On NXT, Developmental, and Sucking

 

As much as I hate to admit it, Baron Corbin and Dana Brooke looked like absolute stars at NXT Takeover: Respect.

I hate to admit this because, like just about everyone, I hate modifying my opinion, especially when it comes to pro wrestling. There’s this phenomenon where, when you sit with people and watch wrestling and yell things at the screen, you feel like you have to hold this position because you’ve given your disgruntlement shape and form by saying “Man, they suck.” It’s probably one of the reasons I hated Gravity: I didn’t watch it in a theater where I had to be quiet until the movie was over, and I was free to yell things at the screen at home, which prevented me from reserving judgment until the movie was over. (I also hated it because it was a bad film, but there’s no accounting for taste-no, fuck it, Gravity was very bad film and I’m objectively right about this, specifically.)

But there Dana was, keeping up with Asuka and putting her over magnificently in Asuka’s debut match. Asuka can’t wrestle a match by herself, and in order for her cartoonishly cool moves to land the way they did at Respect, she needed a competent hand to sell the moves and have the timing to get in place for them. No matter how great our indie darlings are, their match is only going to be as good as the person they’re wrestling, and Dana made Asuka look like an absolute monster.

And Baron Corbin (who looks like the next Pokemon evolution of Glenn Danzig) pulled off some properly cool moves out there, and he kept up with Samoa Joe and Finn Balor, for chrissakes. He was by no means the MVP of the night, but the difference between the tag match at Respect and the botchfest that was Corbin vs. Bull Dempsey was enormous, and I found myself actually enjoying a match because the man with the saddest abdomen on the planet was in it.

Now, the reasons that Dana and Baron have been my erstwhile keyboard punching bags is that 1.) their characters are weak, and 2.) they’re not very good wrestlers. It’s worth noting that they’re both heels, but they weren’t getting heel heat from me — it was pure X-Pac Heat, and I was annoyed that they were on my TV even though I didn’t want them there. They’re on a card with Kevin Owens and Sasha Banks, and I’m supposed to care about them when they suck so horrifically? Why are they there?

And then a small voice whispered: yeah, they ought to go back to developmental or someth-OH WAIT

They still suck, don’t get me wrong. They do not suck as much as they once sucked, but their characters and ring psychology and promos still go over like a lead balloon. And that’s okay. They’re where they need to be, because if Respect is any indication, they just need the space and live atmosphere to hone their skills until they don’t suck as much.

You know who absolutely stunk the joint up when she first started? Bayley, everyone’s favorite technicolor underdog. She had a lot of heart, obviously, and she desperately wanted to be good at what she did, but she clammed around the ring and missed loads of spots and had a deeply boring character. Becky Lynch, who had one of the best matches of 2015 with Sasha, had a Riverdance gimmick when she started in NXT that still makes my toes curl in mortification when I watch her entrance from that period. Before his current run as WWE Champion, Seth Rollins’ mic skills were like watching a fingerless man attempting to play “Chopsticks.” But we’ve gotten to watch them all grow and develop, and when Seth won the championship at Wrestlemania, it gave me the deep-down fuzzies because I kept yelling “MY BOYYYY.”

If you’re only watching NXT to watch people who are already good, you’re only getting half of the experience. The beauty of NXT is that we get to watch greener-than-goose-shit newbies like Dana Brooke and Baron Corbin becoming better by locking horns with indie sensations pre-loaded with charisma and technical genius. If you watch developmental wrestling with your viewfinder the right way around, you’ll get the joy of being wrong about a wrestler.

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On Thinking With the Heart, Not the Head (reblogged from August 2014)

I wrote this just a couple months after the Shield broke up, back when it was impossible not to fall madly, desperately in love with Dean Ambrose. He was the best thing ever ever ever to happen to professional wrestling, and the people who read this post at the time told me they thought so too. So much inauthentic narrative snafu would then send me into an embittered phase where I could barely even stand to look at an Ambrose match, but look at how much I fawned over him back then. That pounding fangirl heart was for real, and it has since healed from its CPR dummy/exploding monitor/candy corn kendo stick wounds. Getting past all that crap and appreciating the brilliance of Dean Ambrose again has been a lesson in unconditional love. Namaste. — Andrea

There’s a new meme for Dean Ambrose: a sudden change from the lunatic brawler, which he was just too much of a heartthrob to really sell. Someone perhaps got wise and realized they were on the verge of squandering their gold with him. The concept thrown out there tonight is that Dean Ambrose “thinks with his heart, not his head.”

