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STORYLINES - SAT Episode 224

Monday, February 15, 2016

Playing Your Role In The Circus Of Life: A Wrestler's Tale by the staff at The History of Professional Wrestling

Image Courtesy of OnlineWorldOfWrestling.com
As a child, I was stockier than the rest of the boys on the JV basketball team. I was also more aggressive in my temperament which would make me a natural center coming up in the early 80's if it weren't for the fact that I was, at best, of average height. To this day I believe that some are meant for being offensive in their tasks in life where others are meant to play the defensive side, and so I decided back then during my formative years that I was the latter. I was meant to be someone that, having grown up in the south, enjoyed play tough, smash mouth, in your face defense, and I was okay with it. It didn't hurt that I was good at it at well, damn good. And had I the ability to grow another foot, foot-and-a-half taller, I would have been great, possibly on my way to live a life that would have taken me through college on a basketball scholarship offering me a shot at the pros. The truth remained, however, that I was way too small by todays standard standing 6'2, 175 pounds, and small back then as well. But undeterred by this, I crashed the boards with gusto, threw a couple illegal elbows amid a heated game with our cross town rivals, and blocked as well as anyone in the league.


My stats were consistent and among the highest in the league. But for all of my achievements, coach kept calling me to the sidelines to chastise me. “Get your head in the game and play your role. You are not a center … I need you on offense.”

I have to tell you that this stung. It knocked the legs right out from underneath me metaphorically and literally where my speed and limited ball skills made me less than average at the number two spot. This aside, I stayed with basketball until it dawned upon me a year later that it wasn't my game. So for all of my aspirations to excel in a specific area that I knew that I could, I wasn't allowed to. And for all of my attempts to excel in a position that was better suited for someone else – faster, more agile -- I faltered. But I learned something from that experience, something that had escaped me for years until a recent twitter conversation about the roles that need to played within wrestling. It was through this particular conversation that I realized that the fans are changing their expectations of such roles, and because of which the overall game is being impacted.

I refer to it as the Bryan Danielson paradox, but we will get to that. As I previously discussed in a different article (go to www.facebook.com/goldenageofwrestling to read it among many others there for your consideration), professional wrestling at its essence plays off of very specific psychological markers within each of us to garner that emotional and visceral reaction. To do less makes any efforts to suspend disbelief in that wrestling is something more than an elaborate circus act would be all but impossible. Both the conscious and the unconscious have to sync up in all the right ways, and in exactly the right moments as the fan takes in the sights, the sounds, the smells, and sensations of electricity pulsating through them and the very crowd surrounding them, to know that on some tangible level this is real. And to achieve this, the trade craft born out of strongman competitions combined with slight of hand and other such nuanced manipulations of the senses evolved over the past 115 years to where they are today, had to work in order to sell this blatant disregard of everything we know to be logical. But what is logical about magic?

Wrestling is an elaborate magic act; one that leaves many gasping in wonderment to the sights and sounds unfolding before their very eyes while others studiously observe, hoping and waiting for that moment where the trick is accidentally revealed. Fair enough, it takes all kinds to make the world go round as the saying goes. Each pay the same exact price as the other in purchasing a ticket to the matches, or even in buying a particular pay-per-view. So it matters little which side of the aisle you are on, because the illusion remains an illusion until it doesn't. And at that very moment right there as the mind begins spinning, realizing, and firing synapse after glorious synapse recalling all the hours of the sport watched, and each match in their entirety replayed, as that gotcha moment takes hold and logic returns, a silence falls, and you are no longer the same. The sport itself, it is no longer the same. The memories seem more distant, and the years of joy that wrestling once brought all but gone as that childlike smile of glee shrinks, and then fades away.

Bryan Danielson, and the impact that he has played upon the sport is, in effect, the fading of that smile for a great many. The odd thing about the situation is that he literally had nothing to do with it other than being immensely talented, agile, and charismatic. In a sense he was the illusion that went too far, too fast in challenging the senses, which opens up a very unique Pandora's box all it's own in wondering whether this, either on a conscious or subconscious level, is why the WWE tried with all its might to quash his forward momentum.

The sport of wrestling depends upon a combination of spectacle and abundance. This precise formula when mixed right produced two golden ages in the sport with the latter producing more viewership and cultural importance than the previous. So to suggest that you can alter this particular formula to meet one's particular needs where you might have more of column A than you do of Column B, cannot and does not work. Rather, any deviation to the formula ends in disaster which has led to the 'Shit on the Sport' era that we begrudgingly find ourselves within, and has overall led to a twenty year gap in between golden ages.

