Monsters in Pro-wrestling: Cult Success and B-movie Awkwardness

Bray Wyatt after scalping the Monster Kane last year, credit: http://www.wrestlingrumors.net/update-bray-wyatts-injury-status/13010/

Bray Wyatt after scalping the Monster Kane last year, credit: http://www.wrestlingrumors.net/update-bray-wyatts-injury-status/13010/

2014’s Extreme Rules PPV and the RAW following it have suffered a great deal of criticism in relation to two separate monstrous characters: Bray Wyatt and Kane. In Wyatt’s case, the criticism wasn’t directed at the almost universally lauded Wyatt specifically, but the booking of his cage match with John Cena which saw Wyatt win, but only after a great deal of help from his two regular followers, Harper and Rowan, and an extra follower, a child singing Bray’s ‘Whole World’ refrain with a demonic voice. In Kane’s case, there has been criticism of his presentation being hokey during his feud with new(ish) WWE World Heavyweight Champion, Daniel Bryan; indeed I have heard two separate comparisons between Kane on RAW and the popcorn horror film, ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’. It may seem crazy to describe Wyatt as a ‘realistic’ character here, but that’s precisely what i’m going to do in comparison to Kane while hoping to rebuff criticism of Wyatt and his Extreme Rules match.

Bray Wyatt defeated John Cena at Extreme Rules. That alone is a fantastic boost for Wyatt as a character and potential ‘main eventer’, but for many it was tainted by the fact that Cena was clearly the stronger fighter in the match, only losing because his attempts were repeatedly scuppered by Wyatt followers. The problem with that is that it relies on a ‘textbook’ approach to wrestling where ‘looking strong’ is all that matters for key wrestlers, and where all wrestlers have the same background, skills, and motivations as each other. Bray Wyatt is scary, and his over the top performance of offense is very unique and fitting of his maniacal character; so I certainly don’t believe Wyatt is being depicted as someone who can’t beat anyone, but Bray Wyatt is a wrestler who – and I think this is deliberate – has a degree of physical vulnerability, but gets a lot of his power from how he presents himself. In short, he is the perfect depiction of a cult leader: an ordinary man who gains power through charisma and brainwashing. Bray Wyatt has been one of my favourite wrestlers and characters since his start on NXT, and he is becoming the most realistically-drawn character in WWE today, and perhaps the problem is that realism isn’t always the first concern in pro-wrestling matches.

To apply this to Wyatt’s cage match with Cena, it was a great example of how a cultish can use his ‘powers’ to overcome a stronger opponent. Wyatt as a wrestler could beat lots of wrestlers on his own; he isn’t some helpless jobber, but remember, he was facing the most unbeatable wrestler in at least ten years in John Cena, and that was something Wyatt could never achieve on his own. Thankfully, that is perfect for him. The key here is that Wyatt is not special in any tangiable way – he is not a ‘demon’ or impervious to pain, but he has the incredible ability to make people believe he is, and gain followers through his somewhat-sensical but warped view of the world and it’s heroes. It is this power that allows him to engender help from a pair of scary country-hosses who are mentally incapable of rejecting Wyatt’s ‘truth’, to scare ‘normal’ people like John Cena and make him question himself, and ultimately makes him capable of beating anyone, half with his physical skills, and topped up by dominating the mind of his opponent. I don’t mean he uses ‘mind control’, I mean he psychologically dominates them with his charismatic, earnest, melodic delivery; it puts whoever he is facing at a disadvantage, and even more so when the ring is surrounded by ‘followers’ who will do anything for him, so brainwashed are they.