Now this is very interesting, and it’s deliberate. Seth Rollins said it in the middle of his diatribe, a rare moment of deference to the fast becoming legendary Dean Ambrose. Then the commentators repeated it, discussed the concept. After the infamous popcorn and soda in the briefcase affair, something has shifted in the Ambrose character. He has changed gears and is now being cast as some kind of spiritual outlaw.

This “heart not head” thing is a concept, of course, that is well established in the collective unconscious. I suspect it goes way back into Shakespeare or even further, but the most prominent instance I can think off the top is from Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic silent film Metropolis: “Without the heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind.” The film is about the ever enduring conflict between a robber baron and his workers, or more broadly, man and his overlord (be it a cruel god or a tyrannical leader).

Not that I think Dean Ambrose is about workers and corporations per se (though the WWE’s dominant story arc about the Authority is a satire of such, and plenty of the wrestlers have their run at playing the oppressed worker). But I am asserting that this heart-head thing is a universal, transcendent theme. I’m sure Jesus and Buddha had a spin on it. Probably Muhammad too, in one of his gentler moments. I also hear in the internet scuttlebutt that a lot of people are literally beginning to think with their hearts rather than their brains in the new millennium. Some voices are describing it as conscious evolution.

It’s odd to think that Dean Ambrose could find himself in the middle of such a mystical theme, even as he is giggling about himself and Seth Rollins tearing each other apart in a lumberjack match. He’s an unrepentant brawler on a mission of revenge. And yet his hero type may in fact be blooming, evolving into the valiant outlaw hero. The hour is too late for me to pore over Foucalt, but if memory serves he touched upon this idea: why is it that we love a good outlaw? It is because he stands up to the Man. He stands up to authority.

So this is the direction in which Ambrose has evolved out of The Shield. Seth Rollins sold out and Roman Reigns is a dark old world knight of justice. Ambrose is now becoming our Billy the Kid, Malcolm Reynolds, or Zorro. Like with those guys, the Authority is learning: “You can’t plan for Dean Ambrose.”

Dean’s little shtick he did about the types of matches he was thinking of specifying for his Summer Slam bout with Seth Rollins wasn’t even very funny. His delivery sort of flopped. But it doesn’t matter, we love him anyway. He thinks from his heart like an outlaw folk hero, and we are like moths to his flame.

On Getting Worked

Pro wrestling will give you trust issues.

The language of pro wrestling is the language of deception. Mark, work, selling, and kayfabe are little strands of carny DNA that show us wrestling’s origins — a callback to when strongmen traveled with carnivals across the United States, bilking gullible Dust Bowl Alpha Bros out of money by goading them into rigged matches. Even if one of the local hayseeds looked like he might actually win a match with the strongman, another carny (hidden behind a curtain) would bash the poor guy’s head with a blackjack, making it look to the crowd like he’d just gotten winded from exertion. When a carnival barker had an audience successfully bamboozled into taking part in the spectacle, they were “working” the crowd.

Sometimes wrestlers don’t even know why they lie. It’s such a way of life for them that they don’t need a particularly good reason to do it. Listen to any interview with a very old pro wrestler and you’ll learn that they body-slammed eight beluga whales a day while in their prime, were single-handedly responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union, and taught Mickey Mantle everything he knows. Vince McMahon wasn’t even canonically acknowledged as the main guy behind WWE until 1997, after the Montreal Screwjob. Previously, President Jack Tunney was the narrative svengali who booked matches, stripped titles, and suspended the dastardly heels. To the casual viewer, Vince McMahon was just an interviewer and sometimes-ring announcer who really liked to scream things. Why the pointless deception? Why pretend that a figurehead like Jack Tunney ran things?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ – Vince McMahon, verbatim quote

Of course we’re all fascinated with what’s going on in the back room. We snicker online about how a wrestler politicked his way into moving up the card, and how real-life beefs have worked their way into the storyline, because it’s fun and we feel clever. But take a look at any given thread on /r/squaredcircle, and you’ll see a lot of angry, bitter folks who are way too smart and savvy to enjoy pro wrestling. For the internet smark strawman I’m using here, they’re so determined not to get worked that they’ll dig their heels in and cross their arms and treat everything wrestling-related with skeptical disdain. They don’t watch a match to see a story unfold with bodies and canvas and ropes — they look for cracks in order to feel smart for noticing them.

Here’s the thing: Getting worked is a crucial part of enjoying pro wrestling. 

