hours are over, the story had better be complete. Long-form television series and films with multiple parts have a unique opportunity, however. When everything went down at Aniversario: Never Compromise on June 2, I likened it to ending of The Empire Strikes Back. Han Solo is trapped in carbonite and on his way to become a wall decoration for Jabba the Hutt. Princess Leia has realized her love for a man she might never see again. Luke Skywalker has lost his hand, and gained the knowledge that the most hated man in the galaxy is his father. That’s a bummer no matter who’s keeping score.
The catharsis comes in the ending of Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor is defeated, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed and Han and Leia declare their love for each other. Part of why Chikara fans were legitimately upset at the end of the show is because with there being no ending to the title match, they were denied that catharsis. Presumably, if and when they come back, the fans will finally have that moment to cry or cheer over.
As I look at the lineup for the upcoming WWE pay-per-view Payback, I wonder where that emotional release is going to come from. As I pointed out catharsis in wrestling typically comes from the ending of each match… but I think a lot of fans want something more. As Tom Holzerman wrote recently on The Wrestling Blog, Kane is probably the best good guy the company has right now. That gives a lot of emotional weight to anything that happens within his storyline with Daniel Bryan. Will this Sunday see them break up for good, or will they reconcile?
Another potential emotional moment is in the Divas Championship match between Kaitlyn and AJ. AJ has spent the last month and a half playing mind games with Kaitlyn, which all came to a head on the most recent episode of Raw. Will Kaitlyn get her revenge, or will AJ’s plan to get inside Kaitlyn’s head work? I don’t know how that one will end, but it’s nice to see the Divas title get an actual storyline.
Being a Chicagoland resident, what do you think the emotions are going to be like on Sunday night when CM Punk makes his return to the WWE in his hometown? Also, is there any catharsis to be had in the John Cena/Ryback match?
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Scott: Your question brings to mind the old K. Sawyer Paul standby of not predicting match outcomes, but whether stories would continue past a given show. That’s another quirk with wrestling as compared to other art forms.
As you said, in the theater you expect the story to end when the curtain falls. With television each show sort of communicates its approach: sitcoms and procedurals tend to be dominated by stories that wrap up with each episode, though characters have continuity and slow growth year over year. More conventional dramas tend to bring you along for a lengthy ride, drawing some bits out over several episodes, some from season premiere to season finale, and a precious few the entire run of the show — but they also generally have subplots that begin and end within the hour. Of course, few shows actually get to establish their own timetable as it relates to how long the network wants it on the air.
But with wrestling, the characters have to be in constant motion, especially so in the era of weekly TV. Nothing ends without a new beginning — with the WWE, this means a competitor who stands triumphant in Sunday might be brutally beaten by a new foe Monday (or Friday) night. This is nothing new, of course. The Flair-Steamboat trilogy ended only moments before Terry Funk attacked Flair to set up a new story.
The issue with wrestling (and I suppose specifically WWE) is fans don’t really know which is the long-form story and which is the time killer. It’s also clear the writing team doesn’t always know. On many shows, we can guess (say, the Intercontinental title will change hands but we know the WWE Title feud is only beginning). Looking at Payback, however it’s not especially clear. And getting back to what we talked about earlier, reality (or “what we know”) is part of the issue.
For example, was Fandango originally supposed to win the Intercontinental belt Sunday? Does that mean whoever does win is just a placeholder until he returns? Was Curtis Axel put in that match solely to convince fans the Punk return isn’t a Heyman swerve? Surely Axel can’t win the belt because it wouldn’t help his ongoing involvement in the McMahon family saga. But neither can he lose and risk what’s been built (or at least what they tried to build) over the last few weeks. But what good is a Miz-Wade Barrett story without the belt? It’s barely any good with the belt.
We should expect Cena to win, not just because he’s Cena, but because he excels in these dumb gimmick matches. Punk is returning (if we don’t see Punk before his ring entrance, the crowd will be electric, especially if he dons a Blackhawks jersey), but is he coming back to challenge Cena for the belt? That seems an odd choice as well. We already know Mark Henry is coming back the next night on Raw, perhaps he will resume his issues with Ryback, thus removing him from the top of the card. But maybe Henry and Sheamus have unfinished business. Which is more unlikely to continue: Sheamus in the preshow or Ryback in the main event?
I could book out a year’s worth of Daniel Bryan story (short version: challenges Kane, demands Kane give him his evil best, even when Bryan wins he still feels insignificant and must challenge the Undertaker at WrestleMania), and I also am hoping Kaitlyn retains Sunday so her story with AJ continues to progress. The Ziggler-Del Rio story has been stilted on account of Ziggler’s concussion, and now Swagger has disappeared. But that’s the thing, I don’t really know.
Will there be any catharsis Sunday? If there is, it won’t last. As soon as Raw opens Monday, we’ll be able to focus on Money in the Bank, which is quickly taking its place among the biggest shows of the year. Will there be two briefcases again this year? Is the Wyatt family coming sooner rather than later? Will Henry or Punk get into either top title picture? Is Jericho done (again) after Payback?
I admit, I am more interested in the fallout than the actual Sunday show. But I wasn’t much interested in Extreme Rules at all, so I consider this an upgrade. Sorry I rambled so long here, we should wrap up before Sunday actually arrives. Any closing thoughts?
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David: I keep thinking about the idea of catharsis in a dramatic context, and the idea of delayed catharsis. It’s not only important for the audience to be able to achieve that emotional release, but it’s also important for the characters. However, that delayed emotional release can lend itself to character movement. In the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, there is a moment at the end of the first act where the main character is about to use his razor to take revenge on the man who wronged him 15 years before the start of the play. That moment is interrupted, and it drives Sweeney to the point of madness.
The way you talked about Daniel Bryan’s current story made me think of that as an analogy. Bryan is convinced of his insignificance, and he has gotten to the point where he will stop at nothing to prove he is not a weak link. There are rumors Money in the Bank will feature a John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan match. If that is the case, I think we’ll see Bryan complaining about Cena saving him from getting beaten up by the Shield and further descend into this madness. Whether that ends with him trying to end “The Streak” next April in New Orleans is yet to be seen… but I certainly wouldn’t mind it.
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