Women have Eastenders, Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Men have professional wrestling.
It's just how it is. Just as sure as 90% of significant others we'll encounter in our lives will roll their eyes at us for watching wrestling, we snigger at them for crying like a baby at a movie about (deep movie-trailer voice) "one man, who lost his leg in the war...but found himself. And also love."
There's nothing quite like it. UFC tries, and succeeds, in ticking many boxes to be fair. But UFC is pro-wrestling for grown-ups. It outdoes wrestling on the basis that you rarely have to cringe at it for being too hokey, but no matter how hard it tries it will never be able to match the drama, build-up and sheer testosterone-fueled excitement that comes together when you have an amazing WWE storyline building to a main event match.
Yet people have never forgiven wrestling for coming out of the closet, i.e. for admitting that it lied to us for decades and was, in fact, pre-determined. This isn't a problem with Eastenders, yet replace Phil Mitchell with a muscle-up giant, half naked and wearing oil pretending to fight another man while dressed in tight, lycra underwear and...
...well, you can kind of see their point. But they still don't get it, damnit!
|It's a black man, posing provocatively with a parrot. What's not to love?|
So, despite a brief surge of popularity in the late 90's/early 00's (to the point where wrestlers were fronting MTV TV shows like Celebrity Deathmatch...before MTV fell out of favour itself), wrestling fans have had to kind of mutter under their breath while discussing the next big PPV main event. We still do, to this day. It's just not cool to admit to watching pro-wrestling, yet every man has at least given it a go and could probably tell you their favourite wrestler, sing their entrance theme word-for-word¹ and would perform their finishing move on you, if you let them.
Case in point, I was in a bar recently when I ran into some guys I went to school with. One of them asked me about my former Irish Whip Wrestling colleague, Sheamus (who has since gone on to huge success in WWE; pictured below). I noted, "Yeah, he's doing amazing. Sure just a while back he was wrestling Triple H at 'Mania, it was surreal to watch."
|He looks too happy. What's he doing with his other hand?|
He turns to me, in front of the lads, trying to make a joke: "Em, why do you think I know what the words 'Triple H' and 'Mania' mean?"
Oh, so that's what this was? He was trying to make me sound 'uncool' for knowing about wrestling (something that I proudly spent 4 and a half years of my life doing all around the country, by the by) in front of a few friends. Like you do when you're 13 and trying to show off in front of a girl. He's around 25 and a father, I believe, by the way.
The problem was: everyone knows what those words mean. Triple H was a big star when it was 'cool' to watch wrestling. WrestleMania is WWE's equivalent of the SuperBowl. Being able to mention Sheamus but claim he didn't know them is like singing all of the lyrics to a My Chemical Romance album track, then slagging off people who listen to 'crap emo shit'. Even the friends he was trying to show off in front of were giving him confused looks.
"Well, if you know who Sheamus is, I'm presuming you know who Triple H is and what WrestleMania is...since you're the one who brought the whole thing up?" I said.
He paused for a second, then blushed saying "I suppose so, yeah..." while everyone in the group pondered how dumb his children would grow up to be one day when they have that for a role model.²
That's the problem with being a wrestling fan, though. Every bloke knows about it, every bloke would leave it on the TV if they were flicking and there was nothing else on, but because so many people don't want to look like a 'loser' (thereby becoming even a bigger loser in the process by caring so much about what everyone else thinks of them), nobody wants to admit it.
And, to be fair, it's not hard to see why. Even for long-time fans such as myself, who have legitimate excuses to watch since I actually know several of the guys on Raw and SmackDown each week, over the past few years there has been stuff so cringey on WWE television that if your parents walked into the room while you were watching it, you'd rather change channel to have them catching you watching hardcore pornography.