Cena confronted by a brainwashed Wyatt-follower, credit: http://www.wwelivetv.com/extreme-rules

Cena confronted by a brainwashed Wyatt-follower, credit: http://www.wwelivetv.com/extreme-rules

Even when looked at as a fraud, this idea of Wyatt seems crazy, but then again, it is a lot easier to suspend that disbelief as soon as you type “Jim Jones” or “David Koresh” in to Wikipedia. That is what makes Wyatt so great, and so genuinely scary because, though rare, this sort of devotion, and abuse of that devotion is possible, with Wyatt playing up to it so convincingly that people genuinely worry for him as a human being away from the ring. While the match with Cena at Extreme Rules was probably a little overbooked, and maybe taken a little too far with the sheer amount of interference and the Wyatt’s ending up in the cage etc, I think the general idea at play was perfect. Man-on-man, Cena would always beat a non-cultist Wyatt every time, because Cena would beat most other wrestlers every time, or nearly every time. But for a cultist Bray, he would use the interference of his dedicated followers, and his psychological abuse of Cena through a genuinely scary brainwashed child to help him beat ‘The Franchise’ at all costs; and then use that victory to reaffirm his power. This is a perfect way to present such a different, unique talent, and I hope it continues like this for a long, long time.

One area I agree with a lot of criticism recently is to do with how Kane has been presented. It wasn’t so much his match with Daniel Bryan at Extreme Rules that bothered me, but the follow-up the next night on RAW. Where Wyatt is all talk, so to speak, Kane is, in kayfabe, a genuine fire-throwing monster. Now don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed the supernatural logic behind the Brothers of Destruction in the past – silly as it really is, both Kane and Undertaker have in the past been great at playing supernatural beings/monsters within a wrestling context and within some defined internal logic; the problem here was the presentation. While I feel the supernatural characters I was just discussing have maybe reached a shelf-life (for now at least), I would be ok with it if it was within the same wrestling context and logic they have always lived within, but in Kane’s case on RAW, they moved outside of that. As I mentioned, I have heard more than one flippant comparison to ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ in relation to this presentation, and it’s not inaccurate either. Kane has had these powers for most of his careers, but it has all taken part in the context of a wrestling ring/arena and has had a lot of power by being shot in the same way as the rest of the show (backstage segments, pyro from the ring/stage as if he controls it, etc), but this past Monday, it became this movie-like presentation, with reverse angles and a universe outside of the arena. Wrestling always requires some suspension of disbelief (blood feuds being solved with formal wrestling matches, only ever doing anything on Mondays in agreed upon arenas, etc), but we accept that as long as everything makes sense in context as the rest of the show. The Kane segments ripped that apart because while Bryan and Brie Bella showed up to the arena because that’s just what happens, they immediately wanted to get out of there, and their escape was suddenly filmed like a milktoast horror movie. From the ‘car troubles’ to the in-car reverse angles of the action, it felt different, a splice of pro-wrestling and horror movie, and it became almost nauseatingly awkward as a result.

A mystery camera films Brie and Daniel as the prepare to flee the arena. Credit: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/05/06/wrestling-wrap-up-demon-kane-stalks-bryan-and-brie

A mystery camera films Brie and Daniel as the prepare to flee the arena. Credit: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/05/06/wrestling-wrap-up-demon-kane-stalks-bryan-and-brie

While I find Wade Keller of the pro-wrestling torch a frequent indulger in pessimism and narrow-mindedness, he made a very good point about it on this week’s pro-wrestling torch – this would have worked so much better if it would have been in a pro-wrestling context, for instance, Renee Young interviews Bryan and Brie backstage when Kane appears to menace them with Bryan and Brie reacting in whatever way you want them too and have a backstage fight/chase. Just by doing that, it fits in to the wrestling context and logic; instead we got a not terribly threatening ‘monster’ falling off a car before it cuts to him sat lying perfectly flat on the floor and sitting up like Michael Myers or something. None of it rang true, and therefore, none of it rang scary. No doubt Bryan will show up again next week, and so will Brie, and they’ll both be terrified again.

Speaking of which, why is out new HERO BABYFACE WWE WORLD HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION running away from a threat!? If you buy the somewhat patronising angle that he’s ‘protecting his wife’, then he should have told Brie to get out of there while he deals with Kane. Instead, Bryan looked as scared of Kane as Brie despite beating him the night before. What are we to think of Bryan now? The tenacious undersized peoples champion we’ve loved for years is running away from an obstacle! He’s coming across as cowardly and a bit stupid thanks to this, and I think we should all heed Mick Foley’s twitter warning that this is starting to seem like the Zack Ryder angle which turned him from Internet and US Champion, to well, essentially nothing important. Bryan is much much better than Ryder, will wrestle better matches with Kane, and will move on successfully, but I just worry this will effect his longevity as a top hero, and I hope the Yessing never ends, despite this nonsense.