I’ll give you an example: Dean Ambrose vs. Seth Rollins at Elimination Chamber for the World Heavyweight Championship. When Dean was announced as the winner, my girlfriend and I made so many noises of delighted disbelief that we accidentally scared the dog. An upset! Against all odds, the fan-favorite underdog won! Sometimes the little guy really DOES pull through and and ahhhhh, wait a minute, nope, dusty finish, lost on a technicality, cowardly heel retains, should’ve seen it coming. I couldn’t stop laughing — I was so happy because I just got worked by these lousy carniesThey played on my desires and expectations like a fiddle, and it was masterful.

It works both ways. When Sami Zayn finally struggled up that hill and won the NXT Championship, old-school NWA babyface-style, we also got worked, because we wanted him to win so badly that we let ourselves be wholly engrossed in the storyline and match. Professional wrestling is based on the manipulation of the crowd’s emotions, and when Sami won the title, we surrendered to the absolute joy of watching this doofy little ginger dude achieving his goals. Pro wrestling almost requires more suspension of disbelief than other types of fictional media, because the stock criticism of the art form is “you’re stupid if you believe it because it’s faaaake.” You don’t have to believe that something’s real in order to enjoy it like it’s real.

It’s brave to let yourself Feel Stuff about oily superhumans putting each other through pieces of furniture, and it’s a victory to overcome self-consciousness about the things you love.

-Ryan Boyd

On the Ethics of Kevin Owens (reblogged from May 2015)

Andrea here again. In honor of my hero defeating Ryback to become the new intercontinental champion and savior of that much embattled belt, here is a reblog of my thoughts on the ethics of Kevin Owens from May of this year. He’s done his best to be a real jerk, but I still think he’s a realist and a working class hero:

I find myself with a contrary opinion in regards to the story we’re being told about Kevin Owens. I was behind him from the very first day, even as he went about putting my heartthrobs on stretchers. Here was a mercenary prizefighter, an anti-hero so strong and bold that he scorched any possibility of alliance in NXT. He doesn’t need friends, he’s confident in himself and he stands alone.

Kevin had no use for aging boy band member Alex Riley and didn’t take kindly to Riley mouthing off at him, questioning his manhood, essentially, for turning against golden boy Sami Zayn so he could forego his requisite jobber period and climb straight to the top. This is the story I read about Kevin Owens. So now that he’s champion and taking constant hassling about his ethical choices, I feel myself even more swayed to his corner. Sure he’s nervous, twitchy — there’s an implicit suggestion that it’s a liar’s pathology. But I don’t buy it. It’s a hard thing he’s doing, plowing down everybody’s darlings and taking no prisoners. You go do what you have to do to put food on the table for your wife and kids and see if it doesn’t keep you up at night biting your nails.

Professional wrestling is a cutthroat business more than we even know. CM Punk hinted to us about this. Kevin Owens is simply a character who doesn’t try to hide the reality of the world of wrestling. Remember what Vince McMahon did to Bret Hart? Remember what Triple H did to Chyna? Remember what Bill DeMott did to everybody? Here’s one to cause you cognitive dissonance: remember Paul Heyman’s business practices in ECW? Kevin Owens is right: he is doing what he has to do for his family, because backstabbing is what some guys have to do to survive in this business. I for one admire his candor.

On the same episode that puny Michael Cole really demanded answers from Kevin Owens about his betrayal of Sami Zayn, Sasha Banks compared herself to Fabulous Moolah with great pride. Moolah is perhaps the most cutthroat female wrestler of all time, am I wrong? Moolah would sell anybody out, and we appreciate Sasha Banks’ mean girl heel aesthetic based on Moolah’s approach. Yet Kevin Owens has been constantly criticized by men who couldn’t shine his shoes. It seems like women are given carte blanche to be bitches in this era of wrestling, whereas a guy who’s a mean bastard gets no respect at all.

On Brian Pillman

When Brian Pillman was announced as a playable character for the soon-to-be-released WWE 2K16 (as part of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s showcase mode), it instantly brought back memories of watching Brian Pillman on ECW when I was a kid. Here’s a guy who, even for ECW, managed to be one of the most entertainingly unhinged wrestlers on the roster (with the exception of maybe New Jack, who wasn’t so much a wrestler as a feral human who stabbed people.) He died of a heart attack on October 5, 1997, due to undiagnosed arteriosclerotic heart disease and likely exacerbated by his battle with drugs and alcohol.

Side note: if you do an internet search for Brian Pillman, you’ll find a lot of posts by wrestling fans who treat his addiction as a personal failing. I cordially invite you to piss up a flagpole if you think that Brian Pillman, or ANYONE, deserves to die because they struggle with addiction.