Enter John Cena.
|Oooh shiny! And spinny!|
A former college football star in his native Springfield, Massachusetts, Cena went through a spell as a bodybuilder (unsurprisingly) before deciding that professional wrestling was his calling and signing up to train with Ultimate Pro Wrestling. Wrestling under the moniker 'The Prototype' (both there and later in WWE developmental company OVW), Cena turned heads for his physique and charisma on the microphone. It took him just two years to be called up to the WWE main roster, were he was pitted against and defeated some of the company's biggest stars in his debut matches, signalling that WWE had high hopes for his future.
However, it wasn't until a secret talent of Cena's emerged while on the road with the boys that he really started to connect with the WWE fans. It turned out that Cena could rap.
Now this is WWE, were any little character trait that will sell tickets will be amplified to huge levels, merchandised by way of t-shirts, action figures, wristbands, garden gnomes, whatever and marketed to their worldwide audience. This was the company that saw a big, pale, red-haired Irishman walk into the building and made him paler, redder and...Irish-er...just short of saying "Aye sure top o' the mornin' to ya there wee laddy, pint of Guinness to ale yer auld woes?!" in every promo.
So, upon learning of his rapping ability, they turned the raw, talented, charismatic John Cena from this:
|I'd add a witty caption for this picture, but read on to find out how WWE basically made every possible joke I could make into a reality.|
They basically made him Vanilla Ice 2K2. Within months, Cena was challenging Jay-Z to a battle rap at that year's WrestleMania (Jay-Z declined, possibly because he can't rap while simultaneously pointing and laughing), releasing his own rap album and droppin' ill beats (he called them 'Thugonomics') on the 'Cenation', screaming the phrase "You can't see me!" before landing his trademark '5-Knuckle Shuffle', all the while making poo and masturbation jokes about all of the WWE roster.
Here's the twist: somehow, it worked. Fans went wild for this ironic, OTT, whiteboy-got-game shtick. Don't believe me? Check out the video below starting at 1:41.
It wasn't long before WWE turned Cena into a good guy, put the World Championship around his waist and his rap-based merchandise was flying off the shelves as young, white kids who'd missed out on Eminem's prime clamoured for a hero that could teach them some jive-talkin'.
That's when it began to go downhill. You see, such was Cena's appeal that WWE started putting him in self-produced movies, commercials and on chat shows. By now, the 'real world' wasn't paying much attention to WWE so wouldn't have quite picked up on the ironic overtones of his character. They needed to clean up his act. So the rap act was quickly put to bed in favour of a clean cut, All-American, wholesome, generic good guy act who did what was right for the fans, fought against the odds, always came out on top, yada yada yada, the exact same thing you've seen a million times before.
His new demeanour appeared to be based around the character that he portrayed in terrible action movie, 'The Marine', and fans over the age of 12...put simply...hated it. It'd be like Eminem donning a suit, claiming he was really just a big Mammy's boy after all, performing a bunch of safe-but-catchy Will Smith tracks then selling himself as the credible artist that his fans had initially flocked to. It just didn't work.
|This suit be bitchin', yo.|
Within two years in the business, he was pinning a former WWE Champion on TV and then another one on PPV a few weeks later. That's not his fault, anyone would take the opportunities given to him. But with all of the above names, when you watched their work you got the sense that their struggles had made them afraid of letting go of the top spot, thus driving them on to wanting to have the best match of the card every single night. Cena has had his share of classic feuds and matches, and he deserves credit as such, but he didn't seem to share that same desire when it wasn't absolutely necessary. Shawn Michaels became the guy who could bring limited wrestlers like Sid Vicious and Kevin Nash to five-star classics effortlessly. You got the sense that, unless he was really, really motivated to do so, Cena would just wrestle his typical match, get paid then shoot another cheesy commercial.⁴ All the while fans were left with a dilemma as to whether to spend money on a PPV that probably wouldn't justify it, or miss out on wrestling altogether...an option they similarly didn't want to explore.
And yet WWE continued to push Cena down its fanbase's throat as a top guy. The first signs of a major backlash came during the main event at WrestleMania 22, when Cena faced off in a title match against the company's then-top bad guy, the aforementioned Triple H. The attending crowd let their dissatisfaction be known by promptly booing the good guy Cena out of the building and cheering for every move Triple H made.