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Catapulted to the Glass Ceiling: The Bottle-Neck of New Stars in WWE (+ Some a Preview of Payback 2013)

The Wyatt Family - causing a stir and set to be the newest stars of WWE, photo credit to WWE

The Wyatt Family – causing a stir and set to be the newest stars of WWE, photo credit to WWE

WWE is increasingly finding it in a seasonal cycle. Precisely, a cycle of two seasons: WrestleMania Season, and Transition Season. WreslteMania Season is the period from (roughly) the TLC Pay-per-view until (roughly) the RAW after WrestleMania and is characterised by big-drawing part time stars and WWE’s toppermost talent being booked in dream matches, with only rare and fleeting appearances by full-time lower level talent and ‘divas’ who enjoy much less meaningful spotlight and feature time on WWE TV. This is a sea change from only recent years (up until WrestleMania 26 perhaps) when WrestleMania was traditionally a showcase for every active WWE talent to get a spotlight and a pay-day, even if it was just a spot in the preshow battle royal. WrestleMania 27 saw the return of The Rock to the WWE and the onset of part-time stars returning for WrestleMania builds and matches. During this time it becomes incredibly hard for non-established wrestlers to get any significant TV time to get over as top stars themselves. A recent exception to this has been The Shield who became firmly one of the most exciting, compelling and spotlighted acts on WWE TV in the build-up to WrestleMania 29, and even with that they were still only featured on an undercard match (though still a significant high-point of the show). This has led observers to criticise this new era of WrestleMania build for a short-sightedness regarding their year-round product and the state of their card after WrestleMania when the part-time stars are gone and they are left with spots to fill and only talent they haven’t deemed important enough for major spotlighting for 4 months previously (and so who the audience equally don’t deem important).

So after the post-WrestleMania RAW, with the part-time stars gone, WWE enters its Transition Season where they need to fill the vacated spots and – without the pressure of WrestleMania business – start to experiment with new stars and pushing stars to try and make more stars for the top of the card.

This roundabout summary of the WWE calendar is a way to set the scene for the topic of this article – the way fresh talent is pushed in WWE; and more specifically, how the way WWE cycles work is impinging on the potential of debuting new stars. In the past, around the time when – simultaneously – Brodus Clay, Ryback, and Lord Tensai debuted as unbeatable monsters (though of differing character), I had considered writing an article about how all these features basically guaranteed the failure of at least one of these unstoppable ‘big guys’ because they all had similar acts. I didn’t write that article but both Brodus Clay and Lord Tensai did indeed fall in to insignificance, together, as Tons of Funk. This article is about a similar danger. On top of Fandango, who only debuted towards the end of WrestleMania Season, WWE has introduced Curtis Axel and are set to introduce Bray Wyatt and his family in the coming weeks; and though they aren’t all similar acts, they all share the characteristic of being shot to prominent positions instantly upon their debut (Wyatt hasn’t debuted yet, but I think it’s clear that he’s only going somewhere prominent fast).

