Reinvigorating the Sports in Sports Entertainment – Part II

Last week, this article was detailing the ways in which WWE could alter promos and presentation, more of the “entertainment” aspects of the business, to increase or bolster the “sports” element.  Namely, it was suggested that WWE return to a neutral, lone authority figure that appears less often, establish a social media policy that forces the “characters” to stay consistent, and vary the ways and settings for the delivery of promos by the wrestlers.  This week focuses on simple yet effective ways that the in-ring presentation could be improved.

Establish a motivation for wrestlers

Establish ranking systems

205 Live has recently started to have a monthly number one contenders match after the last major title match.  The winner then will face Neville at the next RAW pay-per-view, which allows nearly a month to build up the title match.  This is a great start in the direction that the whole business needs to go as the biggest improvement in the presentation of matches is that they need to matter.  Having ranked contenders, especially a #1 contender, is the first step towards this.

At one point, this was a well-established concept in the wrestling business.  Readers of the Apter magazines of the ’80s and ’90s were treated to top ten rankings in the back of every issue of Pro Wrestling Illustrated.  This kayfabe ranking made every match felt as if it mattered.  Every wrestler, whether they were ranked or not, was trying to work their way up a ladder to get closer to acheiving a shot at the World Championship.  The NWA even had their own top ten rankings for World title and top five rankings for the United States title, TV title, and World Tag titles that would flash on the screen during the Saturday evening television show.

This established a clear motivation for why there were random matches on television shows at times.  This allowed also for more variety in storytelling.  Faces could wrestle faces, and heels could wrestle heels occasionally because they were seeing who the top contender was.  Some matches were based on personal grudge feuds while others were based on rivalries that developed from trying to work their way up the rankings.  Rankings are used in every sport – baseball, football, basketball, tennis, hockey, and so on.  Those rankings show a clear progression of a team on the rise or a team in a nosedive.  It is a snapshot of competitiveness.  By establishing rankings in wrestling again, the WWE could easily give a context to their matches and make it feel more sports-like.

Bring back managers and stables

Vince McMahon has some aversion to managers anymore.  The only true manager in WWE anymore is Paul Heyman, and he’s not even called a “manager.”  Instead, he’s an “advocate.”  Compare this to the 1980s and early ’90s when there were at least five or more managers at any given time.  It’s been said by others, Bruce Mitchell from PWTorch for instance, that McMahon feels managers are too “rasslin’.”  However, managers are an important feature of competition, specifically heel managers.

A good heel manger can serve a multitude of functions.  For instance, he can serve as an effective mouthpiece for wrestlers that are green or unskilled delivering promos.  Paul Heyman serves this function for Brock Lesnar right now although Brock certainly is neither green nor unskilled, simply disinterested in giving ten minute promos.  Regardless of Brock the employee’s motivations, the effect works.  Having a manager that serves as a mouthpiece makes Brock feel more special, more like a legitimate athlete.  Brock shouldn’t be the only one that deserves this treatment, however, as plenty of talent could use the same.

A heel manager allows something for the face to overcome as well.  Since the manager is a presence outside the ring, the possibility of interference always exists.  Think about the great managers over time, for instance, Heyman in the 1990s and Bobby Heenan and Jim Cornette in the 1980s.  They were not impressive physical specimens, but they were always a dangerous threat. Cornette and Heyman had foreign objects they would sometimes use against the face opponents.  Bobby Heenan would distract the opponent or referee at opportune times.   He would place his wrestler’s foot on the rope to avoid a pin, or he would hold down the legs of the opponent to allow his wrestler to get the pin, as he did for Rick Rude against the Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania V.  This provides another means for the heel wrestler to get heat during the match, and it expands the repertoire of heel tactics.  Without a manager, there are a limited number of actions a heel can take to show he or she is a cheater.  There are illegal moves, not breaking five counts, using a foreign object, placing feet on the ropes, or pulling tights, a new shorthand for WWE in recent years to suggest someone is a heel.   Simply put, managers can add to the drama and excitement of a match.

With managers, often comes stables as well.  Stables shouldn’t necessarily be how New Japan displays stables as they dominate the whole promotion, much how the nWo did in WCW in the 1990s.  Instead, stables should be a group of four to six wrestlers joined together by either a manager or a common cause.  The prototypical stable is the legendary Four Horsemen – Ric Flair, the Andersons, and Tully Blanchard managed by James J. Dillon.  Other iterations of the stable came and went, but the core remained for years.  The stable would consist of a main event caliber singles talent, a upper card/secondary title singles talent, and a strong tag team contender.

By having this type of composition, a stable establishes the motivation of the individual members.  It could be like SAnitY in NXT whose sole motivation is to beat other wrestlers up and cause chaos.  It could be to increase their strength through numbers and focus on helping one wrestler succeed as the, albeit botched, League of Nations did last year.  It could be to capture all the gold in the promotion as The Four Horsemen or Evolution did.  Motivation is too often lacking in wrestling nowadays, but this would be clear and simple way to increase that.  Beyond the motivation aspect, stables can also be used to help establish young talent.  Evolution is a prime example of this. HHH was the World Champion and Randy Orton was the talented up-and-comer who needed a rub.  The whole stable was formed, in essence, to accomplish this…and it worked.  Randy Orton became the youngest World Champion in history and became a main eventer to this day.  This is yet another positive function of the stable.

