I’ll be honest: I rarely even bother watching wrestling anymore. When I was younger, I would eat, sleep, and breathe wrestling. I would get upset if I missed a show, whether televised or on pay-per-view. These days, I’ll follow the news, skim recaps, and sometimes watch a YouTube clip, but that’s about it. The last time I was legitimately excited for wrestling was CM Punk’s now infamous pipe bomb promo and the build up to that year’s Money in the Bank.
The other day, Scott Keith posted on his blog this video. The Rock and Steve Austin stealing each other’s microphone in mid-sentence, followed by serenading to each other, then the usual bit of wrestling and run-ins. And you know what? For a decade-old clip that I hadn’t seen in probably a decade, I was excited. I’d forgotten all about this promo and I was getting excited right along with the then-live crowd. So excited, in fact, that I was actually interested in the PPV they were promoting (Survivor Series 2001).
It got me thinking, aside from Money in the Bank 2011, when was I last this excited for any of WWE’s product? I draw a blank. I’m still drawing a blank. It got me wondering: if WWE treated yesterday’s Superstars like they treat today’s, how would they be treated?
Let’s look at Stone Cold Steve Austin. When he first debuted in 1995 as the Ringmaster, I doubt many thought he’d make it far. A gimmick change and a very infamous promo at King of the Ring – which debuted “Austin 3:16 – and suddenly, he was on fire. Many have gone on record that Austin took the ball and ran with it, giving himself the Stone Cold moniker and improvising his KotR promo where the Austin 3:16 thing just naturally came out. After that, the crowds were filled with Austin 3:16 signs.
For one, that kind of opportunity doesn’t even exist anymore. No wrestler in WWE today is allowed to change things up because they feel it’s not working. They’re told by management to go out there and do what they’re told. Worse, there is very little room or allowance for improvisation today. If someone begins to get over on their own, without the WWE’s backing, they are shot down the card in order to teach them their place. Just ask Zack Ryder about doing something to sell yourself. Is he or was he the same level of talent as Austin? Unlikely, but now, he’s such a non-issue in WWE that we’ll never know where he could have gone. If Austin were to start getting over today, he’d likely have a small, token push and a run at a mid-card title, maybe a Money in the Bank win and brief cash-in, then jobbed out in a few short months because he got over on his own.
The Rock’s big rise started when WWE changed gear entirely for him because the fans hated him so much as to chant “Rocky sucks” and carry signs that said “Die, Rocky, Die.” Rather than turning him heel and giving him several months, if not longer, to develop his heel persona The Rock, WWE would have continued to shove him down our throats as a babyface, regardless of the crowd’s reaction. Or worse, they’d turn him heel in a good, memorable way, give him the IC or US title, only to job him out week after week to other main eventers and making him look like a joke. Then, worst of all, WWE would blame The Rock himself for not getting himself over, even though all he was doing was following orders.
My point is that the two biggest stars featured in the above clip were both given not only the freedom to develop their characters over the course of a long period, but also enough wiggle room by the creative team to improvise either their promos or the ring product.
Today’s superstars are given little to no freedom by the creative team in order to develop their own style. You can see it in their weekly performances as they droll out their promos, rarely even stopping for the audience or turning their head to recognize the crowd. Admittedly, the above promo was done when Rock and Austin were not only at their peak, but nearing the end of their respective wrestling careers. But they were still given the time and freedom to develop those careers, rather than being forced down a certain path by a creative team who clearly doesn’t have an ear to their audience anymore.
Just compare how thunderously loud that crowd is to one today Compare the number of signs in the audience to today. Compare how Rock and Austin interact with the crowd, constantly acknowledging their presence with how the superstars of today do. As much as I love both CM Punk and Daniel Bryan, not even they rarely acknowledge the fans in their promos or especially their matches. It’s one thing to lead the crowd on a rousing “YES!” chant and turning your head to acknowledge them or to “check in with them” in how they feel about that certain situation. These days, almost no one on the roster stops to recognize the audience, like they’re in a stage play that doesn’t allow interactivity. They’re so hamstrung by what WWE creative deems because WWE’s creative rarely cares about what the audience wants anymore.