Where are the heroes?
Professional wrestling, the genre of good vs. evil that started on the carnival circuit over 70 years ago, survived several mutations to the status, perception, and presentation of the industry.
Those same mutations that make Sami Zayn vs. Seth Rollins look like something from another planet when compared to Lou Thez vs. Rikidozan are exactly the reasons why the sport continues to remain relevant. As graceful and thrilling as the athleticism is, the draw to sports entertainment will be the emotional that is generated, regardless of if that emotional is garnered from high spots or dramatic characters turns.
In the 1960s, when Vince Sr. stepped away from the National Wrestling Alliance and launched the WWWF through Capital Sports, he chose Bruno Sammartino as the foundation of the organization. The Italian strongman was a real life superhero to the ethnic crowds of the north east and his tremendous feats of strength made him a star as far away as Japan. Bruno, a native of Abruzzo, Italy, survived a Nazi invasion of his village and illness while hiding in the snowy mountains during his youth. He immigrated to Pittsburgh without knowing much English, and despite the lack of material items, his family enjoyed their role in the American dream. As Sammartino steadily built his body and reputation, the crowds that flocked to the arenas could relate to his story. Bruno was a legitimate role model and took that responsibility seriously, as the charismatic champion always took time for his fans.
Keep in mind, during the peak of Bruno’s run as champion, the tensions of the cold war concerned many people and the foreign disputes in the news influenced the battles that played out on the canvas. It was no coincidence that Bruno, a symbol of stability, battled the foreign villains during his time as champion. Obviously, as the world became more connected and different cultures became more understood, the narrative of foreign villains wasn’t used as the main event draw, but the point being, one of the reasons Bruno Sammartino was such a hero in that era was because the blue collar audience identified with him.
After a nearly nine year run, Sammartino requested time off and dropped the belt to Ivan Koloff in January of 1971. When the referee counted three and declared the Russian the winner, the Madison Square Garden crowd was silent. The audience was stunned and as Bruno made his way back to the dressing room, there were fans crying, telling him that he was still their hero. What could generate emotion like that today? Granted, Bruno’s time was when the audience still believed pro wrestling was a competition, but that level of emotion could still be seen today if the hero is presented in the proper situation. For example, when Daniel Bryan was forced to officially retire because of a neck injury, fans were legitimately emotional because of all the sacrifices that he made to the sport, and he connected with the audience. The audience knew that Daniel Bryan was genuine, he appreciated their support as much as they appreciated his efforts.
So, while generating a spontaneous reaction from the crowd isn’t as easy as it was previously, it’s still possible if the baby face is over with the audience.
The reason Sammartino got over was exactly the same reason his attempted successor, Bob Backlund didn’t get over nearly as much. The blue collar WWWF audience didn’t connect with the mid-west apple pie type baby face that Backlund was at the time. The narrative had changed and the introduction of cable brought a new wave of influences toward society. When MTV launched, the “Rock N’ Wrestling” era used the platform to project trendy personalities that went along with the musical aspect that gained popularity. Hulk Hogan was paired with Mr. T and other figures of pop culture to present wrestling as a more over-the-top entertainment event than in years prior. No longer did fans watch gritty contests in dimly light arenas, but rather top quality production for episodes of Saturday Night’s Main Event that made pro wrestling look more like a variety hour as opposed to the standard format of previous shows.
The more modern look and the mass distribution of cable TV allowed main stream success for the industry, peaking with the wrestling version of rock n’ roll, Hulk Hogan battling the legendary Andre The Giant in front of a record-setting crowd at the Pontiac Silver Dome. Part of the reason the then-WWF had the success of the 80s boom was because the product represented much of the same themes that were popularized by the start of MTV and the trends of music acts.
The steroid scandal that put Vince on trail and shook the foundation of the business left Hogan disenchanted with the industry. He attempted a B-level film career that included such “classics” as Mr. Nanny and Thunder in Paradise. In 1993, the image of the business was at an all-time low and McMahon knew that he had to rebuild for a better atmosphere around the product. He chose a cartoonish “new generation” that marketed toward a younger audience, and in the process, softened the rough picture that the previously mentioned trail painted. The negative press is what led to Hogan distancing himself from the sport so the WWF needed a new top act. Vince tried to use the same USA formula that made Hogan the top star in the industry at the time, but the choice this time was Lex Luger, a former bodybuilder that was previously known for his run in the NWA in the late 80s. Despite the physique, Lex wasn’t a polished performer and nowhere near as charismatic as Hogan. In retrospect, it might’ve been unfair to expect Lex to wear Hulk’s shoes, but the “Lex Express” experiment ultimately failed. The tour bus and blatant USA gimmick was a little too over-the-top, and the fans rejected it.
