Last week I started to discuss how storytelling works in general, and in professional wrestling in particular. Pro wrestling, I argued, utilises the basic components of the story in an intrinsically satisfying way that, and creates narrative arcs that are as accessible to grizzled veteran fans as they are to newcomers. I left you with some choice lines from that storytelling master William Shakespeare – an exchange between the villainous Oliver and the court wrestler Charles, from the opening act of As You Like It, one of his finest comedies. I termed the scene “Shakespeare’s first pro wrestling promo,” and I hope that upon reading, you understood why! We’ll delve back into that in a moment.
One of the strengths which I mentioned last week that pro wrestling has which other forms of storytelling do not is that wrestling tells stories in two ways – through soap opera and through the in-ring fireworks. The narrative of a soap opera storyline is easy enough to understand: characters are given motivation in some shape or form, and that motivation, after a period of time eventually carries over into the ring. And then, whether the story simply sets up the main event of Impact that night, or the main event of Wrestlemania a year away, the match-up is imbued with significance from bell to bell. Some of these stories are better than others, of course. There is a reason why Booker T, when proudly speaking of his Wrestlemania X8 match with Edge on Smackdown commentary last month, neglected to mention that their feud was grounded in a dispute over who got to be the mascot for a Japanese shampoo commercial.
Wrestling matches themselves are a slightly different beast. Each wrestling match is a story in and of itself, and the best matches are the ones which tell a story which draws in the spectators even without the narrative undercurrent of a rivalry or grudge. When we speak of “in-ring psychology”, it isn’t simply about a face / heel dynamic, or convincing selling, it’s about making each movement – be it a tombstone piledriver or simply the look in a wrestler’s eye – matter. When each moment in a wrestling match is given purpose and made to matter, it doesn’t matter if it’s Shark Boy vs Alex Shelley or Bret Hart vs Steve Austin, the audience will reward the hard work of the performers with emotional investment. One of the very best examples of a match telling its own tale without an underlying story remains the excellent contest between Shelton Benjamin and Shawn Michaels during the post-Backlash “Gold Rush” tournament on 2 May 2005. The winner of the match would move up the brackets, of course, and come one step closer to the World Heavyweight Championship, but that wasn’t the story of this match. Instead, two men who had never stepped into the ring with one another put on a fantastic fight with a very simple story, that of the cocky up-and-comer against the wily veteran. There was nothing extraneous, nothing superfluous. Instead, the two men proved that a months-long rivalry isn’t the only way to produce something memorable. It remains the best singles match of Benjamin’s career. But I digress.
The real money comes when the two strands of story intertwine, complementing one another in order to tell a layered story which ultimately peaks in a match. Other matches can come along the way, of course, usually comprising part of what I labelled last week the Quest portion of a story arc. In wrestling, however, with very few exceptions the Resolution must take place in a single match which ties the loose ends together and provides some sort of closure. Everyone hated Cole vs Lawler at this year’s Wrestlemania, but even though the end of the match was somewhat anticlimactic, what was more damaging to the story, and more vexing for the pay-per-view buyers, was that the poor ending failed to resolve anything. Instead, it was clear that a compelling story had been scuppered by carrying on past the point where resolution would have been most satisfying, and instead of closure in a single, neat package, we were forced to wait an extra month (and who knows – there may be more to come!) for part two.
Which brings me to Shakespeare, a man who knew all about the importance of a good resolution, and As You Like It, which combines a soap opera storyline with a wrestling bout which both tells its own tale and encapsulates all of the composite elements of the rest of the story, albeit in an inverted format to that which I described previously: In AYLI, the wrestling match comes near the start of the story rather than at the end, with ultimate Resolution provided at the end of an extended post-match tease. This has to be the case because by the time our Hero Orlando finally earns his revenge on Oliver, the latter’s potency as a threat is negligible and it makes no sense to end on a fight – all that the story needs is a full stop, so to speak, and not another sentence. As such, the post-match antics are all geared towards building up audience anticipation for the victor to claim his inevitable, hugely satisfying prize. In Watchmen, for instance, one of the most thrilling parts of the book (and the 2009 film, which depicts the moment extremely well) comes after Rorschach defeats the diminutive Big Figure’s henchmen, and then closes slowly in his nemesis, cornering him in a bathroom. We do not observe Big Figure’s fate; we do not need to. Instead, the bathroom door swings slowly shut, as Rorschach steps slowly towards his target.