Brian Pillman is one of the most criminally underrated wrestlers of all time, and the Attitude Era as we know it probably wouldn’t have existed without his influence. (Which, depending on your feelings about the Attitude Era, may not be a point in his favor.) He was cutting worked shoot promos while CM Punk was probably griping about how high school proms were too mainstream for him to attend, and although lots of wrestling fans will point to things like the Austin/McMahon feud or the Montreal Screwjob as the start of the Attitude Era, I would put forward that it started with a vignette featuring Brian Pillman, Steve Austin, and a handgun.

Pillman’s career would always be tied to Austin’s — they’d worked together in WCW as the charmingly tacky Hollywood Blondes (if you haven’t seen photos of Steve Austin with long blond hair, I implore you, Google this immediately), and both of them would follow a similar trajectory from WCW to ECW to WWE. The home invasion vignette came when the two started feuding in WWE, and it was a fairly huge break from the cheese of the New Generation era. Who cared about Mantaur and Max Moon when you had Brian Pillman’s “Loose Cannon” gimmick? Dean Ambrose is probably one of the most direct descendants of Pillman’s persona and wrestling style, but even during Ambrose’s blood feud with Seth Rollins, the PG Era would only allow Ambrose to go so far with his “Lunatic Fringe” character. Popping out of giant Christmas presents and hot dog tong assault aren’t on the same level as pulling a gun or saying “I respect you, booker man” to Kevin Sullivan after losing an “I Respect You” match in WCW. He even cut a promo for his ECW debut with a derisive callout for “smart maaaaarks”:

So why the lack of respect or recognition for Pillman’s contributions to wrestling? Maybe it was a case of getting lost in the shuffle because of the rising stars of Austin, The Rock, and Foley. Maybe he was just too ahead-of-his-time with blurring the lines between kayfabe and real life, and WWE wasn’t ready for it yet, especially as they found their voice during the Monday Night Wars.

But there’s a culture of disposability when it comes to pro wrestlers. They’re on the road for 300+ days a year, wrestling and traveling and recovering from injuries and medicating themselves to deal with the pain of this cycle, and we might be devastated when an older wrestler dies, but we’re hardly ever surprised. As the Attitude Era kicked into gear, the fans were so enamored with the product that developed that they weren’t particularly concerned about its origins. Pillman is mostly mentioned as a footnote in Steve Austin’s career, like a kind of pro wrestling Vanishing Twin Syndrome that bolstered Austin’s (not negligible) status as the icon of the Attitude Era.

But he deserved much, much more.

–Ryan Boyd

On Bray Wyatt (a reblog from April 2014)

From Andrea: Mercury Retrograde is a time to do stuff that begins with the prefix re-: relax, reorganize, recycle, that sort of thing. Blogging is one of the things that goes off the rails for me when Mercury stops, so I thought I’d use this one as an opportunity to showcase some of the posts I’m proud of here at Notes on the Spectacle of Excess. I’ll be *re*blogging something every couple days for the next three weeks until Mercury starts. This will also give me a little time to *re*flect, as I am stalled out on several posts that have no excuse not to be awesome. Have you noticed how little I post lately? It’s not for lack of writing, my ambitious ideas are just refusing to click. So here’s a little ditty about Bray Wyatt I wrote in April of 2014: Bray Wyatt has had a slog through the narrative mud since then, but what do you think, is it still relevant? 

I am increasingly taken with Bray Wyatt. Those other two Wyatt’s still function as little more than cultural stereotypes, especially the one who wears the creepy sheep mask. The sheep mask, the red flannel shirt with the cut-off sleeves, the dingy brown work jumpsuit, the red ZZ Top beard and the generally greasy veneer: these are all indicators of characters we have been programmed to disdain. We know without being told they are from the deep south, they are followers of some unpleasant, cultish form of Christianity, and we are free to make the assumptions that they are violent, misogynistic, racist, and generally perverse in their worldview. At first I thought the WWE was just latching on to the Duck Dynasty gravy train and turning the bearded southern outdoors man figure on its head, making heels and buffoons of an easy cultural target: the screw-loose madman from the deep south who appears like a scary clown in cinematic nightmares. But Bray Wyatt’s recent development leads me to think they’re working on something far more interesting here. There is potential for this screw-loose madman to take the Mick Foley classic template into an even more profound level of character development.