In previous years, WWE would have responded to this by turning the recipient of such boos into a 'heel' (bad guy), but Cena sold too much merchandise with younger viewers who still worshipped him unconditionally. So they persisted with him as top guy and older fans continued to boo, right to this very day. It's been a strange, previously unexplored, phenomenon that is both fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. And, 10 years since Cena first exploded onto the scene, it appears to be building to a head this Sunday.
Enter Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson.
I won't lie, The Rock is my favourite wrestler of all-time by a considerable distance. I watch him and see so many little mannerisms that I must have sub-consciously copied from him as a teen and adopted into my every day life. From his vocal delivery, to his walk, to the way he counts to three with his fingers. When I wrestled, I attempted to channel Rock is so many small, subtle ways: the way I threw a stomp, my in-ring promos, my elbow drops had a little shimmy ala his finishing move 'The People's Elbow' and I even booked storylines where I based my character motivation that I'd bring to radio/newspaper interviews on similar storylines that Rock had been involved in when I was younger. So I can't pretend to be impartial on this matter...at one stage, and still in some ways, The Rock was the person I wanted to later become in life, in some shape or form.
The Rock is both the anti-thesis and closest comparison to John Cena in professional wrestling. On one hand, his entire career was driven by the public's outpouring of support towards him, unlike Cena who has risen in spite of lack of support. But on another, he was the first star to truly experience several fan backlashes akin to the ones Cena now faces on a nightly basis. Some of Rock's biggest matches have seen him getting booed out of the building, despite being a good guy at the time (vs Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania 18 and vs Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam 2002 both spring to mind).
Rock rose to prominence both because of his hilarious promos (that had catchphrases laden throughout them like a cheap whore's vagina has STDs) and his intense, for lack of a more original term, electrifying in-ring work that backed up his talk. But this paragraph is just an excuse to show you one of my favourite promos, to be honest, so I'll shut up now while you watch the video:
Weekly monologues like that, as well as his action hero look and build, led to him taking Hollywood by storm. And so, Rock became Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson...later just Dwayne Johnson, while WWE was a lot quieter and fans were forced to put up with being fed white boy rappers in his gaping absence.
He returned after an 8-year absence to a massive fanfare last year. His mission was to confront Cena, whose latest attempt to court favour with the fans was essentially to say "Hey, remember that guy you liked more than me? Well he's gone and I'm still here. Just saying. Like me?"
In reality, WWE bosses likely anticipated that giving Cena the 'rub' by putting him head-to-head with a returning legend. Being portrayed in a storyline as on equal terms with Rock would aid their ailing top draw's credibility with the fans, and the match is one of the few remaining 'dream matches' WWE has left while they look to rebuild a new generation of stars to take over once Cena begins to fade into the sunset.
The match takes place at WWE WrestleMania 28, this Sunday, in Rock's adopted hometown of Miami. That worked out nicely, didn't it?⁵
As a result, over the past year since the match was announced, WWE has become perhaps as interesting as it has been in years. The 'PG Era' of television (with cheesy, juvenile storylines aimed unabashedly towards children) appears to have subsided in favour of a more reality-based era, centred not on trying to deceive fans about wrestling's dirty rotten secret anymore, but instead focusing on sub-plots that we all know to be the truth anyway.
Case in point: Rock's issue with Cena is that he has been forced down everyone's throats and is a poor substitute to the 'people' that Rock seeks to represent. Cena calls The Rock a hypocrite, saying that he left those people to become a Hollywood A-Lister, while Cena shows up every night regardless of whether they want to cheer or boo him.⁶ The storyline is based in how the fans genuinely feel about both guys, therefore it connects and immerses them into two different camps. Everything else is just for our entertainment, like this:
And, I suppose to add balance, Cena has had some decent efforts with his own promos:
As for what's going to happen? Well, it gets interesting there too. Standard wrestling logic dictates that John Cena beats The Rock in a hardly-fought contest that sees both men earn a newfound respect for each other, shake hands, and Cena goes on to new levels of stardom having had the torch officially passed to him.