Imagine if at Wrestlemania, Jerry had handily defeated Jack Swagger, with Michael Cole as the manager, and then chased Cole around ringside, eventually cornering him and closing slowly in, with the audience baying for blood (or not, as the case may be)… Â that would have been good, right? Well AYLI does just that, more or less, except the ringside chase lasts another four acts, and the beatdown, like that of Big Figure, happens offstage. When we see Oliver afterwards, he has a nasty wound, so it is clear that something occurred, although it is left to our imaginations (Oliver, perhaps allegorically speaking, claims that a lion caused his wound – something that the noble Oliver neither confirms or denies). And as directors of horror films will tell you, the most powerful thrills are those which we are encouraged, or forced, to imagine. Again, picture that bathroom door swinging shut, and the water (or blood, in the Watchmen film) seeping from underneath.
(I suppose one of the issues we’ve stumbled across unwittingly here is whether wrestling, a show in which violence is the de facto payoff for conventional feuds, could ever end a grudge in non-violence, or non-explicit violence. Are there cases where one man could be psychologically defeated, rather than physically so, and that outcome still prove satisfying? It’s an interesting question, so let me know what you think.)
Back to Shakespeare, the “wrestling promo” by Charles and Oliver in Act 1, scene 1, does a wonderful job of setting up Oliver as the weaselly heel manager, Charles as the wrestling monster, and Orlando as the heroic babyface. Orlando is extremely strong, and full of potential for great things, but is held down by his older brother (who, in lieu of a deceased father, is legally the head of the family and commands authority). Orlando desperately wants freedom from the oppression he suffers, but, out of love and respect for his father, and in accordance with the law, cannot bring himself to usurp Oliver: “Wert thou not my brother, I would not take this hand frim thy throat till this other had pulled out thy tongue” (1.1.50-2). Oliver, meanwhile, is jealous of Orlando’s looks, intelligence, and social skills, which make him “enchantingly beloved”, while the scrawny Oliver is “misprized” (1.1.142,144). Classic heel stuff! The story being told here is, you may have noticed, the stuff that many wrestling break-ups are made of. I refer you, for example, to Hardy / Hardy in 2009, or, more appropriately, Lesnar / Heyman in 2002. Charles, meanwhile, is a dominant wrestler who Oliver deceives into action against his brother, explaining that “there is not one so young and so villainous this day living” as Orlando. A bare-faced lie that spurs the giant Charles, a man who on a normal day casually breaks his opponents’ limbs like matchsticks, into a purposefully murderous mood.
The positions of all three men are thus clear, as is the story, which revolves around a single match: Oliver wants Orlando dead, and the wrestling contest is the way to make it happen. Oliver wants freedom, and sees his match with Charles as a way of achieving that. Charles fights for both Oliver’s honour and his own, and sees defeating Orlando as a means to preserve both. Each narrative strand starts in a different place, but ends in the same ring. Wonderful stuff.
The rest, as you may have ascertained, is in the books (quite literally), but a brief recap will do no harm. Charles symbolically defeats three brothers before he fights Orlando – squash matches, if you will – and kills them all. The monster’s might thus demonstrated, Orlando’s chances look slim. His love interest, Rosalind, watches from the sidelines, and is tempted to interfere in order to help the Hero, but does not, thus avoiding a lot of grief from the IWC the morning after. Oliver, perhaps sensing the winds of change, declined to attend the bout… In the pre-match, Charles, cocky, insults Orlando with the brilliant double entendre ”where is this young gallant that is so desirous / to lie with his mother earth” (1.2.166-7), but all that does is fire up the plucky newcomer. When the bell rings, Orlando taps into his hidden potential and destroys Charles! The beating continues until a refer stoppage: “No more, no more!” “Yes, I beseech your grace” responds Orlando, “I am not well breathed.” (1.2.181-3) That’s right: while Charles is hurt so badly that he “cannot speak” for pain (1.2.185), Orlando is upset that he hasn’t yet worked up a sweat. Having thus proved his worth to his brother, to the court, to the woman he will later marry, and – most importantly – to himself, Orlando sets off home in order to have a quiet word with his brother.
As You Like It, then. Pro wrestling at its finest. If ever placed in a situation where you love for professional wrestling is heckled by others, you now have full license to respond thus: “It was good enough for Shakespeare!”
Admittedly, I gloss somewhat over the intricacies of AYLI’s story. After the fight, Oliver manages to evade Orlando’s retribution for a very long time indeed, and Orlando is banished from the court and distracted by issues with Rosalind in the interim. Ultimately, however, in terms of this particular fraternal story, everything over the subsequent four acts amounts to little more than stalling tactics. Orlando eventually discovers Oliver alone in the woods. Heyman gets hoisted up for the F-5. Slowly, slowly, the bathroom door swings shut.