I’m transfixed by the way Bray holds up his hurricane lantern and peers into the darkness of the wrestling arena. I sometimes have visions of myself in an uncertain dystopian future, holding up my LED prepper lantern (crank and solar powered) just like Bray as I peer into the dark unknown, a mystic with my face darkened by the partial cover of a monk-like hoodie. But in yet another classic wrestling inversion, Wyatt’s lantern does not illuminate the dark audience wilderness, the thousands of wrestling fans and all their various demons, nightmares, sins and perversions. Instead it casts its light metaphoric, illuminating Wyatt himself: Wyatt’s light (a Barthesean light without shadow, incidentally) offers a figurative glimpse into the depths beneath his cultural stereotype, expanding his character into something more vast, approaching iconic. He’s been belting out a traditional hymn about the love of God (“He’s got the whole world in his hands!”) as he does creepy things, achieving a chilling degree of moral ambiguity. Is he a DSM diagnosis, or is he gearing up for a face turn, teaching us to find love for characters steeped in the heart of deep south darkness? Indeed, the crowd last night was singing his hymn along with him, offering him entry into the tweener zone, where good and evil muddy each other and more nuanced truths emerge. Once again, an inversion may be approaching as a much loathed stereotype begins to twist on its Mobius strip toward a fresh cultural alignment.

On Jake “The Snake” Roberts (by new contributor Ryan Boyd)

I am excited to welcome new contributor Ryan Boyd to Notes on the Spectacle of Excess! Ryan has made a painstaking study of wrestling from the eighties, nineties, and Attitude Era (imagine the things he has seen!) and takes part in a podcast I love called Travesty of Justice, that is examining every single cringe-inducing Wrestlemania and the equally cringe-inducing and hilarious pop culture surrounding it. His first post here examines Jake the Snake’s dark intensity and how it resulted in one of wrestling’s most existentially complex characters. Enjoy!

The pro wrestlers of the 1980s were as loud as the decade itself – cartoon supervillains shouting out their promos like neon gymrat televangelists, drenching Mean Gene Okerlund’s microphone with a cascade of spit and sweat. At a certain point it all blended together, and the Legion of Doom sounded like Ultimate Warrior sounded like Hulk Hogan sounded like Demolition. Beneath all the static was Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a restrained but intensely cerebral guy who wasn’t afraid to cut his promos in a soft growl. According to Jake himself, “If a man has enough power, he can speak softly…and everyone will listen.” Other guys screamed about how they wanted to destroy their enemies’ bodies – Jake was a lot more interested in their souls.

So what? As cold as a razor blade, as tight as a turning key, like the skin on a dying man – Randy Savage, the last time I seen you, you were flailing like some helpless child, drowning. Drowning from what? Drowning from the very poison that was running through your veins after that snake had chewed on that arm. For some time he did chew. Now you look into my eyes Randy Savage, and you’ll see two black holes in the sky. But you look into that snake eyes and you’ll see something so cold, so devilish and so deliberate – yes, he takes care of what he has to. Does what he has to. Just like me. Your eyes? Your eyes weren’t even there man, you were out, you were gone. But you know whose eyes I enjoyed the most? Do you? Elizabeth’s! Pupils so small, so intent and so scared for the man that she loved. And what a rush I got, man. Up and down my back, it felt so good. My hair felt like it was tingling. I mean, I had goosebumps all over my body listening to you squeal for a man who could not do anything but flail around, and couldn’t help himself at all, you know? And see, the thing about Jack Tunney barring the snake from the corner … let me tell you something Jack Tunney. When I was brought into this world, I could not rob, I could not steal, I could not lie, I couldn’t even cheat. But boy, did I have some help learning – you have taught me so well. So you see, it is not my fault anything that I do out there. You have given me the right to. You have almost pushed the button to make me do it. You have pulled the trigger. So anything that I do… is your fault. Snake in the corner? Trust me… trust me.”

(source: Cagematch)

Holy shit, right?

If Hulk Hogan was a larger-than-life father figure who told the kids to say their prayers and take their vitamins, Jake was that weird, morbid uncle that nobody in the family kept in touch with because he said creepy things at barbecues. He wasn’t afraid to go to dark places, even amid the feel-good bombast of the 80s, and those cold eyes stayed with you once you went home from the arena. So how did he get into that headspace? How was he able to turn on that thousand-yard stare and look like the devil himself?

Short answer: he was terrified.

Jake Roberts had a brutal upbringing full of fear and deception. His father, pro wrestler Grizzly Smith, never smartened his kids up to the work of pro wrestling, and Jake spent much of his childhood scared to death that Grizzly was going to get killed in the ring. Jake had years of childhood nightmares over his father’s kayfabe feud with a tag team called The Assassins because he believed that they were chasing him from territory to territory, trying to kill him. Grizzly not only allowed his kids to believe that wrestling was real – he would come home covered in bandages and braces to convince them that he was getting the absolute hell beaten out of him every night. “It’s sickening,” Jake said years later. “How can you do that to your own child?”