But...it's in Miami. Rock territory. And it's going to be the last match on the card. And Cena will always still be Cena to some, despite WWE's best efforts to lend him some 'credibility'. So having him beat the hometown hero, in the main event, is not the type of happy resolution that matches like this generally require to go down as 'great'. Put simply, Cena winning would piss all over the crowd. While I wouldn't be completely surprised to see some outside interference from the likes of The Miz to swing it either way, that would also be incredibly random given Miz has had nothing to do with the immediate build-up and an ending like that would suffer from a strong dose of cop-out.
So, like any money main event, it could really go either way. You just have to buy it to find out.
If that wasn't enough to whet your appetite for WrestleMania 28, also on the card is a match billed as the 'End of an Era' featuring 'I'm not sure if he's still supposed to be dead' legend, The Undertaker, taking on Triple H, who these days has replaced Vince McMahon in storyline terms as the 'boss' of the entire WWE. The bout will be contested in a 'Hell in a Cell' match (both star's 'specialty' match) with Shawn Michaels acting as special guest referee (Michaels having had his career ended by Undertaker and being Triple H's best friend. This feud is so inbred that it puts traveller bare-knuckle boxing to shame).
If you haven't been watching for years, yes Undertaker's undefeated WrestleMania streak is still going. A win here would bring him to 20-0, which appears to be important to him as he's hinting that it would be a fitting end the streak. So important is it that Undertaker has tried whatever he can to get Triple H to drop the suit and accept. Taker can't end on 19-0. Don't you know anything about zombies? They hate prime numbers.⁷ 19 would just be icky.
It promises to be a quality match and Michaels' friendship with Triple H puts just enough doubt in people's minds, about Taker losing, that it will probably work. I don't envy WWE's writers every year when they have to come up with new, believable ways that Undertaker will lose. Over the years, they've had him wrestle invincible giants, legend killers whose entire career's were based around beating veterans like Taker, really fat lads in handicap matches, his 'unstoppable' brother - who he's now stopped twice, Shawn Michaels in a career-vs-streak match and legitimate psychopaths like Sid Vicious and Jake Roberts...who are the type who'd go off script and try and win the match, for realz, even if the script wasn't written that way. So I commend them for creating yet another plausible scenario where you just don't know how it'll go...even though we'll all still claim that we predicted it when Undertaker wins yet again.
Oh, and it's not his last match. If wrestling fans don't know by now, when they use vague terms like 'End of an Era' match, it means "We want you to think this is his last match...but it's not really." Remember? Wrestling makes these things ridiculously, bluntly, in-your-face obvious when it happens so you'll cough up good money to see it happen.
In what could be, technically, the finest match on the card, WWE Champion CM Punk faces challenger Chris Jericho. Jericho's initial beef with Punk - revealed during his mysterious return to wrestling where he didn't speak for weeks before...just speaking - was that he was peeved about Punk referring to himself as 'The Best In The World'. He even sold a t-shirt claiming as much, in what turned out to be the first piece of merchandise in nearly a decade that knocked Cena off of as the company's top-selling merchandise star. This blatantly ripped off Jericho's moniker that he is 'The best in the world at what I do" (referring to himself, of course, he doesn't say he's the best at world at what Rick Nash does...DJ-ing and blogging...which would just be random).
