“And we all had hard times together . . . I’mma reach out right now, I want you at home to know my hand is touchin’ your hand for the gathering of the biggest body of people in this country, in this universe, all over the world now, reachin’ out because the love that was given me and this time I will repay you now. Because I will be the next World’s Heavyweight Champion on this hard time blues.” -Dusty Rhodes, 1985.
“I’m THE guy. Roman Reigns. 3 time WWE Champ. I’m the United States Champion right now. I’m sending a message. I got two shoulders. God made ‘em broad. I’ve got one strap. I’m looking for another.” -Roman Reigns, 2016.
The magic of professional wrestling is the combination of physical strength, technical skill, acrobatic ability, and theater. In the ‘Irony Era,’ that last part has taken on a very different meaning; in the age of the Young Bucks, where every fan is “in” on the joke and YouTube commentary channels launch their own wrestling promotion, theater doesn’t quite mean the same thing. Larger than life heroes and villains are replaced by “is it a shoot or a work” comments or tongue-in-cheek nods to the man behind the curtain. Botchamania is running wild, and everyone wants to be Vince.
In reality, this breakdown was inevitable; there was no logical way that wrestling’s “magic” could survive the 24/7/365 information age, and kayfabe was already on life-support when AOL started hitting people’s homes.
But blaming the death of kayfabe only goes so far. Most promotions have moved on; some court the irony, others focus on the athleticism, and others keep doing what they’ve always done (New Japan Pro Wrestling comes to mind). Critics have long since said that WWE needs to “get with the times” to stay afloat, but as the world’s largest wrestling company, that complaint seems a little wrong-headed. WWE has also continued doing what it always did (not always well) to its detriment and occasional success.
The biggest issues facing WWE at the moment is that its product feels stale and “same-y,” with feuds going on too long for undiscernible reasons, 50/50 booking dragging every match-up into months long affairs with little pay off, and new faces rarely get a chance to get over or succeed on their own, given what seems like weeks or months to reach Cena-esque peaks or fall down the card into obscurity. In essence, WWE’s issue is not that the “wrestling” is bad, it is that the “theatre” is bad—characters don’t make sense, and crowds don’t react like they’re supposed to because being an “ironic” crowd gets you over and noticed on commentary or the internet. Rather than fix this, WWE plows along with confusing booking decisions and abysmal writing, presenting us with Faces we can’t get behind and heels we don’t want to boo.
A common complaint lodged at WWE is that the company is stuck in the past, putting older talent and moments over newer talent’s ability to get over, and while that is certainly the case more often than not, a better complaint would be that somewhere along the line, WWE forgot how to create heroes, babyfaces that make you want to cheer their victories and cry at their defeat. This isn’t an insurmountable issue, but it is one that WWE needs to address as John Cena seems to be riding off into the sunset of his career: we need heroes, or we need to throw in the towel.
Blurring Face & Heel Lines
Today, we’ve left the Ruthless Agression Era and the Attitude Era in the past for what can only really be called the “Reality” Era. The audience know it’s fake, we know it’s a show, and because of that, the lines of “Face” and “Heel” seem to be blurring; in fact, in most WWE storylines currently running, it is hard to argue that many of the heels don’t have legitimate complaints: Rusev was booked for almost all of 2016 as a man defending the honor of his wife and relationship, the newly-minted heel Neville is angry that he was ignored and forgotten about, Natalya feels bitter about the Bella twins stealing the show, and the Miz…well, Miz is at the very least an asshole, so we don’t mind booing him, but his commentary at times almost comes off as shots fired from the bow of internet comments. This disconnect becomes even more problematic when we think of how a “hero,” or “face,” is supposed to act:
- Do good guys joke about sleeping with married men’s wives?
- Do good guys cheat on their best friends with their girlfriends?
- Do good guys use homophobic stereotypes to mock friendships or masculinity?
- Do good guys pour feces or garbage on people, destroy property, or otherwise torment bad guys?
The answer to those questions is no, and yet the biggest face in the company, John Cena, has done all of those, and we may have a bigger problem than we thought. Things get even more confusing when we consider most heel motivators in modern WWE storylines: feeling disrespected, feeling betrayed, feeling undervalued, being friends (hi, Fabreeze), wanting success. Where the face should be the character who gains our empathy, WWE tends to place faces in positions that make them seem almost abstract; most people would say they have a lot more in common with Kevin Owens than they do John Cena, for example.
This is also further complicated by the very 24/7 connection fans have with superstars outside of Raw and SmackDown; wrestlers have Twitter accounts, they do podcasts, they appear in movies and TV shows and all over the internet now, and many of them have decades of indie wrestling under their belts by the time they arrive in WWE. Even though the majority of WWE fans may only be “casually” interested in wrestling or only know WWE, go back and watch AJ Styles’ entrance at the Royal Rumble: fans were never going to boo him, because although he’s a heel, his being in WWE is seen as an indication that he “made it,” and WWE tried their best to get him over as a face.