Aside from being abusive to Jake in a plethora of ways, both mentally and physically, Grizzly Smith sexually abused Jake’s younger half-sister, Robin, for years. (Robin would go on to become wrestler Rockin’ Robin, and would share Jake’s lifelong struggle with drugs and alcohol.) And when Jake’s other sister, JoLynn, was kidnapped and murdered, Grizzly was the main suspect, though the rest of the family made a point never to discuss it. It was a reality they weren’t willing to face, because they knew it was a very legitimate possibility.

With a father who was intermittently absent and abusively present, Jake decided that the only way to get Grizzly’s approval was to become a wrestler himself. “I was at a wrestling show watching [my dad] wrestle and decided in my idiot of a brain, mixed with a little beer, that if I was to ever get my father to love me, I would have to go in there and challenge one of those wrestlers…that’s when I gave up my dream of being an architect and chased my father’s dream. I’m still chasing it because I’ll never hear him say the words I want to hear.”

Jake didn’t have to stretch his imagination to portray a cold-blooded sadist – the impersonation came naturally to a kid who’d spent his life being physically and mentally abused. If he was surrounded by snakes, he had to learn how to hiss like one. You can’t fake the kind of sinister, intimately brutal promos that Jake was able to pull out on the fly in the days before heavily scripted backstage promos; his eyes bore through you like an icepick when he glared into the camera, and that mustachioed smile was a carnivore flashing its teeth. There was no need for shouting, because a genuine monster doesn’t need to raise its voice to frighten you.

Every promo Jake cut was the transmogrification of trauma into art, the same as Tori Amos or Alfred Hitchcock, and his famously deft ring psychology was the product of a man who knew what real pain looked like. When he sold an arm or a leg injury in the ring, he knew that no audience would believe it if he shrugged off a beatdown and hulked up for a comeback, because something that was truly damaging wasn’t going to stop hurting no matter how much the fans were clapping. He took his time in the ring, because he knew how patient a monster had to be.

Jake knew that the scariest thing a calculating, manipulative abuser could tell you is “Trust me.”

He never won any championships in either WWE or WCW, but he didn’t need to – he was there for catharsis, fighting the phantom of his father even while battling the impulse to turn into him. Fear brought him to the dance, but a genuine love for the business of pro wrestling made him stay, and he gained the respect of his peers, the adoration of fans, and the love of the wrestlers he trained. He did what his father never did: he smartened his protegees up to the work of pro wrestling, and he showed them how to do it right. He showed them how to hiss. To hell with Grizzly Smith’s approval.

Jake was also deathly afraid of snakes. Poor guy.

On the Ontology of Okada and Makabe (or, Reality in Japanese Wrestling)

We’re watching some New Japan Pro Wrestling from 2013 on AXStv, in which Kazuchika Okada and Togi Makabe are arguing over which of their styles is “real” professional wrestling. Makabe is being accused of being a “backyard wrestler” and Okada is the technician with the world-renowned dropkick. Okada said this about Makabe’s style, which leans toward street-fighting (he also wears a chain around his neck, hello signifier!):

I doubt that’s “real” professional wrestling. I am a genuine pro wrestler. So I think my wrestling is the real deal.

I’m not well enough studied in the art of Japan’s puroresu to analyze in detail the cultural nuances that distinguish it from its American counterpart, but I want to point out here the philosophical difference in the overall ontology (if I might dare to attempt an adaptation of that word to the world of wrestling) that arises in their contrast. In America wrestling, authenticity is discussed in terms such as real or fake, professional wrestling vs. sports entertainment, outcome predetermined but injuries and pain very much genuine. But in Japan there is an entirely different notion of what is “real” in professional wrestling. In Japan, wrestling is on a different point on the beingness spectrum, though it is a few steps further toward the authentic and away from the contrived. Like, it’s outcomes are still predetermined, but it is more like a legitimate battle of endurance by wrestlers whose personas are closer to their selves. I’m not saying Japanese wrestlers aren’t characters playing out a choreographed fight, but they’re not quite as much this as American wrestlers.