But because only this transitionary period from after WrestleMania until around Survivor Series is a time when WWE will put significant effort in to making and pushing new stars, these prospects find themselves trying to justify a top spot, and the creative team trying to write them in to top spots simultaneously, and when there simply aren’t enough top spots for them all. I think when you consider the push that Fandango got and the shine he got from being flavour of the month, that took him to a WrestleMania moment and a big victory over Chris Jericho, but when Curtis Axel debuted a few weeks later, he took the flavour of the month shine from Fandango before Fandango had really gotten over as a top star; and within weeks, Fandango seemed like an afterthought from the top of the card, stuck as he was in a triple threat with The Miz and Wade Barrett. Axel has replaced him in this feud, but that is more of a hotshot to make up for Fandango’s injury and is a match Axel will almost certainly win, giving him the title his father was one of the most celebrated champions of, and propel him further. Though Axel’s build has been based on somewhat sullied victories over top stars, he has been positioned among them, and certainly has the ‘new star glow’ that Fandango was enjoying before him. It will be interesting to see then what will happen to Axel and Fandango when Bray Wyatt and his Family debut (maybe even as soon as the next RAW). Wyatt has been the most hotly anticipated debutant in years having set imaginations alight with his genuinely scary, creepy, yet infinitely watchable preacher/cult leader character, and equally fascinating vignette’s introducing him. When he, his two Family members and his rocking chair finally debut on RAW, it isn’t difficult to imagine him being one of the brightest spots on the show, as well as the inheritor of that ‘new star glow’; and like Fandango before him, there is a risk that Axel could lose the rub that being the hot new star provides before he and WWE have capitalised enough to make him a top guy. This isn’t to criticise Fandango or Axel, who still very well may have bright futures ahead of them, it is simply to say that the frequent rate of debuts at this time of year, mixed with the simultaneous pushes of new stars handicaps their chances of success whereas if debuts were spaced out affording each new star the opportunity to grow in that valuable period where they are the freshest act on the show. Imagine if ‘another big thing’ debuted after Brock Lesnar – in retrospect, Lesnar would probably have made it anyway, but it would certainly have taken some shine away from him.

This isn’t the only problem though. As new debutants join the card, they join existing talent supposedly destined for success while much fewer leave or are fired. So while Fandango, Axel, and Wyatt have arrived to an opportunity to make themselves, their spot comes at the cost of another star deserving of a shot at the top. The two foremost examples of this in my mind are both members of Team Rhodes Scholars, Cody Rhodes and Damien Sandow, but also Sin Cara, who had a chance to capture the erstwhile WWE Universe’s interest before being overshadowed by others. Perhaps this is an intentional state of competition, bred to encourage performers to stand out, as Daniel Bryan has recently, above the rest of the roster. Bryan undoubtedly deserves, and will get, a push thanks to the overwhelming, infectious reaction he has been receiving of late, but that kind of reaction is a rare gem, and just because one stands out, doesn’t mean than those that can’t match up aren’t deserving of an opportunity. Considering the current crop of new stars, to my mind, no act will be able to live up to that of Bray Wyatt and the family, and given the fact that all three can’t long be sustained with simultaneous winning streaks, one or both of Axel and Fandango may have to slip in estimation and could slip in to irrelevance like Tensai and Brodus Clay before them. Though this fits the ‘survival of the fittest’ model, both Fandango and Axel have interesting acts that deserve attention, and could be successful if nourished correctly, or ideally, at different times. If they fail, but are lucky, they might be able to keep a spot for further down the line where their talent could shine through and they get another shot (though that’s more unlikely with is a gimmicky act like Fandango’s). This is where Rhodes and Sandow are – incredibly talented but overshadowed by a cycle of new acts coming and being given the spotlight; and while they are occasionally given prominent matches it seems right now that they might have to wait – possibly forever – for their next opportunity where they are given a push and attention.

This is what I mean by talent being ‘Catapulted to the Glass Ceiling’. WWE has enough faith in these talents to push them hard to the top, but usually not to the point where they win or even compete for top titles straight away, and especially with competition, they are almost doomed to failure to meet their expectations apart from the most notable of exceptions. To make things worse for the current up-and-comers, a bonafide top star in CM Punk is set to return to the WWE this Sunday at Payback, taking a top spot right away and creating even more competition for spots at the top and below as potential top stars are displaced. And so without further ado, some WWE Payback thoughts …

WWE Payback, 16/06/13, from the Allstate Arena, Chicago, IL, photo credit WWE

WWE Payback, 16/06/13, from the Allstate Arena, Chicago, IL, photo credit WWE

This wont be quite in the detail of the PPV previews from what i’ll go ahead and call the ‘RTV Era’ but you will get predictions in match order:

Match 1) World Heavyweight Championship Match: Dolph Ziggler (c) def. Alberto Del Rio
A sleeper match because Dolph has been away and the build has had nothing to do with him – a mistake seen as he could have been a visible presence on TV at least. These two could have a very good match together though to kick the show off hot, but Ziggler is champ to stay for a while.