Even now, as the lead star of SmackDown Live, AJ as a heel rarely ever gets booed without making a quick comment to rile up the crowd. In his killer match with Cena for the WWE title, the crowd more often cheered him than booed him, because it’s “fun” to boo Cena (which he himself even plays into, probably much to the sport’s detriment). While there is probably plenty of blame to be placed on the wrestling community at large, filled with enough cynicism to cover the world twice over, the biggest, #1 problem is that WWE has not given us a reason to get behind or care about most of their faces. Many of them get over by accident, and those that don’t get over because the crowd gets to play along. But either way, many of them come across as foolish idiots, or worse, bad people.
Take Enzo Amore (please)
Enzo Amore is not the #1 face in the company, nor is he even that important of a talent in terms of legitimacy or accolades; he’s never held a title in WWE, and his W/L record is almost entirely Ls (he does, however, remain undefeated in Lucha de Apuestas!). What trumps any of that, however, is that Enzo and Cass are, to spell it out, O-V-E-R. They print money. Crowds go wild for their promos and pop when they show up. Kids dress like Enzo and wear his Certified G shirts, and perhaps more than any recent ‘new’ talent brought up from NXT or the Wild, E&C have taken WWE by storm because of their larger than life personas. They are characters more than they are people, and while not overly protected, their online interactions don’t stray far from their WWE ‘characters’; Enzo tweets mostly about shoes, for example. The two of them ooze charisma and, barring some very interesting shifts in creative, will probably always be faces. Enzo and Cass are “Good Guys.” We’re supposed to cheer for them, and want to see them win, and that also means that, if we’re going along with the idea of heroes versus villains, Enzo is a hero—a guy we should want to be like, someone to look up to.
Except Enzo is an asshole.
At the end of 2016, Enzo’s biggest story started when he walked around naked and hit on Lana, a married woman, and then alludes to her dreaming of wanting him to “stuff her turkey,” and yet we’re supposed to boo Rusev when he absolutely destroys Enzo, because Rusev is bad (because he’s Bulgarian), and so it’s cool for Enzo to joke about his wife.
Enzo is far from the first; before this feud, Rusev and Lana were embroiled in a similar feud with Roman Reigns, the perennial face who Acts like a heel, who joked about how Rusev couldn’t satisfy his wife and left Lana embarrassed in the middle of the ring covered in cake. The Rock showed up earlier this year and joked about Lana having been, for lack of a better way of putting it, a slut, as Rusev stood behind him. The List of Lana honestly goes on and on, with Dolph Ziggler (your creepy uncle) and John Cena (superman but a Jerk) getting in on the slutshame Lana train.
Rusev, by any standard logic, is a face, because all of his storylines involve his wife, his marriage, his family, or himself being made fun of. His anger and violence seem totally justified in the catharsis of the ring—in a world where everything is settled between ropes, Rusev should have the largest claim to being a face than anyone else does. Reactions to Rusev low-blowing Enzo were mostly “he deserved it,” to the point that we got such a swerve in the storyline that the following week featured a meek, foolish, “chivalrous” Enzo Amore being tricked by Lana and brutalized by Rusev in their hotel room. In what can only seem to be course correction, Enzo came across as a gullible idiot, and Rusev and Lana as an unhealthy couple at the very least, a far cry from the previous two weeks in which Enzo was a hornball constantly hitting on a man’s wife and her husband enacting (justified) revenge.
Weeks later, Enzo was sent to “sensitivity training” for his comments about Lana earlier in the night, which again ended with him getting his ass kicked after his (sort of racist, or at least ethnocentric) insults to Jinder Mahal, who is a heel because he’s Indian, apparently, and once again we’re left scratching our heads because we should be upset that Enzo got hurled through a table, but 30 seconds earlier was asking to “slide into the DMs” of his sensitivity training coach and insulting everyone around him.
The Face That Runs The Place
It is probably impossible to talk about the WWE’s issues with its faces without touching on John Cena (I tried). Cena is, literally, the “Face that Runs the Place,” the most recognizable and known talent outside of wrestling. He appears on SNL. He grants more Make-A-Wish wishes than any person ever has in person. He wrote a two-page handwritten letter to Kevin Owens’s son because he didn’t high five him at a live show (before he even knew who Kevin Owens was). He wears very odd suits. He may as well be literal Superman, with the irony being that his “out of wrestling” persona is Superman, and his wrestling persona is Jorts Kent, a man who is the Never Gives Up Hero who has done more heelish things than most heels have ever accomplished, as noted in the list above. Cena the Wrestler is the Ultimate Babyface, the guy who lays on the mat for five minutes then summons all of his power to go Super Saiyan and win over the heel against all of the odds.
Children love him. Parents see him as a role model. He’s a Real America Hero.
And he’s an asshole.