Does this make sense? And do I have it about right? I’m still a relatively casual and occasional viewer of Japanese wrestling (mainly because wow, professional wrestling is a time-sink of a  hobby!) and I’ve hesitated until now to bring it into the world of theories here. But I couldn’t help but be intrigued by Makabe and Okada building a feud around whose wrestling is real. For them authenticity is all about wrestling style, not about whether it is a performance or a contest. Whether or not wrestling itself is “real” isn’t even a point of contention, it’s all about whose tradition, not unlike a martial art, is the more bad ass. Japanese wrestling isn’t about entertaining us with a sport-like show, it’s about showcasing athletic skill and talent, an entirely different definition of the concept of real.

I welcome comments on this one; I’m just at the beginning stages of understanding how reality works in Japanese wrestling and would love to start developing this idea.

Quoth New Day on Smackdown 9/3/2015 (or, On Tables)

I have been thinking about the deeper meaning of tables in professional wrestling for nigh on fifteen years, my friends. So I’m watching with interest as New Day further develops their “Save the Tables” gimmick. My last post was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Somewhat. A thought experiment, shall we say. But I’m serious about tables, and so is the New Day. Here is a transcript of their “Save the Tables” promo from Smackdown this week:

Xavier Woods: A table is a terrible thing to waste.

Kofi Kingston: That’s right. Tables, like that one right there, are the backbone of human achievement. As a matter of fact, we wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for the support of good, honest, hardworking American tables.

Xavier Woods: They bring people together, I mean, think about it. The Pilgrims and the Indians had the very first Thanksgiving, where? At a table!

Big E: The Declaration of Independence was written on… a table!

Kofi Kingston: Yo, yo, hey–Walter Cronkite announced the moon landing… while sitting… at… a table!

Xavier Woods: And the New Day–Kofi Kingston, Big E, and Xavier Woods, my brothers, my family–we signed our WWE contracts which allow us to be your WWE tag team champions while we were at… a table!

Big E: You see, the problem is the Dudley Boys have zero regard for a table’s place in history. But we can change all of that. You can change that! We all can change that! And that happens by standing up–go ahead, stand up, get up on your feet–stand up and join a movement that is sweeping the nation. Save the Tables! Come on now, altogether. [Chanting] Save-the-Tables! Save-the-Tables! Save-the-Tables!

It’s wonderfully absurd that the New Day is equating tables with American exceptionalism, isn’t it? As though our country wouldn’t be iconic if there weren’t intact tables on which to set our historical documents and dinners upon. They’re being goofy, yes. They’re cheerful tricksters, making up silly causes to champion, finding loud and bouncy ways to taunt their opponents and draw heat from the audience. But once again — wait for it — they’re political! These ring preachers, if you will, are inserting yet another political message into their boisterous comedic shtick of ridiculous picket signs, clapping, skipping and prancing, funny hairstyles and a trombone for no apparent reason.

But if we’re to move beyond the New Day’s curiously political agenda, let us ask ourselves: what is it about tables in professional wrestling? Why is it so very gratifying to watch wrestlers crash through them? It is part, of course, of a troika of brutal metaphorical workplace prop items that allow a more tangible violence to enter the dance-like display of fighting that is professional wrestling. The ladder has become a fairly straightforward metaphor in WWE: it is the path upward in the company, the corporate thing that must be climbed to attain a championship belt. It is a one lane vertical path before which the workers jockey for position to traverse. It can also become an unforgiving weapon not unlike a battering ram, and a harsh, altar-like structure on which bodies are slammed and sacrificed. The metal folding chair is a strange one, stemming, I would guess, from a tradition of wrestling matches in high school auditoriums. It is much beloved as a weapon because of the audible smack it makes when it hits somebody, as well as for its versatility: it can be sit upon, thrown, or its folding mechanism utilized to entangle an opponent in some hilarious, if painful, debacle. The chair’s metaphor, I think, is about a wrestler’s inability rest on the laurels of his achievements; that which he rests upon will ultimately be used against him.

But the table is neither a means to an end like the ladder or a loose cannon like the chair. I think the New Day is right: the table is the benevolent furniture item of the wrestling’s violent prop troika. Sure, the more industrial model of table used by the WWE has those legs that fold in and out for convenient storage and transport, but unlike the trickster chair, the folding legs come equipped with a dependable locking mechanism you can count on not collapse in the middle of your Thanksgiving dinner or contract signing. Of T, L, and C, only the table is used by wrestlers with the intent of utterly destroying it, of breaking it in half and hearing its wood crunch as it splits and splinters, to revel in the mangled dangling of the protective strip that encircles its wood. The noble table is truly a victim in the professional wrestling prop narrative: it wants only to provide us with a space, for our business, our meals, or just to set our stuff down, and yet we cheer heartily for its demise when Bubba Ray Dudley roars, “Devon, get the tables!”