Punk has a legitimiate claim to the title, though, having appeared to have at least temporarily unseated John Cena as the company's figurehead. This came after the below promo that, without question, heralded the dawn of this new, reality-based era in WWE, where Punk basically ripped into everything that was wrong with the old regime, and became WWE fans' new messiah in doing so:
Jericho, in storyline terms, is looking to undermine Punk in any way possible ahead of their match. His initial plan appeared dubious when he announced on Raw that the 'Straight Edge' Punk (who, therefore, doesn't drink or do drugs) made this life decision because his father was an alcoholic. Eyebrows raised until he completely paid off the barb with a thoroughly entertaining rant the following week:
So now, the onus is on Punk. Even outside of the storylines, he must step up and justify WWE's position to get behind him by out-shining one of the most charismatic stars of all-time. Jericho is a pro so there is no doubt that he'll assist him in doing so, but when you openly come out and make a scene as Punk has done you need to back it up. Like a beggar that stops you in the street and promises to do the best break-dance you've ever seen before in exchange for €2 that he swears he won't spend on drugs. Do so and the fans and company will give you the sun and the moon (already there is talk of a rumoured dream match with the currently-retired Stone Cold Steve Austin at 'Mania 29, amplified by Punk recently tweeting Austin saying only "29, son"), fail to do so and you risk destroying the biggest opportunity you'll ever receive.
And in the final 'main event' match of the evening, my old pal Sheamus (before you ask: no, we don't still talk. Things ended sourly in Ireland, but I wish him well and am delighted for his success since) challenges the revelatory Daniel Bryan for the World Championship belt.
Despite my early pessimism for his chances of making it big in WWE (due, simply, to my lack of faith in WWE being able to see past his Irishness as a recipe for their unique brand of comedy 'gold'), he has shocked everyone by already becoming a 2-time WWE Champion. They have pleasantly surprised me by covering up his weaknesses nicely⁸ while keeping him effective and relevant to their fans. He has all the tools so all that he needs is for WWE to continue to have faith in him, to package him carefully and correctly, which seems to be the case thus far.
I say revelatory in relation to Bryan because, while everyone knew he was an immense talent when wrestling as 'The American Dragon' Bryan Danielson on the independent circuit, nobody could have foreseen his meteoric rise to the top of the card and the charisma which he has since brought to the role. His gimmick nowadays is much like Cena's rap shtick, in that you assume it probably started out as an inside joke, but when it worked they just went with it: basically, he's a heel champion who says "YES! YES! YES!" a lot. He heartily celebrates the most mediocre of achievements, brags about being a vegan (a hilarious satire of Punk's 'straight edge' deal) and has even recently dabbled in some casual chauvinism with girlfriend AJ, forcing her to reveal how kind, generous and gentle he is while lambasting her for calling him 'Danny' in public. It's like a modern day, comedic take on 'Macho Man' Randy Savage and Elizabeth's tumultuous relationship...except with less domestic and substance abuse.
The match has another intriguing sub-plot in that it was initially scheduled to be on the WrestleMania 27 card, before being pulled at the last minute to fit in other crap that has since been forgotten. With that in mind, both guys will know how differently the past 12 months could have turned out for them and will be looking to tear the house down, no doubt. I suspect this will be the opener so they're well placed to get enough time to get the job done, but will also not have to wrestle a 30-minute, back and forth encounter. Which is a good thing in this case: it'll keep the feud exciting and continue both guy's momentum nicely, and they can have the big pay-off match down the line. I'm hoping Bryan takes this and they hold off on Sheamus' big win for another day, there's juice left in this feud so best not to blow their load on it while its squashed on the undercard. Plus I'm not sure if Bryan is quite at the level where he won't just go back to languishing in the midcard after he drops the belt (aka Swagger-ville), so another month or two at the top should get it done for him.
Also on the card, is a 6-on-6 tag-team match with Raw (the fountain of unintentional genius that is, John Laurinitis) and SmackDown (Teddy Yawn, sorry I mean Long) GM's picking teams to face each other, with the winning GM gaining control of both shows in what looks to herald the official end of the Raw/SmackDown split on television.
Randy Orton and Kane face in the brawl match thrown together to pad the card out, but you'll forget it ever happened within a month.