As the business plateaued across the board, Eric Bischoff, the newly named president of WCW, looked to recruit some much needed star power for the Turner organization. While Hulk was filming the previously mentioned Thunder in Paradise that lasted just one season, Bischoff offered him a deal to return to the ring in 1994. The contract gave the former WWE champion complete creative control, a stipulation that became one of the reasons for the downfall of WCW. Along with that, Hogan was the highest paid performer in the company, made a percentage of the revenue of any show he appeared at, and it was required that he headlined a certain amount of pay-per-view events per year. Again, contract agreements like this got Hulk back in the ring, but long-term, it hindered WCW. That same year, Randy Savage, who left the WWF because he still wanted to wrestle full-time, joined Hogan for Turner’s group. However, fans had seen the typical hero character and it was a “been there done that” type of scenario. Soon, “Hogan sucks” chants began to echo on Turner broadcast because the audience had already seen his tired routine. At the same time, Bret Hart, Diesel, Razor Ramon, and Owen Hart were all doing well in their respective roles for the WWF, but the presentation of the product around them led to a rather lame show. For every Razor Ramon, there was a garbage man, a plumber, a race car driver, etc.
The industry and the narrative needed to change to reflect the direction of society. As is the case in most business, competition is the key to the production of the best product. Ted Turner wanted to compete with Vince McMahon and owned the cable networks to do it, giving Bischoff a prime time program to counter Monday Night Raw. In order to compete, he signed Lex Luger, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and other former WWF stars to boost Monday Nitro. Bischoff saw the UWFI invasion in Japan and decided to replicate that with the WWF stars “invading” Nitro. Hall and Nash weren’t the typical heels in 1996, and as much flak as they get for the down hall of WCW, the Outsiders were pivotal in the transition of pro wrestling in the late 90s. The lame cartoon characters that soured many fans allowed for the “cool heels” to flourish, and that reaction changed the narrative of the heroes in the genre. During a time when the rap music of Tupac and Notorious BIG was apart of main stream media, the Outsiders borrowed from that style, often wearing bandanas or other attire during interviews. Even Hogan’s heel turn to form the NWO was something completely new, the opposite from the red, white, and blue persona that audiences watched for over a decade. To counter that, Stone Cold Steve Austin, who was initially booked to be a heel, was pushed as the top star after audiences cheered him. In a sense, the anti-hero had become the hero.
At a time when shock jock Howard Stern was peaking in popularity and Jerry Springer created controversy, the WWF borrowed from that template, and the wild Attitude era generated record ratings. The edgier pop culture allowed for pro wrestling to push the envelope, perhaps even too far at certain points.
After the tragedy events of September 11th, the harsh reality of some of the violent aspects of the world allowed for pro wrestling to transition from wild 90s era to a more PG type of product as some what of an escape from the sad news around the world. John Cena rightfully had the top spot and he was a superhero to the younger audience, which proved to be a wise decision for the WWE. McMahon shifted the marketing of his company at the right time, because just as the Ultimate Fighting Championship began to surge in popularity, the WWE focused on a different demographic. While there’s undoubtedly a crossover audience, the UFC isn’t competition for the WWE because sports entertainment isn’t trying to market directly to the same demographic as mixed martial arts. Granted, the argument could be made that both companies are competing for PPV dollars, but the structure of the WWE network makes that an almost moot point. The bottom line is, John Cena was the right star at the right time and he has the work ethic to be the top star.
Right now, Roman Reigns is the next anointed champion, but after three years, why does the audience continue to boo him?
Similar to how the business has morphed before, the current perception of the sports entertainment genre is very unique. Because the business is exposed as entertainment regularly, even the most casual fan knows that a creative team decides the direction of the product. In some ways, that goes against the logic behind why wrestling could draw crowds in the first place, the audience supporting the hero could help that star conquer the villain. But, since business is already exposed, it makes it much more difficult to create a sense of believable, and there’s a different dynamic with the presentation of the product. The heel that used a chair to win the match doesn’t get the heat, but rather the office that booked the heel to win gets the heat because the audience knows that management makes the booking decision. This becomes even more apparent in the social media era and it remains to be seen how it will effect the business in the future.
As a consequence of the fans being aware that the direction of their favorite stars can be changed with a dash of the pencil, they are much more aware of WWE’s marketing plan. The crowd knows that management wants Roman Reigns to take the “John Cena spot,” and the audience doesn’t want to be told who to cheer. Furthermore, as I’ve written before, Cena is a rare breed and there’s only one John Cena. Unless management allows Roman Reigns to find the formula that works for him, the hostility will probably continue.
In fact, as history shows, the successor that tries to be a carbon copy of a previous top draw usual fails because it’s essentially an imitation of a prior champion. Backlund failed to be the next Bruno, Luger failed to be the next Hogan, and Reigns has yet to become the next John Cena. It’s not for lack of talent, but rather the circumstances don’t set the stage for success. Today, maybe the reason more heels are getting cheered is because the audience would actually prefer edgier heroes? Considering how polarizing politics has been in recent years, society has somewhat of an edgier narrative. After more than a decade of the classic superhero persona of John Cena, maybe there’s a demand for another run of the anti-hero?
The point being, the direction of the industry and the narrative of the current hero role probably has more to do with the reason Reigns isn’t over than anything else. Roman Reigns is athletic, he works hard, and he can represent the company to the general public. Reigns the competitor should be over, but the reason that Reigns the character isn’t over is mostly because of the presentation.
So, where are the heroes?
They are the same place they’ve always been, the audience ultimately decides who they want to support in the role of the protagonist in sports entertainment.
Until next week
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