Put more focus on in-ring action but within parameters

To increase the sportsmanship, WWE must focus on smaller details of presentation of the matches – what goes on inside the ropes specifically.

Increase the number of matches per hour

First, WWE must increase the number of matches on each show each week.  This past week on the April 10th RAW, there were roughly three matches per hour.  Smackdown followed suit.  This is the model that NXT and 205 Live have been following, and it’s a step in the right direction.  Wrestlers cannot get over on promos and angles alone.  Fans need to be exposed to their moveset and personalities in the ring as well.  Consider the Jinder Mahal match this past week against Finn Balor.  While the concussion from the forearm has gotten the attention, this helped make Jinder more of a threat.  But if lower card wrestlers do not get television time, they’ll never get over, so giving them even a five minute match each week will help establish them.

Allow the wrestlers to vary their movesets

In regards to the wrestlers’ movesets, they need to be expanded.  While the WWE style tends to reduce riskier moves to promote safety and limit moves so they are more recognizable to fans, the sole reason for this is only an attempt to “brand” the wrestler for the fans.  However, this branding makes the matches much more predictable and, consequently, less exciting. This problem has been longstanding in WWE.  When Rob Van Dam debuted during the Invasion angle in 2001, he seemingly unlimited movset was reduced to about nine moves, and it hurt the impact of RVD as an in-ring performer.  Sure, he had a long career, but most of it was in the midcard and that is partly because he wasn’t nearly as exciting as he was in ECW.

The reason for this is because with a limited moveset almost everything becomes a signature move or a finisher.  On the independent circuit, Kevin Owens had an arsenal of nearly 100 moves to rely on.  In WWE, he has about the standard ten to twelve.  No match goes by without a cannonball into the corner; the only unknown is whether he will hit or miss it.  WWE wants this to help make the moves more important, more mythical. But when fans see the same moves every week, it takes away the power and impact of the moves; in short, they are no longer special, which is exactly the opposite of the intention. If WWE allowed the wrestlers to expand their movesets to thirty moves but only still perform ten to twelve per match, then the  fans would never know what move might be next…and that’s exciting!  It would protect how special certain signatures are and allow the wrestler to create a hierarchy of moves, which could also more intrigue and drama.

Make the introductions of the wrestlers matter

The introductions of the wrestlers by the ring announcer need more focus as well.  The entrances have become exactly what they need to be in recent years, impressive and large without being gregarious.  But the introductions in the ring after the entrances have been made need to revert to how they used to be in the past.  First, the announcer needs to say where a wrestler is from.  This adds humanity to the wrestler because it grounds them.  To paraphrase David Copperfield, they were born; they grew up.  These men and women hail from a place.  Second, the weights and heights need to be announced as well, whether they are kayfabe or shoot.  Stats such as those matter.  It establishes who might have an advantage.  Even better than those announcements, they could easily bring back a “Tale of the Tape” screen that lists the wrestlers’ height, weight, finisher, accolades, and so on, which would produce a number of positives.  Namely, it would serve as a good primer to new fans, it would allow the announcers to highlight the key story elements at the beginning of the match, and it would increase the sports-like feel because it would feel more like boxing or MMA.  This makes the wrestlers feel like actual athletes.

Reintroduce time limits

Finally, WWE needs to bring back time limits.  Matches having no time limits makes little sense; ostensibly, any match on RAW or Smackdown could go twenty-five minutes yet they never do.  But they can go twenty-five minutes possibly on a pay-per-view.  This simply defies odds and lacks realism.  Similarly, the last match on any television show never goes past the end of a show.  It ends right before the show goes off the air, which is even more unrealistic.  The solution for this is simple: simply have the ring announcer give a time limit for every match.  Matches involving lower card talent could have ten minute time limits, midcard matches, fifteen minutes, and main event matches, twenty minutes.  This would also help establish the ranking system mentioned earlier as fans would know where the wrestlers are ranked by the time limits of their matches.  Furthermore, it adds another tool to storytelling.  Wrestlers could battle to a couple draws on television and establish a feud based off for a pay-per-view, or if a lower card wrestler can go the distance with a midcarder, then it suddenly makes them special and establishes that he or she has risen in the rankings.  There are numerous ways to tell stories simply by adding in a few words before the match begins.

The strength in these changes come in their simplicity and cost-effectiveness.  While fans in the arena might lose some of the interactions in the ring, they will receive more matches.  Those matches should be more entertaining with managers or the threat of stable members and have better storytelling because they will have motivations and stakes.    Time limits simply need to be announced.  Rankings are simply talking points and graphics.  There is no money being spend beyond building and transporting a set or two and possibly hiring one or two talents for managers if they don’t rely on current personnel.

 

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