May 22, 2006
Entertainment should trump all
By NICK TYLWALK -- SLAM! Wrestling Columnist
There's no question that today's wrestling fans are as well informed as they've ever been. The influx of internet sites, books and movies that have given everyone a look behind the scenes have combined to give us more information than ever about the lives of the performers we watch in the ring each week. Sometimes, though, that knowledge interferes with the goal of tuning in to or attending wrestling events in the first place: to be entertained.
Edge is a great case in point. When the stories first broke detailing the real life personal issues between Edge, Lita and Matt Hardy, it only made sense to turn the Canadian, a face for most of his WWE career, into a heel. After all, not only would Edge get the usual heat for doing the usual bad guy shtick (cheating, beating up good guys, running down the locals in promos, etc.), but he'd also face the wrath of fans who felt, rightly or wrongly, that he was a jerk in real life.
Teaming him up with Lita was a no-brainer, and it worked as the couple was booed lustily. I have to admit that I got caught up in the angle myself. While I try to watch all the wrestling I take in from a columnist's point of view, I am first and foremost a long-time wrestling fan. I wanted to dislike Edge because he supposedly messed around on his wife with his buddy's girl, and how could you support a guy like that?
Something strange happened during Edge's all too brief time at the top of the card though, and that was his turning out to be a pleasantly entertaining heel. Yes, it was almost impossible to separate his character from the real life Lita situation, but he also went beyond it to get over in his own right during his feud with John Cena. Except for the ridiculous "live sex celebration" bit, I had to grudgingly admit that Edge was usually one of the best things to watch on Raw for a few months. I'd even go so far as to say that there's little question he got the shaft by dropping the world title so quickly and getting no real chance to win it back.
I'm sure a lot of fans felt the same way, but in a day and age where we get an increasing number of chances to peek behind the curtain, it's becoming more difficult to draw a distinction between the character we see in the ring and the performer we think we know. When we reach the point where we have to make a subconscious choice to boo the character or boo the man, it can very easily distract us from simply enjoying the show. And naturally, the WWE doesn't make things any easier for us by turning to the real world more often for inspiration for its storylines.
All of which brings us to the biggest example of roller coaster opinion in recent memory, Triple H. You don't have to think back too far, just a few years really, to the time when injuries were doing in "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and The Rock was getting more receptive to the siren call of Hollywood. It was about that time that just about everyone jumped aboard the HHH bandwagon, with many people declaring him the best wrestler in the WWE. He was lauded for both his in-ring and microphone work, and in truth, he carried the federation during a time when it had little else going for it.
Then, real life intruded. Triple H's marriage to Stephanie McMahon gave him a position of power that no other wrestler could claim, and mirroring the union in storylines almost guaranteed that fans would turn against him. Where The Game once got over as the top heel in the business on the strength of his in-ring work and his ability to cut a promo, many people were now down on him because of the perception that he had married into his spot. Some were booing Triple H the sledgehammer carrier and some were booing Triple H the guy who sat in on booking meetings, and whether the WWE would admit it or not, there is a difference.
As a columnist and writer it was easy to take snide shots in Triple H's direction, especially when his character got stagnant. Injuries may have robbed him of half a step in the ring, and he certainly deserved some flak for leading off Raw for what seemed like about 100 straight weeks. It would be absolutely naive to think that his position in the McMahon family doesn't help keep him near the top of the card. But let's be honest. He's still one of the best in the business in terms of ring psychology and having good matches with all kinds of opponents. He's certainly not the wrestling antichrist that some have made him out to be.
Over the last few weeks, I'd have to say that Triple H has been downright enjoyable. Even though we've seen the "wrestler versus Vince McMahon" bit many times over, his conflict with the boss has brought out a wittier side of his promos that hasn't been seen in years. The fans are clearly behind the build-up to what may or may not become a full-fledged DeGeneration X reunion with Shawn Michaels. And I can't help but think that part of the reason the crowd is backing him is that the WWE is no longer hitting us over the head with his real life family affiliation. We've been allowed to focus on Triple H solely as a performer, and while he may not be at his peak, he's still among the very best.