I find myself intellectually concurring with Xavier Woods: a table is indeed a terrible thing to waste. But I can’t help myself — the promise of a body crunching through a table stirs in me a primal thrill, that feeling that ripples through the crowd and transforms a modern audience into the watchers of a gladiator sport, reveling in an instance of genuine violence amidst the otherwise choreographed performance of violent gestures.

In the spectacle of excess, we revel in just this sort of wasteful display, channeling the emotions of our plodding, difficult days into the delicious, senseless sacrifice of a useful, practical item. In the end, we cheer the creative destruction of practicality in the wresting ring because our lives become gridlocked by practicality, sound judgement, and good sense. A body crashing through a table represents freedom, if only for a moment, from these constraints that shackle us all to our jobs, our living arrangements, and our material possessions. It is one of those mobius strip moments in wrestling, in which the cheerful message of positivity and furniture preservation espoused by the New Day twists into an delightfully annoying breed of villainy. They demand we retain the daytime composure of practicality from which we have sought refuge in our evening entertainment. So in conclusion I will always side with Bubba Ray: Devon, GET THE TABLES!

On the New Day’s Apparent Political Gestures #GiveTablesaChance

First, I must say that New Day’s entrance has been one of the moments I wait for in these past few weeks of wrestling. Bouncy Kofi’s little skippity-hop down the aisle fills my heart with joy, and I was delighted this week by Big E carrying a sign which simply read “Booty!” Xavier Woods, too, makes me so happy as he just hollers on and on like a loud spaz. What an ironic position the New Day have found themselves in: they failed miserably as an earnest babyface stable and turned heel despite all odds (Kofi Kingston a heel! What strange times these are!). It was with this heel turn that they evolved their gimmick into brilliance, and have become a truly memorable tag trio. We shouldn’t let ourselves become so cynical that we fail to recognize the triumph of the New Day.

But New Day is so delightful, it’s easy to overlook the fact that they are making political gestures. Bouncing down to the ring holding picket signs is a clear allusion to a worker’s protest. They are presenting themselves as wrestling’s workers, and what are they protesting? The return of an older generation of tag team champions to intrude upon their domain. Now I’m as thrilled as anybody to see the Dudley Boys taking charge of things smashing tables like it’s 2002. But their return represents the larger problem we see everywhere in WWE: the old returning to intrude upon the new. The New Day is protesting the reemergence of this bygone era of career-shortening high risk maneuvers and the smashing of bodies through furniture.

But then, consider the hashtag on Xavier Woods’ sign this week: “#GiveTablesaChance”. There is more to this if you look closely, too. This puts the divas in the same class as the props men throw their bodies through. Look, I’m actually all for a little funny misogyny here and there in wrestling, because it’s all a strange corporate satire at this point, and there is a place for misogyny in satire. But it’s still worth noting that this is a fairly blunt message the New Day is offering. No? And lest you think I’m making a mountain out of a mohill, consider the innuendo of Xavier Woods’ picket sign: “Broken Wood Is No Good”. Hmmm?

I know I read a tad much into stuff sometimes. What I’ve noticed some people miss is, I do it because it’s FUN. I don’t sit around fretting about John Cena’s corrupting influence on my children. Come on. I write pieces like that because I think it’s fun to notices the different stories that can be told about a wrestler’s message. So I’m not saying New Day is a bunch of woman-hating assholes, but come on. It’s just that the book nerd here wants you to notice, “#GiveTablesaChance” is fairly edgy, even if they didn’t intend it to be so. The artist isn’t always aware of the possibilities their art creates.

So I’ll say it again. According to Kofi Kingston, divas fit the same fill-in-the-blank in a hashtag as the tables he will soon be thrown though. And we sort of love him for saying it. Such is the nature of satire in transitional epochs. Everything gets turned on its head.

Tangential but related: I noticed another bold political gesture from the New Day a few pay-per-views ago. Recall when Xavier Woods, not even entered in the match, sneaked into the ring and pinned somebody? The hour is too late for me to dig up the specifics, but I remember it was read as a play on the idea that all black me look alike. But it was funny, on my Twitter timeline — some people were quick to tsk that WWE was characterizing all black men as looking alike. But then I saw a retweet from someone beside himself with joy, because New Day was reclaiming the stereotype of all black men looking alike and using it to their advantage, winning the match with it. This was an example in which wrestling was not racist, it was an exploration of racial stereotypes. More to come on this topic, hopefully.