Mat Matters: Cena king of making fans care
MARK XAMIN - SLAM! Wrestling
|John Cena is in a class by himself in drawing power today. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea
Since pro wrestling rose to prominence in the 1980s, critics have littered the dirt sheets with negative assessments of wrestling's top draws. Hulk Hogan, according to the sheets, was a terrible wrestler. Today, John Cena is the subject of that same criticism. The opinions of those critics are echoed throughout the internet wrestling community. However, in my debates with some of these "smart mark" fans, I have found that seldom do they understand why they find a given wrestler to be particularly bad -- they are merely agreeing with the popular opinion.
Perhaps I can help you better understand what makes a wrestler "good," and what makes a wrestler "bad."
Now, let me preface this by saying I am not a professional wrestler. I have neither the physical prowess nor the athletic ability required to become a wrestler, and even if I did, I'm sure I'd be better suited doing something else anyway. That being said, I respect what these guys put themselves through to entertain us. Each wrestler, in some way, has sacrificed an awful lot to get to the point where you're watching them on television every week, or watching them wrestle in a rec center or bar. Each bump they take has a price -- a price that they will pay later in life. All of that being said, I have spent an extensive amount of time researching and learning about the business I love to watch. I have spent a great many months learning about the psychology of professional wrestling, and I'm here to pass some of that knowledge onto you.
So, with all of that said, let me first begin by explaining that there are at least two categories in which each wrestler can be "judged," if for nothing else than the sake of an easier explanation. The first category is the wrestler's ability in the ring, and the second is the wrestler's ability to draw. Draw what, you ask? Crowds. Heat. Ratings. The works. But we'll get to that.
First let's look at the area in which most criticism is derived -- in ring ability. Contrary to what many "smart marks" think, this does not mean a wrestler needs to do cool moves and flip and flop around the ring like an acrobat to be deemed a good wrestler. In fact, that can become quite detrimental. The reason for this is, a good match has little to do with cool moves (though they help, if done at the right time), but rather, it is all in the psychology of the match.
So, what is good wrestling psychology? Every match is wrestled for one purpose: to win, and not to lose. Let's use two names just for the sake of argument. Shawn Michaels wrestles, let's say, Randy Orton. Both men are wrestling the match to win, and not to lose. Keep that in mind. The babyface in this match is Shawn Michaels. Randy Orton is the heel. Each match begins with the babyface in control, looking very strong, getting the crowd excited. Then, the heel does something dastardly to gain the upper hand. This can be anything from a thumb in the eye, a low blow, or anything that looks cowardly and sneaky. Of course, we're talking in very general terms here. The heel then beats the snot out of the babyface for most of the match. The babyface's job? To take a beating and keep on tickin'. In Secrets of the Ring with Al Snow, Snow uses the example of Rocky Balboa getting knocked down, and everyone in his corner telling him to stay down and avoid taking a harsher beating. The most emotional moment of the movie is when Rocky stands up -- not wins the match, not starts fighting back -- all he has to do is stand up. Apply that to professional wrestling. The heel beats down the babyface...the babyface keeps trying to get up. He gets beat down again, he tries to get back up. Now and then, throw in a "hope spot," or a moment where the babyface starts to take control again, but the heel again puts him back down.
Now, a good babyface will have earned the sympathy of the fans. A good heel will have managed to look so dastardly and evil that the crowd wants, more than anything, to see the babyface get up and give him his comeuppance. So, in our example, Orton has Shawn Michaels down for the majority of the match. When Orton has him in a hold, Michaels should be trying to get out of it, and not sitting there just trying to look like he's in pain. If this is about winning and not losing, then he should be trying to crawl to the ropes or twist out of the hold somehow. This is a particularly good example because Randy Orton is constantly criticized for being "lazy" and always using "rest holds" to get through a match. As you now understand, this is not the case if his opponent is doing his job. Some of the best wrestlers in history did the very same thing.
Eventually, when the crowd is as hot as it can possibly be, the babyface makes his comeback. It has to be explosive. Remember Hulk Hogan's "hulk up"? That was quite possibly the ultimate babyface comeback ever performed, and he did it literally every single night. The crowd goes wild, and you go into your finish. Match over.
There are other elements as well. Selling is extremely important. If Orton, for example, has spent the match trying to damage HBK's leg, it makes no sense for HBK to then get up and start running off the ropes and jumping around as if nothing is wrong with his leg. It has to make sense in order for the fans to suspend their disbelief.
Some of the best in the business at wrestling psychology are guys you would expect: Triple H, Shawn Michaels, The Undertaker, Edge, Kurt Angle, Rey Mysterio, Booker T, and perhaps the best of all, Bryan Danielson. Watch what they do in the ring. Everything makes sense. And then, watch some of the top draws in the business, and see if they're doing the same thing. Some of them are, some of them aren't.
Undoubtedly, the guy who has drawn the most criticism in recent years has been John Cena. He is far from the best in-ring performer -- he can't hold a candle to any of the aforementioned names. But that leads us into our second category...
A wrestler's ability to draw. This is simpler than the anatomy of a wrestling match, yet it is also perhaps the toughest aspect of the business to master. Some argue that you're either born with charisma or you're not. Think of guys like Hulk Hogan, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, The Rock...none of them were particularly good in the ring, as compared to other names at least, yet they were the biggest draws in recent wrestling history. Why? Because they've won the crowd over by some other means. Hulk Hogan had the look, the mic skills, and the right timing. Steve Austin had the look, the persona, and the perfect timing. The Rock had the look, the mic skills, the persona, and everything in between. What about John Cena? He's got the look, he's got the mic skills, and whether you love him or you hate him, you tune in every week to see him win...or lose.
Cena is the biggest draw in wrestling right now because he has made WWE fans care what happens to him. He has taken every program he's been a part of and he's run with it. He's gone the extra mile, and he works harder than anyone in the business. And sure, his in-ring performances are abysmal when compared to say, Kurt Angle. But in the mainstream North American market, in-ring skills account for approximately 25% or what makes a wrestler worth his salt (and by the way 72.13% of all statistics are made up). The rest hinges upon getting over, period. Especially in WWE. Take a guy over to Japan, or to ROH, and it would be a different story. But Cena draws a bigger rating than anyone else on WWE programming, and that is why he's number one. It's the same reason Hogan, Austin, and Rock were on top.
When a wrestler can be number one at both aspects of the business, you get a Ric Flair or a Shawn Michaels. They are a rare breed, but when they come along, you know you're watching something special.
And when the next big star comes along...maybe now you'll see him coming.
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Mark Xamin invites you to discuss this column at Mywrestlingforum.com, the fastest growing wrestling forum out there. You can contact him at email@example.com.