To paraphrase Austin, the bottom line is for a wrestler to entertain us. If he pulls that off, everything else can be overlooked or forgiven.
Now it's time for something I've been looking forward to for a while. Thanks to increased response to my calls for more feedback and more interactivity, a bunch of you have stepped up with excellent questions and comments. I'll try to do a couple each week, with your e-mails in regular type and my responses in bold. In respect to old school hip hop, I'm calling the new feature:
Walkin' That Aisle: Call and Response
As always I respect your opinion, but in this case [Better late than never?, May 8] I totally disagree. I honestly and truly think this WWECW is an insult to the legacy of everything that ECW stood for. It was cutting edge counter-culture at its finest. It was small dirty venues and low production values. It was wrestlers allowed freedom to show what they could really do. It was violence personified mixed with some of the best technical wrestling the world had ever witnessed.
As a reader who has always offered me well-written comments, I respect your opinion too. You definitely make a valid point about the supposed current plan, which is to shoot the ECW matches before Smackdown, and how the WWE would most likely be loathe to allow anything to outshine their own show. Though with the current state of Smackdown, it's hard to see how even a watered-down ECE wouldn't outshine it. In any case, one hopes that the ECW matches will at some point take place separately and this won't be a factor. We'll have to wait and see.
Vince McMahon's motivations for the ECW relaunch are, as you point out, really the heart of the matter. If he's out for a short-term cash grab and/or a chance to bury Heyman once and for all -- and both things are possibilities given Vince's track record -- this will be a distasteful endeavor for as long as it lasts. I'm still optimistic that the WWE sees this as a way to manufacture their own alternative product. They tried to do it with the brand split, but the problem was that except for different wrestlers on each show, both "brands" were presenting the same product. If they commit to allowing Heyman, Dreamer and company to do what they do best, this could help capture at least part of an audience that only has TNA to watch for something different at this point in time. And because TNA has been relatively successful, my gut tells me Vince will at least try to make ECW succeed. My guess is by the end of 2006, we'll have a better idea of whether your hunch or mine was more correct.
As far as ECW 2.0 somehow tarnishing the legacy of ECW, I think the fans are loyal enough to just ignore it if this edition turns out to be garbage. Thus, I don't think that the old ECW spirit is in any real danger.
And hey, since rumor has it that ECW is headed for the Sci-Fi Channel (of all places), at least Heyman can arrange for a Battlestar Galactica crossover if things start going down the toilet!
I agree that it just can't be HBK and Triple H driving the new DeGeneration-X. But who they choose to make it four will make or break D-X. I suggest Chris Masters who is getting better with the mic and in the ring. The other person is tough. I'm thinking Carlito who has that cocky attitude but he and Masters' storyline would have to take a hiatus. These are the only two I can think of. What do you think Nick?
Roy, you must have read my mind, because I feel like Carlito would be a natural. Since the new DX would be a team of faces by the looks of it, Carlito is perfectly positioned as an anti-establishment character that fans would cheer. He seems like he'd be a good fit without even tinkering with his gimmick. All you'd need to do is teach him to crotch chop after he spits his apple.
I'm not a fan of Masters, but I will admit that he is improving. I do know that at the toy store where I work for my second job, kids are coming in asking for Masterpiece action figures pretty often. My feeling is that he'd be better served continuing on as a heel right now instead of joining DX. I'd love to see Shelton Benjamin as part of the group, but he'd probably need to step up his microphone work. As dark horse candidates I'll toss out Charlie Haas and Kenny of the Spirit Squad, who seems to be standing out a little from his fellow male cheerleaders.
That's all for this week. Keep those e-mails coming.
Nick Tylwalk has been a SLAM! Wrestling contributor since 1998, and his column, Walkin' That Aisle with Nick Tylwalk, appears most Mondays. Comments, compliments and complaints can be sent to email@example.com. If you’d like to see a response to your question or comment in a future column, please include your full name and hometown in your e-mail.