1) Firstly, in anticipation of my next article, I’d be very interested to garner your opinions on how, hypothetically speaking, ranking systems should or would work in professional wrestling. I am currently of the opinion that ranking, in the same way that football teams, tennis players and boxers are ranked, would be unworkable in the world of pro wrestling, although I am willing to be swayed! Let me know what you think. In particular, consider other ways in which wrestlers could be ‘ranked’.
2) Curt Hawkins made an interesting, if politically unsound, comment on Twitter recently regarding the opening video to Superstars, which does not spotlight any of the actual performers who wrestle on the show. Hawkins is entirely correct, and no doubt his infuriation was compounded by the fact that the opening videos to Raw and Smackdown were altered immediately after the draft, demonstrating that such production effects can be altered in a relatively short time. I suppose that the logic behind the current video to Superstars is that Superstars is technically the one show underneath the WWE umbrella on which any superstar can appear at any time. In fact I seem to remember that, back when Superstars was first introduced, we were promised exhibitions between the likes of Rey Mysterio and Batista, Triple H and John Morrison, CM Punk and Zack Ryder, HBK and Chris Masters. As far as I can remember, none of those bouts actually occurred – at least not on Superstars, although the show is still advertised as wielding the potential for such matches.
Why the discrepancy between video and content, then? Not a ‘brand’ in the same sense that Raw, Smackdown, or even NXT are brands, to open Superstars with a video which represents those who regularly perform on it would seem to contradict the premise behind the show. In terms of WWE production model then, their logic is understandable. If WWE had deigned, however, to showcase chaps like Hawkins, Tatsu, Ryder and Masters alongside the Cenas, Triple Hs and Rey Mysterios in the video – and perhaps even in – gasp! – actual matches (!), maybe – just maybe – those lesser-known wrestlers would seem like bigger deals. And perhaps Superstars wouldn’t be getting cancelled.
3) McCool vs Layla at Extreme Rules was an absolute cracker. The moves were crisp and the story was very well told. McCool’s reversal from a rollup into the Faithbreaker was sublime (even if it did highlight Layla’s need for a recognisable finishing manoeuvre of her own!). A fitting match for McCool to end her career on, and it set the tone for Kharma’s arrival perfectly.
4) I am surprised and annoyed by WWE’s treatment of the re-hired Shawn Daivari, who made his return to Smackdown in a dark match, I am informed, dressed in a turban and spouting Arabic. Daivari is a talented performer, and can contribute much to the product when used correctly. However, this cheap heat gimmick, grounded in (tragically, probably correct) assumptions of inherent racist tendencies in the majority of spectators, is in incredibly poor taste. Racist gimmicks are certainly nothing new in professional wrestling – indeed, they are unfortunately part of an established tradition that, for better or worse, has made a lot of money in past times. Whether or not Daivari’s character is more or less offensive than other foreign stereotypes that are and have been paraded around the ring is a matter for debate. However, to re-introduce Daivari in a turban, less than two days after the death of Osama Bin Laden strikes me as the absolute worst kind of cheap heat – designed to rouse in fans emotions and racist sentiments that are incredibly unhelpful to morale, to public image, and to the future of the business. As fans, we deserve better than to have reminders of a man responsible for the deaths of many innocent lives, and to whom justice was dealt, paraded over our television sets – especially when the news networks are doing it anyway. While I do not believe that WWE re-hired Daivari solely to capitalise on Bin Laden’s death, the presence of such an inflammatory character on Smackdown will only prove detrimental to their product and Shawn’s career, and detract from the feeling of immense goodwill sweeping the West right now.
The one positive to be gleaned from this is that apparently Daivari lost clean to Ted DiBiase, which could signal three things: a) a face turn for Ted, b) an end to his ridiculous period of underutilisation, and c) that Daivairi’s character is being played for laughs. While that makes his gimmick no less infuriating, at least comedy characters tend to have very short shelf lives…
5) As a fan, I am highly disappointed with the World Title situation on Smackdown, and feel that the same effect could have been created with much less in the way of character assassination. As a wrestling critic, I understand the need to supply fans with true ‘feel-good’ moments at pay-per-views, even if such moments aren’t ultimately designed to fit in with long- or even short-term plans. The booking in evidence thus far, however, is utterly nonsensical, and a slap in the face to anyone who was emotionally invested in the ladder match at Extreme Rules.