Former wrestling creative writer, Court Bauer, of the MLW Radio podcasts, has suggested that the woes within the modern wrestling product stems from not having both a strong 'A side' (babyface) and a matching 'B side' (heel). To an extent he is correct as I believe it where the 'A side' for the WWE has been John Cena soon to be foolishly replaced by Brock Lesnar, with no accompanying 'B side' to speak of at this point. To grasp the totality of this one only has to recall such great rivalries dating back over the past 35 years such as Steamboat versus Flair, the Von Erichs versus the Freebirds, Hogan versus Andre, Rocks versus Austin, or Sting versus Hogan.

The 'A side' as Court suggested, is someone that you want to root for, to fight in the trenches with, or to take that bullet for if it meant saving their life. This is how much of the psychology is needed to garner the very real and very palpable reaction out of the fans watching. And it is something that the WWE has been marginally good at creating over the years with relative consistency – Hogan, Savage, Rock, Austin, Foley, etc. The 'B side' however, is someone that you can't help but hate, but hate on such a level that even if there remains some shred of humanity left within them as a person – something that you could gravitate towards or relate to on some small level – its not enough to wipe away the utter disdain for them that clouds your eyes. This is something that the WWE has struggled mightily with, and outside Brock Lesnar currently, they cannot find in the current crop of talent that they have. And its not for a lack of trying.

But this is one aspect of the formula that has to be mixed, and mixed proportionally which leads back to the Bryan Danielson paradox. So the conundrum that the WWE faces going into Fastlane is that they kinda have a 'B side' in Brock Lesnar – someone that works less than part time with headliner pay – that is receiving more cheers than boos at this point which causes a whole host of new problems for the WWE moving forward. But that aside for the moment, Brock is the virtual archetype for a 'B side' that hits upon all the necessary psychological markers that you need to achieve in your top heel – monstrous in stature, intimidating in body language, and thunderous in action. He, out of the rest of the roster over the past ten years is the one guy that will be remembered for generations in the same vain as Hogan, Flair, Andre, Rhodes, Rock, Austin, Warrior, and Sting. 

The rest of the current cast, and those that came before whom had potential, or even could have had potential – Orton, Angle, Samoa Joe, HHH, Wyatts, and Punk – will remain mere footnotes where they didn't reach that level of notoriety, or weren't developed to where they could make an indelible mark upon the social consciousness outside of mediocre runs within their particular promotions.

So the question remains, whom does the WWE push as their 'A side' if Brock Lesnar represents the very archetypal 'B side' that you are wanting? In order to make the illogical seem logical all the while garnering the necessary reaction out of fans in maintaining the previously described psychological markers, you would need an archetype that rivals your 'B side' in size and stature like a Hogan, an Austin, or a Rock. But somewhere along the lines that all changed didn't it? At some point a scrawny yet agile CM Punk changed the game and got over for a minute before walking away prematurely leaving fans incessantly wanting someone new, someone of this same archetype to finish working this new dynamic that had been previously, and strategically avoided where and when it destroys the psychological formula all together. Enter Bryan Danielson, a hard working, fly by the seat of your pants, proverbial nice guy with more heart than height, and more grit than girth. Who couldn't relate to him on one level or another? More importantly, who wouldn't want to try?

But Danielson versus Brock on the grandest stage of them all doesn't work as your iconic match. How could it? In a real time environment Brock would splinter Danielson's back, and leave him for dead as he rightfully should as a proper heel. Such a match and/or feud didn't work with Punk, nor did it work with Rollins, but somehow, some way, over the past fifteen years all the tried and true methods of cultivating that psychology born out of sideshows in no named towns has born this moment where the need for logic has been sidestepped if not outright dismissed. Instead of the iconic match that fans have grown to expect at WrestleMania, its the dawn of the iconoclastic match – a David versus Goliath story needed to be told.

So here we stand on a very slippery slope whose impact will ultimately determine the direction of the sport for the next twenty years as the tradesmen of which adapt and mindfully study as to how to present a new kind of illusion; perhaps an illusion within an illusion to reach the heights of success professional wrestling has previously garnered. Its a brave new world that we live in. Some say its flat, while others say its round. Nobody knows, and such a revelation is frightening.

But take heart, such a match is not all but impossible, or even improbable for that matter. The next great 'A side' for the WWE is likely to be an AJ Styles and/or Sami Zayne type. And such an new archetype could conceivably beat the archetypal 'B side' in a Lesnar or a Steen if and when it is done, it will have to be, as Jim Ross coined the phrase, a 'slobberknocker' where both guys go in throwing everything including the kitchen sink at one another in a barroom brawl type fashion leaving both bloodied and battered when the dust settles. If framed in this manner, and done in this magnitude, it will be a culmination of MMA with WWE as the trend is leading toward, and therefore a workable match. But if a Zayne, a Styles, or whomever else were to win clean without coming out physically impaired from the fight, all bets are off. And the sport, its storied history, and the legacies that have been past down from generation to generation, might be all but lost in this type of scenario as we sail off the edge of the Earth and into the great beyond.
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