Match 2) United States Championship Match: Dean Ambrose (c) def. Kane
Difficult o place it so early, but despite Ambrose’s talent and Kane’s veteran abilities, this will probably be the least intriguing match of all. After the strange decision to hand The Shield their first six-man loss ever on Smackdown, and seen as Ambrose has only been champion for a month, I don’t see him dropping the title because that would seriously damage one of the hottest acts on WWE TV.

Match 3) WWE Tag Team Championship Match: Seth Rollins & Roman Reigns (c) def. Daniel Bryan & Randy Orton
I feel we’ll get the ol’ Shield one-two here. Daniel Bryan is now the hottest act in wrestling, and the reaction in Chicago may well even match Punk’s, but saying that, I don’t think that leads to another tag title. I haven’t read any spoilers but an Orton heel turn seems possible – turning on Bryan maybe due to him stealing the show? At the very least they wont be able to stay on the same page against the ‘Hounds of Justice’, who will retain for the same reason Ambrose will.

Match 4) Divas Championship Match: AJ Lee def. Kaitlyn (c)
The Kaitlyn and AJ saga is one that has lasted, organically, for years. That makes it a welcome relief in the Divas division – an actual storyline that isn’t based on one simply calling the other a bitch. It’s telling that i’m eating it up and hoping Kaitlyn kicks the bejesus out of AJ for her treatment, but in my head the better story is AJ beating the emotionally broken Kaitlyn, holding a title alongside Dolph, and then having Kaitlyn, with the crowd right behind her, chase the title.

Match 5) Intercontinental Championship Match: Curtis Axel def. Wade Barrett (c) and he Miz
This was a terrible build made instantly more interesting by the introduction of current ‘hot new act’, Curtis Axel. In short, Axel can’t lose and i’ll be absolutely flabbergasted if he does. This is his first PPV match and that is a crucial spotlight and even if he didn’t take the fall, it would damage his shine. On father’s day, Axel will win the title his late father was one of the greatest champions of.

Match 6) CM Punk def. Chris Jericho
This is the most intriguing match of the night, and only not the main event because a Cena match with that stipulation is almost main event by default. When this match was made, it came without warning out of left field as what otherwise seemed a throwaway segment on Jericho’s Highlight Reel, and for that reason I then didn’t believe for a second that we’d get that match, and i’m still not sure if we’ll get a straight-up match between the two, but the degree to which they’ve advertised the match makes me think Punk will certainly appear and may well wrestle. What actually happens is up in the air though – it really smells like some sort of twist will have to happen. I don’t think Jericho turns because he wont be around to follow up on it soon as he goes on tour, but think Punk turning on Heyman for exploiting his name and turning face is possible, and that doesn’t rule out a match. Now Axel is in a match, I don’t see him replacing Punk, so I don’t know what would happen is Punk shows but doesn’t wrestle, but if Punk wrestles, he probably goes over (with the outside guess that if Punk turns on Heyman before the match, Axel comes out and costs Punk the match).

Match 7) WWE Championship Match: Three Stages of Hell – John Cena (c) def. Ryback
I think Cena retains here as you’d expect him to retain more than once. I think because he is losing on PPV AGAIN he will win the first fall clean somehow, gives him a rub of a clean pinfall against Cena and gives Cena the mountain to climb, but then Cena wins the next two falls to retain. It also gives Ryback a reason to demand another title match next PPV. Though Bryan/Cena is rumoured, it doesn’t quite make sense to me. I don’t see Bryan going heel seen as he is SO over, and though there is a possibility of a Cena-Bryan respect feud it seems a little off to me on face value. I would finally give Ryback the title at the next PPV and have the much smaller but hotter Bryan chase, and eventually win, the title from the monster.