Guest column: What really drives a following?
MATT PEPPER - For SLAM! Wrestling
In the world of professional wrestling, there are many unwritten "rules" and "laws" that promoters and wrestlers have followed for years. In some instances, these "rules" and "laws" are created to benefit an individual or a company at the expense of others.
However, there are basic principles that can never be changed due to the nature of the business. What would this basic principle be, you ask?
If a promotion doesn't have a true drawing card, chances are their existence will be short-lived. This has been proven time and time again in professional wrestling.
Now while the WWE may be a promotional machine and can pack the houses at most live events, they too know the importance of their performers having a following. With the fans supporting their top characters, their business improves. If the fan interest declines, business obviously begins to drop. It's a neverending balance in an enigmatic business.
In most cases you can look at specific moments in time when a top star really began to generate a following. Whether the character was a heel or face at the time, is irrelevant. The fan reaction is key in these instances. Let's look at a few examples:
Gorgeous George: No wrestler in the "Golden Era" really incited the fans like George did. However, as wrestling lore has dictated, George never really gained traction as an "ordinary" wrestler wearing tights and a pair of boots. The story began when George was stricken with an eye infection. He began to disinfect the mat with an aerosol pump to avoid this in the future. Every time he used the pump, he was booed. Knowing he had something, he began to use this every match. Slowly he developed into the bleached blond, robe-wearing wrestler who fondly encouraged cheating in every arena he wrestled in.
Hulk Hogan tells Mean Gene Okerlund something.
: Terry Bollea never got the traction he wanted as Sterling Golden. Even in the early stages as Hulk Hogan, he had trouble overcoming the shadow of Andre the Giant
. However, once he entered the American Wrestling Association began "no-selling" offense from other wrestlers, the fans started to view him as a dominate muscular specimen that couldn't be beaten. As time went on and his dominance continued, Hogan also became entertaining on the microphone. "The Hulkster" became so popular, that once he jumped shipped to the WWE (then WWF), he immediately became their top wrestler and World Champion. As his reign atop the WWE began to grow, the opposing competition began to shrink.
: Say what you want about John Cena, but he has been the WWE's top draw for the last several years. Cena's debut may not be memorable to some, but he began his career wearing red (and later green) trunks and challenging Kurt Angle
. He then upset Chris Jericho
on a number of occasions, without much fan fare. However, it wasn't until a chance segment on Smackdown! that he really began to come into his own. On a Halloween edition of Smackdown! he dressed as Vanilla Ice and began to perform a rap. After this segment, the WWE allowed Cena to continually perform raps during his ring entrance. This proved to be a huge drawing card for Cena. To go a long with his rapping, he also developed his own unique in-ring attire, as well as becoming the top star of the current generation. Cena in particular has a huge following with children.
Sure there are many cases that can be used as examples -- Steve Austin's King of the Ring promo, The Rock calling out the fans for wishing him dead, Mick Foley's dangerous bump off the Hell in the Cell -- but the key fact to remember is that a performer's alignment (heel or face) is irrelevant in most cases. A great heel can eventually become a beloved face and vice versa. Gaining the following is of the most importance.
So, what really drives a following? The wrestlers themselves do. It's up to them to make a connection with the crowd. If they can't do that, they may not be around for too long.
Each of the names mentioned earlier allowed the fans to relate to them on some level. Whether they made you hate them based on ego, jealousy, or by cheating another wrestler, there was a connection. If you became a fan of a wrestler based on morals, being a champion, or by defeating the biggest bad guy in the company, a connection was made.
So, on that note. Who will drive the next big following?
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Matt Pepper, from Chatham, Ontario, is a graduate of the journalism program at St. Clair College, and now works in customer service.