Similarly, Big Show takes on the one-man charisma vacuum that is Cody Rhodes. Rhodes' best asset appears to be his surname. In case you couldn't tell, I dislike him strongly. His gimmick seems to be walking to the ring, doing an evil cackle, then doing a serious face, then cackling again, then deadpanning, and repeat until he gets in the ring and bores the house down.
Plus some women are fighting. So there'll be plenty of time for a piss too.
The undercard may read 'Must do better' on the WrestleMania report card, but it's a top heavy line-up that has the potential to be one of the best ever. With the right amount of star power, intrigue and unpredictability in each main event match, it's a fitting end to perhaps the best year in recent memory for WWE. A year they decided that they would no longer insult fan's intelligence, and prove the difference that comes with simply mentioning the elephant in the room.
Pro-wrestling has a firm place within the entertainment sphere. It's not just an amusing sideshow deserved of mock and scorn. When done correctly, it blends the exact mix of both sports, soap opera, comedy and over-the-top ridiculousness that, at the very least, scratches your escapism itch like no other avenue of entertainment can. At its finest, it can inspire us to become better people that we ever thought we could be. It can also blend into our daily lives in so many unforeseen ways. Let's face it: how many dickheads like the one at the top of this piece have we all come across at some stage? And do they really affect how we view either pro-wrestling or ourselves for watching it?
No, of course we don't, because we know they're missing out. Or they're just lying and they're a closet fan who's got issues of their own.
WWE seem to be steering their ship back towards what pro-wrestling is, what it should be, at its finest. Next stop: WrestleMania 28 in Miami. You'd be a loser to miss it.
Live in Ireland and still trying to figure out plans for WrestleMania 28?
For the first time EVER, there will be a huge WWE WrestleMania Party in Dublin City Centre! In Captain's Live, Grafton St on Sunday 1st April, yours truly presents a night full of wrestling-based entertainment before the show is shown, in full, on the big screen!
We'll have classic Mania matches on display, I'll be performing a WWE-themed DJ set, there'll be a special LIVE performance from 'The Luke & Duane Show' as they sing their 'Just Take Care, Spike Your Hair' track (as seen on Zack Ryder's YouTube show), and we'll have a late bar serving booze and food all night! Oh, and there might just be a special guest cameo from a WWE superstar on the night!
The pre-sale tickets have sold out. However, it gives me great pleasure to announce that we WILL be selling only 50 additional tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. Simply email your name and phone number to Rick@AMTLive.ie to avail of one of these.
¹. Though, to be fair, wrestling songs lyrics are rarely difficult to remember. Take Billy Gunn's old theme 'Ass Man', for example. The lyrics were simply a 3-minute loop of "I love to love 'em/I love to kick 'em/I love to shove 'em/I love to stick 'em/Love to flaunt 'em/I love to watch 'em/I love to pick 'em/And I'm gonna kick 'em/Cus I'm an ass man (yeeeeaaah)/I'm an ass man..." etc.
². He could be reading, for all I know, but I'm assuming he's the type who is too thick that he's going to forget he said that to me and is now laughing at the idiot who came out with it.
³. In-ring work ethic, that is. Cena is a notorious work horse outside of the ring and must be credited for the sheer volume of effort he puts into charities such as 'Make-A-Wish'.
⁴. See him walking through the motions in his PPV main event match with R-Truth from last May, for example.
⁵. See that's one of the perks of wrestling's pre-determination: in football, two English clubs may be forced to travel to Russia to compete for the Champions' League Final because the venue had been set in stone before we knew the participants. Wrestling can plan for such eventualities in advance and, thus, guarantee maximum impact when the event takes place.
⁶. They just forget about the brief period when Cena attempted to do exactly what he criticises Rock for, breaking into Hollywood, and failed abysmally.
⁷. The episode of 'The Walking Dead' that established zombies disdain for prime numbers being perhaps a low-point in the show's two seasons, mind.
⁸. Sheamus has never been fully comfortable on the mic, though I suspect it's just a case of him needing to find himself and learning to let go, which will come with time as long as he stays on top. He's surrounded by the best in the business, after all.
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