What, then, does WWE see as the quality of a face in the modern era? They certainly aren’t Dusty Rhodes, cutting one of the greatest promos of all time by saying that he’s fighting for you, the out of work steel worker, the family facing hard times, the people looking for someone who understands them and will fight for them. Even by Steve Austin antihero standards, modern faces come across as selfish assholes, to the point that all Seth Rollins needed to do to shift from heel to face lately was not call the crowd “Stupid” during promos. Roman Reigns is the face of the company and “The Man” and he carries his US Championship like a sack of potatoes and doesn’t even attempt to get over with the crowds. Enzo jokes about sleeping with men’s wives. Sasha Banks called Dana Brooke “Ms. Piggy,” to applause.
Even with “natural” babyfaces like Bayley, Sami Zayn, Rich Swann or Becky Lynch (although Lynch herself says she actually prefers working heel), WWE seems to be working against them rather than with them. More often than not they seem like idiots, constantly being fooled by obvious ploys, or cowards, such as the bizarre booking of having Zayn vanish after he proved he could survive 10 minutes with Strowman or his basically vanishing from the roster following his defeat of his arch-rival Kevin Owens. Becky Lynch’s loss to Alexa Bliss has mostly bounced back from making her look like a weak fool, but that isn’t always going to be the case; Bayley, meanwhile, has perhaps gained some momentum, but even her main roster role has been awkward at best so far, being stuck in pointless matches and weird promos, like her most recent one where she just declares her and Charlotte “rivals” because the Banks vs Flair rivalry is “over,” as if it’s based on order of appearance.
The Time of Superheroes and Supervillains is Over
There’s no way that things will ever “return” to the way they used to be—the time of superheroes and supervillains in wrestling is over—but WWE’s products are, as of late, underwhelming; many of the shows feel stuck in stasis, overexposed and drawn out. Raw is a tortuous three hours, SDLive oscillates between dragging or being on fire, NXT is almost forgettable lately, 205 Live is a ship that launched with a hole in it and needs a plug fast, and the PPV schedule makes keeping up into a religious devotion; on the week of a PPV, WWE demands 10-11 hours of time, up to 15-16 during ‘big four’ shows that include TakeOvers. This weekend they are launching the UK Tournament, there are rumors of a Women’s Tourney, and possibly that NXT will go live. WWE is becoming omnipresent and almost desperate; look at me and no one else. But without compelling characters, how long can that really last?
WWE is a soap opera, it is drama, it is theater, but to borrow from an old song, it’s becoming a “Bad play where the heroes are right, and no one thinks of expects too much.” We don’t cheer for the hero’s triumphs, we cheer because the heel says something we agree with or because we want to be cheeky. Most of the time the audience rarely even seems to care what the motivation for a match is—the omnipresent “What” chant derailing any attempts at in-ring promos to build storylines—and yet the same audience complains that the match didn’t enthrall them or they didn’t have any reason to care. And despite all the blame we would like to place on s/marks, the reality is that WWE is to blame: they don’t know how to tell a compelling story anymore, and when one does happen, it either gets played to death, or happens on accident.
Wrestling seems to be entering a new era globally; promotions are finding their ways to streaming sites and new audiences around the globe, where they can sell their particular brand of theater to people looking for something new. There is plenty of variety out there, for sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that many people still look to WWE as the “leader” of the industry, whether that is because of its reach, its money, or its history. What is becoming apparent, though, is that WWE is unable to tell storylines that matter or make sense anymore. The most recent success, the Miz’s Intercontinental Title run, feels like a fluke that happened by accident; the rivalry between Charlotte and Sasha never really had a story behind it other than “making history,” and while the matches were usually spectacles, there wasn’t much else to care about from a week to week basis (if I can be honest, I don’t even really know what Sasha’s character or motivation even was during it).
Although WWE churns out entertaining segments more often than it does not, there’s a huge issue at the heart of its pageantry; a viral moment doesn’t supplant good storytelling. And while we can argue that we don’t really “care” about the story because wrestling isn’t “real,” why, then, do we watch so much of what WWE offers? Because amazing wrestling matches can be found on Youtube now devoid of promos or stories, but is that why we’re here? Recently I’ve seen a lot of people explain their dissatisfaction with storylines as “I can’t suspend my disbelief that far,” which points, to me, that people WANT to be told stories they can believe in and feel rather than they want to feel like they’re too “smart” for the business. Personally, I’ve always felt that wrestling is at its best when the storylines draw me in and make me care more than “wow that was a good spot.” I want to feel a connection to the people in the ring, I want to feel like I’m watching something important take place, something that means something, not just 2 people flipping around and putting each other in rest holds; I can marvel at the physical display, but without a connection, without a reason for me to care, to escape, I feel nothing.
I want Dusty Rhodes to reach his hand out to mine, but sometimes, lately, I feel like his hand is moving further and further away from mine, separated by a river of meaningless viral videos and gifs and pointless feuds.
These are hard times, baby.